Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Necronomicon

Necronomicon is billed as The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema. I believe there have been book-length collections so far. Book One contains eighteen essays, covering such disparate movies as The Evil Dead, Daughters of Darkness, Witchfinder General, Last Tango in Paris, The Bride of Frankenstein and Hitchcock’s Psycho, and directors from Herschell Gordon Lewis to Dario Argento. There are two excellent essays on Jean Rollin, and a good survey of adaptations of the work of H. P. Lovecraft.

Some contributors are a bit heavy on the film theory jargon and the psychoanalytical interpretations, but on the whole it’s still a reasonably stimulating selection of articles. It’s not like there’s a surplus of books on this subject, so if you have an interest in these types of movies, especially the exploitation horror of the 60s and 70s, then it’s probably worth trying to find a copy.

Frightmare (1974)

Pete Walker’s Frightmare is trashy, exploitative, gory and tasteless, but it’s also undeniably a very effective (and very dark) piece of horror cinema.

The movie opens with a flashback to 1957, with a couple (Edmund and Dorothy) being committed to a psychiatric hospital after a series of gruesome and horrific crimes (which we later learn include cannibalism). Then we’re back to the present day. The psychiatrists have decided that a complete cure has been effected and that the couple are ready to be released into the community. They take up residence in a deserted farmhouse. Meanwhile their fifteen-year-old daughter Debbie is being raised by Edmund’s daughter by an earlier marriage (Jackie). Debbie is well on the way to being a fully fledged juvenile delinquent, and her boyfriend is violent and out-of-control as well.

Jackie is barely holding things together, and things go from bad to worse when the police arrive on her doorstep wanting to question Debbie about the disappearance of a night-club bouncer who was last seen being brutally bashed by a gang of teenagers. A grisly discovery in the boot of a car soon follows. Meanwhile Dorothy is dealing with her boredom by luring lonely troubled souls to the farmhouse for tarot readings. They are never seen again. Is Dorothy really cured after all? Can Jackie’s nerdy but well-meaning psychiatrist boyfriend solve Debbie’s behaviour problems?

This is a movie that offers nothing at all in the way of comfort or hope for humanity, and it displays an unrelenting cynicism towards those institutions (the police, the justice system, the psychiatric establishment) that claim to be able to keep us safe and to maintain some kind of order. The triumph of chaos and evil is taken for granted.

Walker gets remarkably potent performances from his cast. Sheila Keith as Dorothy is loveable and dotty and terrifyingly insane. Rupert Davies as Edmund is tortured by conflicting loyalties, a man trapped in an impossible situation for which he can find no solution and no escape. Kim Butcher does a fine job as Debbie, resisting the temptation to overplay her hand. And Deborah Fairfax as Jackie, the only relatively sane and likeable member of the family, is sympathetic even when her actions are disastrously misguided.

The gore isn’t really overdone and it does serve some purpose although it’s probably not really necessary. The acting, the writing and the directing work successfully enough to convey the terror without the gore. But in 1974 it was undoubtedly commercially unavoidable, and it gives the movie an unpleasant edge that adds to the intended atmosphere of horror and general unhealthiness.

Not exactly pleasant viewing but an excellent example of mid-70s British horror that packs a real punch.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Jubilee (1977)

This is another review posted earlier on my personal journal. If you’re expecting Derek Jarman’s Jubilee to be a celebration of the punk scene in 1977 you’re going to be very disappointed. Aside from the fact that Jarman views the punk ethos with amused contempt it isn’t that sort of film at all. Although you will catch glimpse of Siouxsie and the Banshees performing Love in a Void, and there’s an appearance by The Slits as well as some of the more completely forgotten performers of that era, like the transsexual Wayne County and the prodigiously untalented Adam Ant. Jubilee is actually a story of a magical visit made by Elizabeth I and her court magus Dr John Dee to the England of Elizabeth II’s jubilee year, where they discover such horrors as social breakdown, random violence, a society that has forgotten beauty and considers art and history to be irrelevant. And, worst horror of all, the Eurovision Song Contest.

Jenny Runacre plays Elizabeth I and she also plays Bod, leader of a punk gang. The gang also includes the aptly named Mad (Toyah Willcox) and Amyl Nitrate (played by Jordan). Amyl is the most interesting character in the movie, with her punk hairdo and make-up combined with a tweed skirt, a pink twinset and pearls, and her hobby of writing history (when she isn’t making it). In some ways she perhaps best represents the contradictions of the punk ethos – a veneer of sneering violence over a substrate of irony and artiness.

The satire of the film is heavy-handed. The punks certainly aren’t Jarman’s only targets – the media, the police (whose random violence is more vicious than that of the roaming gangs), capitalism, Marxism, all come in for a battering. Amyl’s ballet-dancing dream is probably the nest moment in the film – dancing in the midst of chaos and destruction. Although Chaos (one of Bod’s punk gang) tight-rope walking on the clothesline while singing Non, je ne regrette riens is also cute.

An interestingly different film that just doesn’t quite come together, and suffers from being just a bit too disjointed. The framing device with Elizabeth I and Dr Dee and the angel Ariel probably needed to be strengthened a little – I suspect it was really the most important part of the film for Jarman.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 by Eric Schaefer

"Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 by Eric Schaefer is one of those books that tells you pretty much everything you need to now about a particular subject. It succeeds because Schaefer doesn’t try to cover too much ground. He doesn’t attempt a history of all exploitation movies, but focuses on a very specific type.

