Friday 18 May 2007

The Trip (1967)

The 1960s psychedelic acid-trip movie is something to be approached with considerable trepidation. The potential for truly embarrassing disaster is just so enormous. In fact Roger Corman’s 1967 entry in this sub-genre, The Trip, is not too bad. It has no plot whatsoever – it’s just an acid trip taken by a guy who directs TV commercials, played by Peter Fonda. It still manages to remain entertaining for an hour-and-a-half, and despite the customary Corman low budget it’s visually reasonably impressive. Peter Fonda is, well he’s Peter Fonda and of course he can’t act at all (Jane obviously got all the acting talent in that particular generation of Fondas), but it doesn’t really matter. Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper are both amusing in supporting roles. Although Corman couldn’t escape the necessity of having an anti-drugs scare intro to the film, the movie is actually very non-judgmental on the subject. He gets into a few scrapes, and has some bad moments, but he doesn’t turn into an axe-murderer or end up in a psych ward. I don’t think Roger Corman was capable of making a boring movie and he seemingly had the ability to come up with something interesting in just about any genre he attempted (and he attempted most of them). It’s a movie to watch purely for fun of course, and if you approach it that way it’s rather enjoyable.

The Return of Doctor X (1939)

A Humphrey Bogart horror movie is a rarity indeed. As far as I know he only made one, and The Return of Doctor X, made in 1939, is it. It’s a movie Bogart was anxious to forget. In fact, as long as you don’t expect it to be any more than a B-picture, it’s not as bad as it’s often made out to be. The movie opens with a reporter finding an actress dead in her hotel room, but she then turns up shortly afterwards at the newspaper office, very much alive. The reporter has a friend who is a doctor, who has been working with a Dr Flegg, whose specialty is blood. Dr Flegg has a very pale-faced assistant, Kane (Humphrey Bogart). The plot bears some resemblances to an earlier Warner Brothers horror film, The Walking Dead (which starred Boris Karloff). The Return of Doctor X has some good Mad Scientist moments, and there’s a hint of vampirism, albeit unconventional vampirism. As far as the look of the movie goes it has that great Warner Brothers seedy, gritty feel to it, which I always enjoy. Reporters in movies of this vintage are always annoying, but Wayne Morris’s reporter in this one is less annoying than some. Dennis Morgan as his doctor pal is OK. Rosemary Lane shares top billing but has very little to do. John Litel as Dr Flegg gives his character a certain warped nobility. And Bogart? His performance is very understated, but he is definitely creepy and that’s really all that is required of him. This movie is hardly a classic of the genre but if you enjoy the horror B-movies of this period you should find it moderately entertaining. And how often do you get to see Humphrey Bogart cuddling a cute little white rabbit?

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Just a Gigolo (1979)

Just a Gigolo starts as Paul, a very young Prussian officer (played by David Bowie), arrives at the front line just in time for the end of the First World War, and manages to get himself blown up in the last seconds of the war. After lying in a coma in a French hospital for a year or so he awakes and makes his way back to Berlin, only to find that nothing now makes any sense to him. He drifts into a number of dead-end jobs, meets up with his old commanding officer (played by David Hemmings) who is now an aspiring fascist leader with his own little gang of bully-boys. Well actually he only has one bully-boy, but he's hoping that more will join soon. Paul eventually finds himself recruited by a baroness (played by Marlene Dietrich) into her stable of gigolos.

This is a German movie, but was directed (with considerable panache) by David Hemmings. It looks rather wonderful. It's a kind of absurdist tragi-comedy. It seems that everyone except Paul has ideas of where his life should be going. The ending (which I won't spoil for you) is strangely appropriate in its utter absurdity. Bowie is superb, managing to give the character a certain baffled dignity. Hemmings is entertainingly over-the-top. Sydne Rome is a kind of vaguely Sally Bowles-ian cabaret singer, and is quite impressive especially in her musical numbers. Kim Novak goes close to stealing the picture as a general's widow determined to get Paul into bed. The scene where she attempts to seduce him are brilliantly weird and funny and disturbing and completely absurd. And Marlene Dietrich looks impressive, and songs the title song. The movie's mix of pathos and satire doesn't always work, but this is still a highly entertaining and thoughtful movie, and very stylish. Don't expect it to be another Cabaret, it's a totally different style of movie despite some obvious similarities. Well worth a look, if you can find it.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)

Mario Bava’s 1972 movie Lisa and the Devil is one of the most misunderstood of all horror movies. A lot of people dislike it because of the apparent absence of a plot. In fact the absence of a plot is deliberate. The film is nothing more than an extended meditation upon death. The atmosphere, the mood, the visuals, are the movie. Nothing else is required. And Mario Bava creates the atmosphere, the mood, and the visuals so perfectly, so exquisitely. This is a seriously gorgeous movie.

