Anxious Coed Spontaneous Fried-Chicken Dance Party

Curator's Note

Sublime badness exists in a signifying purgatory, caught somewhere between diegetic suspension and profilmic fascination.  Scenes are blocked, lines delivered, images shot and edited—we recognize that we are witnessing an attempt at narration of some sort.  At the same time, an unpredictable alliance of forces conspires to pull us out of this fabricated world; or, perhaps more accurately, to draw us into an historical index, a photographic record.

In the Herschel Gordon Lewis gore fest, The Gruesome Twosome (1967), coeds in negligees gather in a dorm room for a late-night snack.   They share concerns about their friend Dawn moving off-campus, given that a deranged killer is on the loose and three more girls have just gone missing.  Incredibly, strangely, beautifully, their anxiety transforms into a spontaneous dance party—youthful exuberance unable to resist the lure of stock discotheque music blaring from the radio.  Lewis handles all of this in his characteristically leaden visual style, staging both the conversation and the dance outbreak as a static tableau.  Other than a quick insert for a timely newspaper headline (itself seemingly typeset by a madman), Lewis waits a full seventy-three seconds before moving the camera into the space, only to return immediately for another protracted 38 seconds of the original set-up.  Much fruggin’ and passing of chicken legs takes place—a few moments of rather tame erotic spectacle to offset and motivate the gore to follow.  And then back to the plot—a radio announcer interrupts the music to warn that the three missing college girls are now presumed murdered--a revelation Lewis covers with a few cutaways and a couple of awkward pans. 

As is so common in “bad” cinema, we are left with the sensation that we are not watching a movie so much as watching people pretending to be in a movie.  Lewis’ dedication to the “long-take” (out of economic necessity, of course) only exacerbates this sense of play-acting.  Without the escape valve of cutaways or the emphasis of camera movement, the actors are left to fend for themselves.  Unable to sustain the scene’s challenging shift from anxiety to pajama party to sober attention, the actors instead perform a strange array of overly deliberate gestures rehearsed to convey a “convincing” portrait of a vibrant coed confab.  In a travesty of Bazin, however, Lewis’ lingering camera transforms this seemingly spontaneous party into a tableau of odd profilmic details: the woman in white folding her lingerie in the midst of a greasy chicken feast; her playful poking of the woman in the tiger-print mini to dance; the woman in pink’s awkward transition from concerned friend to momentarily distracted dancer; white-negligee woman inexplicably transferring a throw pillow from one bed to the other; Tiger-print dancer’s clumsy pointing at the radio to convey the narrative import of the announcer; Dawn’s stolid blocking and absolute impassivity throughout all three sections of the scene; the wallpaper; the hair; the hairspray.  A pink stuffed animal desperately attempts to trick us into believing this cheap Florida motel suite is actually a cozy dorm room.  

And through it all looms the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, centered in the frame as a kind of deep-fried punctum, a trademark so familiar that its appearance, perversely, only adds to the unreality of the scene (On at least two occasions, Lewis turned to the Colonel as an investor.  In another film, an aspiring rock band gets paid in KFC, served by Colonel Sanders himself).  Early product placement, the bucket also draws the ensemble together in another daunting challenge: how does one engage in a sexy go-go dance while brandishing a greasy chicken leg (this bucket has only legs, apparently, perhaps because they “read” better on film as chicken).  Once again, action staged to draw us deeper into this world of endangered coeds instead becomes an index of some other reality—in this case a poorly lit and unflattering presentation of antique fast-food, dominating the mise-en-scene as a distracting and inconvenient prop.   

Such is the crisis that occurs at some point in every H.G. Lewis title—indeed in any “bad” film of merit.  Should the viewer continue pretending to believe in the film’s pretending to be real?  Or is it better to plunge nauseously, like Roquentin, into the real real that lurks within the image?  In the badfilm sublime, this real hides in plain sight, waiting for that moment when narration and diegetic investment can no longer contain its greasy, pink, wallpapered, fruggin’ insistence to be set free.     


Thanks, Jeff, for your post.

Although I'm impressed with the spontaenous dance party/sensual consumption of KFC, I'm wondering what you think of the dialogue. While watching the clip, I'm not quite sure who to blame for the flat acting: the script-writer or the actors? These coeds' beauty can't save them from flat lines (one of my favorites: Dawn: "After all, I'm not looking for a room in the city park." / Another girl, offscreen: "You are." - Is this foreshadowing?). Lewis' dialogue features lines (and silences) about as distracting and inconvienent as a bucket of KFC: attempts at character development and contextualization seem about as well put-together as the student newspaper.

Of course, Lewis wasn't going for character study. We watch films like "Blood Feast" and "The Grusome Twosome" for that awkward real who comes dancing through, drumstick in hand. But after she's done dancing, sometimes - just sometimes - I want her to sound like she's learned her lines.

Jeff, this post and clip are so great!

What I’m curious about is how this clip (and perhaps Lewis’ oeuvre in general) highlights a relatively arbitrary line between sanity and madness—as though maybe the nauseating real toward which badfilm draws us is on some level a gut-wrenching lurch toward insanity.  I’m particularly fond of this line: “Cathy, if we paid any attention to your feelings, we’d all end up in the loony bin!” But we know that Cathy’s feelings are accurate and we should be paying attention to them—there IS a madman ready to inflict horrible violence upon unsuspecting coeds! Is the viewer, then, somehow aligned with the insane?  Pretending to take this mockery of a horror movie seriously, as the performers must, is, in its own way, a crazy thing to do, but I wonder if just by engaging with it and watching it we also are associated with the fringes not just of culture but of sanity—hence the possibility of paracinema as literally maddening.

