The success of Deliverance prompted a wave of imitators that found all manner of Yankees wandering into the hinterlands and getting shanghaied by the swamp-bottom dregs of rural society. The result was the “southern discomfort” film, a subgenre of exploitation that went to lurid and gruesome extremes to show audiences what could happen when you wandered off the main roads. Poor Pretty Eddie might be the most unnerving example of this subgenre. Other southern discomfort films might be more explicit in terms of sex or violence – but Poor Pretty Eddie has a distinctive approach that allows it to creep right under a viewer’s skin.
As is often the case in these films, Poor Pretty Eddie begins with a trip down the wrong back road. Professional singer Liz Weatherly (Leslie Uggams) is taking a vacation from stardom when her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. She wanders to the nearest place to ask for help and becomes the new obsession of Eddie (Michael Christian), a third-rate Elvis wanna-be who keeps himself afloat by serving as gigolo to Bertha (Shelley Winters), owner of the local motel.
Liz rebuffs Eddie’s attempts to charm her but she has underestimated him: he tampers with her car to keep there and when she rejects his nocturnal advances, he rapes her. Thus begins a waking nightmare for Liz as she quickly learns that not only is Eddie dangerous and unpredictable but she is surrounded by a town full of corrupt, sexually pent-up and inhumane characters. There will be no easy way out of this predicament – and however it happens, it will end with bloodshed.
That plot synopsis might sound like boilerplate southern discomfort material but that’s not how it plays out. It’s a thoroughly bizarre blend of the sleazy and the artsy, starting with the script. The screenplay by erstwhile t.v. scribe B.W. Sandefur plays like an unholy amalgam of Tennessee Williams and any number of post-Psycho/Whatever Happened To Baby Jane shockers. It lays on seedy, southern-fried dialogue with glee and populates the storyline with a series of rural grotesques, each creepier than the last.
The cast plays into the florid dialogue that Sandefur provides, offering up some suitably over-the-top performances. Christian in particular is a find, alternating oily charm with sweaty freakouts to make this desperate dreamer unforgettable. Winters hams it up beautifully, playing a faded glamour girl with a suitable amount of ego and bitterness. Elsewhere, Slim Pickens and Dub Taylor turn up for memorable character roles as the town’s sheriff and justice-of-the-peace. They have a ball acting out the darker extremes of their good-ol’-boy performers, serving as a sort of demented hillbilly version of a Greek chorus for the film. Even Ted “Lurch” Cassidy rates a nice role as the quiet hotel caretaker who locks horns with Eddie – it’s a rare genuinely dramatic role for this actor and he underplays it effectively.
The film’s odd woman out is Uggams. Part of this is because her character is the script’s weak link – Liz is written as a shrill, unlikeable showbiz character from the get-go, thus robbing the story of some of its gut-punch effectiveness when she gets put through the wringer. It doesn’t help that Uggams plays her mostly in a one-note style of perpetual annoyance well into the character’s ordeal and seems to lack the chops necessary to convey the character’s shock in the film’s final third. That said, the film might have ended up being too grim to bear if Liz was actually someone the audience liked.
However, such performance issues aren’t likely to register because the filmmaking is guaranteed to work you with its ferocious sense of style. Director Richard Robinson, aided by cinematographer/uncredited co-director David Worth, digs into the film’s southern gothic elements and layers on all manner of creepy visuals. Worth shows a great knack for unusual angles and effective hand-held camerawork. He also deploys slow-motion to great effect during key shock scenes, particularly during the wild finale.
That said, it’s the way that the film is assembled that is likely to creep you out. Poor Pretty Eddie‘s secret weapon is the editing skills of Frank Mazzola, a gifted technician who built his reputation by handling the editing for the synapse-frying Nicholas Roeg/Donald Cammell collaboration Performance. He brings a similarly edgy touch to his work here, using freeze-frames and other optical effects to stylize the transitions and using intercutting to hypnotic yet unnerving effect. Sound design is also part of his attack, especially during the setpieces: they overflow with trippy echo and bursts of industrial noise that will rattle your teeth and your psyche.
A great example of Mazzola’s grisly yet artful technique is the scene where Eddie rapes Liz, which is intercut with a scene of local yokels watching a couple of dogs mating. There’s an obvious element of gleeful bad taste to it but the juxtaposition also sells the decidedly unwholesome, malevolent element of Liz’s new surroundings with a skill that is likely to burn itself in your memory whether you like it or not.
The same could be said for Poor Pretty Eddie. The rational part of your mind might be able to laugh it off as a singularly demented exploitation quickie but its bizarro mixture of artsy flourishes, lurid melodrama and grindhouse cruelty will leave a few scars on your subconscious.