Friday, 2 December 2022

Trip With the Teacher (1975)

Trip With the Teacher is a Crown International release in 1975 so you know it will be low-budget, somewhat trashy and probably quite entertaining.

Miss Tenny (Brenda Fogarty) is a schoolteacher who’s taking four teenaged girls on a camping trip in the desert. They’ll be looking at stuff like archaeological sites. The girls are much more interested in boys and it doesn’t seem likely they’ll find many of them in the desert. They’re in a school bus, driven by the good-natured Marvin (Jack Driscoll).

The bus is being followed by three guys on motorcycles. Jay (Robert Gribben) is a nice enough guy. He turns out to be the closest thing this movie has to a hero. He only met the other two guys a short while back. Pete (Robert Porter) seems a bit wild and maybe a tiny bit unstable. It’s Pete’s brother Al (Zalman King) who is the worrying one. We very quickly find out that Al is crazy and mean and evil, and totally unpredictable. An old guy as a gas station spills petrol on Al’s bike. So Al kills him. Al is that kind of guy.

The bus breaks down and the three guys on the bikes stop. Whether they’ve stopped to help is another matter.

Marvin can’t fix the bus. Of course that should be no problem. When the three bikers reach the next town they can phone for someone to come out to help Marvin with the bus. Al says they’re prepared to make the call, on one condition. He wants one of the girls to ride off into the desert with him.

The girl in question thinks it’s a great idea. As soon as the girls spotted the bikers they went totally man-crazy. But Miss Tenny is not about to let any of the girls in her charge ride off into the desert with some strange guy on a motorcycle, especially a guy as disturbing as Al. If Miss Tenny knew that Al had just committed a brutal murder she’d be even more worried.

Things start to get nasty. Al commits another murder. He doesn’t want any witnesses left around, and Miss Tenny and her schoolgirls were all witnesses. They all end up in an isolated shack. Miss Tenny and her girls are prisoners. We’re not sure exactly what Al’s intentions are because he’s so crazy and unpredictable but it’s certainly possible that he intends to kill all the women. It’s highly likely he intends to do other things to them first.

By now we’ve figured out that Pete pretty much does what his brother tells him to do. He probably wouldn’t be actively evil on his own but under Al’s influence he’s dangerous.

A night of horror follows for the women.

There seems to be no escape. Offering any kind of resistance just makes Al crazier and meaner.

It’s a pretty nasty movie that today still packs quite a punch. There’s no gore and not a great deal of nudity. The violence is mostly not graphic but it’s very intense and at times quite shocking.

Earl Barton was a dancer who appeared in a few movies in the 50s. This was his only feature film as a writer-director and that’s a pity. He knew how to build suspense and he knew to create an atmosphere of paranoia and terror. He also understood pacing. The movie starts slow but the pace gradually picks up and leads to an exciting and tense finish. Why didn’t this guy get to make more movies?

The big drawcard here for cult movie fans has to be the presence of Zalman King. He was a bad actor, but he was a truly great bad actor. He is always fun to watch and he’s in top form here, playing Al as a guy who could explode into violence and madness at any moment. King goes outrageously over-the-top and makes this movie seriously menacing.

Robert Porter as Pete is overshadowed by Zalman King but he gives a fine creepy performance.

Brenda Fogarty is very solid as Miss Tenny, giving the character just a bit of depth. The actresses playing the girls are all pretty good as well.

This movie is included in Mill Creek's Drive-In Cult Classics 32 Movie Collection, a DVD set which includes interesting oddities such as Pick-Up (1975) as well as drive-in titillation like The Babysitter (1969). Lots of fun sleaze in this set. I believe that Trip With the Teacher has been released on Blu-Ray by Vinegar Syndrome.

Trip With the Teacher is very much a drive-in exploitation movie but despite the low budget it’s very well-crafted and genuinely harrowing. It’s one of those movies that turns out to be a whole lot better than you’re expecting it to be. Highly recommended.

