Thursday, 31 July 2008

Vampire Ecstasy (1973)

In 1973 legendary sexploitation director Joseph W. Sarno decided to try his hand at erotic horror, erotic horror being very big at the time. The result was Vampire Ecstasy (Der Fluch der shwarzen Schwestern, also released under the titles The Devil’s Plaything and Veil of Blood), and it demonstrates that making an effective erotic horror movie isn’t as easy as it looks. You really need more than just vampires and naked women.

The plot isn’t really a problem. Yes, it’s silly, but since when has that been a problem in horror movie? In the 17th century a baroness was burnt alive as a vampire. Three hundred years later a group of people, some of whom are descendants of the evil baroness and some of whom are descendants of the women who betrayed her, are summoned to her gothic castle. The castle is inhabited by various female retainers, servants, etc, who have kept alive a kind of vampiric cult. They believe that the blood of one of the baroness’s betrayers can be used to bring the vampire back to life, in the body of her descendant.

The guests at the castle include a brother and sister. The have a very close relationship. The sister would like the relationship to be even closer. Much much closer. The sister also serves as the obligatory scientific sceptic, a woman who studies peasant superstitions.

The vampire cult priestesses conduct rituals, involving hypnotic percussive music and lots of naked dancing. By this means they are able to exercise a form of mind control over their unwitting guests, forcing them to do their bidding by making them a prey to unbearable lusts.

Although made in Germany with a mixed German/Swedish cast, the movie was shot in English. It’s noticeable that most members of the cast aren’t entirely comfortable in English and this gives the acting a rather stiff quality. The pacing is also a problem. And although the potential is there for the wonderful weirdness that you so often get in 70s European erotic horror, it isn’t really developed the way it would have been with someone like a Jess Franco or a Jean Rollin directing.

Nadia Hekowa is however delightfully bizarre and perversely erotic as the leader of the vampire cult, and the movie has its moments. It’s definitely one to rent rather than buy.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Night of Fear (1972)

Night of Fear is a 1972 Australian horror film that was originally intended as the pilot for a TV series. In fact it’s much too graphic to have ever had any chance at all of being screened on television, and it was actually banned even for cinema release! It bears some resemblance to the redneck horror movies being made in the US at that time, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A woman crashes her car on a deserted road and finds herself stalked by a shambling, mumbling, clearly in-bred and obviously deranged psycho killer. She ends up in his shack, which is surrounded by horses’ heads on poles and filled with stuffed rats and skulls and newspaper clippings about gruesome murders. He also keeps large numbers of very live rats and cages of feral cats.

It’s a very short movie (which betrays its origins as a TV pilot) and this works in its favour – it’s very focused and very intense. There’s a fairly convincing atmosphere of menace and insanity and even the outdoor scenes in the forest manage to be extremely claustrophobic. There’s also no dialogue at all, something that may have seemed gimmicky in a longer film but in this 50-minute feature it works well.

Carla Hoogeveen is effective as the terrorised woman, and Norman Yemm (a well-known Australian actor of the time) is decidedly creepy as the psycho killer. It’s very much a “city person realises she should never ever have left the safety of the big city” type of movie, and it’s a reasonably good example of the breed.

It’s been released on DVD as a double-feature with a later movie also by writer-director Terry Bourke, Inn of the Damned. It has to be said that Night of Fear is by far the better of the two movies. It’s less ambitious but much tighter and much more atmospheric, it has some genuine scares and some genuine creepiness, and it’s technically much more interesting with some effective cinematography. Both movies include a commentary track, so for anyone interested in slightly off-beat horror or in exploring the strange work of Australian Gothic it represents very good value.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Last Woman on Earth (1960)

I was a little dubious about seeing Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth. He did an earlier end-of-the-world movie, The Day the World Ended, which I didn’t much care for. That was however one of his earliest efforts. By 1960 he’d become very proficient indeed in the art of interesting low-budget film-making. And Last Woman on Earth is actually not bad at all!

Even by Corman standards Last Woman on Earth is low budget. So how do you do a science fiction film with no money at all for special effects or action sequences? Well, you can always focus on the characters, and on how they respond to extraordinary events. To do this of course you need a decent writer. Once again Corman’s knack for spotting talent came to his rescue. As screenwriter he had a young guy named Robert Towne. Yes, that Robert Towne. The man who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Polanski’s Chinatown.

