Tuesday 30 December 2008

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)

Invasion of the Bee Girls is a staggeringly bad movie, but at least it knows just how bad it is. It’s played purely as campy fun, and on that level it succeeds quite well. Scripted by Nicholas Meyer, who went to to write so quite interesting movies, it has a premise that is so silly you can’t help liking it.

The small town of Peckham is home to a top-secret government research lab, so when a number of scientists die in mysterious circumstances State Department investigator Neil Agar is dispatched to find out what is going on. It turns out that the scientists, and quite a few other male citizens of this community, have died from an excess of sexual excitement.

The local police chief thinks it may be just coincidence, or mass hysteria, and urges the good people of Peckham to stop having sex. But Agar works for the government, so he has a much less far-fetched theory to explain these deaths. What if someone were creating woman-insect hybrids, driven instinctively to kill after mating? Wouldn’t that be a far more logical explanation?

Of course it turns out that he’s correct. With the help of a beautiful (not non-insectoid) female member of the staff of the lab, he sets out to prove his theory. Unfortunately most of those who could assist him fall victim to the dreaded bee girls.

The acting is bad, the plot is ludicrous, the special effects are laughable, and it’s all great fun. At any point in the movie where the plot starts to falter, the female members of the cast start taking their clothes off. Apparently creating a woman-insect hybrid can only be done naked, and to ensure success it is vital that the other insect-women should spend as much time as possible fondling the breasts of the new recruits. And such is their dedication to the cause they don’t hesitate to do so.

It’s all very silly, but it’s so obviously done with tongue planted firmly in cheek that one can’t really do anything but take it in the spirit of high camp zaniness with which it is intended.

Monday 29 December 2008

Flash Gordon (1980)

The 1980 Flash Gordon movie successfully captures both the naïve charm and the campy silliness of the original serials.

In this case Flash Gordon isn’t a spaceman superhero, he’s a football player. Dr Hans Zarkov is an eccentric (well not so much eccentric as totally insane) scientist who is convinced Earth is under attack. He has built a rocket ship and intends to use it to travel through the galaxy to find the source of the threat to our planet. Just as his assistant decides not to accompany him, as luck would have it, a small plane crashes into his laboratory. Zarkov kidnaps the passengers, football player Flash and a young woman named Dale Arden, and they find themselves en route to the planet Mongo.

They are caught up in the megalomaniacal plans of the Emperor Ming the Merciless to dominate the galaxy. Ming wants Dale as his bride, while Ming’s beautiful but evil and lust-crazed daughter wants Flash. The only hope seems to be to try to precipitate a revolution against the Emperor, but this will require the co-operation of Prince Barin and Prince Vultan, leader of the hawkmen. Can Flash and Dale escape with their virtue intact? Can the untrustworthy Barin and Vultan really be relied upon? Can the Earth be saved? What ensues is lots of breathless adventure and high camp outrageousness.

Sam J. Jones is handsome and vacuous as Flash and Melody Anderson is a bland heroine as Dale, but fortunately there’s galaxy of great acting talent on hand to enliven the proceedings. Max von Sydow is a wonderfully sinister Ming, although he’s overshadowed by the always marvellous Peter Wyngarde as his evil henchman Klytus. Ornella Muti is sexy as the licentious but not entirely wicked Princess Aura, while Mariangela Melato is even sexier as the thoroughly wicked General Kala. And the icing on the cake is Brian Blessed, chewing the scenery (as only he could chew it) as Vultan.

Visually the movie is both spectacular and fun, the sets are suitably over-the-top, and director Mike Hodges keeps the action moving along nicely. And there is of course the music by Queen, which is incredibly bombastic and that is of course exactly what this film demands, and it works. It’s all great fun, managing to send up the Flash Gordon serials but doing so in an affectionate and good-natured way. It’s a popcorn movie, but it’s a classy and stylish popcorn movie and I highly recommend it.

As is usual with Region 4 DVD releases there are no extras at all.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Six Hours to Live (1932)

William Dieterle’s Six Hours to Live is a definite oddity. This 1932 movie is a science fiction murder mystery, and an unusual love story. It’s also a mad scientist movie, and a film about the conflict between science and religion.

An international conference is unable to each agreement on a new trade treaty because of the intransigence of the representative from the Republic of Sylvaria, Dr Paul Onslow (Warner Baxter). Tensions are running high, and Onslow is murdered. The identity of the murderer seems likely to remain unknown, until Professor Otto Bauer reveals his latest scientific discovery, a machine that can bring the dead back to life. But only for six hours. Restored to life, Onslow now has six hours to live, and in that time he must resolve both political and personal crises, track down his murderer, and come to terms with death.

You’d expect a movie like this to focus on the revenge sub-plot, or to be played out as a horror movie, but Six Hours to Live is more concerned with the spiritual and emotional journey taken by Onslow in those six precious hours. He wants to ensure the happiness of the woman he loves, and to do this he comes up with an ingenious scheme involving his rival for her affections.

He has an encounter with a woman whose in was killed in the last war, a woman who believes that his stand on the trade treaty will lead to another war. He also encounters a prostitute who takes him to the Carnival of Venus, in a somewhat Expressionist scene that is one of the movie’s high points.

Dieterle directs with flair and energy, and the movie has some great visual moments. Baxter is effective as Onslow. The worst feature of Hollywood horror and science fiction movies of this era is the comic relief that the studios were convinced formed an essential part of such movies. Mercifully there is almost none of that in this film.

I had some issues with this movie, mainly to do with the way the science vs religion theme was handled and with its tendency towards sentimentality, but those issues are really matters of personal taste. Six Hours to Live is a strange but interesting little movie, and it’s one that is well worth seeking out.

