Wednesday, May 18, 2011

“I Blame Society” (or: Skipper Todd Died for Your Sins)

Today, we discuss a movie about a sociopath and his decadent followers that doesn’t wink or smirk or try to be cool, and that looks at its villain with the proper amount of disgust and anger.

Sleazy and depressing, producer-director Barry Shear’s 1971 film The Todd Killings is a must-see, practically a masterpiece (if you consider a masterpiece to be something that surpasses its own goals)—

especially if you’re the kind of reprobate who likes/admires such grimy, mean-spirited “feel-bad” flicks like Satan’s Sadists, the original Last House on the Left,
urban biker sleazefest The Cycle Savages (Yipes, after dosing her with LSD, they pulled a train on that blonde teenybopper!),
Ted Post’s needs-to-be-recognized-as-the-classic-that-it-is The Baby (1973),
the incendiary mindfuck Fight for Your Life, Friedkin’s Cruising,
The Toolbox Murders
(sooo grueling…)
Blood and Lace
or that PLUNGE into a world of sick depravity
The Candy Snatchers.

The Todd Killings would also be great as a double-feature with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, a much more politicized look at spoiled kids with too much time on their hands.

And while I’m not a huge fan of either The Killing Kind or Girly, I think those films’ appreciators will “like” The Todd Killings as well.

And let’s not forget: The Todd Killings is based on a true story. Really.

Yes, the long out-of-print (never released on VHS, I think; and NEVER shown on TV in the NYC area as far as I can remember) and almost forgotten
The Todd Killings (I love its generic, cold almost academic title) absolutely deserves to be included in the ranks of those 1970s super-bummers I mentioned.

But the film is not just only mayhem-infused B-movie sugary-goodness—there are moments right out of Altman, Hal Ashby or Michael Ritchie—even Peckinpah (with an unnerving slow-motion lots-of-male-nudity rape scene—
that backfires in an unexpected and ultimately saddening way),
while also prefiguring some of Michael Haneke’s cool and cruel work.

The Todd Killings makes great use of its Panavision frame,
with director Shear and cinematographer Harold E. Stine
(he also shot Altman’s MASH and the classic disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure; and was brother to special effects legend Clifford Stine)
filling the frame with details—
but also keeping a distance:
many shots are slow zooms, with close-ups rare, used only sparingly and to very good effect.

And with the socio-economic undercurrents in director Shear’s major films (more on that below), there’s just a hint of political director like Costa-Gavras—and I am serious.

Superficially, The Todd Killings resembles other “teens driven insane by suburbia” flicks like the rightfully praised Over the Edge but especially River’s Edge—however, unlike that afterschool special (“I’m your brothhhher!”) where a “sane” youth is our hero and we watch him deal with his lunatic buddies, the protagonist of The Todd Killings, while charming, is hardly sympathetic, and is in fact the cause of all the trouble.

For a long and detailed super-spoileriffic synopsis of The Todd Killings, please go HERE
--but in a nutshell:
Steven “Skipper” Todd is the coolest kid in the post-war planned suburban boomtown of Darlington, Nevada, and the ostensible leader (the flick was called L’Idolo, or “The Idol,” in Italy) of the town’s disaffected hard-partying teens:
a bunch of bored kids with too much (of their parents’) money and zero ambition—except to ball, gossip or get loaded: it’s the land of the lotus eaters, and the kids literally spend all day beside the community pool.

But Skipper (a child’s name when you think about it), stylish in his mauve vinyl jacket, green metallic-flake dune-buggy and quasi-Beatles ’do, is a 23-years-old wannabe musician, jobless and supported by his mom—who runs the town’s shabby and squalid old folks’ home.
(A youngish uncredited Geoffrey Lewis makes a brief appearance as a shlub ditching his pops at the dingy home. And it’s uncredited veteran character actor John McIntire—also in the excellent socio-political B-movie The Phenix City Story—playing the abandoned parent).

It’s not that Skipper has no prospects or direction—it’s that he doesn’t want them, making up a hundred excuses as to why he should continue his parasitic lifestyle.

Skipper projects his own self-loathing onto everyone around him in very obvious contempt.
He cloaks his verbal daggers in cleverness and humor to avoid being obvious about it (and to prevent the ass-kicking he would get if he wasn’t so “clever”).

A spiritual brother to Telly from Larry Clark’s equally disturbing Kids, Skipper is also quite the cocksman, but he hates the women (girls, no—children, really) who give themselves to him so easily.

Meanwhile he’s getting bored with the easy sex and drugs (as well as the ease with which he can manipulate the zombie teens he hangs out with), and now Skipper’s looking for new kicks—like murder…

I think the film’s purpose is to make you examine—and in my case despise—Skipper and his ilk:
Skipper is not like Camus’ Meursault, impulsively killing an unknown Arab under the merciless noon sun in a fit of existential angst—
Skipper chooses to murder (one of his peers!), and uses the most pathetic and useless excuse possible: boredom.