Telly Savalas gives the greatest performance of his career (stop laughing, I’m being serious) as the mysterious butler of a house in which a collection of people find themselves staying. He really is extremely good – both creepy and amusing, which is how the character is supposed to be. This is the only movie that Mario Bava was ever able to make exactly as he wanted to make it. It represents the vision he had of what horror movies could be. Sadly the producers butchered the movie after he’d completed it, but it’s now been restored to its original collection. You’ll either love this movie or you’ll loathe it.

The Bride with White Hair (1993)

The Bride with White Hair is not quite my first Hong Kong kung fu movie. The only other such films I’ve seen are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a rather excellent Japanese sci-fi/swordsplay movie called The Princess Blade. I don’t know how typical these films are of this genre, but if they are typical I could easily get hooked. The Bride with White Hair features some lyrically beautiful cinematography, magnificent sets, and lots of extreme and graphic violence. It combines all this with an insanely romantic and beautifully told love story. There are lots of swords, and there’s definitely some sorcery, so I think it probably qualifies as sword and sorcery! There’s also some rather good acting. Leslie Cheung is very good as a young man being groomed to take over leadership of an alliance of clans. He provides most of the film’s humour, and manages to be moody, romantic, dashing and surprisingly whimsical. Brigitte Lin, in the title role, gives a more restrained performance but she also manages to make her character believable, complex and charismatic. The plot involves a couple of malevolent sorcerous twins plotting to take over the province for their cult, a young swordsman (Leslie Cheung) who has to lead an army against them, and a mysterious wolf girl (Brigitte Lin) who belongs to the cult but falls in love with the young swordsman. The fight sequences are fairly impressive although I haven’t really got used to the flying-through-the-air thing they do in these movies. It’s the love story, though, that is the most impressive part of the movie. It’s skilfully plotted, well acted, imaginatively directed and very entertaining.

Tuesday 15 May 2007

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

Herschell Gordon Lewis’s main claim to fame is that he introduced gore into the horror movie. European directors were starting to show more graphic violence in their movies at around the same time, especially in the giallo films, but the horror movie that relies purely on gore seems to have been the invention of Lewis. Two Thousand Maniacs!, made in 1964, certainly has nothing else going for it. There’s no atmosphere, and there’s nothing remotely interesting about the visuals. There’s no suspense and no tension. There’s also no wit, and no sense of fun. There were plenty of bad horror movies made around this time that are enormous fun to watch. This isn’t one of them. The acting is execrable, and the pacing is ponderous. The film has some moment of sadistic violence, and it has gore. By 1964 standards, it’s very gory (and very crudely done).

It doesn’t even have any real horror – there’s no sense of weirdness or strangeness or cosmic wrongness, no sense of things happening that challenge our comfortable beliefs about the way the world works. The only real horror is the banjo music! The basic idea had some potential in that area – it’s the story of a town in Georgia that was destroyed by Union soldiers during the Civil War, a town that comes to life again every hundred years to exact revenge on northerners. The plot is in fact lifted from the musical Brigadoon! Unfortunately the execution is so leaden and so inept that the potential is never fulfilled. It’s a movie that is both tedious and nasty, but mostly it’s tedious. Amazingly tedious. Of mild historical interest only, as marking the beginning of the trend towards gore that would eventually ruin the horror genre.

1 out of 10

Monday 14 May 2007

Kwaidan (1964)

Lafcadio Hearn was an American who became a Japanese citizen. Among other things he collected Japanese ghost stories and weird tales. Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 movie Kwaidan is based on four of these stories. The stories themselves are excellent – they’re subtle horror that doesn’t rely on gore, but the horror is still very real. Kobayashi’s translation of these into film is masterful – this is a gloriously visual movie with some of the most arresting, most beautiful, and most disquieting images you’ll see in a movie. The music is also exceptionally well done and adds to the atmosphere of eeriness. The film is deliberately non-realistic with much of it shot on sound stages – Kobayashi is deliberately drawing attention to the film as story-telling. I can’t recommend this movie too highly.

