Friday, 2 August 2019

They Live (1988)

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

It’s also a classic paranoia movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (1935)

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Dandy (1970)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Naked Witch (1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Slave (1962)

The Slave is a 1962 Italian peplum directed by Sergio Corbucci. The fact that the original title was Il figlio di Spartacus (The Son of Spartacus) will give you some hints of what you can expect from this movie.

Randus (Steve Reeves) is a Roman centurion and Julius Caesar thinks very highly of him. Randus is a fine soldier and a decent man. Caesar sends him off to Asia Minor to keep an eye on Crassus (Caesar, Pompey and Crassus between them controlled the whole of Rome’s empire). Randus suffers shipwreck and is then enslaved but he escapes with some help from another slave (who will play an important part in the story). During this episode he makes a terrifying discovery - he is actually the son of Spartacus! Spartacus of course led a major slave revolt about a quarter-century earlier. The fact that it was Crassus who put down the slave revolt and that Spartacus died in battle against him (or was crucified afterwards depending on whose account you believe) is obviously going to colour Randus’s feelings about Crassus.

Already very early in the picture Randus rescues a slave girl named Said who is being beaten, so we’re set up for the idea that sympathy for slaves seems is ingrained in the young centurion. The slave girl ends up being bought by Crassus’s wife Claudia.

Randus is now torn between loyalty to Rome and his destiny as the son of Spartacus. We know of course that he’s going to choose the latter - otherwise there would be no movie. But he doesn’t want to reveal himself openly yet.

The Romans are portrayed as being little more than barbarians except that they’re more imaginative in their cruelty. They are definitely the bad guys here. Or at least Crassus’s Romans are the bad guys although many of them are not Romans. And Caesar is played as the good Roman.

The violence of course is not graphic but the sadism and cruelty of the Romans is made pretty explicit. Crassus was very fond of crucifixion as a punishment (he crucified 6,000 slaves after Spartacus’s revolt) and in the movie at least he has come up with a number of twisted variations on the theme plus some other entirely original barbarities. Crassus is not a very nice man.

Needless to say strict historical accuracy was not a priority for the makers of this movie.

Like most Italian movies of its era it has a political slant, in this case the struggles of the downtrodden masses and various conquered peoples against their cruel oppressors. Mind you when you’re dealing with the Romans it’s not hard to feel sympathy for those conquered peoples.

Sergio Corbucci certainly had no problem with action scenes and there are a lot them - enough to satisfy anyone. The sets are impressive. There’s some location shooting in Egypt. On the whole this film succeeds in looking lavish and expensive even though the budget was probably very tight. Italian directors like Corbucci were used to having to get good results without spending a fortune.

Steve Reeves makes a fine action hero, as he did in all his movies in this genre. Claudio Gora makes a delightfully villainous Crassus. Any self-respecting peplum would have a beautiful but dangerous princess (or something similar) and that’s the function that Gianna Maria Canale fulfils as Crassus’s wife Claudia, and she does so with considerable style. She made many peplums and she is always a highlight. Ombretto Colli is also very good as the Egyptian slave girl Saide.

The ending was always going to be tricky. After all if the slaves win and the Romans are defeated that would be a bit too historically implausible, but if the slaves lose that means the son of Spartacus is going to come to a sticky end and that would be a very downbeat ending. So the writers have tried to find a vaguely believable way out of the dilemma and not surprisingly what they’ve come up with is a bit problematic.

The made-on-demand DVD from the Warner Archive series offers a very fine anamorphic transfer without any extras.

The Slave is a better-than-average peplum despite the flawed ending. It's definitely visually impressive and very entertaining. Recommended.

I’ve reviewed some of the other Steve Reeves peplums including Hercules, the rather so-so Goliath and the Barbarians and the slightly odd War of the Trojans.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties (1980)

It’s pretty hard to dislike a movie with a title like Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties. Especially when it’s a Jess Franco movie and one of the lady spies is played by Lina Romay. This really is a movie about two female spies. Whether either actually possesses a pair of flowered panties is another matter - most of the time these girls aren’t wearing any panties at all. This is a Jess Franco movie.