Any sympathy or compassion you may bring to The Todd Killings needs to saved for Skipper’s victims, like the weary but innocent Roberta—a girl whose sin is falling in love with the loathsome slacker.

It helps that all the performances are spot-on, especially the smaller bits—it’s quite the “Hey, it’s that guy!” fest—Hey, that’s a young Piney from Sons of Anarchy as a callous police detective!

Leonard Rosenmann’s pounding, driving score (heavy on that piano) is a grabber right from the start. And the judicious use of non-linear editing always endears me to a flick—especially one that starts with a body being buried in the desert.

Skipper is Eddie Haskell’s real-world counterpart, and most of his interactions with other adults (don’t forget: Skipper is not a kid anymore) are either antagonistic or servile and obsequious.

The other adults can usually see through Skipper’s bullshit, but the only one to actually call him out on it is his old high school English teacher—probably the only person Skipper—“You were one of the brightest students I ever had,” the prof says to him early in the film—wants to genuinely impress—probably because the very Greg-Peck-like teacher treated Skipper as an equal early on, and selfish Skipper incorrectly thinks the older man shares his twisted worldview.

After Skipper makes an uncomfortable scene at a very square ladies’ garden party where the prof has been giving a lecture, the older man confronts our protagonist:

“Who gives you credentials to go around hurting people’s feelings?...What are you contributing to this society?...Are you a communist? A Yippie? A Black Panther? Are you setting bombs under city hall? Are you organizing guerillas up in the hills? What’s your plan, Skipper?”

Skipper can only mutter glib, “cool” platitudes—and then Teach drops the bomb:

“You’re part of the backwash. We’re going through a revolution— [and] there’s always a backwash: Ones who are going through terrible convolutions because they’re dead. They’re left behind. You want to be a one-man revolution. But you are the epitome of everything you hate. You’re more bourgeois than any of these ladies. And more pitiful.”

And Roberta starts sealing her doom when, during a confrontation with Skipper, she says, “Are you afraid to find out you’re like everybody else?”

In one sense The Todd Killings succeeds where A Clockwork Orange fails: Alex is glamorous and we love him, we want him to “win.”

But there’s no way Skipper Todd is romanticized in any way. As handsome and smart as he is, he’s an awful, awful person.

More so because he’s got no reason to be—
he’s just angry because he’s been spoiled, never having had to push himself or break a sweat.
When you don’t have that sense of accomplishment, you may fill it with strange stuff, like lots of pointless resentments.

Since the mid-1980s I had known of the song “The Todd Killings” from the Angry Samoans’ classic punk rock album Back From Samoa (an Ivanlandia fave whose cover art comes from the not-quite-classic, but Ivanlandia childhood fave nonetheless, The Monster of Piedras Blancas),
but it wasn’t until December 2010 that I was turned on to the film by my good pal Toestubber—and I won’t stop kicking myself for forgetting to include The Todd Killings on my list for the Best Movies Screened in Ivanlandia in 2010.

BTW, about one-third of the lyrics to the song “The Todd Killings” are swiped from the flick’s poster (just look for yourself) with the rest being the Samoans’ standard angry/retarded punk rock brilliance—the song’s under one minute long!

skipper todd digs girls.
it's his idea of killing time.
skipper todd digs girls.
it's his idea of killing time.
he's killing time. todd killings.
he's killing time. todd killings.
no saying on the wall
my head on the stove
i feel so confused.
oh no.
he's killing time. todd killings.

Originally released by National General Corporation, The Todd Killings is finally available in a non-bootleg form (above is its new cover) from Warner Brothers Archive Collection (who’ve removed and replaced the old National General logo (at left)—which I miss! I’m a sucker for old-school 1960s/1970s film company logos.)

According to TCM, “The Todd Killings was the last film made by [National General], which soon after ceased active production, although it continued to buy and distribute motion pictures.”
The Warner Bros. Archive DVD-R is widescreen with a sharp image, and very good sound quality (this flick has some very creepy, multilayered audio segments, especially the party scenes), and the company is to be complemented on taking this (admittedly small) risk on a flick that was relatively forgotten.
And here I’ll offer a personal aside: It’s so damn wonderful that after so many years thinking that I knew it all, being hipper-than-thou,
BOOM: I discover an old flick I’d never heard about.
There’s new old stuff still out there waiting to be discovered!

The film has no major opening credits, just a simple title card, but at the end, when the credits roll, they say the film we’ve just watched is called “Skipper,” giving the indication that some last minute decisions were being made.

Thankfully, it was only the title that was rejiggered before release—I’m working under the assumption that what we’re seeing is producer/director Shear’s cut, and that there was no “studio interference” involved.

TCM says, “the working titles of this film were Pied Piper of Tucson, The Pied Piper, Running Scared, Skipper, Skipper and Billy Roy and What Are We Going to Do Without Skipper? In 1978, the picture was re-released as A Dangerous Friend.”