The basic idea is that a crooked American businessman (Harold Gern) is in Cuba, having had to leave the US temporarily because of some small misunderstanding with the Justice Department. He’s with his wife Evelyn and his young hot-shot lawyer Martin. Towne, in one of his rare acting roles, plays the lawyer himself. While they’re scuba diving the end of the world happens. Since they were safely underwater when it happened, they survive. They are, as far as they know, the only survivors.

In a post-apocalyptic movie you expect the survivors to spend lots of time debating the best strategies for rebuilding civilisation. These three don’t do any of that. Civilisation is gone. They just want to survive. They set up housekeeping in a large beach house, lay in a stock of canned food and teach themselves to fish. It’s almost idyllic. Except for one problem. And it’s a much bigger problem than the end of civilisation. There are three remaining members of the human species. There are two men - but there’s only one woman! And Evelyn was already trying to seduce young Martin even before the world ended. You just know things are going to get a little tense.

Towne and Corman use the situation not just to create a love triangle, but to set up a conflict between two incompatible world-views. Harold is a man of action, a self-made man. He’s used to getting what he wants. He’s not going to let a minor setback like the end of the world stop him, and he’s not going to brood about it. Martin is a man of ideas, civilised and melancholy, pessimistic and cynical. Evelyn is attracted to both men, but mostly she’s attracted to Martin because he’s the man she doesn’t have. His attitude towards life fascinates her. He doesn’t treat her like a possession. And he’s vaguely cute.

While the acting is typical B-movie acting the movie has Towne’s literate script and Corman’s keen sense of pacing, not to mention sexual tension in abundance, to keep things from getting boring. And the ending isn’t quite what you’re expecting. Post-apocapylpse movie are not my thing, but this is one of the more interesting examples of the breed. I liked it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Nude for Satan (1974)

You could be forgiven for assuming that this 1974 slice of eurohorror would have been pretty much guaranteed of box office success. It has the words nude and Satan in the title after all. When you discover that in fact Nude for Satan (Nuda per Satana) was such a spectacular commercial disaster that the distributors locked it away in the vaults and forgot about it then you could also be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be an extremely bad film.

Actually it’s quite entertaining, in its own strange way. It’s that characteristically 1970s European blend of horror, art and sex. A doctor is driving along a deserted road and witnesses a car accident in which a young woman has been injured. Luckily there’s a creepy obviously haunted horror movie gothic castle nearby. When they get there strange events start to unfold. Things start to go all Edgar Allan Poe, with mirrors, mysterious paintings and doubles. All the ingredients for an intriguing movie are there.

Director Luigi Batzella isn’t a skilful enough chef to blend them into something really interesting, but he approaches his task with commendable enthusiasm. The movie also has sufficient ingredients to make it work as an exploitation flick. Lots of sex and lots of nudity. Unusually for an Italian horror film of this period there’s almost no violence and no gore. There’s definitely horror, but it’s psychological horror. And the sex doesn’t have any of the sometimes disturbing qualities of sexualised violence that are so common in 70s eurohorror.

Technically it’s an odd mix of the very good (some nice stuff with paintings, and plenty of effective gothic atmosphere) and the very bad (the spider scene). The spider scene is in fact so outlandishly ludicrous and campy that it actually becomes positively surreal. It becomes art. It has to be seen to be believed. The whole movie has a weird artificial quality to it, not so much stagey as reminiscent of a marionette theatre, which gives it the required dreamlike feel.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a neglected masterpiece, but if you approach it in the right frame of mind there’s definite entertainment value there, and the eccentric mix of artiness and camp is quite appealing. The Redemption DVD looks extremely good. Recommended if you have a taste for slightly bizarre 70s eurotrash.

Seven Women for Satan (1976)

Seven Women for Satan (Les Week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff) is a 1976 French horror film that takes as its starting point the 1932 American movie The Most Dangerous Game, which told the story of an insane nobleman who enjoyed hunting people for sport.

The Count Zaroff of Seven Women for Satan (played by Michel Lemoine who also wrote and directed the film) is superficially far more civilised. He works at an office job in the city, although he lives in an old chateau. He springs from an ancient line of aristocrats who certainly weren’t beyond torturing the local peasantry as a leisure activity (and the chateau has a large and fully equipped torture chamber to prove it) but the current count has abandoned such barbaric pleasures.

The taste for cruelty is still in the blood though, and the count’s butler Karl (whose family has served the counts for generations) is determined to re-awaken this instinct. He promised his father on his deathbed that he would encourage the young count to keep up the family tradition of murder, mayhem and torture. And the count, on the surface rather meek and mild and even perhaps a tad oversensitive, does have dreams that involve hunting down and slaughtering young women on horseback.

