Monday, 16 September 2019

The Psycho Lover (1970)

The Psycho Lover comes to us from Something Weird Video (on a double-feature DVD that also includes Heat of Madness which I haven’t yet had time to watch) so we’re probably expecting a rather scuzzy sexploitation flick. Which it is and it isn’t. It is a sexploitation movie and it does feature quite a bit of nudity and some pretty intense violence. But of course the great thing about sexploitation films was that as long as you included those commercially necessary elements you could pretty much do whatever you wanted. And what writer-director-producer Robert Vincent O'Neil apparently wanted to do was to make a tense serious psycho-sexual thriller. He didn’t entirely succeed but it’s not a bad attempt.

Dr Kenneth Alden (Lawrence Montaigne) is a psychiatrist and he’s been called in by Homicide cop Lieutenant Morlock (John Vincent) to see if he can make sense of a rather frustrating case involving a series of brutal rape-murders. They have a suspect, a young man named Marco (Frank Cuva), and the suspect has confessed but then later he repudiated the confession. He now claims that he merely dreamt about the murders. The police have no physical evidence to link Marco with the murders, and worse still Marco has alibis for a couple of the slayings and at least one of the alibis seems solid.

What’s really frustrating abut the case is that Morlock is convinced Marco is guilty. His confessions revealed knowledge of the circumstances of the murders that he could not have had without being involved.

Dr Alden not only interviews Marco, he takes him on as a patient. And having done this he then decides that he is constrained by the ethical rules of doctor-patient confidentiality. So while Dr Alden finds out a lot more about what’s going on in Marco’s obviously disturbed mind he doesn’t feel obliged to pass on such information to the cops. Marco tells the good doctor all about his dreams and all about the voice he hears in his dreams, the voice that tells him to kill women. Marco is sure that these are just dreams. Dr Alden has his own views on that subject.

Dr Alden’s own private life is causing him a bit of stress. He has a hot young girlfriend named Stacy (Elizabeth Plumb) and he and Stacy are madly in love. That’s all good. Unfortunately Dr Aden also has a wife. That’s not so good. Mrs Alden (Joanne Meredith) knows all about her husband and his girlfriend. She’s not happy about it but the one thing she is determined on is that she is not going to give her husband the divorce he wants.

The murders continue. Marco’s therapy continues. And Kenneth Alden’s affair with Stacy continues as well. Stacy watches a lot of movies on late-night TV. She tells Kenneth about a really great movie she just saw. It was called The Manchurian Candidate. Kenneth looks very thoughtful. By this stage you should have a pretty fair idea what’s going to happen next.

Unfortunately the unfolding of the plot is interrupted by romantic interludes between Stacy and Dr Alden. They’re the sorts of romantic interludes you tend to get in movies of this era (and not just low-budget or exploitation movies) - the two of them wandering hand-in-hand through fields of flowers accompanied by some incredibly soppy and cringe-inducing soft rock music, that sort of thing.

The build-up to the climax is done reasonably well and while you’re going to be pretty sure you know how it’s going to play out there is one weird little twist you might not see coming.

This is a movie very much in the giallo mould. It even has the bold use of colour that you get in giallos. While it’s not in the same league as the best movies in that genre it compares not unfavourably with many of the second-rank giallos. If only Robert Vincent O’Neil had had the foresight to make this movie under an Italian pseudonym it would now have a cult following. The psychedelic dream sequences include a couple of effectively disturbing images.

In fact there are quite a few disturbing moments in this film. Despite the absence of any actual gore the murders are quite confronting and uncomfortably intense. And they’re shot with a certain degree of skill.

The chief problem with this movie is one that afflicts a lot of low-budget movies - the pacing. Apart from that and those embarrassing romantic interludes it’s a surprisingly well-constructed and well-executed thriller.

Mention must be made of Dr Alden’s car - it looks like something out of a 50s sci-fi movie. I have no idea why he drives such an insane car but it does give the movie another touch of interesting oddness.

As so often Something Weird have managed to come up with a remarkably good transfer of a very obscure movie. It’s full frame but that appears to be the correct aspect ratio. The colours look vibrant which is fortunate since it’s a movie that uses colour quite flamboyantly to create mood.

