Sunday, 28 October 2007

To the Devil…a Daughter (1976)

To the Devil…a Daughter, released in 1976, is best-known for being the last horror film made by Hammer Studios. It was a commercial success, but it came too late to save the studio. Hammer had been trying desperately to update their image and to get away from the gothic horrors that had been so successful for them but were now starting to feel a little tired, and were also starting to lose their commercial appeal. Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula were attempts to bring their Dracula franchise into the modern world. Unfortunately they tried too hard to be superficially contemporary, with pop music and kids in outrageous (and now embarrassingly dated early 70s fashions. At the same time they felt like the old gothic horrors transplanted uneasily into modern settings. They failed to give Hammer’s image a modern feel and the company teetered towards ruin. Ironically, To the Devil…a Daughter shows that they were quite capable of making the sorts of films that would have allowed them to compete very successful against the new-style horror movies of the 70s. They’ve abandoned the studio entirely, the movie is set partly in modern Germany and mostly in modern Hollywood. It has a very gritty realistic feel. There’s lots of gore, and the violence packs a real punch. There’s also lots of sex, but the sex doesn’t have that traditional Hammer feel. It feels real, rather than being simply naughty. And they’ve assembled the strongest cast ever seen in a Hammer movie. Christopher Lee gives the best performance I’ve ever seen from him, as a renegade Satanist priest. It’s a very restrained performance, and the restraint gives it real menace. Richard Widmark plays an author of books about the occult who tries to stop this renegade priest’s nefarious activities. Widmark hated every moment of the filming and apparently made himself generally disliked. In spite of this he gives a good performance. Nastassia Kinksi is a young nun who only slowly realises she’s been dedicated to the power of darkness. She has to project a mixture of innocence, corruption, and depraved and earthy sexuality, which she manages with no trouble at all. As you’d expect. Denholm Elliott plays her father, a man who is unravelling more and more by the moment, jumping at shadows and completely overpowered by his fears. He always does such parts well, and he does this one extremely well. I’m always surprised, after Callan, to see Anthony Valentine playing a non-evil character. He plays a friend of Widmark’s who gets drawn into this struggle, while Honor Blackman plays his slightly hippie-ish much older girlfriend. They both acquit themselves admirably. There are also some familiar faces from Hammer’s glory days, like Derek Francis as the bishop.

There’s not much to the plot, but there doesn’t really need to be. It simply requires Widmark to stop Christopher Lee from creating an incarnation of the evil Aztaroth, which he intends to do through the nun Catherine (Kinski). Peter Sykes directs the film with flair and imagination. It looks good. It looks modern, but without making the mistake of looking too much of its period. The acting is superb. It should have been an absolutely superb horror film. And mostly it is. The ending, though – to say the ending is anticlimactic would be putting it mildly. It’s as if they just got tired and decided to pack up and go home without bothering with a dramatic finale. Overall, though, this is a seriously underrated movie. If it didn’t save them, it at least allowed Hammer to bow out of horror on a high note.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Bad Seed (1956)

One of my all-time favourite cult movies is The Bad Seed. One of the most delightful things about this 1956 flick is trying to figure out just how seriously it was meant to be taken. At first it’s hard to believe it was supposed to be taken seriously at all, but then you remember that it was the 1950s. It’s the story of the mayhem caused by a wicked girl, played magnificently by Patty McCormack. She’s like Satan’s answer to Shirley Temple. It seems to be the film’s intention to show that bad heredity can produce monsters even in the most wholesome all-American middle-class families, although personally I’m not surprised that such a cloyingly nice and respectable family would cause a child to become a murderous killer! And you have to consider the effect of 50s TV as well. One can only take so much of Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons without wanting to pick up an axe. The producers decided that the ending of the stage play would be too real for a 1950s audience so they changed it. That usually means, in Hollywood, that a saccharine-drenched phoney happy ending gets grafted on, but in this case the new ending just makes a weird film weirder. It’s a very bad film, but as camp it succeeds brilliantly. In fact as a piece of unintentional camp it’s right up there with Valley of the Dolls. This is a film that is not to be missed.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Black Abbot (1963)

The Black Abbot (Der Schwarze Abt) is my second German Edgar Wallace krimi, and while it’s not quite as outrageous as The Door with the Seven Locks it’s not far behind, and the gothic atmosphere is even more delightfully overdone. The plot is too intricate for me even to attempt a synopsis, but it involves forgery, blackmail, madness, hidden treasure, various complicated criminal schemes, forced marriages, crooked accountants, embezzlement, and a mysterious masked black abbot. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, the pacing is relentless, the comic relief (once again provided by Eddi Arent) isn’t overly annoying and is even amusing at times, and the sets look wonderful. The acting is pretty good as well. And it’s terrific fun!

