Saturday 28 April 2007

T-Bird Gang (1959)

I was hoping that T-Bird Gang, dating from 1959, would be a classic juvenile delinquent movie. In fact the protagonists are just a little too old to truly qualify as juvenile delinquents (although juvenile delinquency certainly does get a mention). It’s the story of a kid, a year or so out of high school, whose dad gets killed in a robbery. He vows revenge on the gang who were responsible, and is persuaded by the police to go undercover, posing as a young hood who wants to join the gang. The gang isn’t a teen gang though (much to my disappointment), it’s a criminal gang run by a smooth-talking and sinister character called Alex. The gang consists of an assortment of 1950s young hoodlum stereotypes. There’s also Marla, the obligatory blonde sex-bomb girlfriend of Alex. And there’s at least a hint of a homoerotic sub-text (quite likely an unconscious one) in the hero-worship of Alex’s right-hand man Ray for his leader. The best thing about this one is the fantastic jazz soundtrack – it’s very bebop-influenced, and was obviously intended to show how crazy modern music has contributed to the undermining of decent family values. But it’s a soundtrack that works superbly. John Brinkley makes a reasonably effective hero – he has the Jimmy Dean rebel aesthetic thing going, even though we find out he’s really a decent all-American kid. Ed Nelson is fun as Alex. It’s a fast-paced and highly entertaining movie with plenty of camp value, and even though it’s perhaps only marginally a juvenile delinquent flick it will appeal to fans of that sub-genre, and to fans of 50s paranoia movies in general. And it has great cars and great clothes! I loved it.

They Came from Beyond Space (1967)

A major British rival to Hammer Films in the field of horror and science fiction movies back in the 1960s was a company called Amicus. They Came from Beyond Space is a 1967 Amicus production, and it’s in the ever-popular “alien invaders enslaving the population of Earth by mind control” sub-genre. For a fairly low-budget movie it has some reasonably cool gadgetry and sets, and some really embarrassing gadgetry and sets as well. The silver colander worn on the head to foil the alien mind control is especially cringeworthy. This is a fairly routine but moderately entertaining film, more for its 1960s period charm and amusement value than anything else. If you can pick it up for a couple of bucks, as I did, and you have a taste for 60s science fiction, it’s worth a look.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, made in 1976, is a science fiction movie quite unlike any other. It’s really a film about being an outsider, being unable to connect with others, and being completely alienated from society. It’s about an alien who comes to Earth with hopes of being able to do something to help his own drought-stricken planet, who makes a lot of money using his knowledge of alien technology, and then loses his way. David Bowie’s performance as the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, is extraordinary, unsettling and vulnerable. Candy Clark is exceptional as Marylou, a waitress with whom he forms an intense but bizarre relationship. The cinematography (although it’s a British film it was shot in New Mexico) is stunning. The most outstanding thing about the movie is the editing – very jumpy, constantly cross-cutting not only between different places but also different times. You don’t expect a straightforward linear narrative in a Nic Roeg film, and you don’t get one here. The sex scene between Newton and Marylou with the gun is one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen in a movie. The Region 4 DVD version is the uncut one. I’m told that the earlier US release was so badly cut that the movie became incomprehensible.

The Loved One (1965)

The Loved One, directed by Tony Richardson, 1965.

This film is based on Evelyn Waugh’s screamingly funny novel about the American way of death. The screenplay was by Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern. It’s a savage satire on both Hollywood and the California funeral industry. There’s a cast of truly bizarre characters, including the head embalmer at the upmarket Whispering Glades, Mr Joyboy (whoever could have predicted that Rod Steiger could be so funny), Mr Joyboy’s grotesque mother, a young Englishman who works at the Happier Hunting Ground Pet Cemetery, a crazed general, and a young female mortician with whom the young Englishman falls in love. There are cameos from a bizarre assortment of performers ranging from Liberace to Sir John Gielgud. It was promoted as “the motion picture with something to offend everybody”. It is in stupendously bad taste, it’s deliciously and wickedly funny, and I loved every minute of it.

