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December 1, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #100 - Bonnie's Kids

From the obscure corners of the 1970s comes Bonnie's Kids, an exploitation drama that has been ignored by most people who aren't named Quentin Tarantino.  Directed by Arthur Marks, who's probably most known for blaxploitation flicks Friday Foster and Detroit 9000, the film follows the adventures and misfortunes of Myra and Ellie, the daughters of the now deceased Bonnie who are left to face the world together.
The opening scenes make it perfectly clear that the girls' strength lies primarily in their attitude and their appearance.  The elder sister, Ellie, is a waitress who does her best to fend off the advances of every male in town despite her skimpy work outfit.  Myra, who struggles with the condition known as "being a teenager", seems too innocent to even notice her physical gifts as the film opens.  As she dries herself off after a bath with the window wide open, one of her stepfather's friends remarks with redneck sincerity that "there oughta be a law against that".  In his words, a body like that can be a deadly weapon.
Which makes it really dangerous when a "body like that" possesses a shotgun.
Immediately after that astute observation by a character we'll never see again, drunken step-father Charley decides that Myra's sexuality means that he can throw himself upon her.  Ellie returns home just in time, unloading both barrels of her stepfather's shotgun into his chest.  Since "justifiable homicide" wasn't a term that exists in this case, Ellie and Myra dump the body and quickly head out of town (as shown in the title screen above), escaping to the big city where they can stay with their rich Uncle Ben (who's not related to Spider-Man....I think).
Myra literally has them eating out her hands.
The differences between Myra and Ellie are established pretty easily.  Ellie is very comfortable flaunting her body, taking a modeling position in Uncle Ben's agency, while Myra seems content to hang out on her Uncle's ranch where she can hang out with his young trophy wife (a gorgeous redhead who leads Myra into one of the film's sleazier twists) and have a romping relationship with a young man.  At the same time, Ellie agrees to help her Uncle out by delivering a package, which sets the film's noirish plot spiraling into plenty of conflicts.  Double Indemnity, which is considered by many to be the Alpha noir, is referenced by one of the film's more blunt characters; a not-so-sly nod to the pulpy tales that inspired writer/director Marks.
Cardboard Ex Machina.
Speaking of pulp, Uncle Ben is in business with two well-dressed and brutally efficient criminals, whose purpose is clearly to intercept the package and stop anyone who tries to get in its way.  The deadly duo is played by The Godfather's Alex Rocco and former Green Bay Packer running back Timothy Brown, and this pair of white-and-black "business associates" who are searching for a suitcase should clue most viewers in on why I mentioned Quentin Tarantino in the opening paragraph.
We didn't discuss foot massages in the '70s.
Though its effect on Pulp Fiction may draw some viewers (I only learned of the film while reading about films that influenced Tarantino), viewers of the film will find much more to respect about Marks' film, primarily due to the actresses who play Ellie and Myra.  Seventeen year-old Robin Mattson - who went on to a long career in soap opera television - is perfectly cast as Myra, and the ease with which she wavers between innocence and rage should connect with any viewer who's ever had to deal with an angry teenage girl.  When Mattson is allowed to let her anger out she shouts and shakes and grits her teeth, all effectively, which leads to some memorable outbursts.  Most notable is definitely the final confrontation between her and her "kinda Aunt" played by Lenore Stevens, a vicious scene that ends with a bang and helps cement how dangerous Myra can be.
I really don't understand the purpose of the fluffy bikini.
And then there is Ellie.  Oh my.  Ellie is played by one of my favorite beauties of the '70s - Tiffany Bolling.  A graduate of Playboy magazine, Bolling would go on to assist William Shatner in the all-too-awesome Kingdom of the Spiders and to stare down the maniacal killer of The Centerfold Girls.  But her turn as Ellie puts most B-movie roles to shame, allowing her to heat up the screen with her blonde hair and long legs while she manipulates the men with ease.  Unlike her younger sister, Ellie understands the weapon of a body that she possesses and tries to use it wisely - which settles her firmly into the classic role of the femme fatale.  The men that surround her - primarily the ones played by Steve Sandor and Max "Grandpa Fred from Sixteen Candles" Showalter - quickly follow the lead of whatever she says, and it's easy to understand why when we see how she acts around men.  
Here are Bolling and Showalter, more than 10 years before Long Duk Dong.
One of the most telling scenes in the film comes early on, when Uncle Ben discusses Ellie's modeling career - while looking at very nude photos of his niece - and a smirking Ellie replies to repeated suggestions from him with a monotone "I'll do anything that you say".  The distracted male doesn't quite know what he's up against, and the smirk on Bolling's face quietly tells the viewer that she's got more control over he situation than her Uncle thinks.  Other males in the film are more vocally caught up in Ellie's charms, with my favorite moment possible coming when Sandor's character proclaims that Ellie has "the bitchinest legs I've ever seen".
They definitely aren't bad legs.
Bonnie's Kids sounds kind of sleazy - and it is kind of sleazy, to be fair - but there's something about this drive-in version of a pulp noir novel that elevates the material above simple exploitation fare.  As far as dramas go, It's a movie that exists somewhere in the area between The Maltese Falcon and Showgirls. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I like the balance that Marks' film strikes between classic crime story and sleazy sex movie.  Plus, there's really not much sex in it at all.  You don't need the sex when you imply as much sex as Tiffany Bolling does.
This is not Tiffany Bolling, but it is implied sex.
Bonnie's Kids probably wasn't the best thing to play at a grindhouse in the '70s, but I feel like it's criminally underrepresented in the discussion of cult cinema.  This is an artistic movie with some great visuals, some terrific performances, and a nice little stamp on pop culture of the future.  And it's got Tiffany Bolling, and if she can't melt your defenses then I'm not sure there's hope for you.  Bonnie's Kids has everything from calculated hitmen to lesbian accusations to pet rats to the Grandpa from Sixteen Candles (pretty sure I mentioned him already, but it needs repeated), and when you add that all to everything else I love about it, it leaves me proclaiming it to be a total blast.

1 comment:

Enbrethiliel said...


While I was gone, the Midnight Movie of the Week hit the triple digits!!! Yay for The Mike! =D