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Date Bait (1960)

Date Bait is a 1960 juvenile delinquent movie that has all the ingredients you could hope for – teenage dope fiends, hot rods, violence, parents that just don’t understand, and young lovers in trouble. Susan is in love with Danny, but her dad (who is a bit of a square) thinks he isn’t good enough for her. Brad is in love with Susan, but Susan is Danny’s girl. And Brad has a brother who is a dope dealer, and Brad has started to sample the merchandise. When Danny gets beaten up, and then Susan’s dad tells her she can’t see him again, what else can Danny and Susan do but elope to Las Vegas? But now Danny is in even bigger trouble – he could go to gaol for corrupting a minor! Even though they’re really really in love. Will young love triumph in the end?

The acting is as gloriously inept as you could wish for. Dick Gering as Brad is hilarious as he battles the temptation of those little packets of white powder – he’s shaking like he’s about to explode. Danny and Susan are most amusing as they eye the double bed in their motel room, and the realisation hits them that they’re actually going to Do It. But it’s OK, because they’re married. They’re basically Good Kids. If only Susan’s parents could realise that! Susan’s parents are the sorts of people who made the 50s the decade it was. Date Bait also boasts some of the most embarrassing songs you’ll ever hear. The title tune is particularly memorable. You won’t want to remember it, but you will. This one is a treat for all fans of JD movies.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)

Emilio Miraglia is a remarkably obscure Italian director of the 1970s who enjoyed great success with his first feature, made a few more movies, and then seems to have disappeared. The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (La Notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba), made in 1971, was promoted art the time as a gothic horror film but is really a giallo with some hints of the supernatural. These supernatural elements serve to make it even more incomprehensible than the average giallo. At this point I have to be honest and admit that this is perhaps my least favourite genre of cult movie, so it’s possible that fans of this type of movie may enjoy this one a lot more than I did. What it does have going for it is that Italian visual flair that saved many a giallo from disaster. Like me, you might not have the remotest idea of what is supposed to be going on, but it all looks impressive.

The plot has something to do with an English lord who is haunted by the death, in childbirth, of his first wife Evelyn. She had apparently been having an affair, and in his frequent hallucinatory states he relives his discovery of the affair and her subsequent death. This drives him (for some obscure) to want to whip and then murder red-headed prostitutes. He then decides to remarry. After that point the plot becomes even more impenetrable, but there are plots involving assorted family members. The acting is on the whole merely adequate, although Erika Blanc is very good as one of the strippers with whom the troubled lord becomes involved. Of course to complain about the plot of an Italian horror movie is to completely miss the point of Italian horror, which was always mainly about the visuals. This movie isn’t as impressive as the best efforts of director like Bava or Argento but it still has enough style to make it worth seeing. The DVD release by a company called NoShame is impressive. It’s packaged with another Emilio Miraglia movie, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. The movie looks superb, there are quite a few extras, and you get a red queen action figure as well. If you do happen to be a giallo fan you’ll certainly want to pick up a copy of the Emilio Miraglia Killer Queen Box Set.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Beat Girl (1960)

Jennifer is a teenage rebel, who hangs out in coffee bars with crazy beatniks and listens to wild music. Some of the crowd she’s mixed up with do even worse things, like dancing and listening to rock’n’roll records. Yes, this is one of those wonderful juvenile delinquent movies. In fact it’s Beat Girl, a British example from 1960, a movie that ran into major censorship problems at the time. Most reviewers don’t have a good word to say for this film, but it’s actually rather intriguing, and it certainly boasts an interesting cast – including Christopher Lee and a very young Oliver Reed. While it superficially takes the side of Jennifer’s parents, and the movie was undoubtedly intended that way, to modern viewer Jennifer’s father and step-mother come cross as rather sinister extremely stupid and terrifyingly inept, as well as petty and vindictive. The movie does also make an effort to explain the alienation of these young juvenile delinquents (not surprisingly the threat of nuclear annihilation being a major part of the explanation). The acting ranges from excruciatingly bad to rather good, with Christopher Lee as an oily strip-club owner and Adam Faith as one of Jennifer’s crowd of disillusioned teenagers being especially good, and Noëlle Adam as the step-mother being particularly bad. The script is clunky but it’s also full of wonderful 1960 hip slang. The creepiest part of the whole movie is her dad’s model city that he hopes to build one day (he’s an architect) – he’s going to reduce urban stress by ensuring that people never have to have any contact with anyone else in his futuristic city of high-rise towers. No wonder those crazy kids are rebelling! It’s all the fault of modernist architects. Eventually young Jennifer discovers that her step-mother has a shameful past – she used to be a stripper. This naturally causes Jennifer to want to be a stripper as well (no, that part didn’t make sense to me either) and leads inevitably to murder. It’s best not to think about the plot too much the scenes in the coffee bar are fun, the sound-track is interesting, and fans of the juvenile delinquent genre will find plenty to enjoy. An odd but weirdly entertaining movie in its own way.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The Witch’s Mirror (1962)

