Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week #26: "Fugitive Girls" (1974)

Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof tried their hand at a "women in prison" (or WIP) movie in 1974.

"Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent."
-Criswell, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Courtroom sketch of Dave Friedman and Steve Apostolof
at the Memphis obscenity trial of their friend, Don Davis.
For all his woes in the 1970s, Edward D. Wood, Jr. had relatively few run-ins with the law. In fact, I can find no record of Ed ever having been arrested, subpoenaed, or put on trial. For a heavy drinker who worked in at least two branches of the pornography business (film and print) and made occasional public appearances in drag, this is actually something of an accomplishment. A point of pride, if you will. It's more than most of his contemporaries can say. In The Sinister Urge (1960), Ed Wood depicted the raiding of pornography studios and the arresting of pornographers. It was a fitting prophecy. The hammer of the law came down hard and swift on many of Eddie's professional associates as obscenity in the arts became a bigger issue in the late '60s and early '70s. By this time, the censorship laws had gotten weaker and the artists had gotten bolder, so the voting public turned to the government to crack down. Both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon dutifully formed commissions to look into the subject and assess the potential threat to the nation's values. Nixon, especially, was vehement in his efforts to stamp out smut.

The fall guys, sadly, were often small-time independent filmmakers like Don Davis. Poor Don, who was an assistant to both Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof before becoming a director in his own right in 1967, was infamously busted for interstate transportation of indecent materials in Memphis, Tennessee in 1972. Steve was actually called as a witness in those proceedings, as was adult entertainment kingpin Dave Friedman. Though Don ultimately beat the charges, neither his life nor his career ever recovered. Ed DePriest, director of the Ed Wood-scripted One Million AC/DC, was also busted, as I learned when I had the opportunity to interview him via Skype a few weeks ago. Alain Patrick, one of the stars of AC/DC, made a whole movie (1972's Blue Money) about his fear of being hassled by the Man. He got out of showbiz altogether after the early 1980s and apparently went into restoring boats. Steve himself avoided the big house, but he had a few close calls according to frequent Apostolof actor Harvey Shane:
Some of those [other directors'] sets were raided. If they were shot at a private home, and they got tipped off, maybe a neighbor saw a girl nude from the waist up or totally nude, getting changed. Some of the policemen mistakenly raid these houses, arrest everybody, and then find out they weren't doing pornography. But there was a lot of problems! ... Steve somehow dodged the bullet. None of his films' [sets] ever got raided. But a lot of others were, and they were mistaken for pornographic shoots. That was really the problem.
Steve takes the stand.
Note the specificity of Shane's language. One factor on Apostolof's side was that his films were technically not pornographic because the actors and actresses in them do not actually have sex on camera, though oftentimes you'd need to use the freeze-frame and zoom-in features on your remote control to make sure of that. Let's say there are a few near-misses, huh? A few crucial centimeters difference. Such technical distinctions were all-important. Hal Guthu, Eddie's cinematographer on Necromania and LA's one-time premier talent agent for nude models, would not even film hardcore scenes in his studio. The so-called "inserts" for that movie (explicit shots of oral and vaginal intercourse as well as ejaculation) were shot separately and edited into the completed print. Pointedly, no cast or crew members for Necromania were listed in the credits, and Eddie offered both explicit (hardcore) and non-explicit (softcore) cuts of the film to potential distributors.

Steve Apostolof was strictly softcore, but that doesn't mean he didn't have to keep looking over his shoulder to see if John Law was coming. Chris Apostolof, Steve's son, remembers one of his dad's softcore movies being busted in Louisiana. The film itself was seized, and the projectionist was arrested. The trial, oddly enough, was held in Texas. "They flew him there, and they flew him back," his wife Shelly recalls. "And he was so proud of that, that they flew him there and flew him back!" Ultimately, Steve's films were deemed non-pornographic.

Meanwhile, over at Pendulum Publishing, where Ed Wood wrote "dirty" paperbacks, stories, and articles in a misleadingly bland-looking office for much of the 1970s, police raids were a small (but not totally unheard of) threat. As Ed's Pendulum coworker, Leo Eaton, recalls:
I’d been told police raids were a regular occurrence but I remember only one during my time at Pendulum. Coming in the main entrance from Pico Boulevard, there was a small vestibule with a window/hatch through which one could talk to the receptionist. A door with an electric lock closing off the rest of the building could only be opened when the receptionist tripped the switch. On the police raid I experienced, they refused to wait until the receptionist opened the door, instead climbing in through the hatch and scaring everyone in the front office. We all kept our heads down in the back and tried to ignore the shouting and banging.
Did any of this change Ed Wood or Steve Apostolof's attitudes about crime and punishment? What about Steve's experiences in his early adulthood, when he spent a year and a half as a political prisoner after participating in a failed coup against the Communists in his native Bulgaria? Did this soften his opinion toward lawbreakers? Nope. Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof were dyed-in-the-wool, law-and-order conservatives with nothing but contempt for the anarchic counterculture of America's youth, and their work (both together and separately) reflects their right-wing values. Even as he was dodging obscenity charges for making sleazy movies, Steve was being asked to contribute to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972 and was very active in the local Bulgarian church!

Eddie, as I've seen over and over again in this project, was a big-time supporter of the law enforcement community. One of his best friends, Tor Johnson's son Karl, was a police officer. And apart from the occasional (rare) bad egg on the force, the police are the heroes of many of Ed's screenplays. When you come down to it, nearly all of the films for which Ed Wood is known can be classified as police procedurals to one degree or another (as long as we include occasional insurance investigators and FBI agents in our definition). Crossroad Avenger, Glen or Glenda?, The Violent Years, Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, Night of the Ghouls, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Sinister Urge, and For Love and Money all fall into this subgenre, which was given its modern form on radio and TV by super-conservative Jack Webb.

