Saturday, 30 August 2008

Vault of Horror (1973)

Vault of Horror was not exactly a sequel to Amicus’s successful Tales from the Crypt, more of a follow-up employing the same formula. Five brief tales of horror inspired by the 1950s Tales from the Crypt comics, linked by a framing story.

The problem I have with this one is the same as I had with Tales from the Crypt - the stories are just too compressed to allow for much in the way of plot twists, and what plot twists the stories do contain are a little too obvious.

The first story is particularly weak. The second, involving a new bride’s attempts to deal with her husband’s organising and neatness fetish, is better. The third is better still - a magician travelling in India ruins an Indian’s magician act by revealing the workings of the trick to the crowd. Later he becomes obsessed by another trick he sees performed, an illusion so realistic he is unable to even guess as to how it’s on. He is determined to get posession of the secret of the trick.

The fourth story about a man who fakes his own death is fairly predictable but executed with enough style to be highly entertaining. And the final story is a revenge story, as a painter who has been cheated by a cabal of art dealers and critics gains his vengeance in an unusual way. Maybe it just that I’m a sucker for stories involving voodoo, but I liked this one the most.

Tom Baker is delightful as the vengeful artist, and Curd Jürgens is wonderful as always as the unscrupulous illusionist. Terry-Thomas has great fun as the obsessively organised husband in the second tale.

Roy Ward Baker directs with his usual flair, and the end result is entertaining and amusing if not especially inspired or terrifying.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Blood and Roses (1960)

Roger Vadim is really remembered today for one movie, Barbarella. He is generally dismissed as a pretentious purveyor of softcore teasings masquerading as Art, and as a director who owed most of his success to the succession of extraordinary women with whom he both cohabited and made movies - Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Catherine Deneuve being the best-known.

This critical dismissal is actually a little unfair. Vadim made some genuinely interesting and off-best films, a personal favourite of mine being his 1973 offering Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman, which happened to be Bardot’s last movie. It’s not a complete success, but it’s odd and intriguing. It’s particularly unfortunate that Vadim’s masterpiece Blood and Roses (Et mourir de plaisir) is still not available on DVD, and is not available at all in an uncut version.

Made in 1960, it’s one of the countless movie adaptations of Sheridan le Fanu’s classic lesbian vampire novella Carmilla. The story is updated to a contemporary setting, which works perfectly well since Carmilla (or Mircalla), the last of the notorious Karnstein vampires, has gone through many incarnations and had many names since she began her undead existence. The idea that she would take possession of the body and soul of a recent female descendent of this infamous clan doesn’t really do any great violence to the spirit of le Fanu’s tale. The present-day Carmilla is in love with her cousin Leopold, who is about to marry. Her emotional turmoil, combined with an explosion in the family cemetery caused by a fireworks demonstration gone awry, gives the vampire Mircalla her chance to take over Carmilla’s life.

The movie has a lush dream-like and very romantic ambience. There are no orgies of blood-letting. Compared to Hammer's celebrated 1970 version of the story, The Vampire Lovers, Blood and Roses may seem slow, lacking in action and generally rather tame (although of course it’s likely that the uncut version is a lot sexier than the butchered version I saw) It relies on atmosphere, and the atmopsphere is conveyed effectively enough that it succeeds. It’s all repressed sexuality, thwarted desires and unspoken obsessions.

Any vampire movie has to have a scene involving a mirror, and this on actually manages to do something original and disturbing with the idea. There’s interesting use of colour, with scenes in which every hue but blood-red disappears from the movie’s colour palette. It’s a bit gimmicky, but it works. And the scene in which Carmilla kisses a spot of blood from the lip of her cousin’s bride-to-be is undeniably effective and subtly erotic. Annette Vadim (the director’s then-current wife) looks right for the part of Carmilla, and her performance is competent. Mel Ferrer and Elsa Martinelli are reasonably good in the roles of Carmilla’s cousin and his intended bride.

Whether you like this movie or not depends entirely on how much tolerance you have for arty European erotic horror. I have a lot of patience for this type of film, so I thoroughly enjoyed it. I still wish someone would release a proper uncut DVD version though. It deserves the sort of treatment that companies like Blue Underground and Mondo Macabro have given to so many neglected classics of Eurohorror.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Two Undercover Angels (1969)

The two Red Lips movies are Jess Franco at his most light-hearted. They’re comic book-style romps, all very tongue-in-cheek and rather silly, but fun. Two Undercover Angels (Rote Lippen, Sadisterotica) sees two glamorous girl private eyes investigating a series of disappearances of young women, which have some connection to a kinky artist.

The plot doesn’t hang together all that well, but it doesn’t really matter. Franco captures a comic book ambience pretty well (although he did the same thing much more effectively in The Girl from Rio, made at about the same time). The movie has a Pop Art kind of look, which fits in well with the themes of murder and art. Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni are fun as the intrepid female private detectives.