The Psycho Lover should appeal to fans of both sexploitation roughies and giallos. It’s one of those pleasant surprises that Something Weird occasionally comes up with. Highly recommended.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I've posted a review of Brian de Palma's unexpectedly good 1996 Mission: Impossible movie over on Cult TV Lounge. The most surprising and pleasing thing about it is that it retains at least some of the flavour of the original 1960s television series.

Of course it helps if you like Tom Cruise (and I personally find him to be just about the least objectionable of modern Hollywood stars).

Here's the link to the review of the movie.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Die Another Day (2002)

Die Another Day was the last of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies and the first 21st century Bond movie. You might think it would be impossible to make a Bond movie in the 21st century. Watching this movie would strongly suggest that you’re right.

Interestingly enough in this movie the pre-credits sequence in which Bond is causing mayhem in North Korea is actually part of the main plot, or at least it is an important prologue to the main plot. Bond is captured and spends fourteen months in a North Korean prison. When he is released he finds that MI6 no longer trusts him and no longer wants him. He isn’t pleased about this and he goes rogue. He is convinced that he was betrayed by a mole inside MI6 and he wants revenge. The trail initially leads him to Havana, to a secret medical clinic. He encounters Kickass Action Heroine Jinx (Halle Berry). But to track down the mole he will have to go to to London. There he runs into the villain of the piece, supercilious upper-class business tycoon Gustave Grimes, and he will follow him to his ice palace in Iceland. Lots of action ensues.

It’s probably fair to deal with the film’s strengths first. The action scenes are spectacular. Some are a bit silly but a touch of self-parody in the action scenes has been par for the course in Bond movies since the 70s so that’s no great problem. The highlight of the movie is the sword-fighting scene between Bond and the villain. Sword-fights are the oldest of all action movie clichés but this one has an extraordinary intensity and physicality that makes the cliché seem fresh. The hovercraft battle is original and exciting.

There are enough explosions and gun battles to satisfy any reasonable person.

Some of the gadgets are also on the slightly silly side, like the camouflaged Aston Martin, but again it’s no problem since this is expected in a Bond film.

The sets, by Peter Lamont, are generally superb. Any Bond Villain worth his salt has to have a cool secret headquarters and the ice palace qualifies nicely (and it’s used to excellent effect). The mysterious clinic and the secret MI6 headquarters are terrific as well.

Gustav Grimes is a very serviceable Bond Villain. Toby Stephens plays him as an arrogant public school bully and he puts plenty of enthusiasm into his performance. John Cleese is fun as Q.

They’re the good things in Die Another Day.

Now we come to the problems. Firstly, the CGI effects are not good. The scenes on the aircraft at the end could have been fun but they look very very fake. The space scenes look cheap and fake. The disappearing Aston Martin provokes laughter rather than wonder.

Not one but two Kickass Action Heroines have been added to assist Bond, champion fencer and MI6 agent Miranda Frost and Jinx. Jinx threatens to take over the film. Now the essence of the Bond character is that he’s a loner. He works alone because nobody can work with him. He’s not a team player. He’s a loose cannon. MI6 tolerates him, reluctantly, because he gets results.

There is a standard Bond formula. We know who the villain is right from the start. MI6 knows as well. Bond’s invariable approach is to get close to the villain (whether the villain likes it or not) and get right up his nose. Put as much pressure on the villain as possible and sooner or later he’ll make a mistake and Bond will destroy him. To do all this Bond neither needs nor wants a sidekick. All the Jinx character manages to do is distract us from the plot, slow things down (and it’s a movie that is already way too long) and shift the focus away from Bond. She’s a completely unnecessary character and she serves no plot purpose whatsoever.

It doesn’t help that Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike (as Miranda) are rather dull and their characters are uninteresting. Actually that’s probably just as well since Pierce Brosnan’s performance is bland and colourless. His Bond seems old and tired. Brosnan was nearly 50 when he made this movie. Of course Roger Moore was much older (and fatter) when he was still playing Bond but Moore had style and charisma and an unparalleled ability to make dialogue sparkle. Brosnan sadly lacks these qualities.

One thing that’s amusing is that this is a movie that is trying desperately hard to be feminist but it’s actually the most sexist Bond movie I’ve ever seen. There’s not a single female character in the film. The ostensible female characters (Miranda, Jinx and M) are simply male characters who happen to be played by actresses. If you replaced Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike and Judi Dench with male actors you wouldn’t need to make any changes to the dialogue or the plot or the characterisations. All you’d have to do is eliminate the very unconvincing love scenes that seem out of place anyway. The message of the film seems to be that women are awesome as long as they behave exactly like men.