As in Webb's signature series, Dragnet, there is a binary code of morality in the Ed Wood universe. No crime ever goes unpunished in his films or novels. Lawbreakers are either arrested or (preferably) killed by the end of each story. The innocent may or may not be spared, and those who do survive are left with trauma, guilt, and grief. Apart from the tragic Patrick/Patricia of Glen or Glenda? (who commits suicide after his fourth arrest on transvestism charges), the malefactor or scofflaw will find no sympathy from Edward D. Wood, Jr.

I bring all this up because this week's movie is an attempt by Steve Apostolof and Ed Wood to crash one of the hallowed subgenres of exploitation cinema: the "women in prison" (or WiP) film. It is perhaps enlightening for the aspiring Wood-ologist to use this film as a litmus test of its author's attitudes toward women, crime, and the corrections system. One possible clue is that Eddie actually portrays an officer of the law in it!

FUGITIVE GIRLS (1974)



Belgian poster
Alternate titles: Boy, does this movie have alternate titles! It was re-released as 5 Loose Women or Five Loose Women in America. (For some arcane reason, the IMDb still insists on calling it Five Loose Women.) The bilingual Belgian poster has both a Dutch title (Prison of Hot Females), and a French title (Penitentiary of Hot Pussies). In Mexico, it was Fugitive Women or Five Violent Women. The Finns knew it as Girl Gang Escape. To the French, this was Girls on the Run. In Brazil, it was simply The Fugitives. The Greek title (basically) translates as Unscrupulous Satanists of the Asphalt.

In America, the film enjoyed a number of VHS releases under an assortment of titles in the 1980s and 1990s. Top Video, Diamond Video, Nite-Flite Video, and (finally) Something Weird Video all put it out as Fugitive Girls. Luna Video, meanwhile, called it Hot on the Trail. In the early 1980s, a company called MCM Entertainment tried to pass off several otherwise-unrelated flicks, including Fugitive Girls, as a pseudo-franchise under the umbrella title of Women's Penitentiary. In this series, the film became Women's Penetentiary VIII. The series also included films by Jack Hill, Ted V. Mikel, and Jesus Franco.
In an echo of the Regal Video/Venus Flytrap debacle of the 1980s, MCM's version of Fugitive Girls removes the movie's original opening and closing credits and substitutes its own, totally fraudulent cast and crew list. According to MCM, this movie was directed by Bob Green and stars Susanne Carvalno, Laura Gemser (of the Black Emanuelle films), Sandra Currie, Anna Karen, John Stone, and William Redgrave. None of this is true. In addition to all these title changes, Fugitive Girls has undergone a lot of different edits over the years, too, and estimated running times for the movie range from 70 minutes to 90 minutes. The currently-available 85-minute cut of Fugitive Girls is supposedly the "most explicit" edition of the film on the market but is still missing 5 minutes. Angry customer reviews on Amazon suggest that the VHS version had some extra scenes, presumably more sex and nudity.

An assortment of VHS editions of the film (from left): Greek release; MCM version; Luna Video version.

Availability: The good news is that Fugitive Girls is easy to find today on DVD, at least in its truncated, 85-minute form. You can purchase the film as a standalone feature (S'more Entertainment, 2009) on a DVD which also contains a trailer, TV spots, and a production photo gallery. The film is also part of the three-disc set The Lascivious World of A.C. Stevens & Ed D. Wood, Jr. (S'more, 2008) as well as the old reliable six-disc collection, Big Box of Wood  (S'more, 2011). The Big Box edition has an introduction by Ed Wood historian Ted Newsom, a commentary track by Newsom and low-budget filmmaker David DeCoteau, and an uncut half-hour interview with Stephen C. Apostolof.

A vintage 1950s pulp magazine.
The backstory: For over 40 years, the desire of heterosexual men to see women locked up, chained, and subjugated (usually by other women) has created its own special niche in the exploitation industry: the "women in prison" (WiP) story. Always laden with sex and violence, this particular kind of entertainment arguably first appeared in the dime paperbacks and men's magazines of the 1950s, including Women in Prison, Human Detective, Detective World, Women in Crime and more. Oh, certainly, there had been depictions of incarcerated women in popular culture before this, including such 1930s films as Hold Your Man and Ladies They Talk About (both 1933), but these were relatively genteel. Hollywood kept churning out stories of imprisoned women throughout the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes setting the action in reform schools (1950's So Young, So Bad) or WWII internment camps (1944's Two Thousand Women).

Even so, the movies had yet to latch onto what made the pulp stories so popular with men: an emphasis on lurid sexuality at the expense of realism. One problem, of course, was the severity of the censorship laws. But those standards began to relax during the 1960s, paving the way for the women in prison film as we know it. It is possible, though not substantiated, that the first director to truly take advantage of the new freedoms in a women's prison setting was Spanish schlockmeister Jesus Franco, whose 99 Women (1969) featured recognizable stars such as Herbert Lom and Mercedes McCambridge as well as the nudity, violence, and elements of sado-masochism which would becomes hallmarks of the subgenre. The undisputed master in this category, though, was an American: legendary exploitation director Jack Hill, who set the pace with such '70s drive-in classics as The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and Switchblade Sisters (1975).

