Monday 30 July 2007

The She-Beast (1966)

Having now seen The She-Beast (La Sorella di Satana) I can confirm that the picture quality on the Alpha DVD is indeed every bit as atrocious as I’d heard it was. Still, it only cost me four dollars, so I guess I can’t complain. And what is the actual movie like? If you only know Michael Reeves from his 1967 masterpiece Witchfinder General you’ll find the tone of The She-Beast rather surprising. It’s a kind of horror farce. Very fast-moving, and very entertaining, but certainly nowhere near as good as his two later films. Barbara Steele was only available for three days’ shooting so her part is fairly small, and it’s odd seeing her in modern dress. She and Ian Ogilvy are Veronica and Philip, British tourists in Transylvania, but instead of vampires they encounter a long-dead witch in a lake. They do meet the Count von Helsing though, who explains there are no vampires there any more because his family wiped them out. Unfortunately there are still plenty of supernatural nasties, including the aforesaid aquatic witch. Almost as disturbing is the lecherous and drunken inn-keeper. In fact von Helsing himself is a little on the disturbing, or at leat wildly eccentric, side. After a motoring mishap Philip finds himself fished out of the lake, but where is Veronica? It turns out that only von Helsing can help him to get his missing wife back.

Reeves directs with plenty of energy and style. Ogilvy and John Karlsen (as von Helsing) give spirited and rather frenetic performances. Barbara Steele hasn’t much to do, unfortunately. All in all though it’s fairly amusing and quite diverting, and it has an odd flavour of its own. It’s enjoyable as long as you don’t expect too much from it.

Sunday 29 July 2007

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Legend of Hell House is arguably the last of the classic haunted house movies. A team of psychics, scientists and paranormal investigators are paid a fortune to investigate the “Mt Everest of haunted houses”, the infamous Belasco House. Belasco, who built the house, and mysteriously disappeared, was notorious for his cruelty and depravity. Dr Lionel Barrett has with him a machine of his own invention, which he claims can clear the house of the residue of psychic energies which are really a form of electro-magnetic radiation. .

The Legend of Hell House boasts high production values and (by 1973 standards) good special effects. It also benefits from a script by Richard Matheson, from his on novel. Matheson has probably written more good horror scripts for TV and movie than just about anyone else you can name. It also boasts stylish direction, and lots of gothic atmosphere. The result should be a sensational film, but somehow it doesn’t quite work out that way. Roddy McDowall overacts outrageously. The rest of the cast do a reasonably good job, including Gayle Hunnicut as Dr Barratt’s ex-obsessed wife. It’s still a good movie, though, and solid entertainment. The combination of spooks and science fiction-style gizmos is amusing.

Saturday 28 July 2007

The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents released in 1961, is based on the classic Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Conveying the uncertainties and ambiguities of the story on film would seem to be a daunting task but director Jack Clayton has done a superb job. If anything the movie is perhaps even better than the book. I realise that that is a very ambitious claim, but this is a very fine movie indeed. Much of the credit for the film’s success goes to Deborah Kerr in what is possibly the greatest performance of a long and distinguished career. .

The story involves a governess (Kerr) who believes the children in her charge to be menaced by ghosts. But what is really going on? Kerr is always finely balanced on the edge of hysteria, but without ever becoming annoying and without ever losing the viewer’s sympathies. This film also looks superb. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.

Hairspray (1988)

I’d forgotten just how delightful John Waters’ Hairspray was. The plot is corny and lightweight but the film more than makes up for this in sheer good humour and campy outrageousness. I’d also forgotten how good Ricki Lake was as the heroine. Add to that some truly awesomely camp sets and wonderfully excessive costumes and of course hairdos (not to mention fabulous dance numbers) and you have a movie that you just have to love. Divine is divine as Tracy’s mother. Among the supporting players Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry are particularly good as the parents of Tracy’s arch-rival Amber von Tussle. Like his slightly later Cry-Baby it’s Waters indulging himself in nostalgia for an era he obviously regards with mingled horror and affection, and a great deal of amusement. It’s all fabulous fun.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Zardoz (1974)

What can one possibly say about John Boorman’s Zardoz? Yes folks, this is the infamous Sean Connery in a pony-tail and bright red loin-cloth movie. In the far future there are three classes of humans. At the bottom of the heap are Brutals, assumed to be more or les sub-humans. Then there are Exterminators, whose job it is to keep down the numbers of Brutals. At the top of the pile are Eternals, who live in the Vortexes, sealed off from the lower orders. Sean Connery is an Exterminator, an Exterminator who starts to doubt his god, Zardoz. So he stows away in a the huge floating head that contains the god, and finds himself in a Vortex. He discovers that The Eternals, despite their powers and their immortality, are unhappy. Without death life seems to lose its savour. And with death banished sex is also banished (yes I know that doesn’t really make much sense but hey I didn’t write the movie). The Eternals live too much the life of the mind, cut off from the elemental passions and from the life of the body. At least I think that’s what the film is trying to say. The arrival of Connery, an unruly barbarian still very much in touch with the life of the body, provokes a crisis among the Eternals.