The movies he is concerned with are what he describes as the classical exploitation films, a very particular and peculiarly American phenomenon. These were movies that were not just made outside the studio system. Everything about them marked them as being different. They were distributed in a completely different way, and the style of film-making was quite distinct from what had become the Hollywood norm. Most notoriously, they are not subject the Production Code an in fact they focused almost exclusively on subject matter that was specifically prohibited by the code - drugs, prostitution, venereal disease and of course nudity. By the 1950s new types of exploitation movies were emerging, and by the beginning of the 60s the classical exploitation movie had vanished forever.

Schaefer describes in detail the way this shadowy alternative film industry worked, and then goes on to examine the types of movies that were produced. It’s a story enlivened by a collection of colourful and cheerfully disreputable characters. He neither glamourises nor condemns the movies, but he does point out the fascinating contradictions they contain. He also points out that the exploitation movies were a constant thorn in the side of the major Hollywood studios.

He does get a little ideological at times, but generally it’s quite readable and non-judgmental. It’s an intriguing subject, and it’s a book I recommend highly.

Barbara Broadcast (1977)

Barbara Broadcast was one of the hardcore sex films made by Radley Metzger in the late 70s, under the name Henry Paris. The problem of course is that they’re all going to be compared to his 1976 opus The Opening of Misty Beethoven, which is not only the greatest hardcore movie ever made but also a very very fine movie judged by any standards.

Barbara Broadcast has much of the charm and wit of Misty Beethoven, and it demonstrates once again Metzger’s ability to make sex scenes seem fresh and original. What it lacks is the strong plotting of Misty Beethoven, and the love story. You don’t get to know and care about the characters in the same way. Metzger was always at his best when he had a real story framework, even if it was fairly basic (as it was in Score), and when he could offer some psychological insights into his characters. It may seem strange to be talking to be talking about plotting and character development in the context of what is after all hardcore porn, but The Opening of Misty Beethoven showed conclusively that it could be done.

Barbara Broadcast revolves around an exclusive New York restaurant. The title character is a woman who initially achieved fame as a very expensive and very high-class prostitute and then achieved even more fame as an author, writing (naturally) on the subject of sex. This is a slightly unusual restaurant, since it’s not only gourmet food that is on the menu, but gourmet sex as well. Barbara Broadcast is being interviewed by a female reporter, but inevitably they end up doing more than just talking.

As is usual with Metzger’s films the acting is rather good, with both Annette Haven as Barbara and C. J. Laing as the reporter demonstrating good comic timing in addition to various other skills. And the two stars of Misty Beethoven, Jamie Gillis and Constance Money, are there as well, in minor roles, and doing a fairly memorable S&M flavoured scene.

Like all of Metzger’s movies it’s beautifully photographed and it has a sense of style and a feeling of classiness that you don’t normally associate with hardcore porn. And while it is undeniably porn, it’s intelligent and artistic porn.

It’s not in the same league as Misty Beethoven but it still manages to be (like everything Metzger ever did) stylish and amusing. Anything at all by Metzger is worth seeing. Unfortunately the DVD release from VCA (like the DVDs of quite a few of his films) isn’t fantastic image-wise, but it’s acceptable.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (1964)

How can you possibly resist a movie with a title like Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy (Las Luchadoras contra la momia)? Especially when it’s a sort of sequel to Rock’n’Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Ape (otherwise known as Doctor Doom). And this 1964 Mexican horror flick is as much fun as the title would suggest.


This is one of a long series of Aztec mummy movies. This time a Japanese diabolical criminal mastermind known as the Black Dragon is trying to locate the fabled Aztec treasure. And he has his two sisters to assist him - both deadly martial arts experts. It’s up to those gutsy women wrestlers again, to prevent the Black Dragon from unlocking the occult powers to which the treasure holds the key. Will Gloria Venus and the Golden Ruby (the two chief lady wrestlers in the story) be up to the challenge?


It will come as no surprise that this is a very cheesy movie indeed. But it’s good cheesy. Fun cheesy. The Black Dragon is a suitably sinister villain. It has lots of action and plot complications. There’s some fun Aztec mummy folklore. And it has an epic fight scene between Venus and Ruby and the Black Dragon’s sisters! 


The actual Aztec mummy provides the excuse for much enjoyable silliness. He seems to be a part-time vampire as well, since he turns himself into a bat on several occasions. This is explained by the fact that he is really an Aztec sorcerer with shape-shifting powers, buried alive after an illicit tryst with a virgin who had been destined for the great honour of being sacrificed to one of the gods. 


There’s the usual comic relief character, but he’s not overly annoying. And there’s the usual slightly dotty scientist, an archaeologist and expert on Aztec legends and the occult. But it’s Lorena Velázquez as Gloria Venus and Elizabeth Campbell as Golden Ruby to whom the movie belongs. I’m not going to claim that they’re great actresses but their performances are energetic and enthusiastic and that’s exactly what is required.  


You can find this movie, along with five other wonderful Mexican cult films, in the Crypt of Terror: Horror from South of the Border boxed set from BCI. Only the English dubbed versions are included unfortunately, but the set is cheap and the films are thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Veerana (1988)

Bollywood horror is truly a unique cinematic experience, for which nothing can adequately prepare you. One of the most popular of these movies is Veerana, released in 1988. It’s a combination of slapstick comedy, martial arts movie, horror film, love story and musical. And it switches between these genres with bewildering rapidity. If you can accept that this is an entirely different approach to film-making and allow yourself to just go with it, there’s a good deal of fun to be had.

The film opens with the execution of the evil witch Nakita. Nakita’s disciples are determined to bring Nakita back to life, and to take their vengeance on the family of the village boss. A decade later the daughter of the family is kidnapped. By mans of black magic the child, Jasmin, is possessed by the spirit of the dead witch. She is returned to her family by the high priest of Nakita’s cult, but she seems disturbingly different and strange events occur around her. The high priest, disguised as a wandering beggar, is taken into the family in gratitude for his having (as they believe) saved the daughter’s life. Cut forward another decade or so to the present day and the bodies of young men start turning up, young men last seen in the company of Jasmin.