The Witch’s Mirror (El Espejo de la bruja) is really two movies. The first half is a ghost story/revenge from the grave story, and the second half is a surprisingly grisly mad scientist movie. A woman is murdered by her husband so he can marry someone else, but the first wife has a godmother who dabbles in witchcraft, and this allows her to return from the dead to seek vengeance. It was made in Mexico in 1962, and although on occasion it suffers from what was clearly a very low budget – some of the effects are very crude indeed – on the whole it’s an efficient piece of gothic horror. The acting is generally adequate, the sets are wonderfully gothic, there are some nice visual touches, and the atmosphere is effectively creepy. Not as good as The Black Pit of Dr M, but still good enough to have me seeking out more Mexican horror.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Royal Flash (1975)

Harry Flashman is a coward, a cad, a liar and a bully. His principal interests in life are gambling and whores. He is also a certified military hero, the only survivor of the gallant defence of Piper’s Fort in Afghanistan in 1842. At the time the relief column arrived he was in fact desperately trying to save his own skin by surrendering the fort, but when his unconscious body was found wrapped in the British flag appearances suggested that here indeed was a Noble Manly Hero. While still basking in this totally undeserved glory Flashman encounters an up-and-coming German politician named Bismarck in the company of the notorious courtesan Lola Montez, with fateful consequences both for himself and for the history of Europe. Royal Flash, the 1975 film based on the second of George MacDonald Fraser’s immensely successful series of Flashman novels, seemed to have most of the ingredients required for a hit movie – director Richard Lester was riding high after the enormous success of The Three Musketeers and its sequel, the movie’s cast included a galaxy of British acting talent, the locations were simply gorgeous, it was photographed by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, and it offered a combination of adventure, comedy and romance. Alas, it was not to be, and the movie failed at the box office. I suspect it failed partly because in order to really enjoy the Flashman novels the reader requires at least a cursory knowledge of 19th century history, and mainstream cinema audiences were likely to be left somewhat perplexed by the plot. If you don’t have at least a rough idea of Bismarck’s historical significance and the course of German unification, and if you’ve never heard of Lola Montez, you’re going to miss much of the fun, which relies on the skilful and witty way in which Fraser (who also wrote the screenplay) weaves together historical facts and the career of his mythical anti-hero. It’s also a slightly quirky movie, with lots of odd but delightful little visual flourishes and in-jokes (there are some wonderfully fanciful Victorian gadgets that give the movie almost a steampunk feel at times). And it’s also possible that movie audiences simply couldn’t accept the idea of an adventure film with such an outrageous scoundrel as its hero. Be that as it may, the elements that ensured the movie’s commercial failure are the very elements that make for cult success and Royal Flash has over the years accumulated a small but devoted following.

Malcolm MacDowell is fun as the unscrupulous and unapologetic rogue Flashman, Alan Bates is delightfully villainous, Florinda Bolkan is glamorous and charismatic as Lola Montez and Oliver Reed gives one of his most memorably sinister performances as Bismarck. Bob Hoskins, Alastair Sim, Michael Hordern and Lionel Jeffries give great support in minor roles, and even Britt Eckland is surprisingly good as the ice princess Flashman finds himself forced to marry. Royal Flash is highly entertaining and looks glorious, and the recent DVD release from Fox (which comes with some very tempting extras) should do much to rescue this movie from undeserved oblivion.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Women in Revolt (1971)