In other corners of the filmmaking world, the standard WiP movie mutated into a few highly specialized sub-subgenres, including Nazisploitation flicks set in German concentration camps and "jungle prison" films, usually set in South America or Southeast Asia. Steve Apostolof's buddy, Dave Friedman, was heavily into the Nazi stuff, producing such well-known examples of the form as Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1975).

Ed Wood had ample experience in this field.
As surely as smoke follows a flame, so do copycats and wannabes follow any notable success in the motion picture industry, especially when there is the promise of a quick profit on a relatively small initial investment. Stephen C. Apostolof had been making sex-drenched feature films for nearly a decade by the time he got the idea to tackle a women in prison film in 1974. The project may have appealed to him because it would allow him to escape somewhat from the "people having sex with semi-strangers in tacky motel rooms" rut he had been in for years. Apostolof always wanted legitimacy and respect in his chosen profession, and a women in prison movie would afford him the opportunity to stage more action scenes and even some car chases.

On the exploitation ladder, a women in prison movie would be at least a rung or two higher than, say, The Cocktail Hostesses or The Class Reunion. This film might play in some venues where Steve's previous flicks were not welcome. And what better collaborator for such a project than Ed Wood? Eddie had written five previous scripts for Steve and had plenty of experience with female-centric crime fiction to boot. After all, he'd written about all-girl gangs in his screenplay for the surprisingly successful The Violent Years (1956) as well as his novels Devil Girls (1967) and Hell Chicks (1968). This should be a piece of cake, especially once they learned and internalized the conventions of the subgenre. True to form, their resulting script, Fugitive Girls, contained many of the standard WiP trappings:
  • An innocent newcomer who serves as our viewpoint character.
  • A tough lesbian inmate who runs the place and has eyes for the newbie.
  • Catfights and lesbian sex scenes among the prisoners.
  • An escape attempt which results in the deaths of several characters.

Top row: Dee & Paula. Center: Kat. Bottom row: Sheila & Toni.
Specifically, the plot of Fugitive Girls centers around innocent brunette Dee (Margie Lanier), who foolishly drives her sleazy boyfriend (Joe Pepe) to a Los Angeles liquor store, not knowing that this guy intends to rob the place. In fact, Dee's boyfriend shoots the owner, pushes Dee out of the car and drives off. As various witnesses run toward the store, Dee lies prone in the parking lot. After the credits, we see that Dee has been arrested, tried, and convicted for her part in the fatal robbery and is being taken to a minimum security institution identified only as "Correctional Facilities for Women." It seems to be some kind of work camp or honor farm and (for good reason, as we'll soon see) looks more like a summer camp than anything else.

In her new home, Dee meets her four co-stars: bull-dyke ringleader Kat (Tallie Cochrane), foul-tempered Sheila (Donna Young), racist Southern belle Toni (Rene Bond), and honky-hating soul sister Paula (Jabie Abercrombie). Toni knows where some money is stashed from a previous job of hers, and Kat and the others have been planning to escape the camp, retrieve the money, and split it four ways. Sheila tells the scared, lonely Dee that Kat "runs this place," and that night Kat proves her dominance by forcing Dee to participate in lesbian sex acts against her will. The actual prison break happens very early in the movie, so the rest of the running time is devoted to what happens to the five girls while they're "on the run."

For starters, they encounter a group of hippies (including Gary Schneider, Maria Arnold, Douglas Frey, Janet Newell, and Eve Orlon), who are initially friendly but then antagonistic. They also encounter a biker gang (including Con Covert and Armando Federico), who are unfriendly right from the start. Other folks they meet along the way include: a hapless motorist (Harvey Shane) who unwisely stops to offer them a ride; a loony caretaker named Pop (Ed Wood) who tries to turn them in; and a terrified housewife (Nicole Riddell), whose husband was crippled in Vietnam. Eventually, internal tensions destroy the group. Kat is killed, while Sheila and a newly-exonerated Dee are taken into custody. That leaves arch rivals Toni and Paula, who actually do recover the money but are chased by the cops toward a gravel quarry, where the film's predictably violent conclusion plays out.

B-movie goddess Tallie Cochrane later in life.
Casting-wise, Steve Apostolof went with a mixture of old and new faces in Fugitive Girls. Two of Steve's most dependable stock players, Rene Bond and Harvey Shane, were given prominent roles once again, and returnees Douglas Frey and Con Covert were back as, respectively, a hippie and a biker. Donna Young had played a prostitute in Ed Wood's Take it Out in Trade (1970), while Maria Arnold had portrayed the crucial role of Madame Heles in Ed's Necromania (1971). Of the major players in Fugitive Girls, only Jabie Abercrombe seems to have disappeared without a trace. The rest of the actors, male and female, have exactly the kind of resumes you'd expect: about five to ten very productive years in exploitation and sexploitation films of the 1970s, then nothing else.

Many of these actors had worked together before and would work together again, suggesting that the sex film industry was remarkably insular, cloistered and close-knit. The same titles turn up again and again in their filmographies: The Dicktator, The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, Country Doc, Hot Connections, Beach Blanket Bango, etc. An astonishing number of Fugitive Girls cast members wound up in the aforementioned Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS the very next year. There, you'll find Donna Young, Nicole Riddell, Janet Newell, Eve Orlon, and Gary Schneider.

