The film career of John Hayes ran from the early 1960s to the 1980s, and he did work both in front of and behind the camera. Hayes wore a number of hats in film production, from editing and sound to writing and directing. His films as director ranged from horror films like GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972) to hardcore features like PLEASURE ZONE (1983). Some of his work has been previously released on DVD by Vinegar Syndrome, including a Peekarama double-feature of Hayes’s hardcore films BABY ROSEMARY (1976) and HOT LUNCH (1978), and two films he wrote that were directed by Chris Warfield, PURELY PHYSICAL (1982) and CHAMPAGNE FOR BREAKFAST (1980). Recently Vinegar Syndrome released two discs of Hayes’s directorial work that had been extremely difficult to see before, giving exploitation film fans a chance to catch up on more of his non-genre/non-adult work.
First up is Hayes’s WWII “heist” thriller THE CUT-THROATS (1969). In the final days of the war, Sergeant Joseph Tackney (Jay Lee) is recruited into a ragtag crew led by Captain Kohler (E.J. Walsh) to infiltrate a Nazi base to steal stop secret plans. They handily storm the base and eliminate the Nazis, and fortunately for our boys, the base is occupied by a bunch of young women happy to be released from the grasp of their villainous captors. The women put on a burlesque show for the soldiers (including one woman in deeply upsetting clown makeup) and then everyone retires to their respective rooms for the evening.
But Kohler’s plan is not exactly what he told his squad: he’s actually after a fortune in stolen jewels and gold, and he’s not interested in sharing his ill-gotten gains with anyone.
THE CUT-THROATS is mostly entertaining, although it gets off to a very rough start with a long, pointless rape scene between a Nazi goon and a woman wandering the countryside. Which, incidentally, looks suspiciously like California. After that bit of serious unpleasantness is over, the film settles into a fairly standard no-budget action/exploitation mode. There is a lot of screen time devoted to the ladies at the base bedding the Nazis and American soldiers, naturally, and some very brief action sequences. There is also a scene later in the film with Uschi Digard and a Nazi officer celebrating the end of the war that is just barely related to any of the rest of the film, and a completely nonsensical finale in which one of the American soldiers pretends to get shot and then spends the entire climactic shootout in a lengthy sex scene with one of the base girls, while Kohler tries to wipe out everyone and take all the loot for himself. THE CUT-THROATS delivers cheap thrills, which is exactly what it advertises.
Following the limited-edition DVD release of Alan Ormsby‘s MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS (1973), Vinegar Syndrome gave THE CUT-THROATS a similar release originally given away to customers who preordered one of the company’s monthly bundles for May or June. The disc is now available as a standard disc through their online store and at convention appearances. Previously only available on poorly-transferred VHS, this new DVD features a 2K transfer of THE CUT-THROATS from 35mm elements. It looks great, and the disc includes a feature and a stills gallery. Overall, this is an interesting artifact of early American exploitation-cinema representations of Nazis, made around the same time as Lee Frost’s LOVE CAMP 7 (1969).
The other recent release of Hayes’s films is a Drive-In Collection double feature DVD of SWEET TRASH and THE HANG UP (both 1970).
SWEET TRASH is a strange story about an organized crime family that takes orders from some sort of supercomputer; instructions are printed out for the next person to shake down, murder, etc. When the computer orders a drunk dockworker to be forced to join the family, pay his gambling debts, or die, it seems like the computer might have made a mistake. THE HANG UP follows a bitter, repressed vice cop as he falls for a young prostitute and his life spins out of control. Will he come to his senses before he crosses the line, or is it already too late?
Hayes’s work was at its best and most distinctive when he was working in a mode of thrift-store surrealism. DREAM NO EVIL and BABY ROSEMARY are both distinctly unsettling films more because of the bizarre tone, acting, and locations than anything specifically genre-related in their narratives. Those films truly do proceed with the logic of dreams and nightmares, suddenly shifting in tone from creepy to weirdly humorous and inexplicable without notice.
SWEET TRASH includes a few scenes that drift into this nightmare world, but for the most part it plays more like a straightforward crime drama. The dialogue and acting calls to mind Matt Cimber’s SINGLE ROOM FURNISHED, a film that feels very much like stereotypical 50s or 60s American theater about life on the skids. Hayes had apparently tried to make a career as a playwright before moving into film, and it shows.
THE HANG UP, on the other hand, is very much a straight psychological drama about a cop who finally goes over the edge. Aside from an early trip to a “sex club” in the basement of a large mansion, there’s nothing overtly surreal in the movie. It’s competently made but not terribly distinctive, and its lead character is unfortunately both morally repellant and not all that interesting. He’s just a bitter, judgmental middle-aged guy who, for whatever reason, suddenly finds himself willing to risk everything for a young prostitute. THE HANG UP is a grim, interesting curiosity, and for fans of Hayes’s other films, it’s required viewing.
Vinegar Syndrome has given SWEET TRASH and THE HANG UP both 2K restorations from their 35mm negatives, so they both look great. The disc also includes original theatrical trailers for each film. This is unquestionably the best presentation these films have ever received on home video in any format. Here’s hoping more of Hayes’s films are on deck for future VS releases — he was a unique filmmaker whose work deserves to be rediscovered by a wider audience.
Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
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