Saturday, March 12, 2011

How to Ruin Perfectly Good Trash - Case Study: Trip with the Teacher

So maybe I’m not too well-versed in 1970s exploitation flicks, but my latest viewing experience had me running the gamut of emotions from pure, soaring, trash cinema love to utter shock and nauseated disgust.  Pretty powerful stuff, no?  But then, no, it really wasn’t.  It was a trifle of a film, stupid and pointless, and executed by clueless incompetents. At the same time, there’s a real darkness behind the movie’s dopey exterior which was supremely unsettling and made for one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve had in a long time.
The film in question is “Trip with the Teacher,” from 1975.  I watched it first thing in the morning--not the optimal time for horror viewing, but you get your kid-free hours where you can. Because I knew the kids could be awake and making a servant of me at any minute, I opted not to watch a movie I’m seriously eager to see, but instead thought I’d go with something cheesy and fun. Last Christmas my sister gave me the “Gorehouse Greats” collection, and of the twelve titles, this one intrigued me. So I popped it in.

For about half the run time, it was everything I could have hoped for and more.  From the moment the title music began, I was in bad movie heaven. The score is worse than 70’s porno bad. I was laughing aloud before the production company’s logo appeared.  And bonus, we get to groove to the soundtrack while watching endless long shots of a short bus moving through the landscape.
Eventually, the director treats us to a peek inside the bus and we meet the titular teacher and the four girls she is chaperoning.  The teacher reads a droning history lesson while three of the girls stare out the windows and the other nods emphatically, hanging on the teacher’s every word.  That, my friends, is character development—see, she’s the studious, teacher’s pet type. The dialogue on the bus is so impossibly bland that you can’t not laugh. Here’s a small sample:
Studious Girl: “Are there any Indians still living there?”
Teacher: “Why of course.”
Studious Girl: (enthusiastically) “Wow, then we’ll get to see them, won’t we?”
Teacher: “We sure will.”
Studious Girl: “Won’t that be interesting?”

Rebellious Girl: (sarcastically) “Yeah.”
But it gets way better.  Next we meet the biker brothers who are the film’s villains.

Hippie Brother to Gas Station Attendant:
"What do you do out here when you get horny, old man? Or don't you get horny?"
Hippie Brother has blown a tire, and Psycho Brother cannot be bothered to do anything but plop down by the roadside and look menacing.  As luck would have it, Nice Biker shows up with a patch kit and a hand pump.  He fixes Hippie Brother’s tire and invites himself along for the ride. While a lesser director would probably just cut to the next scene at this point, Burt Whatshisass knows that audiences aren’t that smart.  They’ll get confused if you just jump to a shot of the three guys riding, so he kindly shows us how they got on the road.  In fact, he shows us how they very, very slowly mount their bikes, kickstart them, wait for Nice Biker to fasten his safety helmet, and carefully take off down the road.  I shit you not, the one shot lasts for 55 excruciating yet hilarious seconds until all three riders have disappeared around a distant bend, and then lingers a few seconds more on the empty road. It’s as if the director couldn’t stand the thought of a single frame of his precious film touching the cold, dirty cutting room floor. It becomes kind of a running (unintentional) joke that every time the bikers depart or arrive, we have to sit through the entire process of them mounting, starting, and taking off, or slowing, stopping, and dismounting, usually very slowly.

Nice Biker shows some teeth!
Eventually, the bus breaks down, and the girls get a chance to stretch their legs and have an uncensored conversation away from their chaperone. The dialogue is great as always, with the girls talking sex in the tamest, most euphemistic of language.  The Rebellious Girl is, of course, the sexually experienced one, and she teases the Virginal Girl, who calls her a bitch, and they come to blows.  As if I didn’t love this movie already.
At this point in the movie, the Psycho Brother has already killed a feisty old gas station attendant (who is hands-down the coolest character in the movie) by dropping a jacked-up car on him.  The death is tame and in no way gory, and the act is preceded by the same goofy music that the movie opens with.  It is supposed to be the “suspenseful” music, but is just goofy and makes the scene laughable.  So let’s take a moment to recap: we’ve got this terrible “Gee-whiz!” dialogue, a reluctance among the girls to talk about sex directly, and a murder scene that is about as disturbing as The Care Bears Movie.  This set up a false expectation that the film was going to go on being a tame, somewhat innocent proto-slasher. But it is the very goofiness and innocence that makes the transition so jarring when things start to get ugly. 