Of the actors I'd never seen before in an Apostolof film, the most intriguing was definitely Tallie Cochrane (1944-2011), a 5'3" Memphis-born spitfire who played a central role as the girl gang's tough-as-nails lesbian leader, Kat. Fugitive Girls was just one assignment in an exciting and varied career which spanned nearly twenty years. Sadly, it doesn't look like she ever worked with Steve Apostolof or Ed Wood again. Several years before her death from cancer, Tallie gave this informative and entertaining interview with Chateau Vulgaria. Here's what she had to say about this film:
They took us to a shut-down boy scout camp where we filmed that whole thing. A girl named Margie Lanier, who was new, was in that with me. She was a genuine klutz and had all of us laughing all day and all night. Steve Apostolof would try and direct us moving around the woods by telling us to "move like spaghetti." He was such a joke. We had a good time.
Ed Wood's three roles in Fugitive Girls: (from l to r) Robbery Witness #2, Sheriff, Pop.

Jackass of all trades: Ed Wood's three credits.
The other major casting news from Fugitive Girls, of course, is that Ed Wood himself plays at least three separate roles in the film, perhaps out of sheer convenience. Eddie was more involved with the making of Fugitive Girls than he had been with any of Steve Apostolof's films since Orgy of the Dead. Under his oft-used pseudonym Dick Trent, Ed was even Steve's assistant director on this one. Steve called Ed a "jackass of all trades" and gave him a variety of chores on the production. Wood-ologists will instantly recognize Eddie's voice in the pre-credits sequence as a witness to the Liquor Market robbery. (His lines sound semi-improvised: "There's no doubt she was with him! We'll call the police, but the guy in there is bleeding to death! Somebody call an ambulance!")

The real fun, though, starts at about the 40-minute mark when Eddie appears as Pop, the scatterbrained old geezer who works at an isolated, lonely airstrip with only a dog for company. Wearing denim overalls, and a red short-sleeved shirt with a strange-looking red hat to match, Wood appears disheveled and befuddled. His hair is long and stringy, he sports a wicked five-o'clock shadow, and his nose is as red and shiny as that of W.C. Fields or even Rudolph. He's bloated and out of shape, but not quite as bad as he looked in Love Feast (1969). The part is very much like the "desert rat" Harvey B. Dunn played in Crossroad Avenger (1953) as well as Al Ricketts' talkative and eccentric grease monkey from Venus Flytrap (1970). Dunn would have been ideal for the role of Pop. Unfortunately, the actor died at the age of 73 in 1968.

Wood himself is obviously having a lot of fun with the part, and the character emerges as one of the most memorable elements of the film. Happily, Eddie reemerges at about the 69-minute mark as a sheriff who takes Sheila and Dee into custody and informs Dee that her boyfriend confessed everything when he was caught, thus putting her in the clear. Here, Eddie is clean-shaven, has his unruly hair tucked up into his cowboy hat, and sports a rather snazzy pencil mustache. He's hardly the Errol Flynn lookalike who once starred in Glen or Glenda?, but he looks better here than he had in years. So involved was Eddie in this particular production that he even narrated the film's terrific, hyperbolic trailer.



The Liquor Market as it appears today. Inset: the Liquor Market in 1974.
Apart from the prologue, most of Fugitive Girls was filmed outside of Los Angeles... but not that much outside. The one behind-the scenes still I have from the production identifies the filming location as Frazier Park, an unincorporated village about 73 miles north of LA. In the Fugitive Girls commentary track, Ted Newsom surveys the terrain and says it looks like either Canyon Country or Palmdale. As Tallie Cochrane pointed out, the main filming site is very clearly an abandoned scout camp. The rather incongruous appearance of a colorfully-painted totem pole gives that away. How many correctional facilities do you know with one of those, huh? Obviously, for this movie, Steven Apostolof had access to both an airstrip and a working gravel quarry. It seems likely that he and Ed Wood wrote the script around these available filming sites.

In sharp contrast to Steve and Ed's sexploitiation films from 1972 and 1973, which relied heavily on ugly studio sets, Fugitive Girls takes place almost entirely in the open air. While this gives the film a bit more visual variety, it also presents a series of challenges. Plenty of the scenes in the script supposedly take place at night, but these sequences were clearly filmed during the daytime and then only mildly dimmed to create the illusion of darkness. As he already showed in Orgy of the Dead, Steve Apostolof was not terribly gifted at "day-for-night" filming, and as a result, Fugitive Girls is filled with visual mismatches. The close-up nighttime driving shots were done through a technique jokingly known as "the poor man's process," A stationary car would be placed in front of a black backdrop and then gently rocked back and forth by stagehands to simulate movement, while spotlights or even flashlights would represent the oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, Steve would intercut such shots with real driving footage, creating the odd sensation that his characters were constantly fluctuating between twilight and pitch blackness.

There are, however, some genuine shots of Los Angeles at night during the opening sequence. We get some more of Steve's customary footage of the Sunset Strip, including a glimpse of the long-gone Sunset Apartments (8440 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90069), current site of a hotel called Mondrian and a hip nightspot called Skybar. The pivotal liquor store robbery was filmed at the still-existent Liquor Market at the corner of Magnolia and Cahuenga. Ted Newsom swears the place hasn't changed much in forty years. If you're doing a tour of "Ed Wood's Los Angeles," don't skip it!

