Friday, June 21, 2019

Lust in the Dust

(R, New World Pictures, 84 mins., theatrical release date: Mar. 1, 1985)

Long regarded as the Uncanny Valley of instacamp Western burlesques, Paul Bartel's LUST IN THE DUST finds the black comic master of Death Race 2000 and Eating Raoul wandering self-consciously into John Waters-burg. This was more of a passion project for wayward heartthrob Tab Hunter, who'd been wanting to produce his own offbeat spin on the desiccated genre for a while (the title comes from Joseph Cotton's nickname for the 1946 epic Duel in the Sun) and found himself energized by his experience on Waters' Polyester. The coupling of him with the heavyset transvestite Divine proved a match made in heaven (Criterion announced Polyester as a September 2019 release as I write this), and Hunter no doubt recognized the potential in placing Waters' MVP atop a burro and shipping him off as a dance hall diva. There was even a role for Edith Massey, another inextricable member of Dreamland, which was cut tragically short because of the Egg Lady's declining health.

Perhaps as much a hurdle as the Waters associations was how 1985, the year Bartel's movie went into wide release, was raring to be clogged with attempts to bring back the Western. If it wasn't Lawrence (Silverado) Kasdan or Clint (Pale Rider) Eastwood, it was Lust in the Dust's closest competition at the multiplex, the Tom Berenger vehicle Rustler's Rhapsody, another featherweight satire. And a year later, John Landis' Three Amigos! came along and was ultimately rewarded the hipster cult audience that came naturally to the unflappable if glib Landis. Basically, 1985 was the year of the cult movie, some more intensely marketed than others, but it felt like all under-performers of 1985 would go on to build their own rabidly defensive fanbase.

Lust in the Dust, however, seems to be one of the lesser cult movies of that crazy, crazy year. How could this be?! You had Divine and Tab Hunter reunited so shortly after the trash masterpiece that is Polyester. There were goofy supporting roles for Geoffrey Lewis, Courtney Gains, Henry Silva, and Cesar Romero. And then you had Lainie Kazan, so hilarious as the Jewish mother with eyes for Peter O'Toole in the magnificent My Favorite Year, in a corset trading mesquite-grilled barbs with Divine, who was finally being recognized outside of Waters' own Baltimore creative hub. And Paul Bartel was no novice, either, although he sadly didn't get as much respect as he deserved based on some disheartening evidence found in the bonus features of this Vinegar Syndrome release.

Bartel and co. labored so hard to put the vamp in "revamp," and yet Lust in the Dust has the reputation of a saddle sore to this very day. Why?

The fact that Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, held up by a lot of cranks as the last bastion of political incorrectness translated to riotous comedy, continues to cast a shadow over every attempted Western comedy is inevitable. Neither Bartel nor scriptwriter Philip John Taylor (making his sole foray out of TV programming) were ever going to compete with Brooks or ZAZ on a joke density scale. Lust in the Dust presents Tab Hunter as a Man With No Name-style drifter only to christen him Abel Wood, which never rises above groan-worthy pun status despite the frothing horniness Lainie Kazan, going full Mae West, brings to the brassy saloon owner, Marguerita Ventura. Same goes for Courtney Gains, as...well, Red Dick!

None of these nudge-wink nicknames can compare to the sheer majesty of Divine's playacting. Rosie Velez would be a stock ingénue in a less ironic parts; Divine gooses the role with enough offhand humor and force of personality that his charisma remains consistent. "Always the little ones got something to prove," she deadpans, with true Lily Von Shtupp sarcasm, upon finding the dwarf sidekick to bandit Hard Case Williams (Geoffrey Lewis) between her legs in the middle of the night. When she interjects upon Kazan's musical number, "South of My Border," it is the perfect encapsulation of the playfully bitchy chemistry between them. Nothing stops Divine; even a line like "My ass is on its last legs!" solicits a guilty chuckle when he delivers it.

Rosie, of course, arrives in Chile Verde, New Mexico, the archetypal small town rumored to possess gold in their hills. There are a broken map and a limerick as clues, although the former's assembly will be become obvious once you immediately deduce the bawdiness inherent in the words "two butes." And it all ends with the characters on receiving ends of gun barrels, even Marguerita's most aged prostitute, Big Ed (Nedra Volz, in the role that Edie Massey read for). The plot is certainly as flimsy as the wardrobe on Gina Gallego as the least eccentric senorita of the saloon, Ninfa, and for as much energy as the cast brings, this plot doesn't bring Leone down a single peg. It's the Clue conundrum all over again: amped showmanship which doesn't make up for the lack of real ambition or the hoariness of most of the jokes.

Certain moments in Lust in the Dust do solidify the playfulness Bartel labors to bring to the movie. Henry Silva, in what has to be his funniest role since Alligator, is a hoot as the trigger-happy Bernardo, addressing the Chile Verde Rotary Club in his attempt to rouse a mob to silence the already stoic Abel. Kazan's big musical number is so outrageously horny, she grinds upon Henry Silva's inanimate body and manipulates him like a puppet, and it slays me every time. Divine belts out "These Lips Were Made for Kissin'" in all his hoarse but pitch-perfect glory, and there is a solid running joke about the way Rosie's loins tend to literally smother any prospective lovers. It pays off at the end, complete with a tasty "Come and get it!" in regards to the film's other primary focus of lust away from Tab Hunter. And Geoffrey Lewis as Hard Case Williams, the son of a Boston preacher ("may he rot in hellfire"), adds to his rogue's gallery something truly hilarious.