Psycho Brother gives a genuinely creepy performance.
As the film continues, the bikers pull the short bus out into the middle of nowhere on the pretext of helping out, then trap the girls in an abandoned old house. Given the premise of the movie, a sexual assault scene was expected. What I didn’t expect was that it could change the tone of the movie so abruptly that it could shock even a jaded horror-nerd like me. The scene isn’t super-explicit, and it cuts before the actual rape begins, but the viciousness with which the Psycho Brother attacks and rips the teacher’s clothes from her body felt way too real. I was convinced that this dude was not acting, and the director just found some crazy rapist motherfucker to turn loose of the set.  And the reaction of the teacher, whose performance had previously been wooden, was equally real.  The fear on her face during the scene, and her looks of hatred afterward, seemed just too genuine, especially after half a film’s worth of sub-amateur acting.

The aftermath of rape. This movie isn't fun anymore.
After the rape scene, I felt genuine dread for whichever poor girl they decided to put in a room with that psycho next. Thankfully, only one other of the girls had to be subjected to his “acting.” The Studious Girl gets it next, and again Psycho Brother tears her clothes off viciously, but rather than raping her, he suffocates her by pushing her head into the sand.  I swear you can see the actress take a lungful of sand and choke.  And again, the scene feels way too real.  I felt genuinely sorry and scared for this poor actress who looks to be having the low point of her career.
So there I was, angry because I’d been robbed of the right to have “discovered” a new holy grail of fun, cheesy B-movies, shocked and disgusted at what I’d just witnessed, and then the filmmakers pull off their final coup – A huge insult placed like the cherry on top of a steaming manure-heap of cinematic injury.  The Nice Biker had previously been driven off a cliff, but in a misogynistic twist that puts the assault scenes to shame, he returns in the final act to rescue the girls because, you know, no way four healthy girls could possibly fight off a pair of leather-clad bikers, let alone muster the brain power to attempt an escape.  But it gets worse.  After the rescue, our hero bids the girls a fond adieu and rides off into the sunset, and the film closes with the teacher actually fucking smiling, like she’s just pleased as punch that she only lost a quarter of the girls.  This woman has been brutalized, and you’d think her students would have to take on the role of protector in the end.  But no, the status quo is maintained and the Teacher’s brutal rape was but a minor bump in the road back to normal.
So, here I am, disturbed and angry with the film, but thinking I’ve got it all figured out, then came the final twist.  I had missed the Psycho Brother’s name in the opening credits, so by the end I was waiting for his name to reappear so I could google him and find out that he went on to a couple of minor genre roles before being jailed as a serial rapist.  But then his name came up: Zalman King.  That Zalman King? The erotica director Zalman King?  Sure as shit yes, it was him, which either means that Zalman King really is a batshit crazy bastard, or that it was a masterful piece of acting that stands out primarily because the rest of the cast sucked so hard.  Which is to say, I don’t quite know what to make of all this.  I had believed while watching Trip with the Teacher, that I had come across silly movie that became unintentionally disturbing when a particularly ugly bit of truth shone through the terrible performances.  However, if I gave the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and believed that they were masterfully manipulating my emotions and expectations to provide the maximum impact of the violence, then this film would be some strange species of masterpiece.
But I don’t give them that benefit. Too much of the film is an amateurish mess for me to believe that the director could have pulled off a mindfuck like that.  As it is, the early promise of the film as a true trash classic devolved into an ugly, brutal, offensive movie that I couldn’t recommend to anyone.
Oh, and by the way, this post contained spoilers.

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