Thursday 25 December 2008

Common Law Cabin (1967)

Even by the standards of Russ Meyer films Common-Law Cabin is a strange one. It’s a kind of transitionary film, between the dark and violent weirdness of movies like Mudhoney and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the more colourful and rather lighter surreal sex comedies like Vixen.

Dewey Hoople runs a tourist resort on the Colorado River. It’s actually not really a resort; more a tourist trap. In fact it’s just a cabin in the middle of nowhere! Unsuspecting travellers are lured there to be fleeced by his partner, a drunken old sailor. Once there they are sold over-priced booze, and treated to some truly bizarre entertainment - there’s a kind of wild woman act by his scantily clad and very well-endowed housekeeper Babette, and a floor show provided by his equally well-endowed daughter Coral.

Coral’s go go dancing is proving increasingly disturbing for her father given that she’s a rather well-developed girl, and her go go dancing costume leaves little of her charms to the imagination. His housekeeper certainly thinks he takes far much too much interest in those very womanly charms!

A fairly unhealthy situation gets a lot more unhealthy when the latest party of suckers arrives. There’s a slightly sinister individual who for some inexplicable reason decides to wants to buy Hoople’s place, and there’s an obviously not very happily married doctor and his very well-endowed wife (yes, this is a Russ Meyer movie, and there are the usual outrageously ample bosoms).

As usual in a Meyer movie, the mood gradually darkens as it emerges that one of the tourists is most definitely up to no good, and events build towards a violent and bizarre climax. But again as usual in a Meyer movie, the violence is very much cartoon-style and is much too outlandish to be offensive or really disturbing.

This movie also marks a change away from the black-and-white cinematography of the film that preceded it, and the colour photography has the bright vibrant feel of his later movies.

Common-Law Cabin may be Meyer’s most underrated movie. Definitely not his best, but it’s most emphatically worth a look if you’re a Meyer fan.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Bride of the Gorilla, written and directed by Curt Siodmak (brother of the more celebrated Robert Siodmak), boasts an all-star cast. Well, an all-star cast of low-budget movie actors anyway - Lon Chaney, Tom Conway and Raymond Burr (always fun in B-movies). It has a great B-movie title, and the central plot idea does have potential. Unfortunately what it doesn’t have is a budget, so we get lots and lots of stock footage of assorted jungle creatures and only the most feeble attempts at special effects for the man-into-monster transformation scenes.

Raymond Burr is Barney Chavez, the overseer of a plantation somewhere in the Amazon rainforest. Which of course explains the title, the gorilla being the most feared of all denizens of the Amazonian jungles. He has fallen in love with the young and very beautiful wife of the owner of the plantation, but if he is to have her he will have to do something about her ageing husband. His actions cause an elderly witch to place a curse upon him, by the use of a plant that has magical powers. The curse will make him appear to be, to himself and to the inhabitants of the jungle, a wild beast.

Tom Conway plays the local doctor and part-time coroner, and he’s also in love with the plantation owner’s wife. Lon Chaney is the local police chief, a native of the rainforest who has received an education and is now torn between civilisation and the ways of the jungle.

Sadly the movie is not quite as much fun as it sounds. Due to the lack of budget it’s quite talky and (again due ti the zero budget) almost all the action takes place offscreen. If you’re expecting lots of excitement as the man-gorilla rampages through the countryside spreading death and destruction you’re going to be very disappointed.

The acting is reasonable B-movie acting,with Tom Conway charming but oily and slightly sinister as always, Lon Chaney vaguely tortured, and Raymond Burr effective as the villain of the piece driven by lust and greed. Barbara Payton (better known for her tragic and lurid private life) projects a nicely smouldering sexuality as the faithless wife. It’s entertaining enough in a bad jungle movie kind of way.

Monday 22 December 2008

Cherry, Harry & Raquel! (1970)

Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, released in 1970, is a fairly typical Russ Meyer movie of that era. It’s very similar in feel to Supervixens . Which is no bad thing!

Harry is a sheriff’s deputy in a one-horse town in Arizona. He’s been involved in a drug-smuggling racket, and now it’s time to close down the operation and eliminate the witnesses. But Harry and his crime boss aren’t as smart as they thought they ere, and their plans go badly awry.

Cherry is Harry’s live-in English nurse girlfriend. But that doesn’t stop him from having is off with Raquel, who is also having it off with pretty much every other character in the film. Including Cherry. It’s the usual Meyer mix of outrageous cartoonish violence and outrageous cartoonish sex. There are the usual surreal touches, with characters who keep appearing but they’re not really in the film at all, but they’re used to comment on the action (like Kitten Natividad as the Greek Chorus in Up!), or maybe they’re just there because they have very large breasts and Russ thought the movie really needed more actresses with enormous busts. But they add to the strangeness.

The movie has all the visual style and energy and the manic editing we expect from Meyer. Charles Napier is terrific as Harry (and went on to give an even better performance in Supervixens ). There’s not much to say about the plot, which is more or less non-existent, which matters not at all.

Cherry, Harry & Raquel! isn’t quite in the top rank of Meyer movies but it’s still undeniably a terrific romp.

Friday 19 December 2008

The Ghost Galleon (1974)

To make a fun horror movie what you need is an idea that is both really dumb and really clever. Amando de Ossorio’s The Ghost Galleon (Horror of the Zombies, or El Buque maldito) qualifies on both counts.