Franco had made a couple of movies in the late 60s about two female spies (or at least undercover detectives), the Red Lips movies Two Undercover Angels and Kiss Me, Monster. These were lighthearted romps. This was a genre that seemed to bring out Franco’s lighter side. Mixed with lots of craziness of course.

Cecile (Lina Romay) and Brigitte (Lynn Monteil) are strippers and they’re facing a year in prison as a result of their strip-tease act. They’re offered the chance to go free, in return for doing a few small favours for the government. Actually it’s not the government as such, it’s an American senator who is spearheading an investigation of the sex trafficking industry. He wants them to work as spies. All Cecile (who is a bit of an amateur photographer) has to do is take a few photos. They will also be given air fares to the Canary Islands and a job as strip-tease artistes.

The girls figure it’s a pretty good deal but it’s not always a good idea to believe government men who tell you they’re offering you a job that is really very simple and involves no danger at all.

Their assignment is part of an investigation into a white slavery racket. White slavery had been a very popular subject for exploitation filmmakers going right back to the 1930s if not earlier. And for obvious reasons - the opportunities for sleaze are practically limitless.

This is one of the many Franco films that exists in several different forms. It started life as a movie called Ópalo de fuego. Then numerous new scenes were shot and it became essentially a different film, Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties. Ópalo de fuego is apparently a much more chaotic film with no real narrative to speak of.

Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties is very much a movie for dedicated Francophiles. Anyone new to Jess Franco’s films would be well advised to start with his 1960s and early 1970s films. By the end of the 70s he was mixing genres with abandon but even more disconcertingly his films were starting to feature wild mood changes. If you’re a fan and you’re accustomed to his approach to filmmaking you’ll enjoy this. If you’re not familiar with his style you might find it bewildering and disturbing. It seems highly likely that he fully intended it to be bewildering and disturbing.

Oddly enough, having said all that, Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties actually has a remarkably coherent plot. Cecile takes on the rôle of spy and she takes her duties seriously. She quickly works out that a woman named Irina Forbes (Joëlle Le Quément) and her husband are kidnapping young women and selling them to billionaires as sex slaves. Mr and Mrs Forbes are seriously evil and depraved people and Cecile is keen to help the authorities. The difficulties are that it is not clear which authorities she can trust, and she is very much a rank amateur.

The plot is straightforward enough but the mood is all over the place, veering suddenly from lighthearted spy spoof and sex comedy stuff to brutal torture, rape and murder. And then it will veer back again. At times it is amusing and charming. At other times it is very unsettling indeed.

This is also, even by Jess Franco standards, a ramshackle affair. Franco was never overly obsessed with getting the picture in focus. In fact this is something that varies widely from film to film suggesting that it was as much a stylistic quirk as it was a result of ludicrously tight shooting schedules. The impression this movie gives is that Franco was embracing the chaos.

There is an astonishing amount of nudity. The sex scenes are not at all graphic but they are unsettling since they range from good-natured sexual romps to rather extreme depravity. The scenes of violence are also often more implied than explicit but what is implied is enough to make any viewer uneasy.

It must have been tough going for the cast but Lina Romay handles things pretty well. She is often adorably ditzy. At other times she experiences stark terror. She even manages a creditable action scene in which she dispatches one of the Forbes’ evil henchwomen with a well-placed kick to the head. She is in fact an oddly believable amateur spy, hopelessly out of her depth but showing a surprising amount of grit. If the villains are intending to destroy her she’s not going to give in without a struggle. She is of course naked for much of the film’s running time but that’s no problem - she was a competent actress with her clothes on and a very good actress naked.

Two Female Spies with Flowered Panties is a wild ride. It gleefully ignores all the conventions of the spy film, and the erotic film, and the sex comedy. Like so many of Franco’s best films it creates its own genre as it goes along.

I’m not sure this movie is a complete success but it can be recommended to Franco fans as an exhilarating example of his bizarrely idiosyncratic style.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Daredevils of the Red Circle (serial, 1939)

Daredevils of the Red Circle is a 1939 Republic action-adventure-crime serial directed by John English and William Witney. Which means it’s probably going to be very good.

It turns out to be very good indeed, in fact one of the best of all the serials of its era, and an absolute must-see for serial fans.

Here's the link to my full review at Classic Movie Ramblings.