Thursday, 18 December 2014

DRUM - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Delectably vile MANDINGO sequel on Kino Lorber BRD

"Papa? You put Drum with Elvira.
She's a purty l'il wench and everybody says she's in heat."


As a young adult in the 80s, I first saw Drum on a grand double bill with Mandingo at the Epic Theatre, an old and beloved childhood haunt.

When I was a kid in the 60s, the Epic (back then it was called the Colonial) was a mouldy grind house perched proudly upon the rubby-dub stretch of Winnipeg's Main Street Strip twixt a benign Woolworth's and a fleet of hooker hotels replete with wood-floored beer parlours absorbing decades of piss and sputum. The cinema stood next to a pair of equally foul grind houses, the Regent and the Starland.

The latter sadly became a clothing store soon after first discovering these glorious homes away from home. No matter, though. I still had two sleaze-pits to choose from.


Sometime between the age of 7 and 8, I started to haunt these hallowed joints of non-stop motion picture entertainment. This was, of course, unbeknownst to my too-trusting Mom who made me promise that I'd never go to any of them. "Filthy!" she'd proclaim, her lips pursed in disgust. "They're full of dirty, dirty, filthy men and they want to touch your dinky."Mom's dinky-fondling radar wasn't too far off, only it wasn't my dinky anyone was interested in. The dirty, filthy men had their own dinkies to think about. You see, as the fetid aroma of cum and urine danced about my olfactory regions, I'd happily sit on tattered seats, the soles of my Oxfords adhering to the sticky floors whilst tell-tale slurping echoed throughout the auditorium, competing with the loudly-cranked front-speaker mono sound as malcontent, alcoholic veterans of the Great Wars were vigorously fellated by toothless glue-sniffing hookers. 

This was all an added bonus to eye-balling triple bills for 35 cents in cinemas that admitted anyone, regardless of any restrictions placed on the product by Manitoba's Film Classification Board. I wallowed like a piglet in slop as Hammer horrors, biker flicks, Roger Corman extravaganzas and other forbidden delights unspooled. Occasionally there'd be Randolph Scott westerns, Gordon Scott Tarzan pictures and for some reason, The Big Trees, a 1952 timber man vs. Quakers melodrama starring Kirk Douglas and Edgar Buchanan was slipped in every month.

DRUM is now on
Kino Lorber
Don't you know?
By the 1980s, all my favourite grindhouses closed, but the Colonial, now newly-christened as the Epic remained the sole purveyor of cinematic sleaze in Winnipeg. Alternating between standard exploitation fare Friday to Monday and soft-core porn Tuesday to Thursday, I was still a piglet in slop, albeit a trifle more porcine than in those halcyon days of innocence.

Because I'd missed Drum on its first release, I was thrilled to be seeing it on a double bill, advertised in a one-column-inch newspaper ad with the oh-so enticing tag that proclaimed:

“And now . . . the BARE NAKED Roots”. 

Accompanied by two esteemed members of the Faculty of English and Film at the University of Manitoba, Professors Stephen Snyder and George Toles (writer of Guy Maddin films like Archangel, Careful, and The Saddest Music in the World), little did we know that our lives would irrevocably change forever. This, you see, was truly an epochal event for all three of us in all our collective years of seeing movies, both separately and together.

It would, dare I say, bind us forever like Siamese Triplets in a Royal American Amusements travelling freak show. Mandingo was amazing enough, but Drum allowed us to reach some stratospheric pinnacle of raucous delight that will never be paralleled.

Seeing Drum on the recently released Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray brought it all back to me. As we-three sat in that rank pit of putrescence, a grind house that would have allowed the late, great film critic Manny Farber to feel like he'd died and gone to Heaven, it was indeed Drum which inspired an indeterminate number of blood vessels to burst and veins to pop open with geysers of lifeblood.

