The Sleazoid Life of Pets

Stray dogs roam the Californian beaches. Among them strays Bonnie (Candice Rialson); a beautiful blonde, on the run from her domineering, violent and resentful brother. Raphael Nussbaum’s 1973 grindhouse classic Pets will follow her through a triptych of sexually charged situations, as the film at large explores themes of possession. Spoilers ahead…

Newly reissued in the UK by 88 Films on a nicely packaged bluray, Pets is an American drive-in staple that vaults above a number of its peers, even while it adheres to the tropes and limitations of the sleazoid genre. In essence it’s an anthology piece linked by the roaming exploits of Bonnie.

From the get-go Nussbaum’s world view is crystallised as we’re shown what a nasty place we live in. In pitch darkness, Bonnie escapes from her dirtbag brother (Mike Cartel). Dialogue bristles with animosity. Viciousness is commonplace. And this is even before we’ve reached the opening titles, set to the contrasting, lilting tones of “Searching” by Chic Sorenson, juxtaposing this portrait of darkness with its gentle melody.

In the first of the three ‘stories’, Bonnie gets caught up in a carjacking with the street-smart and hardened Pat (Teri Guzmán). Their victim, middle-class jogger Dan (Frank Parker), is tied up by Bonnie on a hillside clearing while Pat goes to steal from his house. The recurring dynamic of the film is set-up here. Bonnie is a submissive (the film’s alternate title as evidenced on imdb is Submission). Her past experience of dominance – her brother – was clearly abusive and imbalanced. She is searching for someone possessive but not cruel. She wants equilibrium, and a sense of belonging; of ownership.

Pat fulfils that role for a very short while, but her cruelty upsets Bonnie. When left alone with Dan, Bonnie acts on her fantasy of changing her character. With Dan in a prone and submissive state, she takes advantage of him. It’s a typical softcore scene from the era, but it plays across borders. Nussbaum’s fantasy is for both sexes; adhering to erotic staples that appeal to both men and women.

Throughout the movie, pet names are used to define submissiveness. Pat talks disparagingly to Bonnie, saying, “You’re not a little kitten [meaning sex kitten]; you’re a pussy [i.e. weak or cowardly]”. And when Bonnie has Dan in her grasp, she adopts a similar vocabulary: “You wanna bite me, doggy?” Removing the subject’s humanity is a form of control and debasement and this does recur.

In the film’s second episode, Bonnie is taken in by lesbian artist Geraldine (Joan Blackman) and a relationship quickly forms that suits Bonnie, at least, temporarily. Geraldine bosses Bonnie about, and Bonnie is comfortable with that. When another stray enters this dynamic – would-be burglar Ron (Matt Green) – Bonnie finds herself torn. She recognises kinship in Ron, and once again flirts with the idea of being the dominant one. Another cross-gender erotic fantasy linked to the themes of power, submission and control is fulfilled; sex with the prowler. Bonnie turns her stereo up while they make love, and this becomes a wry little joke in the movie. Geraldine has already told her off for playing music too loud. The suggestion being that Ron isn’t the first surreptitious lover in Bonnie’s bedchamber.

Ron’s presence is ultimately a catalyst for further violence (and a rather dim portrait of Geraldine’s gay woman as being manic, emotionally overwrought, manipulative and rash). And soon we transition into the film’s third – and most outrageous – story.

Bonnie is taken in once more, this time by slimy gallery owner Vincent (Ed Bishop – star of cult TV series UFO). Vincent then lures Geraldine to his house with the promise of some form of final confrontation with Bonnie. Instead he reveals to her his perverse menagerie; his own indoor zoo of animals – all female – and Bonnie is the centrepiece of his collection; caged and seemingly contented.

Vincent’s outlook is revealed to be grotesquely misogynistic. He is resentful of women and Nussbaum ensures that we identify with Geraldine’s abject abhorrence of him. Still, the two doms fight it out over their sub, even as Bonnie sneaks the upper hand (a move smartly prefigured in her dominance of Dan back in the first story). Ultimately, Bonnie becomes the great emancipator; the Queen of Strays, as it were. She learns to accept this as her nature, and goes back out into the world stronger, and perhaps changed for the better.

Incredibly, Pets is adapted from Nussbaum’s own stage play (I would love to see how that would’ve been mounted), and while still a safe distance from high art, manages to impart a little wisdom along its hysterical, melodramatic and campy journey. There’s a psychological through line that works, helped along by actors who are a notch above those typically found in (ahem) tossed-off grindhouse fare. The three leads are all eminently watchable, while most of the supporting players are at the very least competent (Guzmán in particular seems to relish her role). In keeping, Nussbaum directs with some assurance, framing Rialson interestingly, even artfully. When Bonnie laments her lot, staring out into the California waves, she could be one of the desperate housewives of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Improbably, Pets looks great. Frankly, a movie like this has no business being so well put together.

It’s still a dirty roll in the gutter, lecherous and mean in its delivery, tipping itself to the demands of the genre. But for those with an appetite for this grimy aesthetic, there’s quite a lot to enjoy here. The politics is murky, of course it is, but its actually trying to be about something and in part succeeding. That practically makes it royalty.

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