Thursday 29 November 2007

Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970)

Jess Franco’s 1970 Count Dracula (Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht was promoted at the time as being the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel up to that date. In fact it’s probably still the movie adaptation that remains closest to the original book. Personally I don’t care about the faithfulness of adaptations, but this is certainly a very good version of this much-told tale. Franco was fortunate in being able to assemble a very strong cast indeed, with Christopher Lee as the Count, Klaus Kinski as Renfield, Soledad Miranda as Lucy and Herbert Lom as van Helsing. In the accompanying interview Franco claims that to the best of his recollection this film was actually Christopher Lee’s idea, and that he was very excited about the prosect of being able to play Dracula as Stoker had written the character. Lee’s enthusiasm for the project pay dividends – he gives a great performance, far better than in any of the vampire movies he did for Hammer Studios. As superb as his performance is, it’s Kinski (as so often) who steals the film. Franco recounts that while most actors will battle a director to get more lines, Kinski would do the opposite – he much preferred to have as little dialogue as possible and to show emotions rather than talking about them, and this movie shows just how well Kinski was able to do just that. Herbert Lom is wonderful as van Helsing, and Soledad Miranda is mesmerising as Lucy. Apparently Christopher Lee wasn’t too happy at first about her casting, but after the first day’s shooting he had to admit that Franco was absolutely right about her. The movie boasts higher production values than most of Franco’s films, some glorious sets and some luscious location photography. It just drips gothic atmosphere, but not the overdone rather stagey gothic atmosphere you often get in horror movies.

For those who think Jess Franco’s movies contain too much nudity and gore – this one has no nudity at all, and virtually no gore. The Region 1 DVD release contains an exceptionally interesting interview with Uncle Jess, and it looks magnificent. It’s worth buying this one just for the performances of Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski (and I’m not even a Christopher Lee fan). For those who like their literary adaptations to be reasonably faithful to the source material this is a must-buy, and it’s really a must-buy for any self-respecting horror movie fan.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Jungle Bride (1933)

A ship sinks off the coast of Africa, and four mismatched survivors find themselves having to survive in the wild beat-infested jungle! This is the idea behind Jungle Bride, a 1933 offering from Monogram Pictures. The four castaways include an actor who is facing an accusation of murder if and when he reaches civilisation (he is of course innocent, this is the movies after all), his buddy, the man who is hunting him, and the woman whose brother he is alleged to have slain. The woman is (it goes without saying), beautiful, glamorous and blonde. Pretty soon they’re living a kind of Gilligan’s Island existence, but enlivened by the occasional wrestling match with man-eating lions (and it turns out that savage man-eating lions are not very good wrestlers). In between encounters with the wildlife (most of which is, surprisingly enough in a Hollywood movie of this vintage, actual African wildlife – not a tiger in sight) tensions simmer between Gordon Wayne (the accused killer) and John Franklin (the man hunting him) owing to the fact that they’re both in love with the aforementioned beautiful, glamorous and blonde Doris. Since Doris is played by Anita Page, on loan from MGM and looking stunning and very sexy, one can hardly blame them. The bonus here is that Ms Page can actually act - I use the present tense since she is apparently still very much alive and made a movie as recently as 2004. And since it’s a pre-code movie, her costumes are at times quite skimpy and on occasion she dispenses with clothing altogether. The rest of the acting is what you’d expect from a Monogram B-picture, but it doesn’t really matter. This is not exactly Hamlet, and Charles Starrett as Wayne is only required to look hunky, which is just about within his acting range. This is the sort of film that is very much for B-movie aficionados – those of us who adore cheesy social effects, rickety sets and amusingly bad acting. I you are such a person, then Jungle Bride is definitely fun.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Scarlet Diva (2000)