Innocent, naive Dee in bed with her lover.
The viewing experience: Surprisingly satisfying, involving, and even a bit suspenseful. The Class Reunion, The Cocktail Hostesses, The Snow Bunnies, and Drop Out Wife were starting to blur together in my mind. Take away each film's particular gimmick (e.g. the skiing in The Snow Bunnies), and they're basically indistinguishable. After those four movies, I wanted a change of pace, and Fugitive Girls certainly provided that.. but not immediately. The movie begins with a sequence that's straight out of one of those other films. The first shot is of a neon sign whose only visible letters spell out "__dge Motel." (Presumably that first word was "lodge.") Then it's yet another first-blurry-then-clear shot of some truly nauseating motel drapes, accompanied by generic Muzak on the soundtrack. The camera pans down to show some discarded clothes as well as a carpet which looks like it was made from Oscar the Grouch. Pan over to the hideous orange-and-gold bedspread and at last we find our lovers, in flagrante delicto. Their post-coital conversation is worth noting, however, as it is here that Ed Wood establishes the innocence and utter naivete of the heroine, Dee. Moreover, this bit of dialogue contains at least two of Ed Wood's all-time most frequent obsessions: alcohol and "soft" things.
(Dee's boyfriend takes a drink of scotch from a glass and sets it down on an end table.) 
BF: (cuddling up to Dee) You ain't got any more booze, huh? 
Dee: (shakes her head) No. It's only a couple of blocks to the liquor store. You want me to get some? 
BF: (laughs) We'll both go, Dee. I got my own special liquor store across town. Besides, we don't have to lay out any cash. I can sign for it. 
Dee: I've got some money! 
BF: (laughs) How much now? Five? Ten? 
Dee: (shakes her head) Twenty. 
BF: (laughs) We'll do it my way. (He kisses her.) You know, it's been more than a month. How come you suddenly decided to put out for me? 
Dee: I love you. 
BF: (kisses her) Let's get out of here. Get the booze, some fresh air, then get back here. You got soft skin. I like it. 
Dee: Everything about me is soft. Haven't you noticed? 
BF: (kisses her) Let's go.
I'd like to point out here that Dee only has sex with men she truly loves. In an Apostolof film, that practically makes her a nun! Furthermore, she telegraphs her vulnerability with the line, "Everything about me is soft." This scene, of course, leads directly to the fateful robbery in which her boyfriend, the man she says she loves, utterly betrays her for a bottle of scotch and the contents of a cash register. Once again in an Ed Wood screenplay, men are constantly letting down the women who care about them. That's a crucial theme in Fugitive Girls.

As the plot progresses, we will learn more about these women and their negative relationships with men. Except for Toni, each of these female convicts went to prison because of some jerky guy. Sheila was a drug-smuggling stewardess whose male partner let her take the fall. Paula castrated (!) her pimp. Kat murdered hers... and her pimp was her husband! "His mistake, though," she says, "was that he turned me on to chicks... and I dug it!" Kat never lost her resentment for the male of the species. In a possible bit of foreshadowing on Ed Wood's part, she declares, "If I ever get laid out [i.e. killed], it's gonna be by a chick!"

Women not quite behind bars in Fugitive Girls.
After the main title sequence, which looks exactly like the opening credits from all SCA films from the era (big yellow letters superimposed over swirling colors), the movie finally gets to the women-in-prison stuff. True connoisseurs of WiP movies should be forewarned, however, that this particular entry does not really deliver the goods that they are probably expecting. Sadistic and corrupt guards, for instance, are a hallmark of this subgenre, yet I don't think we ever get a single guard in this entire movie. There are several references to "Old Hazel," a sentry who agrees to help the girls escape from prison in return for a cut of the money, but Hazel is never once even glimpsed on camera.

Similarly, everyone knows that a proper WiP movie has to contain at least one gratuitous shower scene. A few minutes into this movie, several of the girls (including Rene Bond!) are indeed summoned to the showers, but we don't go with them. Instead, we stay in the barracks as Sheila shows Dee how to make her bed. I'm not kidding. That's what actually happens in Fugitive Girls. Stephen Apostolof was obviously lacking two major elements that any director of a women-in-prison film really needs: women and a prison. What he had was exactly five actresses, some denim work shirts and blue jeans, and a defunct boy scout camp. Instead of a "women behind bars" flick, this is more like a "women behind screen doors" flick.

At least some of Ed Wood's dialogue is amusing, though I don't know why he and Steve Apostolof thought it was a great idea to have native Californian Rene Bond play her character, Toni, as a Southerner who talks with a "well, hush mah mouth!" sort of accent. Perhaps it was to intensify her rivalry with black inmate Paula, as in the following scene, which also offers some further commentary on gender politics:
(Toni and Dee are hanging around the barracks, not doing much.) 
Toni: Men, men, men! Oh, what a hellhole this place is without men! 
Dee: You really dig guys, huh? 
Toni: There's somethin' else? Lemme tell ya somethin', honey. There's only two things worthwhile for a gal. That's men and money! When I get outta here, I'm gonna have both. I gotta lotta money, you know! 
Dee: No, I didn't know. 
Toni: You can bet on it! Say, why do think I'm doin' time in this sweathole for, anyway? (Kat and Paula enter, silently, in the background.) I got plenty of dough stashed from a job me and Tracy pulled. Only Tracy's dead. But now I'm the only one who knows where it is. 
Paula: Honey child, ain't no money in the world gonna make white trash no more than white trash! 
Toni: Shut your big mouth, you black bitch!
This sets up a Paula/Toni rivalry which will escalate for the rest of the movie and causes a fed-up Kat to bark, "I'm getting sick and tired of this rainbow trip, so you two just cool it!" If you're interested in turning Fugitive Girls into a drinking game, take a slug of the liquor of your choice every single time Paula says the words "white trash." You'll be good and soused by the end of the movie. By then, you'll have also experienced this tender little exchange, which only someone like Ed Wood could have written:
Paula: You'd screw a cockroach if it turned you on! 
Toni: Cockroaches are black, and I don't go black!
As I noted previously, in keeping with the conventions of WiP films, Fugitive Girls does have a scene in which a butch lesbian (Kat) forces a straight woman (Dee) to have sex with her. This part of the film is more depressing than erotic, though. Dee is lying in her cot one night, sobbing loudly, when an underwear-clad Kat gets out of her own bed and climbs into Dee's and proceeds to spoon with her and caress her.
Kat: Sounds like you could really use a friend now. 
Dee: (sobbing) I need a friend! 
Kat: I could be a pretty good friend. (She starts kissing Dee.) 
Dee: Oh, no! No! No! That's not my trip! 
Kat: You realize that you're in prison, and that is the trip! 
Dee: No! No, please! Leave me alone! (She continues to protest.) 
Kat: Cool it! All I have to do is force you! And I've got all the help I could use. (She gestures around the room to the other girls.) Now how do you want it? It's today or tomorrow or the next day. 
Dee: (sobbing hysterically) Oh, no! 
Kat: Oh, yes!
Bat (left) and Presser show off their chain skills.
Under those grim circumstances, it's probably for the best that the big escape scene happens 15 minutes into the movie. Fortunately, this leads to one of the strangest and funniest interludes in the film, namely the escaped girls' extended encounter with a group of hippies who are living in a makeshift commune/campsite in the desert. As Ted Newsom rightly points out, Steve and Ed were middle-aged men when they made Fugitive Girls (Steve was 46; Ed was 50), and neither one had any clue about American youth culture.