There’s also a comic relief sub-plot about a would-be director of horror movies. And there is an attempt to kidnap Jasmin’s sister, from which she is rescued by a passing handsome stranger who just happens to be skilled in martial arts. He is also taken into the family, and they fall in love. And of course that’s the perfect excuse for a song or two. Meanwhile Jasmin is being taken over more and more by Nakita. But just because she’s become an evil witch doesn’t mean she can’t get to sing and dance as well! This is Bollywood.

One of the many fun things about the Ramsay brothers, the makers of tis and several other classic Bollywood horror movies, is that they’re not afraid to go outrageously over-the-top. In every possible way. Lurid colours. Lots of coloured gels. Set that incorporate every imaginable horror movie cliché. Bizarrely overdone makeup. Plenty of thunder and lightning. Incredibly crude slapstick. Fart jokes. Schmaltzy romantic duets. There is no such thing as too much excess. And that’s what ultimately saves the film. If they’d held back just a little it would have all fallen apart.

It’s also, by the standards of Indian movies, surprisingly sexy. There is of course no actual nudity or sex, but there’s a lot of sexiness. The actress who plays Jasmin (whose actual name is in fact Jasmin) is exceptionally hot, and she wears a succession of slinky dresses, even in one case a very slinky black dress which is wringing wet after an impromptu dip in the surf. And she displays a generous amount of cleavage. In fact the movie got into quite a bit of hot water with the Indian censors. There are also some extremely suggestive jokes, almost reminiscent of what you’d expect in a Russ Meyer movie. The Ramsay brothers were really pushing the edge of the envelope as far as sexual content in Indian movies was concerned.

It’s a very odd concoction, but undeniably entertaining. It’s one of the two movies in volume 2 of Mondo Macabro’s Bollywood Horror Collection. If you’ve never sampled the delights of Bollywood horror I’d suggest Purana Mandir from their Bollywood Horror Collection volume 1 as a better starting point. It follows much the same formula but with slightly more coherence and marginally less craziness. If you like that one, then you’ll be ready for extra added weirdness of Veerana.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Sex Madness (1938)

Sex Madness was one of the movies made by legendary exploitation producer / director / distributor Dwain Esper. The story of the exploitation film-makers and distributors of the 1930s and 1940s is often a lot more interesting than the movies themselves. The introduction of draconian Hollywood self-censorship in the form of the Production Code in the early 30s gave the exploitation mavericks their golden opportunity. So many subjects were now off-limits, but these restrictions didn’t apply to the tiny exploitation producers who were even further down the food chain than the Poverty Row studios. The exploitation producers weren’t members of a later became the MPAA so the Production Code didn’t apply to them.

The exploitation studios focused on any subject matter that was banned by the Production Code. Abortion and prostitution were favourites, but there was an entire genre devoted to venereal diseases. The standard trick was to present these films as educational films performing a important public service, while promoting them as luridly as possible. The actual content was often fairly tame, although in fact most such films existed in multiple versions. Different US states had different censorship laws (until the Supreme Court eventually overthrew the state censorship boards as unconstitutional) and widely differing policies on enforcement. So you’d have a tame version for showing in strict states, a warm version for more lax areas, and a hot version for screening in places where you could get away with it.

The movies were distributed completely outside the established exhibition and distribution system, either on a “states rights” basis where the rights to exhibit in a particular region were sold to an independent distributor, or by roadshowing. Roadshowing, where the movies were literally take in the road and screened in public halls, theatres or even tents, was Dwain Esper’s favoured method. Most of the exploitation distributors had backgrounds in traveling carnivals and sideshows and had an unerring instinct for separating suckers from their money.

Sex Madness is a fairly typical example of the VD genre. The incredibly ramshackle plot follows the fortunes of a rich but naïve young man who is foolish enough to attend a burlesque show, and afterwards goes on to a “house party” where there is plenty of booze and ladies who enjoy showing a fellow a good time. Naturally he contracts a dreaded “social disease.” There’s a parallel story about an innocent country girl who wins a beauty contest and is lured to the big bad city where she soon falls prey to unscrupulous talent agents and loses her virtue and contracts syphilis. She returns home to the country hoping to marry her childhood sweetheart, after spending her money on a quack cure and being assured she is no free of the disease. But of course she isn’t, and tragedy ensues.

I hope I’m not giving the impression that this film has a connected or coherent plot. It jumps all over the place, the editing is jumbled and confused, and the script is excruciating. It also boasts some truly awful acting. Esper may have been a formidable showman, but as a director he was roughly on a par with Ed Wood for technical competence but far less entertaining.

While the clams of such movies to being important educational documents were pure carny hokum, it is worth pointing out that they did at least admit that such things as abortion and venereal diseases existed. So in an age of overwhelming sexual ignorance they may even have served some purpose.

The movie is, fortunately, very short. Like other Esper films it’s fascinating in its true awfulness although it lacks the bizarre touches of Maniac. It’s interesting as a glimpse of a kind of film-making that has now disappeared completely. There are other exploitation movies by other directors dealing with similar “forbidden” subject matter that I would recommend as being a lot more entertaining, such as Party Girl, Slaves in Bondage and Gambling With Souls. But you must see at least one Dwain Esper movie.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (1967)

Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (original title Daikyojû Gappa, also released as Gappa the Triphibian Monsters) was the first (and I think the only) attempt by Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios to jump on the giant monster bandwagon. Made in 1967, it adheres fairly rigidly to the already well-established conventions of the genre.