Monday, 28 November 2022

The Grapes of Death (1978)

The Grapes of Death (Les raisins de la mort), released in 1978, was the first of Jean Rollin’s three zombie movies (the others being Night of the Hunted and The Living Dead Girl). OK, he also made Zombie Lake in 1981 but that one doesn’t count. He was just a director for hire on that film and he had zero interest in the project.

Rollin’s three zombie movies are probably the three most interesting zombie movies ever made. They’re not exactly conventional zombie movies and most crucially they’re zombie movies with an emotional element. We cannot see any of Rollin’s zombies as mere shambling flesh-eating monsters. We’re never allowed to forget that these were perfectly normal human beings with perfectly normal human hopes and fears and feelings. And Rollin’s zombies always retain a degree of humanity. His zombies suffer.

The Grapes of Death has a typical opening for a Rollin zombie movie. In a wine-growing district of France the vines are being sprayed with pesticide. It’s an experimental pesticide and it turns out to have disastrous effects. I don’t think Rollin was especially interested in giving us an environmentalist message. What he did like to do in his zombie films was to give us a totally rational plausible explanation for his zombies. In The Living Dead Girl it’s a chemical spill. For a man who made so many vampire movies Rollin had surprisingly little interest in the supernatural. In fact in The Nude Vampire he gives us a vampire movie with no supernatural elements at all, and most of his vampire films pretty much ignore the supernatural aspects of vampirism. They also ignore the religious and moral ramifications of vampirism. Rollin had other fish to fry.

Rollin’s zombie movies also had a genuinely tragic feel. His zombies are the result of human mistakes.

Élisabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) and her friend Brigitte (Evelyne Thomas) have left Paris by train. Brigitte is heading for Spain while Élisabeth is heading for the tiny village of Roubles in wine-making country. The train journey becomes a journey of horror. The shaken Élisabeth makes it to Roubles where she finds that everyone is suffering from some kind of disfiguring disease which turns them into mindless killers. But not entirely mindless. You don’t get many zombie movies in which a zombie brutally kills someone and then starts sobbing from the horror and shame of what he’s done.

Élisabeth asks for help from a man and his daughter only to find more horror. And a suicidal zombie.

Élisabeth does encounter one person who seems normal, a blind girl named Lucie (Mirella Rancelot). They take refuge in an abandoned house.

More horrors follow before Élisabeth meets a rather odd very attractive blonde woman (Brigitte Lahaie) who seems a bit evasive when questioned. The woman’s story sounds a bit strange but she offers to help Élisabeth escape from the village.

Two men show up, oddly unaffected by the madness.They’re armed and they’re out to kill zombies. They may represent salvation, but in this movie you can’t be entirely sure of anything.

The performances are generally good. Rollin always got effectively odd and mysterious performances from actresses. The standout performance comes from Brigitte Lahaie, largely because the woman she plays is a very Jean Rollin character. We just don’t know what’s going on with this woman and Lahaie conveys her enigmatic nature perfectly.

This movie, like The Living Dead Girl a few years later, sees Rollin moving into more overtly commercial territory. He’d figured out that audiences wanted zombies and they wanted gore. The Grapes of Death offers both and it is a full-blown horror movie. But it’s still a Rollin movie, with touches of characteristic Rollin atmosphere and at least a few hints of Rollin surrealism.

While superficially it seems like a straightforward zombie flick there are two things that make it very unconventional. Firstly, we’re not sure whether we really should be sympathising with the two vigilantes who are slaughtering every zombie they come across. Élisabeth voices the suggestion that maybe these are just sick people who could be cured. There is also of course the possibility that the homicidal madness is merely temporary. And these zombies still have self-awareness. They know that they are in the grip of homicidal madness and they’re tortured by guilt and remorse. The madness forces them to kill, but they don’t want to.

The second unconventional touch is the very Rollinesque enigmatic ending.

