It begins, naturally, on a dark and stormy night, when four men and three women converge on Prairie Blossom, the house of Gert Hammond (Marion Eaton), a widow who has long since hit the bottle. As her guests shelter from the storm, they pair off in various ways. Add some rampaging circus animals, a gorilla who is the love object of one of the men, and fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.
Made in 1975, Thundercrack! is an old-dark-house parody crossed with hardcore porn, two and a half hours long and shot in 16mm black and white. Many films aspire to cultdom, but it's hard to think of any other label that fits this film better than that. It's also hilarious if you're on its wavelength. Thundercrack! has had a legendary reputation enhanced by the fact that it has never been widely available, and previous DVD and VHS releases, none of them in the USA or UK, have been transferred from source material in a very poor state and incomplete. Given that one of the characters is called Chandler and another Bing, it may be – though that's not confirmed – that it's referenced throughout the entire run of Friends.
Only five prints were ever struck. One of those found its way to the Scala Cinema in King's Cross, London. DVD and later Blu-ray have made repertory cinemas – with different films shown each day, often in double or triple bills – an endangered species, but from 1981 and into the 1990s, the Scala combined art films with trash and often made use of its club status to show to its members (who paid a nominal fee to join) films that had not been passed by the British Board of Film Classification. The Scala – which is now a nightclub – had a decayed grandeur, with some of the visitors in what was then a notably seedy part of the city adding to the ambience. There was also a cat called Warren whose favourite film was The Evil Dead and who was prone to jumping on audience members at unexpected moments. Many London film fans practically lived there. I, then as now, lived out of the city but in range of it and visited several times. The Scala's full-length print of Thundercrack! was regularly shown to the extent that, by the time the cinema closed in 1993, it was barely able to pass through the projector.
Thundercrack! is based on a story by Mark Ellinger (who wrote the music and played Charlie) and Curt McDowell (who directed, photographed and edited), but the screenplay is the work of George Kuchar (who also played Bing and did some of the deliberately cardboard-cutout special effects). Kuchar's own films parody Hollywood and its genres and conventions and his dialogue, overbaked sub-Tennessee Williams, is a highlight, especially now you can make out what the characters are saying – of which more later. He also added the storyline where his character is in love with a gorilla, the only one of the couplings on screen which is simulated. Yes, the film's 160 minutes – including a ten-minute intermission – contains several explicit and unsimulated sex scenes, straight, lesbian and gay male, so anyone likely to be offended should give this film a wide berth.
McDowell (1945-1987) began filmmaking in 1970 with the feature Pornografollies and continued working up to the mid 1980s, shortly before his death from AIDS at age forty-two. By his own admission – see the interviews on this Blu-ray and DVD – his films were technically rough and ready, both visually and audibly.As well as four features - Lunch preceding Thundercrack! and Sparkle's Tavern (began in 1976, completed 1985) following, he made a large number of short films, many of them confessional to a fault, and that confession extends to a considerable sexual frankness, often reflecting on McDowell's own life. Some examples of this are included in the bonus DVD.
As mentioned above, only five prints of Thundercrack! were ever made. Other than the one which made it to London, another was seized by Canadian customs and presumably destroyed. One was shortened by the film's distributors to around two hours and another cut still further to ninety minutes. The film has never had a commercial release in the UK. One distributor did express an interest, but was advised by the BBFC that the film would receive a R18 rating, which would restrict its sale to licensed sex shops. R18s are not available by mail order, a provision of the law which dates to before the Internet, which would make the release of a film such as this commercially unviable. There is nothing stopping you ordering them online from another country, however. The difference between a R18 and an 18 seems to be whether the BBFC considers a given title as a "sex work" or not, in other words something containing unsimulated sexual material with an intent to arouse the viewer. While Thundercrack! does contain hardcore sex scenes and some people may well find some of them arousing – though I suspect there isn't a person who would find all of them a turn-on – I don't consider the film as a whole a "sex work". It's a semi-underground film with a largely cult audience and the sexual content is one of many things that distinguishes it from the Hollywood cinema it parodies. (That said, there were people toying with the idea at the time of making studio films with hardcore sex, but that never happened.) Also, in more recent times, the BBFC passed at 18 The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, which undoubtedly is a "sex work", or at least a collection of hardcore sex works with an interview with and a documentary about de Rome which gave it context and which may have made the difference, as all the material was submitted to the BBFC together. So there may be a way for Thundercrack! to pass with an 18 instead of a R18 in the UK, but I say that with the caveat that I'm neither a lawyer nor would I be the person putting up the money to pay the BBFC's submission fees.
So here it is, Thundercrack!, a film for many years more heard about than seen. (Although I did go to the Scala several times and for one reason or another hadn't seen this film before now.) It's been extensively restored (more details below) and given it's distinctly lo-fi origins probably looks as good as it's ever likely to do.
