“Club Life” and the Oeuvre of Norman Thaddeus Vane

“Club Life,” the mid-1980s saga of a young, cocky club bouncer’s rise, fall and redemption (written and directed by Norman Thaddeus Vane), is the first movie I collected for this blog (off Amazon.com) that I decided to keep. I’d been curious about it since grade school, when I read a one-out-of-four star review in “Rating the Movies,” calling it “a sordid affair.” Janet Maslin’s snarky New York Times review of “Club Life” (which was shot in 1984 but not released nationwide until 1987) further intrigued me with its claim that “only Tony Curtis is any better than the material.” Indeed, Curtis, though he made “Club Life” while in the final stages of his cocaine addiction, hadn’t lost his good looks or lustrous screen presence. Playing a Los Angeles disco club’s macho yet wistful owner, Curtis appears only intermittently in “Club Life,” which is mostly dedicated to the extremely lightweight story of Cal, the young bouncer (portrayed by Tom Parsekian), but he still dominates every scene he’s in.

For camp enthusiasts like me, “Club Life” is a gold mine of schlocky gems. It announces its sleazy agenda just as the opening credits are ending, when Cal, a hotshot motorbike racer from New Jersey with a Tony Manero hairdo, is drooled over by two slutty Motocross groupies; they pull their shirts down and ask him to sign their breasts, right in front of his girlfriend, Sissy (Jamie Barrett). Encouraged by this attention, Cal immediately decides to head to Hollywood to “make it big,” though he doesn’t quite say how or in what capacity. Once in California, he gets hired as a valet and eventually a bouncer at The City, a neon-lit, multi-level club at which leather-clad freaks and yuppies alike indulge in sadomasochistic dancing (lots of mock choking and aggressive pulling and body-flipping). Cal befriends an older bouncer and washed-up actor named Tank (Michael Parks, shamelessly channeling Mickey Rourke), who teaches Cal how to defend himself against the various belligerent pushers and goons that frequent the club. Meanwhile, Hector (Curtis), the club’s weary owner, is in debt to some mafiosos; Sissy, an aspiring singer, comes to town and promptly starts “hooking”; Tank is shot to death by drug dealers (in the club’s extraneous hall of mirrors section); and Hector’s alcoholic girlfriend Tilly (Dee Wallace), who also serves as the club’s after-hours, lite-FM-style chanteuse, wants out of the trade.

All this melodrama culminates in a climactic showdown between Cal and…the club itself. Fed up with everything, Cal smashes the mirrors, glasses, equipment and, of course, the spinning disco ball with a pair of glow-in-the-dark nunchucks. In the final scene, he tosses the nunchucks–in whirling slow-motion–over the Hollywood Hills. As in countless other films of this nature, our hero learns that home–and not LA–is where the heart is.

With its nonstop garish lighting (even Curtis’ big scenes are blasted out like botched Polaroids), its reckless attitude towards promiscuity and its celebration of ridiculously outmoded trends (hair gel, leather, water beds, power ballad rock, neon signs that say “Party in Progress,” etc.), “Club Life” eerily captures the dying days of disco-era sexual abandon. From start to finish, the action seems to be occurring on the night before AIDS was discovered; you get the impression that the club’s employees, after tossing back their last whiskey and shutting down the strobelights, crept home to their shabby apartments, read the morning paper through bleary eyes, and realized that all the sex-on-premises and syringe-sharing that had dominated the last decade of their lives could no longer exist. Curtis and Wallace’s hollow-eyed gravitas bring moments of near-poignancy to “Club Life,” which under less outlandish circumstances could have been a straight drama about a waning culture’s final hurrah. But “Club Life,” though certainly not graphic enough to be designated as soft-core porn, is as fast-paced, sleazy and eager to titillate as its shallow characters. Vane has little to no reservations about wallowing in cliches, but it’s energetic wallowing, and it’s to his credit that “Club Life” is seldom dull.