Rollin seems to have had a more generous than usual budget to work with. The makeup and the special effects are quite impressive. Technically this film compares favourably to any of the other zombie movies of its era.

The UK Black House Blu-Ray is barebones but the transfer is nice.

For my tastes this movie is not quite as interesting as Night of the Hunted and The Living Dead Girl. Those two movies packed an immense emotional punch. The Grapes of Death does have an emotional impact but it’s more diffuse, less personal. This is still vastly more interesting than most zombie movies. The Grapes of Death is not quite top-tier Rollin but it’s still very much worth seeing. For horror fans who haven’t sampled Rollin’s work this movie and The Living Dead Girl are the best place to start. They have other things going for them but they also work as straight-out gore-drenched horror films. Recommended.

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Caravan to Vaccarès (1974)

Caravan to Vaccarès is a 1974 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s extremely good 1970 novel of the same name. There are a few changes compared to the novel, with the protagonist becoming an American for starters.

This is one of no less than three MacLean adaptations directed by Geoffrey Reeve, including the very underrated Puppet on a Chain (1971).

Bowman (David Birney) is in the Camargue in southern France to do a job. He has no idea what the job entails but the money sounds good. He picks up a pretty blonde hitchhiker. She’s a photographer and she’s in the Camargue for the annual gypsy festival, which is a very big deal. Her name is Lila (and she’s played by Charlotte Rampling).

Bowman and Lila stop to offer help after what seems a minot car accident (but we the audience know it was no accident). Lila naturally starts taking pictures because that’s what she does. Someone else has stopped at the scene of the accident and he tries to grab Lila’s camera. He’s a pretty formidable-looking hoodlum and he’s carrying a gun but Bowman turns out to be a guy who can deal with hoods with guns who menace pretty blondes.

Lila has no place to stay so Bowman suggests she stay at his hotel. It’s no problem for Bowman because the fabulously rich Duc de Croyter is picking up the tab. But it turns out it could be a problem when de Croyter denies having any knowledge of anyone called Bowman. By now we’re starting to suspect that nothing is quite what it appears to be.

Bowman and Lila find themselves in the middle of a very complex and dangerous situation. Bowman is supposed to smuggle a mysterious Hungarian out of the country. Someone tries to kill Bowman. A gypsy is killed. More corpses start to accumulate.

Bowman is not happy. He thinks he’s working for people who are playing a very dangerous game but he also thinks that they don’t know what they’re doing. He’s not at all convinced that he’s been told the truth about the job for which he’s been hired.

He’d like to know more about this mysterious Hungarian (all he knows is that the guy’s name is Zuger) and he’d like to know a lot more about de Croyter’s motivations.

Lila doesn’t care much about Hungarians but she’s involved whether she likes it or not.

Lots of action and bloodletting will follow.

Zuger is a scientist who’s come up with something that everybody wants. It’s a classic McGuffin and since the secret is inside the Hungarian’s head then he himself is the McGuffin. Alistair MacLean was famous for focusing very much on the action and the plotting without getting distracted by sex and romance. The movie also sticks to that formula. There’s no sexual or romantic tension between Bowman and Lila. This is perhaps a weakness given that Lila is played by Charlotte Rampling who could certainly provide sexual heat when needed.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen David Birney before but he makes a good wry sceptical reluctant MacLean hero. He’s likeable and he handles the action scenes well. Rampling is very good but her character is underwritten. Michel Lonsdale is excellent as the ambiguous de Croyter and there are some very sinister villains and heavies.

Geoffrey Reeve only directed a handful of films but he does a very fine job here. The action scenes are skilfully directed, clever and imaginative. He makes excellent use of the unusual setting.

There’s plenty of bloodshed but none of is graphic and there’s zero nudity and sex (despite what the poster would lead you to believe).

Scorpion Releasing have put this movie out on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The transfer is excellent. The only extra is an interview with David Birney who has very fond memories of the making of the movie.

