• Thundercrack!

    Released by: Synapse Films
    Released on: December 8th, 2015.
    Director: Curt McDowell
    Cast: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, George Kuchar
    Year: 1975
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    The Movie:

    Directed by Curt McDowell and written by George Kuchar, 1975’s Thundercrack! has been one of those often talked about films that has been, until now, next to impossible to see in a proper version. There was a PAL DVD release out a few years back but it was, by all accounts, atrocious looking and on top of that it was heavily cut. Now, as if by some sort of act of God, Synapse films not only presents the film in its intended one hundred and sixty minute running time (ten minutes of that is an intermission) but properly restored in high definition and with a fantastic array of supplemental material to accompany the feature presentation. Truly, this is an age of miracles in which we live.

    The film begins, as many films do, on a dark and stormy night. A man named Bing (George Kuchar) drives through the storm. He doesn’t know it yet but his life will soon change when, through a series of goofy circumstances, he and some fellow travelers - Toydy (Rick Johnson), Sash (Melinda McDowell), Roo (Moira Benson), Chandler (Mookie Blodgett), Bond (Ken Scudder) – wind up seeking shelter for the night at Prairie Blossom, the decrepit mansion home of a widow named Gert Hammond (Marion Eaton). Before they arrive, however, Gert receives an unexpected visit from Willene Cassidy (Maggie Pyle). Drunk off of her ass and wanting to get presentable before taking guests, Gert does this by puking up her booze, knocking her wig into the toilet, puking on her wig then putting the wig back onto her head and scrawling crazy looking eyebrows onto her face. When she lets Willene in, she tells her she needs to clean up and have a bath and when Willene helps her with this, well, you can imagine where it goes.

    As the rest of the guests come in and get to know one another, they understandably have questions about Gert’s place. It turns out her husband is dead, but her son no longer exists. He’s not dead, he just no longer exists. Meanwhile, everyone seems to more or less have sex with everyone else – straight sex, solo sex, lesbian sex, gay sex, sex with an inflatable doll – it all happens in unflinching detail, right before your eyes and as you watch it, so too does Gert from a secret corridor from which she is able to spy through the eyeholes of a George Washington painting. And she uses a cucumber on herself as she spies. As the night goes on the guests will question their values, their morals, their faith and their own sexuality. And what’s more, Bing’s tempestuous one night stand with a ridiculously horny gorilla named Medusa will come back to haunt him in a big, big way. We also learn how Sash got a red ass during her stint in Tucson, what Chandler’s problems with girdles is really all about, why there are so many dildos scattered around the family home and the truth about Gert’s son and his non-existence.

    Far stranger than those two paragraphs can possibly make it sound, Thundercrack! is three hours (really) of cinematic debauchery and amazingly enough, even at that ridiculously bloated length it’s not at all hard to get through. The pacing is actually pretty tight and there is such a constant barrage of insanity here that, if nothing else, you won’t be bored by it. The whole thing is so overdone, from the dialogue to the exaggerated facial expressions worn by most of the cast members to the very story itself that you can’t help but get sucked into this crazy world.

    At the same time, while the film leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of its explicit content, it actually does a pretty neat job of paying homage to the traditions of the ‘old dark house’ style picture, complete with soap opera style melodrama. This is reflected in the style that the actors use to deliver their lines and it’s all over the script itself. There are monologues aplenty, many of which are just flat out insane (Bing’s explanation of how he got involved with the gorilla is priceless) while the black and white photography is actually quite effective and at times even atmospheric. A little rough around the edges, sure, but the movie has a very cool look to it.

    The performances are brash, bold and yeah, pretty sassy. Marion Eaton steals the show as the decidedly bizarre Gert while George Kuchar is excellent as Bing. The rest of the cast follow suit and everyone here gives one hundred percent. The sex is performed with a fair bit of enthusiasm but really, few will be fapping and fewer still likely fucking when they sit down with this one. It’s less of a raincoater than it is a comedic art film taken to ridiculous extremes. There are moments, however, when the eroticism is effective enough to catch your eye, though how much of that stems from the performers and their work as opposed to the fact that there’s an allure to seeing taboos busted the way there are here is definitely debatable. They really don’t make them like this anymore, Thundercrack! is one of a kind.


    Synapse presents Thundercrack! in its proper 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer taken from a restored 2k scan of the best elements available to them (the search for the original negative continues, but has so far not been successful). While there was some more severe damage to the elements used here that simply could not be completely eliminated during the restoration process, it’s safe to say that unless you caught a theatrical screening back in the seventies you’ve never seen the movie look as good as it does here. Yes, there are still some scratches and yes, there are scenes where contrast blooms and detail washes out but these are few and far between and the vast majority of the movie looks excellent, particularly when you consider the origins and history of the picture.