The movie’s political stance is interesting. The Chinese and the Cubans are the good guys. The American contempt for the British is startling. It’s made very clear that M takes her orders from Washington, not London. In fact from watching this movie you wouldn’t know that Britain had a government. MI6 is a provincial branch office of the CIA. Of course even in Ian Fleming’s 1950s Bond novels there’s a good deal of resentment towards the Americans and bitterness at Britain’s irrelevance in the postwar world but you don’t expect quite so much anti-Americanism in a 2002 Bond movie.

The big problem is that in this movie James Bond is no longer James Bond. The character has been watered down to the point where there’s nothing left. He’s been made safe and innocuous and inoffensive. He could be an accountant enjoying a holiday in exotic climes, or be working behind the counter at a chemist’s shop in the High Street. He doesn’t seem the least bit dangerous. You could take him home to meet your Mum. This is Bond made politically correct. And a politically correct Bond is not Bond.

Die Another Day is not in any way, shape or form a Bond movie.

Friday, 2 August 2019

They Live (1988)

John Carpenter’s They Live came out in 1988 and it’s an odd mixture of political satire, action movie and 1950-style monster movie.

It’s also a classic paranoia movie.

We start with an ordinary working class guy named Nada who is down on his luck. He’s desperate to get a job and he gets one, on a construction site. He also finds a place to live, in a shanty town in Los Angeles. The early part of the movie is extremely interesting. There’s a very strong sense of unease. We also get the feeling that this is not quite our world. There’s an incredible gulf between rich and poor. There’s massive unemployment and poverty and there’s homelessness on an enormous scale. The police behave more like an occupying army than a police force.

Television is everywhere. Even in the shanty town there are TV sets. TV programs focus on the lifestyles of the rich and on conspicuous and extravagant consumption. The shanty town dwellers have nothing but they watch TV shows about people who have everything.

There’s a lowly building atmosphere of unease. Something is wrong. People know that something has gone wrong but they have no idea what it is.

The unease gradually changes to outright menace. The church across the road from the shanty town is raided by the police who start shooting people and then demolish the shanty town. The police have lots of helicopters. They watch everything.

Nada was already rather curious about that church. For one thing he’s puzzled that any church would be hosting choir practice at 4 o’clock in the morning. He decides to take a look around. lt turns out that there’s no choir practice going on - that’s just a tape that’s playing. Then he finds a hidden compartment behind a wall, filled with boxes. Nada is no thief but his curiosity is not going to let him leave without taking one of the boxes with them. When he opens the box he’s disappointed that it contains nothing but sunglasses. Then he puts one of the pairs of sunglasses on and everything changes for him. And the movie changes gears dramatically. They’re not ordinary sunglasses. They allow the wearer to see reality. What everyone is seeing is not reality but a kind of hypnotically induced dream state. Reality is very different.

The advertising posters don’t actually advertise anything. They carry messages and the messages are relentless - obey, consume, keep sleeping, conform. Even worse, the people of L.A. aren’t all humans. Many are monsters, clearly aliens. The rich people are mostly aliens. The poor people are all humans. Earth has been occupied by invaders from outer space. Their intention does not appear to be to massacre us but to exploit us for profit.

Nada and Frank intend to fight back. They find a resistance group but the aliens know all about it.

Having started as a fascinating mix of science fiction and politics it becomes an action movie. Which was deliberate - Carpenter understands that if you’re going to deal with such subjects you’d be well advised to wrap it up in an entertaining package.

They Live is based on a short story by Ray Nelson, Eight o’clock in the morning.

Carpenter rather boldly cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper as his hero Nada. The casting works. Piper can't act but he looks right - he looks like a really ordinary working-class guy- and he has the right persona. And he knows how to deliver one-liners. He wrote much of his own dialogue, including some of the movie’s best lines. As is made clear in the 2013 interview with Carpenter included in the DVD he made a deliberate and conscious choice to tell the story from the point of view of the working class, and to have a hero who is very much working class.

Keith David is equally good as Frank. Meg Foster as Holly, a woman Nada is determined to save, has an odd screen presence but in a movie like this it works.