Caravan to Vaccarès is a hugely enjoyable well-crafted thriller that doesn’t get much recognition. Highly recommended.

Reeve’s Puppet on a Chain also is well worth seeing and also features great action sequences (including the best movie boat chase ever).

Saturday, 19 November 2022

A Thousand Pleasures (1968)

I think most people would agree that when it comes to sexploitation roughies Michael and Roberta Findlay’s films pushed the edge of the envelope as far as it would go. Nobody made movies more scuzzy and disreputable and depraved than the Findlays but their movies are fascinating and hypnotic. They were true low-budget auteurs and visionaries. A Thousand Pleasures, made in 1968, was one of their last collaborations.

Richard Davis (Michael Findlay) is growing tired of his shrewish wife making his life a misery. One day he decides he can’t take it any more and he grabs a carving knife and kills her.

Now he has to dispose of the body. It’s in the back of his station wagon. He stops to give two girl hitchhikers a lift. Probably not a great idea when you have a dead body in the car. One of the two girls seems very friendly. She unzips his fly and shows him just how friendly she can be. Davis doesn’t know it but his nightmare is about to begin. The car gets bogged but the girls tell him he can go to their house to make a phone call.

He realises it’s a rather strange household when he meets Baby. Baby is in her crib sucking her thumb and making baby noises. Nothing unusual about that, except that Baby is a gorgeous young woman in her early twenties. And she’s not wearing any clothes.

The two hitchhikers are Maggie and Jackie (played by sexploitation legends Uta Erickson and Linda Boyce). They’re lesbians, but they insist that they’re Real Lesbians. They take lesbianism very seriously indeed. They seem to have plans to breed a race of amazon warriors. They want Davis to impregnate them both so they can have daughters of their own to raise in the true lesbian faith. They don’t intend to allow Davis to have sex with them, they just intend to get hold of some of his sperm.

There are several other members of the household. There’s Belle, who seems to regard baby as her child. Belle is obviously quite mad, possibly because she’s not regarded as being serious enough about being a lesbian. There’s also a very buxom lass (whom Davis christens Booberella) who doesn’t seem to take her lesbianism seriously at all. And there’s the one male member of the household, Bruno (John Amero), who acts as a kind of manservant/bodyguard.

It doesn’t take long for Davis to decide he needs to get out of this crazy house, and Booberella seems inclined to help him. But Maggie and Jackie aren’t going to let him go until he has helped them to create their new race of super-lesbians.

Along the way there is a great deal of weirdness. Real full-blown Findlay weirdness. We learn a few things as well. Don’t assume that a woman is unarmed just because she’s naked. Boobs can be deadly weapons.

There’s an extraordinary amount of frontal nudity. Sexploitation movies in 1968 were a lot raunchier than they’d been a couple of years earlier. There’s also plenty of kinkiness, including the standard kinks (such as whipping) and kinks you’ve probably never even imagined. I won’t tell you any details - part of the fun of a Michael and Roberta Findlay movie is not knowing what weirdness they’ll throw at you next.

It’s completely pointless to worry about questions like misogyny in a movie like this. All the characters, male and female, are crazy and evil. And the Findlays are being deliberately outrageous and provocative. If the movie makes you uncomfortable, well that’s exactly what they were hoping to achieve.

So why do the scuzzy movies of the Findlays matter? They matter for the same reason that any unconventional movies (which can include everything from art-house movies to sexploitation to all sorts of weird and wonderful low-budget oddities) matter. They matter because they break the rules. They don’t give a damn about narrative cohesion or realism or conventional characterisation. Most movies (including almost all mainstream Hollywood movies) are stiflingly conventional. Mainstream movies are wedded to the tedious idea that movies should be realistic.