Anna Battista, the heroine of Scarlet Diva, is a rich, successful, critically acclaimed actress who is, at the ripe old age of 24, bored and disillusioned with acting and with her life of excess. She wants to be a director. She is working on a screenplay about a rich, successful, critically acclaimed actress who is bored and disillusioned with acting and with her life of excess. Anna Battista is played by Asia Argento. At the time the movie was made Asia Argento just happened to be a rich, successful, critically acclaimed 24-year-old actress directing her first feature film, called Scarlet Diva. Given all that, you’d expect this movie to be wildly self-indulgent, insanely self-reflexive and highly autobiographical, and you’d be right on the money. The most surprising thing about Scarlet Diva is that she gets away with it. The main reason she gets away with it is that it’s a wonderfully stylish and visually impressive movie. She’s not Dario Argento’s daughter for nothing. She might not have a great deal to say in this movie, other than telling us about the extraordinary capacity for self-destruction possessed by rich celebrities (something that isn’t exactly going to come as a great shock to most of us) but she tells her story economically and with flair and as director she is always in complete control. The movie’s other saving grace is an unexpected sense of humour. Argento’s acting is as excessive as everything else in the film, but it’s undeniably effective and powerful. As both star and director Argento is not afraid to go over-the-top and to take risks, and there’s a certain brutal honesty to the movie, and to her portrayal of a character clearly based to a very large extent on herself. There are more than enough pluses to balance out the self-indulgence, and the result is an impressive feature film debut.

Monday 19 November 2007

The Devil's Nightmare (1971)

The Devil's Nightmare is a 1971 Belgian-Italian co-production, and it’s actually a rather little gothic horror flick. A busload of travellers find themselves forced to spend the night in a gothic castle. We’ve already seen their host, in the opening scene, a flashback to World War 2 in which we see him killing his infant daughter. Now we find out the reason for his appalling action – there is a curse on the family, a curse that causes the eldest daughter in each generation to become a succubus. The baron thinks he’s managed to evade the curse, but he’s made a miscalculation. There is an unexpected guest in the castle, and she is indeed a succubus. She sets out to destroy the other seven guests, and to destroy each of them in an appropriate way – with each guest representing one of the seven deadly sins. The movie is actually considerably better than it sounds. Erika Blanc makes a wonderfully creepy and mysterious succubus, the killings are handled with a small amount of gore and a much larger amount of imagination, there’s plenty of gothic atmosphere, and there are a plethora of ingenious plot twists. The baron also dabbles in alchemy, which is always fun. The devil puts in an appearance, and a delightfully sinister devil he is, and there’s a young priest-in-training who finds himself exposed to temptations of both the flesh and the spirit. An unexpectedly proficient slice of eurohorror, and all highly entertaining.

Sunday 18 November 2007

Female Trouble (1974)

Female Trouble is the first of John Waters’ early pre-Hairspray films that I’ve seen. It’s every bit as gross as I expected it to be, but it is also extremely funny. Divine is Dawn Davenport, who runs away from home after her parents fail to buy her a pair of cha-cha heels for Christmas. She embarks on a career in crime, and encounters a very odd couple who own a hairdressing salon. Their fetish is crime as beauty, and photographing crime. Dawn’s criminal career really accelerates after this point, leading her to murder and to her greatest starring role. John Waters uses this story for some rather biting and surprisingly effective satire on America’s obsessions with fame and crime. Waters regular Mink Stole plays Dawn’s bizarre daughter Taffy, whose favourite pastime is recreating car accidents in the living room. The DVD includes a commentary track by Waters himself – he really does superb commentary tracks and this is no exception. Typical Waters weirdness and bad taste, and all highly entertaining.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

I’m not sure if this is really a cult movie, but it is an under-appreciated movie, and it isBillion Dollar Brain, released in 1967, was the third of the Harry Palmer spy movies of the 1960s. Some people don't regard it as a true Ken Russell movie but I don’t agree. I think it has his visual signature all over it. And it has the characteristic Russell excess. It has almost nothing in common with the earlier Harry Palmer films. There's no pretence here of a realistic spy thriller. Billion Dollar Brain has more in common with Dr Strangelove, or even Apocalypse Now. This is the strange, deluded, paranoid world of the right-wing zealot. It's a surreal world of plots, both imaginary and real, a glimpse inside the mind of a madman. It's the mental landscape of the obsessed. If you’ve always wondered what a Ken Russell spy movie would be like, this is it. If you were going to compare it to another Ken Russell film it would have to be The Devils, with General Midwinter's rabidly anti-communist conservative fanatics in place of the religious fanatics of the later movie. The plot concerns an attempt by a crazed Texan oil billionaire to overthrow Soviet communism. In many of the British spy movies of the 60s there is no moral difference between the Cold War antagonists. That's not the case here – in this movie the Russians are unequivocally the good guys.