It would be criminal to divulge all of the script’s hardboiled platitudes, but here’s a few nuggets. Upon seeing the provocatively-dressed Tilly for the first time, Cal proclaims: “She is ripe!” Later, Curtis describes Tilly–and mind you, this is supposed to be his long-term flame–as “a slut when drunk…sober, she’s a double slut!” The Jewish human rights organization B’nai B’rith is referred to out of the blue (Vane, whose interview I will post in a few days, was raised Jewish). When the mafiosos demand money from Hector, he tells them to “Take your linguine and shove it up your nose! You got virgin sisters, well screw your virgin sisters!” Before Tank is shot, the gunman yells, “The cat can’t sleep if he wants to breathe,” which I think will make sense to me one random night, when I least expect it. There are butch lesbians that hang out at a bar called “Different Drummer”; when Sissy sings an awful pop number called “First Class Man” at their club, they boo her off the stage and then violently hit on her; Cal is not above slugging the mullet-sporting dyke in the gut (it’s a very progressive film). One thug warns Cal that he will “play tic-tac-toe on your face.” And finally, my personal favorite: when Sissy is harassed by a lecher, Cal, who until this point comes off like a lamb in Patrick Swayze’s clothing, gets right in the offender’s face and screams: “You got two choices. You get the FUCK outta here, or you do somethin’ about it!”

“Club Life” would be a bore, though, if its only guilty pleasures lay in the dialogue. The set design often upstages the actors. In a would-be touching breakup scene between Hector and Tilly, for instance, the viewer is distracted by a barrage of smiley-face balloons floating around the room; in the next scene, in which Cal finds Sissy OD’ing in a bathroom stall, we pay attention not to her pathetic cry for help but to the clown drawing graffitied on the stall door. There’s a sex scene (with an obvious body double) upon a crinkly, light-streaked waterbed with goldfish swimming inside; the nude bodies roll over each other but don’t exactly interlock. There’s a funeral scene inside the club, set to Tilly’s soft-ballad song (one of two songs on the soundtrack with the phrase “Club Life” repeated; it resembles Julee Cruise’s eerie nightclub performance in “Twin Peaks,” which for all I know ripped “Club Life” off).

The camerawork–by Joel King–is also notably off-the-wall. Fight scenes are shot from ground-level, so you really grasp what it’s like to have your ass beaten. The camera expertly follows the trajectory of the club’s twitchy dancers. And I’ve never seen a Sunset Strip montage shot quite this way; the camera appears to be at hip-level, as if we are the swaggering hips of the eager beaver protagonist. Furthermore, while I normally abhor the slo-mo effect, Vane and King take that device to wonderfully tacky new levels. Throughout the film, characters flip off of platforms, staircases, catwalks; when they’re shot, they writhe and twitch on the ground to a warbling, atonal synth. When Vane isn’t underscoring such choreography with the usual whooshing sound effects, he’s replaying a single, shouted “CLUB LIFE!” from the film’s anthemic title song over the soundtrack. I don’t want to say any more, so let it be known: “Club Life” is a delightful camp classic, fully deserving of a DVD distribution deal and a Netflix release.

I showed “Club Life” to two, three, four sets of friends. It took several viewings to get every classic line down. I just had to watch the rest of Norman Vane’s oeuvre, to learn about his life, before I inevitably attempted to interview him. At first, I could not find any interviews with him, just a 1991 op-ed he wrote in the LA Times about age discrimination in Hollywood; then over 60 years old, Vane said he was forced to finance low-budget pictures himself after he was dropped from the William Morris Agency sometime during the late 1970s. I did some more digging. I found out Vane was a playwright in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, and his theatrical productions were performed on Broadway and London’s West End. I tried strenuously to find copies of Vane’s first two movies, “Conscience Bay” (1960), an hour-long indie film about a lobster thief in Cornwall, and “Fledglings” (1964), a completely improvised sex comedy starring Playboy Europe kingpin Victor Lownes. Sadly, even Vane (who I eventually reached by telephone) has no idea where those films are.

Vane informed me that he had been interviewed extensively in the book “Nightmare USA,” a dense history of horror/grindhouse films released last year by Stephen Thrower (who runs the witty and thorough horror enthusiast blog Seven Doors Hotel; I must personally thank Stephen for allowing me to cite from his book). Vane nicely sent me a photocopy of the “Nightmare USA” chapter devoted entirely to him, and after reading that and then interviewing Vane, I came away with some truly hysterical stories that could not have happened in any other era or place but Swingin’ Sixties London and 1970s Hollywood and New York.