Generally speaking I like pre-Star Wars science fiction and I find pre-CGI sci-fi more visually interesting than the modern species. Unfortunately Zardoz suffers from extremely silly costumes and mostly fairly uninteresting and often absurd sets and this makes the movie difficult to take seriously. This is a problem because it’s a movie that really only works if you do take it seriously - it’s just so self-consciously philosophical. The special effects certainly represent an intriguing attempt to do something innovative and original on a limited budget, and some work very well – such as the images projected on bodies in the sequence where Zed is absorbing the knowledge of the Eternals. Sadly some of the other effects fall very flat. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this sort of thing can only be done effectively by European film-makers. They seem to have the ability to translate surreal images and dream-scapes and disturbing visions of the past and future onto the movie screen, while British and American attempts to do the same often end up being rather embarrassing (with the possible exception of a certain Terry Gilliam). A Fellini or a Herzog or even a Jean Rollin might have got away with this one. And I’m not sure the philosophical and intellectual content is really meaty enough to justify this film, although it’s certainly nice to be reminded of the days when science fiction movies did have philosophical and intellectual content. Connery and Charlotte Rampling manage to look good despite their very dodgy costumes, and they do try to treat the material with the seriousness it demands. Zardoz is one of those interesting failures that is still worth seeing, and it’s still worth a hundred George Lucas movies.

Wednesday 25 July 2007

The Grapes of Death (1978)

By the late 70s Jean Rollin, one of the true visionaries of the horror genre, was finding himself forced to adapt to changing public tastes. The vampire film, his first and greatest love, was no longer fashionable. And gore was increasingly coming to be an essential ingredient of any horror movie that was to have a chance of commercial success. So Rollin abandoned the vampire movie, and turned to directing zombie movies. I happen to dislike zombie movies intensely, but I have to admit that Rollin’s are most definitely a cut above the average zombie flick. In fact his 1982 entry in this sub-genre, The Living Dead Girl, is an excellent little movie. The Grapes of Death, made four years earlier, is a much more conventional zombie film, and for someone like Rollin to make conventional movies is a tragic waste of a unique talent. Within the limits of the type of movie it is, he does however manage to make it reasonably interesting. There are moments of characteristic Rollin visual poetry. It’s beautifully shot, and the settings (in some glorious French countryside) are stunning. He is even able to sneak in the occasional hint of the surreal, something that has always been a crucial element in his movies.

The plot is fairly simple – a young woman finds herself in a rural district that seems to be overrun by zombies. In fact they’re victims of contaminated wine (hence the title), and they’re not actually risen-from-the-dead zombies. And although they’re murderous, they don’t feed on human flesh. Rollin never allows you to forget that they’re still human beings, however tempting it might be to treat them simply as monsters. The moral dilemmas facing the handful of people unaffected by this plague are more forcefully presented than you generally expect in a zombie film. It delivers some genuine chills and plenty of tension, and the ending works well and is quite affecting. My feelings about this movie are very conflicted. Judged as a straightforward horror movie, it’s very good. Judged as a zombie movie it’s extremely good indeed. But judged as a Jean Rollin movie, it’s a disappointment. Whether you’re going to enjoy this one or not very much depends upon what your expectations of it are.

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

In 1970 and 1971 Hammer Films turned out a series of remarkably interesting horror films. Countess Dracula is an interesting account of the career of the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, and it’s a reasonably good film. The Vampire Lovers, based on Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is a very fine film indeed. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is one of the more intriguing of Hammer’s Mummy movies. Twins of Evil is an immensely entertaining vampire yarn. And Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde is perhaps the most interesting of the lot, and original and offbeat and very effective reworking of Stevenson’s classic novella.

Yet another noteworthy 1971 Hammer movie is Hands of the Ripper, directed by Peter Sasdy. It’s another fascinatingly original reworking of a clichéd idea, this time Jack the Ripper. It has a strong cast, headed by Eric Porter as a turn-of-the-century medico who is an early disciple of Freud and wants to use Freud’s ideas to cure violent criminals. Derek Godfrey is very good as a slightly sinister Member of Parliament who may or may not have some involvement in a violent murder. Angharad Rees plays Anna, a somewhat disturbed young woman who may also be involved somehow.

The plot is intelligent, the story moves along at a good pace, the acting is good, and there’s some excellent cinematography which towards the end even gets a bit arty and gets away with it. This is a clever and original horror movie.

