Southern Movie 56: “Poor Pretty Eddie” (1975)
The first time I watched the 1975 film Poor Pretty Eddie, I kept thinking, “What the hell . . . is this . . . ?” I would say that the story centers on an African-American singer who is travelling alone in the South then gets stranded with car trouble, but it’s really more about the backwoods freak show that she encounters while trying to get her car fixed. The film’s title character is a deranged Elvis wannabe with an aging sugar momma. They live in an array of isolated vacation cabins in the Deep South, while a handful of assorted weirdos play supporting roles. Not exactly the place for an attractive black lady in the mid-’70s, but that’s what we’ve got here. Some call this Southern gothic, others a horror movie, still others say it’s blaxploitation, which could be why it came out under the alternate titles Heartbreak Motel, Redneck County Rape, and Black Vengeance. (To be frank, the title Poor Pretty Eddie does not sum up or even describe this movie.)
Poor Pretty Eddie begins with a focus on Liz Weatherly (Leslie Uggams), who is exhausted from her busy career as a famous singer. We first see her singing the national anthem at a football game, but we find out through a voiceover that she wants to get away and rest. Liz hits the road in a big, fancy car, but breaks down in an isolated part of the Deep South. Seeking help, she wanders, bag in hand, down a heavily forested dirt road and finds a dilapidated lodge. It appears to be autumn, the whole place is unkempt, and old cars in various states of disrepair litter the large yard. If that wasn’t scary enough for her, the first thing she encounters, when she swings open a barn door, is the large and frightening Kino chopping the head off a chicken. His scowling face has a scar down one side, and he asks gruffly what she wants. Frightened but with no choice but to be in this place, Liz Weatherly tells him that her car has broken down.
So, Kino takes her into the barroom, where Eddie Collins (Michael Christian) is sipping on a Budweiser and twitching to the old-time country music coming from the jukebox. Collins may not be handsome, but he clearly thinks that he is. His hair helmet, sideburns, hairy chest, white tank undershirt, and blue jeans all scream redneck Casanova, and his abusive treatment of Kino in front of Liz screams alpha male. Once Eddie is through ordering Kino around, telling him to tow her car to their place, he flashes his winning smile at Liz, who is not having it. She asks for a room, and he hands her a clipboard to give her name, which he recognizes immediately. Then, Eddie begins to lay it on thick. But Liz is still not hearing it. She just wants to go to her room. Eddie tells her that he’ll give her cabin six, which has air conditioning. So far, things are a little creepy but not toooooooo bad.
Poor Pretty Eddie gets really creepy in the next two scenes. First, we meet Bertha (Shelly Winters), who we discern from the pictures on her wall, her style of dress, and the decor in her room is an aging chorus girl or possibly minor movie star from the days of old Hollywood. She wanders around in a negligee and feather boa, drinking vodka, and playing an old record on a Victrola. Bertha seems fine in her little world until she sees out the window that Eddie is escorting Liz to a cabin. Realizing that there is another woman on site, she begins to make herself up.
Once they’re in the cabin, it is clear what Eddie is up to. He sheepishly apologizes for the mess, telling Liz that he sometimes crashes in the room when he’s working his music. On the walls are an array of nude pin-ups, one of which he snatches down with a playful grin. Liz is not amused, but Eddie keeps on trying to seduce her. Ultimately, she gives him some cash and half-pushes him out of the room. Eddie insists that he should clean up the room some more, but all Liz wants is privacy.
Back in the barroom, Eddie is surprised by Bertha, who has gotten all gussied up. Eddie plays dumb, but Bertha demands to know about the woman and why she is there. Eddie tries to appease her, saying that Liz will be gone by nightfall, which he knows isn’t true. She berates him for putting Liz in her cabin, then accuses him of having a wandering eye. Eddie then reassures her, kissing her neck and snuggling with her, a grotesque scene to be sure.
Then, Kino returns with Liz’s car – what looks to be a Rolls Royce or a Bentley – and Eddie is immediately impressed. He tells Bertha that they need a car like that. As the ugly but calm giant Kino unhooks the car from the tow chain, Eddie lurks around, rubbing on the fine automobile. Kino begins to put water in the radiator, which he tells Eddie and Bertha is all that’s broken, but Eddie gets angry and removes the hose after Bertha leaves. Kino sees what is happening, and when Eddie tries to strong-arm his employee, Kino replies by snatching Eddie up and putting a menacing karate chop just shy of the smaller man’s neck. We understand the men’s relationship as antagonistic. Kino leaves the scene laughing, and after he’s gone, Eddie pulls a few connections loose to ensure that the car won’t start.