Vane did not direct a single picture between 1964 and 1981, devoting his time to screenplays (some of which got made, if mishandled, and some of which tragically fell by the wayside), the occasional play and a few lost years editing for Penthouse and running three hopping London dance clubs. Gravitating between London, New York and Hollywood, he did what any good-looking young punk in his situation would do. He dated–or slept with–models, debutantes, high society girls, actresses, nudie mag pin-up girls. He had several marriages, which of course could not stand the hedonistic ways of that era. He attended orgies. He grappled with virtually every director, producer, cinematographer, et al, assigned to his written work (Richard Donner, for one). According to Thrower’s account, he even got in a fistfight with then-unknown James Cameron, after Cameron couldn’t take slight criticism on his poster artwork for one of Vane’s films.

Only two of Vane’s screenplays could be seen as autobiographical:  “Lola” (1970) and “The Black Room” (shot in 1981 but released later). Both are listed on Netflix.  “Lola,” known in Europe as “Twinky,” mirrored the rise and fall of Vane’s tumultuous marriage to 16 year-old model Sarah Caldwell, whom he married in the mid-1960s when he was 38. There are a few witty exchanges, and Susan George (the starlet from “Straw Dogs”) plays the title nymphet with zeal and sweetness, but the film–as Vane himself noted–is undermined by the stiff, aloof performance by Charles Bronson, as the older man.

Far more effective–in fact, it’s Vane’s most polished film–is “The Black Room,” which marked Vane’s triumphant return to the director’s chair (though he shared directing duties with amateur Elly Kenner). “The Black Room” is about a philandering husband who takes his conquests to a candle-lit, baroque space he’s rented out in the Hollywood Hills, unaware that the owners–a lascivious brother and sister–are spying on him. Much like “Cat People,” the siblings are somewhat incestuous and need human blood to survive, so they use their erotic ploys to lure in victims. Blood-draining mayhem aside, this situation actually happened to Vane, as noted in “Nightmare USA”; during his stint at Penthouse, he cheated on Caldwell with a succession of centerfolds, and seduced them at a similarly voyeuristic venue. There’s lots of nutty, porny eroticism on display: in one scene, the vampire-like sister and the cheating husband rut around in war paint, howling like banshees; in another, a young Christopher McDonald (Shooter McGavin in “Happy Gilmore”) watches his own girlfriend get it on with the married man, to prepare for his college thesis (on what, I can’t imagine). The best sequence involves a female victim’s failed escape from the mansion, which sits atop a steep hill; the camera bumps and jerks frantically along with her. “The Black Room” is marred only by Vane’s overly relying on over-the-top synth effects, a device he would employ in later films. [NOTE: Thrower’s chapter on Vane in “Nightmare USA” provides extensive, colorful detail on the making of “Black Room,” as well as “Shadow of the Hawk,” (1976)  “Frightmare” (1983) and “Midnight.” (1989).]

While “Club Life” and “The Black Room” have traces of Vane’s madcap wit on display, that impulsive energy is decidedly lacking from the movies that Vane only scripted. The frivolous musical comedy “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” which features Caldwell in an anemic performance, is merely a promotional plug for the then-happening British Invasion group Herman’s Hermits, who generate zero screen presence. Judging from all the behind-the-scenes debauchery during the making of “Mrs. Brown” that I both read about in Thrower’s book and learned from Vane himself, I was amazed at how squeaky-clean and soporific the film is. (NOTE: “Mrs. Brown” is not on Netflix, though it’s widely available on DVD).

The 1972 crime saga “Pete, Pearl and the Pole” (1972), easily the shoddiest Capone-era re-enactment I’ve ever seen,” is on Netflix, astonishingly, under the alternate title “1931: Once Upon a Time in New York.” Vane co-wrote the script with star Tony Anthony, an American actor and writer who made a slew of cheap Italian spaghetti westerns, but the dialogue is hopelessly trashy, dime store novel-style. It’s also badly dubbed (at least in the version I saw), out of sync with the Italian actors’ motormouths.