Friday 27 April 2007

Shock (1946)

Shock, made in 1946 and directed by Alfred L. Werker, is one of those B-movies that turns out to be a lot better than you expected. In fact it’s a highly entertaining little movie. I guess you could describe it as a film noir with a tinge of horror. A young woman witnesses a man killing his wife. She goes into shock, and a psychiatrist is sent for. The psychiatrist turns out to be the man she saw murdering his wife! This is not a spoiler – this all happens in the first few minutes. The psychiatrist then has to find a way to make sure the woman can’t give evidence against him.

Vincent Price plays the psychiatrist, and it’s an excellent Price performance, somewhat larger-than-life and flamboyant but definitely not hammy. He manages to be very sinister and rather charming. The rest of the cast are adequate. The cinematography is very film noir, with classic film noir lighting. There’s a scene during a thunderstorm where you only see what’s happening when the lightning flashes that is particularly well done. The plot is melodramatic but it works surprisingly well. You can pick this one up here in Australia for $5; I’m not sure how available it is elsewhere. It’s a rather well made and very effective little movie and it’s well worth checking out.

Thursday 26 April 2007

Demon Seed (1977)

Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed, the plot of which concerns a woman who is raped by a computer, is a movie that provokes sharply polarised opinions. Many SF fans seem to dislike it because the special effects seem dated (the movie was made in 1977). I think it’s fair to say that if you’re one of those SF fans who thinks George Lucas saved the science fiction movie by giving us Star Wars then you’ll probably judge this movie by the special effects and you’ll hate it. If, like me, you think Star Wars was the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction then you might Demon Seed more of a chance. Another frequent criticism of the movie is that it is exploitative of women because of the scenes in which Susan (Julie Christie) is tied to a bed while the computer first examines her body, and later impregnates her. Quite frankly, considering the violence which is routinely inflicted on women in modern movies and the voyeuristic and sadistic manner in which this violence is generally portrayed, I find this criticism laughable. In fact I think Demon Seed handles these scenes in a reasonably restrained way – it goes far enough to show us Christie’s terror but without being unnecessarily explicit.

The computer in question is Proteus IV (with voice provided by Robert Vaughn), a kind of electronic-organic hybrid and supposedly the first true artificial intelligence. Proteus was designed to be humanity’s slave but quickly comes to the conclusion that humanity doesn’t have enough sense to be trusted with its own destiny. In that respect it’s very much like Colossus: The Forbin Project, although Demon Seed is the lesser film. In both cases the computer doesn’t exactly go mad, it merely decides that its own judgments are more correct than those of its human masters. So the computer isn’t simply evil – in some ways it’s more moral than we are, even though it now threatens to control us. Colossus: The Forbin Project handles these issues in a far more interesting way. Demon Seed concentrates on the interactions between Julie Christie and the computer. These are handled fairly well – Christie gives a fine performance, striking a nice balance between fear and a steely determination to survive. Her husband, the man who designed Proteus (Fritz Weaver) is unfortunately a two-dimensional character. Susan is the only human character with any depth, but she’s the only human character who matters so that’s not too much of a problem. A very real problem, though, is Proteus’s motivation in wanting a child born of a human mother. He talks about wanting immortality but it really sounds more like a human rationalisation than something a super-computer would want. Overall it’s a reasonably entertaining movie, and it’s a reasonable blending of SF and horror, although probably more successful as horror. There are moments that are very creepy. As science fiction it has some good ideas and some rather less convincing ideas. Worth seeing.

