There’s an evocative scene in O’Dale Ireland’s juvenile delinquent B-grader High School Caesar that always sticks out to me as curious and near experimental. It’s not involving an oddly-crowded auto race or a pretty girl in a tight sweater or a leather-clad boy breaking a window after stealing a test (though that all occurs in the movie and sticks in one’s brain), no, it’s a short moment with a light fixture. The handsome, bullying but well-organized Caesar of the title, Matt Stevens (heartthrob John Ashley), comes home after rigging his high school election for president and, upon walking into his parent’s large, lonely house, gazes up at a mini chandelier. It’s moving. Why, we wonder. He wonders why. It makes a tinkling sound, heightening his loneliness.
Matt’s a delinquent, but he’s a rich kid, running the school like a little mafia, complete with leathered-up henchmen, threatening students, taking charge of pretty much everything (more than the teachers — adults are useless in this movie). He requires dues for dances, charges for stolen tests (smart) and makes promises to his creepy, gangly sidekick, the child-like Cricket (Steve Stevens). The big promise is the new cute blonde girl (Judy Nugent) everyone’s crushing on – for Cricket – no matter she finds him repulsive. Matt says Cricket can have her and so Cricket skulks around, waiting for his chance to nab her or romance her or whatever he plans to do with this chick. Cricket has no nerve when it comes to the girl, he can’t just tell her to come along now, so Cricket constantly brings up the rejection to Matt with a you-said-I-could-have-heeer whining.
Cricket’s not going to get her, however, even with his closeness to Matt. And they are close – you see Matt frequently touch Cricket, even tenderly, putting his hand on his knee and treating him paternally, one might even infer something sexual going on between them. Do they even like girls? Matt seems bored by his Bardot-meets-Ronnie-Spector-looking girlfriend (sweater alert) played by a fetching Daria Massey, and he full-on slaps the sweet blonde. Instead of getting the girl, Matt gets caught up in dominating her, to the point of nearly raping the poor young woman in the car. Cricket bolts, not to help her, but because he lost his shot. He’s a coward and worse than Matt and are we supposed to like this kid when he rats out his friend? I don’t. In a hauntingly shot scene, the poor girl is left running through the woods, hiding behind trees and struggling to get the hell out of there.
But here’s Matt’s sadness. A grown-up teen, all hairy-chested and confident at school, he’s a secretly forlorn phantom in his own house. His parents are never present and they don’t send love, they send checks. The enormous estate he lives on is all his own save for a sweet, old lady cook he charms and a manservant he berates. The servant appears to hate him (he knows he’s a supercilious jerk) but his cheery cook calls him down for breakfast (she knows he’s heartbroken) using the in-house intercom from his bedroom. He tells her to play music, “Well, you know what I like. You pick it out,” he says grandly as he reads the paper like a man, his collar turned up like an asshole, and out roars something that sounds like a second-rate Nelson Riddle orchestration. For a guy who loves rockabilly (the movie opens with its raucous theme song, “High School Caesar” sung by Reggie Perkins) this seems odd and purposeful by the filmmaker. It’s an interesting touch.
But back to that mini chandelier. This is the second time we’ve seen him arrive home and, again, his parents aren’t there. But not only are his parents not there, his servants aren’t either, and he calls for them. No answer. He looks up at the moving crystals, pealing with perhaps just the wind breezing in from the once-open door or… is something going on upstairs? That is what I always wonder, as he yells for life in the place, looking at this thing moving, taunting him, damn light fixture. Either his parents are upstairs stomping around, or having sex, or his weird servants are up to something naughty (come now, these movies want you to have a dirty mind), which would be a fantastic moment had the film went there. I’m not even sure if it’s suggesting any such thought because no one is there, but the picture lingers on it just long enough for us to ponder Matt’s peculiar panic. He runs to his room, turns on jazz music, angrily throws money at his tortured reflection in the mirror and collapses on his bed, crying. The camera closes in on his bronzed baby shoes. It’s a packed moment in a movie that is intriguingly empty, like avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold could have stepped in and started making characters disappear a la his re-imaging of The Invisible Ghost (Deanimated) with Matt wandering around reacting to random things, like that light fixture. “The Invisible Teenager.”
That is what’s fascinating when taking in some of these lower budget movies – the unexpected moments and strangeness that occur, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose, can create an artful effect. And it seems like the movie could go anywhere with talented, good-looking John Ashley in the lead – he’s morose and mean but likable and sympathetic enough for us to feel for him when he’s betrayed by his Brutus, A.K.A. Cricket. Ashley, a talented singer who cut some good singles with Dot Records, some with Eddie Cochran backing him up, and who sang in various pictures, (notably in Lew Landers’ AIP picture Hot Rod Gang, also featuring the great Gene Vincent) has both a swagger and depth here that shows he could have furthered his dramatic career in this moody mold. Instead he had a full and interesting career (this man had stories) moving from 50’s AIP rebel and monster-movie boy; to a nice, small performance in Martin Ritt’s Hud; to AIP beach babe, appearing as Frankie Avalon’s best friend in the Beach Party movies (in an interview he noted how ridiculous he started to feel as a 30-year-old man playing teenager); to TV star (Straightaway) and memorable guest star (on The Beverly Hillbillies); to starring in and producing a series of Eddie Romero horror films made in the Philippines, starting with Brides of Blood in 1968. He also served as associate producer to Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House and producer and star of George Rowe’s Black Mamba, which featured a real corpse in an autopsy scene. Well, now, that’s beyond experimental. His 1958 picture, the stupid, surreal and surprisingly scary (I’m serious, the girl scares me) Frankenstein’s Daughter would approve.
Anything weird in those low budget teen pictures like High School Caesar makes venturing over to the Philippines (reportedly, Ashley high-tailed it after a nasty divorce) a perfect kind of strange sense. Why not? You want to break out of your acting mold? Do it. You want to flee stress, money or relationship hardship? Make money in another country. And make some intense movies. Becoming an important figure producing and appearing in pictures like the Blood Island films, to Black Mama, White Mama, Ashley was there long enough and entrenched so thoroughly in the details of production that he became associate producer on one of the craziest, toughest shoots in film history – Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Even if he’s not in the movie, his exasperation with those Beach Party movies gives him a majestic closure: “Charlie don’t surf.”
Ashley did not stop there though. He produced the highly successful, now retro-beloved 80’s TV show, The A-Team, and even supplied his voice as narrator: “Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…” Yes, that’s him. The guy who once sang “Pickin’ On the Wrong Chicken” narrated The A-Team. It seems like a dream. Swirling all of this together, Ashley’s career is so varied and unusual and, in the end, profitable, that looking at his business maneuvers in High School Caesar, it’s no surprise that the Oklahoma-reared actor, supposedly spotted by John Wayne with a this-kid’s-got-something charisma, was such a natural. And, in the end, so daring, so unafraid of making some of the silliest and outlandish and, in some cases, weirdest (and weirdly great) exploitation pictures. So that damn light fixture in High School Caesar, that mysterious, distinctive shot in which Ashley expressed feeling and fear towards a clanging chandelier, merges just fine with the actor gazing at a yellow mist only to meet Satan, and then promptly selling his soul (in Eddie Romero’s absurd 1971 Beast of the Yellow Night). It’s all a kind of art. And he saw merit in this. Asked why he was so successful in exploitation, Ashley said, “That’s an interesting question – I really don’t know. This is a terrible thing to admit, but maybe it’s that I always liked those movies…”
High School Caesar screens January 24.