Hear the name Herschell Gordon Lewis, and you may picture in your mind's eye gouts of blood and gore, intestines being dangled in front of the screen and the somewhat dubious acting skills of playmate Connie Mason. There's a non-gore stream to the directing output of the man though, and although there is some blood right towards the end of the film, Just for the Hell of it eschews the trademark gore for the most part. What we have here is a foray into nihilistic morality and hippy-beatnik violence, which ends on quite a surprising note for a film made nearly forty years ago. Thank the wonders of DVD for bringing these gems to our attention after all this time.
We begin the film with a bunch of reasonably wholesome looking youths at a party. One of them douses a male partygoer with a vase of water. After an ominous pause, the doused one smashes a mirror with the vase. Then it's on for everyone. Over the course of about ten minutes, the whole gang of kids smash up the place, just for kicks. These extras are having a lot of fun, I can tell you. We then hear the unforgettable lyrics of the film's sixties theme, "Destruction". That's the essence of what this "gang" is about - destruction. Dexter (Ray Sager) is the main leader of the gang and straight-looking enough to get out of most problems with the law. Most of the film involves the hoodlums, who vary in number but are mainly Dexter, his squeeze, the red-headed vixen Mitzi (Nancy Lee Noble), Denny (Steve White), Lummox (Ralph Mullin) and Cransy (Larry Williams) committing all sorts of mean pranks on innocent townsfolk. They throw buckets of paint on people from cars. They light fires in people's lawns then squirt the owners as they come out to investigate. They tear up peoples magazines as they read them. Pull washing off clotheslines and trample them. Sounds innocuous enough? So far so good, but things are going to get mean.
Straight guy Doug (Rodney Bedell) and his girlfriend Jeanne (Agi Gyenes) have a past with Dexter. Doug got him out of trouble once a few years ago. Back to the present though, and Doug has a run-in with Denny, insulting him in the street. Denny wants revenge, but Dexter feels he owes Doug and warns him first at a bar. Denny's a wild card though, and after slashing Doug that night with a bottle, Doug rallies and manages to fend him off after a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Sometime later the gang goes on another rampage. They beat up blind guys and men on crutches. They pull a baby out a pram when a mother isn't looking, stick him upright in a trashcan, then smash the pram to bits! They burn a guy's hands on a stovetop after he rings the cops when they smash up his diner. They invite three schoolgirls to a party and proceed to drug and rape them, then dump them somewhere in the country - off-screen. They even crash a kid's game of baseball, fighting with the kids and who happens to come along, but Doug and Jeanne. Doug tries to stop them, and they end up bashing him. As Jeanne looks on, an old woman blames Doug for the fracas and calls the cops, who end up hauling away the wrong guy, much to the amusement of the gang.
That night, one of the gang calls Jeanne and threatens them both. Doug goes to confront Dexter at the bar, but Dexter says they're even now, and that these two squares are now on their own. The gang goes to the beach, find a young couple and bash the guy into unconsciousness, then rape the girl. They then proceed to smash their old boat to pieces, and throw the guy in the sea. Later they encounter Doug and Jeanne at a pool, and say they'll see them soon. Dexter has had enough of the goody-two-shoes couple and wants to teach them a lesson. He gets Mitzi to call Doug over to her place on the pretext that she knows something bad the gang wants to do to them, and she's had enough of their violent ways. Jeanne is left alone, to change into the weirdest piece of pink lingerie I've ever seen. I don't often include a second picture in these write-ups, but here it is, below...
Soon, it's all over for the unfortunate Jeanne, though. Four of the hoodlums break in and attack her, her pitiable shrieks echoing into the night. I actually felt a twinge of pity for the character here, as you get the feeling she's not going to survive this attack, even though you don't really see anything. Doug realises he's been duped by the despicable Mitzi and drags her back to Jeanne's house. We see the sorry state of Jeanne after the attack. Killed by her attackers, she has wounds all over her partially nude - but discreetly covered for the audience - body. It's pretty clear she's been sexually mutilated by the amount of blood over her nether-regions. This is pretty strong stuff for the love-and-peace era! Mitzi escapes with Denny on a motorbike and the enraged Doug takes off in vengeful hot pursuit in his convertible. Will he wipe out the gang and have his revenge? What about Dexter, who didn't actually participate in Jeanne's rape and murder, having merely pulled the strings from behind the scenes? Watch the film for a pretty shocking final note.
Well, A Clockwork Orange doesn't have ownership of the ultraviolence concept. While it starts off pretty silly with its pranks on bumbling civilians, Just for the Hell of it quickly gets nasty and by the time we see the state of poor dead Jeanne, things have gotten mighty serious. While there's no great acting involved, you can't help but feel something for the unfortunate girl. Most of the first three quarters of the film is the gang - both male and female - attacking people and raising Hell, which could bore some viewers into switching over to something else. Stick with it though, Herschell is going somewhere here. The cheap pranks are building to rape and murder. Amorality and nihilism cannot lead anywhere but further into darkness.
For those of you with a penchant for vintage exploitation, you can do a lot worse than Just for the Hell of it. Aside from any thematic concerns, you've got the great sixties decor, clothes and soundtrack. After these surface thrills you can appreciate the pretty confronting violence and themes. Lewis has crafted a fairly potent essay on mindless evil, despite the sometimes clunky performances and low budget.
© Boris Lugosi, 2006.
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