Sunday 22 July 2007

Madam Satan (1930)

Madam Satan, made in 1930, was Cecil B. de Mille’s second sound film. It may also be the most bizarre of all Hollywood movies. He was told by the studio that had to make a musical, so he gave them a musical, and he also gave them a classic exercise in High Camp. The first half of the film seems like a fairly straightforward if rather adult comedy about adultery. That’s before the party on board the zeppelin gets going. It’s the most decadent party you’ll see in a Hollywood film, featuring outrageous costumes and a mock slave auction where the women are “sold” to the highest bidder. The costumes include some of the most expensive ever created for a movie. And then the zeppelin is struck by lightning, and things get even more bizarre. There has never been a movie like Madam Satan, and to my way of thinking it established de Mille as the High Priest of Camp. It’s also a thoroughly entertaining movie, and a wonderful example of pre-code Hollywood wickedness.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968)

Russ Meyer’s Vixen! was one of the movie sensations of 1968. Although banned in many parts of the US it went on to make a truckload of money, and its massive commercial success led 20th Century Fox to sign the notorious sexploitation director to make big-budget mainstream movies for them. Or at least they thought they were going to get mainstream movies from him, which shows just how charmingly naïve movie studio executives could be. The eponymous heroine Vixen! is married to a pilot somewhere in the wilds of Canada. She loves her husband, but one man just isn’t enough for Vixen. Her sexual escapades lead to the sorts of bizarre adventures that only happen in Russ Meyer films. It might be superficially sexploitation, but it has those characteristic qualities that actually make it something else quite different and strange and unique. Firstly, it has Meyer’s wonderfully energetic and off-kilter visual style. Secondly it has something you just don’t get in a porno film – it’s funny. In fact it’s extremely funny, and the sex scenes are particularly funny. Thirdly, it has lots of weirdness. I don’t mean kinky sex weirdness, I mean Russ Meyer weirdness, which is a whole different thing. It also has a refreshing and delightful sense of both fun and innocence. Vixen might be insatiable, but her attitude towards the pleasures of the flesh is honest, open and healthy. No wonder it upset so many people. And it deals with sex and politics, just to make sure that it upsets even more people. Erica Gavin is Vixen, and she’s sensational. She has so much vitality, so much joie de vivre. Perhaps not a great actress in a conventional sense, but an odd, unique and exhilarating talent. If you hate Russ Meyer’s movies this one probably won’t change your opinion, but if you do enjoy the strange charms of the work of this most singular of American film-makers then you’ll find Vixen! a great deal of fun. And the scene with Vixen and the fish has to be seen to be believed.

Friday 20 July 2007

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

The faults of François Truffaut’s 1966 film Fahrenheit 451 are mostly the faults of Ray Bradbury’s novel on which the film was based. Bradbury’s book is about a future society in which books are banned and the job of firemen is to burn books. There are small communities of people living in hiding who memorise books in order to save them. Firstly it’s hard to imagine a society that bans all books – they would be banning books that supported their policies as well as those that opposed them. And secondly the idea of people memorising books stretches credibility. The book also (as is usual with Bradbury) demonises city life and idealises rural life.

Truffaut’s film is a huge improvement on the book. It lacks the cloying sentimentality that ruins so much of Bradbury’s book, and it has style. Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography is stunning, and the music (by the great Bernard Herrmann) works beautifully. There are very few of the usual science fiction trappings. Truffaut doesn’t need them – although the world of Fahrenheit 451 looks like the contemporary world the people in this world are clearly different and it’s obvious we’re dealing with a society that has changed dramatically. Not everybody likes Oskar Werner’s performance as the hero, Montag, but I think it’s very effective. He’s clearly not comfortable with his life or his job or the society he lives in. He knows he doesn’t quite fit in, but he doesn’t know why. I think he brings out the character’s isolation and alienation very well. . I’ve been reading Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider, a study of the outsider in literature, and Montag fits the profile of such an outsider perfectly. He is haunted by feelings of unreality. He feels cut off from the rest of society. He feels cut off from his own wife. There’s a crucial moment in the film when Montag asks his wife where they first met, and she can’t answer him. This really drives home to Montag his sense of unreality. It also shows that for people in this book-less society the past has no meaning. But Montag cannot live without a past. And when he goes to the fire station and the pole that is supposed to whisk him up to the upper level of the station won’t work for him. It doesn’t recognise him, it’s as if he no longer exists.