The publisher of Playmate magazine (which despite the title is apparently not intended to be interpreted as a Japanese version of Playboy magazine) is building a luxury resort with a South Seas theme. He sends off an expedition to collect exotic animals to add the necessary atmosphere. They arrive at a remote island just as a volcano is erupting, and the eruption uncovers a gigantic egg millions of years old. The egg hatches, and the strange creature that emerges is taken back to Japan.

The natives inform them that it is a gappa. It looks like cross between a dinosaur and a plucked chicken, but in a cute kind of way. And it grows very fast. The big problem though is that gappas can communicate over long distances, and pretty soon the very irate gappa parents arrive, and naturally start destroying the nearest Japanese metropolis. All attempts to destroy the enraged monsters fail. Eventually the scientists realise they should have listened to the children, who knew the gappas just wanted their offspring back.

The movie has moderately impressive special effects and model work. It has Tokyo threatened with destruction. It has giant monsters crushing tall buildings. It has lots of explosions as military aircraft and tanks battle with the gappas. It has scientists and businessmen who are too arrogant to understand what they are doing and too stubborn to admit their mistakes. It has children with an instinctive understanding of enormous prehistoric monsters. It also has a young female photographer who is the only adult capable of understanding what needs to be done, and capable of feeling compassion for gargantuan city-destroying monsters.

The ending is sentimental but it works well enough. It’s a well-paced fun movie, and if you like these types of movies there’s not much to dislike about this one.

The DVD version I have is pretty rough. It’s fullscreen and the colours are rather washed- out, and the contrast is very poor. I believe there is a widescreen DVD release, which is probably worth seeking out if you’re a fan of this genre.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Cherry 2000 (1987)

Cherry 2000 isn’t a movie I’d have bothered watching had it not been recommended to me recently. It was made in the 80s (1987 to be precise), and it stars Melanie Griffith, so that’s two black marks against it for starters. And it’s very soon obvious that there’s a major Mad Max influence at work, which is a third black mark. Not that I especially dislike the Mad Max movies, it’s more that the movies they influenced were usually fairly dire. But Cherry 2000 turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable little romp.

In a very 1980s vision of a futuristic society (the events of the movie are supposed to take place in 2017) a city dweller named Sam has found happiness with a woman named Cherry. Cherry is everything he wants in a woman - she’s sweet, she’s romantic, she’s sexy, and she’s a robot. His blissful existence is shattered when Cherry suffers a complete mechanical failure after a passionate but unwise love-making session on a wet floor. The good news is that he still has her memory chip, so all he needs to do is to find a replacement body for her. The bad news is that the Cherry 2000 series of sex robots are no longer in production.

Hope is rekindled when he hears a rumour that out in the badlands outside the city limits, in the wild and violent Zone 7 where the rule of law no longer applies, there is a warehouse full of brand new Cherry 2000s. Venturing into Zone 7 will require the services of a Tracker. A Tracker named E. Johnson is recommended to him as his best chance of getting into Zone 7 and getting out alive again. E. Johnson turns out to be a young attractive and heavily armed red-headed woman with a very heavily modified bright red Ford Mustang. They must run the gauntlet of assorted crazies and hoodlums, and then things get really tough when they encounter the gang of polite but exceptionally psychotic thugs controlled by someone called Lester. Much mayhem ensues.

The movie works because the obvious temptations, to make Sam a creep or a sleaze-bag or to wallow in large amounts of leering frat-boy humour, are resisted. The movie really does convince you that Sam likes his robot girlfriend not because she allows him to indulge his sexual fantasies but because she allows him to indulge his romantic fantasies. Which might be even sadder, but at least it isn’t sleazy. Sam is simply too much of a romantic to survive the collision with the real world, or with a real woman.

While the story owes something to Blade Runner and the visuals owe a great deal to the Mad Max films the tone of the movie is closer to that of a rather gentle romantic comedy. While there are countless explosions and a great deal of violence it’s very non-graphic and very cartoonish, there’s no gore and there’s no nudity. David Andrews as Sam is rather bland, but that works in the movie’s favour. He is after all a young man who is more comfortable relating to robots than to real people. Even Melanie Griffith’s non-acting acting technique works, since it makes her (despite the firepower she packs) very non-threatening. Like Sam she’s somewhat out of place in the real world, and the growing attraction between them seems plausible.

There are some very spectacular action scenes, especially the one with the car and the crane. Everything is filmed in rather lurid 80s pastels (only in the 80s could pastels be lurid). The dialogue is smarter than you might expect in a movie of this type.

Overall it’s a strange mix of campy action movie and off-beat love story with a romantic triangle between a girl, a guy and a sex robot. It really has no right to work as well as it does, but it’s highly entertaining and even oddly moving and it’s a good deal of silly fun as well.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Rocketship X-M (1950)

Rocketship X-M was the movie that started the cycle of US space exploration movies of the 1950s. The movie that was supposed to launch this cycle was George Pal’s Destination Moon but Lippert Pictures rushed Rocketship X-M into production and got into movie theatres first.

The first spaceflight to the moon goes horribly wrong and the five hapless astronauts end up on Mars instead (an easy mistake to make). There they discovered the ruins of civilisation devastated by nuclear war, with the survivors having reverted to a stone age culture. They return to Earth determined to warn humanity of the perils of the arms race and the Cold War. But will they have sufficient fuel to make it home?

Rocketship X-M was co-scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and it has a strong political message, although unfortunately it’s delivered in the very heavy-handed way that was so typical of Hollywood. The film’s tone is pessimistic almost to the point of despair and is probably the bleakest of all 50s American science fiction movies. The movie does have its virtues. The acting is competent, and there’s at least an attempt at human drama.

