Written by: John Durren
Directed by: Arthur Marks
Starring: Pat Woodell, Roberta Collins, and Marki Bey
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Which will die in the summer of '73?
As odd and baffling as this might sound, it’s not uncommon to turn over some grindhouse stones and find films that are utterly horrible yet undeniably compelling all at once. These films rarely pass muster on any technical level: they are poorly acted, crummily shot, loosely plotted, and lazily edited. Uncovering a film with all of these flaws should be a death knell, and you could forgive most folks if they just dismissed them outright. It’s their loss, though, especially when they toss aside something as batty as The Roommates, an early drive-in proto-summer-camp-slasher. While it’s curious on those grounds, it’s even more curious as a relic from some alt-universe 70s that lived in complete denial of the previous decade’s tumultuous ending.
The short story is this: four roommates (plus a tagalong) cousin head off to a rural retreat for a carefree summer, only to be interrupted when a psychopath begins stalking their fellow vacationers. If you had to boil the film down to its essential plot, that’s it. The long story, however, features about a half dozen diversions, including an extended opening sequence that ostensibly introduces the quartet (played by drive-in regulars Marki Bey, Pat Woodell, Connie Strickland, and Roberta Collins) but feels like unashamed padding. There’s a beachside conversation about the women’s lib movement, a skeezy sex party, a sit-up contest, and gaudy leopard skin rugs. God, the 70s were ugly and amazing all that once.
None of this has much of anything to do with the main murder plot, which doesn’t kick in until about 40 minutes in and only after more padding: not only does the film follow each girl’s individual exploits, but it also finds time to highlight some of the nearby citizens, like an uptight hotel operator who is convinced her son will be a cruel womanizer just like his faithless old man (hmmm). This stretch of the film is kind of brutal, as there’s very little to bring it alive: the gals are fun to hang with, but the script is ridiculously languid about giving them anything to do. One strikes up a romance with the local sheriff, while another gets involved with an older guy looking to settle down. Another serves as a nurse at the local camp, which is populated by twentysomethings trying to pass as teenagers. At one point, I began to wonder if these girls were actually roommates because they spend very little time with each other.
At any rate, business finally picks up with the first murder, but not for the reasons you might expect. No, the death itself is pretty standard fare, especially by early slashing standards. Instead, it’s everyone’s reaction to the horror surrounding them—or, rather, their complete non-reaction. No one is particularly shaken up, and everyone’s routine continues as normal, from the awkward courtships to the constant partying. It’s not just an isolated incident, either: as the body count mounts, so too does everyone’s complete nonchalance. A girl gets shot to death while waterskiing? The cops can’t help but give the killer credit for being a hell of a shot. Two of the main girls are terrorized in their own homes? Naturally, they throw a party the very next day. As this pattern recurs, it only becomes more outrageous: how is it that nobody seems to give a damn that a psychopath is on the loose?
Such nonsensical motivations would typically cripple a film, but The Roommates turns it into a fascinating asset. Without it, the film would just be some dumb, boring slasher with unimpressive kills and a litany of dispensable characters and subplots; with it, The Roommates becomes an interesting reflection of a 70s mindset that simply shook the cobwebs from the hippie hangover. Imagine if the Summer of Love era had merely shrugged its shoulders at the Manson Family murders and soldiered on, unabated into the next decade. I imagine it would look a lot like this: full of free love in the face of both imminent death and decency, with the need to party trumping any natural survival instincts. It’s almost unbelievable that it arrived only a year after The Last House on the Left. Where Craven gutted and buried the flower child era under a layer of grime and filth, The Roommates keeps it on life support by pretending the late 60s simply never happened.
I doubt this was ever intended, but it adds an interesting dimension to what could have been an otherwise forgettable early effort from drive-in maestro Arthur Marks. While it has its other eccentricities and curiosities (it’s essentially Psycho by way of a 70s sitcom!), its total refusal to deal in rational, human behavior is unreal. When you’ve managed to craft a film where a camp nurse tries to bed one of the campers and it’s not the most outrageous event, you’ve succeeded on at least one level. As a slasher, it might not deliver the same gory goods as its descendants, but it does feature these sort of wacky flourishes expected of the genre, including a game cast of lovely ladies. Even when they’re stuck in horrible, melodramatic subplots (as Collins is for most of the movie), they’re clearly having a blast and infuse the film with both sass and denseness. Never have you been more convinced by a group of girls writing off a slew of murders as “one crazy summer.” You imagine they’ve probably encountered and survived weirder shit through the sheer power of partying.
Following The Roommates, Marks would stick to the drive-in circuit, where he especially carved his niche into the Blaxploitation genre. Those films (particularly Detroit 9000 and JD’s Revenge) have proven to be more popular over the past four decades, though they’ve had a bit of an unfair advantage since The Roommates has never been released on home video in the US. Thanks to Gorgon Video, that’s no longer the case, as the resurrected label has given Marks’s early work a new lease on life with a nice DVD/Blu-ray double feature that pairs The Roommates with A Woman for All Men. Considering how obscure the film is, the elements used for the transfer here are in remarkable shape, as the film’s garish color palette pops off of the screen. The PCM 2.0 track is expectedly a little anemic, though that owes more to the source material more than anything. Gorgon even commissioned an audio commentary with Marks and has provided separate interviews with the director and Collins.
Lavishing such attention on an essentially forgotten film would be commendable even if The Roommates weren’t so unwittingly fascinating as an odd 70s relic. It might (faintly) anticipate Friday the 13th and other hormonal slashers, but it's not the least bit concerned with blighting promiscuity. Instead, it chooses to laugh off that notion and drive off towards the next party. Buy it!
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