Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Candice Rialson Tribute Week: Far Out Films Of The Seventies (Pets, 1974)
Part sexploitation film and part social commentary, Raphael Nussbaum’s 1974 feature Pets is a fairly remarkable feature on all counts. A low budget film with big ideas, Pets is mostly remembered today for giving talented 23 year old actress Candice Rialson her first starring role in a feature film. Rialson, who had previously appeared in just a handful of small feature and television roles, gives one of the most electric debut performances of the seventies under Nussbaum’s direction and Pets is worth a larger audience than it has ever had.
German born Nussbaum has had an interesting if fairly unremarkable career as a writer, producer and director and Pets stands as his most important and fully realized work. After making some early features in Germany in the early sixties (including one with Daliah Lavi), Nussbaum relocated to America in the late part of the decade with his first American credit being a co-writing detail on the 1969 Al Adamson film, The Female Bunch.
Pets started out life as a 1969 series of one act plays by Richard Reich starring notable future film actress Marlene Clark. Reich’s play received mostly scathing reviews during its Off-Broadway run by critics not able to see that its scenes of sado-masochism and male dominance were attempting to make a sharp statement on the changing role of women in society due to the blossoming feminist movement. Reich’s play and Nussbaum’s film makes the point that it wasn’t just the misogynistic male world that feminists had to overcome but also years of personal imprisonment as undervalued housewives and unfairly treated citizens. Regardless of Pets notorious ad campaign and the fact that it has to play into some of the trappings of a strictly exploitation vehicle, there is a lot more going on here than the misogynistic work it is often being accused of being.
The three one act plays came into the hand of Nussbaum and exploitation producer Mardi Rustam in the 1973 and they quickly worked it into a film script and began casting soon after. Several familiar faces were soon signed on including Ed Bishop and two-time Elvis Presley co-star Joan Blackman. The key role of Bonnie though would go to the near completely unknown Candice Rialson, billed here as Candy Rialson, and it would turn out to be the film’s masterstroke as Rialson controls the film with a ferociously intelligent and electric performance that still resonates over thirty years later.
Pets is about overcoming submission…submission not only to others but more importantly an imprisonment of a personal kind to society’s expectations. Pets is a political film posing as a sexy drive in feature…the fact that it works as both quite well marks it as one of the most impressive low budget features of the seventies.
After an eerie and striking opening sequence showing a series of animals and finally Rialson (Bonnie) chained in a group of cages, Pets begins (as it ends) in a car. We are introduced to Bonnie who is being driven around town late at night by her controlling and abusive brother. After being pushed one step too far, Bonnie escapes from her brother and makes her way into the lonely city night. The next morning Bonnie meets Pat (Teri Guzman) a tough talking thief who connives her into kidnapping a middle aged man fresh from the beach, tying him up, and robbing his house. Bonnie is a good person, but she clearly enjoys being the one in control and not tied down and foolishly follows through with Pat's plan. After she is not surprisingly abandoned by the double crossing Pat, Bonnie runs away again only to meet another person looking to control her, a lesbian painter named Geraldine (Blackman).
Bonnie soon enters into a relationship with Geraldine but is soon yearning to escape as the same feelings of entrapment and personal disillusionment creep on. After Geraldine murders a burglar Bonnie has a one night stand with, Bonnie escapes once again this time to a perverted art collector named Victor...a man who collects not only paintings but also exotic animals and women (both of which he keeps imprisoned in his basement). After submitting Bonnie to torture and humiliation she finally pretends to submit to his every whim and ends up chained in a cage in his basement. When Victor lures Geraldine to his house, Bonnie captures them both and abandons the house and her ways as a prisoner. As the film ends it is now Bonnie driving the car...independent and in control and free of the real and invisible chains that have been around her all of her life.
Pets benefits greatly from the editing of actress and producer Roberta Reeves. I suspect that Reeves understood the films underlying themes and her cutting style slyly gives the upper hand to Rialson all the way through. We are not only sympathetic to Rialson but can also feel her blossoming empowerment...when she finally escapes from the house and her role as society's second class citizen, Reeves cleverly cuts between Bonnie triumphantly leaving the house with the sight of the animals escaping as well. Draped in a fur coat and smiling, the ending of Pets is exhilarating stuff and the clever question mark after the "The End" notice doesn't mark the hint of the sequel, but instead the beginning of a new generation of women not refusing to buckle under the weight of the chains much of society to this day stills tries to put them under.
Rialson is nothing short of spectacular in the role of Bonnie. Breathtakingly beautiful and seemingly totally aware that her role is representative of much more than just a single woman in peril, Rialson injects Bonnie with a strength and intelligence rare for any film of this kind in the seventies or since. Pets should have been the beginning of a long and prolific career for the charismatic and talented Rialson and it is tragic that only a handful of roles followed for her.
The rest of the cast is okay if not overly noteworthy. Bishop plays the sickening Victor with the right amount of sleeze and charm but Blackman is rather bland in what should be one of the film's most dynamic characters. Guzman is quite good in her part as is television actor Brett Parker in his small but memorable role as the kidnap victim.
My version of Pets comes from a poor quality full frame VHS dub (as you can see from these screen grabs) so it is a bit hard to comment on some of the films technical qualities. Art director Mike McCloskey does a solid job with Victor's foreboding house and fills it with antiquities and reminders of his role as a villainous collector. Nussbaum's direction is also fairly thoughtful if un-showy throughout although Pets does suffer from its low budget trappings. The film also feels more than a little episodic, no doubt due to its origins as three separate one act plays. Still, for the most part, Pets is a remarkable achievement and its relative obscurity is unfortunate.
Pets came out in the early part of 1974 with one of the most notorious and misleading ad campaigns of its day. If the film manages to transcend its sexploitation stature then the seedy promotional art embraces it. The film, originally released under the title Submission, was for the most part ignored by the critics, never caught on with the public and to my knowledge has never been granted a legitimate home video release. This is thankfully going to change as Code Red have been working on a DVD although a specific release date has not been given. I hope they can line up some extras that put it in its proper place as a strong pro-feminist film instead of the trashy exploitation flick it is often labeled as.