Visually, despite its fairly low budget, it’s quite impressive. The use of sepia tinting for the Martian scenes works extremely well. Tinting was a technique common in the days of silent cinema that is rarely scene in movies of such a late vintage, and it’s a technique that is surprisingly effective. The spaceship itself is extraordinarily phallic but the model shots are reasonably well done. The movie manages not to look cheap.

Rocketship X-M has most of the cliches of Eisenhower era sci-fi, but it did them first so they weren’t really cliches yet. Of course in a 1950s science fiction movie you expect bad science and you certainly get it in this one. The science is very bad, but it’s all done with a straight face. There’s not a trace of camp in this flick. Writer-director Kurt Neumann was trying to make this a fairly serious statement on the future of humanity, and it’s closer in spirit to The Day the Earth Stood Still than to most of the space operas that followed. And like The Day the Earth Stood Still it suffers somewhat from taking itself too seriously and from being embarrassingly unsubtle.

You also expect outrageous sexism, and you get that too. Needless to say the scientist in charge of the project has a beautiful female assistant, and needless to say she becomes less of a scientist and more of a “real” woman, and she discovers the importance of love. There was something about sci-fi that really brought out the sexism in 50s writers. There’s some cringe-inducing dialogue, also standard for movies of this type.

What makes this movie memorable in spite of its flaws is its staggering degree of pessimism, its complete lack of gee-whizz enthusiasm. Pessimism and optimism do tend to co-exist rather uneasily in American science fiction films of the 50s and it’s interesting to see that mixture present right at the start of the decade. Overall it’s short and punchy and well-paced and it’s a gripping enough story. Worth a look.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

The Holy Mountain, originally released in 1973, is my first taste of the film-making world of Alejandro Jodorowsky and I think it’s safe to say that Jodorowsky is not for me. I can appreciate that there’s a considerable visual imagination at work in this movie but for me it’s just too undisciplined to be genuinely interesting. And the satire is noticeably heavy-handed.

The plot, sketchy as it is, concerns a quest to reach a holy mountain inhabited by a race of mortals who have achieved immortality and enlightenment. Or perhaps they’re gods. A thief with some kind of severe christ-fixation climbs to the top of a tower where he encounters an alchemist who will lead him on this quest. But first he introduces him to six mysterious figures, apparently the most powerful people in the universe who dominate the worlds of politics, business and art. At least I think that’s what the plot is about.

I’m told that Jodorowsky had just discovered LSD when he made this film, and indeed watching the movie is like watching someone else’s drug trip. If you consumed a sufficient quantity of drugs the movie would probably make a lot more sense. The images are startling and grotesque but often they seem to be shocking and grotesque merely for the sake of being shocking and grotesque. There’s more animal cruelty than I’ve ever seen in one movie before, which makes the whole exercise rather distasteful.

I must confess to some bias here, since I’m not greatly enamoured of movies dealing with mysticism, and when they mix mysticism and politics my interest tends to wane even further.

The Region 4 DVD includes a commentary track by Jodorowsky. It’s definitely not my cup of tea, but it’s different.

Monday, 15 June 2009

She Mob (1968)

She Mob is another deliriously strange little offering from Something Weird Video. It’s a 1968 example of the roughie sexploitation sub-genre, made in Texas somewhere with a cast of fascinatingly bizarre unknowns.

Four women have broken out of prison, led by the awesomely butch lesbian Big Shim. Big Shim has hooked up with he girlfriend Baby, but the other three women are all straight and after five years in the big house they’re craving men. Big Shim tell them it’s no problem, hell phone her friend Tony. Tony is a gigolo but he has some spare time during the day when his wealthy businesswoman lover is at work. So he’ll come over and she guarantees he’ll satisfy their desires. When Tony arrives Big Shim has a brainwave - since Brenda (the rich businesswoman) is apparently pretty keen on her toy boy they’ll pretend to kidnap Tony and collect $100,000 in ransom money.

While they’re waiting for Brenda to come across with the ransom money Tony can pleasure the girls. Which he proceeds to do, but unfortunately he also pleasures Baby, which does not please Big Shim at all. Tony and Baby take off into the night, pursued by the shotgun-toting Big Shim and the other escapees. Meanwhile Brenda has dispatched her buddy Sweetie East, the famous girl detective, to pay over the ransom money and retrieve her boy. Sweetie East is obviously based on the 1960s TV sleuth Honey West, and even has a pet ocelot just like her namesake. She also sports an outrageous costume, even by the standards of this movie. There’s very little to the costume but it still boasts a staggering number of zippers.

The best thing about She Mob is the acting. Marni Castle plays both Big Shim and Brenda, and she’s equally terrifying but breath-taking in both roles. As Shim she sports the deadliest bra in movie history, and she’s not afraid to use it either. The three actresses playing her fellow prison escapees do some impressive scenery chewing, especially an actress named Twig who plays a character named Twig. She bounces about, she go go dances, she bounces about some more, and she’s terrific fun.

This movie has lots of sex and nudity, although nothing explicit. It has a fair bit of violence, especially when Big Shim takes her revenge on Tony. It has some go go dancing, although personally I’d have liked to see more. I always think you can’t have too much go go dancing. There are shiny costumes. And it has a great deal of engaging silliness. It’s much too camp to be in any danger of being taken seriously. It’s also a reminder of an era when erotic movies had more gags than sex, and possessed a tongue-in-cheek charm that has long since disappeared from the genre.

It’s hardly necessary to say that the DVD transfer is superb. It always is with Something Weird. The black-and-white cinematography is impressive, and overall there’s a surprising level of technical competence on display. It’s presented as half of a double bill, with another movie called Nymphs Anonymous which I have yet to see.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Queen of Outer Space (1958)

Queen of Outer Space belongs to the sub-genre of science fiction films from the 50s dealing with encounters with all-female alien societies, along with movies like Cat-Women of the Moon and Missile to the Moon and several others. It’s a sub-genre that combines outrageous sexism with equally outrageous camp. When you notice that the star of a science fiction movie is Zsa Zsa Gabor, you can be fairly sure it’s not going to take a very serious scientific approach to its subject matter.