That explains why the hippie characters in this film are at least half a decade out of date -- not that they would have been realistic for any year. We first see them at night, when they are playing a crude approximation of folk music and dancing around a campfire. Some moronic, faux-Indian designs are painted on sheets behind them. At least two of the girls are topless (more unmotivated Apostolof-ian female nudity), and most of these characters go by dumb nicknames like Bat, Presser, Calico, and Tears. "They call her Tears because she cries an awful lot," explains Bat, who wears a horrendous mesh shirt which must leave some really weird tan lines. The hippies very generously invite the convicts to share the fire and the booze. ("Hey, prison lady," says Presser to Kat, "want some red?" She proceeds to shotgun it.)

There's some discussion of the sex situation in the hippie camp, during which Kat makes sure to point out that Dee is "taken." (Dee is nonplussed by this.) But it's too late and the girls are too tired for any hanky panky.

The next morning, relations between the fugitives and the hippies go downhill... and rapidly, too. None of the prison escapees like the "organic tea," which they just think is bad coffee. And they refer to the group's vegetarian food as "seaweed" which must have been raised in "dung." Presser steps forward to defend the tribe's cuisine in a pompous and pretentious manner: "When we eliminated ourselves from the establishment, we eliminated all of their ways. And that includes their food styles." After some more talk about organic food (the fugitives still aren't sold on the concept), the hippies say that the girls need not fear the authorities. "We know how to use these," says Presser, wielding a chain. For some reason, this sets Kat off, and she calls the hippies "a bunch of filthy freaks."

This does not go over well, as you might expect, and eventually the conversation turns to the hippies' lack of hygiene. "Don't any of you ever take baths?" inquires Dee, innocently. Bat's typically preachy response: "Water's for growin' things. It's for drinking. We shouldn't pollute it with such things as our body waste!" Then his tone grows darker, as Presser hands him the chain: "However, gentle people as we are, name calling like that can only lead to broken bones and open skulls, lady!" Kat announces that she's more than ready for a showdown, should it come to that. When she asks why these supposedly "gentle" people need to show so much muscle, Presser semi-coherently explains that all non-conformists need to be able to defend themselves.

Weirdly, among this ramping up of tension between the two groups, Bat suggests that the fugitives trade clothes with the hippie chicks so as to avoid detection. (More unmotivated Apostolof-ian nudity follows.) When Presser and Bat ogle the girls as they undress and make lewd remarks about them, Kat finally snaps. She karate chops Bat and then menaces Presser with his own chain, which she has managed to grab away from him. Presser's response to this is an Ed Wood line for the ages: "Oh, good Christ! A lesbian!" Defeated, the hippies let the fugitives leave with the clothes. But it's not much of a victory for our gals. These borrowed duds are infested with lice and are terribly itchy and uncomfortable!

Live and learn, ladies.

The girls menace unfortunate motorist Harvey Shane.
Next in the film is a semi-comical vignette involving Ed Wood's cranky old caretaker, Pop. As the scene begins, Pop receives a telephone call from the sheriff warning him about the five escaped prisoners. To this news, Pop responds (in a silly hillbilly-type voice), "Lemme tell ya somethin', Sheriff. If I see five pretty broads comin' my way at my age, you can bet I'm gonna call on you for help!" After this, a gang of grungy male bikers (whom we've never seen before) harass poor Pop at the airfield because "he services those croppers [crop dusters] but he won't service our choppers," the movie returns to its titular anti-heroines, who have decided to hijack a car since they are now only about 100 miles from where Toni says the money is stashed.

Using scantily-clad Sheila as bait, they manage to flag down a passing horny motorist. And guess who it is? Yep, it's Steve Apostolof's favorite leading man, Harvey Shane, who has no idea that he's stepped right into their trap. The girls steal Harvey's car, of course, plus his wallet and watch, then tie him up and leave him in the desert, but not before they drag him into the brushes and force him to have sex with several of them. This is, of course, a scenario imported directly from The Violent Years. ("You sure took that white boy like a sex-starved pussycat!" Paula gleefully says to Toni after the deed is done.) In later scenes, we'll see Harvey -- whose ankles and wrists have been bound together -- hopping around the desert in his boxer shorts until he's rescued by the cops. He was an awfully good sport to take this uncomfortable and degrading role for his old pal, Steve Apostolof.

