Western Film WTF: The Nasty Rabbit (1964)
Aficionados of cult cinema are generally quite familiar with Arch Hall Jr., the lumpily handsome actor/singer who generally starred in films produced by his father, Arch Hall Sr. The elder Hall was a former South Dakota cowboy turned Western movie actor who started his own film company in Burbank in the 1950s, grinding out b-movies for the drive-in circuit. Hall had some additional notoriety: He was the basis for Robert Mitchum's lethargic, scheming character in the film "The Last Time I Saw Archie."
Arch Hall Sr.'s films included "Eegah," an unfrozen caveman movie the introduced the world to Richard Kiel, the 7'1" actor who would later appear in a series of James Bond movies as Jaws, "Wild Guitar." in which Arch Hall Jr. plays an aspiring rock star with an unscrupulous manager, and "The Corpse Grinders," in which a cat food manufacturer starts sourcing his meat from a local cemetery.
Hall Sr.'s films were typically fairly inept and low-budget, but charmingly so, and provided opportunities for some world-class weirdness, including a longstanding business relationship with filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler, who created a series of imaginative, profoundly odd films with titles like "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies" and "Rat Pfink a Boo Boo."
Hall Sr. produced two films that could vaguely be called Westerns: "The Nasty Rabbit," a berserk "Wild Wild World" ripoff set on a ranch, and "deadwood '76," in which Arch Hall Jr. played a drifter mistaken for Billy the Kid.
I will write about both, but will begin with "The Nasty Rabbit," the weirder of the two films. The story is relatively straightforward, in that it tells of a Russian plot to release a rabbit carrying a poison near the Continental Divide of the Americas, causing the mass poisoning of everyone on the continent. An international group of spies converge on a nearby ranch, including Arch Hall Jr., a pop star who also happens to be a spy.
The setup is a pretext for a series of set pieces in which the spies bumble their spying, none of which manages to be very funny, both because the performers tend to rely on making faces and the director tends to rely on simply speeding things up, Keystone Cops-style. Also, the rabbit talks sometimes, usually a sardonic aside to the audience. None of it is comedy, it's all simulacra of comedy, and quickly gets tedious.
So I can't recommend the film as a comedy. However, there are a few performers in the film who, in this chaotic whirlwind of rubber faces and undercranked action, manage to be genuinely interesting. Arch Hall is not one of them, unfortunately; he's a cheerful and comfortable presence in the film, but not especially memorable.
The ranch owner has a daughter, played by Sharon Ryker, who dresses like a Rhythm Ranch Girl in cowboy hat and chaps and looks like a pre-teen Parker Posey (the film suggests she's 18, but that hardly seems possible.) The script mostly has her pining for Arch Hall Jr., but she's a delight nonetheless, offering a performance full of little moments that are frankly adorable. She never appeared in another movie, which is a shame, as she was a genuine discovery. I think I might have discovered her on Facebook, where she was posed in a series of photos with her husband, a craft services professional in Hollywood, both toasting the camera with wine glasses in places like Orlanda and Italy. I briefly thought of emailing to ask why she gave up acting, but then it occurred to me that I need not bother. If that's her in the photos, she seems happy.
The other standout performance in the film is also by a woman, and what a woman — Liz Renay. I'm not clear on precisely what Renay is supposed to be the film. She's affected some sort of accent and talks a lot about love, so maybe French? It's not a great accent, and, honestly, not a great performance. But there are great performances, and there are great performers, and Renay was the latter.
I read abotu Renay before I ever saw her perform: She was a favorite of John Waters, and he recommended her autobiography, "My Face for the World to See," which I tracked down years ago at a Los Angeles thrift store and devoured. Renay was a force of nature, a naturally gorgeous woman who literally walked out of a bad marriages with both her kids under her arms before she was 18.
She quickly found work as a Vegas showgirl and exotic dancer, and quickly found herself in a series of relationships with mobsters, including Mickey Cohen, the crime boss of Los Angeles. She got caught up in their schemes and perjured herself about the subject, ending up spending almost three years behind bars.
Renay had a showgirl's sense of spectacle, and so there is no moment in this film where she isn't enthusiastically present, purring her dialogue and promising love, love, the only thing that's worth anything, more love!
In fact, she gets the film's only genuinely terrific visual joke. She's locked in a closet and produces an electric reciprocating saw from somewhere. She uses it to saw a hole in the door, just big enough to reach her hand through to unlock the thing from the other side. But, keeping with her character, she saws the hole in the shape of a heart.
There is one other aspect of this film I should mention, because I also found it delightful. As he typically did, Arch Hall Sr. gave his son a few opportunities to strap on a guitar and sing a few songs. He does this at the ranch, so the audience is all young ranch hands and their girlfriends, and most of them are wearing cowboy hats. They dance a rather typical collection of 60s dances as Arch Hall Jr. sings, and I've never seen a crowd of cowboy hats move like that.
It looks great.