Saturday 12 May 2007

Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

The success of Hammer’s horror movies in the late 50s and early 60s encouraged a number of other British companies to try their luck in the horror genre. Among Hammer’s competitors were Amicus and Tigon British Films. While their output varied widely in quality, the best of their movies were worthy competition for Hammer. Tigon’s best-known horror film was probably their 1971 production Blood on Satan’s Claw, and it’s a very good film indeed. In feel it’s much closer to Michael Reeves’ excellent 1968 Witchfinder General than to Hammer’s movies. It’s an attempt to explore in a serious way the subject of witchcraft, and the persecution of witchcraft, in late 17th century England. A young farmer unearths a strange skull. Subsequently, the young people of the village are drawn into the worship of the devil and a cult develops, a cult that soon becomes murderous. A judge with links to the village is eventually convinced that the reports he has heard of witchcraft have some substance to them and he determines the crush these dark practices regardless of the cost.

Patrick Wymark gives a powerful and finely nuanced performance as the judge. It’s a very restrained performance, and it suits the mood of the film. He’s chilling, and he’s chilling because he’s really a reasonable and essentially decent (and by nature somewhat sceptical) man who believes he has no choice but to act. Linda Hayden is quite good as Angel, the young girl who has assumed leadership of the followers of Satan. Michele Dotrice is excellent as a young witch who finds herself adopted by a family of farmers who believe they can save her from her evil ways. The movie benefits from some rather lyrical cinematography by Dick Bush. The movie portrays both the witches and the witch-hunters as people who are misguided and driven by forces they only dimly comprehend, driven to acts of violence and horror without any clear understanding of their own actions. It’s a clash between opposing belief systems, neither of which are very attractive. It makes its point without sensationalism, and it builds to an effective and satisfying conclusion. A very fine movie, made at a time when the British film industry was producing some extraordinarily good serious horror films.

9 out of 10

Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Watching the Revenge of Frankenstein (directed by Terence Fisher in 1958) a couple of days after Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (directed by Freddie Francis in 1968) offers the opportunity to compare an early and a mid-period Hammer gothic horror movie. There’s also a definite contrast in directing styles. You notice immediately that Freddie Francis’s film is moodier and more striking visually (not surprising since he was also a distinguished cinematographer), but Fisher’s movie is a lot more energetic. Terence Fisher’s movies rarely suffer from pacing problems – he gets the story moving straight away and he keeps it moving. In fact as far as plot is concerned Revenge of Frankenstein is not much more than a remake of the original Frankenstein film – Baron Frankenstein has escape execution for his earlier crimes and has resumed his experiments under an assumed name. He has built up a flourishing new practice, and he also works in a hospital for the poor, performing a surprisingly high number of amputations – he does need an abundance of spare part for his experiments! This time he is determined that he’s going to get it right, and his new creation is going to be perfect.

Despite its lack of originality the movie has plenty of vitality and Peter Cushing makes Baron Frankenstein a subtly disturbing and morally ambiguous character, and the result is a very entertaining and very effective movie.

7 out of 10

Edgar G. Ulmer's Bluebeard (1944)

Despite his undoubted gifts Edgar G. Ulmer spent most of his career making B-movies for Poverty Row studios. He had a knack for making B-movies on minuscule budgets that turned out to be better than most people’s A-pictures, and some, such as Detour, are among the all-time great Hollywood movies. Bluebeard, made for the Producers Releasing Corporation in 1944, isn’t quite in the Detour class but it’s still a fine movie worth seeking out. The plot involves a murderous painter in Paris. As in Ulmer’s earlier horror masterpiece The Black Cat it’s more concerned with the evil within than with external monsters. Like Detour it deals with a protagonist who feels that he has no control over his life and that he cannot avoid the evil the befalls him. For a movie shot in six days it looks marvellous, and the puppet opera is worth the price of admission. John Carradine gives his finest performance in the title role.

6 out of 10

The Princess Blade (2001)

The Princess Blade is an interesting hybrid swordplay action/science fiction/alternative history movie. Yuki is a young woman who belongs to a clan of warrior ninja assassins. The plot involves the power struggle within the clan as well as Yuki’s involvement with a member of an anti-government rebel group. The action sequences are stunning, but it’s not just an action movie - there’s a focus on the heroine’s motivations and her relationships as well. Yuki has a destiny, and it involves more than just killing. She has great skill as a swordswoman but her real strengths lie elsewhere, in her growing understanding of the nature of power and responsibility and the uses and abuses of violence. It’s an intelligent, very stylish and very entertaining movie with a fine performance by Yumiko Shaku as Yuki.