Franco gets to work in a couple of his trademark surreal and erotic cabaret act scenes involving exotic female performers, and they’re the highlight of the movie. There are some other nice visual touches. The English dubbing is atrocious, although in some ways that just adds a bit more surreal atmosphere.

The folow-up, Kiss Me, Monster, is much crazier and for that reason more successful (Franco always being at his best when the weirdness level is at its height).

The Anchor Bay Region 2 DVD is a bit disappointing. The picture quality is OK but not as good as on some of the other superb Jess Franco DVDs that Anchor Bay have released. There are no extras apart from a few trailers. Definitely not in the top rank of Franco’s movies, but fun in a Swinging 60s kind of way if you’re in the mood.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The 1,000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960)

By the late 1950s Fritz Lang was finding his career as a Hollywood director both more difficult and less rewarding, and with the Hollywood system changing as the studio system declined he was finding it hard to adapt. So when German producer Artur Brauner tried to tempt him to return to Germany to direct Lang was more than willing to do so. He made his last three movies in Germany, the very last being The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse), made in 1960.

This was more than just a return to the subject master of his early German movies (he’d made two films about the notorious super-criminal Dr Mabuse in the 20s and 30s). As much as I like Lang’s Hollywood movies (and I like them a good deal) I can’t help feeling that that The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse was also a return to the real Lang. Like the earlier Mabuse films it’s a mix of science fiction, spy movie and crime film and it makes fewer concession to realist cinema than his American films.

It opens in stunning fashion, with a visually dazzling traffic scene involving the murder of a man in a car, intercut with scenes in police headquarters and scenes of a mysterious psychic predicting the murder. It’s disorienting and misleading, and it sets the tone for the whole movie. Nothing we see is really as it appears to be, the characters are not who we think they are, the relationships between people and events are not what we suppose them to be. We’ve entered a world of illusion, paranoia and conspiracy, and while Dr Mabuse speads his web of deceit over the characters in the movie Fritz Lang is entangling the viewer in a similar web of deceit.

We’re presented with a wealthy handsome American hero, and we see him save the life of a unfortunate woman who has been drive to attempt suicide. We meet the detective chief, Kriminalkommissar Kras, the enigmatic blind clairvoyant Cornelius, the smooth-talking psychiatrist Dr Jordan, a buffooonish insurance salesman who rejoices in the name of Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig, the beautiful and tragic Marion Meril, and the sinister assassin known simply as Number 12. We gradually piece together the connections between these characters, but our assumptions are entirely wrong. And the assumptions the characters make about each other are equally mistaken.

We know there is some very large-scale plot afoot, with international repercussions, and we (and Kriminalkommissar Kras) soon come to the conclusion that the shadowy presence of the evil Dr Mabuse is behind it all. The only problem with that theory is that Dr Mabuse has been dead for 30 years. But the touch of Dr Mabuse is unmistakeable.

Most of the movie takes place in the luxurious Hotel Luxor in Berlin. This hotel was based on an actual hotel built by the Nazis during the war (not just built under the Nazi regime but actually built specifically for the purposes of the Gestapo). Lang had read about this hotel and had been fascinated by it, and it becomes a leading character in the movie in its own right (and it eventually offers the explanation for the title of the film).

If the identities of the characters are shifting and misleading, their motivations are even more ambiguous, and even more questionable.

The movie was a low-budget affair but Lang, relishing the freedom from the constraints under which he had always had to work in Hollywood, really lets himself go. It’s a bravura directing performance. The multi-national cast is composed of experienced and extremely competent performers, with Dawn Addams as Marion and Gert Fröbe as Kras especially good, while Howard Vernon (a very familiar face to fan of European cult movies) makes the most of his small role as Number 12. Karl Löb’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous.

The DVD from Allday Entertainment, released through Image, is magnificent and packed with extras.Which is just as well - the film is so complex that you really need to listen to the commentary track and watch the featurette. This was Lang’s final masterpiece, and it’s a dazzling achievement by one of the giants of cinema. It’s also an insanely entertaining movie.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Mandingo (1975)

Mandingo, released in 1975, is one of the most notorious of all bad movies, an outrageously lurid blaxploitation epic about slavery, a bit like a camp version of Gone with the Wind with lots of interracial sex. At least that’s how it was viewed at the time, and that’s the view of this film that largely prevails to this day. Quentin Tarantino famously described it as "a big-budget exploitation movie on a par with Showgirls."

But is this an accurate view of the movie? Is it possible that both audiences and critics
have watched this movie without actually seeing it? That the comforting assumption that it’s a so-bad-it’s-good trashy movie has allowed people to avoid confronting the awful truth, that the film-makers mean exactly what they’re saying, and that it’s intended to depict the reality of the slave-owning society in Louisiana in the 1840s. And it’s allowed them to avoid an even more unpalatable thought - that the movie may have succeeded in doing just that.