The Vampire Bat (1933)

The Vampire Bat is one of those movies that you really need to be in the right mood for. If you’re feeling reasonably tolerant, it’s an OK way to fill in an hour or so. Made in 1933, it’s an obvious attempt to jump on the Dracula bandwagon. It has mysterious deaths in a German village, a mentally disturbed young man with an obsession with bats, and a mad scientist (so it’s really trying to jump on the Frankenstein bandwagon as well). The mad scientist seems to have diabolical mind control powers, which is always fun. It has a surprisingly strong cast – Melvyn Diouglas, Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye (as a sort of Son of Renfield) and Fay Wray (who really isn’t given enough to do). It’s biggest problem is that it just doesn’t have much energy to it. It also lacks (despite the capable cast) a strong charismatic figure for the audience to focus on.

Wednesday 25 April 2007

Performance (1970)

Performance, recently released on Region 2 DVD, is one of those rare movies that is very much of its time (1970) and yet isn’t dated at all. Its impact has not been diminished in the least by the passing of the years. It’s a movie about identity and performance, gender and sexuality. Chas (James Fox) is a South London gangster, a vicious hoodlum, who finds himself on the run. He goes to ground in a house inhabited by a former rock star (played Mick Jagger) and his two girlfriends. One of the girlfriends is played by Anita Pallenberg, the real-life girlfriend of Rolling Stones Mick Jones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard (yes, all three). Chas isn’t scared of the toughest criminals, but he’s hopelessly out of his depth with the Peace and Love Generation. He finds himself even more out of his depth after dinner, a delicious mushroom dish with some rather unusual mushrooms. This movie was inspired by the writings of people like Borges and Burroughs, and benefits from some stunning Technicolor photography by Nicolas Roeg (who was both cinematographer and co-director). Roeg creates some fantastic images, and this is a movie in which images are at least as important as plot or character. James Fox is superb as Chas. Jagger is surprisingly effective as Turner, the ex-rock star. He can’t really act, but he has the right presence and the right androgynous sexuality, and he works remarkably well with James Fox. Anita Pallenberg (who co-wrote the script) also does well – like Jagger she suits the feel of the movie perfectly. Despite its ambiguities Performance is not really a confusing film, although it’s certainly a film that demands that the viewer should make his or her own interpretations of situations and events. The influence of this film on the later movies of Nic Roeg is extremely obvious. This is a truly great movie, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962)

The Sadistic Baron von Klaus is an early Jess Franco film, from 1962. As such it’s relatively conventional in structure compared to his later films. The plot is one of the staples of gothic horror – the evil Baron von Klaus had been responsible for murdering and torturing a number of young women, so when bodies start piling up several generations later the descendants of the wicked baron are suspected of carrying on the family tradition. Franco takes this venerable plot and turns it into a classic of erotic horror. And by the standards of 1962, even 1962 European films, it is very erotic. It’s also very stylish. Filmed in black-and-white, it has the requisite gothic atmosphere, and it has some moments of great visual beauty, moments that are almost lyrical. It has an interesting jazz-influenced soundtrack, as you’d expect in a Franco film. It also has some features that were to become trademarks of the Italian giallo movie – even the black gloves! Franco doesn’t just make movies that combine elements of horror and sex, the way so many American film-makers have dome over the past few decades. The horror and the sex are inextricably linked, and he explores those links with an honesty than can be uncomfortable, but the results are considerably less sleazy and exploitative than the average American slasher film.

The Wasp Woman (1960)

Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman is a reasonably entertaining little 1959 sci-fi/horror B-movie. A mad scientist decides that if royal jelly from bees can help give you a youthful complexion, then royal jelly from wasps should do an even better job. In fact, it should reverse the ageing process completely! The idea certainly appeals to cosmetics tycoon Janice Starlin. She’s so impressed with the mad scientist that she volunteers to be the first human guinea pig. Needless to say, things go wrong.

This is a very low-budget flick, and it does show. There are very few sets, but that does create a nicely claustrophobic atmosphere. The main problem is the pacing – it’s just a bit too slow early on. The idea is good, though, and it’s developed pretty well. The acting is adequate for this type of movie, and Susan Cabot is rather good as Janice Starlin. It’s an undemanding little movie, and it’s a cut above the usual run of late 50s monster movies destined for the drive-in circuit. I liked it.

