Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! The World’s First Porno-Horror-Comedy By Greg Goodsell. "This is a confession I want to make to my mom and dad," the Great God Pan stares directly into the camera lens, his wild, tousled hair resting on a pillow...
"This is a confession I want to make to my mom and dad," the Great God Pan stares directly into the camera lens, his wild, tousled hair resting on a pillow. "I’ve lied... numerous times. I’ve told you I was going out to one place when I was going out to another. When I was 13, I jacked off with my cousin Dick. I kept doing it with him, and others, in my room," the young man with a scruffy beard says as he adjusts himself on a cot with a plaid quilt stitched lovingly by his mother, a country-rock song with lyrics written by same playing softly in the background.
"When I was 16, I drank all different – I’ve, I’ve tried liquor and I’ve tried all kinds, I’ve tried everything. I never told you, of course. I got exposed to all kinds of wild sex at 16. I fucked women, single and under-aged, and married... I’ve eaten pussy, I’ve sucked dick..."
He lets the gravity of that last statement fall with full force on the audience’s ears, swallowing hard. "Yeah, I corn-holed anything that would’ve bent over, I even bent over some times myself. I’ve tried three-ways, four-ways, gang bangs and circle jerks, Wesson Oil parties. Even S&M."
He gathers his thoughts, and continues his litany. "I’ve tried all kinds of different drugs. Never shot anything up or anything like that, and I don’t smoke either, but I’ve taken a lot of different drugs. I’ve fallen in love three times, and only once was with a woman..."
The young man starts to choke up, his voice cracking with emotion. "I love you folks more than anything in the world, and I’ve never wanted to hurt you. But I just had to tell you. It’s something I had to get out of my system. That’s all." He then cringes hard and stifles a sob.
Underground filmmaker Curt McDowell has just bared his soul for us in a fearless single take in his black-and-white underground short Confessions (1971), which eerily predated similar efforts commonly found on YouTube "vlogs" by a generation. McDowell spilled his guts for his family, described as "a loving Christian family" from the American Midwest. McDowell would lens countless other underground shorts with teacher and avant-garde mainstay George Kuchar in the heady, hedonistic San Francisco of the ’70s.
In time, McDowell would recruit his baby sister Melinda (seven years his junior) to star in his sexually explicit features. Today McDowell is an unjustly obscure figure in alternative cinema today, and if the aboveground world acknowledges him at all, it’s for his comedy-horror-porno hybrid Thundercrack (1975).
A Dark and Stormy Night
Thundercrack begins in classical horror movie fashion, with a torrential nighttime deluge battering an isolated country farmhouse, dubbed "Prairie Blossom," somewhere in the American Midwest. To make sure the audience knows this film has a lower-than-average budget, the house is represented by a drawing. Not a very good one. The farmhouse’s sole occupant, Mrs. Gert Hammond (played by the fabulous Marion Eaton) is an embittered alcoholic widow with only a sputtering radio and a bottle of hooch for company.
The film then intercuts between motley groups of benighted characters trapped by this storm. Chandler Phillips (the pseudonymous Mookie Blodgett), heir to the House of Phillips fortune, has his hand-to-crotch games with hustler hitchhiker Boyd (Ken Scudder) rudely interrupted by Willene Cassidy (Maggie Pyles), wife of country rock singer Simon Cassidy. Meanwhile, Roo (Moira Benson) and traveling companion Sash (Melinda McDowell) assist lanky drifter Toydy (Rick Johnson) with two mysterious crates that figure later in the story.
And then there’s Bing (played by American underground film pillar George Kuchar), a fidgety truck driver transporting circus animals. Naturally, Kuchar saves the best dialogue he wrote for his character. "I shouldn’t be totin’ around animals on a night like this. Why the hell didn’t that crummy circus give me that amphibian case?" A lion roars. "Quiet down, Samson! You might be the king of the jungle in Africa but in this circus you ain’t nothin’ but a bozo! Every time I see that trainer puttin’ those hula hoops on you, and I see those kids screamin’, with the Cracker Jacks flying out of their mouths and see the cotton candy sticking to their chins it makes me sick, Samson! Yeah, sick! I wanna puke on ’em. God knows it wouldn’t make any difference. Not with all the mustard and ice cream dripping down their fat little necks. You can’t even tell between the freckles and the mashed popcorn..." A gorilla growls. "No, Medusa," Bing calls out to the unseen, voraciously sexual gorilla who plays an important role in the film’s climax. "I, I wasn’t talking about you. Gorillas are different from little children... they have more hair..."