7 out of 10

Waxworks (1924)

Paul Leni’s 1924 film Waxworksis one of the less known masterpieces of German Expressionist film. It’s not really a horror movie in a conventional sense. The framing story as a writer employed to come up with some stories about the figures in a wax museum. The first story involves the Caliph Harun al Raschid and is an Arabian Nights style fantasy, with some truly and wonderfully bizarre settings. It’s a lot of fun. The second story, concerning Ivan the Terrible, is much darker and looks just as fantastic as the first one. The third story, about Jack the Ripper, is really just an odd little epilogue and is has even less in common with conventional cinematic story-telling than the rest of the film. The movie is tinted, and the tinting look magnificent – it’s the most effective use of this technique I’ve seen. The movie present a series of visual images that are not merely stunning, they’re truly stupendous. It’s a movie that’s very much worth seeing, especially if you have a taste for movies that are out of the ordinary.

8 out of 10

Thursday 10 May 2007

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, made in 1968, doesn’t add very much to the Hammer Dracula cycle in terms of content. It’s really just another retread of the same old story. Monsignor Ernst Muller decides it’s time to exorcise Dracula’s castle and seal it up with a cross on the door, and sets off with the parish priest to do so. Unfortunately the priest unwittingly revives the vampiric count. Dracula, understandably miffed at having his lodgings dealt with in this way, is out for revenge on the monsignor. Despite its lack of originality it does have the usual virtues of Hammer films – the gothic atmosphere is well done, and it looks good. In fact it’s a fairly stylish production – director Freddie Francis shows plenty of flair, especially in the many scenes that take place on the rooftops of the village. Francis and cinematographer Arthur Grant make skilful and imaginative use of colour. The scenes in the bakery in the cellar, with lots of sickly greens and unhealthy reds, are extremely effective. Christopher Lee givers his usual performance as the Count – there’s not a lot of subtlety in it, but it works. And the Hammer films always came up with interesting ways of dispatching the Count at the end of each film. This movie is however definitely a disappointment after the previous Hammer Dracula movie, the excellent 1966 Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

While Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is moderately entertaining, it’s a pity that such a stylish and visually interesting entry in the cycle couldn’t have had a bit more effort put into the story.

6 out of 10

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

Revolt of the Zombies was, for director Victor Halperin, a kind of follow-up to his very successful 1932 film White Zombie which had starred Bela Lugosi. Revolt of the Zombies, made in 1936, isn’t very highly thought of but it is an interesting and original little film. These aren’t the zombies so familiar to audiences today, and they aren’t voodoo zombies either. They’re Cambodian zombies. They’re people turned into automatons by a kind of telepathic mind control process. It’s a secret known only to certain priests in French Indo-China. During the First world War one of these priests turns a regiment of Cambodians into unstoppable killing machines. The Great Powers are horrified and the priest is imprisoned. After the war an archaeological expedition is sent to the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor to discover the secret. One of the archaeologists, Armand Louque (Dean Jagger), has been continually taunted by his best friend for his lack of ruthlessness, and the best friend drives home the message by stealing his girlfriend. This romantic sub-plot is in fact the heart of the film because Armand, determined to win back his lady love, decides to use the mysterious powers, powers to create zombies, that he has discovered at Angkor. It’s a fairly slow-moving movie but it’s quite atmospheric and it is at least an unusual zombie movie. It’s in the public domain and it’s worth a look if you can pick it up cheaply. I got it in one of those 20-movie packs. The picture quality is surprisingly good for a public domain movie. Not a great movie, but much better than its very low IMDb rating would indicate.

7 out of 10

Naked Lunch (1991)

It’s the 1950s, and Bill Lee is a pest exterminator. He’s in trouble with his employers because he’s been using suspiciously large quantities of bug powder. His wife has been injecting it. In fact they’re both addicted to it. Then he kills his wife accidentally, but it’s no accident. There are no accidents. He was programmed to do it. His wife is really a foreign agent, and possibly not human. Bill is a secret agent too, in the mysterious port of Interzone, in North Africa. He types his reports on a Clark Nova typewriter which talks to him through a sphincter-like opening beneath its wings. There are sinister plots afoot in Interzone. The paranoia is palpable. Of course none of this is real, and Bill Lee’s reports are in fact a novel, Naked Lunch.