Harry Palmer provided Michael Caine with one of his best roles and he turns in a fine performance. Karl Malden is superb as corrupt CIA agent Leo Newbigen. It’s a role that allows him to be more flamboyant and more morally ambiguous than usual and he’s clearly enjoying himself. Ed Begley is terrifying as General Midwinter, while Oscar Homolka is delightful as the cynical but extremely likeable KGB chief Colonel Stok. Billion Dollar Brain looks superb, with some fascinatingly odd and interesting sets and enormous visual flair. It also benefits from a great score by Richard Rodney Bennett. This isn't just a real Ken Russell movie, it's a great Ken Russell movie. It's a fantastic movie. I can't recommend this movie too highly.

Monday 12 November 2007

Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (1974)

The conventional wisdom is that the 70s was a period of decline for Hammer Films. This was certainly true in a financial sense, as a series of poor business decisions eventually doomed the studio. It was certainly not true in a qualitative sense though, and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter (made in 1972 but not released until 1974) provides further evidence of just how good some of their movies of this era are. Brian Clemens, one of the best British television writers of the 60s and 70s (in fact arguably one of the best British television writers ever) was brought in as writer and director. It’s the only film he ever directed, which is surprising because he did an excellent and extremely professional job– it’s visually interesting, well-paced and consistently entertaining. It’s also very unconventional for a Hammer film. At this time Hammer were trying to breathe new life into the gothic horror genre with interesting and slightly off-beat entries like Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (also written by Brian Clemens), and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter overturns all the established clichés of the studio’s previous vampire flicks – it has vampires that drain their victims of their youth rather than their blood, vampires that need to be killed in different ways, and vampires that are unworried by sunlight. It also adds some of the flavour of other movie genres, and was clearly influenced by both Japanese samurai movies and Italian spaghetti westerns. Interestingly enough, it also seems to have itself been a major influence on the much later (and absolutely superb) Japanese anime horror movie Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Captain Kronos is an Austrian officer turned professional vampire hunter. When a number of young women are found horribly and inexplicably aged he and his partner, the hunch-backed Professor Hieronymos Grost, are called in. They immediately suspect vampiric activity, and along with a beautiful young gypsy woman they picked up along the way (Captain Kronos seem to have a bit of an eye for the ladies) they set out to uncover the mystery and find a way to slay the undead fiends. Horst Janson is moody but charismatic as Kronos, Caroline Munro is more than competent in the role of the gypsy girl Carla, and John Cater is delightful as Grost – although he’s a hunchback he is not a figure of fun, and is both highly knowledgeable in vampire lore and an active and very useful partner to Kronos. Lois Daine is suitably enigmatic and slightly disturbing as the daughter of the noble but slightly disturbing Durward family and Ian Hendry is fun in a small role. With Clemems showing plenty of flair in both the writing and directing departments this is really a great little film that deserved more commercial success. It’s possible that the one weakness of the movie, undoubtedly because of Clemens’ television background, is that it probably needed a bit more sex - by the standards of other contemporary Hammer movies it’s rather tame in this area which may have hurt it a little at the box office. Overall though it’s a movie I recommend very highly.

Saturday 10 November 2007

The Hellfire Club (1961)

The notorious 18th century Hellfire Club would, you would think, make a great subject for a movie. Unfortunately the 1961 British film The Hellfire Club is not that movie. The Hellfire Club itself plays a marginal role in the film, which is really just a swashbuckling adventure romp. The good news is, if you happen to like swashbuckling adventure romps then this one is a pretty good example of the breed. Keith Michell makes a dashing, brave and noble hero as the son of a wicked lord (and leading figure in the infamous Hellfire Club). He and his mother flee the said wicked lord but his mother is killed and he realises he cannot go back to the family estate now. So, naturally, he runs off to join the circus. As you do. When word comes that his father is dead he returns to claim his title and his inheritance only to find that his wicked cousin has got there first. He enlists the help of a slightly shady lawyer (Peter Cushing), and with his pals from the circus sets out to right the wrongs that have been done to him. The movie has the look of a Hammer film, and includes a number of regular Hammer players, although in fact it has no connection with that studio. There’s plenty of action, lots of narrow escapes, and an abundance of swordplay. Not a great movie, but entertaining escapist entertainment.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Mill of the Stone Women (1960)