Gee whiz, but The Grusome Twesome really puts the good back in bad. This is, as noted, truly an instance of the badfilm sublime-- so sublime that it has left me at a loss of words and with a strange longing for a pink nighty.


I just can't take my eyes off the coed on the bed in the back, the one in the leopard-print frock that makes her look like Barney Rubble. She's the only thing in frame not decked out in pastels (pink, blue)-- the only thing, that is, except perhaps for the fried chicken. Is it needlessly perverse to fixate on the similarity in color between this chick and the chicken? Almost certainly. But once you start, you can't stop. While all the pastel-clad ladies engage in civilized activity (reading the paper, folding laundry), the cavewoman in the back avidly chows down on a hunk of chicken, pausing only to wipe her groin area with a napkin. Her friend falters, uncertain, before slapping her on the shoulder to dance: don't come between a cavewoman and her meat. The most uncomfortable shot for me is the pan that follows her thighs up, cross the oily sensuality of her wildcat froc, and finally rests on the chicken thigh that she dangles playfully in her fruggin' palm. Why do I feel like this woman has become the Colonel's Cannibal? Maybe Blood Feast has hijacked my brain: when Herschell Gorden Lewis is involved, virginal coeds can always end up on the dinner table. In the meantime, that pink stuffed animal (what the blerg is that? a goat?) had better watch out.

I got all giddy about the fried chicken and forgot to thank everyone else for their posts. I especially enjoyed the resonance between Jocelyn's and Jeff's comments. If I read Jocelyn right, she's saying that Cathy's friends know that her invitation to believe in the serial killer would bad for their-- and our-- sanity. They are taunting us to take the film's diegesis seriously, as they wave the real-as-photographic-index in our faces like a chunk of forty-year-old fried chicken. Paracinema is maddening only if (to take a cue from Daniel) you read the dialogue as something other than laughably flat. Otherwise you can count yourself among the non-duped-- who, as we know, never err.

Thanks, Jeff, for a great post!

Reading this over, and looking ahead to the other presentations this week, I'm wondering if part of the "badness" and “unreality” of the films we're looking at isn't in some respects thoroughly caught up with anxieties about genre. As the popularity of shows like “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” attests, thoroughly egregious science fiction, fantasy, and horror films are in no short supply—and thank God. But why is that? Does the suspension of disbelief that certain genres require of their audience conversely require a greater sense of detail in those films to hold that suspension up? In part, “good” representatives of these genres are prone to vivid world-making. A sense of textual “realness” is attested to by the durability of those filmic worlds in afterlife mediums like fan-fiction, and by the propensity of those films to spawn endless sequels. But even as this detail is a “necessary” compensation for these films to be taken “seriously” by their viewers, the elaboration of those textual worlds also exaggerates their differences from our own. They become more fantastic, more uncanny, and more horrific. Shouldn't they therefore be less believable? Isn’t this something of a paradox?

Back to the text at hand, then, the “unreality” of this scene is evident not only in formal techniques which make the technologies of film itself overly apparent, but also in the lack of detail and investment in the textual world. The announcers on the radio, voices from outside the crowded bedroom who speak for and to the larger world of the film, certainly have a bizarre sense of locality. While they mention the name of the captain of the Police Department, they also refer to the murders taking place amorphously in “this area” involving co-eds from “the University.” Moreover, the second announcer moves a little too quickly from the graveness of murdered co-eds to perkily advertising the Ten O’clock News. We’re in a non-place, a flat world whose inhabitants seem at a loss to adhere to the logics of familiarity with it. As a result, it’s as unidentifiable and “unreal” for us as well.

Thank you everyone for the interesting comments.  So many issues have been raised,  I'll keep my response brief and look forward to continuing the dialogue during the week.

I agree there is a certain 'surrender' that takes place in bad cinema--one gives up (or in some cases actively derails) the narrative to wallow in the profilmic--this quality has been addressed from a number of perspectives now: formalism and "excess"; Barthes' and 'the third meaning/punctum.'  Insanity is a candidate as well, I suppose.  The existential crisis experienced by Rocquentin in Nausea is very akin to a schizophrenic break--one could conceiveably become so detached from the diegesis and submerged in the pure sound and texture of a film as to "stare through" it, to encounter it as raw materiality outside of meaning--but that probably wouldn't be much fun!

Kaelin, you might be interested in my essay "Movies: A Century of Failure."  There I try to argue that all film is doomed, at some point, to dissolve into a type of raw documentation--but it is definitely true that exploitation genres (or perhaps 'body genres' in Williams' sense) 'go bad' quicker.  I would argue this is because there is always a gap in exploitation/body genres between promise and execution, desire and actualization -- even when the scene of exploitation becomes obscene, it can still never live up to the fantasies that drive spectators to the cinema in the first place.  A taste for bad cinema is, in a certain way, a deathwise for the cinema as a whole--to have this gap exposed and exploited across all genres and history. 


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