The hook for this weird melodrama is ‘Lana Turner on acid’. Directed in Mexico by Chilean-born Tito Davison from a script by TV hack William Douglas Lansford (Starsky & Hutch, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Fantasy Island), it’s a late-in-the-day vehicle for Turner. Not quite an entry in the 1960s post-Baby Jane ‘horror hag’ stakes, it has a hallucinogenic conspiracy plot which could easily have done for a lesser giallo and compounds its clueless vision of the freak-out set (no one involved with this took a trip on anything other than Pan-Am) with an insane last-reel plot device that almost elevates it into the realms of delirious genius. Follow the story, if you can, and wonder whether a certain supposed good guy supporting character hasn’t manipulated everything to get what he wants …
Adriana Roman (Lana), legendary stage actress, retires to marry macho tycoon Charles Winthrop (Dan O’Herlihy), though playwright Frederick Lansdale (Richard Egan) is established as being in love with the mature leading lady. Adriana tries to be reasonable and sweet to Charles’ pettish daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg – who is excruciatingly terrible), but the brat resents Daddy’s remarriage and falls in with a bad crowd. Even in comparison with the drop-out kids seen in Psych-Out or The Happening or Riot on Sunset Strip, The Big Cube offers a bizarre, middle-aged idea of ‘the Now Generation’– almost as hilarious as the satire of A Bucket of Blood or The Producers. Besides Lalo (Carlos East), an artist who paints scary fish, and Bibi (Pamela Rodgers), who comes on like a sociopathic Ann-Margaret, there’s lounge lizardy Johnny Allen (George Chakiris), kicked out of medical school for cooking LSD, who latches on to Lisa and sees his way to a fortune. When Charles is lost in a yacht accident, Lisa vacillates between sympathy for her widowed stepmother and desire to punish her. Johnny slips the ailing Adriana repeated doses, which give her bad dreams which get worse when recorded messages try to prompt her to suicide. This stretch drags on, partly because Lisa infuriatingly won’t commit to being evil or good but still goes along with the repulsive creep’s plans even as she is willfully blind to his endgame.
For most films, saving Lana from being nagged to suicide would be enough for a climax … but this follows the intervention with a spell of traumatic amnesia (the star certainly couldn’t complain she wasn’t being asked to act) that the still-devoted Frederick proposes to cure by (get this!) writing a play about Adriana’s recent life in which she will make her theatrical comeback and achieve a cathartic cure. Meanwhile, two minutes after suckering Lisa into marriage, Johnny is groping the willing Bibi (who has the film’s best midriff-baring outfits) and trying to palm his new wife off on Lalo. Lisa quickly divorces the slimeball and helps Frederick with his cracked theatrical scheme – naturally, Adriana is cured of her amnesia and acid flashback neuroses, and the play is a huge hit! Johnny ends up on a terminal bad trip, crawling over the dirty floor scrabbling for sugar cubes (the screenwriter must have done so little research on LSD that he thought the sugar was as important as the drug for the trip) in the den of ‘the Queen Bee’ (Regina Torne), a position which we’ve been told is the lowest a freak can go.
Turner was a beauty but never much of an actress, and still seems to be playing as if she were in the glossy Ross Hunter melodramas which had revived her post-scandal career a decade earlier … the freak-out scenes are beyond her (as written, they’d be beyond Meryl Streep or Sarah Bernardt), so she just bugs her eyes and wanders about in a nightgown as recorded messages urge her to jump out of a window. Chakiris, an Oscar winner, is appropriately loathsome as the acid gigolo, but such an obvious villain it would take a character as thick as Lisa played by an actress as bad as Mossberg to go along with his schemes for more than a minute. It’s possible Turner insisted on the stepdaughter being played by a nonentity, rather than risk being outshone even the low-wattage of, say, Sandra Dee or Diane Varsi. O’Herlihy and Egan are stolid, dependable and faintly ashamed – and I’m sure Egan’s playing it as if the playwright (who gets the girl he always wanted plus her dead husband’s money and a Broadway hit) is behind the whole plot. It has wild and crazy music from The Finks, psychedelic pop art titles and set dressing, amazing if ridiculous fashions and a streak of stubborn squareness that makes it somehow irresistible schlock.