What you do is, you take two glamorous swimsuit models, put them in a tiny pleasure cruiser, and drop them in the middle of the ocean. But you drop them in the middle of a busy shipping lane, so they’re guaranteed to be discovered by a passing ship of some kind within a few hours. When they’re found, the headlines will proclaim, “Bikini-clad glamour girls found at sea.” And you’ll get lots of great publicity for your company.

Unfortunately in this case instead of a passing passenger liner or cargo ship, our two heroines encounter a ghostly galleon. Filled with an even more ghostly crew, of blind zombie Knights Templar. As the radio messages from the two models become more and more mysterious, those behind the publicity stunt (accompanied by the obligatory eccentric scientist) set off on a rescue mission. An ill-fated rescue mission, naturally.

Amando de Ossorio was a rather odd director. At times he’s disappointingly crass and obvious, and at other times he shows a real flair for atmosphere. This was the third of his Blind Dead movies, and it’s an entertaining mix of kitsch and genuine chills. The effects are reasonably well done, apart from a few scenes towards the end with rather unconvincing ship models! He wisely spends a lot of time building up atmosphere before revealing the blind Templars, and when they do appear they’re pretty spooky even if you’ve seen previous movies in this series. Terrifying mindless monsters and a small group of people trapped on a ship with said monsters is a good recipe for terror, and de Ossorio exploits it fairly skillfully.

European exploitation stalwart Jack Taylor is fun as the man who came up with the original idea for the publicity stunt. The remainder of the cast is adequate. There are some reasonably good visuals, and the plot is original and entertaining. It makes for an entertaining slice of mid-70s eurohorror.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Flesh Gordon (1974)

I’ve been watching an old 1940s Flash Gordon movie serial and quite enjoying it, so I thought I should check out the 1980 movie version, having heard good things about it. When I checked with Quickflix (an Australian version of Netflix) I noticed they also had available for rental Flesh Gordon, apparently a 1970s softcore porn spoof of the original Flash Gordon serials. So I thought, why not add both to my rental queue? As it happens Flesh Gordon arrived first.

As an erotic film this one is a dismal failure. I can’t remember the last time I saw something quite so un-erotic. On the other hand as a sci-fi spoof it’s a lot more successful. It appears to have been by someone with a genuine affection for sci-fi and for the old movie serials.

OK, it’s not Citizen Kane, but it does have some humorous moments and there are a few memorable dialogue moments. William Dennis Hunt’s performance as the Emperor Wang the Perverted is suitably outrageous and over-the-top. The special effects are amusing. The acting is bad, but it doesn’t matter.

The jokes are fairly obvious, but it‘s a bit like one of the British Carry On films, were the very obviousness and expectedness of the jokes adds to the fun. If you think of it as Carry On Flash Gordon then there’s some entertainment to be had.

Don’t even think about buying this one. The image quality on the Region 4 DVD is awful, and contains no extras at all. Perhaps the Region 1 version is better (the R1 releases are almost invariably better than the R4 releases) but it’s still a movie to rent rather than to buy. Moderately amusing if you’re in the mood, and best enjoyed with copious quantities of alcohol or other substances. I found that after a few drinks it was reasonably enjoyable. Do not watch this movie sober.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Werewolf vs Vampire Woman (1971)

Werewolf vs Vampire Women (La Noche de Walpurgis) is a quite amazingly cheesy 1971 German/Spanish horror flick. Ideal Halloween viewing I guess.

It’s one of countless movies starring Paul Naschy as werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. He’s an Angel-from-Buffy kind of werewolf, tortured by the evil he’s done and searching for redemption, a redemption that can only come through love. In this case he’s brought back to life when a police surgeon unwisely decides to remove the silver bullet that killed him from his heart, to prove that the legend that this will bring the werewolf back to life is just silly peasant superstition. That’s one mistake this particular police surgeon won’t make again.

Naturally the plot involves two attractive female students wandering about eastern Europe researching legends about vampires and werewolves, a particular hazardous undertaking in the 1970s when vampires and werewolves seemed to be remarkably common in those parts. They’re especially interested in the legend of Countess Wandessa, who was put to death for drinking the blood of virgins. She was killed by a holy cross, the only certain way to ensure she cannot return to life, and of course the first thing our students do when they discover and dig up her remains is to remove the cross from her breast.

Meanwhile the girls have befriended a slightly gloomy local nobleman, not realising he’s the famous werewolf Daninsky. One of the young women fall in love with him, and he allows himself to believe she may be able to release him from his curse. But first something has to be done about all these vampire women.

A certain amount of cheesiness is almost unavoidable in a werewolf movie. Despite this director León Klimovsky does manage to pull off a few effective scenes, with the floaty vampire women being fairly spooky. Paul Naschy does the sympathetic, tortured but romantic werewolf thing well. It has reasonably effective gothic atmosphere. I suspect the Region 4 release has been substantially cut. The running time seems suspiciously brief compared to that given on IMDb, and for a 1970s eurohorror movie it’s also remarkably lacking in eroticism.

Not a great movie, but entertaining enough, and it should satisfy hardcore werewolf fans.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Satan’s Slave (1976)

Nothing is more fun that a good piece of satansploitation cinema, and Norman J. Warren’s Satan’s Slave certainly delivers the goods a far as entertainment is concerned.

Catherine Yorke, who has been having some strange premonitions, sets off for the countryside with her parents to spend some time with her uncle and his son. The uncle is a bit mysterious, and in fact she was only vaguely aware of his existence. His son isn’t just mysterious, he’s downright creepy, and we in the audience know because of the opening scenes that he’s prone to extreme violence when thwarted. Catherine doesn’t know any of this of this however. Her week in the English countryside, in her uncle’s magnificent old manor house, gets off to a disastrous start with a car crash. Catherine’ parents are killed, and Catherine finds herself being cared for dear old Uncle Alexander.