A routine mission to Earth’s first orbiting space station goes badly wrong when a mysterious ray destroys the station before the horrified eyes of its designer Professor Konrad (who just happens to be aboard the spaceship on its way to the station) and then hurls the spacecraft at a phenomenal speed towards the planet Venus. The crew are relieved to find that Venus’s gravity is very similar to Earth’s, because that means the atmosphere will be breathable.

Exploring the surface of the planet the crew are overtaken by disaster. The one great fear of space explorers is of course that they will be captured by beautiful mini-skirted alien women, and that’s what happens. The horror is compounded by the fact that these women haven’t seen a man in years. It transpires that the men of Venus were banished to one of the planet’s moons after a catastrophic war, and Queen Yllana now rules. She is consumed by an implacable hatred of men, and plans to use her beta disintegrator to destroy the Earth. Not all the women of Venus hate men though. There is a resistance movement of women who want their men back, a movement led by one of Venus’s leading scientists, Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor). Talleah and her chief followers immediately fall hopelessly in love with the spacemen from Earth. To be honest, even if these four clowns were the only men on the entire planet it’s still difficult to understand why any woman would want anything to do with them. The Earthmen and the rebel women must somehow foil the queen’s plans and re-unite the women of Venus with their men.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is the writing talent involved in it. The script is by Charles Beaumont, who went on to write many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and several notable movies (including Roger Corman’s superb Masque of the Red Death) before his premature death in 1967. And the screenplay was based on an unpublished story by Ben Hecht. Although there does seem to be some doubt about whether the Hecht story actually existed since nobody has actually seen it.

Zsa Zsa Gabor makes no attempt to act. She was already well on her way to becoming an actress known more for her outrageous persona and eventful private life than for her almost non-existent film career, and she is there simply to add glamour. Which she does. The other female members of the cast seem to have been selected mainly for their appearance, and they include several beauty queens. This is classic 1950s cheesecake, and the women really are quite stunning, especially Lisa Davis as Motiya. Science fiction seemed to afford costume designers an opportunity to put women into extraordinarily short skirts. The four male cast members are uniformly awful and quite exceptionally annoying. I can quite understand why Queen Yllana wanted to exterminate them.

The sets and costumes are the highlight of the movie. The sets are ludicrous but fun in a very high camp way, and the women’s costumes are glamorous and sexy although perhaps not always very practical.

In a 1950s sci-fi movie you expect ludicrously sexist dialogue and sexist attitudes, but this one is in a class of its own. Of course it was never meant to be taken seriously, director Edward Bernds describing it as an attempt to graft satire onto a very thin science fiction plot. The attempt doesn’t quite come off. I suspect that the things that modern audiences will find amusing in this film won’t be the same things that a 50s audience would have laughed at. But it’s still camp enough to be reasonably entertaining. And it looks fairly impressive. Being filmed in Cinemascope and colour, and very bright and lurid colours they are, makes it even more camp. If you like camp and you like 1950s cheesecake, it’s worth a look.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Naked Rashomon (1972)

The first thing to note about Chusei Sone’s Naked Rashomon is that it has absolutely no connection whatsoever with Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The title seems to have been chosen simply because it sounded like a cool title. Be that as it may it’s an interesting tale of revenge and of people trapped by the past.

By the beginning of the 1970s the advent of television had pushed many Japanese film studios to the brink of bankruptcy, including the oldest of them all, Nikkatsu (founded in 1912). Nikkatsu’s response was to introduce their “roman porno” series, and to concentrate exclusively on these films. This turned out to be a very successful move and Nikkatsu are still around although the “roman porno” series ended in the late 80s. Most people think the “roman” is short for romantic, but it’s actually derived from the French term for erotic novels, “roman pornographique.” In fact the sexual content in these movies is relatively tame.

Since they were produced by a major studio with all the resources that entails these films do not have the slightly home-made rather amateurish look so often associated with exploitation movies. They’re glossy and extremely well made with high production values, and they were made by people who took film-making very seriously. The acting is more than adequate and the approach of many of the directors was quite self-consciously arty. For many directors the genre provided a golden opportunity since Nikkatsu gave them complete artistic freedom as long as they included plenty of sex.

Naked Rashomon opens in 1913. Lord Katsuragawa, a powerful political figure, desperately needs a son to consolidate the family’s future power an influence, but his wife is unable to bear children. He solves the problem by impregnating Shino, the prostitute girlfriend of his bodyguard Todo, and claiming the child as his own. Shino however gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Todo is ordered to dispose of mother and daughter but instead hides them away in a remote part of the country. Nineteen years later the dying Shino contacts Todo and asks him to take over the care of the daughter, Kyoko.

Things become somewhat confusing after this, with the action switching back and forth between the two time periods, but I’m fairly sure this was a deliberate choice by director Chusei Sone. The protagonists are hopelessly entrapped by the events of 1913 and they therefore exist as much in the past as in the present. Kyoko is obsessed with the idea of re-living her mother’s life by becoming a prostitute herself, and by devoting herself to plans for revenge. Shino’s son is equally unable to escape the consequences of those past events, although he doesn’t realise it. Todo is haunted by the shadow of 1913 as well, and by his doomed efforts to make some atonement and to undo the harm that was done. The obsession with the past (neatly symbolised by two almost identical photographs taken 19 years apart) has produced a distorted reality for the people concerned, and this is reflected in the slightly dream-like quality of the movie.

