Romero’s first film released after the phenomena that was Night of the Living Dead was the 1971 movie There’s Always Vanilla. Made for a measly 70,000 dollars and starring Night’s Judith Ridley the film fell into obscurity so quickly that few saw it on its release and fewer still have ever tracked it down since.
Romero himself refers to Vanilla as his worst film, considering it a “total mess” and though I shudder to contradict the great man I have to disagree. Though it contains many peculiar creative choices, lacks a significant budget and, it has to be said, has a storyline that actively works against the genre it purports to inhabit, Vanilla presents many startling moments from a director obviously more suited to a very different kind of film.
Vanilla’s meandering plot revolves around Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine) a bohemian drifter returning home after a long absence. He visits his father at a local bar and the two spend a night on the town, eventually meeting up with Chris’s ex-girlfriend and an exotic dancer. The four spend a night of drinking and debauchery and throughout it we learn that Chris has a child by his ex, a young boy he had not considered even though he knew about.
Chris is not a moral man, though he is not strictly immoral either and seems to wander through life with no particular desire to harm those around him but not caring too deeply if his actions leave a mess in his wake. Seeing him alongside his father, who has a wife at home but still goes on a binge of women and drink, it is clear that the apple has not dropped too far from the tree, even if Chris’s father seems to think it has. It is when the two part company after painting the town red that Chris meets Lynn (Judith Ridley), a local model and actress, and charms his way into her life.
What unfolds is far less of a romantic comedy (as this film is often billed) and more a romantic tragedy. The humour is present but it is dark and unsettling at times. Perhaps this is due to the changing times (Vanilla was made in the late 60’s, and peoples attitudes were very different then) but I imagine many audience members felt the same kind of unease when viewing the film on its original release. This could be taken as a complaint, but it is far from being so; Vanilla plays out its characters with admirable realism for such a film. It would have been far easier to present us with the fluffy unrealistic films that often populate the romantic comedy sub-genre, saying nothing and presenting us with no emotional discourse beyond the boy-finds-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl we so often see.
Even though this is not a film that Romero wrote it still contains much “classic Romero” in its characterizations. They are realistic and deeply flawed to the point of effectively resisting any label of hero or villain. The lead, as played by the excellent Raymond Laine, is startling. He perfectly encapsulates the ne’er-do-well rouge that we’ve all come in contact with at some point in our lives, the man we would cheerfully befriend but would chase off with a baseball bat if they took a shine to our sister. Ray is not strictly a villain, but he lacks the fortitude to be anything more, he is not strictly lazy but lacks the focus to be anything more; he is a picture of the typical young male of the early 1970’s which leads to a curious possibility.
Perhaps he is the younger image of that man many of us now call “father”.
In many ways this makes Vanilla as relevant a film now as it was when it was made, perhaps more so. It effectively creates a time capsule of events that clearly affect the world around it for many years to come. Chris’s weaknesses as a man set two lives in motion and irrevocably changing the lives of multiple people in the process without it negatively affecting himself in any real way; at least not outwardly.
Though it is hinted that something of the experience remains in Chris, when in the films final scene a strange present is sent to the estranged Lynn and her new family that indicates his thoughts are still with her.
There are many techniques used in the films construction that are also “classic Romero”, from the very opening scene we are heavily reminded of other (and it has to be said better) movies from his filmography. When first introduced to Lynn we are in a studio filming a commercial (a studio owned in reality by Romero’s company Latent Image) and there is a striking similarity to the opening scene from Dawn of the Dead, down to the quicker than average cutting to the overlapping dialogue. Later we have a moment where Lynn visits a backstreet abortionist that echoes Night of the Living Dead itself, as well as multiple moments that have a distinct flavour of Martin.
This extends to many character (and a few plot) elements of the film, which is curious as Vanilla was one of the few Romero films the man did not write himself.
Chris and Lynn bear a rather strong resemblance to Dawn’s Stephen and Fran and it is unlikely that one set of characters did not influence the other. As with the rest of Romero’s films many of Vanilla’s elements sit within an evolutionary chain and it’s clear that to understand and appreciate one Romero film it’s essential that all the others are given at least a cursory glance.
If in fact Vanilla is “the mess” that Romero considers it, then it is a mess of excellent moments. Perhaps it is disjointed and perhaps it is not the film it could have been (I would not agree with either of these comments), but regardless Vanilla is unique and affecting and what more could a director want from his work?
Vanilla fits far better as an experimental film than it does in its chosen genre, sitting with remarkable comfort alongside the BFI’s Flipside range of films that were made at the same time as Vanilla over in England. (In fact Vanilla would make an excellent addition to a Flipside US range if the BFI, or someone like them, were ever to compile one.) Many of the films of this time struggle against the bond created by Hollywood in the 50’s and 60’s, Night of the Living Dead itself is a famous example of this rebellion, and this same intent would go on to create some of the most iconic an beloved films of the age. Perhaps without failures such as Vanilla classics such as Harold and Maude would not have been made, the evolution of film being what it is, and perhaps as such these failures have a place that should garner more respect.
A film such as Vanilla that sits firmly in a respected director’s filmography as well as a formative time in modern film deserves not only to be seen but to be appreciated as the brave experiment that it became.
It is the lack of many a modern viewers understanding regarding the art forms history and evolution that has led to films such as Vanilla disappearing; and the reluctance of distributors to present it. For the release of a film to be viable it has to have a ready made audience and though Romero’s earlier films certainly have one it must be an audience willing to delve into the less understood aspects of their hero.
There’s Always Vanilla is a film that has always relied heavily on the audiences acceptance of its intentions, as all films do to a degree, but because of Vanilla’s forthright nature (and genre mishandling) it found it difficult finding this acceptance. If it had been released into the British Art-house circuit of the same era it would have fared far better and perhaps Romero’s whole career would have been changed in much the same way as Bob Clark’s was a few years later.
I suppose we should be glad for Vanilla’s failure.
Those of who would like to view There’s Always Vanilla have only two options: either the Something Weird distribution of the film (on DVD-R) or the out of print Anchor Bay release that is boxed with Romero’s next film, Jack’s Wife (under the title Season of the Witch).
Neither of these releases are anything better than poor in picture quality and though Something Weird’s release may be slightly better visually Anchor Bays version does include a telling interview with Romero that shed some light on how he feels regarding these all but forgotten films.
Like many of his followers Romero is far more positive about his next film Jack’s Wife (to use his preferred title), and admits that out of all of his films this is the one he would remake; if the chance ever presented itself.