Mainly because of the brilliant performance of star Warren Oates (though Yaphet Kotto and John Colicos proved to be no slouches), it was essentially a coin toss to determine what was louder in the cinema that day, so very, very long ago. Was it our seemingly non-stop cacophonous shrieks, snorts, spittle-spraying guffaws or the wet-vac slurps from toothless hookers fellating old men? Good gum jobs, I guess, never die, so long as a prestigious venue stands erect to allow them their place in the world and visionaries like Kino Lorber to keep our memories so vitally alive with BRDs of movies like Drum.

"What a splendid animal he'd be,
stripped down and naked."
John Colicos (right) as Bernard DeMarigny
has eyes for Ken Norton (left) as Drum
Drum (1976)
Dir. Steve Carver
Starring: Warren Oates, Ken Norton, Isela Vega, Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, John Colicos, Fiona Lewis, Lillian Hayman, Royal Dano, Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith, Paula Kelly, Brenda Sykes
Review By Greg Klymkiw

Drum is pure melodramatic B-movie magic on an A-level budget, courtesy of über-producer Dino DeLaurentiis.

Crisply directed by Roger Corman protégé Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama, Capone) and starring the incomparable Warren Oates, taking over the Hammond Maxwell role Perry King played so stalwartly in Mandingo, Drum was a movie so reviled that its original studio Paramount, backed off from generating a sequel to one of their biggest box-office hits of the 70s. DeLaurentiis simply set the film up elsewhere, but once the film was complete, its new studio United Artists was so embarrassed with the results, they almost didn't release the film.

Drum is certainly no Mandingo, a genuinely great film by ace director Richard Fleischer, but while its aim is not as high as its predecessor, it's still one strange, subversive, alternately entertaining and repellent motion picture. Though straight-up genre director Carver seems out of his depth with the layered, crazed and snappily written screenplay by Norman Wexler, it is the writing which holds up remarkably well. Carver handles the action with taut, yeoman efficiency and much of the film's cast handle themselves superbly - notably the aforementioned Oates, a completely psychotic John Colicos as a flamboyantly mincing promoter of Mandingo no-holds-barred fisticuffs, the sexy and passionate Isela Vega as the Madame of an upscale New Orleans whorehouse (reunited here with her Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia co-star Oates), the late legendary Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (Lemora, Caged Heat Joan Jett's real-life drummer) as Hammond's precocious, promiscuous daughter, Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) as the ultra-sexy bed wench and the wonderful character actor Royal Dano as a vicious slave trader. Happily, Lillian Hayman returns from Mandingo as "house Mammy" Lucretia Borgia, or as Hammond describes her via Warren Oates's pride-infused line:

"When I was a l'il sucker, I gots my titty milk from her".

Master Hammond (Warren Oates)
admires his new bed-wench Regine (Pam Grier).
Less successful is the gorgeous Ken Norton. His line readings are generally competent at best, but he certainly handles the muscular aspects of the role (both the violence and the sex) with the requisite stoicism and glistening pectoral flexing. Norton, in fact, returns to this sequel as a completely different character altogether since Mede, his Mandingo role, saw him pitchforked into a huge vat of boiling, burbling and decidedly scalding hot water.

Here, Norton plays the title character Drum, a young slave whose biological (and white) mother Mariana (Vega) has had her black lesbian lover Rachel (Paula Kelly) raise the lad as her own son. When Drum takes a swing in anger at gay aristocrat Bernard DeMarigny (Colicos), he asks for a bit more than raising the ire of this foppish French-accented sodomite, DeMarigny is first insulted when Drum refuses his advances, then tries to castrate our hero in retaliation and finally murders Drum's "mother", the lesbian lover of brothel keeper Mariana (in case you've forgotten). Drum might be justified in pounding DeMarigny, but being a slave he has no rights at all and is most definitely not allowed to wallop a White Man.

