Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
As a teen in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was bored by Friday the 13th, thought the ending of Carrie was cheap and stupid, and found Halloween exciting but without much impact.
Want to know what movie truly scared me?
My records (yes, I kept records back then) show that on May 18, 1979, my 16-year-old self caught a late-night TV showing of Last Summer, which was actually released in theaters a decade earlier.
What was I expecting?
From the title alone, probably something sexy and nostalgic — something akin to Summer of ’42, a bittersweet drama about a lad coming of age thanks in large part to a beautiful, lonely woman whose husband is otherwise engaged fighting in World War II. (A boy can dream, right?
Or maybe it would be something along the lines of Corvette Summer, the forgettable flick that many of us got suckered into parting with our $3 for because it had that guy from that cool space movie in it.
Instead … well, damn.
Last Summer concerns Peter (Richard Thomas, that wholesome guy I knew as John-Boy from The Waltons) and Dan (Bruce Davison, who I vaguely knew from the MAD magazine parody of Willard) as a pair of guys pretty close to my age … and close to my scrawny build.
They are summering on Fire Island and, hey, guess what? I lived on an island, too. “Jeez, these guys are maybe kinda like me,” I thought.
They stumble into the orbit of enigmatic teen Sandy (Barbara Hershey) and feel like they have entered paradise. They hang out together doing all sorts of things, including swimming, getting high, pulling a fishing hook out of a seagull’s throat and cautiously trying to figure out if maybe something, you know, physical might happen.
Their temporary, sand-in-the-bathing-suit Eden is interrupted by the arrival of Rhoda (Catherine Burns in an Oscar-nominated performance), whose awkward teen-ness might be recognized by those who cringed through Eighth Grade. Rhoda is older than the young woman in that film, though, and she wants to be included. And she is. Sort of.
It didn’t take a course in symbolism for my teen self to clue in on the idea that the treatment of the seagull and the treatment of Rhoda would collide. But I wasn’t prepared for where the film was heading and how quickly a couple of nice kids (just like my friends and me, right?) can lose their moral centers.
There are other lenses through which to look at this remarkable film, though.
Consider it as one of the quartet of films created by the then-married team of director Frank Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry, the others being David and Lisa, The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife. All troubling, well-written films with attention to awkward, uncomfortable detail. A clear cinematic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, neither Perry came close to this level of work once they separated.
You can also appreciate the versatility of book writer Evan Hunter, whose prolific multiple-personality career includes writing the novels on which the landmark Blackboard Jungle and justifiably forgotten gang flick Walk Proud were based. He also penned the screenplay for The Birds and, under the pseudonym of Ed McBain, wrote the long-running series of 87th Precinct novels that included the sources for the film Fuzz and a couple of Columbo episodes.
You can look at it as an early film of Hershey (who, for a while, took on the name Seagull based on her experience here), Thomas and Davison — three very different actors who went on to very different, successful careers. And you can marvel at how Burns, the one of the four who gave a nominated performance, not only left acting shortly thereafter but deliberately disappeared from the Hollywood radar altogether. (Read that fascinating story here.)
But for me, all those are side stories to my primal first experience with Last Summer. As I watched it on the late show, volume turned down so my mother wouldn’t hear, I knew that, just a few blocks from my home, the boardwalk was filled with Sandys and Rhodas and Peters and Dans.
Most of them were probably good kids who were capable of doing very horrible things.
The sun-drenched images of teens at tipping points in Last Summer have stayed with me for decades. And that’s a good thing.
Because I know that this disturbing, fascinating film — seen at a transitional time — helped keep me from making some very wrong turns.