Mandingo is certainly melodramatic, but it’s melodramatic in the style of the best southern gothic. James Mason is Warren Maxwell, owner of Falconhurst. Maxwell’s plantation is essentially a breeding farm for slaves. He dreams of obtaining a pure-bred mandingo male, the very best breeding stock there is. He also dreams of having a grandson to carry on the family’s proud traditions. His son Hammond is less than keen, but is persuaded to marry his cousin Blanche. She is also breeding stock of the best kind. To console himself, Hammond buys a new bed wench for himself, an attractive female slave named Ellen.

He is not comfortable with the idea of having sex with a white lady, and he’s fairly sure white ladies don’t like having sex anyway. He’s always confined himself to sex with slaves and whores. His enthusiasm for his slave bed partners, and his odd tenderness towards them, is something that has been worrying his daddy quite a bit. Hammond is however willing to do his husbandly duty with his new wife, until his wedding night when he discovers that his new bride is no virgin! He’s had enough sex with virgins to know such things, since he always likes to be the first to break in a new breeding female. It’s a sort of family tradition. He is of course appalled that Blanche has already been “pleasured” by a man. It’s just as well she hasn’t told him that the man in question was her brother (which is possibly one of her family’s proud traditions).

Naturally he no longer wishes to have any physical contact with a woman who is no better than a whore, and he is further repulsed by Blanche’s obvious desire for sex. Blanche is left without any outlet for her appetites, until she decides that perhaps she should sample some “black meat” as well. Obviously there are troubled times ahead for Falconhurst.

While the plot does sound exceptionally lurid, the treatment of the material is absolutely straight. The movie is horrifyingly direct and honest in confronting the evils of slavery, and not just the obvious evils but the corrosive moral effect on everyone involved, victim and oppressor. In that sense it reminds me a little of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (another movie that continues to make people uncomfortable). It is unflinching in depicting the brutality of slavery, but even more so in exploring the almost unimaginable everyday degradations that are part and parcel of a society that treats humans like livestock.

It also has a good deal to say about the position of women in such a society. Blanche is eventually treated in exactly the same way a slave would be treated, although I won’t spoil the plot by telling you the details. Susan George’s frenzied performance’s as Blanche is a highlight of the movie. She’s over-the-top, but I think she’s perfectly correct to play the part that way. She knows exactly what she’s doing. James Mason takes a similar approach, and again it works. Perry King as Hammond is much more low-key. Despite the exaggerated performances none of the characters come across as mere stereotypes. There’s a humanness to them that makes them even more horrifying than a stereotype would be.

It turns out that Tarantino’s comparison of this movie to Showgirls was strangely apt, although whether Tarantino himself understood just how apt the comparison was is an open question. Both are movies that have been monumentally and willfully misunderstood. And while both appear on the surface to be exploitation movies, that’s exactly what they are not. It’s not surprising that the recent DVD release contains no extras whatsoever. An audio commentary for example might reveal the unpleasant truth that this movie is in fact in deadly earnest. Mandingo is still too confronting to be taken seriously.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Solaris (1972)

Solaris, released in 1972, was in some ways Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like 2001 it deals with Big Issues, issues like identity, individuality, what makes us human, and our place in the cosmos.

And like 2001 it’s extremely visual, with sequences that don’t actually advance the plot but they’re there because they convey something through visual images that can’t be conveyed through dialogue. And because the images are simply stunning. I’ve heard people complain about the scenes with the car in the tunnels, but really that sequence is so glorious that I can’t conceive of why anyone would not want to sit back and just enjoy it.

The story, adapted from a novel by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, concerns the ocean-covered planet Solaris, which may or may not be alive, which may or may not be intelligent, which may or may not be aware of us, and which may or may not be wishing to communicate with us. Decades of study have established only one thing for certain – that Solaris remain an enigma. A psychologist has been sent to the Solaris Station, in orbit round the planet, to make a final report on whether the station should be shut down and further study abandoned.

He arrives to find that Solaris has started to actively interact with the handful of remaining scientists on the station, by creating “guests”. These “guests” are more than hallucinations, they are real in a material sense, and are manufactured from the minds of the scientists and take the form of people who have had some importance in their lives. In the case of the psychologist, Kelvin, the “guest” takes the form of his dead wife. But are these guests human? What does that mean, anyway? And why has Solaris started to do this?

One of the ideas that Stanislaw Lem puts forward in several of hi novels is that if we ever do encounter aliens, they are likely to be so strange that we may not even know if we’re dealing with something that is alive or not, and we may have absolutely no way of establishing meaningful contact with them. They may force us to question our concepts of self, or life, and of intelligence. The movie Solaris deals with these issues in a manner that is both intelligent and disturbing. It’s a case of a great novel turned into an equally great film.