Interposed with the end of this scene and continuing beyond it, we watch Liz taking photographs around the place. Her camera focuses on the dense forest, rusting trucks, and murky water. Meanwhile, the tension between Eddie and Bertha rachets up when Bertha finds Eddie putting on his best sparkly Elvis jumpsuit. He claims that he’ll finish fixing the car after supper, but Bertha doesn’t see him doing that in his performing outfit.
Enter the sheriff (Slim Pickens) and his mentally challenged son. Pickens brings his aw-shucks demeanors and toothy grin to this portrayal too, and we quickly realize his grown son is a little off because he is wearing a belt on his overalls and is shooting random things with a slingshot. Of course, the father gives his son a kick in the seat of the pants as a “Cut it out!” Bertha comes out to welcome the father and son, and she invites them to come to dinner. The sheriff wonders out loud why Eddie is dressed up and whether Bertha bought him the white car nearby. Bertha is wandering off and twists an ankle in her high-heeled shoe. Maybe we’re supposed to laugh at all this, I don’t know.
At the dinner table in the barroom, they are all gathered: Kino in a coat and tie, Eddie in his sparkly suit, Bertha dolled up. Liz looks confused and dismayed. The sheriff tries to make conversation with Liz in his overstated country way, then insists that their famous guest should hear Eddie sing. She obviously wouldn’t care to, but everyone except Kino insists. Out loud, the sheriff tells her that Eddie is a favorite at the local VFW then whispers that he can’t sing any better than he can fix cars. Meanwhile, Eddie has gotten his guitar, and while he introduces himself with a monologue more appropriate to an actual concert, he drops the guitar on the floor. We can tell that this is going to be bad. Eddie does his best Elvis, which is probably as good as the average impersonator, and everyone grins their approval except Liz, who is being hit on by the sheriff. He is offering to get her out of there by taking her home with him. But outside, he eggs Eddie on, saying that Liz was making eyes at him while he was singing . . .
When dinner is over, the group leaves Kino to clean up and goes outside. Eddie pursues Liz in the dark, offering her a nighttime ride in the Jeep to see the scenery. She declines, and soon Bertha is hollering after Eddie. The older woman finds them by the car and gets belligerent with Eddie. He blows her off, saying she is drunk. This situation, though, belies Eddie’s true intentions.
Next we see, Liz is coming downstairs in her cabin, wearing her nightclothes, and Eddie is sitting shirtless on her bed. He tries and fails to seduce her once again. It is when she knees him in the balls that he snaps and proceeds to attack then rape her. This three or four minutes of the movie is very bizarre. While the violence between Eddie and Liz is occurring at night, the film cuts back and forth to another daytime scene where a truckload of people have brought a dog to mate with Kino’s dog. Kino throws the dog into the pen, and we simultaneously watch Liz get raped and the two dogs mate, while a folksy country song (sung by a woman) plays. During the rape scene, no nudity shown but it is slow-motion, violent, and disturbing. What makes it more so is that there are also brief visuals of men on the fence watching the dog-mating scene.
Once that part is over, the next scene has Bertha rebutting Liz’s accusations of rape, while Eddie is nowhere to be found. Bertha is not interested in facts or morals, but only in whether Eddie remains there with her. Liz angrily relays that she doesn’t care about Bertha or Eddie, and asks for the older woman’s help. It isn’t coming.
In the light of day, then, Eddie is taking Liz on that sightseeing trip. He puts Liz in the Jeep and drives to a dam, where he has her taking promo-style pictures of him in his Elvis jumpsuit and with his guitar. Their faces show that, to him, it is a date and, to her, it is a nightmare. Liz Weatherly is in survival mode, while Eddie Collins is living out his fantasy. At the end of the scene, this culminates in Liz imagining that she is shooting him not with a camera but with a gun, leaving his bloody body on an old dead tree trunk.
What follows is a few quick-succession scenes of Bertha making Eddie angry with her accusations against him, some slow-motion imagery of someone with a shotgun shooting a bird out of the sky, then Liz eyeing a station wagon, presumably as a possibility for escape.
