Bummer! (1973) **
Producer David F. Friedman has been overshadowed to some extent by his sometime partner, Herschell Gordon Lewis, but Friedman’s filmmaking career was substantially the longer and more productive one. A veteran of the last days of the roadshow exploitation feature, Friedman learned the craft of crap celluloid from no less a mentor than Kroger Babb. When Babb began easing himself out of the business in the late 1950’s, Friedman bought out his share of their Chicago-based Modern Film distribution company, and it was in that capacity that he began his several-year collaboration with Lewis. The two men parted ways after Color Me Blood Red, from which point Friedman mostly abandoned horror and returned to his roots in softcore smut. In 1972, when Lewis hung up his spurs to become the junk-mail king of Florida, Friedman was still going strong; although he did slow down in the mid-70’s (when his brand of sexploitation seriously began losing market share to hardcore porn), he would continue producing movies at least sporadically until 1985. Bummer! was made during his last really fertile period, when his traditionalist approach to the science of sleaze was just starting to show its age.
A couple of girls named Janyce (Carol Speed, of Savage! and Black Samson) and Dolly (Diane Lee Hart, from The Giant Spider Invasion and Revenge of the Cheerleaders) are on their way to see a band called the Group when they are offered a ride by a sharp-dressed black man in an Eldorado convertible. This pimp-tastic gentleman introduces himself as Jacques Le Monde (Carl Craig, of The Bad Bunch), and invites Janyce and Dolly to come by his club, the Fat Cat, tomorrow afternoon; he’s auditioning dancers, and he has a good feeling about the two girls. Janyce is skeptical nearly to the point of hostility, but her somewhat less streetwise friend thinks it might be kind of fun. Both girls wind up taking a business card from Le Monde when he drops them off at their destination.
Now because I care more about the needs of my audience than either writer Alvin Fast or director William Allen Castleman, I’m going to do something that neither of them bothered with, and take a moment right up front to introduce the members of the Group by name. Duke (Kipp Whitman, from Wild Honey and The Roommates) plays guitar and sings. He’s also the responsible, committed member of the band, and probably their principal songwriter, too. Mike (David Ankrum, of The Student Body and Zebra Force) plays keyboards. He doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but the general groupie consensus seems to be that he’s the cute one. Drummer Gary (The Curious Female’s David Buchanan) is notable for being the only one in the Group who has a serious girlfriend; her name is Barbara (Connie Strickland, from The Secretary and The Centerfold Girls), and she’s the sort of rich girl gone bad who always seems to show up in these situations. Butts the bassist (Dennis Burkley, of Nightmare Honeymoon and Laserblast) is the band’s problem member. He plays well and he owns a van (not a trivial qualification for a rock musician), but he drinks too much and Morley, the Group’s manager (Leslie McRae, from Coffy and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils), assesses his character thusly: “He looks like a pig, he smells like a pig, and he acts like a pig.” In fact, Morley is of the opinion that Duke should cut Butts loose as soon as possible, and replace him with somebody girls will willingly talk to. Duke doesn’t go for the idea. He’ll take Morley’s advice about which gigs to accept or which recording studio to use— hell, he’ll even listen to her when she says the band needs to quit trying to make its name in overcrowded Los Angeles, and go out on the road instead— but no way is he going to fire Butts just because she thinks he’s bad for the Group’s image. Morley, accomplished player of angles that she is, says that’s fine. After all, hanging on to Butts for the immediate future is a smart move if the Group is going on tour— he, as I said, is the one with the van.
Anyway, Janyce and Dolly turn out to be friends of Barbara’s, and she introduces them to the Group at the show. The next day (after going to Le Monde’s audition, and deciding that stripping at the Fat Cat is not their idea of a wise career move), the girls all go to a party at Duke’s place. While Janyce connects with Mike, Barbara and Dolly run afoul of Butts. Now thus far, I’d been feeling kind of sorry for the guy, what with his manager launching conspiracies to get him fired essentially for being too fat, too ugly, and not cool enough to be in the band, but at this point I lose all sympathy for him. Butts herds the two girls into the bathroom, and commands them to take a shower together while he watches. When they refuse, he begins using his considerable size advantage to intimidate them, positioning himself between them and the door, and undressing Barbara himself. Gary tries to intervene, but Butts contends that the girls are just a couple of “dumb groupies,” and that “the pigs need to take a bath.” And since Butts outweighs Gary by nearly as much as he outweighs Barbara and Dolly, Gary is afraid to stand up for them any further, even if one of them is his girlfriend. He merely slinks out of the room in shame and self-loathing, and proceeds to drink himself stupid while Butts has his perverted way with the two girls. Then Dolly, evidently not sufficiently sullied for one evening, sneaks into Duke’s bedroom, and wakes him up with a blowjob. Duke, to his credit, does at least insist that she tell him her name before they go any further, and he doesn’t kick her out of his bed once they’ve finished. In fact, Duke decides that he likes Dolly rather a lot.