Furthermore, the actors doing the dubbing speak with decidedly un-mafioso-like diction. Early on, a mourner at a thug’s funeral tries, in vain, to stop a rival gangster from robbing the corpse’s grave of buried money; when he hollers “Don’t do that,” he sounds like Mr. Wilson begging Dennis the Menace not to hurl a water balloon. “Pour on that spaghetti sauce!” another gangster growls at a dinner scene, sounding about as Italian as Alan Thicke. There are some macabre touches; a captured man’s feet are slashed with razor blades, that same man is thrown into a garbage heap, a rival goon is shot to bits in an outhouse, etc. And happily, the film’s moll character gets the final laugh, after being subjected to excessive misogyny (in one scene, for instance, a ganster rips her shirt off, and after initially crying “Rape!” she’s soon delighted, cooing “Dirty old man, hee hee!”) But the film’s production values are too distractingly low-grade–not least because it was shot in West Virginia, whose rural forests and river rapids are supposed to fill in for 1930s New York. Those rapids drown out much of the dialogue; the sound in “1931” is about as pro as the home video I made of my family’s trip to Yosemite National Park at age 10.

The last film that Vane scripted without directing was “Shadow of the Hawk,” which is, in a word, terrible. Vane himself said that he was disgusted with how his eerie story about Navajo and Hopi Indian mysticism was transformed into a schlocky Canadian horror-action yarn, complete with a recurring, cheap-looking apparition in a fright mask and blonde wig. The young man haunted by that spirit is a half-Indian played by Jan-Michael Vincent (an oddly Aryan choice), who is beckoned by his grandfather (Chief Dan George) to return to the reservation he grew up on. The old man is dying and, having been preyed on his whole life by an evil sorceress, needs to pass on his mystical powers to the grandson. Flanked by a female reporter, who’s writing a “special interest” story on their journey, they travel back to the reservation but are chased by the sorceress’ henchmen in a mysterious black car. The only impressive special effect in the  film (which Vane said he still gets praised for by cult fans) occurs when George sprinkles pixie dust over the road, creating an invisible sky-high roadblock that demolishes the enemy’s car.

Most of “Hawk” is emphatically humorless, even when it introduces a black bear that strangles Vincent in the woods (obviously portrayed by a man in a bear suit). There’s a hysterically edited voodoo ritual, with glaring Sapphic connotations, in which Indian women ululate, mouth-to-mouth, while telepathically commanding a snake to poison George. Towards the end, Vincent gets decked out in war paint and has a spear-fight with an opponent; proud of his victory, George feeds him peyote and instructs him to spend one night “under the moon” to complete the transference of mystical power. Vincent uses his newly-earned telekinesis to thwart the rest of the enemies, who approach him and the reporter like the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead”; in what passes for a climax, the badguys are not burnt or blown up but merely evaporate.

I doubt Vane wrote the worst of the godawful dialogue, as it’s known that several extra screenwriters were assigned by the studio. The elder Indian speaks only platitudinous, stone-faced wisdom (“Give your girlfriend strength. Let it flow through her body like the wind and the river and the trees”). The journalist’s wisecracking banter with Vincent is not much better; “I went to a fancy girl’s school back east, but I was allergic to ivy, so I quit,” she chuckles. The fatal blow of self-importance in “Hawk” comes from the big, brassy score, but let’s not beat a dead horse; Vane seems to hate the movie more than anyone. (If you must, you can view “Hawk,” which is not on Netflix, on YouTube.)

“Frightmare” is the only movie Vane directed that is available on Netflix. A Vincent Price-like horror actor (Ferdinand Mayne) kicks the bucket; a couple of smarmy film students (among them Jeffrey Combs, who would later star in “Re-Animator”) steal his corpse, and–in a particularly schizoid sequence–eat, converse and even waltz with the cadaver. “Frightmare” then turns into a standard slasher pic, albeit one with a wry twist; instead of  teens being punished for lust, they are punished for grave-robbing. Only one of the murders is innovative: a girl gets impaled by a flying tombstone. The rest is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff; a beheading, an asphyxiation, a disembowelment. Mayne gives it his hammy all, but actual Vincent Price vehicles are more fun. That said, the movie seems to be a cult favorite among horror fans (including Thrower). And according to Vane, Roger Ebert gave the film a decent review (though I can’t find it on his web site, nor in the Chicago Tribune archives).