Inside the barroom, we see who is driving the station wagon. A surly and probably drunk white man (with ridiculously messy hair) is eating a plate of food and gulping down beer while talking to Bertha. Liz comes into the barroom where they are and tries to talk Bertha into getting her out of there. She concedes that Bertha wants Eddie and that helping her leave is the way to have him. But Bertha does her dirty. She puts Liz in the car with the man, who seems to be a traveling salesman perhaps, and he drives her to a secluded spot to sexually abuse her as well. The problem for him is that Eddie has hidden in the back seat. Eddie discovers them in the act, and though we don’t see what happens to the man, we do see him whip Liz with a belt.
Here is where the story begins to shift. Back at the home place, Bertha and Kino are cleaning up when Eddie comes back. Bertha has been talking to Kino about selling the place and moving on, but Eddie comes in being his normal charming self. Of course, Bertha has no idea what has happened, thinking that she put Liz in the car with the old man, so now she’s gone. Outside, in the dark, Liz is tiptoeing toward the Jeep to make another escape. Kino comes out quietly and sees her while petting his dog, but does nothing to stop her. Liz makes a successful escape and is flying down a two-lane road, when a police car in the trees pulls out to follow her.
At the police station, the officer brings in Liz in cuffs, and the sheriff laughs at her presence. No need for the cuffs, he tells the officer, then asks Liz what the problem is. She wants to press charges— for assault, auto theft, kidnapping . . . and rape. This last one gets the sheriff’s hackles up. He gets a clipboard from his son, but before he begins, he asks Liz if she wants to “suck on a tomato.” She declines, so he gets one for himself and begins eating. Instead of taking down her statement, the sheriff is drawing dirty pictures and asking lascivious questions, showing himself to be both inept and perverted. Liz explains that Eddie raped her the night before and again that afternoon, but the sheriff tells her that it wasn’t too smart to hang around and let it happen again.
So, they head down to the local barroom where Eddie, Bertha, and an array of locals are assembled, drinking and listening to music. The bar is owned by the justice of the peace (Dub Taylor), who is wearing a stained t-shirt that is far too small. The sheriff speaks to him, and when Eddie comes over, they have to tell him about Liz’s charges. Of course, he denies them. So, the justice of the peace declares that they will have a trial, right then and there. Now, we see the old man’s motives and goals. The first thing he asks for is evidence, wanting Liz Weatherly to stand up on a table and take off her shirt to expose alleged bite marks on her breast. She is, of course, mortified and terrified, but the justice of the peace gets tired of waiting and rips her shirt open. Then all hell breaks loose, which the filmmakers put in slow motion, adding a Jew’s harp and an array of primal screaming for effect. This technique makes the scene all the more horrific, as we watch Liz continue to suffer amid the fighting.
What we see in that barroom remains unresolved, but after the scene changes, Eddie comes back home with Bertha and Liz, who has obviously been handed back over to her captor. The trio gets out of the car, and Kino is standing on the porch. Eddie threatens him, knowing it was he who allowed Liz to escape. Bertha remains defiant, after Eddie leaves with Liz, clearly taking her to bed with him. Bertha pleads with Kino, but he has no answers for her.
The next morning, Eddie greets them all with a smile, saying that he has fixed everyone a nice breakfast as an apology. Bertha is hungover, Kino is wary, and Liz is traumatized, but the backwoods Elvis still tries to charm them. He tells them that he caught a rabbit and made stew. They all begin to eat, Bertha telling him that it’s good, but the peace is broken when Liz finds a dog collar in her bowl! This isn’t rabbit— it’s Kino’s dog. Bertha and Liz both burst into hysterics, Eddie bursts into laughter, and while Kino is figuring it all out, Eddie hits him in the back with a big tree limb. With Kino on the floor, Eddie can run amok. To cap it all off, he throws the dog’s skin onto the table.
As Poor Pretty Eddie comes to a close, the title character’s craziness has come to a head. We see Liz have a mental breakdown, staring in the mirror. Then Eddie comes into where Bertha is sleeping to tell her that people from town are coming over for a wedding. Bertha thinks he is talking about the two of them and gets excited, but Eddie retorts angrily that she won’t be the bride. Even though he doesn’t say it, we know who will be. Yet, Liz is in no condition. When Eddie takes her the dress that he took away from Bertha, Liz is stone cold and catatonic.