Anyway, the gals take off in their stolen car (a clunky-looking brown 1968 Cadillac Coupe de Ville which likely belonged to the director) but realize to their dismay that the darned thing is out of gas. Their search for a working gas pump takes them to Pop's airfield, which in turn leads to the epic, long-anticipated meeting of Ed Wood and the fugitive girls. Eddie plays this scene with real community theater panache, turning Pop into what Bart Simpson might call a "grizzled 1890s prospector." When an impatient Kat instructs Pop to pump the gas a little faster, he responds, "Hey, young lady, this here ain't no big city gas pump!"

Unfortunately, Pop's fate is sealed when he excuses himself from their company, supposedly to use the restroom but really to phone the sheriff who had previously tipped him off about the escaped girls. This wouldn't be so bad, except that he makes this call just a few feet away from the girls in plain sight and uses perhaps the loudest rotary phone in movie history. Kat rips the phone out of the wall and brains him with it. ("I was gonna pay you cash, too!" she says, ruefully.) The last time we see Pop, he is bloody and unconscious on the ground. His ultimate fate is anyone's guess.

Are these unlucky homeowners already dead?
Newly refueled, the fugitive ladies head back out on the road. At first, they are harassed by the same bikers who were bothering Pop earlier. But after a brief rumble, the ladies are victorious. ("Men'll just never learn," says Kat.) The girls' next move is to find a farmhouse where they might locate clothes and guns. "I thought you said there wasn't going to be any killing!" says goody-two-shoes Dee. "Why don't you mind your own business?" Kat replies. Before long, they locate a promising-looking domicile and break in. This turns out to be one of the most surreal and unnerving sections of the film. They find the clothes they want (including "skimpy undies," a classic Ed Wood touch) but decide to break into the house anyway. Their home invasion reminded me of one of the Manson Family's supposed pastimes: "creepy crawling," which involved sneaking into people's houses and watching them sleep. At first, the homeowners in this movie are asleep. The lady of the house is sprawled out like a lifeless rag doll in her recliner while her husband is slumped over in his wheelchair a few feet away. As Rob Craig aptly points out in his book, Ed Wood, Mad Genius, these two people look like they might already be dead. But then the wife's eyes open wide in total terror, and she immediately wakes up her slumbering hubby, Phil. Phil almost immediately recognizes these five ladies as the escaped prisoners and threaten to call the cops.

But Kat has other ideas. She's commandeered the couple's only gun, and she wants the wife to make coffee for them! The husband reluctantly tells her to comply. ("See how your man backs down when you put him in his place?" Kat gloats.) The hubby explains to Kat that he was paralyzed by shrapnel in Vietnam. Kat, utterly without sympathy: "Tough." While Sheila leaves to supervise the coffee-making, Toni turns on the TV, "trying to find the news to see what they have to say about us." But there's nothing to be found, so Toni steers the conversation in a new direction: what is Kat going to do with Dee? Kat suggests that she'd be happy to take her on if Kat is done with her. ("Hallelujah!" exclaims Paula. "White trash is turnin' lez!" Take another drink.)

A side-by-side comparison of A Clockwork Orange and Fugitive Girls.
At this point, Toni notices that the female homeowner is "kinda cute," and the scene takes a disturbing left turn. While Sheila restrains the woman's arms behind her back, Toni rips her clothes off.  This is highly reminiscent of the "Singing in the Rain" scene from A Clockwork Orange (1971), as is the fact that the male homeowner, Phil, is in a wheelchair with a blanket on his lap. Ted Newsom scoffs at the idea that Ed Wood could have been referencing the Kubrick film, but it's well within the realm of possibility. Clockwork was not some obscure art film, let's remember. It was a major release from Warner Bros. and the seventh-highest-grossing movie of 1972 (between Cabaret and The Last Picture Show). Heck, it even made the cover of Mad magazine! Ed and Steve would certainly have been aware of it and had very likely seen it since they both kept tabs on popular culture.

Eventually, all of the girls except Kat and Dee are taking part in the woman's sexual humiliation, as the impotent husband sits off to the side, bawling and begging them to stop: "Please! I'll do anything! Take my car! Take my money!" Kat loses her patience with the man, knocks over his wheelchair and starts kicking him. Quick-thinking Dee seizes this golden opportunity. She grabs the gun and shoots and kills Kat. (Kat's last words: "Look, you don't want to shoot me!") Dee manages to hold Sheila at gunpoint, but Toni and Paula slip away and hop into the stolen car. Sheriff Ed Wood arrives on the scene, arrests Sheila, and tells Dee that she has been cleared of all charges but that she still has to go to the police station to tell her story.

Scenes from the gravel pit.
Now, it's down to Paula and Toni, who speed towards "the old Carson shack," where the money from Toni's previous job is stashed. Toni informs Paula that she's still only entitled to a fourth of the cash. ("Damned lousy white trash!" replies Paula. Take another drink.) The ladies recover the briefcase full of cash, but the cops are hot on their tail. A car chase ensues, and it's surprisingly well-filmed and paced for a Steve Apostolof movie.  Well, uh, except for one shot in which it's obvious that the two actresses, Jabie Abercrombe and Rene Bond, are sitting in a non-moving car because we can see the scenery all around them. And you'll have to excuse the fact that Toni makes the same speech about how she and Paula have to "bury the hatchet about our personal differences" twice in the span of roughly five minutes.