As you expect with a Mondo Macabro release there are plenty of extras. The documentary of the roman porno genre is interesting. This is a genre that has not only been completely unknown to western audiences but it’s also only just being rediscovered in Japan where it’s building up a considerable following among young women movie fans. Which isn’t surprising, since like so much of Japanese exploitation cinema it’s very woman-focused, and it mixes complex female characters with lots of sex, a combination unfortunately rather rare in modern erotica. There are trailers for more Nikkatsu movies soon to be released by Mondo Macabro, all of which look very tempting. I think Watcher in the Attic is a better introduction to this particular sub-genre but Naked Rashomon is still very much worth getting.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

S. F. Brownrigg started his career working for ultra-low budget sci-fi/horror film-maker Larry Buchanan. By 1973 he’d graduated to making his own very low budget movies, starting with a movie that has had many titles (including The Forgotten), although it’s probably best known these days as Don’t Look in the Basement. It’s a movie that combines the do-it-yourself film-making ethos of people like Ed Wood with 1970s gore.

Charlotte Beale arrives at a small and very remote psychiatric clinic somewhere in Texas. The director of this institution, Dr Stephens, has developed some very individual theories about mental illness. He believes that obsessions and delusions should be encouraged, and that when they become extreme enough they’ll burn themselves out and the patient will be cured. He also believes in breaking down the barriers in the doctor/patient relationship, so there are no locks on the doors of any of the rooms. On the morning of Charlotte’s arrival Dr Stephens’ theories have started to go a little awry. One of the patients, who is either a former judge or thinks he is a judge, has just murdered the good doctor with an axe. This leaves Dr Geraldine Masters in charge, and she is determined to carry on her predecessor’s good work.

Nurse Beale finds the patients to be quite a challenge. Apart from the axe-wielding judge there’s Sam, who has the mind of a ten-year-old after a lobotomy. There’s Allyson, who desperately wants to be loved, right now, by anybody at all. There’s Harriet, who is struggling to care for her baby (the baby is in fact a doll). There’s Sergeant Jaffee, who cracked up after getting his whole patrol killed in action. Every night he waits for the arrival of the enemy. There’s a dementia patient, and there’s the disturbingly giggly Danny.

Unfortunately Dr Stephens’ murder was just the first in a series of violent incidents, and after discovering several bodies Nurse Beale decides it might be a good time to quit this job and move on. But first she has to get out of the clinic.

The acting is uniformly atrocious, the make-up and gore effects are unconvincing, the camerawork is unimaginative and the look of the movie is very flat. But Don’t Look in the Basement has some real strengths which just about make up for these deficiencies. There are a couple of very neat plot twists, and there’s an atmosphere of complete out-of-control insanity.

It was an era that saw the George Romero-style of horror film-making becoming increasingly predominant among low-budget American film-makers, with a very heavy reliance on buckets of blood and gore and a moving away from supernatural horror. This movie is to some extent part of that trend, but it lacks the disturbing misogyny and sadistic glee in violence that mark many such movies. And it’s a much more interesting movie than, for instance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It’s in the public domain so the good news is that it’s not going to cost you much, and you can even download it legally for free. The bad news is that the print I saw was pretty rough, with very poor sound. It’s definitely worth a look though. The very bad news is that apparently a remake is on the way.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922)

Fritz Lang’s 1922 film Dr Mabuse the Gambler is in many ways the daddy of all movies in the gangster, crime and film noir genres. Interestingly enough, Lang also invented the science fiction film (Metropolis) and the spy film (his 1928 film Spies). Every criminal mastermind or mad scientist or evil hypnotist from that time on also owed something to Dr Mabuse, although it could be argued that the type originated in earlier German movies like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Dr Mabuse the Gambler is a very long film (you could consider its two parts to be two moderately long films but they don’t stand alone so really it’s one film) but it can’t be accused of being boring. There’s just so much going on, so many wonderful visual touches, some terrific 1920s special effects (especially the use of text on screen, in the scene involving the state prosecutor’s car). And there’s so much outrageousness. It’s a movie that manages to be very pulpy and very arty at the same time. It has a lot to say about the disastrous conditions in Germany in the early 20s, the hyper-inflation, the appalling poverty combined with nouveau riche war-profiteers and black marketeers, and of course Berlin’s famous decadence.

At the same time it’s a great deal of fun, with Dr Mabuse the master of disguise matching wits against the determined and courageous State Prosecutor von Wenk. And there’s psychoanalysis, hypnotism and mind control. What more could you want? Dr Mabuse himself has often been seen as a kind of prophecy of the coming to power of Hitler, a suggestion vehemently denied by director Fritz Lang in the documentary that accompanies the Kino DVD (although he admits that his 1933 movie The Testament of Dr Mabuse does address the issue of the Nazis). The documentary is quite interesting, with plenty of information about Norbert Jacques, who wrote the Dr Mabuse books which were apparently immensely popular in Germany.

The score is as atrocious as every other modern silent film score I’ve come across – it was clearly composed by someone who’d never seen the movie and had no ideas what it was about. But if you let awful scores put you off you’d never get to see any silent movies. Don’t forget folks, they’re silent movies, so don’t be afraid to turn the volume down to zero and just enjoy the movie. The good news is that the Kino DVD looks terrific. And it’s a fantastic, bizarre, unique and very entertaining movie.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

High Plains Drifter (1973)

High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood’s second movie as a director, was one of quite a number of revisionist westerns, such as Little Big Man, made at about that time. High Plains Drifter is in some ways the ultimate revisionist western, since it parodies everything that traditional westerns believe in and mocks every cliché of the genre. In a traditional western the townspeople who are threatened by a gang of desperadoes are always decent honest god-fearing people. When the people of Lago in High Plains Drifter are described in those terms, it’s a joke. The townspeople of Lago are greedy, grasping, cowardly and vicious. The gunslinger they hire to protect them should be, according to the conventions of the genre, a fundamentally just man who protects the innocent. In fact the stranger who rides in to Lago turns out to be their worst nightmare. But then these townspeople aren’t innocent anyway.