Drum is sold for his own safety by his biological Momma to Hammond Maxwell. Mom Mariana is sorry to see Drum go. In spite of being a lesbian, she also has a taste for the dark fellas and her son - I kid you not - is the spitting image of the African Prince who impregnated her and she's been mulling over a tumble with the lad. It's a good thing Drum's sequestered to the mighty Falconhurst plantation since he'll avoid castration, then death and a tumble (or several) in the sack with his biological mother (though he doesn't know she is his biological Mom). Later in the film, Mariana even does get a chance to salivate over her son's brawn and makes a healthy move in the direction of potentially copulating with him.

If any of this is sounding even a trifle insane, don't worry. It is.

Blaise and Drum fight to the death
At Falconhurst, Drum rises to power by being a loyal and trusted slave. He even makes friends with Blaise (Yaphet Kotto), DeMarigny's former "fighting nigger" who was saved from castration after losing to Drum in the whorehouse fighting pit and is now safely ensconced on Hammond Maxwell's palatial estate.

This squalid slave-breeding plantation, introduced to us in Mandingo, continues to be as full of fornicatin', sucker poppin' and whuppin' as it ever was.

In fact, we're all the better for Warren Oates playing Hammond since he's a lot more rugged, manly and delectably salacious than pretty boy Perry King could have hoped to be at this point in the character's life. Hammond Maxwell, as first portrayed in Mandingo revealed considerable duality in terms of the slave trade. With a more mature Oates in the role, we do eventually get to see this side of the character, but also within the context of two decades passing since the events of that film. Hammond was a product of his time, culture and upbringing in Mandingo, but Oates seems to naturally build on his conflicted feelings.

Now in middle-age, Hammond is courting Augusta Chauvet (Fiona Lewis), a fallen woman in need of a husband. Hammond himself is in the market for a wife to tend to his wayward daughter Sophie and run the more ladylike aspects of the estate. At this point in his life, he would have preferred to marry a whore, citing their practicality and loyalty being more to his liking. He's happy enough, though, with an indiscrete Southern belle. "She ain't exactly a Ho' but she sho' ain't a lady neither," observes our hero who also admits to having survived two wives since Mandingo. Those of us who know that film intimately will see through this, but even without seeing it, Oates manages to convey that he's a man with plenty of secrets. The fact of the matter is that Hammond actually had three wives. Being a paragon of discretion, he coyly doesn't mention his first wife. After all, he poisoned her to death with a laced hot toddy after she gave birth to a black baby (whom he also murdered).

Ah, it's a tough life being a plantation owner.

Always emitting tastily grotesque dialogue with a completely straight face (but with ornery Oates-ian relish) he manages to sicken us with such aplomb so that every time Hammond opens his mouth and drops a demented gem from screenwriter Norman Wexler's brilliantly absurdist adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kyle Onstott, it's often impossible to not let loose a huge series of belly laughs. Such, though, is the genius of Oates as an actor that his rendering of the plantation owner does not descend into pure camp (though much of the film does and certainly a few of the actors do). He plays the nutty lines with a straight face and as such, they're so much the funnier and sickening in one fell swoop. As well, Oates brings the weight of his own world-weariness and (relative) maturity to the character's feelings about his slaves.

Perhaps because Oates clearly relishes the role, he owns it in ways that suggest he's perfectly aware of its alternately satirical and human dimensions. He even plays with the black comedy in daring, dangerous ways. When he first complains to his newly acquired Mandingo "house nigger" and "prime breeding stud" Drum (Norton) that he doesn't speak "nigger-ish" enough, it's within the context of rudely taking a leak in front of some woman-folk. The scene is funny as hell, but also funny in that, "What the fuck did I just laugh at?" sense of incredulousness one has at one's own reaction. As well, Oates manages to handle the ignorance in ways that also betray Hammond's inner conflict. "You do have some human blood in you. You ain't all nigger," he says to Drum. Then, with a hint of both shame and sadness, Oates skilfully renders a capper-of-a-line when Hammond says, "That's probably why you're gonna hate me sometimes, but that's all right. That's just the human part of you coming out."

