Saturday 30 June 2007

Dracula (1979)

Until now I’d avoided seeing the 1979 John Badham-directed Dracula, largely because I’d heard so many very negative things about it. In fact it’s rather good. Although it was a fairly big-budget release by a major studio its poor commercial performance at the time and its neglect since then make it a classic example of a mainstream movie that becomes a cult film. It does have some faults, Laurence Olivier’s excruciatingly hammy performance as van Helsing being one of them, but its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. This is very much a film that focuses on the erotic aspects of the story, and it’s very much in the modern tradition of sympathetic portraits of Dracula. Frank Langella as the Count is young, charming, charismatic, sexy and pretty. The best thing about the movie is the portrayal of Lucy. In this version Mina is van Helsing’s daughter and his first victim, while the main focus of the movie is the relationship between Dracula and Lucy. Lucy is no passive victim. She’s a willing and active partner for the Count, and the relationship is more romantic and more erotically charged than anything in Coppola’s 1992 version. The casting of the astonishingly dreary Trevor Eve (who out-Keanus Keanu Reeves in the bad acting stakes) as Jonathan Harker is interesting – it really emphasises the class conflict between the aristocratic vampire lord and his petty, life-denying, dull and unimaginative bourgeois foes. For Lucy Dracula represents her only chance to escape a life of stultifying boredom and oppression. Dracula and Lucy are the hero and heroine of this film, make no mistake about that. Only the most puritanical, stolid and cheerless viewer could possibly see the vampire hunters as the good guys. It’s a movie to enrage those who like their vampires to be simple and unambiguous monsters.

The movie looks quite good. Although at times the production design is a little conventional it does have a few stunning visual moments. The climax is particularly well done. The ending will upset vampire movie traditionalists, but I thought it was original, striking and rather effective. This Dracula tries to do a lot of the things that Coppola’s version tries to do, and I think it does them better. It’s more supernatural love story than horror movie perhaps, but Frank Langella is superb, Kate Nelligan gives Lucy both strength and complexity, Donald Pleasence is outrageously entertaining (as always) as Lucy’s father Dr Seward. Tony Haygarth is a disappointing Renfield though – he must have thought they were making Carry On Dracula. If you like your vampire movies to be traditional exercises in straightforward horror you’ll almost certainly hate this movie. If you prefer the more erotic approach of European directors like Franco and Rollin, and the more romantic vision of Coppola, then you’ll find plenty to like in this one. I loved it.

Friday 29 June 2007

Wild, Wild Planet (1965)

Wild, Wild Planet is an Italian science fiction film from 1965. The story is about, well actually I have no idea what the story was about. Something to do with futuristic medical technology, orgasm transplants, and miniaturising people. Plus there was a team of female assassins with robots who were kidnapping people. And a mad scientist who wanted to create a race of perfect humans. I think. It has some of the most unconvincing model shots you’ll ever see, but they’re incredibly cute. Director Antonio Margheriti made horror movies as well, and it shows. And have to admit the ending was fairly spectacular, although I have no idea what actually happened. It’s all entertaining enough in a rather high camp way. A great movie if you’re in the mood for this type of thing.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Back in the days of sail there were many hazards facing mariners. Few were more sinister than the infamous wreckers, who would set false lights to lure unwary ships to their doom, and the plunder their cargoes. Peter Weir’s 1974 movie The Cars That Ate Paris updates this concept. In Australia at an unspecified future date, a time of economic and social collapse, the town of Paris makes its living from car wrecks. The road into the town is treacherous enough, but the townspeople help things along by blinding unlucky drivers with powerful lights. Some motorists survive the wrecks. Some, horribly injured and with brain damage, end their days in the local hospitals as “veggies” while others are adopted into the community. One such motorist is Arthur. He is adopted by the mayor, but he soon discovers that the unconventional economy of Paris has created a dangerously unstable atmosphere in the town. The young people of Paris have created a kind of car cult, and their weirdly customised rebuilt wrecks are the terror of the town. Tensions are rising, and it is only a matter of time before the clash between the generations turns nasty.

I saw this movie years ago. I decided to have another look at it after reading an article on Australian gothic cinema and car cult movies (The Cult Film, Roger Corman and The Cars That Ate Paris by Jonathan Rayner, in Unruly Pleasures, edited by edited by Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper). This is a truly bizarre little film. Although it was clearly a major inspiration for the later and better known Australian Mad Max movies it has quite a different feel to it. It’s a odd hybrid, a blending of an American B-movie (with both Roger Corman and Russ Meyer appearing to be influences) with a European art film sensibility, and very large dashes of both the surreal and the absurd. It combines all these elements with some fairly biting social and political satire. Weir’s strong visual sense is very evident, the movies looks good, and the acting is good (especially John Meillon as the mayor). Weir was such an original and disturbing director earlier in his career, although there are few signs of this in his later Hollywood work. The Cars That Ate Paris has very little in the way of plot, but it’s a strangely entertaining movie and it’s worth checking out.