Under Karl’s influence the count’s sanity starts to crumble, and he is haunted by visions of his now deceased former girlfriend, and there are hints he may in fact have been involved in some way in her death. The line between reality and his violent fantasies becomes increasingly blurred. Lemoine and Howard Vernon (as Karl) give fine performances and it’s a fairly effective piece of horror film-making. Guy Bonnet’s truly bizarre score is also an asset.

The picture quality is acceptable although not as pristine as the other Mondo Macabro releases I’ve seen, and the DVD includes a very good interview with Lemoine who is both charming and fascinating. Seven Women for Satan is both less weird and less interesting than some of the other eurohorror being produced in the mid-70s but it should still satisfy most eurohorror fans. But be warned, this movie contains large amounts of gratuitous go-go dancing.

Monday, 21 July 2008

I Vampiri (1956)

I Vampiri, released in 1956, can claim to be one of the most influential horror moves ever made. It was the first of the long series of Italian gothic horror films, but it also contained within it hints of the other major strand of Italian horror, the giallo. It marked the beginnings of eurohorror. It also launched the career of one of the greats of horror cinema, Mario Bava. When director Riccardo Freda walked out of the project when filming was almost complete Bava, who had been director of photography, finished the picture. Controversy still rages as to whether it should be regarded as a Freda film or a Bava film.

It has much of what you expect in gothic horror – vampires, crypts, crumbling castles, and a general air of decadence and decay but combines these elements with a contemporary urban setting, with police investigations, nosy journalists and a series of murders, as in a giallo. The story also involves mad scientists, so it’s as if every possible horror ingredient was thrown into the mix. The plot is a bit clunky, and both Freda and Bava would go on to do much better things, but I Vampiri was where it started.

It lacks the spectacular visual brilliance of later Bava efforts but it still achieves a reasonably effective atmosphere and it’s entertaining. Just don’t expect something in the same league as Bava’s Black Sunday or Freda’s The Horrible Dr Hichcock.

I Vampiri actually pre-dates the first of the Hammer gothic cycle as well, appearing a year before The Curse of Frankenstein, so it’s arguable that the whole of modern gothic horror begins with this movie.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)

Bad Girls Go to Hell marks my introduction to the strange world of legendary cult film-maker Doris Wishman. Wishman’s major claim to fame is that she was just about the only woman director working in the sexploitation field in the early 60s. Bad Girls Go to Hell is one of her best-known films.

A young wife is about to descend to the basement of her apartment building to put out the trash. She puts on her sexiest lingerie (as you do when you’re putting out the trash), and is raped by the janitor. He tries to blackmail her into sex, and she kills him. Naturally (this being the movies) even though it was self-defence she flees to New York. There she finds a series of people who seem willing to help her out, but they invariably turn out to be unpredictable violent alcoholics or predatory (although rather sweet and good-natured) lesbians. She just keeps getting into more trouble.

As a sexploitation movie it’s pretty tame. This was 1965, and although there’s some nudity it’s mostly tease rather than anything else. Lots of lingerie though. The women in this movie spend an inordinate mount of time in their lingerie. They also sport some very spiffy early 60s hairstyles!

It has all the Wishman trademarks that I’d been told about. Shots of people’s feet. Lots of shots of people’s feet. Lots and lots of shots of people’s feet. And shots of inanimate objects, for no particular reason. While these quirks might seem at first to be evidence of incompetence, in fact Wishman was no Ed Wood. She was a self-taught film-maker, and she could be described as a naïve film-maker in the sense that certain painters such as Henri Rousseau are described as naïve artists. She isn’t incompetent, she merely has a very idiosyncratic style. But it is a real style, and once you get used to it it’s rather captivating.

Her approach to plotting is equally individual. The plot of Bad Girls Go to Hell is disjointed and anarchic, but it’s disjointedness and choppiness is more reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard than of Ed Wood. There’s a certain method in her madness. She seems to have been aspiring to the title of the Hitchcock of sexploitation.

That’s not to say that Bad Girls Go to Hell is a great or even a good movie in any conventional sense of such terms. In many ways it’s a very bad move indeed. The acting is atrocious even by B-movie standards, the dialogue (all dubbed later, and rather badly) is cringe-inducing, and the plot has more holes than the heroine’s fishnet tights.