Avoid the truly atrocious Hollyood remake.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Asphyx (1973)

The Asphyx is in some ways an awesomely bad movie, and yet it’s strangely fascinating as well. Directed by Peter Newbrook, it’s the kind of cinematic weirdness that could only have been made in the 70s (1973 in fact). Robert Stephens is Sir Hugo Cunningham, a Victorian scientist with interests in photography, death and spiritualism. Through his experiments in photography he has discovered a kind of spirit-soul thingy that becomes visible for a brief moment at the instant that a person faces death. He finds a way to trap this spirit-soul thingy (the asphyx) and it promises to allow him to conquer death. He hopes to share this wondrous secret with his family. But this is a horror movie, so you just know this is going to turn out to be a Really Bad Idea.

The disregard for logic and commonsense is breath-taking even by horror movie standards, and the plot is filled with You Have Got To Be Kidding Me moments. In fact the entire film is composed of little else but You Have Got To Be Kidding Me moments, to an extent that compels a kind of stunned admiration. It’s original if nothing else.

The movie looks glorious, and there are some splendid Victorian gadgets. Robert Powell plays Sir Hugo’s adopted son, and goes through the whole movie looking as if he can’t believe he agreed to take this part. Robert Stephens doesn’t just overact; he creates whole new realms of overacting. The sheer strangeness of the movie, and the lack of even the slightest trace of coherence to the plot, have a hypnotic effect. You just have to keep watching, in case it gets even odder. And it does. There’s no gore, but there are some rather icky concepts and some quite macabre moments. The asphyx itself is a very bad special effect that despite this still somehow manages to look extremely creepy.

For all its silliness it’s definitely worth a look. They don’t make movies like this any more. And it is certainly entertaining in its own way. The Region 4 DVD looks terrific.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Diabolical Dr Z (1966)

Jess Franco’s 1966 The Diabolical Dr Z was remade a few years later, by the same director, as a Soledad Miranda vehicle under the title She Killed in Ecstasy. Most people seem to think the earlier version is the better of the two but I actually prefer the remake, which has more of the trippiness and weirdness and over-the-topness that I look for in a Franco film. That’s not to say that The Diabolical Dr Z isn’t a terrific little movie though.

A brilliant but obsessive scientist, Dr Zimmer, is working on isolating the parts of the brain that control good and evil. At a scientific conference he suggests that the research is so promising that it’s time to start trials on human subjects. As a result he is branded as a madman and accused of being no better than a Dr Mengele, and the shock of having his researches forcibly terminated by the international scientific community kills him.

His devoted daughter Irma sets out to take revenge on the scientists whom she blames for her father’s death. She forcibly enlists the help of a condemned criminal and of a night-club entertainer, a beautiful young woman who performs in an outrageous spider costume under the name Miss Muerte (Miss Death), who is transformed into an instrument of vengeance who kills with her incredibly long poisoned fingernails. The machine Dr Zimmer designed to gain control over the minds of his experimental subjects is one of the great cinematic mad scientist gizmos, with long articulated spider arms that hold the person in place.

Miss Muerte’s kinky stage act is another highlight of the movie. Estella Blain is terrific as Miss Muerte, stealing every scene she appears in. Daniel White provides a great jazz-influenced score. This is an excellent example of early Jess Franco, with a much stronger and more conventional narrative compared to his later films, although (to my way of thinking) it lacks the outrageous exuberance of 70s Franco. It’s still a wonderfully entertaining piece of eurohorror.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

She (1935)

H. Rider Haggard’s classic fantasy adventure novel She had already been adapted for the screen several times before producer Merriam C. Cooper (who had a huge hit a couple of years earlier with King Kong) came up with this lavish 1935 version. There have been several subsequent movie versions, including the 1965 Hammer offering.

Young Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott) is called to his uncles death-bed to hear a strange story about a distant ancestor and a quest for a mysterious flame that holds the key to eternal life. He and his uncle’s pal Holly (Nigel Bruce) are convinced that the flame really exists, and is a form of radiation (radiation being a major scientific marvel in 1935) and set off for the Frozen North in search of immortality. They discover the fabulous lost empire of She Who Must Be Obeyed, and Leo finds himself reliving a 500-year-old saga of love and jealousy. He has picked up a beautiful young girl named Tanya on the way, and She immediately senses a romantic rival. And She does not like romantic rivals one little bit.

In the course of this escapade our intrepid adventurers find out that there were some things That Were Not Meant To Be, and Leo realises what true love really is.

The 1935 film is big on spectacle, as you might expect. The sets are impressive, and the ritual scenes late in the movie are particularly well done. If you’re expecting a 30s version of an Indiana Jones movie you’ll be disappointed. There’s not a great deal of action, the focus being mostly on romance and epic visuals. The acting is very hammy (apart from Helen Gahagan as She, who is perhaps taking things a tad too seriously). The hamminess of the acting, and the corniness of the writing, make She a movie that is going to be enjoyed today more for camp value than anything else. Fortunately, its camp appeal is considerable.