David Cronenberg’s 1991 film Naked Lunch is based partly on the works of William S. Burroughs, including his novel Naked Lunch, and partly on Burroughs’ life. Burroughs really did accidentally kill his wife, in exactly the manner depicted in this movie. That event was crucial to his life and to his work as a writer and it’s crucial to the film. The extremes demanded of the creative artist, the intoxication of words and drugs, the writer as a spy or a subversive, Cronenberg captures beautifully. The sense of the flesh as something monstrous, something with a hideous life of its own, probably comes as much from Cronenberg as from Burroughs. Peter Weller captures much of the disturbing quality of Burroughs himself in his emotionally flat performance as Bill Lee. Judy Davis plays his wife and also one of the denizens of Interzone with whom Lee comes into contact. Her performance is the highlight of the film. The special effects are pre-CGI and all the better for that. They have a tangible quality that makes them truly horrifying and repulsive – something that CGI effects could not have achieved. The typewriters that are at the same time giant bugs are particularly memorable and the idea of the writing machine as something alive and monstrous is very effective. At one stage Bill Lee finds himself using a typewriter in the form of a monstrous head with appendages that ejaculate when he types something it likes. Whether Burroughs is really filmable or not, and how much of the film is Cronenberg rather than Burroughs isn’t really the point – if you accept it as David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch than it’s a brilliant movie. In fact it’s one of his best movies, along with the equally disturbing Spider and Crash.

8 out of 10

Tuesday 8 May 2007

Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957)

Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon is based on a short story (Casting the Runes) by M. R. James, perhaps the most famous of all English writers of ghost stories. It concerns a witch cult and a deadly curse that is passed on in a scrap of parchment. The parchment has to be passed to the victim without his knowledge. Dana Andrews plays a sceptical scientist who is trying to expose a cult leader as a charlatan. Peggy Cummins plays the niece of another scientist who tried the same thing but met his death in mysterious circumstances. It’s a good film but Tourneur seems to have forgotten what he learnt working with Val Lewton in the 40s (for whom he directed two of the greatest horror movies ever made, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie) that horror works best when you don’t actually see the horror. In Night of the Demon we do see the demon, and although the special effects aren’t bad by the standards of the day the actual demon doesn’t quite come off. On the other hand it offers some solid acting, an intelligent script and classy direction by Tourneur and the result is an extremely good example of subtle cinematic horror.

8 out of 10

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

When a movie is released on DVD by Redemption you expect 1970s style erotic horror, but the 1970 Czech movie Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a very different kind of film. It’s essentially a fairy tale. A young girl receives a gift – a pair of magic earrings. She needs these because her wicked grandmother is intending to steal her youth from her. She also needs to protect her brother, and she has to deal with an evil land-owner who appears to have discovered a way to cheat both old age and death. It’s told very much in the style of a fairy tale, and the most obvious film to compare it to would be Neil Jordan’s movie of the Angela Carter short story The Company of Wolves. Like so many fairy tales it deals with transformations and rites of passage – life to death, youth to maturity, etc. And like so many fairy tales it deals with sex, although the sexual aspects are certainly dealt with in a less disguised form than in the average fairy tale. The erotic elements are done in a very restrained manner, though. It’s a gorgeous-looking film, with beautifully done period settings and some wonderful rather gothic images. It’s a lyrical, entrancing, dream-like movie, about as far removed from the typical horror movie as can be imagined. It’s one of the finest attempts I’ve ever seen to create a cinematic fairy tale. A magnificent movie that seems to have been completely overlooked by mainstream film critics, presumably because they’ve simply dismissed it a being a horror movie (which it isn’t) and therefore beneath contempt. The DVD looks great, and one can only hope that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders doesn’t once again get unfairly ignored because it’s been released by a company so firmly associated with horror.

10 out of 10

Thursday 3 May 2007

Delicatessen (1991)

If you’re a fan of the bizarre, the surreal, the just plain weird, and you haven’t seen Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1991 movie Delicatessen, then you should take steps to do so at once. All of the action takes place in an apartment building over a butcher’s shop in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Food is scarce, but the butcher has found a creative way to continue to supply his customers with meat. The inhabitants of the building are some of the oddest characters you’ll ever come across, and the movie gets progressively more surreal and more insane as it goes. There are plenty of bizarre images, and the occasional oddly beautiful one. Caro and Jeunet have a very distinctive visual style. And there’s also a rather touching love story in there as well.