The Dark Eyes of London (1940)

While the 1940s wasn’t a good decade for Bela Lugosi, and he found himself reduced to making B-movies for Poverty Row studios, some of his movies from that decade actually aren’t too bad. The Dark Eyes of London (also released as The Human Monster) was made in England, and it’s really a crime thriller with a seasoning of horror. Lugosi plays a kind of mad scientist; he’s actually a “brilliant but unstable” doctor who has been forbidden to practice medicine. He now makes a living from insurance scams, scams that involve murder. He also runs a charity for the blind, and he has the blind people helping him in his plots which adds a slightly odd touch that works quite well. The rest of the cast are a tad on the bland side, but Lugosi is in good form. There’s some nice atmosphere, with plenty of mysterious shadows and some fairly creepy and effective sets. Overall it’s surprisingly entertaining. Definitely recommended for Lugosi fans, and for fans of mystery and horror B-movies.

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

Walk on the Wild Side is the story of Dove Linkhorn, a poor Texas farm boy (played by Laurence Harvey, a truly bizarre piece of casting) who travels to New Orleans to find his One True Love again. On the way he encounters Kitty Twist, a thief and runaway (Jane Fonda in a very very early screen appearance). When he gets to New Orleans he finds that his One True Love (played by Capucine) is working in a brothel, Th Doll House, and his poor honest Texas heart is broken. But still he is determined to save her from her life of luxury and give her the life he just knows that she really wants, as the barefoot and pregnant wife of a poor dirt farmer in Dogpatch (or whatever the name of the dreadful little hick town he came from was). He’s even prepared to forgive her, as long as she gives up her wickedness and goes back to the Dust Bowel with him where she’ll be away from temptation. It goes without saying that that she isn’t working as a whore out of financial necessity but because she is sunk in wickedness and sin. He’s read his Bible and he knows this. There is an obstacle in his path however – the lesbian brothel owner who also loves her (played with scenery-chewing relish by Barbara Stanwyck). He finds an unlikely although not very reliable ally in Kitty Twist, who is now also working at the brothel.

The miscasting of Harvey dooms the film from the beginning, and Capucine’s acting (or non-acting) doesn’t help. Stanwyck and Fonda do their best to rescue something from the wreckage. Fonda is particularly good – selfish but likeable, immoral but essentially decent, and funny and entertaining. It’s probably worth seeing if you’re a fan of either Barbara Stanwyck or Jane Fonda. Otherwise it isn’t quite bad enough to make it as a camp classic, but it’s much too bad to make it as anything else and the moralising is tedious. On the plus side it looks good (although the costumes seem completely wrong for the 1930s) and the New Orleans atmosphere is good, and there’s some OK jazz on the soundtrack. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk, and based on a novel by Nelson Algren.

Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

When you’re watching Jesus Franco’s film Vampyros Lesbos you have to remember it was made in 1970, and the directing style (with lots of zooms) is very 70s. If you can get past that it’s an interesting movie. It was one of the first (if not the first) vampire movies to dispense with the gothic clichés – there are no mouldering castles, bats, wolves or coffins. In this respect you could say it blazed the trail for other 1970s vampire movies like Daughters of Darkness and Vampyres. In fact the vampire in Vampyros Lesbos likes to work on her tan with a spot of sun-bathing. It’s also almost completely free of Christian symbolism, and there is no attempt to put the vampire into a framework of Christian evil. She does bad things, certainly, but she is not portrayed as some kind of offence against God or a minion of Satan. Setting the movie in a non-Christian country (Turkey) was also an interesting choice. This movie contains a lot of nudity and sex, but I don’t think you call describe it as gratuitous – vampirism in this film is very a sexual obsession, it’s about sex and control. The title would lead you to expect lesbian vampires, and lesbian vampires is what you get. The plot involves a young German woman who becomes obsessed by a woman she’s seen performing in a night club. As part of her job she is sent to a house on an island to help to disentangle a complex will. When she arrives she finds that her client is the woman from the night club, the woman she has been having dreams about. The woman is in fact the Countess Nadine Carody, and she is a vampire.

