The incomparable George C. Scott and the seedy underground porn scene of the 1970s –- is any further explanation really necessary? We’ve seen George C. pissed; we’ve seen him cruel (he even shot a cat in his directorial debut, aptly titled Rage); and we’ve seen him full of despair. But few films have allowed us to see all three, often in the same scene. 1979’s Hardcore, directed by Paul Schrader, is not really a great movie (merely good, I’m afraid), but it is so damned watchable and full of life that one can easily overlook the overwrought dramatics and ridiculous conclusion. The look and feel of the film renders it similar to the world it depicts –- dirty, low-budget, and exploitive. And some might discuss the culture clash and undying love of a father for his misguided daughter, but such things seemed rather by the book. Hardcore will endure because of the scene where George C., clad in a silly leisure suit, bad wig, and even worse fake moustache, “interviews” a series of repellant wannabe porn stars (including that black dude from 227, who refers to himself as “Big Dick Black,” a man who can “come ten times a day”) and, after reluctantly glaring at a young man’s penis, gives us a look that will stand for all time as the peak of unintentional hilarity. George even mutters, “Thank you very much.” I’m giggling just thinking about it.
Hardcore is the story of Jake Van Dorn (Scott), a strict, unbending Calvinist from Michigan who ventures to California in order to find his missing daughter, who disappeared while on a church trip. Van Dorn suspects foul play, but it becomes increasingly clear that his daughter ran away, most likely because Jake is such a humorless prick (we also learn that Jake’s wife walked away from the marriage). Jake hires a private investigator, Andy Mast, (played by the effortlessly charming Peter Boyle) who turns up an ultra-low budget porno featuring the young girl. The scene where Andy plays the film for Jake is a unique thrill, as we watch a slow-burn anger turn into hysteria and seat-kicking. Jakes screams, “Turn it off!” with a force that might even send his Patton character scrambling for cover. And there begins a journey similar to The Searchers, where a morally righteous man looks for a young girl who has been deflowered and soiled by savages. Jake turns the adult film world upside down, even resorting to undercover work and the aid of a sweet-natured whore named Niki (Season Hubley).
Jake lumbers through strip clubs, peep shows, and back lots, before he comes to realize that the mysterious “Ratan” is the source of all this misery. Jake even sits through a crude snuff film to get to the bottom of the mystery. But it is when Jake places an ad for “actors wanted” where the true excitement begins. Running his “operation” out of a stinky motel, Jake hopes to find the actor featured in the film where he saw his daughter. After turning away Big Dick Black and a few other gentlemen with python-length cocks, he finally finds his man. Pressing the baby-faced boy to reveal information about the girl in the photo, “Jism Jim” (as he calls himself) flips out: “No way man….I don’t know what kind of shit she’s into, but my dick was all red and swollen and chewed up for a week.” Needless to say, hearing about his daughter’s less than adequate fellatio skills sends Jake into a rage and he pummels the poor lad with a lamp before he kicks the crap out of him in the shower.
Jake continues his search, screaming at drug addicted whores and throwing money at nasty adult film producers. There are also a few instances where Niki tries to understand Jake’s world, but these scenes bog everything down as we really want to see Jake kick some more ass and throw scumbags down the stairs. Eventually, of course, Jake finds his daughter and a reunion is attempted. The daughter initially shies away (she hates the bastard for being, well, a strict Calvinist) but they embrace and all is well, but not before Ratan is chased through a porn store by a Godzilla-like Jake. As Ratan stumbles, Jake tears down walls, crashes through doors, and slams the poor Ratan’s head against a series of poles and street signs. Eventually, though, it is Andy who guns down the porn king, leaving Jake and his daughter to head back to Grand Rapids.
The film, as stated, is cheap, tawdry, and sick, but George C. Scott storms through it all like a man possessed. And there’s a funky, ear-splitting soundtrack that is even more effective on cheap, rundown VHS copies. Near the end of the film as Jake cruised the streets looking for Ratan, a few guitar chords flared up that nearly blew out my speakers. The degraded state of the tape also made the filler music little more than an earth-shaking rumble, reducing the score to some underwater gurgling. But somehow, it all works to create a sense that one is watching this smut in some dude’s basement. The story arc is predictable and the conclusion arrives much too quickly (and conveniently), but it cannot be forgotten that in order to arrive at that point, George C. Scott sat through ugly, scar-filled peep shows and humiliating interviews to save the little girl he loves (or wants to control) so much. One could argue that the young woman was better off with Ratan, but we’ll accept Schrader’s vision. But there is little doubt that Jake’s daughter will be back again. Perhaps sooner than we’d expect.