The Region 4 DVD release is bare-bones, without even trailer. On the other hand, at $2 it only cost me a fraction of the price of the Region 1 Kino release, and the transfer is extremely good.

She is a movie that is not held in terribly high regard but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s pulpy and trashy and campy and full of inspiring (and by today’s standards amusing) moral messages and it’s a good deal of fun, although you really need to enjoy the adventure movies of the 30s and 40s to appreciate this one. This was a time when men were heroic adventurers, and women were the prize, and the inspiration for Deeds of Courage. If you don’t mind that, and you do like those sorts of movies then She becomes an absolute must-see movie.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (1974)

Rei is a rogue cop. As the movie opens she has finally gone too far, killing a suspect in a sex murder case, and she lands herself in prison. Shortly after this the daughter of an immensely powerful politician is kidnapped. This politician has prime ministerial aspirations and is therefore anxious to avoid a public scandal. The case will have to be dealt with discreetly, with no publicity, which means the girl has to be retrieved and the kidnappers killed. This job is too dirty even for the police. What they need is someone who is desperate, unscrupulous, expendable and completely crazy. Rei qualifies on all counts, so she finds herself offered her freedom and reinstatement in the force if she agrees to deal with this little problem for them.

What follows is an orgy of murder and mayhem, several gang rapes, numerous brutal beatings, and non-stop action. Welcome to Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (Zeroka no onna: Akai wappa), and to the wild world of the Japanese pinky violence films of the 70s.

Rei is played by iconic Japanese exploitation movie star Miki Sugimoto. She plays Rei like a cute female Japanese Dirty Harry. She really does carry a pair of red handcuffs, and they come with a pretty little matching red gun. And she uses the handcuffs as a weapon. Her underplaying of the role contrasts with the completely over-the-top performances of most of the other actors. There’s not much room for subtlety in a pinky violence film. It’s possible that she underplays just a little too much. Those looking for a kickass heroine may find her not quite kickass enough, although once she gets going she delivers the goods. The violence is graphic and there’s a lot of it, and much (although by no means all) of it us directed at women, to an extent that is certainly troubling.

On the other hand the movie’s unflinching approach does allow it to shed some light on the attitudes of the rich and powerful towards anyone who inconveniences them, and in particular on some chilling attitudes displayed by powerful men towards women. It’s a cynical and vicious little movie. There are some interesting juxtapositions of images of rape and images of over-flying US military aircraft, which gives the film a surprising political edge.

The Region 1 DVD release is sadly lacking in extras, but there are no problems at all with the picture or sound quality. It’s undeniably an entertaining and stylish movie, but if you haven’t yet sampled the delights of the pinky violence genre I’d suggest Girl Boss Guerilla as a better place to start.

Alucarda (1975)

Mexican director Juan López Moctezuma, a one-time collaborator with Alejandro Jodorowsky, made just a handful of films during his career. His third feature film was Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas, made during the mid-1970s.

A young woman (Justine), newly arrived at a convent in Mexico in the mid-19th century, makes a strange and unsettling new friend. After a meeting with a gypsy the girls’ behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing until, during a sermon, they start cursing God and announcing that they have pledged themselves to the Evil One. The nuns, and the priests who act as their confessors, react in the way you’d expect them to react – they start flagellating themselves and they tie the girls up and torture them (for their own good of course). After that things get increasingly weird and bloody. When an attempted exorcism goes disastrously wrong the local doctor is called in, setting up a conflict between the forces of science and the forces of religion.

What distinguishes Alucarda from the average exploitation horror movie is its deliberate ambiguity. We’re never quite sure how much of what we’re seeing is objective reality and how much is being filtered through the viewpoints of the various characters. We’re also never entirely certain whose viewpoint we’re seeing. The divide between good and evil, and between madness and sanity, is even more ambiguous. While the girls appear to be genuinely possessed, the nuns and priests are clearly deranged right from the start and they’ve just been waiting for something to light the fuse to set them off on an orgy of sadistic fanaticism. The doctor’s story seems to follow the classic horror movie arc, from scepticism to a belief in the reality of evil, but the audience is left with an uneasy feeling that his original scepticism may have been the correct response to the situation.

Extra layers of doubt are added to the mix by the practice of having several of the actors playing multiple parts. The acting is effective. Moctezuma had a limited budget but with imaginative lighting and camerawork, a few striking sets and some bizarre costumes (the nuns look like blood-stained walking corpses or Egyptian mummies) he still manages to deliver a visually arresting movie. The movie works as a horror movie, with enough blood and mayhem to satisfy most fans, but it has more than just the blood and mayhem going for it.

The Mondo Macabro DVD release is fullscreen, which is actually quite correct since that’s how the movie was shot. It was also, interestingly enough, shot in English. It looks pretty good, and there are some worthwhile extras. This movie is a must for fans of demonic possession movies, and for anyone who loves non-mainstream horror from the 70s.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Switchblade Sisters (1975)

Switchblade Sisters pretty much marked the end of Jack Hill’s directing career, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the sort of movie that would have left mid-1970s drive-in audiences somewhat bewildered. It’s a very strange film.