    The only audio option on the disc for the feature is a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in English, with optional subtitles provided in English, French, Spanish and German. The audio has always been pretty dicey on this movie, the sound quality of the original recordings just isn’t very good and there’s only so much that can be done to improve it (which is why those subtitles will come in handy). Having said that, most of the dialogue is perfectly audible here and the levels are properly balanced. Sometimes things are a bit thing and muffled but again, compared to what we’ve had before this is a pretty massive improvement.

    The main extra on the first disc is the inclusion of the feature length documentary It Came From Kuchar!, directed by Jennifer Kroot. This hour and a half long piece is a pretty fascinating look at George and Michael Kuchar and their work in the underground film scene. It not only takes a look at their films but features some great interviews with both of the brothers themselves, who speak in their own words about growing up in a strict Catholic household in The Bronx, how they wound up making films in the first place, their working methods and quite a bit more. There’s a good bit of time dedicated here to discussing Thundercrack! and George’s collaborative efforts with McDowell and some interesting bits about his work teaching film studies and his efforts as a cartoonist. Input from the like of John Waters, Wayne Wang, Bill Griffith, Atom Egoyan and quite a few others help to put all of this in context and there are scores and scores of clips (many of which star their mother!) from plenty of the Kuchar Brothers’ movies, from Sins Of The Fleshopoids to the various ‘Weather Diaries’ shorts to The Devil’s Cleavage to name only a few.

    This is a pretty comprehensive look at their collective works (their filmographies are huge) form the early 8mm shorts of their youth through to various shot on video endeavors and it’s a fascinating portrait of some truly out there filmmakers. Kroot’s film moves at a nice pace but doesn’t skimp on the kind of personal details that make a project like this work. Definitely take the time to watch this, and in fact, it’s one of those rare instances where watching it before the main attraction (that being Thundercrack! obviously) helps to give that feature some welcome context – meaning you might get more out of Thundercrack! if you watch this first.

    The first disc also includes and audio interview with the late Curt McDowell. This runs eighty-five minutes in length and it was recorded in 1972 and it plays here as an alternate audio option (reverting to the movie’s audio once it is over), sort of like a commentary track. McDowell talks about how he got his start in the art world, first as a painter and then later getting into film. He talks about the school system, getting his education, dealing with college administration and faculty, some of the people that he collaborated with and quite a bit more. He also goes into some detail about how his subject matter, early on, definitely caught attention, challenges that arose with some projects, his love of cameras and film and photography, entering his films into festivals and the ensuing results and his response to criticism of his work. McDowell is very talkative here and quite open – this is a very nice addition to the disc.

    The second disc, which is a DVD not a Blu-ray, contains a selection of McDowell’s shorts films:

    -Confessions (11:00): A man sits in his bed, and talks to the camera about his vices, talking about trying liquor at sixteen, got into ‘wild sex’ and then had different experiences, gay and straight – ‘I cornholed anything that bent over.’ As his confession becomes more in-depth the music changes and we see footage of a woman conducting some music. She gets naked and things get… weirder. George Kuchar appears and then we cut back to the confessor in bed. It cuts to a different guy, a more confident type of freewheeling type, and we hear some of his confessions as well. McDowell also appears in this film, made in 1972 that mixes off confessional style footage with artsy shots of various stuff and some explicit sex.

    -Naughty Words (2:12): Made in 1974, this is footage of a series of off camera performers (McDowell and his sister if the credits are true) reading a series of naughty words overtop of explicit still pictures depicting those same words. Dingus! Snot wads! Cut The Cheese!

    -Loads (19:28): One of McDowell’s more infamous films, this one was made in 1985 and it’s basically twenty minutes or so of some supposedly straight men sitting around getting hand jobs and head from the openly gay McDowell. There’s not much more to it than that, some narration does provide a little bit of context as to what each recipient of the oral favors is about, but it’s vague. As a historical document of pornographic gay cinema it’s interesting and McDowell’s narration gives it an unusually personal slant. It’s all shot very free form, the camera moves a lot even during the action.

    -Boggy Depot (16:49): Made in 1973, this starts with a musical number over footage of two men playing cards. Cut to George Kuchar lying in bed – he’s the one doing the singing. When he’s done, he joins the card game and after that we see a woman singing. Time passes, there’s more singing and drama intensifies! This one, a completely bizarre little black and white musical, features some illustrations in the opening sequence that are similar to the way that the old dark house is shown in Thundercrack!