For reasons I couldn't quite grasp, the two thieves ditch the Cadillac and take off on foot toward a gravel pit. Sheriff Ed Wood follows them, of course, accompanied now by a deputy. "We can't shake the pigs!" laments Paula. "There's only one way of stopping them," reasons Toni, "and that's if they find a body!" With that, she smacks her ex-partner upside the head with the briefcase full of money. And it is here, only five minutes before the end of the movie, that Fugitive Girls gives us the big catfight scene we've been waiting for since the opening credits. Eventually, this epic tussle leads our two ladies onto some kind of chute which slopes upward at a 20-degree angle. Toni manages to toss her rival over the railing, and Paula falls to her instant death.

But the cops are still very much in pursuit of our one remaining fugitive, and we get some almost artsy, backlit shots of Ed Wood and his partner walking around on  the scaffolding between the facility's giant towers. Rene frantically scampers back into the woods, where her briefcase opens and the money goes flying everywhere. (Shades of The Killing or Treasure of the Sierra Madre, perchance?) Sobbing, she tries to collect the scattered bills, but it's no use. Ed Wood's deputy has caught up with her and has a gun trained right at her head. The end. Just like a TV cop show.

All in all, Fugitive Girls stands as the highwater mark in the canon of Steve Apostolof/Ed Wood movies and may be the quote-unquote "best" of their collaborations. My sentimental favorite of the bunch, however, is still that one-of-a-kind outlier, Orgy of the Dead. It's tricky to compare the two films. Fugitive is nowhere near as thematically bizarre or visually arresting as Orgy. Like most of Steve's early 1970s films, the color palate of Fugitive is dominated by muddy earth tones, and there are no supernatural elements to the plot whatsoever. (When Dee eagerly asks one of the hippie girls to read her fortune, the pseudo-gypsy refuses: "Sabrina doesn't read!") As points in its favor, though, Fugitive is much more exciting and well-paced than Orgy, largely because it actually has a pretty "normal" plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. For non-fanatics, then, this film will probably be much easier to watch than Orgy.

And yet, even within this conventional framework, Ed Wood still manages to work in some of his trademark motifs (alcohol, crime, the switching of traditional gender roles) and gives us several memorable set-pieces (the encounter with the hippies, the home invasion) and a few of his more memorable characters (bossy bull-dyke Kat, out-to-lunch old timer Pop).

If you've seen Orgy of the Dead already and want to explore the Apostolof films a little further, this is a great place to start. Kat is a highly-quotable character, and you're likely to imitate her after the movie. She reminds me a lot of the belligerent gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell) from Ed Wood's Jail Bait, since all of her lines fall into one of three categories: barking orders, making threats, and telling other characters to shut up. Best of all, Kat is a one-woman quote factory. Some of her more memorable one-liners:
  • You repeat one word you heard in here, and I'm gonna cut your tits off!
  • It won't hurt, unless you make it hard for yourself!
  • Any of you go to sleep, and you're gonna get my knee in the tender part of your thigh!
  • (to the wheelchair-bound Phil) What are you gonna do, race me to the telephone?

What a charmer! There's also another great little moment when Kat takes offense to Phil referring to her and her four cronies as "sons of bitches." She immediately clubs him with his own gun and says, "That was for your lousy choice of words!" And I agree with her here. Surely, it would have been more efficient and accurate to call them simply "bitches" rather than "sons of bitches." If nothing else, this movie gives you some good, practical advice on what to do if the police are ever hunting you down with dogs. As Sheila tells us, you just sprinkle some garlic powder on the ground. That dulls their senses... and protects them from worms, too!

Thanks for that bit of life advice, Ed Wood.

Next week: Can I confess something deeply personal to you, my dear readers? If I could have lived some other kind of life, one completely different from my own current existence, I would have opted to be a golden-haired, deeply tanned, muscular California surfer dude in the 1960s. Why? Well, I guess it comes from listening to a lot of Beach Boys and Jan & Dean records and daydreaming about how great it would have been to actually live the kind of life that those groups sang about in their wonderful songs, which treated surfing as some kind of blissed-out pagan religion with no downside. You know that one ballad, "Surfer Girl?" That gets me every damned time, right from the opening lines: "Little surfer/Little one/Make my heart come all undone." Anyway, California beach culture is a major component of 20th century America, so it's only natural that Ed Wood and Steve Apostolof would eventually heed the siren song and make their only little tribute to it. Catch you hodads back here in seven when I review The Beach Bunnies (1976).

3 comments:

  1. That is, indeed, an incredible trailer. (I wouldn't be surprised if it made its way onto one of those 42nd Street Forever compilations.) I think my favorite part is the moment where the fey Flower Child cries out, "Good Christ, a lesbian!"

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    1. Yep, that's the big confrontation between Kat and Presser. No wonder Kat totally kicks his ass. Lousy hippie.

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  2. I just stumbled onto this blog, and have thoroughly had my mind blown.

    I'm a huge fan of Ed Wood, and love Fugitive Girls, so I checked out this article immediately. I was shocked to see the mention of Frazier Park, the town I grew up in. And even more shocked by the mention of an abandoned boy scout camp, since it was a bit of a right of passage to trespass into said camp during my teenage years. In fact, myself and my buddies have shot some of our own movies there. It could be the same camp, but to say it's in a state of disrepair at present time would be quite a compliment, which hopefully excuses the fact that I didn't recognize it.

    I've also bought a 40 or two at that liquor store at Cahuenga/Magnolia, but that's less shocking.

    Do you still have that behind the scenes still you mentioned? I'd love to try to track down the location.

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