Julie Christie plays two roles. As Montag’s wife Linda she really is disturbingly determined to be normal. Cyril Cusack as the fire captain is both avuncular and chilling. The best way to enjoy this movie is not to worry too much about the plot – it’s the images and the moods that are important, and that’s where the film’s real strengths are. It’s still a very good film. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

Requiem for a Vampire was my first Jean Rollin movie, Jean Rollin being a somewhat legendary maker of erotic horror movies from the great age of eurotrash and eurohorror, the 1970s. It’s a strange mixture, with softcore S&M juxtaposed with some remarkably lyrical scenes (like the vampire woman playing the grand piano in the forest), with some fairly cheesy horror sequences and some very effective and very striking images. The opening sequence with the car chase and gunfight involving two young women dressed as clowns is simply superb. The plot is fairly weak. The two young women find a mysterious castle and a graveyard, populated by an ageing vampire and his coven of vampire wannabes. Like most European horror of this period the film relies on images rather than plot, but compared to film-makers like Mario Bava, Jess Franco or Dario Argento Rollin (in this film anyway) doesn’t provide enough consistently strong images and is less successful in sustaining an atmosphere of weirdness. He’s also less adept in maintaining the necessary levels of tension. It’s still an interesting movie, and worth seeing just for that opening sequence.

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Nothing But the Night (1972)

Nothing But the Night was the first and only movie to be made by Charlemagne Productions, the production company set up by Christopher Lee. Its commercial failure in 1972 doomed the company. So what went wrong? It’s actually not a bad film. Lee gathered together a pretty respectable array of talent. The script is quite sound – it involves a young girl who is left in a disturbed state after an accident involving a bus, and a series of odd and unexplained deaths. The central idea, which I won’t reveal because it involves major spoilers, is quite a good one. Lee had his old Hammer comrade-in-arms Peter Cushing as the co-star, and they both give decent performances. The supporting players are extremely good – especially Georgia Brown as a determined reporter, Diana Dors as the mother of the child, and Gwyneth Strong as the girl. Peter Sasdy directs with a competent hand. It has some nicely atmospheric moments, some genuinely horrific moments towards the end, and the settings look good (much of it takes place in an orphanage on a remote Scottish island). It seems to have plenty going for it, but still it failed.

I suspect it was just a little ahead of its time. It was trying to be a fairly big-budget serious contemporary horror movie, and had it been replaced just a few years later after the success of films like The Exorcist and The Omen it might have found an audience. In 1972 I’m not sure that mainstream audience for serious horror really existed to any great extent. And the movie wasn’t likely to appeal to fans of the Hammer gothic horror movies in which Lee and Cushing had made their reputation – by 1972 horror fans expected more action and more sex, and Nothing But the Night is fairly slow-moving and totally devoid of sex. And it possibly takes itself too seriously to appeal to that audience. It tries to be an intelligent horror thriller that relies on psychological terror and atmosphere, and it largely achieves its aims. It’s not quite a neglected masterpiece, but it’s still a rather good film that is definitely worth a look.

Sunday 15 July 2007

The Wild Ride (1960)

There’s nothing I love more than the juvenile delinquent movies of the 50s and 60s. And how can you resist a juvenile delinquent movie with Jack Nicholson as the chief bad boy? The Wild Ride, made in 1960, has Nicholson as Johnny Varron, the leader of a group of car-crazed teenagers spreading terror on the public highways. It’s almost impossible to believe Nicholson ever looked that young and angelic, but the attitude is still there. Trouble starts for the gang when Johnny’s best buddy Dave starts dating Nancy. Nancy is a Good Girl, and she doesn’t approve of the gang’s bad behaviour. So Dave will have to decide between his best buddy and his girl! What’s a guy to do? The best thing about this movie is the teenage slang - it’s probably not the least bit authentic, but it’s extremely amusing. The Wild Ride is a must for all fans of JD movies.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

The blaxploitation genre is something I somehow managed to miss, so 1973’s Cleopatra Jones is really the first movie of this type that I‘ve seen. Cleopatra Jones is a government agent who becomes embroiled in a gang war involving a sinister criminal mastermind, Mommy (an amazingly camp but highly entertaining performance by Shelley Winters). Cleopatra Jones is clearly aimed at a multi-racial audience, so we have some sympathetic white cops and the kind of institutionalised racism that must have been commonplace in police forces at the time is severely down-played. If you’re looking for a movie that genuinely challenges racial stereotypes this isn’t it. Tamara Dobson is fun in the title role, and the whole thing is harmless and amusing fun.

Friday 13 July 2007

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

The director of the 1971 movie Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Seth Holt, died before the movie was completed. Which is a great pity, because judging by this movie he had plenty of promise. I’d heard bad things about this one, but I thought it was extremely good. It has more a feeling of the uncanny and the forbidden, of things that should not be, rather than out-and-out horror.