Carpenter was notorious for his absolute insistence on retaining creative control, even if it meant making low budget movies. They Live is certainly a low budget movie but Carpenter is a master at stretching a limited budget and making cheap movies that look great.

The movie was intended as a response to the 80s in general and to Reagan’s economic policies in particular. Despite this it’s a movie that doesn’t seem dated. It’s possibly more relevant today than it was in 1988. As Carpenter puts it in the accompanying interview, in many ways the 80s never ended. Consumerism and social control are arguably much bigger problems today than in 1988.

The aliens obviously represent the ruling class, interested in ordinary people solely as a source of profit. There’s nothing subtle about the satire here. It’s delivered with a sledge hammer.

Among other things They Live is famous for the epic fight scene between Nada and Frank. Piper had told Carpenter that if he wanted a really really good fight scene then it was going to need to be intricately choreographed and rehearsed. It was going to take a long time. Carpenter adjusted his shooting schedule to make sure that the time was available, and it pays off.

The influence of the classic 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is obvious. That film remains the greatest of all paranoia movies but They Live is a pretty respectable paranoia flick in its own right. As far as its politics is concerned it absolutely nails its colours to the mast. It’s an interesting movie that mostly works. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (1935)

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery is a 1935 aviation adventure serial from Universal (it was a follow-up to their 1934 Tailspin Tommy serial). And it’s a very fine example of the breed with superb aerial sequences, an exciting story and very decent acting.

It's highly recommended to serials fans and to fans of aviation advernture.

My full review of this serial can be found here on my Classic Movie Ramblings blog.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Dandy (1970)

Dandy is a 1970 American sexploitation movie and it’s fairly typical of the genre although it features less of the outrageousness that fans of these films tend to like.

Dandy (Cynthia Denny) is eighteen and she’s left home because she doesn’t like her stepfather and because her mother is more interested in the stepfather than in Dandy. She has a boyfriend and she thinks that everything is going to be just great. She’ll move in with the boyfriend and she’ll get a job.

Unfortunately the boyfriend is not exactly a one-woman man so Dandy dumps him. Dandy doesn’t do many sensible things but this was probably a sound move. The only job he can find is as a nude model. She’s not thrilled by the idea but she assumes it will be sort of like the stuff in girlie magazines - basically fairly tasteful. She discovers that the photos she’s asked to pose for are rather less tasteful than she’d expected.

Dandy is not exactly dumb but she’s very naïve, but then she is only eighteen. She’s particularly naïve where men are concerned. If a man is nice to her her immediate inclination is to drop her panties for him. After all if he wants to have sex with her he’s probably in love with her isn’t he?

She’s also a bit naïve where women are concerned. If a woman offers her a back rub she seems to
think it’s quite normal to be asked to remove all her clothes. The idea that the other woman might have something more than a back rub in mind doesn’t occur to her until it’s too late and one thing has led to another.

It also doesn’t occur to her that the modelling agency guy who claims to be managing her career might actually be a rather dangerous customer and she contrives to get herself into all kinds of difficulties as a result, with a couple of pretty nasty heavies after her.

She does meet a nice man, a photographer who actually wants to take photos of her with her clothes on, but he’s very much a straight arrow and he doesn’t approve of Dandy’s nude modelling or her excessively casual attitude towards sex. A smart girl would have grabbed this guy right away - he’s the one man she’s met who isn’t a thug or a sleaze, but Dandy isn’t renowned for making bad decisions.

Her next move is to hook up with a couple of very creepy swingers and the movie takes a mildly psychedelic turn when the swingers throw an orgy in their house.

Maybe Cynthia Denny isn’t a great actress but she handles the rôle pretty adequately. She’s a convincing mixture of innocence and wantonness, and foolishness combined with occasional flashes of common sense. And she’s likeable. It also has to be said that she has a truly stunning body and we get to see a great deal of it. She’s nude for for a very large part of the movie’s 82 minute running time. In fact there’s an immense amount of female nudity in this picture, and by 1970 producers of such features were confident enough to have no qualms about showing lots of female frontal nudity.

The most interesting thing about the plot is that it avoids excessive obviousness and (very surprisingly) it avoids excessive sensationalism. There’s very little violence. Dandy comes into contact with druggies but surprisingly she manages to avoid any actual drug use herself. It’s an exploitation movie that doesn’t go overboard with the exploitation angles. Mostly it just relies on the fact that Cynthia Denny looks great naked.