I adored it, and thought it was every bit as good as their later City of Lost Children. Jeunet of course went on to direct the very successful, and absolutely superb, Amélie.

9 out of 10

Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (1966)

Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby . . . Kill! is a wonderful piece of Italian gothic horror from 1966. As always in Bava’s movies, the cinematography is astonishing and the use of colour is extraordinary. This movie has so much gothic atmosphere it’s almost overkill. It’s a tale of a village that is cursed, as a punishment for allowing a young girl to bleed to death. There’s witchcraft as well, but handled in a manner that is quite unusual for a 1966 movie. For a Bava movie it’s fairly restrained. Not much gore here, but plenty of genuine horror with some very creepy moments. A superbly crafted film by one of the grand masters of horror.

9 out of 10

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 that 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.

6 out of 10

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

I watched Dracula’s Daughter (directed by Lambert Hillyer, 1936) for the first time a while back and was just a little disappointed, possibly because my expectations had been so high. I watched it again more recently and this time liked it a great deal.

Gloria Holden has an air of vaguely aristocratic exoticism and a slightly otherworldly air as well. This nicely suggests her eastern European ancestry and her vampirism, and of course it also nicely suggests lesbianism. And of course she’s arty, which adds to the effect. Her first appearance in the film is very effective. She’s also good at portraying the ennui of the undead. Irving Pichel as her manservant Sandor is nicely creepy. And, as Michael pointed out, Edward van Sloan’s van Helsing is much more effective than his performance in the same role in Dracula.

It’s a moody and atmospheric film, and it gives us an ambiguous monster – Dracula’s daughter is aware of the evil she does, and fights against it. She’s as much a victim of vampirism as those she kills.

Dracula’s Daughter is better in every way than Tod Browning’s Dracula – it has better pacing, a more interesting villain, and none of the drawing room melodrama feel that was such an unfortunate feature of Browning’s movie. If you wanted watched this movie yet I urge you to get hold of a copy.

7 out of 10

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971)

By the standards of Jess Franco films She Killed in Ecstasy (Sie tötete in Ekstase) is remarkably straightforward. It’s a revenge movie, with a wife hunting down the people she believes destroyed her husband (who was either a mad scientist or a misunderstood genius or possibly both). There are flashbacks, but the plot is simple and easy to follow. Personally I prefer Franco when he’s being much more trippy and enigmatic and generally over-the-top, but what She Killed in Ecstasy lacks in obscurity it makes up for in style. The killings are intercut with scenes of the vengeful wife and her husband making love, a technique that works very well in the context of this movie. Soledad Miranda is riveting as a woman maddened by grief, maddened to the point of murderous obsessiveness. Her performance is both powerful and subtle. Tragically this was to be her last film. Franco films the murders with imagination and flair, especially the one with the pillow. It’s definitely not my favourite movie of his, not enough of the real Franco weirdness, but it does demonstrate his ability to make a fairly conventional but very effective horror thriller. I prefer the more esoteric pleasures of Franco movies such as Venus in Furs, or Female Vampire (a film I consider to be very underrated). She Killed in Ecstasy would probably be a good starting point though for anyone new to the fabulously strange world of Jess Franco.

8 out of 10

Kiss Me, Monster (1969)

Kiss Me, Monster is Jess Franco strictly in fun mode. This 1969 movie is a send-up of spy movies, seasoned with a healthy dash of psychedelia. The plot is obscure to say the least, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it includes all the elements necessary for a movie like this – a mysterious secret society, a mad scientist and a secret formula. The movie also includes not one but two glamorous girl secret agents. Although they’re really not that keen on being secret agents – they’re hoping to break into show business. Being a Jess Franco film, there are also slightly weirder ingredients, like a sisterhood of whip-wielding “queer virgins” and a method of sending secret messages by windmill. At least I think that’s what they were doing with the windmill. The dubbing on the Redemption VHS edition is atrocious, but that actually adds to the fun. Janine Reynaud and Rosanna Yanni are delightful as Diana and Regina, the two intrepid female spies. Their performances add just the right extra touches of camp to the movie. Definitely not a movie to take seriously, and clearly not intended to be taken seriously, but a lot of fun. I believe it’s the sequel to Two Undercover Angels, which I’ve not seen.