Uncle Alexander is a doctor, but he also has several hobbies, including black magic and necromancy. He hopes to restore life to a long-dead witch possessed of extraordinary powers, which will make his coven all-powerful. To do this he needs a direct descendent of the witch Camilla, which young Catherine just happens to be.

Norman J. Warren’s career was somewhat mixed and remarkably varies (embracing everything from softcore porn to science fiction to spy movies) and he’s not really regarded as being in the top rank of British horror directors. While Satan’s Slave is not quite in the classic mould of British horror classics of this period, like The Wicker Man or Blood on Satan’s Claw, it’s actually a pretty little horror chiller. It has the features you’d expect from a 1976 gothic horror flick - quite a bit of gore, plentiful nudity, and lots of black masses and satanic rituals. lIke Eye of the Devil and The Wicker Man it deals with occult practices in a contemporary setting, and like those films it has a rather bleak tone.

Michael Gough is in sparkling form, overacting outrageously and delightfully as Uncle Alexander. Martin Potter is skin-crawlingly weird and disturbing as Akexander’s son Stephen. The other cast members are adequate.

It’s a well-paced and well-crafted movie with some nicely sinister atmosphere and some nifty plot twists. It’s really a much more competent film than I was expecting given Norman J. Warren’s less than stellar reputation. It also looks reasonably slick. It’s available in Region 1 from BCI in a Grindhouse Experience double bill with another Norman J. Warren feature, The Terror, and I believe it’s available in Region 2 as part of a boxed set. Needless to say it’s not available in Region 4 at all. I bought the R version. The transfer has a few minor scratches but on the whole it’s pretty good. If you’re a fan of 70s British horror it’s definitely worth tracking down - it’s tremendous fun.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Harlequin (1980)

Harlequin (also released under the title Dark Forces) is another off-beat Australian movie from the late 70s, produced by Antony I. Ginnane whose company was responsible for so many interesting Australian genre films of that period, including Thirst and Patrick. This one scores points for sheer oddness. It’s a supernatural political thriller, combining conspiracy theories with magic, and based loosely on the career of Rasputin.

Senator Nick Rast is a rising politician, being groomed for leadership by a mysterious cabal of rather sinister power-brokers. His son is dying of leukemia, or at least he is until the arrival of an eccentric, colourful and generally extremely weird stranger. The son undergoes what seems like a miraculous cure, but the ambiguous and enigmatic faith healer, Gregory Wolfe, soon turns out to be taking a rather excessive interest in the senator’s wife, and to be aiming at establishing himself in the senator’s household as an all-purpose political, ethical and spiritual adviser. Is he a figure of good or evil? And what exactly is it that he wants?

For this film Ginnane imported no less than three international stars. Robert Powell as Wolfe provides the kind of charismatic yet disturbing performance that he did so well, while David Hemmings is superb as the ambitious but essentially weak Senator Rast. Broderick Crawford is the chief power broker backing Senator Rast. Australian actress Carmen Duncan is extremely good as the senator’s strong-willed but slightly unstable wife. It’s an entertaining and unusual movie, and well worth a look.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Phantom Ship (1935)

Phantom Ship (also known as The Mystery of the Marie Celeste) was the first horror movie from Hammer Films, way back in 1935. Yes, 1935. OK, it’s perhaps more accurately a mystery/horror/thriller, but it still occupies an important place in movie history. It’s also the only Hammer movie to star Bela Lugosi.

As the alternative title would suggest it tells the story of the Marie Celeste, and attempts to account for that famous ship’s unfortunate fate and the even more unfortunate fate of its crew. It’s a story of jealousy and revenge, of shanghai’d sailors, cruelty and horror at sea, and two men who are deadly rivals for the love of the same woman.

It’s a little clunky at times, but the mystery and suspense are maintained fairly effectively. There are several possible motives that could explain the series of murders that starts soon after the ill-fated ship sets out on its last voyage, and it’s not clear until the end what the actual explanation is.

Lugosi has a reasonably rewarding role and makes the most of it. His performance, as so often, dominates the film. It’s not a great movie but it’s entertaining. The British horror movies of the 1930s are rather underrated in general. It’s worth a look to see where Hammer horror all began.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Indecent Desires (1967)

Indecent Desires, made in New York in 1967, is another slice of mega-weirdness from legendary sexploitation auteur Doris Wishman, brought to us by those terrific people at Something Weird Video. This time Wishman offers us a heady mixture of voodoo and sexploitation.

A sad loner, the kind of guy that women cross the street to avoid, has become obsessed by an attractive young blonde woman. He finds a discarded blonde doll, a doll that reminds him of the woman he’s obsessed with, and it soon becomes apparent that this doll has some kind of voodoo-type psychic link with the woman. When he fondles the doll, she feels herself being fondled. In fact she feels everything the doll feels.

If that all sounds rather creepy, it is! The blonde woman, Ann, naturally starts to think she’s going mad. She decides to break things off with her boyfriend, since she doesn’t want to impose her craziness on him. And it’s difficult to know where to turn for help when you have no idea what is happening to you. Her best friend Babs is too busy with her own sexual escapades to be of much assistance. Ann’s isolation intensifies, and she ends up locking herself away in her apartment while she becomes steadily more unbalanced and confused, rather like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion.