Synapse's release of Thundercrack! is either a Blu-ray or a NTSC DVD, both encoded for all regions. The Blu-ray contains a significant extra not on the DVD, as well as a bonus DVD, and that is the edition I'm reviewing here.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, which you would expect for a film shot in 16mm and exhibited that way. The film was restored from the one surviving print of the full-length version, though the two shorter prints had material unique to them, so those have been added. That said, the print was in a poor state, and as the original negative as I write this has not been located, it's the best source out there. Needless to say, the restoration has taken a few years, with the help of Melinda McDowell-Milks, Curt's sister, who played Sash and is the film's copyright holder. There are some sections noticeably spliced and scratched, but there is nothing distracting, and frankly what has been done here is a miracle considering the circumstances.
On to the audio, which is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0. The sound mix of this film has always been problematic, especially in scenes where dialogue is competing with Ellinger's score and the soundtrack, and the original recordings were undoubtedly rough. The Scala's less than state-of-the-art sound system couldn't have helped out, which is why Kuchar's dialogue has long had a reputation for being hilarious if you could make it out. That said, there a full set of subtitles available, in English and in three other languages, and with this film they may be particularly useful even if you aren't hard of hearing.
There's no commentary as such, but on a second audio track is an interview with Curt McDowell, conducted around 1972. It's well worth a listen, as McDowell talks about his early life and his influences (George Kuchar features heavily, as you may expect) and his approach to filmmaking. He's candid about his lack of technical prowess in the conventional sense and also about the confessional motivations behind much of his work. This interview runs 84:30, after which the audio of the feature takes over until the end.
That's all that is available on the DVD, but the Blu-ray has an additional extra: It Came from Kuchar (86:25) a documentary directed by Jennifer M. Kroot in 2009, two years before George's death. The documentary profiles George and Mike Kuchar, with interviews with friends and filmmakers including John Waters, Atom Egoyan and Wayne Wang. Inevitably Thundercrack! is discussed, but there are plenty of extracts from the Kuchars' films and artworks and serves as an excellent introduction.
The bonus DVD begins with the theatrical trailer (3:28) featuring some non-X-rated clips from the film with a voiceover as overripe as some of the dialogue. "It oozes into your lap" and "you'll thrill to every buttock-numbing hour". Not the usual way to sell your film, that's for sure.
Next up are interviews, with George Kuchar (10:23), Marion Eaton (5:37) and Mark Ellinger (8:24), all dating from 2004. Kuchar tells that McDowell was once his student and while others thought the content of his films degraded life, he feels that they celebrated it, especially the sexual aspects. This interview is rather artily shot, with some fairground-mirror distortions of Kuchar's face. There's another interview from much earlier, from American television, with McDowell and Eaton (23:03), as part of a series called San Francisco Bay Area Filmmakers (no copyright date). The interviewer Carol Daniels discusses the film with more seriousness than you'd expect for a film of this kind on public television. McDowell says his piece and talks about the confessional impulse behind his work. He also talks about his film then in progress, Sparkle's Tavern, which contains no X-rated footage, as a film he could show his parents. Eaton (who was a stage actress and was consciously channeling Blanche Dubois when she played Gert) interestingly says that she found the sexual scenes less difficult to film than the one where a drunken Gert is bent over a toilet bowl throwing up.
Also on the disc are outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage (29:44), some mute and some with sound, audition footage (8:37, mute with a projector whirr on the soundtrack) and outtakes from the sex scenes (17:28). Needless to say, much of this is not family-friendly, and that includes the audition footage, with prospective cast members, both male and female, disrobing for camera and touching themselves intimately. (The casting call, reproduced on the back of the leaflet mentioned below, did say that this would be "a hardcore talking picture".)
But also on the disc, under a separate menu, are five short films by Curt McDowell: Confessions (1972, 10:59), Naughty Words (1974, 2:12), Loads (1980 and not 1985 as the IMDB has it, 19:27), Boggy Depot (1973, 16:48) and the very un-PC Siamese Twin Pinheads (1972, 3:57). The last-named is a skit and Naughty Words features Curt and Melinda saying some words of the title type, which are illustrated on screen. Confessions and Loads verge into documentary: the former title is self-explanatory, while the latter features McDowell talking to various straight men (he seems to have had a thing about straight men) about sex and filming them as they masturbate, often joining in on-camera. (Loads incidentally, did get a UK release, on 16mm and bypassing the BBFC which would never have passed it at the time anyway. See the March 1982 Monthly Film Bulletin, which also reviews two other shorts not included here, Nudes a Sketchbook and Ronnie, as well as the 52-minute Taboo (the Single and the LP).) Boggy Depot, on the other hand, is a film McDowell could show his parents: it's a musical with nothing X-rated in it. It prefigures Thundercrack! in many ways, not least the use of cardboard-cutout animations.
The Blu-ray also includes a four-page booklet, which contains a two-page article by Synapse's President, Don May Jr, about the film and its restoration, and on the back the casting call advertisement referred to above.