Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) DVD Review: More Than a Name on a Postcard

A rare type of film that precariously teeters between sleazy exploitative trash and fine underrated art.
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Prior to her success as the best-selling writer of the "Alphabet" mysteries which have gone to be a vital part of practically every little old lady's library, author Sue Grafton penned a number of television scripts and published several novels that went largely unnoticed by the masses. Among those was a 1969 book entitled The Lolly-Madonna War: a tale of mistaken identity, Southern inhospitality, redneck wars, and the madness contained therein that, interestingly enough, was never published in America. Similarly, the 1973 MGM film adaptation of the story, Lolly-Madonna XXX was doomed to being mostly ignored, heavy criticized, and consistently re-released under a different title throughout what probably mostly consisted of Southern drive-in circuits.

But sometimes, you simply have to let your movie age for a few years in order for it to become something people may consider worthwhile; to let it breathe, if you will. Granted, once you've witnessed Richard C. Sarafian's gritty PG-rated (!) film - which Grafton herself co-wrote the screenplay for, along with Rodney Carr-Smith - you'll be lucky if you yourself can breathe after the story concludes. At first, the movie looks as if it may be just another hicksploitation flick, one that possesses a certain amount of playfulness. Of course, such a feeling is washed away in a suffering wave of bloody maliciousness as the story and its characters alike dive deeper into insane emotional conflicts both inside and out.

On one side of a seemingly-peaceful rural Tennessee meadow lies the Feather family, consisting of father Laban (Rod Steiger), mother Chickie (Katherine Squire), and their sons, the tormented, pure-in-heart widower Zack (Jeff Bridges); sensitive Skylar (Timothy Scott); the none-too-bright manchild Finch (an almost-unrecognizable Randy Quaid); and the less-than-respectful and often sadistic pairing of Hawk (Ed Lauter) and Thrush (Scott Wilson, reuniting with his In the Heat of the Night co-star Steiger). On the other side of the field lie the Gutshalls: Pap (Robert Ryan), Elspeth (Tresa Hughes), and their clan, the passive, anti-war Zeb (Gary Busey); the antagonistically ambivalent Ludie (Kiel Martin); gentle, innocent Sister E (Joan Goodfellow); and the slightly off-kilter Villum (Paul Koslo).

The two factions have been unfriendly to each other ever since Laban failed to pay the taxes on his land, which resulted in Pap buying up the property, which included the peaceful meadow everyone is unjustly obsessed with. This has led to a minor confrontation which, as the story opens, consists of Feathers stealing hogs from the Gutshalls, and Gutshalls smashing up the Feathers' still while taking their livestock back. In order to get the Feather boys away from the still long enough, Ludie schemes up an innocent-enough prank wherein he deliberately places a postcard written to him in the mailbox of the Feather family; a love note from his new girlfriend - the non-existent Lolly-Madonna - stating she will be arriving and waiting for him at the nearby bus stop in the morning, signed "Lolly-Madonna XXX".

Hawk and Thrush fall for the prank, setting out to find this mysterious woman. As a malevolent stroke of fate and a classic case of just plain bad luck would have it, there is a young lady sitting at the bus stop at that point in time: an innocent, naïve, former foster child stepping out into the world for the first time named Roonie Gill (pretty little Season Hubley, who later married Kurt Russell), whom the Feather boys promptly kidnap as the Gutshall boys destroy the still. Thinking they have the brass ring in their clutches, the Feathers wait to see what move the Gutshalls will make next, while the Gutshalls attempt to figure out who the mysterious woman at the Feather farm - whom the crazy Villum spotted through his binoculars - may be, sneaking out to do a bit of spying that in-turn only begets random acts of violence.

Eventually, the violence begins to escalate. Hawk and Thrush rape Sister E (remember that it's rated PG, kids), and Pap's attempt to declare the meadow as his once and for all results in a bloody, deadly shootout - which only begets further acts of aggression and hostility. Laban's unfounded rage takes its eventual toll, leading to an even more disturbing turn of events where the innocent suffer more than the guilty, which no doubt serves as a parable for the unwinnable Vietnam War of the time. The final frames of the film, fading to a bleak, colorless sepia tone, both unresolved and as clear as can be at the same time, play out much in the same way the opening credits do, with a montage of family portraits from the happier days of each clan; before the shadows of anger, jealousy, repression, and suspicion fell upon this once-peaceful meadow.

All because of a harmless prank that, to paraphrase a popular anti-war song by The Statler Brothers, was "more than a name on a postcard".

After disappearing from film history altogether, the underrated and still extremely powerful Lolly-Madonna XXX has at long last surfaced once again to simultaneously terrorize and fascinate viewers. And we have the Warner Archive to thank for this, kids, and the MOD label has even given us an anamorphic widescreen print to marvel at, to boot. Presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the source used here looks quite nice for the most part, with a tiny amount of flaws and a fairly persistent blue-greenish hue only adding to the gritty drive-in/grindhouse feeling the movie exhibits throughout. A mono English audio track more than suffices, and a full-frame trailer for the film (under Fire in the Meadow, one of the movie's many re-release titles) is also included.

Its characters are brought to horrifying reality by a fine ensemble of character actors, appearing like an ungodly (yet entirely conceivable) mashup of the monsters from movies like Deliverance and The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre. Its director, Richard C. Sarafian (who probably never did get the break he truly deserved) - best remembered for Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness - delivers a no holds barred, no punches pulled exercise into rural fear and loathing. And, in the end, Lolly-Madonna XXX is a rare type of film that precariously teeters between sleazy exploitative trash and fine underrated art (and I sincerely mean that in the nicest way possible, naturally). Plus, this will probably be your only chance ever to see the late great Ed Lauter not only play an Ozark harp to hogs, but parade about in a bra and panties, too.

Highly recommended.

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