When Hammond repeats his "you don't talk nigger-ish enough" concern later on, it occurs during a moment when Hammond is in anything but a jovial mood. Oates calibrates his delivery with sheer malevolence. He essentially embodies the role with a sartorial splendour which veers from good-natured good old boy to a mean, ignorant, vicious slave owner. As well in this scene, Hammond chastises Drum for calling him "Mister" instead of "Master". Drum's response here is cheeky and hilarious. Oates has a rip-snorting time with his joyfully incredulous response to this. "That be a joke," he exclaims. "I ain't never heard a joke from a nigger before." This is a "first" that clearly pleases Hammond. Most slave-owners would respond as if they'd been insulted, but Hammond is a whole different kettle of fish, especially as Oates plays him.

The genuine conflict within Hammond about what it means to treat human beings as slaves is ever-present. During one "whuppin'" sequence, Hammond orders 30 blows. Oates clearly conveys that Hammond is doing what his culture tells him he must do, but he's unable to carry out the deed, entrusting it to someone else and even more astonishingly, he flinches with every paddle-blow to the slave's naked buttocks. Well before all the blows are meted out, Hammond breaks down and declares, with a big whopping lie that he's counted out the full allotment, forcing the punishment to end long before it's supposed to.

This and other moments which clearly contrast Hammond's otherwise appalling treatment of his slaves are played by Oates with such truth that it's impossible to ascribe villainous properties to his character. Given the melodramatic nature of the film, his performance is always straight-up. Not only are we blessed with seeing great work from one of America's most astonishing actors, but it's also one of the reasons that one cannot outright dismiss Drum as pure exploitation, no matter how vile, over-the-top and, yes, insane the picture gets.

The biggest problem for Hammond is Sophie (Smith), his slattern teenage daughter who favours being serviced by her Daddy’s Mandingo slaves behind his back. When the young men do not submit to her carnal desires, she gets her revenge by lying to her pappy about indiscretions having been performed upon her. At one point she accuses Blais of "fiddlin'" with her. She explains how he tricked her into playing a game in which he tells her to close her eyes, hold out her hands and await a surprise treat. In mock-horror, she weeps, "There, there in my hands, Papa, was his . . . THANG!"

Massah Hammond needs his whores like a
babe-in-arms needs its Mother's Milk.
He urgently queries his wife-to-be:
"You ain't gonna start messin' round
with my poon-tang, is you?"
I defy anyone to not bust a gut over that one. It's funny and sickening, especially since we know what must happen next. A few scenes earlier, Miss Augusta professes displeasure over all the talk about fornication. Hammond reminds her: "You just gotta get used to the idea that nigger-fornicatin' is what Falconhurst is all about. If my niggers stop fornicatin' then we stop eatin'". He also informs his wife-to-be that he wants his slaves, "bucks" and "wenches", to "git out and gits to humpin'". He then offers this dire warning: "These are strong boys. Their sap is rising. If I don't give them wenches to fornicate with, they're gonna be after the white ladies and then I gotta castrate em."

By any means necessary
Alas, Blaise has repelled all of Sophie's advances, but the utter horrors of this world of subjugation are such that he will not be believed. He will be castrated and sold to the meanest slave trader in Louisiana. This, in addition to an ever-mounting whirlwind of inhumanity will eventually lead to a violent climactic slave revolt.

It's enough to recall the tagline of another famous movie from the 70s:

"Who will survive and what will be left of them?"

Believe me, this truly is one insane movie. No matter how much you hate Drum or love it, you'll know for damn sure that you'll have never seen anything like it.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

Drum is available on Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray. It's been lovingly, garishly transferred from a perfectly fine, grainy source print. It's also blessed with a detailed commentary track from director Steve Carver who lends considerable insight into the utter insanity of making the film. Canadians can get easy access to Kino-Lorber titles via VSC, Video Services Corp.