The comedy of Bartel's film is, like Eating Raoul, situated at the crossroads of straight and loony, which is high-risk, high-reward. Trouble is that Eating Raoul felt more novel and had more of an axe to grind at swingers and bondage cases, which gives it more of an edge compared to this softer R-rated romp. But that was Bartel's own unique sensibilities at work; Taylor, meanwhile, is merely transgressive for a television writer, and he doesn't measure up to what a Paul Bartel or a John Waters could do in peak mischief. I don't agree with Graeme Clark's assertion that Tab Hunter doesn't get one funny line, as there is a bone tossed in his confession scene with Cesar Romero's man of cloth about "lockjaw Indians." But he does have less personality than the Eastwood-style desperado he cosplays, and for all the eccentrics bouncing off him, Hunter feels less vital here than he did as Divine's hopeless infatuation from Polyester.

There is no doubt a small cult devoted to Lust in the Dust, as Lainie Kazan's own gay fans will attest to, and singling out Divine for a Worst Actress Razzie nomination is mean-spirited in a petty way, hardly worthy of Waters and Bartel at their most enjoyably catty. I'll take Lust in the Dust over a St. Elmo's Fire or a Teen Wolf in a heartbeat. But if one can be completely objective about such security blanket subversives as Clue or Better Off Dead or even The Goonies, and can put aside any further Mel Brooks or John Waters comparisons, Lust in the Dust looks weak in the presence of the more truly gonzo highlights of 1985, be they Re-Animator or Pee-Wee's Big Adventure or The Last Dragon. Those pure entertainments knew how to go over the top with the best of them; Lust in the Dust isn't so tarnished, but it wheezes by like a lonely tumbleweed.

Funny thing happened when Anchor Bay released this on DVD for the first time in 2001: though not shot in CinemaScope, their transfer reframed the film to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to mimic the look of its inspiration. No information exists as to whether it was screened as such theatrically from its festival premiere in '84 to the wider release around the same time as The Sure Thing, and Bartel isn't here anymore to supervise or elaborate on if 2.35:1 was a conscious decision. The original aspect ratio appears to be 1.85:1 as befits a low-budget 35mm production. The Vinegar Syndrome "Halfway to Black Friday" exclusive release preserves them both, and they appear to possess the same overall picture quality.

Which is good, because they've located the original 35mm negative and made it sing for this 4k scan. This is the real Divine Madness the way our lady Glenn appears, and everyone and everything on show looks astoundingly crisp. Floral print dresses, bloomers and corsets are as robust as the sweat, mascara and lipstick on the performers. Black/blue levels in nighttime sequences never smear, and there is a light, natural grain to an otherwise error-proof transfer. The 1.0 DTS HD-MA mix is exquisite, with clean dialogue throughout and dynamic musical cues, especially the opening ballad. Though the track is monaural, there is atmosphere to the sound effects, and the optional English SDH subtitles are more accurate than most VS transcripts.

The 15-minute "More Lust, Less Dust" featurette produced for the Anchor Bay disc by David Gregory  is carried over, which is generous with on-set footage and even includes the audition tape of Edith Massey reading the part of Big Ed. Producers Tab Hunter and Allan Glaser are on hand, as are actors Lainie Kazan and Gina Gallego (sadly, no Courtney Gains), and there are enough production details to satisfy, as well as some choice audio clips of Divine and Paul Bartel. Real life couple Hunter and Glaser return, a decade and a half later and before Hunter's death in 2018, for the 20-minute "Return to Chili Verde," produced by Automat Pictures (I Am Divine), which elaborates further on the pre-production process (Shirley MacLaine as well as Chita Rivera were initial choices as Marguerita) as well as Divine's involvement ("Mr. Producer" was his pet name for Glaser), with a third Hunter/Divine vehicle that, tragically, never came to be. Both do a great job conveying the rugged nature of setting and outfits.

"The Importance of Being Paul" is Gregory's 16-minute overview of Bartel's career, featuring input from Roger Corman, Mary Woronov, Bruce Wagner, and John Landis among others. Since Lust in the Dust was elaborated upon further in Gregory's other featurette, much of the doc focuses on Eating Raoul, which Bartel made on no budget and through personal favors (Landis would order extra film for his own concurrent studio pic and donate to Bartel). There are minor discussions of Death Race 2000, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Bartel's extensive resume as actor, but it's his late career downfall that hits the hardest. His last feature film from 1993, Shelf Life, was unable to find major distribution in the wake of studio switch-ups, where executors could care less about Death Race 2000 or Eating Raoul. Bartel was unable to get his sequel to Eating Raoul, "Bland Ambition," which had a completed script as early as 1986, into production before his death in 2000, with financing secured the day prior.

Topping things off are a newspaper archive gallery set to the tune of "Tumbling Tumbleweed" and a TV spot for the movie. You can still secure a limited edition copy at Vinegar Syndrome, complete with slipcover. Here's the proper theatrical trailer, though, which isn't included on that release which I just reviewed:

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