The really interesting movies are the ones that toss conventional ideas about realism out the window. Whether they’re art movies like Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour or bizarre eurocult movies like the movies of Jean Rollin or delirious low-budget schlock like Russ Meyer’s movies they’re movies that take place in a kind of alternate universe or dreamworld in which the rules are different. In Meyer’s movies the rules of everyday logic are replaced by cartoon logic. In Rollin’s films and Buñuel’s the rules of reality are displaced by the rules of surrealism.

And the films of the Findlays fall into this category. Nobody is expected for one moment to consider these films as having any connection to the real world. They take place in Findlay World, a crazy fever dream world that has its own internal consistency. Findlay movies like Take Me Naked, A Thousand Pleasures and the Flesh trilogy take place in what is recognisably the same alternate universe. It’s a universe of twisted thwarted frustrated sexual desire which inevitably leads to bizarre acts of violence. It might not be a pleasant world but it’s a world which exists in the darker corners of the human psyche. And the world of the mind, of the unconscious, is a lot more interesting than the everyday world and it tells us more about ourselves, even if it sometimes it tells us things we’d rather not know.

This movie was released by Image Entertainment as a Something Weird double-header DVD, paired with the early Findlay movie Take Me Naked (1966). The transfer is extremely good (like most roughies the film was shot in 1.37:1 and in black-and-white).

If you’re a fan of the Findlay’s Flesh trilogy you’ll love this one. It’s a movie for seasoned roughie fans but if you fall into that category then it’s very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Sukkubus (1989)

Georg Tressler’s Sukkubus (1989) is supposedly inspired by a genuine legend from the Alpine regions of Europe, concerning three herdsmen who invoke the powers of evil and find out there’s a price to pay.

The herdsmen live in an isolated hut. There are two men, Senn (Peter Simonischek) and Hirt (Giovanni Früh), and a boy, Handrbub (Andy Voss).

The big problem is that there are no women. No women anywhere for miles. They haven’t seen a woman for a long long time. And it gets lonesome up there in the Alps without female company. Hirt is so frustrated he’s starting to look at the boy with perhaps a bit too much interest.

Hirt gets the idea of making a doll. A woman doll. He gets the idea when the boy finds a tree root that reminds the herdsmen of a woman’s face. Of course after so long up in the mountains by now just about everything makes them think of women. Hirt obviously has it in mind to make a kind of crude sex doll.

Senn and Hirt get drunk, Hirt makes the doll, they baptise the doll with schnapps. The doll is just a few blankets and some straw and that tree root but that doesn’t stop Hirt from having sex with it.

The herdsmen then discover that the doll has become a woman and she’s alive. She’s obviously some kind of demon. She might not have been a very friendly demon anyway but having just been raped she’s a tad annoyed.

The herdsmen are still not quite sure if she’s real. They’ve all seen her, but she seems to kind of disappear and reappear.

Being ignorant peasants they naturally assume she’s evil and demonic (and of course they might be right). They get a bright idea. A way of destroying her. They’ll tie her up, cover her with a cow skin and let the bull rape her. That should surely be the end of her.

It just makes her really really angry. Now they have a beautiful naked female demon shadowing them everywhere they go and she seems intent on revenge. Her ideas on revenge are rather extreme.

This is an odd sort of movie. It has some slight arty tendencies combined with lots of exploitation elements and some genuine reasonably shocking outright horror content. Pamela Prati, who plays the succubus (which is what we assume the doll-come-to-life is), spends all of her screen time naked. There is a lot of frontal nudity. But those arty tendencies are there.

When Peter Simonischek (a very serious actor) signed to do the movie he assumed it was going to be a pure art film shot in black-and-white. Sort of like a Bergman film. He quickly discovered that it was going to be in colour and it was definitely not going to be anything like a Bergman movie.

The performances from the three male actors are intense and fairly effective. They certainly convey the sense of mounting horror and superstitious fear. Pamela Prati isn’t called on to do anything other than to get naked and look like a beautiful but evil demon-woman but she does this quite successfully.

This is a film with a claustrophobic atmosphere of sexual frustration, ignorance and superstition. The story unfolds in a leisurely manner but the horror builds inexorably.