The tour begins the following day, with what was supposed to be a two-week stint in Bakersfield. The gig gets shut down early, however, when Butts rapes a girl in the back of the van after the show one night; not even a determined hard-ass like Morley can brow-beat a club owner into putting up with that kind of shit. Meanwhile, the bit-part actor (Grave of the Vampire’s Jay Adler) who lives in the same apartment building as Janyce and Dolly invites them out to dinner with his agent (Cecil Reddick, from Snakes and Scream Bloody Murder), the result of which is that the girls get offered a nude modeling assignment. They’re bored and broke, the agent is offering more money than Jacques Le Monde, and most importantly, it’s been at least ten minutes since we’ve seen a naked breast, so they figure, “why the hell not?” Finally, Barbara gets a call from Gary, announcing that the band is going to devote their unexpected downtime to a camping trip in some national park or other, and inviting her, Janyce, Dolly to meet up with them. All goes well for a while (in fact, Barbara and Gary decide to run ahead to Las Vegas in advance of the band in order to get hitched), but Butts, having no girl of his own, becomes steadily angrier and more resentful the longer he has to watch his companions frolicking in the woods together. Eventually, that big, drunk, mean-tempered sasquatch of a bass-player gets Dolly alone and rapes her— strangles her, too, while he’s at it. Sure, he hides the body, and sure, Janyce assumes that her friend has impulsively decided to follow Barbara to Vegas to be a bridesmaid, but it doesn’t seem to me like Butts is going to be able to keep this hidden for long. Besides, we’ve got a title to justify, right?
Unfortunately, Bummer! makes its strongest impression by failing to make any really strong impressions, one way or the other. Technically speaking, it is competently made, but merely that. The writing is neither noticeably better nor noticeably worse than that in any contemporary sexploitation movie, and while the dialogue is unmistakably the product of the World War II generation attempting (with the usual amount of success) to speak the Vietnam generation’s language, there are few truly glaring howlers. Its premise is well-worn, but in a way that seems comfortably familiar rather than contemptibly so. The cast is good enough that most of them were or would become familiar faces in cheapjack drive-in and grindhouse fare for most of the decade, but only in Carol Speed’s case are you likely to remember why you remember them from some other movie. There is just enough production value to confer a hint of professional legitimacy, including an honest-to-God helicopter shot of the police station where Bummer! reaches its conclusion. But for good or ill, the movie never really does much of anything to stand out from the crowd, except to have one of the most bracingly tasteless taglines in the annals of film: “You don’t have to rape a groupie [softened to ‘assault’ in many markets]… You just have to ask!” In that respect, Bummer! accords well with David Friedman’s stated moviemaking philosophy. Friedman loved to sell the sizzle, but by his own admission, he was never very comfortable with the steak. He liked making films that could be promoted in the sleaziest, most salacious manner possible, but having gotten his start in an era of powerful and vigilant censors, he spent most of his career having no need to confront the issue of actually showing any of the things his advertising campaigns promised. That worked fine for most of the 60’s, when a few quick flashes of boob or butt was the state of the art in onscreen filth, but most exploitation movies were no longer averting their eyes the way Bummer! does by 1973. Take, for example, the scene in which a totally trashed Butts goes to see a masseuse (who alarmingly seems also to be his mother), and pays her to spank him. The spanking itself is shown only via shadows cast upon the wall, and in the 70’s, in a movie that frankly admits to having nothing to offer except sleaze, tactics like that were for weenies and chickenshits. I understand and applaud Friedman’s determination to stay out of the hardcore business, but he could have been a little more aggressive than this. Somewhere between Bummer! and Sex Psycho, the truth lies.