But it’s a bad movie made by a true visionary, and one with a genuine, albeit bizarre, talent. It’s a bad movie in the way the movies of Jess Franco and Russ Meyer (other bizarre but talented visionaries) can be described as bad - it’s not so much that it breaks the rules of conventional good film-making, it simply doesn’t recognise the existence of such rules. Like the movies of Franco and Meyer, you have to take it on it own terms. It’s definitely entertaining, and rather fascinating. I’ll be seeking out more of her movies.

Cave of the Living Dead (1964)

Cave of the Living Dead (Der Fluch der grünen Augen) is a 1964 German/Yugoslav co-production, and it’s a competent if not particularly exceptional eurohorror vampire flick.

A series of unexplained murders has taken place in an isolated village, with the victims all being young women. Inspector Dorin (played by European exploitation cinema stalwart Adrian Hoven ) is sent to the village to investigate. There he meets the local doctor, who assures him that nothing out of the ordinary has been going on. He’s your typical horror movie man of science, stubbornly unwilling to accept the obvious answer that the murders are the work of vampires. The local witch (who happens to be a good witch) has no doubts on this score however, and the detective soon finds himself inclined to favour her theories.

This movie has all the horror movie clichés you could hope for, with a gothic castle inhabited by a mysterious stranger who suddenly appeared in the village six months earlier, and now conducts unnatural experiments in his laboratory. He has a typical slightly sinister horror movie servant, and the village boasts a typical slightly sinister village idiot character. And of course the enigmatic professor has a beautiful female assistant (Erika Remberg), and of course the detective starts to fall for her.

I personally love the German genre movies of the early 60s. They have a wonderful sense of slightly self-mocking fun, and they always assume the audience is in on the joke. This one is no exception, although it has less of the comedy that you usually get in such films. There’s some nice gothic atmosphere, some very cool caves, and the black-and-white photography is impressive. The acting is more than adequate. It has some sexy female vampires. It has all the ingredients to make a highly entertaining tongue-in-cheek horror romp. The problem is the pacing. At 87 minutes it’s way too long.

It’s still quite good fun though, as long as you don’t take it at all seriously. The Region 1 DVD includes no extras at all, but it’s cheap and the image quality is very good. The English dub is the only audio option available, but it’s quite acceptable. Recommended for fans of 1960s German mystery/horror/sci-fi films, and considering its low price it’s worth a look for eurohorror fans in general.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Playgirls and the Vampire (1962)

A bus carrying a bevy of beautiful showgirls finds encounters an impassable road. Whatever will they do? Where will they spend the night? Luckily there’s a mysterious-looking ancient gothic castle nearby. That’s bound to be a safe place to pass the night. OK, there’s an old gardener who warns them not to stay, and there’s an evil-looking housekeeper, and the owner of the castle is a moody and enigmatic nobleman who shuns human contact, but still, what could go wrong? He’s not likely to be a vampire or anything.

OK, so the plot of The Playgirls and the Vampire sounds like the plot of a dozen other eurohorror flicks, but this one was made in 1960 (although not released until a couple of years later) and in 1960 this wasn’t quite so much of a horror movie cliché. Not quite. And in any case this is not a movie that takes itself at all seriously. It’s one of those movies that is more fun because the plot is so familiar. Knowing exactly what’s going to happen is all part of the fun.

This movie, written and directed by Piero Regnoli, was an attempt to combine sex and horror. Of course, being 1960, the sex is pretty much limited to the aforementioned showgirls running around the castle in see-through nighties. There’s also a strip-tease routine in which one of the young ladies takes off...well in fact she takes off very little. It was undoubtedly hot stuff in 1960, and seen today the attempts to be sexy are actually rather charming and amusing. It’s also a reminder of an era when it was understood that the tease was often a good deal more erotic than the reveal.

As for the horror, well really there isn’t a lot of that. Although there is certainly a vampire. The acting is what you’d expect. The gothic castle is nicely gothic though, and there’s even a mad scientist’s laboratory. Any movie with a mad scientist’s laboratory is worth seeing in my opinion. It’s all good-natured tongue-in-cheek fun, and if you have a plentiful supply of popcorn on hand and you enjoy campy horror then you’ll be well satisfied.