And at the end the viewer is left wondering just what has really taken place. Did these men really create a female demon? Or had they simply gone stir-crazy? And if this was no more than just the product of overheated imaginations that would leave certain things requiring explanation.

Mondo Macabro’s Blu-Ray release offers a lovely 16:9 enhanced transfer and that’s important because the location shooting in this movie really is stunning. The only extra is a reasonably lengthy interview with Peter Simonischek.

This is a more complex movie than it appears to be, and a more interesting one. A weird kind of erotic horror movie that is not quite like any other such movie.

It all comes together rather effectively. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 12 November 2022

Striptease (1996)

I firmly believe that it’s futile and foolish to try to review a movie unless you approach it with an open mind. Even if it has a poor reputation, even if it got savaged by the critics, even if it’s regarded as a so-bad-it’s-good movie or a camp classic, even if it attracts lots sneers from online reviewers, it should still be approached with an open mind. Which is what I’m going to try to do with the somewhat notorious 1996 Striptease starring Demi Moore.

Striptease suffered a similar fate to Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, made the previous year. Both were movies about strippers (Nomi in Showgirls ends up a showgirl but starts out as a stripper). In both cases the critics were gunning for these movies before even seeing them. Once a few bad reviews appeared the rest of the critics, as always, fell into line and were ready with the snark.

Demi Moore plays Erin Grant. She’s working as a stripper (in the Eager Beaver Club) to accumulate enough money to fight a custody battle with her ex-husband.

Erin works in a strip club but this is Hollywood so it’s a strip club where the girls don’t take all their clothes off.

There’s some trouble at the club and the trouble involves Congressman David Dilbeck (Burt Reynolds). Then a dead body shows up miles away. The victim seems to be linked in some way to Congressman Dilbeck and to the the Eager Beaver Club. That brings Homicide Lieutenant Al Garcia (Armand Assante) to the club and he’s anxious to talk to Erin. He thinks she saw something important.

Erin’s life turns into a nightmare as the custody battle with her husband gets nastier and she gets drawn into the shady world of Congressman Dilbeck. The congressman has become infatuated with her and when Dilbeck wants to sleep with a woman he expects to get what he wants.

This is several different movies at the same time. It’s obvious that Burt Reynolds and Demi Moore were not making the same movie.

There’s a political satire which is occasionally amusing although Reynolds perhaps pushes his performance just a bit too far. There’s also an erotic thriller movie. Which was probably intended to be semi-comedic lighthearted fun.

The problem with Striptease as an erotic thriller is that it’s one of the least erotic movies ever made. It’s certainly the most un-erotic move ever made about a stripper. And this was the unrated version I saw. If the unrated version is this tame and this sexless how tame must the U.S. theatrical release have been? The mind boggles.

It does seem clear that either Bergman or someone else involved in the production side had decided that this was going to be a totally sexless movie. None of the striptease routines are sexy. Erin’s routine would scarcely have raised eyebrows at a meeting of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the local Baptist Church. We do got plenty of bare breasts but this movie manages the extraordinarily difficult trick of making boobs totally unexciting. We get a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Demi Moore’s bottom. That’s it.

It’s possible that Bergman waned Erin to be a sympathetic character and had decided that sexy women are Bad Women so she had to be unsexy.

But that is out of sync with the oddest thing about this movie, which is that it takes an amazingly sympathetic view of strippers. All of the strippers are really nice girls and they’re all cheerful and well-adjusted. The manager of the Eager Beaver treats them with affectionate indulgence. This positive view of stripping is refreshing (and incredibly surprising in a Hollywood movie). So why does the movie make stripping so un-erotic? Perhaps Andrew Bergman is just a director with no idea how to handle erotic subject matter. This movie did pretty much end his career as a director, which doesn’t surprise me.