The Dagger Debs are the female chapter of a male gang, the Silver Daggers. Their leader, Lace, is the girlfriend of Dominic, chieftain of the Silver Daggers. Things get complicated when another gang tries to move into their territory, and when new girl Maggie joins. There is immediate rivalry, and sexual jealousy, between Lace and Maggie, and the jealousy is compounded by a series of misunderstandings and is encouraged by one of the other gang girls, Patch. The conflict between the rival gangs escalates into total war, and culminates in an anarchic and rather surreal street battle, and the final dramatic showdown between Lace and Maggie.

The gang members are the usual 30-year-old teenagers you expect to find in an American juvenile delinquent movie. The plot is fairly standard as well. It’s the truly bizarre acting, and the whole tone and rhythm of the movie, that make Switchblade Sisters strange and unusual.

It’s one of the few examples of a movie that really does benefit from a commentary track. In this case the commentary track is provided by Jack Hill himself, along with Quentin Tarantino (Tarantino’s company Rolling Thunder Pictures was responsible for the DVD release). Hill explains two very important points about the movie. Firstly, that the movie is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Othello. Secondly, that he was originally a composer and that he tried to build the movie on a musical rhythm, and to give it an operatic feel. Once you understand those two things, the movie starts to fall into place. The outrageously stylised and theatrical feel of the movie, the deliberate artificiality (Hill avoided location shooting because he preferred the more unreal feel that you get shooting on sound stages and studio backlots), the odd rhythms of the dialogue, the stagey and histrionic acting, all begin to make sense.

In fact, Switchblade Sisters achieves a very operatic feel indeed. Just as in opera, everything is exaggerated, melodramatic, and absolutely excessive. Once you get used to it, it works. There are some spectacular visual set-pieces, including a wild shoot-out in a roller rink (a very effective scene, and it’s amazing to think that such a complex scene was shot in just four hours) and a crazy street battle involving an improvised armoured car and lots of automatic weaponry.

Robbie Lee as Lace gives one of the most off-the-wall performances you’ll ever see. Hill claims he cast her because she reminded him of a female Jimmy Cagney, and that’s exactly what she’s like! Monica Gayle as Patch is also memorable - a classic screen villainess. The movie is completely dominated by the female characters, and they develop more depth than you generally expect in an exploitation film. The way the movie handles gender issues won’t please everybody, but it’s more complex than it seems on the surface.

While I dislike Tarantino’s own films I do respect his enthusiasm for exploitation movies, and his short introduction and his closing piece on the movie, as well as his contribution to the commentary track, are surprisingly useful and informative. And he’s certainly to be commended for making such an odd little movie available to exploitation fans on DVD. Switchblade Sisters is an oddity, but a fascinating oddity. I had misgivings at first, but I ended up being totally hooked by it.

Flavia, the Heretic (1974)

Looking at the DVD cover art you’d expect Flavia, the Heretic (Flavia, la monaca musulmana) to be a fairly typical slice of eurosleaze nunsploitation. And you’d be dead wrong. This one is at least as much arthouse as grindhouse. It has more in common with Ken Russell’s The Devils than with nunsploitation flicks like The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine. It’s a movie that combines exploitation elements with a serious political purpose.

Based on actual events in Italy in the 15th century, it follows the fortunes of Flavia Gaetani. After killing her lover her brutal father locks her away in a nunnery. Flavia is unwilling to accept the rules of convent life, and runs away with a Jewish scholar. She is recaptured, and is savagely flogged while her approving father looks on.

The sadistic discipline of the nunnery fails to break her spirit, and she comes under the influence of a rebellious older nun who encourages her to defy the authority of men. Her witnessing of a rape that goes unpunished while her father has an unfortunate nun who has fallen under the spell of a crazed sect known as the Tarantulas tortured to death has already led her to question the justice of male authority. When a marauding Moslem army appears on the scene Flavia is more than willing to throw in her lot with the invaders, and she is given the opportunity to find both love and sexual pleasure for the first time, as well as revenge. Events do not turn out quite as she anticipated however.

Flavia, the Heretic has its share of the ingredients you expect in a 1970s European exploitation flick - there’s some extreme violence, considerable brutality and torture as well as lots of nudity, male and female. But it’s all done in a much more sober style than in the usual run of exploitation fare. There’s not a trace of campiness about this film. And the violence does serve a serious purpose. It’s often confronting and very unpleasant, but it’s not gratuitous. Nor can it be said that the nudity and sex are gratuitous - fear of female sexuality (especially in the guise of religion) is a major theme The feminist message isn’t just tacked on as a justification for the exploitation elements - it’s the heart and soul of the movie.