The Region 1 DVD looks acceptable considering the age of the movie.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Salon Kitty (1976)

Kitty Kellermann runs a high-class brothel called Salon Kitty in Berlin in the late 1930s. Kitty likes both her girls and her clients, and she looks after them. Life is good. Until the day the SS decides to take over her establishment. Salon Kitty will be stocked with beautiful Aryan women, the flower of German womanhood. They will not be recruited from among professional prostitutes, but from all walks of life. These girls must be not merely beautiful and racially pure, but also dedicated National Socialists. They will be serving their country. Their task will be to entertain the political and military elite of the Third Reich and to report any signs of disloyalty, disaffection or defeatism. They will be sexual spies for the Fatherland.

Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy) is a particularly zealous Nazi. She is proud to have the opportunity to serve the Reich. That is, until the day she realises she has fallen in love with one of her regular clients, and must choose between duty and love. This man is a Luftwaffe pilot, and he is sickened by the war. So disgusted and disillusioned is he that he confides to Margherita his intention to desert.

Tinto Brass’s 1976 film Salon Kitty is actually based, fairly loosely, on a true story. There really was a Salon Kitty, and the prostitutes really were used by the SS as intelligence gatherers.

I find this a very difficult movie to review. It represents so much of what I love about the movies of the 70s. It’s a political movie. It’s an art film. It’s a sexploitation film. Only in the 70s could those three elements co-exist without any contradictions. It’s also a visually stunning movie. The sets are gorgeous. The acting is superb. And Tinto Brass comes up with some truly inspired moments. The regimented orgy scene early on, with the company of trainee prostitutes and a company of SS soldiers marching off for a sexual training session really does capture the madness of fascism and militarism rather neatly.

I don’t have a problem with the sexploitation elements, and I don’t have a problem with Brass’s merciless satirising of fascism. What does make me very uncomfortable though is the way the movie links sexual deviance, and especially homosexuality, with Nazism. This is the element that also disturbed me in Visconti’s The Damned. It worries me not only because it’s dangerous, but because it seems to me to be such a distortion of history. After all, the Nazis were not exactly renowned for their tolerance of homosexuality. In 1934 they brutally purged one of their own organisations, the SA, the purge being justified by the fact that many members of the SA were homosexual. Quite apart from the fact that so many victims of the death camps were homosexual.

I admit I’m no expert on the sexual history of the Third Reich but I can’t help thinking that both Salon Kitty and The Damned are confusing the sexual openness and supposed decadence of the Weimar Republic in the 20s with the Nazi era.

In both Salon Kitty and his later Caligula Tinto Brass is obsessed with absolute power and what it does to people. Salon Kitty certainly boasts some fine acting. Helmut Berger is creepy as only Helmut Berger can be. Ingrid Thulin is wonderfully over-the-top as Kitty. The key role though is Margherita. She has to combine naïveté with political fanaticism while still remaining a sympathetic character, and the choice she makes between love and duty has to be convincing. She has to be sexy while retaining an odd innocence. She also has to be taken seriously while spending almost the entire movie naked. The relatively inexperienced Teresa Ann Savoy does a remarkably fine job.

Salon Kitty is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The slaughterhouse scenes with the pigs and the scenes involving the trainee prostitutes learning to lose their inhibitions by having sex with people with severe deformities are confronting and unpleasant. Whether they’re necessary or not is a moot point.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this movie. This may be a somewhat heretical opinion, but I think Caligula is actually the better film.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Hot Rods to Hell (1967)

If you wanted to explain to someone the concept of camp classics or so-bad-they’re-good movies, rather than waste time on long-winded explanations all you really need to do is to show them Hot Rods to Hell. This 1967 movie, directed by John Brahm (a director who had at one time been highly thought of) is one of the most astonishingly bad movies ever made. And it’s non-stop fun.

Tom Phillips (played by Dana Andrews) and his family are about to take over the running of a motel in a one-horse town somewhere in the California desert. Their drive to the town of Mayville becomes a nightmare when they find themselves terrorised by a group of juvenile delinquents in hot rods. Apparently these young tearaways have made the once respectable god-fearing town of Mayville into a haven for every kind of wickedness imaginable, so much so that the previous owner of the motel is only too anxious to sell up and leave.

Tom had been involved in an auto accident some time before and he’s lost his nerve for driving, so much so that much of the time he has to leave the driving to his wife. Which naturally makes him feel like he’s no longer a man. When he’s taunted by one of the youthful rebels at a gas station he decides he has to prove his manhood by taking over the driving again. There is of course nothing to equal the shame of being seen being driven around by a woman. When the juvenile delinquents realise Tom is the new owner of the motel in Mayville (which includes a night spot that is the social hub of the town) and when he unwisely threatens to call the cops and talks about cleaning up the sink of vice that the motel has become, the stage is set for a final showdown.