    -Siamese Twin Pinheads (3:57): Made in 1972, this starts with a nun introducing a talent show, after which we meet Billy and Willy, the titular twins who perform a rather unsettling but fairly comedic version of ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ A year later we see another entry in the annual talent show, and Billy and Willy come back for a command performance, kinda-sorta singing as they jerk one another off.

    There’s more, however, including an interview with George Kuchar that runs just over ten minutes in length. Shot on video it starts with Kuchar talking about how McDowell was his first student after taking his teaching position in San Francisco. He then talks about McDowell’s penchant for celebrating the more ‘fleshy aspects’ of life before then talking about working on Thundercrack! with him. He talks about collaborating with McDowell on the film, how this is ‘a sex picture with a lot of humping’ and how he tried to add emotional trouble to the characters in the film. As Kuchar talks about his work, we see odd footage of balloons and random people and it’s just as delightfully crass and bizarre as you could hope for. He also talks about some of the props featured in the movie, strange little details that pop up in the movie, whether or not the movie was actually fun to make or not and more.

    Marion Eaton Recalls ‘Gert Hammond’ is an interview, shot in 2004, with the lead actress of Thundercrack! Here she speaks for five and a half minutes about the character that she played, some of the challenges that specific scenes in the movie entailed, how Gert refers to a tree as a person, how Gert is a woman who has experienced tremendous loss and more. She reads all of this from a letter she prepared, to the camera, while sitting at a table in the woods. Somehow this makes complete sense.

    Recalling Thundercrack! With Mark Ellinger runs eight and a half minutes and it lets the frequent McDowell collaborator talks about his relationship with the film’s director, his friendship with Curt, their idealistic vision of expressing sexuality through art, the influence of old black and white films on the production and the different hats that he wore on the production. He then talks about the editing in the film, working at one of the premiere San Francisco studios of the day, how only five release prints of the film were made and more.

    Also included is a vintage interview from 1976 with Curt McDowell and Marion Eaton entitled San Francisco Bay Area Filmmakers that runs twenty-three minutes. Here a woman named Carroll Daniels interviews the two about working on Thundercrack!, talking about what makes McDowell’s X-rated films different, the X-rated label and how it doesn’t necessarily apply to some of his work, Eaton’s attempts to play a character that is ‘somewhat demeneted,’ her thoughts on the explicit content in the picture, the way that the movie utilizes ‘a tried and true Hollywood plot’ in an X-rated manner and other subjects related to Thundercrack! and McDowell’s work.

    But wait, there’s more! Outtakes & Behind The Scenes Footage is, as you’d guess, a collection of outtakes and behind the scenes footage, some with sound and some without. There’s just a few seconds shy of a half an hour’s worth of material included here, including bits in the kitchen, more footage from the circus, attempts to nail some of the dialogue scenes and loads more. A lot of times you can hear McDowell offering direction from off camera, it’s fascinating stuff. Accompanying this is seventeen and a half minutes of Sex Scene Outtakes taken from the films more explicit sequences. Again, some of that excised sex footage has sound, some of it does not but seeing it included here is kind of amazing. Equally amazing is the presence of some Original Cast Audition Footage, almost nine minutes worth in fact. We see Maggie Pyle, Marie Eaton, Rick Johnson and quite a few others auditioning for their respective roles and each and every one of them, at the end of their take, gets naked for the camera. The original theatrical trailer, which is a three and a half minute long piece of outsider art in and of itself (the narration here is absolutely killer)!

    The discs fit inside a black Blu-ray keepcase alongside an insert booklet containing two pages of liner notes from Synapse Films’ Don May Jr. that explain the effort that went into restoring Thundercrack! and getting the package together.

    The Final Word:

    It’s been years since Synapse announced that they were releasing Thundercrack!, but the wait is over – it’s amazing that this film has been given the treatment that it has with this release. The feature is finally presented completely uncut and in the best possible shape and on top of that, this release is stacked with supplements. The movie itself isn’t going to be for all tastes, clearly, but fans of underground cinema and the wild side of indie seventies filmmaking should consider this essential.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    And hey, some images from some of the extras too!

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Mark C.'s Avatar
      Mark C. -
      Nice review Ian, can't wait to get my copy, should be here any day now.
    1. Matt H.'s Avatar
      Matt H. -
      I had a question regarding the keep-case; is it a standard case or the slightly thicker case that Arrow US uses for their releases?
    1. Ian Jane's Avatar
      Ian Jane -
      Standard size, just in black.