Wishman’s eccentric approach to film-making suits this sort of material perfectly and the movie has an effectively disturbing ambience to it. Great black-and-white cinematography by C. Davis Smith adds to the mood of paranoia and depravity. and The acting works well for the kind of film it is, with Michael Alaimo being wonderfully sleazy and menacing, while Sharon Kent conveys Ann’s descent into madness surprisingly well.

Indecent Desires works quite well as an off-beat horror movie, a bit like a Twilight Zone episode but with lots of added nudity and sleaze. Something Weird’s DVD transfer can’t be faulted - the image quality is superb. I recommend this one.

Friday 5 December 2008

Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961)

For some reason I was expecting George Pal’s 1961 movie Atlantis, the Lost Continent to be a species of sword and sandal epic, but in fact it’s more of a sci-fi movie, albeit with a setting in the ancient world. In fact once I started watching I found myself remembering having seen this one many years ago.

A Greek fisherman, Demetrius, finds a girl drifting at sea, and he and his father take her back to their village. She claims to be a princess, from a land they've never heard of. Life in a fishing village not being to her taste she begins to pine to return to her home. She persuades Demetrius to help her, promising that if within a month they haven’t found her country she will marry him and settle down to domesticity in his village.

Soon after passing the Pillars of Hercules they encounter an Atlantean submarine, but her homecoming isn’t what she expected. Her father has become enfeebled and the real power now rests with the sinister Zaren. Things are even worse for poor Demetrius. She promised him great rewards, but instead he’s enslaved. Under Zaren’s leadership Atlantis has become cruel and warlike. Atlantean scientists are conducting horrible experiments, turning men into beasts of burden, and Zaren is planning wars of conquest. He has access to a super-weapon, a giant death ray that uses a crystal to concentrate the sun’s energies. There are however ominous signs that the future holds disaster for Atlantis.

The social effects still look (mostly) fairly impressive. There’s the usual mix of action and romance, of treachery and brave deeds as Demetrius proves himself to be a noble hero. John Dall is a delight as the wicked Zaren, hamming it up with great relish. Sal Ponti as Demetrius and Joyce Taylor as the princess of Atlantis don’t need to do much more than look decorative. Edward Platt, better known as the Chief from the Get Smart TV series, makes an appearance as a former scientist turned priest, dismayed by the wickedness of Atlantis.

There’s some moderately tedious moralising about science and technology and human sinfulness and its inevitable punishment by the one true good, but thankfully there’s not enough of this to spoil the movie. I enjoyed the fact that there are no supernatural or fantasy elements at all in the film. It might be far-fetched at times, but it's still far-fetched science fiction. Not that I don't thoroughly enjoyed the supernatural elements in most sword and sandal movies, but the lack of those things gives this one an interestingly different flavour. It’s not quite in the same class as some of George Pal’s other movies, like The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and The Time Machine, but it’s all good fun, with a spectacular climax featuring immense amounts of destruction and with plenty of entertainment value along the way.

Monday 1 December 2008

T.N.T. Jackson (1975)

The premise of T.N.T. Jackson is simple. If blaxploitation movies are fun, and king fu movies are fun, then a blaxploitation king fu movie has to be a sure-fire winner. And, in its own trashy way, this is a highly entertaining little flick.

Diana “T. N. T.” Jackson is a young black female king fu fighter who arrives in Hong Kong looking for her missing brother. She quickly finds herself embroiled with sundry gangsters involved in heroin trafficking. And it seems that a major gangland war is about to erupt, with heroin shipments being hijacked to the accompaniment of much bloodshed. T. N. T. befriends a Chinese guy named Joe who is not quite a gangster but not quite a law-abiding citizen either, and she makes the acquaintance of a white American woman named Elaine who is the girlfriend of one of the criminal kingpins. T. N. T. and Elaine dislike each other on sight, so you know they’re going to come to blows at some stage, which becomes even more certain when it turns out that Elaine is a king fu expert as well, and that she is not at all what she appears to be.

More significant in plot term is Charlie, an ambitious black guy (and the numero uno king fu expert in the Hong Kong crime scene) functioning as right-hand man to a major crime lord. You just know he and T. N. T. will end up in bed together, and that they will also have to have a major fight scene together.

There’s lots of mayhem, some moderately graphic violence, and some sex and nudity. It’s a pretty standard 70s exploitation formula, but it’s executed with energy and a certain amount of style, and at only 72 action-packed minutes there’s little chance of boredom setting in. This is another of the Roger Corman-produced movies of the 70s (along with films like The Big Doll House) made partly in the Philippines, although there seems to have been some location shooting in Hong Kong as well.

Former Playboy playmate of the month Jeannie Bell stars as T. N. T. She’s at least moderately convincing in the action sequences, and she has a certain presence. She’s no Pam Grier, but she’s adequate. This movie belongs very much at the cheap and trashy end of the blaxploitation spectrum but it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, and it delivers solid entertainment. If you’re a fan of blaxploitation, king fu movies or 70 exploitation fare in general then you’re unlikely to have any real complaints.

Friday 28 November 2008

The Brain (1962)

Based on Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan's Brain, the 1962 British-German co-production The Brain is a intriguing hybrid, mixing science fiction and a dash of horror with the popular German Edgar Wallace krimi or mystery films.

An aircraft carrying a fabulously wealthy and powerful financier, Max Holt, crashes near an isolated farmhouse. His body is smashed beyond hope of recovery, but when found he is still clinging tenaciously to life. As it happens the farmhouse is being used as a laboratory by two scientists, Dr Peter Corrie (Peter van Eyck) and Dr. Frank Shears (Bernard Lee). They have been conducting experiments on the brain, and have managed to keep the brains of animals alive outside the body, in a tank of chemical nutrients, for considerable lengths of time. The fact that Max Holt’s body has been hopelessly shattered but his brain is still intact and functioning proves too much of a temptation and the two scientists remove the brain and attempt, successfully, to keep it alive.