The acting is uniformly atrocious, but every single performance is delightfully entertaining. Dana Andrews fumes impotently at the moral corruption of the world. He just doesn’t understand these crazy kids today. At one point he is shocked and amazed when his 16-year-old daughter Tina (Laurie Mock) sneaks out to go to the night spot. Why on earth would a teenage girl want to go to a place where they have dancing, music and boys?Jeanne Crain as his wife plays the entire movie in a state of hysteria. She does make a attempt to understand her daughter though because as she says, “There is no woman alive who doesn’t want a man.” Mimsy Farmer is bad girl Gloria, and she’s as wonderfully over-the-top as the rest of the cast.

This movie must have seemed embarrassingly dated even in 1967. The juvenile delinquents look like they’d be more at home at a church youth group than spreading terror on the highway. Everything about the film screams 1950s. The height of debauchery occurs at the night spot, where after downing a few soda pops and listening to some crazy “rock’n’roll” music they start dancing, and some even go so far as to start kissing. As a highway patrol cop remarks to Tom, “These kids have nowhere to go but they want to get there at 150 miles an hour.”

When you consider that this movie was released by MGM a year after Roger Corman’s superb The Wild Angels appeared the extent to which the major studios had lost touch with young audiences becomes frighteningly apparent. But bad as it is, Hot Rods to Hell is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable movies I’ve seen in long time. I loved every campy minute of it.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The Night of the Hunted (1980)

After making some of the oddest and most quirky vampire movies ever made, at the end of the 70s French director Jean Rollin turned his attentions to zombies. And made some of the oddest and most quirky zombie movies ever made. His zombie movies lack the more extreme surreal touches of his vampire films, but they’re still like no other zombie movies.

If you’re expecting a Romero-style orgy of violence and gore you’re in for a disappointment with The Night of the Hunted (La Nuit des traquées). There is a small amount of gore, and some violence, but the overall mood is tragic and melancholy.

A motorist encounters a strange young woman. She is afraid and confused, and claims to have escaped from somewhere. But she can’t remember where it is that she’s escaped from, or where she lives, or where she comes from. He takes her back to his apartment. They make love. She has already forgotten that his name is Robert. After he leaves for work, two mysterious strangers arrive to take her back to an anonymous tower block, where she apparently lives with a miscellaneous assortment of other people. What they all have in common is that they are trapped in an eternal present. Their memories vanish almost instantaneously.

The young woman, Elisabeth, finds herself back in her room with another young woman. Neither is sure if they’re ever met before. They try to remember things, but end up making things up, trying to invent memories to fill the emptiness. Without memories they cannot be said to be truly alive. They are the living dead. They are, in effect, zombies.

This is a zombie movie told from the point of view of the zombies. They are not flesh-eating monsters. Some commit acts of violence, but most are passive. They are bewildered and frightened. We do eventually get an explanation of their condition, but it’s the mood that matters in this movie.

Rollin uses his stark tower block setting to convey an atmosphere of subtle menace and of alienation. Brigitte Lahaie gives a very fine performance as Elisabeth. The early sex scene between Elisabeth and Robert is the most important scene in the movie, as Elisabeth searches desperately for an experience intense enough to be remembered. It manages to be both genuinely erotic and unbearably sad.

This was the second of Rollin’s zombie movies, and it’s probably the least approachable for those accustomed to more conventional horror movies. The first, Grapes of Death, is closer to what most people would expect in a zombie movie, while 1982’s The Living Dead Girl again takes a sympathetic and tragic approach, and is in my view the greatest of all zombie movies. The Night of the Hunted is a little clunky in places, but its faults are redeemed by the superb ending.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Vampire Circus (1972)

Vampire Circus, released in 1972, is a fairly typical late-period Hammer horror film. And that’s no bad thing. I happen to think that they made some of the most interesting and worthwhile movies in the early 70s, and that they had the right idea which was not to abandon the gothic horror on which they’d built their reputation but to add other elements to the mix to keep things fresh. So they made hybrid kung fu/vampire movies like the wonderful Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and western/vampire movie hybrids like the equally entertaining and quirky Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter. Or they played around with the gothic genre, as in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

Vampire Circus is, fairly obviously, a movie that combines circuses and vampires. What makes it work so well is that they didn’t just add a circus to provide a colourful background for a vampire movie, or add a vampire to a circus story. The two elements mesh seamlessly, with the fundamental nature of both the circus and the vampire being that of turning the world on its head, breaking the rules, making appearances deceptive and threatening the natural order of things. Vampire Circus also adds a very considerable dose of eroticism to the mix, and this also functions as an essential element of the story rather than being there (as in many Hammer movies) just to add some titillation.

