Horror-cinema icon George A. Romero’s first movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a huge hit proportionate to its miniscule budget, but Romero didn’t take the obvious path of following up with another shocker. Instead, he made a romantic comedy infused with hip counterculture attitude, resulting in the muddled curiosity known as There’s Always Vanilla. Romero was the film’s director, cinematographer, and editor, so his gifts and shortcomings as a storyteller and technician are on full display, though viewers must dig deep to find traces of Romero’s signature themes, since he didn’t originate or write the material. In fact, the only distinctly “Romero” scene is a jarring late-movie sequence with horror-movie affectations. Suffice to say, this bit clashes badly with the rest of the film, and the presence of this discordant note accurately reflects how unfocused There’s Always Vanilla feels from start to finish.
Set, naturally, in Romero’s longtime home base of Pittsburgh, There’s Always Vanilla concerns twentysomething slacker Chris Bradley (Raymond Lane), who speaks directly to the camera in documentary-style interludes that add little to the experience. Viewers learn that he’s a Vietnam vet disenchanted with Establishment values, that his father runs a successful manufacturing business, and that he knows more about what he doesn’t want to do with his life than what he actually wants to do with his life. Telling stories about passive characters is always difficult, and the team behind this movie didn’t meet the challenge well. Although the main thrust of the picture involves Chris’ romance with model/actress Lynn (Judith Ridley), much of the screen time, inevitably, concerns Chris talking about doing things instead of actually doing them. Whenever he stops philosophizing long enough to take action, he’s either a clown or a self-indulgent jerk. For instance, he talks his way into an ad-agency job, then walks out the minute he’s asked to generate work product.
Among the film’s myriad narrative problems is indecision. It’s never clear if There’s Always Vanilla is an opposites-attract romance involving a guy with counterculture values and a woman with more conservative ideals, or if it’s a larger statement about the way society bludgeons iconoclasts. Sometimes, the picture is about all of those things, and sometimes it’s about entirely different things, because the script—credited to Rudy Ricci—meanders aimlessly. And then there’s the scene in which Romero falls back on his reliable horror-movie tricks. When Lynn goes to an abortionist, Romero shifts to angular, shadowy camerawork and uses aggressively paced editing to create a disquieting rhythm. It’s a potent scene, but it belongs in another picture. There’s Always Vanilla has some interesting moments, the acting is fairly naturalistic, and every so often, Romero channels his wry sense of humor effectively. Yet this one’s a footnote at best, not only to Romero’s filmography but also to the litany of movies about disaffected ’70s youth.
There’s Always Vanilla: FUNKY