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TCM Underground - June 2019
Remind Me

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things

"Do you think I like wearing this birds' nest? Do you think I don't feel like an idiot running around town in these women's clothes? And I wouldn't have to wear a disguise if it wasn't for you, would I? I wouldn't have to be panicking every time a policeman passed."
Abe Zwick in Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)

If you can imagine Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) made with no budget, with Martha as a drag queen who murders the guests, then you'll get a sense of how delirious this 1971 exploitation film is. One of the strangest movies ever made, it has built a small cult following over the years. Its faithful fans have hailed it as a pungent satire of gender roles, family relations and the waning counter culture. With its strange combination of implied homosexuality, cross-dressing, drug abuse and violence, the only thing keeping it from rising to the ranks of such cult classics as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Pink Flamingos (1972) is the difficulty of finding it.

On the run from a murder charge, Baltimore jewel thieves Paul (Abe Zwick) and Stanley (Wayne Crawford, billed as Scott Lawrence), have run off to Miami, where Paul pretends to be Stanley's older aunt, Martha. They have to dodge the attentions of a friendly neighbor (Yanka Mann), but the real trouble begins when Stanley starts picking up girls and bringing them home, which drives Paul into a homicidal rage. Things get even weirder when an old accomplice, the junkie thief Hubert (Don Craig), somehow tracks them to Miami and decides to move in.

The film hints that Paul and Stanley are more than just criminal accomplices. Paul's jealous rages whenever Stanley brings a woman home are just one suggestion that the relationship goes deeper. Stanley has his own sexual issues. When one woman gets too aggressive, he curls up in a fetal position and starts calling for his Aunt Martha. After Hubert moves in, he takes Stanley's room and the two share a bed without batting an eye. Stanley even jokes that something may be happening. After an argument, they make up and Paul puts his arm around Stanley's shoulder as they walk back to the house. It's little wonder their arguments sometimes play out like lovers' quarrels.

In the '60s and '70s, Florida became a haven for exploitation filmmakers because of its year-round sunshine, mild winters and low production costs. Cult directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, David F. Friedman and Doris Wishman did some of their most notable work there. Over time, a small community of exploitation filmmakers developed. The Florida films even have a look and feel of their own, marked by brightly lit exteriors, stock music and enthusiastic if occasionally amateurish acting.

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things fits into this movement stylistically and uses personnel in front of and behind the cameras who worked in several other local exploitation films. Crawford, who made his film debut as Stanley, wrote and appeared in such exploitation films as God's Bloody Acre (1975) and Tomcats (1977). He went on to have a long career as an actor and as producer of such films as Valley Girl (1983) and Night of the Comet (1984). Cinematographer Edmund Gibson also worked on the zombie film I Eat Your Skin (1971) and God's Bloody Acre (1975). Production manager Harry Kerwin produced and directed God's Bloody Acre. His brother William plays the lead detective on Paul and Stanley's trail and had appeared in such Herschell Gordon Lewis classics as Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964). The other detective, Brad F. Grinter, would go on to write, direct and narrate the hysterical biker horror film Blood Freak (1972). He had also directed Flesh Feast, the 1970 film that brought Veronica Lake out of retirement to play a mad scientist trying to resurrect Adolph Hitler. That film featured Mann and was written by Thomas Casey, whose sole directorial effort was Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things. Oddly, nothing is known of Zwick. Despite his strong performance, this is his only film credit.

The picture seems to have been inspired by the success of such gay-themed films as The Gay Deceivers (1969) and The Boys in the Band (1970), with bits of Psycho (1960) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) thrown in for good measure. It was shot in the Moberly Studios in Hollywood, FL, under the working title Don't Spank Baby. Some of the more violent scenes were edited out and replaced by color negatives and other attempts at psychedelic effects. McCleod Films Inc. picked up the picture along with a few other Florida-based films, but only gave it a cursory release. It took a video issue in the '80s to earn the film its cult status. In 2011, Los Angeles-based singer Corey Landis wrote a musical tribute to the film. The music video is currently available on YouTube.

Director & Screenplay: Thomas Casey
Producer: Eva Barnett, Thomas Casey
Cinematography: H. Edmund Gibson
Cast: Abe Zwick (Paul), Wayne Crawford (Stanley), Don Craig (Hubert), Robin Hughes (Vicki), Yanka Mann (Mrs. Adams), Marty Cordova (Alma), Mike Mingoia (Joe), Robert Demeo (Jerry)

By Frank Miller