Like all of Paul Morrissey’s films you’re either going to love or loathe his 1971 production Women in Revolt. I thought it was hilarious, but then I have an odd sense of humour, and an odd sense of humour is essential for a proper appreciation of this movie. It’s a comedy about feminism that also touches on gay liberation, starring the three most famous drag queens from Andy Warhol’s Factory. The amazingly glamorous Candy Darling plays her role, as a wealthy society woman who desperately wants to be a movie stare, dead straight. Surprisingly this approach works perfectly, and she is both very funny and also at times rather touching. Jackie Curtis is more overtly campy as the female activist who masterminds the organisation known as PIGs (Politically Involved Girls). Holly Woodlawn is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by her co-stars. The movie is largely improvised, so it’s very uneven, but it has moments of bizarre brilliance. If you’re not familiar with Morrissey’s work then definitely rent this one before buying – his films are an acquired taste.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Judex (1963)

Louis Feuillade had enjoyed enormous success during the silent era with his action/adventure serials involving master criminals such as Fantômas and master crime fighters. Georges Franju’s Judex, made in 1963, is a remake of the 1916 Feuillade production of the same name. It’s a movie that really does seem to come from another era – you have to keep reminding yourself that this movie came out after the first of the James Bond films. Franju’s movie is deliberately archaic, and once you get used to the feel of it its considerable charm starts to win you over. It has the touches of the surreal that you expect from the director of Eyes Without a Face, and it really is unlike any other movie of the 1960s. The convoluted plot involves a crooked banker (is there any other king of banker one may ask), his beautiful daughter, a masked-avenger style crime-fighter called Judex, and a remarkably appealing and very sexy (and very wicked) female criminal named Diana Monti. She gets to wear an extraordinary array of costumes, ranging from typical 1914 women’s clothing to black catsuits and at one point she even gets to dress up as a nun. Francine Bergé’s performance as Diana is the highlight of the movie. The great crime-fighter Judex is played by an American stage magician named Channing Pollock, and his magic act plays an important role in the movie, especially in the memorable masked-ball scene early on. Audiences whose ideas of pulp cinema are derived from Quentin Tarantino may find Judex a little slow and disappointingly lacking in mindless violence. This is a movie that has to be accepted on its own terms – it’s an arty, surreal action/adventure movie and if you can get your head around that concept then it’s a fascinating viewing experience.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Two Orphan Vampires (1997)

Two Orphan Vampires (Les Deux orphelines vampires), based on one of his own novels, was Jean Rollin’s return to the genre he loves most, the vampire movie. The most recent movie of Rollin’s that I’d seen previous to this was his 1982 zombie movie The Living Dead Girl (one of the very few zombie movies I’ve really enjoyed), and I approached Two Orphan Vampires (made in 1997) with some trepidation, fearing that Rollin may have lost his touch. Would the Rollin magic still work? I need not have worried. Two Orphan Vampires is one of his best films. It’s very much a Jean Rollin movie, making no concessions whatsoever to modern trends in horror movies. Louise and Henriette are two blind orphan girls, living in an orphanage run by kindly nuns. They’re not always blind, however – at night their sight returns, and they leave the orphanage to seek out graveyards, and to seek out blood. Their existence changes dramatically when they are adopted by an eminent eye specialist. The girls seem to have created their own private mythology, with themselves at the centre. The have lived many times, and died many times. They have been Aztec goddesses, and they have been magical girls in other times and places. Have they really been goddesses? Have they really lived and died before? Are they actually vampires? If you’re looking for definite answers to these questions then Jean Rollin is probably not the film-maker for you. To Rollin dreams and fantasies are as real and as important as anything in the waking world, and whether these dreams correspond to any objective reality is an entirely irrelevant question. Dreams and memories are important in themselves. To ask if a memory is true or false is to ask the wrong question. If you approach this film expecting or hoping for a conventional horror movie you may be very disappointed. There’s virtually no gore, there’s virtually no action, and (surprisingly for a Rollin movie) there’s very little nudity. If you accept that Rollin is not really a horror director but is in fact working in the genre the French call the fantastique then you will find this to be a beautiful and haunting movie. If you’re already a Rollin fan then you know what to expect, and you shouldn’t be put off by any negative reports you may have heard on this one – it compares very favourably indeed to his earlier work. It was shot in New York and Paris, and the look of the movie is somewhat similar to his very underrated and in fact quite superb 1973 feature The Iron Rose (La Rose de fer).

I’ve read some negative reviews of the Shriek Show DVD release, but I thought the image quality was perfectly acceptable. It includes interviews with Rollin and with the two lead actresses. Two Orphan Vampires is most definitely worth seeing.