6 out of 10

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Supervixens (1975)

Russ Meyer’s Supervixens - what can one say about this movie? It’s a Russ Meyer movie. It has lots of sex, lots of women with very large breasts, some very disturbing violence, it’s bizarre and it’s funny. The interesting thing about the violence is that it’s explicitly linked to fear of female sexuality – the macho tough guy cop beats up women because he’s sexually inadequate. The most sexually repressed people are the most screwed-up people in this movie, which kind of makes one nostalgic for the 70s in a way. Remember hen sex was supposed to be good for you? I’m not sure to what extent Meyer intended his movies as a satire on American culture, but they can be read that way. Obsessions with cars and violence certainly figure largely in the three Meyer movies I’ve seen so far. It’s basically a road movie. The hero, Clint, leaves the gas station he works at (run by a certain Martin Bormann, ex-war criminal but now nice guy) and sets off on a journey into a weird wasteland of deserts and rural Americana after he finds himself the prime suspect in a murder. He has a series of adventures, sexual and otherwise. He encounters Superlorna, Supercherry and Supersoul, and finally meets the Supervixen. She’s kind of a nice girl version of his old girlfriend, Superangel. It’s all done in typical Meyer style. The insane chase through the desert involving a souped-up Volkswagen and a dune buggy containing Clint and SuperEula is particularly bizarre. As for the ending, it’s so strange that really words fail me. The cast includes plenty of Meyer regulars, including John Lazar (Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell from Beyond the Valley of Dolls) and Haji from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (who is now Superhaji). Overall, bizarre but entertaining. It’s over-the-top, but it lacks the extreme over-the-topness of Beyond the Valley of Dolls, which remains my favourite Meyer film.

8 out of 10

Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, made in 1988, saw him moving away from the conventional horror film. It’s about twins who become gynaecologists, and share everything. Including women. In fact it seems that they don’t really experience anything unless they both experience it. They don’t really see themselves as separate individuals. They think of themselves as being linked just as tightly as Siamese twins, and they even believe that if one of them takes a drug it affects them both. You can’t help suspecting that they became gynaecologists in an attempt to uncover the mystery of reproduction, in particular of their own reproduction which was so abnormal. They almost regard themselves as mutants. Their speciality is infertility – in other words the reproductive system when it goes wrong.

The emotional bond between them is so strong that they seem unable to connect emotionally to anyone else. They don’t need anyone else. Then one day one twin, Beverly, falls in love. He falls in love with a patient, a woman who has a trifurcate uterus – so he can regard her as being a mutant as well, like he and his brother. The situation is complicated by the fact that both twins have been sleeping with this woman, although she isn’t aware that there is more than one. Falling in love with an outsider threatens the emotional balance between the twins, and things start to unravel for them. Jeremy Irons gives a wonderfully disturbing and creepy performance as both twins. There’s very little horror, until the end, but this is a deeply unsettling and extremely good movie.

8 out of 10

The Delinquents (1957)

After enjoying Kitten with a Whip so much we just had to see more juvenile delinquent movies. So tonight we watched The Delinquents which, according to the poster, is a “shocking expose of the baby-faces who have just taken their first stumbling step down Sin Street U.S.A.” Sadly the movie isn’t as good as the poster. Surprisingly enough it was written and directed by Robert Altman, who certainly went on to much better things. It doesn’t have the sheer exuberance and glorious excess that makes Kitten with a Whip such a camp classic, nor does it have Ann-Margret whose deliriously over-the-top performance was such a standout feature of Kitten. It does have a very healthy dose of 50s hysteria (it was made in 1957), and one of the most ludicrous voice-overs I’ve ever heard warning of the need to combat this horrifying threat to society.

The story concerns Scotty, a nice boy with a conservative haircut, who becomes involved with a gang of juvenile delinquents after his girlfriend’s father forbids their relationship. At one point he cries, “Why can’t they just leave us alone?” A bit reminiscent of Rebel without a Cause, but without James Dean’s embarrassing Method acting excesses. Pretty soon he gets drawn into a nightmare world of sin in which teenagers listen to crazy music, dance, and sometimes even kiss. No wonder parents were worried. The Delinquents is entertaining for fans of 50s American paranoia, although not really camp enough for my tastes.