And that penultimate alternate title is the flick’s last line—
After Skipper’s been busted, his followers are freaking, and then one screams, "Jesus Christ! What are we going to do without Skipper?"

That line really gets me—and hammers home the utter emptiness in these shallow kids’ lives: using the Lord’s Name in vain over this Svengali-Caligari-Caligula, as if they are asking The Carpenter Who Died For Our Sins for advice/help.

The Todd Killings is an excellent film about empty lives and human failure.

(So, why do I like “feel bad” movies? Because they are the most realistic films of all.)

An American Gillo Pontecorvo? Perhaps—

With The Todd Killings, it’s obvious that director Barry Shear is a filmmaker who routinely deals in serious socio-political-economic themes, and that’s a rarity in Hollywood (despite the Biz’s lip service to that sort of thing).

Unfortunately, Shear’s flicks were not as financially remunerative as they should have been, and after Across 110th Street, Shear would work primarily in the much more lucrative realm of episodic TV.

Barry Shear’s Bleak America Trilogy (if I may label and categorize Wild in the Streets, Across 110th Street and The Todd Killings that way) examines the poisonous and corrupting nature of money and power when plugged into bureaucracies/hierarchies—all the while using the very entertaining but more subversive and transgressive form of the exploitation B-movie: Across 110th Street is a classic of Blaxploitation; and Wild in the Streets is considered the high-water mark for the AIP “youth picture” genre.

The American political system; Skipper’s fiefdom and the permissiveness of the burgeoning “Me Generation;” and the intertwining of police and organized crime in their efforts to keep the urban black man down—
All of these get exposed as superficial and self-centered, compassionless and sociopathic.

In Shear’s eyes, no system ever seems to work properly,
and things spiral out of control with many people getting hurt.
Or only a man as tough and profoundly realistic as Yaphet Kotto in Across 110th Street can make an effort—but usually through the Zen tactic of not caring too much.
It’s a grim worldview I’m superimposing on Mr. Shear, and one that doesn’t encourage investors. It’s too bad he managed to only make a handful of movies, three of which are really damn good.

Here’s some notes on the rest of the Bleak America Trilogy—despite any gripes I have, they all should be watched at least to have an opinion.

Wild in the Streets (1968)

If you start this movie at the 45 minutes mark, and avoid the beginning, it’s really very good: a 4-out-of-5-star movie about political insurrection and the corrupting influence of power---with a final 10 minutes that are awesome.

But that beginning (especially with Shelley Winters’ nightmare shrew-mom)? Whew, avoid that, bro.

The first forty minutes were, for me, a badly dated cultural artifact that is really only for nostalgia buffs.

Across 110th Street (1972)

4-out-of-5-stars for fans of NYC 1970s grit & grime; 3 stars for normal people.

Across 110th Street is a detailed police procedural/manhunt flick enlivened by plenty of incredible documentary-style 1970s Harlem location photography (enabled by the flick’s then-pioneering use of the new lightweight hand-held cameras).

Anthony Quinn’s police captain character needed a little more sketching out, and too much time is spent on a chase scene in a construction site, but there’s a great shock ending and plenty of crazy ghetto slices of life/background characters—and another great performance by the always stellar Yaphet Kotto.

WARNING: The final rooftop chase was NOT filmed in Harlem: the skyline is all wrong—those buildings are not there! (It looks like the area in downtown NYC, near City Hall. The fact is, while Ivanlandia loves having an Embassy in Harlem, we know that the roofs here ain’t all that. Kinda boring, actually. Downtown’s skyline is better as a backdrop for a chase.)

Some might suggest I include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on that list of bummeriffic “feel-bad” B-movies, but I won’t:
One—because Sally survives
Two—because the flick is on a whole other level:
The bad acid trip analogy is apt I think—I love the film’s utter raw power/naked fevered id—it’s a transcendent movie, as important to the National Film Board of Ivanlandia as is 2001: A Space Odyssey or Videodrome (both of which have happy endings as well, by the way).]

R&D thanks/shout-outs to PK, Sq-Dave, Otto Mannix and Toestubz
And an ultra-super-secret-smooch-on-the-porch-swing to all the various sites I’ve copied images from: MWAH!


  1. I've never seen The Todd Killings. I might now! I love those films where they just let a bad guy be, you know... bad. When they make a clearly "bad" character, so that the plot revolves around them being bad, making them appealing just undermines the whole point. So props to the film makers for sticking with it.

  2. After watching The Todd Killings the other day I wondered why I hadn't heard of this masterpiece before? Went to searchin' for info about this fine movie and found your equally masterful review - well done!

    Just when I thought I've seen all the best downbeat 70's gems, The Todd Killings came along and blew my mind.

  3. Anonymous, and Hoaks2: thanks for the kind words--glad you enjoy the article.
    Come see what I've been up to lately at