Stragglers make their way to Gert’s door, and Mrs. Hammond must interrupt her endless drunk for her unforeseen visitors. In one of Thundercrack’s most notorious moments, Gert throws up in the toilet. Her wig falls into the bowl before she fishes it out and places it back on her head. All the principal players reconnoiter at Prairie Blossom, swap life stories told in 98-cent flashbacks and have graphic, hardcore grainy black-and-white sex; lots of it. Guys do girls, guys do guys, and panoply of objects – cucumbers, inflatable dolls and other sundry sex toys – all trotted out for the audience’s up close and personal delectation.
All the characters are afforded lengthy backstories, none of which has any bearing on the story at hand. Most everyone in Thundercrack is fleeing a sordid past. We discover that Mrs. Hammond’s husband, Charlie, was devoured by locusts when he was covered in wheat powder. As for her son, whose various leftover marital aids provide diversion for the cast; Mrs. Hammond looks dreamily into space and says "He no longer exists..."
Suddenly, the shadow of an escaped elephant is seen at the window. The countryside is dotted with escaped circus animals. Late arrival Bing confesses he ran his truck off the road in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Will the audience learn the secret of Mrs. Hammond son? Will Bing be reunited with Medusa for a torrid night of man on man-in-a-gorilla suit sex? Well, what do you expect?
Thundercrack breaks with horror film convention in that no participants are killed, and everyone goes off into the rising sunrise, fed, happy and laid. Curt McDowell’s vision of a pansexual utopia emerging through a dark night of the soul continues to shock, amuse and titillate to this day.
Still Awaiting Their Return
Thundercrack is the result of two seemingly opposed aesthetics colliding into one. It began when and out of work Kuchar was offered a position teaching film at the San Francisco Institute in 1971. Restless artist and satyr McDowell landed plum into the thick of things as Kuchar’s first-ever film student.
"The first student I ever laid eyes on was the underground filmmaker Curt McDowell," Kuchar would write in his 1997 memoir Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool. "He was sitting on my desk, wearing cut-off jeans and swinging his bare legs in the stuffy setting. He had on a tee-shirt and woven sandals of straw, looking very much like a big boy with a huge appetite for cinematic knowledge (and for his teacher)."
McDowell’s sister and star, Melinda has fond memories of her late brother. "He was a very talented artist, full of creative energy... but he always was ‘Mr. Sex.’"
Kuchar, speaking to this author in one of his last interviews before his untimely death from liver cancer in September of 2011, fondly remembered his former student – and sometimes lover, wistfully. "McDowell was charismatic, a head full of fiery red hair... hypnotic voice."
Fitting in very well with the anything-goes sexual tenor of the times, McDowell would begin to indiscriminately plow through various windows of opportunity, sexually and film wise. The short films of McDowell during this time readily available today are gritty, black-and-white, sexually explicit works that not far removed from porno loops found in peepshow booths of this era. There are some exceptions, but McDowell’s films are steeped in skin and sin.
Short films by McDowell prior to Thundercrack include Naughty Words (1974), Stinkybutt (1974), True Blue and Dreamy (1974), Dora Myrtle (1973), A Night with Gilda Peck (1973), Peed into the Wind (1972), Siamese Twin Pinheads (1972), Truth for Ruth (1972) and Pornografollies (1970). One notable exception is A Visit to Indiana (1970) – a short, heartfelt documentary about McDowell’s family and his Midwestern roots.
"In 1974, Curt and George visited our family in Indiana, we made a short film starring George and me (Beaver Fever) and Curt enticed me to move to San Francisco at that time. Our Mom is still waiting for my return," Melinda McDowell says. She resides in Northern California to this day.
Anyone familiar with George – along with his brother Mike Kuchar’s films, explored in the excellent 2009 documentary It Came from Kuchar (from former student Jennifer Kroot) – knows the Kuchar house style: lurid color, scratchy, melodramatic music, nonsensical stories in the service of funky, no-budget melodramas that attempt to mimic Hollywood glamour. A huge influence on John Waters, the characters in a Kuchar film try to live up to an ideal, only to have such mundane things as overflowing toilets, bad skin, wrinkles and obesity foil their attempts.