Black Magic Rites, AKA The Reincarnation of Isabel (1974)

Renato Polselli’s 1974 film Black Magic Rites (AKA The Reincarnation of Isabel) makes an interesting comparison with Lucio Fulci’s slightly later eurohorror offering The Beyond, which I saw and mentioned here a couple of days ago. The acting in both films is equally bad, the plots are just as incoherent, and both films rely very heavily on gore. There ate two main differences, to my eye. Firstly, the gore in Black Magic Rites has some connection with the story (such as it is) and contributes something to the feel of the movie; the gore in The Beyond is simply thrown in so you won’t notice how boring the movie is. Secondly, Black Magic Rites at least conveys some sense of actual horror, of events that challenge rationality, some sense of real weirdness, and these are elements sadly lacking in Fulci’s movie. That’s not to say that Polselli’s effort is a great movie. It does, however, offer a certain amount of fun, and it has some truly bizarre moments. A sex scene accompanied by dixieland jazz music is not something I’ve encountered in any other movie that I can remember, and after seeing this one it’s easy to see why it’s an idea that hasn’t exactly caught on.

The plot is a fairly stock standard horror movie plot, involving an attempt to bring back to life a woman who was burned in the 14th century as a witch, who was also apparently a vampire. If you’re a fan of very strange eurohorror movies, movies that are very strange even by eurohorror standards, then Black Magic Rites may be just what you’ve been waiting for.

Thursday 28 June 2007

The Wild Angels (1966)

It was the mid-60s, and youth rebellion was in the air. Hollywood could see opportunities for profits in this, but at this stage the studios were still very nervous about dealing with such a potentially controversial subject. No such fears held back Roger Corman, and in 1966 he made his outlaw biker epic The Wild Angels, complete with real Hell’s Angels as extras, and with Peter Fonda (three years before Easy Rider) creating a new kind of youth icon. Fonda is Heavenly Blues, leader of the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels. He and some of the Angels set off for Mexico to retrieve his buddy Loser’s chopper, stolen by a Mexican gang. A brawl ensues, Loser steals a police motorcycle, is shot by a cop. And ends up in hospital. Blues decides that it would be a really fine idea to bust Loser out of the hospital before he can be transferred to prison. Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.
This is a remarkably hard-hitting film. There are several rapes, a church gets trashed during a funeral service, a preacher is beaten up, and there’s plenty of other incidental violence. Not all the violence is committed by the bikers either – the police are shown as being disturbingly willing to gun down people who are unarmed. The movie doesn’t flinch from examining the belief systems that motivate Blues and his pals – they not only wear the symbols of fascism, such as swastikas, they live out a fascist fantasy of power, violence and nihilism. But at the same time the movie doesn’t merely demonise them. They have a dream of freedom, and their behaviour is a weird mix of loyalty and viciousness, of idealism and selfishness. When Blues is asked what he believes in, and can come up with nothing better than vague mumblings about freedom and the right to get loaded, we can see his awareness of his own tragedy, that he knows the emptiness of his own rhetoric. His alienation is complete, and it’s real. He isn’t evil – he simply doesn’t have enough awareness to be evil.

Corman does a great job as director. The scenes of the bikers partying, and of the drunken orgy in the church, have a frenetic and rather frightening energy to them. The unpredictability, the potential for sudden explosive violence, is conveyed very effectively indeed. Peter Fonda’s very considerable limitations as an actor don’t matter at all – he’s an icon, icons just have to look iconic, and he does that extremely well. Much the same argument applies to Nancy Sinatra’s performance as his girlfriend. The movie doesn’t have the embarrassingly dated look that most 1960s movies about youth have – the fact that bikers still look pretty similar to the way they looked in 1966 certainly helps, and Corman’s bikers look dirty and dangerous. The Wild Angels works extremely well as a film about alienation, about being young, and as a film about the 60s. In fact it works on every level, and may well be one of the very best movies of its type ever made.

The Beyond (1981)

Lucio Fulci’s 1981 movie The Beyond was a useful reminder to me of why I very rarely watch horror movies made after the late 1970s. The movie opens in Louisiana in 1927, with the murder of a wizard in a hotel. It then jumps forward to 1981, at which time a young woman who has inherited this very hotel is about to renovate and re-open it. Unfortunately the hotel has apparently been built on a doorway into Hell. Late on some zombies appear, although the reasons for the appearance of the zombie remain obscure. It’s not so much the gore that’s the problem (although I’m not a fan of gore at all), it’s the fact that the gore is used to disguise the fact that it’s a visually not very interesting movie and the images are not particular striking. If you have the visual brilliance of a Dario Argento you can get away with gore; if you lack that flair then you end up with a mere gross-out. In this case the images are not merely gross, they’re banal as well. They display a disheartening lack of real imagination. An incoherent plot and poor acting (and The Beyond certainly has both) aren’t necessarily fatal flaws in a horror movie – Mario Bava could make great horror movies with incoherent plots and poor acting. But then Bava was a genius, and Fulci clearly isn’t. The Beyond has one moderately good idea, but the film needed the right atmosphere to give that idea the proper impact, and that atmosphere was sadly lacking. The Beyond has plenty of gore, but no actual horror, and no dramatic tension. In fact it has none of the elements required for a successful horror movie, and it illustrates perfectly the decline of the horror film. Violence, guts and blood do not equal horror. I somehow managed to struggle to the end of this film, but I still don’t know why I bothered. I suppose I thought it might get better. It didn’t.