The plot involves an attempt by Tera, a long-dead sorcerous queen, to return to life in the body of Margaret Fuchs, daughter of the leader of the expedition who uncovered Tera’s tomb. Although you might suspect that Valerie Leon was cast more for her cleavage rather than her acting her performance as Margaret and Tera is actually rather good. Andrew Keir as her father is excellent, James Villiers is suavely villainous, Aubrey Morris as Dr Putnam is delightfully and eccentrically creepy. Mark Edwards as the boyfriend is a little on the bland side – the most amusing thing about the character is his name – Tod Browning. Overall though the acting is exceptionally good. As you expect from Hammer Films, the movie looks good. There’s some nicely atmospheric cinematography, the pacing is excellent, and the ending extremely good. By modern standards there’s very little gore, although there’s certainly more than in earlier Hammer movies. Personally I can happily do without gore. Overall a highly entertaining movie.

The Nanny (1965)

A Hammer film starring Bette Davis is something you don’t really expect to see. But The Nanny, made in 1965, is such a film. It isn’t really a typical Hammer film at all – it doesn’t have the typically gothic Hammer trappings, and it’s in black-and-white. It is, however, scripted by Jimmy Sangster, who not only wrote an enormous number of films for Hammer but also wrote some of the best movies. The Nanny is in fact an exercise in psychological horror. And it’s a very fine movie indeed. A little girl has died under mysterious circumstances, and it appears that her brother was responsible for her death. Ten-year-old Joey has been spent two years in a home for disturbed children and now he’s coming home. And the child’s nanny (played by Bette Davis) is there to welcome him home, but young Joey and Nanny don’t get on. I won’t say anything more about the plot for fear of revealing spoilers. Davis is excellent, the young actor playing Joey is extremely good, and Pamela Franklin is outstanding as a 14-year-old girl who lives in the apartment upstairs and who befriends Joey. Wendy Craig is also good as Joey’s rather hysterical mother. Seth Holt’s direction is superb and contributes very effectively to the increasingly tense atmosphere of the movie. An excellent movie.

Thursday 12 July 2007

Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville mixes bleakness with playfulness, and sterility with passion. Which is quite deliberate. The future city of Alphaville is a society that no longer has room for love, or poetry, or play. And it looks exactly like our world, and again that’s the point. We’re creating our own Alphaville. Godard simply shot the movie in 1965 Paris, with no science fiction props or futuristic costumes or any of the trappings we normally associate with science fiction. But it’s definitely a science fiction film. It’s also a film noir, and combining science fiction (at that time a genre very much associated with ideas of progress and optimism) with film noir (a genre associated with pessimism and alienation) was an inspired idea in 1965. Today it’s become a cliché, but it wasn’t then.

And putting together Eddie Constantine, a man with absolutely the most weather-beaten and defeated looking face you’ll ever see, with the luminously beautiful Anna Karina was also inspired. And they both deliver very fine performances. The black-and-white cinematography is incredibly stark but incredibly beautiful. And there are some strange and disturbing images, specially the swimming pool execution scene.

I may have made Alphaville sound depressing, but actually it isn’t it. It’s a surprisingly hopeful movie, and it’s also a lot of fun. Godard is a man who loves movies, especially American movies, and loves popular culture. It’s also at times very funny. It’s a passionate defence of the importance of love and art and play. This is a great movie.

Wednesday 11 July 2007

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

This review has now been replaced by a much fuller review which can be found here.

I had very high expectations for I Walked With a Zombie - after all it was one of the Val Lewton RKO movies, and it was directed by Jacques Tourneur. And it lived up to expectations. Shadows. Lots of shadows! Superb use of light and shadows is a Tourneur trademark, and this film has some of the best use of shadows you’ll ever see. It’s all very atmospheric, and the tension is built up and maintained wonderfully well. Overall very good acting too, especially from Tom Conway who did some of his best work in the Lewton pictures. There’s very little overt horror, mostly there’s just a sense of unease and a sense of impending doom.

One thing I found interesting was the way voodoo was portrayed. It wasn’t demonised in the way you’d expect in a 1943 movie, which was very pleasing. There are those who say this is the best of the Lewton films, but personally I think this one, Cat People and The Seventh Victim are all so good I wouldn’t like to even try to pick a favourite. And they don’t really feel dated at all, not in the way that most of the Universal horror movies of that period feel dated. Magnificent subtle horror.

Monday 9 July 2007

Cobra Woman (1944)

What can I say about Cobra Woman? It was made in 1944, when adventure movies with exotic jungle settings were extremely popular, and was directed by Robert Siodmak, a very fine director who was capable of much better things. It features some stupendously bad acting. Maria Montez (the Caribbean Cyclone herself) is remarkably pretty, and is more totally devoid of acting skills than any other actress I can think of offhand (except possibly Meryl Streep). Montez’s acting is bad on a truly epic scale. But somehow it really doesn’t matter. You can see she’s doing her best, she’s very likeable, and after all this isn’t exactly Citizen Kane anyway. And luckily for her Lon Chaney jnr is in the cast as well, so at least she isn’t the worst actor in the film. There’s also a chimpanzee, and he’s also a slightly better actor than Chaney. There has to be a chimpanzee, because after all the movie is set in India. The movie looks gorgeous – it’s filmed in Technicolor an here are some quite impressive sets. Siodmak keeps the action moving along at a good pace. The whole thing is absurd and vastly entertaining. It’s a movie you just can’t help liking.