Mill of the Stone Women is a somewhat neglected classic from the early days of the Italian gothic horror boom. Made in 1960, it’s a film that relies on atmosphere and creepiness rather than thrills or action. Fortunately it has both atmosphere and creepiness in abundance. It’s set in the Netherlands, presumably sometime in the 19th century, and most of the action takes place inside a windmill owned by Professor Wahl. It is in fact a kind of wax museum, with the windmill providing the motive power for a series of moving tableaux of macabre subjects – hanged women, and assorted female murderers and murder victims. There is of course a ghastly secret hidden here, involving the professor, his enigmatic daughter Elfy and his partner, a disgraced doctor. The daughter apparently suffers from the sort of unspecified and mysterious ailment that tends to afflict beautiful daughters in gothic horror movies. The professor and his medical colleague have taken drastic and unnatural steps to prolong her life. All goes well until young Hans arrives at the mill and the aforementioned mysterious daughter seduces him. Hans is already in love with another woman, Liselotte, who is one of Professor Wahl’s art students. Hans and Elfy argue, and Elfy collapses, apparently dead. Naturally things are more complicated than that, but you’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to find out how. And this movie is very much worth watching for yourself. You effectively get not one but two mad scientists, some great sets with gigantic windmill-type wheels and gears, the very very macabre waxwork tableaux, and some reasonably effective acting. Robert Boehme as the professor and Wolfgang Preiss as his doctor accomplice are suitably sinister. The voluptuous Scilla Gabel has just the right air of strangeness and exotic beauty as Elfy, while Dany Carrel is equally beautiful and very likeable as the rather effervescent Liselotte. Pierre Brice is adequate as the hero of the piece, Hans. Mill of the Stone Women is worthy to be counted among the cream of the Italian gothic horror movies, perhaps not quite as good as the greatest of Mario Bava’s films but a very very fine film. It’s impossible to find anything to seriously complain of in the Mondo Macabro DVD release – the movie (shot in Technicolor) looks terrific. If you enjoy subtle horror this movie is an absolute must-see.

Monday 5 November 2007

The Violent Years (1956)

The Violent Years isn’t just a juvenile delinquent movie, it’s a JD movie scripted by Ed Wood jnr! And it has the classic Ed Wood touches – lots of incredibly but amusingly clunky speechifying, dialogue that you have to hear to believe, and some very interesting hints of gender-bending. A gang of bad girls dress up like men and carry out a series of daring and violent armed robberies. They become involved in a communist conspiracy to vandalise schools and desecrate the flag. The most interesting of their escapades, however, comes when they terrorise a couple of innocent young kids making out in Lovers’ Lane. They force the girl to get partially undressed and tie her up. They then march her boyfriend off into the woods, start forcibly undressing him, and the last shot we see is the leader of the girl gang starting to remove her clothes. The poor boy is clearly about to suffer a fate worse than death. These girls are beyond bad! The pyjama party scene is also pretty memorable. We eventually find out that it’s not really Paula’s fault (Paula being the chief of this gang of female delinquents) – she’s been the victim of terrible child abuse. Instead of giving her love and lots of mother-daughter heart-to-heart talks her uncaring mom just keeps buying her expensive new dresses and a new convertible every year for her birthday. The poor kid! Luckily the kindly judge is on hand at the end to instruct parents on the proper way to bring up their children – lots of attention, frequent church-going and regular beatings in the woodshed. The most entertaining thing about the movie is the way Wood’s own preoccupations keep subverting the ostensibly conservative social message. Not only do these girl hoodlums engage in cross-dressing, they also call each other by masculine names – Paula becomes Paul, Georgia is known as George, Phyllis becomes Phil, etc. One can only assume that censors at the time didn’t even realise what Wood was up to here.

The acting is bad of course, but it’s good bad, it’s the sort of bad acting that is required by the sort of dialogue that Ed Wood wrote. The DVD release from Something Weird also includes a second girl JD movie, Girl Gang, which I haven’t had a chance to look at yet. The Violent Years looks pretty good for a 50-year-old low-budget movie. It may not be the best JD movie I’ve seen, but it is the most bizarre and the most interesting, and it really is a must-see.