Continuing his pattern of casting temperamental stars past their prime, Vane turned his 1989 melodrama “Midnight” into a campy showcase for Lynn Redgrave. The story is soap opera-thin: a television horror show diva (Redgrave) is betrayed by her smug agent (Tony Curtis, again managing to sleepwalk with charm), who wants to cancel her show and buy out her contract. In despair, she beds a young hunk, who initially calls himself her “number one fan,” but eventually he wants to leave her for a younger actress. After a lot of ranting and raving and violent threats from Redgrave, Curtis and the young starlet are brutally killed. Whodunit? Was it Redgrave, the hunk, or the butler? (Yes, there is actually a butler on board).

It doesn’t much matter. Whether the gore and histrionics are meant to be scary or just scary-funny, all of “Midnight” is overshadowed by Redgrave’s scream-to-the-rafters performance. Alternately snarling and hissing, doling out obscenities galore (“I’ll put warts on your pecker,” she barks at Curtis; “Why don’t you sit on my face?” she sneers at a nosy reporter) and parading around in flagpole-length fingernails, poofy wigs, sunhats, Adam West-style sunglasses and silver lamé corsets, Redgrave outdoes even Faye Dunaway’s turn as Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest.” (Judging from what Vane told Thrower, she behaved almost as outlandishly behind the scenes). It’s a little hard to take, frankly, but there are a few gems in Vane’s screenplay. At one point, Redgrave uses the word “dreck.” “Where did you learn that?” someone asks, and Redgrave responds: “I used to work at a delicatessen.” And when the young hunk stalks her, early on, after repeated warnings to buzz off, Redgrave mutters to herself, “This kid has more nerve than a mouse crawling up an elephant’s leg with rape in mind.”

“Midnight” also ends on an oddly sweet note, with a scene that is strangely similar to the climax of “Jerry Maguire.” Redgrave fakes her death on-air; when resuscitated, her ratings skyrocket, and she gets to keep her hunk. “Midnight” only played in Los Angeles and has not, to my knowledge, been released on DVD.

Last and least–I agree with Thrower that it is Vane’s worst film–was “Taxi Dancers,” given a limited release in Los Angeles in 1993 and then pretty much disappearing. Shot at the same tawdry club as “Club Life,” but with little of the same perverse energy, “Taxi Dancers” is sub-Skinemax material. You can hear room fuzz in all the nightclub scenes; the two actors cast as drug dealers look like MIT physics majors; the lap dance scenes are sparse and unsexy (most of the clientele, in fact, pay the trashy hookers only to shoot pool with them, a strange trend that is still apparently ongoing in LA).

Though “Taxi Dancers” is a dimmer, duller affair than “Club Life,” it does specialize in a similar strain of wisecracking/pseudo-provocative dialogue, which brought a smile to my lips at times. A cowboy with six ex-wives proposes–immediately–to the lead stripper character; “I’m betting my own future on you and I don’t want to roll snake eyes,” he coos. A rude patron calls the black bouncer a “big ape…someone throw him a fucking banana”; he is instantly hurled down the stairs in the same whooshing slo-mo that dominated “Club Life.” That same bouncer later gets applauded for his “chocolate popsicle.” When the drug dealers come to kill the cowboy, who owes them money, the cowboy cracks, “My, my, what a big gun you have”; the dealer, instead of retorting with a similar play on “Little Red Riding Hood,” says “Yeah, big guns for big debts!” And so on. But ultimately, “Taxi Dancers” is too depressingly self-important (with no shortage of symphonic, pounding piano music and doleful philosophizing) to laugh at.

Happily, Vane’s career isn’t over yet. He’s expecting distribution soon on a jokey horror film called “You’re So Dead,” which he completed in 2007. Though he’s done with directing, he’s still trying to get several scripts (some written recently, some as far back as the late 1960s) optioned by his plethora of producer contacts. Whatever you think of his output–whether it stimulates, bores, amuses or repels you–Vane’s kooky, playfully lusty persona is palpable when you watch his films. As you will see in my forthcoming interview with Vane, his life and career were enviably rich in debauchery and mischief, and no one can take that away from him.

2 thoughts on ““Club Life” and the Oeuvre of Norman Thaddeus Vane

  1. adam

    ‘“Midnight” also ends on an oddly sweet note, with a scene that is strangely similar to the climax of “Jerry Maguire.”’ … oh man… i gotta see that piece of shit!

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