Sunday 8 July 2007

She Devils on Wheels (1968)

Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She Devils on Wheels is based on an idea that really should have made an outrageously entertaining exploitation movie. Unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. It’s the story of an all-female biker gang, The Man Eaters, and their conflicts with rival male gangs. The obvious movies to compare this one to are Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels and Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Corman’s and Meyer’s movies were able to transcend the limitations of low-budget film-making, but this is something that She Devils on Wheels utterly fails to do. The problem isn’t that it’s trashy. It’s supposed to be trashy, some of my favourite movies are trashy movies, but it’s also slow, it’s dull, it’s disjointed, it has no dramatic tension whatever, and it looks ridiculously amateurish. Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is an object lesson in how to make gloriously entertaining trash, and She Devils on Wheels is an object lesson in how not to do it. It’s totally lacking in the style and imagination, and the genuine sense of the bizarre, that makes Pussycat a true classic.

She Devils on Wheels does have a few things going for it. Betty Connell, who plays the leader of The Man Eaters, has a real presence and she puts some real heart and enthusiasm into her performance. Most of the gang members were (apparently) actual female bikers, and they do at least look dangerous. The Man Eaters are girls who don’t need men to rescue them when they get into trouble, and these women manage to carry that off quite convincingly. It’s also quite fun to see the gang members recreational activities with the stud line. It’s not the fault of these amateur actresses that the movie just lacks that vital spark.
It’s an interesting curiosity piece, though, and probably worth a look as long as you don’t expect too much.

Saturday 7 July 2007

The Living Dead Girl (1982)

Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl (La Morte Vivant) is superficially a departure from his earlier vampire films. Made in 1982, it has a lot more gore (totally unnecessary except for commercial reasons, which is always the case with gore) and it’s a zombie movie. If your idea of a good zombie movie is a George Romero movie than you’ll hate The Living Dead Girl. There’s only one zombie, and she’s more than just a shambling flesh-eating monster. She has a dim but growing awareness of her past life, and a slowly awakening moral sense at all. The tragedy is that she knows she’s a monster. In some ways she’s more Rollin’s beloved vampires than the modern cinematic idea of a zombie. Being a Rollin film it has a poetic quality to it, and the sense of loss that he does so well. Personally I think I prefer his earlier vampire movies, but The Living Dead Girl is much more likely to have some appeal for mainstream horror audiences, without totally alienating those who love his earlier work. Françoise Blanchard is effectively both creepy and sad as the zombie girl. I recommend it.

The Awful Dr Orlof (1962)

As a film director Jesús Franco has become notorious for several things, including a rather slapdash approach to film-making (a reputation that is actually somewhat unfair and inaccurate). There’s nothing slapdash, however, about his 1962 debut feature, The Awful Dr Orlof (Gritos en la noche). In fact it’s made with considerable skill and a good deal of style and flair. Lots of twisted camera angles combine with the sort of discordant jazz-influenced score that later became one of his trademarks to make this quite a disturbing little horror film. The other thing Franco became notorious for was the sexual perversity of his films, and there are definite signs of that in The Awful Dr Orlof. But then how many horror films are there that don’t include a certain amount of sexual perversity?

As for the plot, it involves a Dr Orlof whose daughter has been horribly disfigured. Dr Orlof kidnaps women to use as a source for akin grafts to restore his daughter’s beauty. He is assisted by Morpho, a blind insane murderer he saved from the gallows. The police inspector investigating the case is assisted by his girlfriend, ballerina who decides to play amateur detective. Howard Vernon as Dr Orlof is quite effective and Ricardo Valle is superb and very chilling as the mad Morpho. This is classic gothic horror, and while it’s not quite in the same class as Mario Bava’s early gothic horror movies, or the best of the gothic chillers made at about the same time by Roger Corman and Terence Fisher, it’s not far behind. For a first feature it’s exceptionally good. It provides plenty of entertainment and it’s visually very impressive. I must confess that I’ve only seen one other Jesús Franco film, Vampyros Lesbos, so I can’t really give an opinion on whether he really did fritter away his early talent. I actually quite liked Vampyros Lesbos – it had a rather satisfying weirdness to it. So at this stage I’m intending to see more of his films.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Funeral in Berlin (1966)

