Friday, 26 December 2014

TEENAGE DOLL












d. Roger Corman (1957) 

I was going to start by saying what a strange little film this is but, of course, everything on here is a strange little film, that's sort of the point. So, instead, I will say that Teenage Doll is singular, odd, unusual, unsettling, whatever other synonyms I can dredge up to try and convey the fact that the film contains five minutes of plot and sixty five minutes of social commentary, and manages to be both as camp as a row of tents and depressing as hell. 

The story starts with the back door of a restaurant opening and a man throwing a bowl of dirty water out into the yard. He doesn't realise it, but the waste water splashes over the body of a young girl lying in an ignominious heap, dead as straw. We never see her face, just her blond, curled hair and a flash of thigh through a torn skirt. She was a member of teen girl gang the Black Widows (there's one in every city), and the rest of the gang are pretty sure that she was murdered by a nice middle class girl called Barbara Bonney. The motive: they were both in love with the same boy, the leader of a gang called The Vandals. The Black Widows decide to track Barbara down, and the rest of the film details their search. 

Teenage delinquency is described as a disease at the beginning of the film, and we are shown both the symptoms and the cause. We go to each of the Black Widows’ homes and see a little of the upbringings that have shaped their young minds, the circumstances that the girls are running from or rebelling against. 

Leader Helen's Dad is a lazy drunk with a penchant for prostitutes; Janet has a baby sister who takes up all her mother's time, and cop Dad is too busy fighting crime to notice that his daughter is a criminal; Eva's immigrant family are working and arguing themselves to early graves to make ends meet; May is so stifled by her dead end life and non-existent prospects that she no longer cares about anything but mindless kicks. In the most disturbing vignette, we go to the filthy shack where Lori lives. There, in the dark, is her five year old sister, chewing on a cardboard box because she is hungry. Lori gives her a packet of stale crackers and leaves, pausing only to switch the light off again. It's extraordinarily grim. 

Then there's Barbara, the pretty, polite girl with a nice house and a nice family who has just killed a love rival and is covered in her blood. Her home life is more subtly rendered, but no less horrible: a repressed, passive aggressive father, so distant that he might as well not be there; a mentally disturbed mother who wears her hair in pig tails and is stuck in the past, still obsessed with her own bad boy, a criminal she loved who died twenty years ago. 

All of this psychodrama builds to a meeting of the gangs and a rumble in a scrap yard, before the climax proper in which Barbara has to decide whether to leave everything, including her identity, behind, to turn herself in and potentially face the gas chamber, or to go out fighting, torn apart by the Black Widows. I won't reveal what she chooses to do, but her fate breaks up the gang. Those sad, mixed up girls who still have a chance opt to go home and stay there; the hopeless, angry ones go for a late beer and to plot more mayhem. 

 A quick word on Roger Corman. Simultaneously admired and despised for his quick, cheap, brazen exploitative films, I think he's an occasionally great director who gets a bad rap, even now. A sniffy article about him in The New Yorker last year was titled 'Surface, Not Depth'. They clearly haven't seen Teenage Doll, a film where all the characters are drowning. I'll come back to Roger. To be honest, this really wouldn't be much of a psychotronic film blog if I didn't.

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