The strip routines would hardly raise an eyebrow at a meeting of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the local Baptist Church. And this is the unrated version I’m watching. If the unrated version is this tame how tame was the theatrical release? The mind boggles.

Striptease is also a movie that tries too hard to be tasteful. It’s trying too hard to be wholesome. Verhoeven in Showgirls wasn’t afraid to be vulgar. Bergman seems to be terrified of showing even a hint of vulgarity.

Another weakness is the lack of any romance angle. Lieutenant Garcia and Erin become quite friendly but he makes it clear that he’s happily married and that he isn’t going to make a pass at her and she obviously has no romantic interest in him. The trouble is that the movie needed a romance angle to make Erin more interesting and to give us some reason to feel sympathetic towards her. It was needed in order to make her a living breathing human being with human emotions. But it isn’t there and it’s part of the reason Erin is such an uninteresting character. Maybe Bergman thought that mothers shouldn’t have emotional lives. Weird.

The movie does have a few strengths. Ving Rhames is fun as the Eager Beaver’s bouncer, Shad. He’s the most interesting and colourful character in the movie. Shad isn’t very honest but he is fiercely protective of the girls at the Eager Beaver and Rhames gets this across without making him too much of a Boy Scout.

’s biggest problem is Demi Moore. She was horribly and disastrously miscast. She isn’t funny and she isn’t sexy. She plays things absolutely straight which is really jarring when she’s playing scenes with actors (like Reynolds). And she delivers the least sexy performance in the history of motion pictures. Maybe writer-director Andrew Bergman told her to give the least sexy performance she could or maybe Demi Moore just doesn’t know how to convey eroticism. Judging by this movie she doesn’t know how to convey any human emotions either. With the right actress Striptease might have worked. Erin is the centre of the movie. She has to grab our attention. We have to relate to her and we have to care about her and we have to be interested in her. The movie needed an actress with energy and charisma and with an engaging personality, an actress who wasn’t afraid to be sexy. It needed an actress who could make Erin believable and interesting and fun. Demi Moore gives the impression she just turned up to collect her $12 million dollar pay cheque.

Striptease did have potential. The idea was by no means terrible. But Demi Moore’s performance sinks it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Killer Barbys (1996)

Jess Franco kept making movies right up to the end of his life but in the 21st century his movies tended to be absolutely zero-budget and often shot on video, and more and more experimental. In 1996 however Franco was still making proper feature films. Killer Barbys (AKA Vampire Killer Barbys) is a real feature film (albeit shot on Super 16 film rather than 35mm).

Whether you enjoy this movie or not depends a lot on how you feel about the music. This is a horror movie but it’s also a punk rock movie with the soundtrack largely supplied by punk bands like the Killer Barbies. There’s a lot of punk music in this movie. If you hate that style of music you might have problems with the movie.

It’s worth pointing out that the band is called the Killer Barbies but the spelling of the title of the movie was changed to Killer Barbys to avoid problems with Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls. The company apparently didn’t have an objection to the spelling of the band’s name (throughout the movie they’re the Killer Barbies and that’s the name on their tour bus) but they might have balked at the spelling when it came to the movie.

The Killer Barbies don’t just provide the background music. They are central characters in the film. The lineup of the band in the movie is however not the actual band lineup. The two founding members of the band, Silvia Superstar and Billy King, appear in the movie but other band members are played by actors. This is understandable. The band members such as Mario (Charlie S. Chaplin) play very roles in the plot and have to actual acting.

The movie opens with the kind of scene that you get in countless Franco movies. Franco loved nightclub scenes, they tend to be very important thematically in his movies as well as contributing essential mood and I don’t think any other director has ever done so many superb and atmospheric nightclub scenes. The difference here is that it’s not a jazz club but a punk rock club. But this is Jess Franco and he could make any nightclub scene effective.