Funeral in Berlin, directed by Guy Hamilton, and released in 1966, is the second of the Harry Palmer movies, with Michael Caine as the reluctant spy who’s been blackmailed into working for the British secret service. Although made at about the same time the Harry Palmer movies lack the spectacular action sequences and the gimmicks of the early James Bond movies, but they more than make up for this with intelligent scripting, noirish atmosphere, and great acting (especially by Caine in what is perhaps the finest role of his career). The mood is cynical in the extreme, and they have a delightful quirkiness and subtly tongue-in-cheek quality. The plot of Funeral in Berlin is fiendishly complicated, but it doesn’t really matter if you start to lose the thread – what matters is the feeling of double-crossers being double-crossed and then double-crossed again. If you start to feel really paranoid then the film is working exactly as it’s supposed to! The story involves a top Russian spy who claims he wants to defect, and a scramble for money belonging to victims of the Nazis. If you’ve never seen a Harry Palmer movie you really should see The Ipcress File (one of the all-time great spy movies) first. Funeral in Berlin has a slightly different tone, but in its own way it’s just as good.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Häxan, (1922)

The Danish film Häxan, made by Benjamin Christensen in 1922, is perhaps the first ever example of the mingling of fiction and documentary. Essentially it’s a documentary on the history of witchcraft, but with fictionalised dramatisations of various events - what today would be described as reconstructions. Christensen clearly believes that the witch craze was the product of mass hysteria and religious fanaticism, and interestingly he sees parallels in the world of 1922, with psychiatrists (a priesthood that is still with us, armed today not with the infamous Malleus Maleficarum but with its modern equivalent, the DSM-IV) labelling problematical women as “hysterics” and locking them away where they can’t upset respectable folk. He also makes the point that many old women were accused of witchcraft, and that while such women no longer need to fear the stake our treatment of them is nothing to be proud of them. Like “hysterics” we want them to be out of sight where they won’t disturb us. The movie was controversial in its own day, being extremely critical of the Catholic Church and of Christian intolerance in general. It still packs quite a punch, and the scenes of poor deluded women who have convinced themselves they are possessed by Satan and deserve to be destroyed are still emotionally raw. In these days of paranoia and religious fundamentalism it’s perhaps even more relevant that it was in 1922. Visually it’s rather similar to the style of German Expressionism, and it makes effective use of tinting. Considering that there had been nothing like this movie before Christensen was very much experimenting with the form, and it works remarkably well. A fascinating film, and a great example of the extraordinary but sadly largely forgotten treasure that is silent cinema.

Terror-Creatures from the Grave (5 tombe per un medium, 1965)

A letter from a man who has been dead for a year prompts a young lawyer to pay a visit to the man’s widow. Since Terror-Creatures from the Grave (5 tombe per un medium) is an Italian gothic movie the said widow naturally lives in a lonely secluded gothic house. A series of murders ensue, and it is revealed that the house was built on the site of a medieval plague hospital, and that on this site a series of executions was carried out on those suspected of deliberating spreading the plague. The dead man left behind a series of gramophone recordings suggesting that he had made some sort of occult contact with the spirits of the plague carriers. It also appears that he vowed revenge on a group of people who sought to kill him. The movie, like all 1960s Italian gothic horror movies, evokes the gothic mood rather effectively, but what this movie mostly has going for it is the presence of Barbara Steele as the dead man’s widow. Steele adds a touch of class, and a touch of genuine spookiness, to any movie she appears in. Apart from that it’s a perfectly competent example of 60s Italian gothic horror, with slightly more gruesome images than you would see in an American or British film of that era, and a hint of eroticism. Worth seeing just for Barbara Steele.

Bloody Pit of Horror (1965)

As anyone who reads my entries regularly knows. I have a taste for bizarre movies. But Bloody Pit of Horror is bizarre even by my standards! Mickey Hargitay, a body-builder best-known for having been married to Jayne Mansfield, plays a man who comes to believe he is the reincarnation of the Crimson Executioner, a kind of witch-hunter/inquisitor who was condemned to death for being excessively cruel and sadistic, even by witch-hunter/inquisitor standards. This man happens to live in the castle once owned by the Crimson Executioner. A group of photographers and models, looking for locations for photo shoots, stumbles upon this castle. The photo shoot soon turns to terror and mayhem. It’s much too ridiculous to be taken seriously, and even the sadistic means by which the various attractive young models meet their ends are really too silly to be offensive. The film does have considerable camp appeal however. Hargitay is one of those bad actors whose bad acting has a truly epic quality about it. In fact the whole movie is bad on an epic scale. If you’re in the right mood, though, it’s strangely entertaining and morbidly and weirdly fascinating.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971)

With a title like Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay you pretty much know what to expect from this movie, but in fact the title is extremely misleading. This is not soft-core porn (although there’s certainly quite a bit of nudity). Directed by Bruno Gantillon in 1971, this is an example of a genre the French call the fantastique – a kind of combination of horror, the surreal, fantasy and fairy tale. Two young women lose their way on a lonely country road, and find themselves falling into the clutches of an ancient and powerful witch. If they choose to stay they will gain immortality, but at the cost of their freedom. Like the films of Jean Rollin this movie combines elements of the erotic with horror and general strangeness, and a rather effective dream-like atmosphere. If your idea of a good horror film is lots of gore then you needn’t bother with this one. If you prefer your horror to offer a slightly unsettling sense of the weird then this one is worth checking out.