It turn out that Max Holt’s brain is rather too much alive, and he begins to exert a strange influence over Dr Corrie. Dr Corrie finds himself with many of Holt’s memories, experiencing his thoughts, and to some extent under his control. And he also finds himself caught up in the unravelling of a mystery - was Holt the victim of an accident, or was he murdered?

The basic idea is one that you would expect to be exploited as a vehicle for a science fiction horror movie, but (like the German krimis) it plays out as much more of a murder mystery. And it’s a reasonably effective mystery film.

Peter van Eyck and Bernard Lee make an interesting pair of mad scientists, interesting because they don’t play their parts quite as you’d expect, and they end up fulfilling both the hero and mad scientist roles. Anne Heywood is nicely sinister and enigmatic as the dead (well, mostly dead) businessman’s daughter, while Cecil Parker is fun as a somewhat dubiously honest lawyer.

With Freddie Francis directing the movie is well-paced and quite stylish, and is not at all the kind of low-budget Z-grade shocker that the title and the premise would suggest. It’s actually a rather decent, slightly unconventional and very entertaining little movie, much better than I’d anticipated, and definitely worth a look.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Motor Psycho (1965)

Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho, made earlier the same year, can be seen as a kind of dry run for his 1965 masterpiece Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The formula is more or less the same, but with the genders reversed.

Three drifters on motorcycles suddenly appear, and begin terrorising the locals in a remote desert community. After raping a vet’s wife they encounter an old guy in a truck, accompanied by his new young bride Ruby (played by Meyer regular Haji). As the violence continues to escalate, Ruby and the vet find themselves in pursuit of the three drifters.

It has very much the feel of a western, with motorcycles and trucks in place of horses and covered wagons. The desolate setting is used very effectively. There’s the usual Meyer mix of insanely overheated lust and violence, of men resorting to violence to cover up their personal inadequacies, of melodrama and weirdness. The movie has a similar look to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but with a slightly less frenetic editing style.

Like most of Meyer’s movies it features sudden outbursts of extreme violence, as lusts and repressions and resentments build up to create a pressure cooker that must inevitably explode. And like most of his films, it has interesting and confronting things to say about the violence of the society it depicts. It’s also notable for being one of the first films to deal with the dark side of the US involvement in Vietnam, with the leader of the hoodlums being a psychotic Vietnam vet spiralling ever downwards into increasing madness, still waiting for the choppers that will never arrive.

It’s not quite as successful as Pussycat but it’s still very much worth seeing. These two films, along with Lorna and the very underrated Mudhoney, complete Meyer’s early cycle of films dealing with repression and violence. The Region 2 DVD pairs Motor Psycho with Good Morning... and Goodbye! The transfer looks wonderful, and does ample justice to Meyer’s stunning black-and-white cinematography.

Monday 24 November 2008

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

One of the saddest things about our present age is the disappearance of the giant bug movie. The golden age of giant bugs was of course the 50s, but they survived in small numbers until the 70s (Empire of the Ants being one of the last).

In most cases giant bugs were the result of nuclear radiation, but The Deadly Mantis presents an interesting variation. This praying mantis the size of a medium-sized airliner isn’t a mutation, it’s a naturally occurring species. Or at least it was a naturally occurring species millions of years ago, and this particular example as frozen in the ice in the polar wastes of northern Canada until it was awakened by a volcanic eruption.

Having been revived, the gigantic insect starts heading south, toward the tropics, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Both the US Navy and the Air Force send up jet fighters to deal with this insectoid menace, but unfortunately their gunnery is so bad they can’t hit an insect the size of a medium-sized airliner even at close range.

Luckily there’s a scientist who eventually figures out what they’re dealing with. Naturally he has a glamorous female assistant. And naturally she falls for one of the brave military types battling the ravenous and murderous bug.

After assorted aircraft, buses, trains, buildings and national monuments have been demolished the mammoth insect is wounded and takes shelter in the Manhattan Tunnel.

If you like 50s giant bug movies you’ll like this one. It’s the sort of thing you have to be in the mod for, but if you are in that mood you’ll have fun with this one.

Sunday 23 November 2008

The Secret of the Red Orchid (1962)

The Secret of the Red Orchid (Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee) is one of those wonderfully outrageous krimis produced by Rialto Films in Germany, starting in the early 60s. Mostly based on the works of Edgar Wallace (who apparently had an enormous following in Germany) they’re a mix of comedy and murder mystery, often with horror and gothic elements as well. And totally insane plots.

In this one Chicago gangsters have started a kidnapping racket in London, targeting the very wealthy. To combat this threat Scotland Yard has the assistance of a gun-toting two-fisted macho crimefighter from the FBI, played by Christopher Lee (yes, really). Also involved in the fight against these dangerous hoodlums is an eccentric butler, played by Eddi Arent (who provided the comedy relief in most of these films). There are numerous shootouts, mostly involving machine-guns, and lots of sorted mayhem. There’s a romantic sub-plot as well, and various shenanigans to do with wills, and a long-lost heir to a fortune with a passion for orchids. Trying to keep track of what’s going on isn’t easy, but it also isn’t necessary. The trick is to sit back and just enjoy the madness.