The movie starts in classic gothic horror style. After a child has disappeared (apparently the latest in a series of such disappearances) we see a mob of torch-wielding villagers attacking a vampire’s castle. The vampire is destroyed, and his castle is burnt with his wicked female acolyte inside. But all this happens before the opening credits! We then find ourselves in the same village fifteen years earlier, the village in the grip of a mysterious plague, and with a travelling circus newly arrived. It’s a strange circus though - the performers’ tricks are both disturbing and seem to be inexplicable by the normal laws of nature. We can guess that there’s a common thread linking the vampires, the plague and the circus.

Robert Young, directing his first feature film, keeps the plot ticking over at a frenetic pace. There are no big names in the cast, but the performances are solid. Look out for Lalla Ward (to become much better known as Romana II from Doctor Who) as a sexy vampire circus dancer.

The circus sequences, with performers literally taking flight and shape-changing ,definitely add a touch of genuine and disturbing weirdness that you don’t get in most Hammer films. The ending is just a little disappointing, being rather too predictable. It’s a pity Hammer couldn’t quite bring themselves to depart from the conventions they’d established in that area. Overall though it’s a fine piece of gothic erotic horror, stylish and very entertaining, and visually impressive. A must-see for any fan of British gothic horror.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Lady Terminator (1988)

Lady Terminator (Pembalasan ratu pantai selatan) has been my first glimpse into the world of Indonesian exploitation cinema, and what a strange world it is. This is an outrageously over-the-top action/horror/sci-fi/sex extravaganza.

An anthropologist is investigating the legends of the South Sea Queen, a kind of witch goddess who lives in her castle beneath the sea, luring young men to her to fulfil her physical needs, although sadly no of them seem able to satisfy her appetites. For those who fail she has a venomous snake concealed about her person in her…well let’s just say she has it concealed about her person. On a scuba dive this young female anthropologist discovers the South Sea Queen’s castle, is possessed by her spirit, and is turned into an unstoppable Terminator-like killing machine. A truly prodigious killing spree ensues, with a bunch of very macho cops trying with very little success to hunt her down.

There’s a good deal of outrageous macho posturing with big guns (not to mention rocket launchers) and enough ammunition is expended to keep several small wars ticking over nicely. There’s also lots of stuff getting blown up. Lots and also lots of stuff getting blown up. This Lady Terminator pauses occasionally to satisfy her lusts, then continues with the mayhem. It’s all good fun.

Barbara Anne Constable as the anthropologist-turned-Terminator can’t act, but she has undeniable presence, and that’s what the role requires. Christopher J. Hart as the cop hero is one of those extremely bad actors who makes bad acting ridiculously entertaining, all testosterone and square-jawed heroism.

As so often with Mondo Macabro releases the accompanying documentary is every bit as entertaining as the movie, giving us a potted history of Indonesia’s extaordinary exploitation film industry. There are three or four other Indonesian movies that are now on my must-see list and scarily enough they’re available on DVD. From Mondo Macabro, of course. I already have Dangerous Seductress, made by the same director as Lady Terminator (the movies came in a wonderful little two-movie set called Action Action Deadly Dolls). I think I may just have to buy every single movie released by Mondo Macabro.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom (1973)

Few things are more fun than watching an outrageous slice of Japanese exploitation mayhem from the 70s. When the movie happens to star both Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, the two legendary bad girls of Japanese exploitation cinema, things just can’t get much better. And with a title like Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom, you just can’t lose.

The School of Hope is a school for delinquent girls, founded by a much-respected elder statesman of Japanese politics, Mr Sato. Its stated purpose is to take wayward girls and turn them into respectable wives and mothers. In fact it’s a fascist mini-state, controlled by a crooked deputy principal and ruled by the Disciplinary Committee. This is a gang of girl thugs, answerable to the deputy principal (Mr Ishihara), which maintains a reign of terror. The girls of the Disciplinary Committee also provide sexual favours to Mr Ishihara, while one of the school’s function is to provide young bed partners for Mr Sato.

At the opening of the film the Disciplinary Committee has tortured a girl and hounded her to her death. Three new students arrive the next day. One of them, Noriko (played by the always amazing Miki Sugimoto), is actually the infamous Boss with the Cross, the overall boss of Yokohama’s girl gangs. The girl who died was one of her chief lieutenants, and she’s out for revenge. She soon recruits a group of willing followers, including Remi the Razor and Kyoko Kubo, known in Osaka as the Sappho of the Streets.