The band that is performing is of course the Killer Barbies and after the gig they hit the road. Unfortunately their van breaks down but they get what seems to be a lucky break - a rather distinguished-looking old gentleman tells them that the castle of Countess Fledermaus is nearby and the countess would be happy to give them shelter for the night. They can get their van repaired in the morning. This is of course a classic horror movie setup and while this movie is many other things as well it’s clear that Franco intended it be a classic gothic horror movie.

He lays on the gothic atmosphere good and think and it works. The Killer Barbies have left the modern urban world of punk clubs and now they’re in gothic horror movie world. They’re very much fish out of water.

Three of the band members (including Flavia which is the name given to the character played by Silvia Superstar in the movie) enthusiastically take up the offer of accommodation for the night. The other two band members, Billy and Sharon (Los Angeles Barea) are too busy having sex in the back of the van even to notice that the van is no longer moving.

We know that bad things are going to happen because we’ve seen the countess. She looks like she’s more than a hundred years old, because she is more than a hundred years old. She looks like a corpse that is somehow still breathing. But her faithful servant Arkan (Aldo Sambrell) who is clearly in love with her isn’t worried. Thanks to the arrival of the band they now have an ample supply of fresh blood. The countess (who was a famous singer many many years earlier) can be restored to her youthful beauty. So this is a vampire movie of sorts. And the countess will indeed have her beauty restored.

The question of course is whether any of the Killer Barbies are going to get out of this alive.

Franco was not keen on gore but there is a fair bit of it in this movie. There is some nudity and sex but not as much as you might expect in a Franco film.

The plot is not wildly original but what matters in a Franco movie is what he does with it. And in this case he’s made an odd and interesting movie in which the clash between the world of the present and the world of the past is a major focus. There is of course also a clash between the living and the dead, or rather the undead. The extreme youth of the band members (Flavia claims to be nineteen) is therefore an appropriate touch.

There’s a very creepy retainer named Baltasar at the castle. He has two midgets whom he thinks of as his boys). They seem to be cannibals. They’re certainly quite insane. Arkan is insane as well but in a very different way. His insanity is his obsession with the countess (who has been driven both mad and evil by the loss of her youthful beauty). He combines insanity with dignity and devotion.

Everything takes place at night and if you go for shadows and fog you’ll be in bliss. As usual Franco has found some fine locations.

This movie is clearly inspired more by the the real-life Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory than by vampires. Báthory is alleged to have had hundreds of virgin girls killed so she could bathe in their blood and she was the subject of Hammer’s 1971 Countess Dracula as well as one of the segments of Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1973). The countess is Killer Barbys is played by Mariangela Giordano, a fine actress who really puts her all into her performance. She was 59 years old at that time and she spends a good deal of her screen time naked (and looks remarkably good). She was an interesting casting choice, emphasising theme of the battle between age and youth and the countess’s determination not to let go of youth, and not to let go of her sexuality. She really is the standout performer in this movie.

Aldo Sambrell gives a surprisingly nuanced performance in a movie not noted for its nuance. Of the younger cast members Silvia Superstar is the most convincing and has definite screen presence and energy.

If you are not very familiar with Franco’s work (or totally unfamiliar with it) do not under any circumstances see this movie until you’ve seen at least a couple of dozen of his other movies. This film will give you a totally distorted and misleading impression of Franco as a film-maker. For one thing this is Franco in a jokey mood. He made plenty of very serious movies but this is not one of them. In Killer Barbys he’s spoofing gore movies and slasher movies. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. This was also an attempt to re-establish his commercial credentials. It includes plenty of elements that should have worked commercially - the slasher film references, various pop culture references, the gore effects that are clearly intended to be amusing rather than shocking. And of course punk rock. It’s a kind of goofy punk comic-book take on the slasher genre.

A lot of Franco fans hate this movie and it certainly doesn’t compare to his great movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s. But if you accept that Franco really was intending this movie as a good-natured joke then it’s kind of fun. Worth a look for experienced Franco fans.

Redemption’s DVD offers a good transfer with an audio commentary by Troy Howarth.