This is not one of those really sleazy sexploitation films that leaves you feeling a bit uncomfortable. It’s not exactly a feelgood movie but it’s not a roughie. It has more in common with later 70s softcore movies aimed at women like Emmanuelle and Felicity (especially Felicity) than with the grungy sexploitation of the 60s. And (like Felicity) it has an unexpected old-fashioned ending.

A really big surprise is that the Films Around the World DVD release offers a very very handsome anamorphic transfer (the film was shot widescreen and in colour).

Is it worth seeing? Dandy has little to offer apart from its star but she is charming and pretty and did I mention that she takes her clothes off a lot? If that’s enough for you give it a spin.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Naked Witch (1961)

Larry Buchanan was one of the most notoriously inept of all American exploitation film-makers of the 60s. The Naked Witch was his first foray into the fields of low-budget horror and sexploitation. Made in 1961 and co-directed by Buchanan and Claude Alexander, it’s just as terrible as its reputation suggests.

The premise was not without potential. A student has travelled to the village of Luckenbach in central Texas to research the customs of superstitions of the German community there. Not being an American I had no idea that there were lots of German settlers in central Texas back in the 19th century, and that even at the beginning of the 1960s German was still widely spoken there.

What the student (whose name we are never told) is really interested in is the legend of the Luckenbach Witch. This witch was a widow put to death for witchcraft in the mid-19th century. Naturally she not only cursed Otto Schoennig, the man who had denounced her, but all his descendants and she promised to return to have her vengeance.

Sometimes horror movie protagonists start out sane and end up crazy. Others are crazy right from the get go. This student seems to me to fall into the latter category so the first night he’s there he heads for the local graveyard, finds the which’s grave, digs her up and removes the stake that had been driven through her heart.

As you might expect she comes back to life (or maybe unlife) and sets out to exterminate the living members of the Schoennig family. In between slayings he enjoys some skinny-dipping in the local waterhole. The student watches her naked cavortings and falls for her charms.

Insofar as there’s a twist to this movie it’s the fact that the widow witch was pretty much entirely innocent (of witchcraft at least) and was the victim of her cowardly and vindictive lover, Otto Schoennig.

The exasperating thing about this film is that the ingredients are there for a fairly decent horror and/or nudie flick. The setting and the German background are interesting. Some of the locations are actually quite cool. The premise is thin but good horror movies have been made with much thinner premises.

The budget was minuscule - about $8,000. The one special effects scene is hopelessly amateurish but that’s just one brief scene. This is not a movie that relies on special effects. Parts of the movie have synchronised dialogue and part don’t. But the low budget isn’t the problem.

The problem is that it plays like a movie made by someone who had not the slightest idea of how to make a movie. Even that is not always a fatal weakness. Doris Wishman didn’t have a clue how to make movies but she still managed to make some entertaining movies.

Actually the Doris Wishman comparison is perhaps quite apt. If you look at a movie like Indecent Desires, which was the closest Wishman got to making a horror movie, it’s much more technically incompetent than The Naked Witch. In fact the film-making in The Naked Witch is not so much technically incompetent as just incredibly unimaginative. Indecent Desires is crazy and outrageous and it’s thoroughly enjoyable in its own slightly bonkers way. But there’s no sense of fun in The Naked Witch, no sense of the outrageous and (fatally) there’s no real craziness. Wishman didn’t know what she was doing she loved making movies and it shows.

The Naked Witch commits the one unforgivable sin. It’s dull.

Another problem is that Buchanan couldn’t seem to decide if he was making a horror movie or a nudie movie. There’s not really enough horror content for a horror film and there’s not enough nudity for a nudie film. Given the lack of directing talent on display here it might have been wiser to make it a fully-fledged sexploitation movie. If you don’t know what you’re doing then adding some naked women is probably a sound policy. It worked for Doris Wishman.

Something Weird have found a colour print of this film. It was shot in 16mm and blown up so the resolution was probably never much better than what we see here. Not a great colour print but it’s probably surprising the movie has survived at all. It’s released on a double feature disc with Crypt of Dark Secrets and a stack of extras which includes a director’s commentary track for The Naked Witch. Larry Buchanan was apparently really happy with this movie!

The Naked Witch is a curiosity. It had potential but it doesn’t quite make it.

As usual Something Weird have come up with plenty of extras including some brain-numbingly bizarre short subjects.