In the early to mid ’70s, there was a brief window of time when a lot of people believed pornography would become an accepted form of artistic expression. This goes beyond the idea of “porno chic” represented by the fame of Deep Throat or Beyond The Green Door: indeed, artists of all kinds thought adult filmmaking was going to be the next wave, a way to bring the underground overground. Schlockmania’s pick for the film that best represents this ideal is Thundercrack!, a one-of-a-kind epic fusion of satire, horror, sex of multiple kinds and a distinctly 1970’s underground art ethos that remains breathtaking even by modern standards.
Thundercrack! was scripted by underground filmmaking legend George Kuchar and the premise revolves around an aging manse occupied by lonely, half-crazed widow Gert Hammond (Marion Eaton). On the archetypal dark and stormy night, weather-induced chaos deposits several mysterious figures at her door: mean-spirited and lusty Roo (Moira Benson), tormented widower Chandler (Mookie Blodgett), hustler Bond (Ken Scudder), lonely yet lusty Sash (Melinda McDowell), repressed and religious Willene (Maggie Pyle) and manipulative hitchhiker Toydy (Rick Johnson).
In short order, this houseful of damaged psyches are alternating between bitter arguments, tearful confessions and pairing off for couplings of all kinds: male/female, female/female, male/male, female/toy, male/toy, etc. The feverish proceedings heat up another notch when they realize they are surrounded by zoo animals from a crashed truck – and its driver (Kuchar) himself shows up with a wild tale about his personal traumas and the killer ape running loose outside.
It has become a cliche to say “you’ve never seen anything like this before” when describing a cult movie but Thundercrack! is the exception to this rule. Kuchar’s wild script plays like The Old Dark House as rewritten by Douglas Sirk, Tenessee Williams and John Waters. It’s full of arch, endlessly quotable monologues and insults as well as perversely inspired plot twists and flashbacks (Bing’s tales of woe take the cake in the latter department).
Director Curt McDowell takes the mania of Kuchar’s script and raises it by going all-in on the pansexual element of the storyline. Despite the absurd and perverse humor in the script, the director treats the actual sex with care and impressive stylization. Whether he’s filming a hetero coupling, a gay coupling or device-assisted solo scenes, McDowell captures all the bedroom action with a singular mixture of lust and open-mindedness. It may be too much for a lot of viewers but the everything-is-permitted ethos of the film is unique and admirable in its fearlessness.
Thundercrack! is also impressively stylish for a underground film. McDowell also shot the film and gives the film a gorgeous black-and-white style that pays homage to the vintage Hollywood inspirations of Kuchar’s script. The film also boasts a unique, keyboard-driven score by Mark Ellinger that mixes vintage Hollywood-style scoring in a ’30s style with more experimental flourishes. Even the low-budget approximations of the storm have a savvy, low-budget inventiveness in how they use clever lighting and editing tricks to create an impressionistic simulation of disaster.
The performances are mostly the kind of inspired amateurism you see in early John Waters films, which actually fits the stylized Hollywood melodrama dialogue well, but there are two legitimately stunning turns in the film. The first is from Eaton, who gives her full energy to a bombastic yet deeply felt performance that is half Vivian Leigh and half Mink Stole. The second is from Kuchar, who draws on his experience from his underground films to create a manic, gloriously deadpan performance-art tribute to Hollywood melodrama acting.
In short, Thundercrack! is a relic of an amazing era that has passed and a forward-thinking piece of work all at once. It could only have been made in the anything-goes art scene of the ’70s but its blend of humor, hardcore sex and underground weirdness still feels bold and fresh. If you’re up for its challenges, it’s an experience worth having for any disciple of outré cinema.