The movie’s final scene is a wedding in the barroom. Some locals are there, including the sheriff and the justice of the peace. Eddie is dressed up, and an exhausted Liz appears in Bertha’s wedding dress. Waiting on the ceremony, the justice of the peace remarks to the sheriff that Yankees are just like hemorrhoids: if they come down and go back, it’s fine, but if they come down and stay down, they’re a pain in the ass! (Once again, the pair seems to function as comic relief, but at this point, it’s out of place.) Before everything can take place, Eddie has to go in the back to get something for the food service, and Kino is waiting back there. The giant attacks and tries to strangle him, but Eddie manages to grasp a large kitchen knife and stabs Kino several times. Eddie being Eddie, he changes his clothes into another sparkly jumpsuit, this one yellow, and goes out to get married to the woman he has been victimizing.
But not so fast. The end of Poor Pretty Eddie comes quickly but is done in slow motion, like the rape and the barroom brawl were. Kino comes bursting in with a pump shotgun and blasts Eddie. The sheriff returns fire, wounding first the justice of the peace then Kino. Throughout this shooting, there are sounds of animalistic wailing amid the slow-motion violence. Then, as Kino falls, the sounds change as Liz picks up the gun. A female country singer lets out a somber rendition of “Amazing Grace” as Liz finishes the job, blasting Eddie one more time before destroying a mirror to end the film.
The blog Birth. Movies. Death. wrote of Poor Pretty Eddie: “This Southern Gothic hicksploitation shocker is one of the sleaziest exploitation films ever made,” and another blogger called it a “putrid exploitation shocker that lives up to its notorious reputation.” Ultimately, it’s hard to say what genre this film is. Exploitation might the best descriptor. It has elements of the action, thriller, and horror genres, but parts of it are so bizarre as to defy classification. Other parts are so unseemly as to offend a decent person’s sensibilities. For example, to have the rape of Liz superimposed with two dogs being mated in a pen, while playing to a light folk-country song about love . . . what the hell? Also, it seems like Slim Pickens’ sheriff and Dub Taylor’s justice of the peace are supposed to provide comic relief, but in the context of what is happening, these two sick portrayals aren’t funny at all. Other aspects are so random as to be inane additions to the cruelty, like the drunk traveling salesman who Bertha tries to give Liz to.
As a document of the South, 1975’s Poor Pretty Eddie plays on the same fears we see in more exaggerated form in 1964’s Two Thousand Maniacs and in 1973’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes— the idea that, when civilized people leave the cities and go out into the sparsely populated countryside, there will be amoral and ruthlessly sadistic people committing gross atrocities because they can. In Two Thousand Maniacs, the small-town murderers do have a reason – to avenge the South’s loss in the Civil War – but in the two 1973 films, there is no reason, just insanity. In Poor Pretty Eddie, which was filmed in Georgia, there’s a mix of the two. Eddie does have a goal – to be a country singer – but he seems to believe that raping and imprisoning a famous singer will help to get him there. Bertha wants to keep Eddie to herself, but does nothing about Eddie’s obvious crimes. The buffoonish sheriff and the incompetent justice of the peace claim to work for law and order, but then indulge their starvation for sex and their desire to abuse a helpless black woman. The businessman in the station wagon is nothing but a predator. The scarred and twisted Kino, it seems, could have been the one decent person among them; however, he ignores or tolerates what is done to Liz Weatherly and is only incited to action when Eddie kills his beloved dog. The story, its characters, and their actions tell us that post-Civil Rights whites in the South are demented in every way. (Don’t fail to notice the Confederate flag in the barroom during Liz’s “trial.”) The trope used here, which resembles Erskine Caldwell’s paradigm in some ways, builds upon the Civil Rights-era stereotype of white Southerners as not only uncivilized and backwards, but also rabidly violent, insane with racism, and obsessed with sex.
On the other hand, Poor Pretty Eddie delves into a seldom-discussed subject: the sexual abuse of black women by white men in the South. Where Liz Weatherly is an outsider, not a local, her isolation is still used against her. Eddie’s role is clear and cruel. Bertha is an example of a white woman who turns a blind eye to what her white man is doing to a black woman, even going so far as to regard the black woman as the problem. Kino represents the apathetic on-looker, who doesn’t participate in the abuse but who does condone it by being aware but passive. Finally, the sheriff and the justice of the peace represent the South’s law enforcement and legal system, both of which have been populated with abusers. Once Liz Weatherly has been abused and assaulted in every way imaginable and by everyone possible, she is left with one option to save herself: violence. Right after she kills her abuser, we get “The End,” and no aftermath is shown. Realistically, Liz Weatherly would be put in the hands of the same “legal system” that we saw in that crowded barroom.