The Golden Age of Grindhouse, where exploitation hit the roadkill, was undoubtedly the 1970s.  The lax guidelines on the new permissiveness resulted in an abundance of nudity and violence, and ratcheted up the swarms of smarmy producers and fly-by-night distributors who couldn’t wait to spatter their splatter across the screens of Times Square and its comparable nationwide hardtops and drive-ins.

Indeed, this decade gave “extreme” fans a cache of favorites and, occasionally, standard movie buffs some notable guilty pleasures.

Immersed in these skin/horror/giallo/kaiju/chop socky imports were periodic valiant efforts to do something a little more deep.  That so many lurid Italian thrillers are now categorized as high art is fact; but, once in a blue moon, American works, too, strived to be a bit more enriching.  The task at hand was to deliver the required goods, but with a “stab” at attempting something better; i.e., the cinematic equivalent of cauliflower disguised as pasta.

Two varying examples are Stanley H. Brasloff’s 1972 drama TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, and, Alfred Sole’s better-known 1976 horror flick ALICE, SWEET ALICE, each now available in special Blu-Ray editions from Arrow Video/MVDvisual.

In a nutshell, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN is what we sophisticates call “a lollapalooza!”  I mean, this pic packs so much into it (in a good way) that it’s difficult to choose a theme to concentrate on.  While the narrative is exploitation heaven, the execution is straight forward, well-acted and directed.  The movie, in short, is a jaw-dropper, and, again, in a good way.

Young, pubescent Jamie Godard lives at home with her single mom.  Jamie is obsessed with her estranged father, booted from the home by his wife – a total ice-cold harpie.  “Daddy” still sends Jamie Christmas and birthday presents – toys, as if the now-blossoming woman is still a child.  And Jamie reacts in kind.  She fondles the stuffed animals, and, uncontrollably begins to get aroused.  Mater, disgusted by the display, dubs her “unnatural,” and wants her gone.  “Daddy” was, after all, removed because he’s a serial cheater, into kinky sex with hookers and high-priced call girls.  Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?

Jamie retreats into a fantasy world, and snags a job at a toy store (her dream position).  There she meets Charlie, who promptly falls in love with her.  Thinking he’s into toys as much as she is, Jamie returns his affection, and they marry.  It’s a union from Hell.  Jamie is frigid, petrified of normal sex; Charlie is concerned but, like his wife’s mom, doesn’t consider getting the girl psychiatric help.  Instead, he repeats the “father” route, and seeks pleasure elsewhere.

At work, Jamie meets Pearl, an attractive older woman customer who is sympathetic to the innocent salesclerk.  They become friends, and Pearl invites Jamie to visit her apartment in Manhattan.

But Pearl is a top flight sex worker, living with  slimy pimp Eddie, who immediately attempts to force himself on Jamie, hoping to groom her.  In doing so, he unleashes the inexperienced female’s sexual fury, a casual “come to Daddy” aside, which turns her on.  Jamie becomes the most popular pony in the stable (elder johns are pre-appointment told to refer to themselves as “Daddy”).  Pearl, who eventually reveals her bisexuality, makes a move on the now-hardened, satiated Jamie, who rebuffs the older woman (using her own mother’s epithets, verbally smacking the veteran whore down).  Pearl retaliates by setting her up with her own father (whose whereabouts she’s always known), after calling him ahead of time, to make sure he uses the trigger word “Daddy.” 

It does not end well.

This movie totally knocked me out.  It’s so much better than most of the Times Square fare that was dumped on the Deuce during the 1970s and 1980s.

Filmed on a low, low budget in and out of Manhattan and the accompanying suburbs, TOYS is smartly directed and cowritten by Brasloff (the latter with Macs McAree).  The recent Arrow Blu-Ray also reveals how well it’s photographed (by Rolph Laube), popping with neon and garish colors that, when appropriate, mimic the era’s toy commercials (one line to Charlie by a delivery man is particularly chilling:  “I hear you married a real doll”).  The music, too, volleys between period synth and a haunting ballad, “Lonely Am I” (by Cathy Lynn and sung by T.L Davis), good enough in 1972 to get its own 45 single.

Then there’s the game cast, notably Evelyn Kingsley, Harlan Cary Poe, Luis Arroyo, and N.J. Osrag.  Of special interest is the mother from Hell, played by former Big Band singer Fran Warren!  Best of all, of course, is the female lead, Marcia Forbes, giving a multi-leveled performance as child-woman Jamie.  A beautiful, talented actress who should have had an extended career; as far as I know, this is her only credit.

Typical of Arrow is the plethora of extras included in the package, most prominently a fresh 2K transfer from the 35MM elements, the aforementioned 45 single (newly transferred), various video essays and featurettes, audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, and the original trailer.  The LCPM mono is just fine.

Don’t be fooled by the sordid promotion; this is not your standard T & A flick geared toward the weird dudes in the raincoats crowd.  It really is a notch above.

1976’s ALICE, SWEET ALICE is one of the most disturbing pictures ever to come off the grindhouse circuit.  It certainly transcends its roots, and has become an authentic stand-alone horror-thriller – a rep well deserved.

None of the low budget trappings are evident, as the pic is excellently photographed (John Friberg, Chuck Hall), scored (Stephen Lawrence), produced (Marc Greenberg, Richard K. Rosenberg), and, creatively directed (by Alfred Sole, who also coproduced, and cowrote the narrative with Rosemary Ritvo).