The acting is definitely a cut above the usual exploitation movie standard, with Florinda Bolkan outstanding as Flavia. And she is really given something to work with - Flavia is an intensely complex and contradictory character, and her character develops and changes throughout the movie.

The Synapse DVD looks terrific and features an interview with lead actress Florinda Bolkan, an interview that makes it clear that she took her performance very seriously indeed, and that she’s still proud both of her performance and of the film.

This is a disturbing film, a film that combines intelligence and passion with considerable entertainment value. It might not be quite what you expected, but it’s certainly very much worth seeing.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Mind Benders (1962)

Professor Sharpey, a researchers at Oxford University, has been conducting experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation. The research is expected to provide information that will be useful in space exploration. When the professor commits suicide in mysterious circumstances, and is found to have been in possession of a suitcase full of money, there is a suspicion that he may have been selling secrets to foreign powers.

The dead scientist’s colleague, Longman, has suffered a minor breakdown after spending too many hours in the isolation tank, but in order to convince the MI5 agent investigating the case that Professor Sharpey was no traitor he volunteers to face his fears and go into the tank again. He believes Sharpey’s behaviour was a result of the after-effects of isolation, and of brainwashing following mental collapse brought on by the isolation, rather than any desire to betray his country.

The stage is set for what could have an interesting and entertaining spy thriller, but The Mind Benders goes off in a slightly different direction, and ends up losing its way. Basil Dearden was an experienced and very distinguished director, but in this film he seem to be trying to cover too many bases. It’s a political spy thriller, a science fiction film, a horror movie, a psychological drama and a romantic melodrama, but it’s likely to leave fan of all these genres feeling slightly dissatisfied. It certainly lacks the thrills and the tension to make it as a spy thriller.

Dearden focuses mainly on the effects of the isolation experiments on Longman’s personality, and on his marriage, and with Dirk Bogarde giving a powerful performance as Longman the movie works extremely well on this level. Despite its flaws, it’s an intriguing movie. 1962 was definitely the year for movies about brainwashing, with The Manchurian Candidate also coming out that year. In its own way this British film is just as interesting, and perhaps slightly more subtle.

If only Dearden could have ratcheted up the tension by a notch or so it might have been a real winner. It’s still worth a look, and as usual Bogarde’s performance is worth the price of admission on its own.

Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics

A book review this time. Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics edited by Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper is a collection of essays on, obviously, cult movies. Although all the essays were written by academics they’re mercifully free of the psychoanalytic jargon that makes so many scholarly books on film such heavy going. In fact they’re relatively free of academic jargon in general. Imagine a bunch of academics who are also enthusiastic and unashamed fans and you have a fair idea of the tone of most of the articles.

Jonathan Crane on Russ Meyer and Jonathan Raynor on car cult films are particularly good. There’s also an interesting article by Julian Petley on snuff movies, pointing out that in fact there’s never been any real evidence (outside the fevered imaginations of tabloid journalists and morals crusaders) that such movies actually exist.

I was also fascinated by Leon Hunt’s piece on kung fu movies, mainly because it’s a subject I knew nothing whatever about. Other movies discussed include The Exorcist, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, David Cronenberg’s Crash and From Dusk Till Dawn.

As with any such collection some essays are more interesting and more compelling than others, and it’s nothing less than a scandal that they’ve omitted Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, but overall it’s fascinating and stimulating and I recommend it highly.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Unknown World (1951)

Unknown World is an odd little 1951 sci-fi B-movie that offers a twist on the usual 1950s nuclear paranoia movie. With a cataclysmic war imminent due to the invention of the H-bomb, a team of dedicated scientists decide the only hope is to find a sage refuge for humanity deep beneath the earth. Since, as everyone with even a passing knowledge of geology knows, the core of the earth is cooler than the surface and the interior of the earth is a honeycomb of underground rivers and interconnected passages, and fresh air is of course plentiful, they are able to convince a wealthy media tycoon to finance an expedition.

All they need to do is enter an extinct volcano, and keep going. They will need to go thousands of miles beneath the surface, but that’s no problem since they have the amazing nuclear-powered Cyclotram, an amphibious go-anywhere tractor that is also a tunneling machine.

Accompanied by the media tycoon, the team (including a glamorous girl scientist) sets out. What you naturally expect them to find are lost civilisations or at least prehistoric monsters, but that’s not what they find at all. This is a serious science fiction movie. Although they do encounter some dangerous isotopes, and they do have various adventures along the way.

The effects are OK for a low-budget effort of this vintage, and there’s plenty of entertaining bad science. And even with the glamorous girl scientist it’s not as sexist as most movies of its type and era.