High Plains Drifter is actually as much a horror movie as a western. It has some absolutely stunning cinematography. The stark beauty of the country where it was filmed, along with the town (which Eastwood insisted on having built in its entirely on location) and the lake behind it provide a magnificently eerie and at times dreamlike backdrop to the movie.

While the Sergio Leone influence is obvious Eastwood seems to have been influenced by Italian cinema in general, and Fellini in particular. This film feels (to me at least) much more European than American. It has a quality of the surreal and the grotesque you don’t really respect in an American movie. Although it’s a violent movie it shows violence as something that breeds more violence. You don’t get that feeling you get in a traditional western that Justice Has Been Done and that all the bloodshed has been in the cause of Law and Order and Truth and Justice. There’s a good deal of unpleasantness in this film, quite apart from the actual violence, but again it serves the purpose of deriding the values of the genre.

i>High Plains Drifter is Eastwood’s masterpiece, and one of the great American movies.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Swap and How They Make It (1966)

The essence of the true sexploitation movies of the 1960s (as opposed to the softcore movies that followed) was to make movies about sex whilst showing very little indeed. There’s nothing even approaching explicit sex, and often very little nudity. What the best of these movies do have, though, is sexual tension. Joe Sarno’s genius was his ability to exploit that very quality to make serious and surprisingly dark movies about human sexuality.

The Swap and How They Make It is fairly typical early Sarno. As the title implies, it’s about wife-swapping. It’s included in a double-bill from Something Weird Video, paired with another Sarno movie, Sin in the Suburbs. And it’s an ideal pairing. Both movies deal with the boredom and emptiness of suburbia and small-town life, and with people who try to fill that emptiness with sex, especially sex of a slightly kinky kind.

The Swap and How They Make It, made in 1966, deals with two couples who are introduced into a wife-swapping circle (known as The Exchange) in a particularly dreary small town in some unspecified part of the US. Given that the alternatives are playing golf or playing bridge, it’s not difficult to understand why The Exhange is so popular!

At first it all seems like fun. Everybody appears to understand the rules, that it’s just fun and that nobody how many partners you have within the circle your first loyalty is always to your wife or husband. But of course not everyone is able to remain quite so detached, and pretty soon emotional complications arise and jealousies develop. To make things worse, a young unmarried student couple manipulate their way into The Exchange, and they are most definitely not able to deal with the situation. Sarno’s interest in not in sex as such, but in the psychological dimensions to sex, and these are explored with a subtlety that you don’t generally expect in a low-budget exploitation movie.

Sarno’s black-and-white movies have a wonderfully austere quality to them that enhances the atmosphere of boredom. The acting is somewhat amateurish but the rather flat delivery of the dialogue also adds a touch of starkness to the movie.

Both image and sound quality on the DVD are superb. Sarno was a true auteur of the sexploitation genre, and his movies are both fascinating and disturbing, and shed an intriguing light on the sexual morality of an outwardly strait-laced society. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Horror Hospital (1973)

Horror Hospital is an outrageously lurid and deliriously trashy 1973 British horror film. Its entertainment value lies mainly in its sheer overwhelming awfulness and the fact that it knows it’s awful and it revels in it.

Jason (played by the staggeringly untalented Robin Askwith, a veteran of such classics of British cinema as Confessions of a Window Cleaner) had had one of his songs ripped off by an unscrupulous band manager, and decides to console himself by taking a holiday. He sees an advertisement for Hairy Holidays, a company that apparently specialises in holidays for hippies and sets off for the country. On the train he meets a pretty young woman named Judy, a young woman with such appalling taste that she actually finds Jason attractive. It turns out she’s heading for the same destination, a manor owned by her aunt. The aunt used to run a whorehouse in Hamburg, but now she’s hooked up with a crazed doctor named Storm. The manor is a kind of health farm, but since Dr Storm is played by Michael Gough we know immediately that he’s going to be an evil mad scientist.

Dr Storm trained under Pavlov but had to leave Russia when Stalin came to power. It seems he was too crazy for Stalin’s tastes. The health farm is simply a way of attracting young people to the remote manor here they become subjects for his medical experiments. They are turned into lobotomised human automatons, completely subservient to Dr Storm’s will, and impervious to pain. The reason for these experiments is never made clear. He’s just a mad scientist and it’s the sort of thing mad scientists do. Logic is not this film’s strong point. He has an assistant, a dwarf named Frederick.

Judy and Jason quickly discover that there is evil afoot, but the bumbling Jason finds himself thrown into a cell while Judy is about to become the next candidate for Dr Storm’s surgery.

The movie tries for a kind of high camp feel, but director Antony Balch doesn’t really have sufficient style to pull it off. It still succeeds moderately well as tongue-in-cheek horror schlock, with plenty of unconvincing gore. The crudity of the make-up and other effects tends if anything to add to the fun. The big black car with the scythe blade for executing troublesome patients and ex-employees is a nice touch.

And it has Michael Gough, and even better Michael Gough as a mad scientist, and that’s sufficient reason on its own for seeing this one. Vanessa Shaw as Judy demonstrates a formidable talent for screaming, a talent she exercises at every possible opportunity. Dennis Price contributes an amusing cameo, and Skip Martin is entertaining as the dwarf Frederick. If you like extremely bad horror that doesn’t take itself even moderately seriously and exults in being silly and trashy then Horror Hospital should deliver the goods for you.