Pornography in the internet era is an extension of guilt and prejudice, wholly dependent on the shame of the viewer and shaming of the participant. High-angle shots in modern erotica assume a superiority over the performers, placing the viewer at a vantage point to conquer and deface the object of their lust, subconsciously punishing the porn star for the inhibitions of the audience. The Oxford English Dictionary wisely notes the lack of artistic catharsis, aligning it to the “erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional…,” capturing the dehumanizing and impersonal nature of an inert form of cinematic enterprise, one bent on negating the essence of sexual expression.
Thundercrack! is incompatible with this contemporary definition of pornography, stressing a consensual, liberated form of exhibition that disposes of orientation and aggression, favoring flamboyant theatricality over brute force. Operating under the guise of parody, this convivial, libidinous sideshow trades in shock and sensuality as it rifles through technique and mood, crafting an inventive and singular world that is facetious without being derogatory and carnal without being exploitative.
A lurid melodrama of the highest order, Thundercrack! carries shades of Gone with the Wind’s fallen majesty, jokingly swapping the grace of Scarlett O’Hara for the sweat-stained drunkenness of Gert Hammond (Marion Eaton). Performing a melancholy monologue in her filthy kitchen, howling to rival the thunder and lightning booming outside of her window, Gert bemoans the loss of her husband and rambles incoherently at the ceiling above, clenching three fingers of bourbon like it was a banister, safeguarding her body from slumping onto the linoleum tile.
The decor of her crumbling estate, christened “Prairie Blossom,” resembles a museum of American kitsch, each wall lined with pickled vegetables, sun-bleached children’s toys and tattered pages of vivid pornography. The black and white photography captures this solitary prison in soft focus, generating both alluring beauty and revolting horror from images of neglect and the ravages of time, revealing multitudes from the seams and wrinkles on Gert’s exhausted face.
Overjoyed and perplexed by a knock at the door, Mrs. Hammond scurries to the powder room to draw on her eyebrows and puke up the excess alcohol in her stomach, accidentally dropping her wig into the brown liquid hovering in the toilet bowl. As she embarrassedly straightens the hairpiece in the mirror, struggling to maintain composure, the tone veers from black comedy to fever dream, transitorily painting a horrifying portrait of alcoholism and the crippling mania brought on by isolation.
Seeking shelter from the storm and desperately in need of dry clothing, Gert’s guests arrive with baggage in tow, suffering the indignities of sexual confusion. Screenwriter George Kuchar crafts each character’s backstory to build to a juvenile punchline, all of which are shockingly frank and devilishly humorous. His most amusing blue bits rehash cacti masturbation and spontaneously combustible girdles, all read at a stoned, ironic distance or bellowed in deliberately hammy affectation.
The most uproarious of Kuchar’s “malfunctioning circuits” is his own character, Bing, a high-strung animal tamer with a sweet spot for his “biped” stage partner. Ashamed of his forbidden desires, he hysterically recounts an evening of cross-species copulation to his fellow travelers, each memory illustrated through shots of garish circus ephemera and the eldritch whistle of a calliope. As he reaches his boiling point, detailing the apex of his passionate exchange with the primate, the shot transitions to a close-up of the object of his affection performing manual stimulation, captured in jawdroppingly explicit detail.
Kuchar’s sick sense of humor and Curt McDowell’s leering photography are enamored by the potency of their concoction of sex and aberrance, but beneath the surface lies a healthy attitude towards erotic experimentation, one that attributes a transformative power to indulgence and acceptance. The disrobing sequence in Gert’s “absent” son’s boudoir gives each character space to relieve themselves of social inhibition, providing time to test the waters with penis pumps, blow-up dolls and a variety of synthetic phalluses. As each one of her guests removes their metaphorical masks, Gert observes them through pinholes in a portrait of George Washington, the camera angle replicating the pillars of light and watchful eye of Norman Bates in Psycho. The visual motivation isn’t to make Mrs. Hammond an outsider, despite the skeletons residing in her closet, but welcome her as a participant, utilizing her voyeuristic gaze to mirror the lustful eye of the viewing audience.
The sexuality on display in Thundercrack! is just as diverse as its desired pool of spectators, liberally shuffling pairings and highlighting straight, gay and outré arrangements. The shot composition employed during these acts is far less concerned with the mechanism of intercourse than expected, indulging in facial expression and exaggerated performance, gesturing the viewer toward a snicker or awestruck grin. The droll sense of humor and childish reverence for pun certainly lend the work a sardonic sensibility, but the artful use of split-screen and double exposure provide a pleasant contrast, one that imparts a humble visual grandeur.
Using this unwieldy mass of contradictions as a strength, Thundercrack! wavers between horror, black comedy and stag film, fabricating a distinct and surreal epic poem from a catalog of erotic phenomena and preposterous dialogue. It’s overlong, repetitive and capital-letter CAMPY, but its sensuality is liberating and thoroughly moral, encapsulating a sexual freedom that stresses positivity and consent.
Thundercrack! (Thomas Brothers Film Studio, 1975)
Photographed and Directed by Curt McDowell
Written by Curt McDowell (story), Mark Ellinger (story) and George Kuchar (screenplay)