Saturday 3 November 2007

Eugénie de Sade (1970)

Jess Franco’s Eugénie de Sade is his attempt at an adaptation of a work by the notorious Marquis de Sade. A young woman is initiated by her father, a writer who regards himself as misunderstood genius, into the pleasures of murder. Franco certainly has a knack for creating disturbing female killers, women who seem to be driven to kill by overwhelming forces or emotions – in Female Vampire it’s her insatiable vampiric hunger, in She Killed in Ecstasy it’s a woman taking revenge for the death of her beloved husband, and in Eugénie de Sade it’s Eugénie’s obsessive, and incestuous, devotion to a dominating father. The relationship with her father is handled with considerable subtlety, and Soledad Miranda is mesmerising as Eugénie. She makes us believe that Eugénie is as much a victim as a monster. She is an innocent drawn into evil. Paul Muller is very good, and very creepy, as her father, Albert Radeck. Franco himself plays the role of another writer, a man who has followed Radeck’s literary career with great interest, and is now equally fascinated by his criminal career. Radeck regards murder not merely as an intellectual recreation for superior minds, but seems to see it also as a form of art, and the movie very effectively pursues this link between literature and cruelty, and between art and death. If murder can be a subject for art, can murder itself become art? The film raises such questions in a rather uncomfortable way, and Franco’s ability to make murder both entertaining and beautiful serves to make the viewer even more uneasy. The link between sex and death, always an unsettling element in horror, is even more disturbing than usual in this film. Most of all the film makes is disquieting because it takes de Sade’s ideas seriously, and it compels us to take them seriously as well. We can disagree violently with those ideas, and in fact we probably should disagree violently with them, but it may well be both useful and healthy to at least face up to the existence of such questions, and to admit their relevance to an understanding of our own civilisation. Jess Franco remains one of the few directors able to crate genuine erotic horror; not horror with added sex, but horror in which the erotic and the horror are inextricably linked. While there are still many who dismiss Franco as a film-maker, Eugénie de Sade is a movie that is compelling, fascinating and brilliant.

Friday 2 November 2007

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

The daughter of the great surgeon Dr Génessier is horribly disfigured in a car accident. She is left virtually without a face. Her father is determined to restore her to her original beauty, whatever the cost. His assistant Louise is devoted to him, with good reason – her own face had been horrifically damaged but he had repaired the damage so well that no trace of her accident remained. She kidnaps beautiful young women for him, young women whose faces will be removed to provide his daughter’s new face. Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage) is one of the classics of the horror genre; it has influenced a host of subsequent movies, some of which are little more than copies of this film. Few of these later movies have captured the essential feel of Eyes Without a Face however. Although the surgical scenes are remarkably graphic for a movie of its era the overall impression is one of restraint. Franju’s treatment of his subject matter is resolutely non-sensationalistic, and visually the movie is lyrical and haunting, and even poetic, rather than horrific. In an interview included on the DVD Franju points out that Dr Génessier is not a mad scientist – he is a sane man who does insane things. His motivations are rational; he simply takes them to insane extremes. Pierre Brasseur is frightening as Dr Génessier because his manner is so calm and reasonable. Edith Scob’s performance as the daughter is mesmerising and eerie. Her face is covered with a mask for most of the movie, and she movies in a strange and wraith-like manner, as if she is not really a living person at all. Since her accident she is so disconnected from the world of ordinary people that she is really more of a living ghost. It’s not a movie that is likely to terrify a modern audience, but it remains disturbing. It’s a strange and strangely beautiful film, and it’s a film that every horror fan must see. And if you’re not a horror fan, see it anyway.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Die, Monster, Die! (1965)

There have been few totally successful movie adaptations of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Die, Monster, Die!, directed by Roger Corman protégé Daniel Haller in 1965, is certainly a brave attempt. It makes no attempt to be a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, but it does achieve a reasonably Lovecraftian feel (as does Haller’s later, and very underrated, The Dunwich Horror). Haller lays the gothic atmosphere on with a trowel, but it looks great. There’s no point in underdoing a gothic atmosphere! The social effects are cheap but surprisingly effective. An elderly and ailing Boris Karloff turns in a wonderful performance as Nahum Witley, whose family have long dabbled in forbidden things. Karloff plays the entire movie in a wheelchair, but still dominates proceedings and is as charismatic as ever. The rest of the cast manage adequate performances. Haller’s direction and pacing really can’t be faulted, and at just under 80 minutes it’s a taut and rather gripping chiller with some moments of real weirdness. Special mention must also be made of Terence de Marney, whose brief appearances as the family retainer Merwyn are delightfully creepy. Die, Monster, Die! should please most fans of gothic horror, and I think Lovecraftian enthusiasts will find it reasonably satisfying. A classic piece of 60s horror, and highly recommended.