Video Fix #26: Extraordinary Women (and Where to Find Them)

Video Fix #26: Extraordinary Women (and Where to Find Them)

This time out, we’re celebrating women – of all different stripes. So check out these recent DVD and Blu-ray releases and bask in the glory of some truly dangerous female leads.

Singer and artist Wendy O. Williams was truly an original. And her band The Plasmatics was like nothing ever seen before. Dubbed punk for their breakneck songs, the destructive stage antics of Williams and the fact that guitarist Ritchie Stotts sported a blue Mohawk, the band actually had many sides to it. Co-founder and manager Rod Swenson had been a conceptual artist who had worked with New York bands and artists like The Ramones, Patti Smith, and set about with Williams to create something different in the seedy NYC scene. Enter The Plasmatics. The band would play its first shows in 1978, go on to practically instant acclaim, make five studio albums, and serve as the launch pad for Williams’ solo career under the moniker “WOW.”

What also set the band apart was its willingness to break out of the pretensions of fabled art scene with a sound and style that also encompassed heavy metal and even a bit of pop at times. In fact, bass player and fellow Mohawk-maven Jean Beauvoir would later have a healthy career as a pop rock songwriter and producer throughout the ’80s. The Plasmatics’ mastery of big hooks, coupled with its guttural punk-rock execution made it a musical standout, while its stage shows—replete with exploding cars, chainsaws, smashed video screens and other assorted goodies—would influence the likes of future shock-meisters GWAR and grab attention from theatrical heavies KISS, who would take the band on tour. (Speaking of shock vets, The Plasmatics would also employ original Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith on its second album, Beyond the Valley of 1984.)

Ultimately, The Plasmatics would fall prey to not only internal issues—accounting for its ever-shifting lineup—as well as “too much, too soon” syndrome, like so many other innovators do, and call it a day during the latter part of the ’80s. And sadly, Wendy O. would commit suicide in 1998.

The band’s legacy now lives on further with Plasmatics – Live! Rod Swenson’s Lost Tapes 1978-81, a collection of live vignettes and footage unearthed from Swenson’s personal things. A number of great bits were discovered, like some very early CBGB footage from the band’s earliest days, along with other gems from the band’s prime years during the early ’80s. Despite some of the source material being a little raw, the energy and purity of these early bits is a worthwhile addition to any collection. (MVD)

While Wendy O. may have been punk’s female poster child for a spell, the actor “Divine” pre-dated the singer by several years, and would most definitely qualify for an early royalty slot. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, the heavyweight cross-dresser made several over-the-top indie films with John Waters during the ’70s and ’80s, and became a cultural icon in certain sets.

After a few underground pieces like Roman Candles, Waters started making features with Divine and an ensemble cast of deviants, who would regularly appear alongside the actor. Two of the top picks have recently been reissued via the Warner Archive Collection. Pink Flamingos (1972) is arguably Divine’s most memorable—and infamous—film. Sporting the tagline, “An exercise in poor taste,” the film features Divine as an ultra-trashy criminal living in a trailer with her mother and son. Divine’s character Babs Johnson is filthy and sadistic with no regard for anything. This would even extend to food—the film features an absolutely disgusting scene that shows the actor eating a fresh piece of real dog shite. Yes, really. Aside from that, the film hits on cannibalism, gluttony, incest and other niceties.

Desperate Living (1977) has also been lovingly reissued and features Divine cohorts Mink Stole and Edith Massey as protagonist and antagonist in this odyssey of absurdity. Divine was prohibited from making the film due to other commitments and this would turn out to be the only film Waters would make without the actor before his death in 1988. While it lacks some of the trashy panache of the Divine films, it’s certainly not without its low points, which should be a feast for fans.

As one of Italy’s top-shelf horror directors, Dario Argento has made loads of films over the past few decades, some of which—Deep Red, Suspiria and others—rank right up there in my personal horror faves. A pioneer of the Giallo genre (sex-laced murder mysteries), Argento is still around and as of a few years ago, was still cranking out films. Recently, his 1970 directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has hit Blu-ray via a massive, deluxe expanded edition from the incomparable Arrow Films, and it’s a beauty. Witnessing a gruesome murder, an American writer living in Rome experiences a whirlwind of mental and physical terror as he tries to figure out what the hell happened. While I don’t want to give too much away, the film is dominated by a strong female presence that adds a certain sheen to Argento’s already colorful visuals. This amazing set also includes a 60-page book and loads of extras.

American Fable stars Peyton Kennedy as the eleven-year-old Gitty in this wispy, offbeat jaunt. It’s the 1980s and American farms have hit a downturn. As Gitty’s farmer father struggles to maintain, the young lady exists in a bit of her own dream-like fairytale until she makes a somewhat shocking discovery that shifts the course of the film. A bit slow in spots on the narrative side, the film does benefit from its off-kilter atmospherics and stellar acting by Kennedy. (IFC Midnight)

As a horror title, The Mephisto Waltz lends itself to so many possibilities. But, this 1971 Satanic thriller falls pretty flat on many levels, starting with lead actor Alan Alda, who is less than convincing as a young journalist set to interview a genius older musician during his last days. The actor was perfect as a wise-ass surgeon in M.A.S.H. some years later, but in a horror film with designs on being the next Rosemary’s Baby, he’s a bit of a sad sack. The true star and heroine of this film is a young and dishy Jacqueline Bisset, the wife of Alda’s character who steals the show and other things in this syrupy melodrama, where bodies and souls intertwine in a slightly clever twist. This lost ’70s flick has now found new life, courtesy of Kino Video, and it looks great in hi-def, even if it’s pales next to some of the other occult goodies of the time.

Sometimes you just wanna sit back and not have to think too much. For situations like these, serial TV often presents the perfect solution. Supergirl, Season 2 fits the bill perfectly and has some strong special effects and narrative spins. Melissa Benoist’s girl-next-door charm adds a bit of vintage flair to the proceedings and this second season packs a few clever twists as well as a svelte female villain in the form of Lena Luthor. (Warner Bros.)

For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, Kaz

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