It’s incredibly badly dubbed, which adds considerably to the fun. Christopher Lee is as good as you’d expect him to be playing an American FBI man. Klaus Kinski plays one of the many rival gangsters, and is delightfully hammy. Eddi Arent is the kind of comic relief that can so often be annoying in the extreme, but in these films his performances actually work, adding yet another layer of weirdness. There are plenty of faces that will be familiar to fans of European exploitation cinema, including Adrian Hoven and the lovely Marisa Mell (who was the girlfriend of Diabolik in Mario Bava’s glorious comic book spoof Danger: Diabolik!).

The Secret of the Red Orchid is available on a double-sided DVD from Retromedia, paired with another krimi, The Monster of London City. Picture and sound quality are quite reasonable, and the package represents great value for anyone who loves off-best movies. Lots of outrageous fun!

Saturday 22 November 2008

Daughter of Horror (AKA Dementia, 1955)

In the early 1950s writer-director John Parker completed his one and only feature film, a very strange little flick called Dementia. He tried to get it released on the art-house circuit in New York, but the New York censors had other ideas. It’s not so much any explicit content that was the problem as the general air of seediness, sexual obsession and sexual deviance.

A few years later another attempt was made to release the film under the title Daughter of Horror, with added voiceover narration (the original
Dementia has no dialogue at all). The narration, by Ed McMahon, is very campy but it does nothing to lessen the impact of this very disturbing little movie.

The obvious influences on the film are German Expressionism and surrealism, but there’s another more obvious influence that most people seem to overlook - the dream sequences in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. But Dementia is much more daring, with no clear demarcation whatsoever between dream sequences and reality. The entire movie may or may not be a dream.

The central character is known only as The Gamine, and the movie is a glimpse inside the mind of this clearly insane young woman. Her mind is filled with visions of her father and mother, and of a police officer who looks exactly like her father and who is pursuing her for a murder she may or may not have committed. She is picked up by a wealthy debauched middle-aged man, and is forced to watch him gorging himself on a roast chicken dinner. This assignation ends in a murder. She may also have murdered her father, and her father may have murdered her mother, but there is absolutely no way to judge the reality or otherwise of any of these events.

Visually it’s reminiscent of a surrealist vision of film noir. The cinematography was done by William C. Thompson, a veteran of countless exploitation movies. His career included several collaborations with the one and only Ed Wood, but this has nothing in common with Wood’s movies. This is both an art-house movie and a horror movie, a weird mix of exploitation and avant-garde. There’s some great jazz on the soundtrack as well. The cast are mostly complete unknowns. Ben Roseman is very creepy as both her father and the cop, and Adrienne Barrett contributes an unsettling performance as The Gamine.

You can find this movie at archive.org. Although it’s rather dark it’s quite an acceptable print, and it’s probably supposed to be very dark anyway! A very strange but very intriguing and oddly effective move, and well worth a look. I believe both versions of the movie have been released on DVD by Kino.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Nurse Sherri (1978)

Some movies achieve dramatic tension through the brilliance of the director, or the skill of the editing. Nurse Sherri (also released under the title The Possession of Nurse Sherri) achieves dramatic tension through the sheer incoherence of its plot. You have no idea what’s going to happen yet, probably because the film-maker had no idea either. In spite of which, it has to be said that Nurse Sherri is strangely entertaining. OK, it’s the sort of entertainment value you get in an Ed Wood movie, but I happen to enjoy Ed Wood’s movies.

This film opens with some kind of religious cult trying to bring one of its members back from the dead. The charismatic leader of the cult then collapses with a heart attack. He’s taken to hospital, but refuses treatment, putting his faith in his own powers instead. Naturally he soon dies. Shortly afterwards one of the nurses at the hospital, the Nurse Sheri of the title, starts behaving oddly. We eventually discover she’s been possessed by the cult leader, and she sets out to take revenge on the medical staff.

There’s also a blind football player whose mother was a voodoo priestess, so he understands what’s happening. And there are Sherri’s two nurse friends, Tara and Beth, whose approach to nursing is a little unconventional. They seem to have considerable faith in the healing powers of sex, and whether their patients are actually getting better or not they’re certainly not complaining.

Towards the end, rather disappointingly, the plot starts to make some sense. There’s plenty of mayhem, and a small amount of gore. The special effects used in the possession scene are the highlight of the movie. They’re astonishingly bad, but they’re very amusing in a freaked-out psychedelic 60s way! Which is a little odd, since the movie was made in 1978.

The male actors in the movie are uniformly terrible, but they’re terrible in an endearing B-movie kind of way. The actresses playing Sheri and her two nurse buddies approach their task with the same lack of skill but with much more enthusiasm. Jill Jacobson as Sherri is so bad that her performance ends up actually working, providing the weirdness quotient that the movie needs.

It’s a very bad movie indeed, but it’s great fun if you’re prepared to embrace its awfulness and wallow in its campness. It’s released in a package with another movie from the same director, Al Adamson, a horror western called Five Bloody Graves. Two versions of Nurse Sherri are included, a sexploitation version (the one I watched) and a horror version.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Cool It, Baby (1967)

Cool It, Baby is a truly jaw-dropping little gem released by Something Weird as part of a three-movie pack. Directed by Lou Campa and dating from 1967, this ultra-low budget oddity is immensely entertaining, although probably not in the way its makers intended.

It’s an expose of a white slavery/vice/blackmail racket run by a mysterious woman named Monica. The ringleaders are on trial on vice charges and the story is told in flashbacks. A woman tells how she was lured into posing for salacious photos by promises of help in starting her film career, then other unfortunate victims of this racket tell their stories. Other witnesses include Monica’s male partner-in-crime and the cop investigating the case.

