I once wrote an article in which I questioned whether the 1975 backwoods horror Poor Pretty Eddie is “the” consummate exploitation movie. Although it certainly checks off a lot of boxes, I believe that, in my analysis, I got caught up in the surrealism surrounding the film when considering its credentials and its competition. Eddie is, of course, the movie financed by Mafia pornographer Michael Thevis in an effort to both launder his fortune and attain a level of “legitimate” credibility; it’s also the movie which stars Leslie Uggams, Shelley Winters, and Ted “Lurch” Cassidy; it also had the weird distinction of being a grindhouse film with a producer’s cut, Heartbreak Motel, which edited out the rape and violence but included a previously deleted scene of Ms. Winters engaging in a sex act that was illegal in most of the states where it was screened. In light of all the meta-weirdness—combined with its nihilistic tone—it’s easy to look at it and declare it the hands down winner of “ultimate exploitation movie.” That’s a tremendous disservice, though, to another movie worthier of the title—if being denied the bragging rights to depravity can said to be a disservice. For there is another picture produced at the height of the grindhouse era that perfectly captures what it meant to be a grindhouse film, and which magnificently echoes the mentality, ethos, and philosophy of exploitation cinema.
The Candy Snatchers.
Against the backdrop of Vietnam-weary America, three lowlifes put into action what they believe to be the perfect crime: They kidnap the titular Candy, the sixteen-year-old heiress to an old-money family fortune and the stepdaughter of diamond merchant Avery Phillips, intending to hold her for ransom. For extra insurance, they bury her alive in a pit in the desert, with a steel pipe acting as a crude ventilation shaft; this way, even in the event they’re arrested, they can still leverage the girl’s whereabouts (and safety). The criminals are a cross-section of downtrodden America circa 1973: Eddy (who could win a John Belushi lookalike contest) is a Vietnam veteran with a chip on his shoulder against The Man and the country who turned its back on him; Jessie, his ersatz girlfriend, is the brains of the operation, an intelligent, liberated woman tired of having her competence and abilities dismissed because of her gender; and Jessie’s brother, Alan, is a hair-trigger psychopath who’s channeled his frustrations with poverty into a career as a serial killer. All three are hoping for a better life as a result of the plan: Eddy thinks that money will finally make Jessie fall in love with him and afford him a degree of respectability; Jessie thinks that having a fortune will force men specifically and society in general to take her seriously; and, while we never quite know what Alan’s got in mind for his future, it probably looks a lot like American Psycho.
Of course, if the plan went off without a hitch, this wouldn’t be a movie, and it certainly wouldn’t be a grindhouse movie. Candy is sheltered and naïve, and while she doesn’t set out to begin psychologically dismantling her captors, her innocence has the inadvertent effect of bringing out the worst—and most desperate—parts of their personalities, leading the trio to begin turning on one another. Infighting is far from the biggest complication to their plot, though. Outside the confines of the dilapidated shack that functions as their headquarters, the kidnappers are fighting a two-front war. The more immediate threat comes in the form of Sean, a little boy who lives in the only house near to the kidnappers’ hideout. Sean witnesses them bringing Candy to the shack and burying her in the pit; he may be autistic, and his parents may be white trash winners who’d be considered scum by the cast of a John Waters flick, but the boy slowly begins putting together what’s going on, and he knows how to use a phone…
While Sean may be a threat to the kidnappers’ freedom, the second wrench in their plans could derail the entire operation. The “step” in “stepfather” turns out to be more important than they’d anticipated. Avery has no love lost for his non-biological daughter, and considers the girl’s presence a major cramp to what could be the cushy lifestyle of sexing up an heiress 24/7 while living on her dime. In fact, if Candy dies, it entitles him to a hefty $2 million trust fund left to the girl by her deceased dad; as he explains to the kidnappers in the most blood-curdling exchange in a movie filled with blood-curdling exchanges, he’s been praying for just this set of circumstances to befall the family, inviting them to do whatever they’d like with the girl.
So, what happens when three desperate, incompetent criminals find themselves backed into a corner with absolutely nothing to lose? The answer forms what might be the most nihilistic climax in the annals of grindhouse cinema. Spoiler alert: It isn’t pretty.
The Candy Snatchers is patently not pleasant to watch. It plumbs the depths of human cruelty. In addition to the requisite assault and murder, the more squeamish end of the spectrum involves multiple acts of abuse against an autistic child and two graphic rapes. The only thing preventing it from being a complete exercise in soul-callousing are occasional, surprising bursts of gallows humor that effectively lighten the mood for a moment or two—among the best instances are an exchange between Jessie, Alan, and Avery as the former two hold the latter at gunpoint. “What are my chances of getting out of this alive?” a nonplussed Avery asks. “Lie to him,” Jessie tells Alan. “Pretty good!” Alan chirps. Yet for all its unpleasantness, The Candy Snatchers is invaluable as a cinematic artifact.
I’ve written before about how the people who went to grindhouse movies were looking for a validation of their lived experiences. They were nominally lower-class, usually unemployed or underemployed, felt marginalized by society, and often suffered from substance abuse issues. As Vietnam raged on, a sizable portion of the audience came to be made up of veterans, especially minorities who returned to an even uglier homecoming than their white brethren. The darkened, poorly maintained theaters that hosted them were prime offices for career criminals ranging from pimps to drug dealers. The grindhouse audience, then, represented a class of filmgoers who didn’t see themselves or the lives they lived reflected in mainstream commercial cinema, save, perhaps, for Midnight Cowboy. The Candy Snatchers, conversely, is the perfect distillation of what it meant to be the average grindhouse filmgoer. To watch it is to get a glimpse of the world through their eyes—a look at the horror, hopelessness, and living hell that was lower class America in the post-Watergate world. It’s a place where women are commodities, “mercy” is treated as a four-letter-word, rape is a pastime, and the ends always justify the means, as long as the ends are money and power. After all, if there’s no way out, and the worst-case scenario is just continuing to lead the life you’re living anyway, what’s to lose?
Buttressing the film’s value (and watchability) is the fact that, especially for a grindhouse movie, it’s well made. Director Guerdon Trueblood had the benefit of a cast of skilled actors, including Ben Piazza, television veterans Susan Senentt and Brad David, and exploitation queen Tiffany Bolling, who has a rare opportunity to bring some human vulnerability to her usual bitch goddess act. The cinematography is stunning, too, juxtaposing California’s natural beauty with its’ protagonists inner blackness (Snatchers is also notable for being one of the rare West Coast productions to be as bleak and hopeless as the stuff coming out of 42nd Street). Especially powerful is the final sequence, a long, craning shot showing the aftermath of the film’s events, which looks like it comes from a movie with a much larger budget and serves to elevate the entire picture to the level of high (if not still spiritually low) art.
Rare is a film that so aptly personifies a subculture as The Candy Snatchers. Sadly, its reputation has not proceeded it (or maybe it has); in contrast to other exploitation touchstones that’ve gotten well-deserved reissues, it’s gone in-and-out of print over the years, usually in limited runs from releasing houses that never quite seemed to know what they had on their hands. The most recent was Subversive Cinema’s 2005 release, which at least kinda seemed to know what it had on its hands, going to the trouble of recording a commentary track with Sennett and Bolling. That version is out of print now, too, though, Subversive having gone under in 2011. Otherwise, the film survives only in the form of the bootlegged DVD-Rs that kept it alive for so long on the venerable exploitation film grey market. It’s a shame, hopefully one which will be rectified in the near future. For anyone who wants to know what grindhouse cinema is all about—and why it was a thing in the first place—The Candy Snatchers is nothing less than the Rosetta Stone of 42nd Street.