A McDowell short, Boggy Depot (1974), is a clear mixture of both the Kuchar and McDowell aesthetics that would result in Thundercrack. Somewhat confusing, the characters in Boggy Depot sing along to an easy listening soundtrack against plainly painted backdrops. Kuchar plays a romantic railroad employee who falls under his coworker’s hypnotic suggestions, inspiring him to pen love notes to his beloved that say, "I want to eat your pussy."
Coming up with the enjoyably obscene screenplay for Thundercrack, McDowell would turn to the conventional world of heterosexual pornography with Lunch (1972). Largely forgotten today, the ads for Lunch were sold with the exploitive tagline "Some members of our female audience may be offended... by Lunch." Melinda McDowell remembers the tagline used to sell the film as "Hungry? Have some Lunch!"
Production on Thundercrack began when the Thomas Brothers, Charles and John, came up with the cash and graciously offered two rooms at their house as a shooting location. Advertisements were placed in local newspapers for actors to appear in a sexually explicit film for $50 a day. Kuchar remembers that the actors were paid $50 a day for scenes not involving sex, and $100 a day for the times they would be required to bare all. "The one steadfast rule was that no one in the cast and crew could laugh while we shot sex scenes," Kuchar says.
While there are high-strung theatrics aplenty in the film, Melinda McDowell regretfully remembers that the talent pool in front of the camera were types "who really needed the $50 a day."
Thundercrack’s success, as in most films, relies heavily on the right actors being cast in the appropriate roles. This fact is most impressive given that many of the actors were recruited from newspaper ads that stated that they had to be willing to appear in explicit sex acts. "I have never been able to track down Moira Benson, who played Roo," Melinda McDowell says. Benson acted in the film under her real name and impresses many with her brassy, no-nonsense gal who manages to keep the rest of the other characters under her thumb. "I have certainly grown to enjoy her performance more over the years," McDowell adds.
The central performance in Thundercrack belongs, without question, to Marion Eaton in the pivotal performance as Mrs. Gert Hammond. Melodramatic, but never straying from the tenor of the project at hand, Eaton is the film’s boozy, histrionic anchor.
Eaton’s odyssey to Thundercrack and afterwards is a most fascinating one. An established stage actress in Northern California, Eaton felt compelled to pursue film work after a quiet evening out when dinner and a movie with a friend led her to see the seminal skin flick Deep Throat (1972). Eaton had seen pornographic films before, but it was after seeing Linda Lovelace’s performance as a randy nurse that she was thoroughly convinced she could do better.
Eaton would take the female lead in the mostly forgotten porno film Sip the Wine in 1974. George Kuchar remembers Sip the Wine as being far beyond the curve with the other skin flicks of its day. "Sip the Wine was beautifully shot, taking full advantage of the Northern California countryside. It had the look of a ‘California Living’ pictorial. Marion’s male co-star was quite dashing and handsome." Sip the Wine certainly paved Eaton’s way for all the pneumatic action in Thundercrack
Eaton initially expressed no desire to appear in Thundercrack until she read the script. Once onboard, she was committed to the project and gave it her all. A well-seasoned stage performer, Eaton held the work of "movie stars" with trace bits of disdain, but that certainly didn’t prevent her from appearing in future X-rated and major motion picture roles. Cult movie fans watching Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990) did a collective facepalm when they recognized Eaton for her brief walk-on role in that direct-to-video horror film.
"Marion got on exceptionally well with actor Vincent D’Onofrio, who would recommend her for other roles," Kuchar says. Eaton appears in D’Onofrio’s The Velocity of Gary: Not His Real Name (1998) as a ditzy dance instructor. Eaton gives a very memorable speech as a disillusioned woman on a bus in D’Onofrio’s Depression-era biopic of Conan the Barbarian author Robert E. Howard The Whole Wide World (1996). Eaton (who declined to be interviewed for this article) passed away at the age of 79 in April of 2011.