Noriko finds two other unlikely allies. The first is a hard-bitten journalist who turns out to be a lone wolf yakuza specialising in blackmail. The second is rival girl boss Maki Takigawa (Reiko Ike). Maki has a score to settle with Noriko and makes a memorable entrance, riding her motorcycle not just into the school but right into the classroom to issue her challenge to Noriko. When she discovers that Noriko is there on a matter of honour, she agrees to postpone their quarrel and help bring down the School of Hope.

Director Norifumi Suzuki is one of the great geniuses of world exploitation cinema. In this movie he manages to incorporate all of the elements that his exploitation audience would expect - there is sex and violence in abundance. But he has another agenda as well. This is a very political film, and Suzuki manages to use every single exploitation element, even the obligatory lesbian sex scene, even the sexual fetish value of Japanese schoolgirl uniforms, to serve his political purpose. And he does it all with such effortless and impressive style.

The corruption and cronyism, the sex scandals, the abuse of power, the hypocrisy, the lust for power, money and sex, all the things that characterise the School of Hope mirror what Suzuki saw as the the state of Japanese politics in the early 70s. Suzuki, who did such a memorable hatchet job on Catholicism in School of the Holy Beast, does an equally thorough job on a different kind of oppressive power structure in this one.

The world of the yakuza and the girl gangs is presented as a complete parallel world, with its own elaborate rules and a code of honour as complex as the one that the political authority figures in the movie claim to adhere to. The only difference is, these girls actually live (and if necessary die) by their code of honour. In a world without honour or principles this is the ultimate act of rebellion. Maki could easily lie in wait for Noriko, to settle their score, but she doesn’t. She issues a formal public challenge, with all the ritual that samurai would have employed a century or more earlier. In fact, with exactly the same ritual the samurai would have used. And Noriko is risking her life to avenge not a friend, but a lieutenant. She has no choice. Her code of honour demands it. Noriko and Maki are brutal and frighteningly tough, but they have honour.

It’s a movie that could have been rather grim, and the violence is both graphic and sadistic. But it has such boundless energy, and so much humour, and it’s executed with so much style that it’s impossible not to be swept up by the movie’s sheer exuberance. And it’s equally impossible not to be inspired by Noriko’s struggle to destroy a vicious and dishonest system. The acting is very good, and much more convincing than the acting you generally get in American exploitation movies. Miki Sugimoto is of course awesome. She’s beyond awesome. I’m a completely unashamed Miki Sugimoto fanboy.

The Japanese pinky violence movies of the 70s are not for the faint-hearted, but they’re among the most entertaining of all exploitation movies. Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom is an insane but intoxicating ride. And the Panik House DVD transfer looks terrific.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Empire of the Ants (1977)

Some movies just have it all. Take Empire of the Ants. It has laughably bad special effects. Some horrendous acting. An absurdly ridiculous plot. It has giant ants. And it has Joan Collins. Joan Collins in Rich Bitch mode, camping it up for all she’s worth. Truly, one cannot ask anything more of a movie.

Collins is a shady real estate developer, taking potential suckers on a tour of Dreamland Shores, a stretch of pestilential swamp that they’re told will soon be a wonderland of golf courses, restaurants, shopping centres and clubhouses. But there are even worse hazards than Joan Collins in of Dreamland Shores. A barrel of radioactive waste washed up on the beach a while back, and we all know what happens when ants start munching out on radioactive waste. That’s right boys and girls, they become giant killer ants with plans for world domination. When the boat that takes the potential buyers to Dreamland Shores gets taken out by the ants (in a deliriously bad “special effects” sequence) Joan and her potential dupes find themselves hunted by the ants and must take to the river to escape.

Of course the budget for Empire of the Ants didn’t stretch to even passably decent special effects, so mostly we just get footage of ordinary-size ants blown up to make them look really really big! By 1977 standards it’s fairly light on the gore, and that (along with the incredibly dated nature of the central premise) gives us more of the feel of a 50s drive-in movie than a 70s horror film. Robert Lansing is delightfully wooden as the brave and very macho boat skipper. just when you think it can’t get any sillier, in the last ten minutes it reaches heights of silliness you would never have believed possible.

This is bad movie heaven, a jaw-dropping camp classic. I loved every moment of it.