The strangest feature of the film is perhaps the score, which can only be described as bizarre. But it was the 70s. And you kind of get used to it. And eventually you find that you really like it! There’s very little gore (I have no idea if the print on the DVD I have was cut or not), which means that the one moderately gory moment has a much greater impact. I particularly liked the lack of Christian trappings and Christian moralising. Considering that it was made in 1970 and that it is a horror/sexploitation flick, it’s actually surprisingly positive in the way women are depicted. Especially the heroine, Linda. I can’t say more on that issue without giving away plot spoilers. I can’t help suspecting that this movie was a major inspiration for The Hunger. It’s entertaining, it’s a very unconventional vampire movie indeed, and it’s fabulous.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Russ Meyer’s 1965 opus Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is another of those movies I’ve been meaning to see for a long time. It’s the story of three bad girls in fast cars. After one of them commits a murder they end up at a deserted farm inhabited by an appalling old man and his two sons. The girls are hoping to get their hands on the money they believe the old man has stashed away. General mayhem results.

I think one of the reasons this movie has stood the test of time is that for all its trashiness it’s extremely well-made trash. In a cheap exploitation movie you expect grainy washed-out photography and uninspired direction. In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! you get black-and-white cinematography that looks crisp and fabulous and imaginative and lively direction. The action sequences and the fight scenes have a real vitality to them. As for the acting – it may be bad, but it’s interesting bad. The dialogue, like that of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, comes from no specific sub-culture that ever existed but from an imaginary world of Russ Meyer’s. It’s a very funny movie and it’s camp to a degree that is truly awe-inspiring. It’s also remarkably stylish – Meyer had a very individual visual imagination. The camera angles and the editing are actually rather arty. The movie is very Pop Art. The Go! Pussycat! Go! featurette included on the DVD is a very worthwhile extra, and the DVD (the Region 4 one anyway) also includes two commentary tracks – one by Russ Meyer and one by the pussycats themselves. I loved this movie.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was Robert Aldrich’s 1964 follow-up to the extremely successful Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with Bette Davis teamed this time with Olivia de Havilland, Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotton, with Cecil Kellaway and Mary Astor in supporting roles. A whole movie full of ageing actors, and all of them delivering fine performances. Davis is again outstanding. The cinematography is wonderful – superb use of shadows, and some cool overhead shots, something Aldrich was fond of. While it’s a pity Joan Crawford had to drop out at the last minute this is in every way a worthy successor to Baby Jane. Fantastic entertainment and a beautifully crafted film. And it looks fabulous on DVD.

Svengali (1931)

Svengali, made in 1931, is not quite a horror movie although it obviously has quite a bit in common with horror movies. It was clearly very much influenced by the movies of the German Expressionist school such as Der Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with its wonderfully bizarre and disturbing set designs and off-kilter camera angles. This is a movie that doesn’t even pretend to realism. John Barrymore as Svengali gives a very stylised and totally over-the-top performance, but it’s also an extremely effective performance. Marian Marsh is good as Trilby, the young woman held by Svengali’s hypnotic powers. Svengali uses these powers to give her the ability to become a celebrated and successful singer, but also to gain her love. In fact he really only gains an acquiescent mistress.

The scene where Svengali first exercises his power to draw Trilby to him is superb, as the camera takes as over a surreal roofscape from Trilby’s room to his. It’s a movie that has little in common with modern movies (although it has perhaps some affinities to some of Tim Burton’s films, especially Sleepy Hollow), but I found it enthralling. It’s a pre-code movie and it has its racy moments.