The DVD from Mondo Macabro includes an interview with the director, and the picture and sound quality can’t be faulted. These really are happy days for fans of that delirious genre of art/horror/exploitation that thrived in Europe from the late 60s to the late 70s. There are just so many movies off-beast movies like this coming onto the market – it’s fabulous!

Jess Franco's Eugenie (1970)

Jess Franco has made several moves based on works by the Marquis de Sade, including his 1970 film Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, inspired by de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir. A young woman is lured to an island owned by an older woman and her brother. The older woman seduces her, and them, under the influence of various drugs, she is introduced to the pleasures and pains of sexual produced inspired by de Sade’s writings. This is a very erotic film, but it’s also a serious film, and a serious attempt to grapple with some of de Sade’s ideas. If you disapprove of sex and nudity you’ll find much to offend you, by then if such things offend you really shouldn’t be watching a Jess Franco movie anyway. At his best Franco has the ability to combine eroticism, art and ideas, and this is one of his most successful films. Among the extras on the DVD is a rather good documentary, in which Christopher Lee (perhaps surprisingly in view of Lee’s somewhat conservative moral views) expresses a good deal of admiration for Franco as a film-maker. Incidentally this movie is not to be confused with another of Franco's movies of the same period, entitled Eugenie de Sade (also a rather good movie).

Sunday 1 July 2007

Bad Timing (1980)

At one point fairly early on in Nic Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing we see Alex (Art Garfunkel) giving a lecture to his students on spying. And spying, voyeurism and an obsessive need to investigate, especially an obsessive need to investigate those we love, are themes that run continuously throughout this movie. Alex must know everything about his girlfriend Milena (Theresa Russell); for Alex knowledge is power, knowledge gives him control, and Alex wants to be always in control. But how much can we ever understand about another person? Despite all his efforts Alex never does understand Milena. Milena’s understanding of Alex comes late, and at a heavy cost. The film opens with Milena in an ambulance on the way to hospital in Vienna after a overdose of sleeping pills. The rest of the film is in the form of flashbacks intercut with yet another form of investigation, this being the investigation carried out by an Austrian police inspector, played by Harvey Kietel.

Bad Timing’s probings into the human psyche and into the darker realms of love and sex are certainly disturbing. As with so many of Roeg’s films we see sex scenes intercut with other scenes, in this case intercut with scenes of emergency surgery on the unconscious Milena. The cutting of this film is breath-taking. The key scenes showing what really happened at the apartment after Milena’s phone call to Alex are very unsettling indeed. Garfunkel is superb. Russell is simply brilliant, and Kietel and Denholm Elliott (who plays Milena’s husband) are also excellent. A magnificent film. The Criterion disc contains extremely interesting interviews with both Roeg and Theresa Russell.

Kitten with a Whip (1964)

There’s nothing like a good 1950s or early 1960s juvenile delinquent movie, from the days when every decent family lived in dread that their children would turn into juvenile delinquents, or become communists or dope fiends. There were just so many threats to decency and family values to worry about! And Kitten with a Whip, from 1964, is a classic of the genre. Ann-Margret is bad girl Jody, who breaks into the house of squeaky clean ultra-respectable aspiring politician John Forsythe. She then decides to enjoy the high life at his expense, by threatening to scream rape if he calls the police. Poor old John Forsythe’s worst nightmare comes true when some of her friends arrive and decide it’s party time. They’re even more dangerous than she is – one of them even sounds suspiciously like a pacifist, and we all know how dangerous they are. And they even quote poetry, so we know there is no limit to their depravity. So Mr Political Hopeful’s life spirals out of control and he finds himself taking a walk on the wild side.

Of course we realise fairly early on why Jody went bad, when we see her reading comic books. No wonder those crazy kids don’t believe in anything any more. As in all films of this genre respectability and virtue prevails at the end and we see the shocking price that must be paid by kids who go bad. But Kitten with a Whip is enormously entertaining, it has an amazingly frenetic jazz soundtrack, it has incredible energy, it is (naturally) unintentionally screamingly funny in places, and it boasts an unbelievably hyper and totally over-the-top performance by Ann-Margret. She bounces from one extreme emotion to another, and from cold calculating wicked woman to poor frightened little girl lost in the big bad world. It’s a performance that, surprisingly, works extremely well. This movie works superbly as a camp classic and I highly recommend it. The “so bad it’s good” thing very rarely works out in practice, but in this case it does. And the movie has a real style to it.