ALICE is a damning look at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, as personified by a Paterson, NJ congregation.  Whether this was the overall intention or not, it sure freaks this Jew out.  The focus of the work is placed upon a beguiling adolescent, Alice Spages, who lives with her single mom, Catherine, and kid sister, Karen.  Karen is the charmer of the family, the obvious favorite; Alice is the bad girl, in fact, the bad seed.  She delights in torturing her younger sibling, as well as the family’s grotesque pervert landlord, who, surrounded by cats and soiled clothes, spends his days listening to old 78s.

Alice’s proudest accomplishment is her private museum, hidden within the conclaves of the building’s basement.  There she has collected pieces of communion wear, hideous masks, cutlery, and an enormous jar, in which she breeds cockroaches.

This horrid existence would be enough for any creepy movie, except that this is just the beginning.  All Hell hasn’t broken loose yet, but is about to.

Karen is brutally murdered during her pre-communion ceremonies, the child’s stabbed and mutilated body tossed in a church box and set on fire.  Alice is the obvious suspect, and with good reason; the girl has been under observation by the local priest, nuns and neighborhood teachers for quite a while – and earmarked for a stay in a mental institution.  Catherine refuses to commit her, and now is additionally saddled with her interfering shrew sister, Angela, and her re-married ex, Dom, who has returned for the funeral, but stays on to investigate the strange events.

And they’re about to get stranger.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE, when not skewering the Church, smashes the world of grown-ups.  Every adult in the picture is a nightmare; Paterson, NJ itself is a Hell on Earth, seething with decay, whose population comprises gossiping human gargoyles and their henpecked husbands, vengeful nuns, the scarifying parish housekeeper, a senile Monsignor, and pervy/slimy police (including a sex predator polygraph technician).  And we mentioned the landlord.  Is it any wonder Alice turned out the way she has?  Even her caring parents are tainted (nearly adulterous when reunited, and only halted when Dom’s new wife calls, concerned that he’s okay).

Things don’t get much better when the violent attacks escalate, perpetrated by a feminine specter wearing one of the church’s yellow rain slickers, a mask, and brandishing an extra-long butcher’s knife.  Guilt by association, Alice’s sins send her to a Dickensian psychiatric facility that can only make her already demented mind go deeper into the abyss.

And then it gets even worse.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE went from intriguing grindhouse sustenance to guaranteed late-nite TV fodder, due to the fortuitous casting of 11-year-old Brooke Shields, who was two years away from zooming to A-lister, courtesy of Pretty Baby.  Her name often got starring lead order on the old VHS boxes.  This is deceptive, as Shields doesn’t play Alice, but the younger victim, Karen, and her screen time is fairly short.  She’s pretty good in it, though, but can’t compare to the true star, Paula E. Sheppard.  Like a demonic Ellen Page, Sheppard is concurrently sympathetic, snarky, evil, awful, terrifying.  She has become a cult movie icon because of this movie and her only other screen appearance, as the equally impressive Adrian in 1982’s Liquid Sky (Sheppard’s since flipped show biz the bird, and has, supposedly, been living a normal family life).  Other notable performances include, Mildred Clinton, Niles McMaster, Rudolph Willrich, Michael Hardstark, Kathy Rich, Gary Allen, Peter Bosche, Alphonso DeNoble (as the gruesome, odious landlord; think Larry Tucker in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor), and especially Linda Miller as the fragile mom Catherine (FUN FACT: the stunning Miller is the daughter of Jackie Gleason, the wife of Jason Miller, and mom of Jason Patric); LSS, even without Sheppard, the women are far more impressive than the men.  Like the above TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, ALICE has much in common aside from depictions of screwed up girlhood; both were filmed around the New York/New Jersey area, and each features a supporting role filled by a former singing female luminary (as indicated above, TOYS has Fran Warren, and ALICE offers Lillian Roth, seen here as a police pathologist)

As stated, ALICE was extremely well directed and co-written by Sole, who cites Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) as a major influence (I get it, the rain slickers, etc.); personally, I see this pic having evolved from the gialli of Dario Argento (particularly Deep Red, 1975), Ducio Tessari (The Bloodstained Butterfly, 1971), and Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972); it may have even influenced Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow (1978). The movie would also make a good double bill with Pete Walker’s The Confessional (1976) or a handful of Father Ted episodes.

The Blu-Ray Special Edition of ALICE, SWEET ALICE is dazzling, making Friberg’s and Hall’s images pop, and giving an added oomph to the weird production values (for some reason, the pic is set in 1961; all sets, cars, artifacts, and clothing nicely reflects this – the illusion only ruined by the male cast’s Seventies’ hairstyles and sideburns).  A vault of extras append the new 2K restoration (from the camera negative), including alternate opening titles, trailers and TV spots, Holy Terror (the television cut), interviews with costar McMaster and director Sole, and audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith.  The main transfer uses the original title, Communion (definitely not as exploitation-friendly).  Like TOYS, ALICE’s LCPM mono soundtrack has been excellently preserved.

Two pics absolutely worth checking out for those who revel in the glories of Time Square, the unusual and the era, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN and ALICE, SWEET ALICE demonstrate how good a “sleazy” title could be in the right hands.

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LCPM mono.  Arrow Video/MVDvisual.  CAT # AV221.  SRP: $39.95.

ALICE, SWEET ALICE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LCPM mono. Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # AV213. SRP: $39.95.

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