The actress who played under the name of Maggie Pyles proved to be quite a challenge to the cast and crew. Melinda McDowell remembers her as being difficult, wearing out her welcome on the set. George Kuchar had far kinder memories of Pyles, but said that "she did have a relationship with a crew member that had since gone badly. The last few days of the shoot she showed to the set drunk."
McDowell has vivid memories of a mean prank the crew played on Pyles while filming. "The part where she sees the cucumber and says, ‘My! How refreshing!’ That cucumber had just been used by Marion Eaton to "refresh" herself in an earlier scene." McDowell says if you listen carefully you can hear muffled laughter from the crew as Pyle bites into the despoiled foodstuff.
"Both Marion and Maggie had birthdays on the shoot, and on Maggie’s birthday cake, the crew put a cucumber on top," McDowell laughs.
The serious young man who went under the name Mookie Blodgett was an accomplished graphic artist who designed the film’s one-sheet. Kuchar remembers that the hotly sought-after poster has some last-minute corrections that were laid directly on the posters themselves, making them expensive acquisitions on many Internet auction sites.
While other cast members, such as Ken Scudder, have stayed in touch with McDowell and company, many others have since gone their separate ways. Kuchar remembered a party he attended that was given by one of the actors. "There was some very bad acid being passed around at that party. It made everything look brown, and everything looked like ginger ale. I thought I was going to die, but I went to bed and the next day, I felt much better..."
Clocking in at an awesome 158 minutes, Thundercrack premiered at the prestigious Los Angeles Filmex film festival in 1976. Eaton attended the premiere and was reportedly violently ill with stomach flu. The attendant vomit was prophetic of the mainstream critical reception to the film. A black-and-white horror film parody with a substandard sound recording sent many audience members fleeing for the exits. Before the bisexual chic in ’80s, straight and gay sex never mixed in pornographic films, sending "rain-coaters" out on to the pavement.
Thundercrack was keeping in spirit with two other black-and-white shockers that premiered at Filmex in 1977: The Wedding Trough (1975) AKA The Pig Fucking Movie, along with David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) were both hotly dismissed.
The Thomas Brothers took a hard, long look at their finished product. A thriving midnight movie audience was in place at repertory theaters nationwide guaranteed some play, but the film’s massive length had to be toned down. Thundercrack was then chopped down to approximately two hours, which is the most extant version of the film today.
This writer has seen both bootleg VHS versions of the film along with overseas DVD versions. Since there are many versions of Thundercrack floating around, my hazy memory of the longer versions extant – that are not 158 minutes long – are dialogue scenes between Eaton and Johnson in front of a bookcase that do not include scenes of sex or threadbare horror.
Melinda McDowell says she has "the one and only full length Thundercrack copy, to keep it out of circulation until we have it transferred in its entirety. It’s nearly 30 pounds of film, and I’m keeping it in sight... can’t take any chances of losing it or spilling my coffee on it. It is very near and dear to me... I was in the film, but I also became familiar with every frame when I cut the original to match Curt’s work print, at Thomas Brothers Studios."
Don May of Synapse Films has overseen the transfer of Thundercrack to digital media for a 2014 Blu-Ray/DVD release.
Making Ends Meet
Curt McDowell would make one more feature, Sparkle’s Tavern (1985). A color extravaganza about a Wild West saloon, McDowell asked Melinda what her favorite fantasy was... it involved cowboys. McDowell would use the film to make his fantasy come true: In the film, a young man comes forward about his homosexuality to his parents – and is accepted. "Fantasies do come true," Melinda says.
Like so many other soldiers in the sexual revolution, McDowell was ultimately felled by AIDS, dying at 42 in 1987. At the time of his passing, McDowell was reportedly broke, eking out a living as a janitor at a San Francisco movie theater. One of the most heart-rending scenes in It Came from Kuchar is George Kuchar bidding his farewell to McDowell on his death bed in a private video. Some have suggested that McDowell and Kuchar now dance for all eternity in some alternative, Technicolor Valhalla attuned with their own idiosyncratic visions.
Thundercrack is a product of its time, when frequently stoned and adventurous movie audiences would meet at the witching hour to see whatever the projectionist had to hurl at them. A true cult film, Thundercrack still has the power to enchant – as well as send others out cursing the movie’s particular brand of darkness. As Mrs. Gert Hammond says wistfully, "Nights are long on the prairie..."
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