It has to be admitted that Unknown World is a little short of excitement, but is amusing enough if you’re a fan of 50s B-movies. And it naturally has a Serious Message. This was the 50s. It’s available on DVD, although it’s only worth buying if you can pick up a copy for a couple of dollars. It’s really one to rent rather than buy. I saw it on free-to-air TV, so I’m not complaining.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Flesh Merchant, AKA The Wild and the Wicked (1956)

The Flesh Merchant (also released under the title The Wild and the Wicked) is a 1956 exploitation flick that tries desperately hard to be lurid and shocking, but without going so far as to be actually lurid and shocking. It wants to be bad, but it doesn’t quite make it.

The ingredients are certainly there. A young woman from a small town arrives in the big city, looking for excitement. She looks up her big sister, who’s been in the city for a while. Big sister advises her to get straight back on the bus, or she’ll end up like her. Big sister lives a nightmare existence of luxury apartments, fancy clothes and lots of money, but she’d gladly give all that up to go back to her home town and marry a decent guy and raise children. Well, she doesn’t actually plan on doing that, but she would if only wicked men would stop providing her with luxury apartments, fancy clothes and lots of money.

Little sister promises to go back home, but she doesn’t. She gets a job, modelling for “art classes” - and of course, as we all know, that’s the first step on the road to degradation and ruin. Pretty soon she’s mixed up in a white slavery racket, and (shameless hussy that she is) she’s accepting expensive gifts from the rich men who hang out at The Colony. All sorts of debaucheries are practised at The Colony. Dancing. Mixed bathing (with the women wearing nothing but bathing costumes). And “photography” - real hardcore stuff, with the girls wearing nothing but bathing costumes.

Things get complicated when it turns out both sisters are working for the same white slavery ring! Can big sister do something in time, to save her kid sister from certain ruin?

The first half of the movie is quite entertaining, in a very campy sort of way, although it loses steam a little in the second half. But since it only runs for about an hour it doesn’t really have the chance to wear out its welcome. The obligatory moralising speeches are even more clumsy than usual, but that adds to the fun in this type of movie. The acting is cringe-inducing, and the dialogue is of the same standard, Citizen Kane it ain’t, but if you find this type of thing amusing (and I do) you’ll get a giggle or two out of it.

It’s another of the movies included in the Girls Gone Bad: The Delinquent Dames Collection boxed set.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Girl Gang (1954)

Girl Gang, released on DVD (paired with the wonderful Ed Wood-scripted The Violent Years) by Something Weird, tells the story of a group of kids who get hooked on drugs by a sleazy dope dealer who then forces them to support their habit through prostitution, car theft and armed robbery. It’s your basic 1950s paranoia movie, but combining several popular 50s paranoias.

In 1954 it must have been genuinely shocking, and in fact the very explicit scenes of teenagers (OK, they mostly look like their teenage years are far behind them but they’re supposed to be teenagers) preparing and injecting heroin would possibly cause this one some censorship problems even today. It’s an interesting example of just how much low-budget movie-makers working outside the studio system back in the 50s and early 60s could get away with. It’s also remarkably frank and open on the subject of prostitution, and the casual willingness of these teenagers to trade sex for drugs would (one imagines) have been enough to induce apoplexy in respectable Eisenhower-era Americans. Most outrageous of all is the scene where good-girl-on-the-way-to-going-bad Wanda wants to get into the club where the cool kids hang out. It’s explained to her that the price of admission is for her to have sex with five guys. She’s a little dubious at first, but then decides hey, why not.

I don’t want to give the impression that this movie is actually a god movie. In fact it’s a terrible movie. It’s atrocious. Director Robert C. Dertano possesses all the technical skill of Ed Wood, with none of the flair. When it comes to developing dramatic tension, to pacing, to setting up shots in an interesting manner, he simply hasn’t a clue. The action stops completely several times for some particularly clumsy exposition. The dialogue is painful. The acting would be lucky to make the grade in a high school play. In spite of all this Girl Gang is great entertainment. Timothy Farrell plays the drug dealer like a pantomime villain. And Joanne Arnold as the most wicked and immoral of the bad girls is magnificent, and establishes herself as one of the all-time great movie bad girls. And one of the all-time great bad actresses. I’m totally in love with her.

The strange feeling I get from a lot of the American exploitation movies of that era is that on the surface they're subscribing to the conventional moral values of the period, which they had to do in order not to get banned, but that they actually contain a deliberately subversive subtext for the benefit of those in the know. Look at the fate of June (Joanne Arnold) - after she becomes a junkie and is forced into prostitution she looks just as healthy as she did before, she seems happier, she's definitely having more fun,and all in all she appears to be having a ball. I can imagine if I'd been a teenage girl in the 50s watching that movie, I'd have been saying to myself - wow, I want to be just like her! She's sexy and glamorous and popular, that must be what happens when you become a drug addict and a hooker.

If this type of movie is your thing (and it’s definitely my thing) then you need to see this one, and with the double-movie pack including The Violent Years as well (and some shorts) there’s plenty of entertainment value. They’re two of the most outrageously entertaining exploitation movies you’ll ever see, and I can’t recommend this set too highly.