The film-makers couldn’t afford to build a court-room set and couldn’t get access to a real court-room, so they cunningly improvised. They just used an ordinary office! In fact I don’t think it’s even an office. I think it’s just a room in somebody’s house that happens to contain a desk and a filing cabinet. It certainly adds a touch of the surreal to the proceedings.

The flashback sequences lack synchronised sound but are accompanied by incredibly talky and meandering voiceover narration. The whole movie has some of the feel of an Ed Wood movie, and some of the feel of the movies Paul Morrissey did for Andy Warhol in the 60s, with perhaps a dash of Doris Wishman as well. It’s tempting to think that there’s an element of parody in this film, but 60s exploitation movies were so strange anyway that it’s impossible to be sure. I’m inclined to think they were actually being serious.

And just when you think it can’t get any weirder, out of nowhere at the halfway point there’s a satanic ritual, as if the producers suddenly decided that what this film really needs is a satanic ritual sub-plot, because who doesn’t love satanic rituals? So now you have something that is like Rosemary’s Baby meets Olga’s Girls. Except that the torture scenes aren’t shocking, they’re just strange. And then there’s the orgy scene, in which dome of the participants have been so carried way by passion that they’re stripped to their underwear. Who knew that such debaucheries existed in our apparently civilised societies? The attempts to add spice to the mix by introducing elements of kinkiness increase the surreal qualities of the movie. Or perhaps sexual kinks involving licorice and scissors are quite common, and I’ve simply lead a very sheltered life.

Cool It, Baby is really quite insane, but you can’t help being mesmerised by it. There’s a crazy jazz score, an essential elements in films of this kind. Although there’s some very mild nudity it’s really one of the most unsexy movies you’ll ever see, but it’s unsexy in a fascinating way, as if the people who made the movie knew nothing whatever about sex except a few things they’d read in books. Nobody behaves as if they’re actually in sexual situations. It’s a very bizarre movie but in its own unique way it is entertaining. They definitely don’t make movies like this any more.

The DVD transfer is surprisingly good. The image quality is very crisp. And there are still two movies to go on this DVD. If they’re half as strange as this one I’ll be quite content.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Teenage Doll (1957)

Roger Corman’s 1957 opus Teenage Doll is fairly typical of low-budget 50s juvenile delinquent movies. Barbara is a good girl involved with a bad boy, the leader of a teen gang called the Vandals. He’s also been playing footsie with a girl, Nan, from the Black Widows, but the Black Widows are the female counterparts of the Tarantulas, deadly rivals of the Vandals. The jealousy between Barbara and Nan has led to a confrontation, and as the movie opens Nan is lying dead on the pavement after falling off a roof. Did she fall or was she pushed?

Barbara is now on the run from the vengeful Black Widows. She can’t ask her father for help, because he’s a total square and can’t imagine that his daughter would dare to date an unsuitable young man. And Barbara is also on the run from the cops

Like most Corman productions it manages to look slicker than its low budget would suggest, and the pace doesn’t let up. The acting is pretty bad, but it’s bad in that wonderfully entertaining B-movie way, all very earnest. There’s a particularly bizarre scene where Barbara is being looked after by one of the Vandals, and he suddenly gets all Method Acting on her. He starts coming on like a bargain store James Dean. It’s the sort of weirdness that makes exploitation movies so much fun.

The movie comes complete with a wonderful intro informing us that the picture we are about to see isn’t pretty. If it was pretty, it wouldn’t be true! And apparently shocking events like the ones depicted in the film could be happening in your city. Within the limitations of what you could show in the 50s it manages to be reasonably sleazy, and there’s the expected hard-bitten dialogue and teenage cynicism.

It’s not quite as bizarrely entertaining as movies like The Violent Years or Girl Gang, but it’s still a good deal of fun. And the DVD from Image looks superb. A must for fans of juvenile delinquent movies.

Monday 17 November 2008

Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961)

When a movie has a title like Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory you do tend to expect the worst. Actually it’s not an American teen movie but a Italian gothic horror flick from 1961. It was originally released with the disappointingly sensible title Lycanthropus.

A new teacher, Dr Julian Olcott, arrives at a girls’ reform school. This is actually a kind of up-market girls’ reform school, where the intention really is to reform rather than punish. Dr Olcott was a medical doctor but was struck off the medical register when his experiments on lycanthropy went wrong and resulted in a patient’s death. He’s been given the chance to make a new start, but has he put his interest in lycanthropy behind him?

When one of the girls is found dead, slashed to ribbons by a savage creature of some kind, it certainly appears that werewolves may be lurking in the nearby woods. Or possibly lurking in the school itself! The school has a creepy caretaker with a withered arm, the sort of sinister figure you always encounter in horror movies, and then there’s Sir Alfred Whiteman, and he’s a pretty sinister figure as well, and looks like he might be a candidate for the role of mad scientist.

Dr Olcott befriends one of the pupils, Priscilla, who’d been a close friend of the girl who’d been killed. Priscilla has uncovered evidence of blackmail, and it seems that the school harbours all sorts of unsavoury secrets.

It’s actually not a bad little horror B-movie. The plot doesn’t develop in quite the predictable manner you expect, and there’s a reasonably effective gothic atmosphere. The acting is adequate, and the movie is well-paced and competently directed. The weakness of most werewolf movies is the werwolf make-up, but in this film it’s done moderately well. On the whole it provides perfectly decent entertainment. There aren’t a huge number of great werewolf movies, so if you’re a fan of the genre, or of 1960s Italian gothic horror in general, it’s worth checking out.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Having enjoyed enormous financial success with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, in 1962 Hammer turned their attentions to another remake of a classic horror film, The Phantom of the Opera. The result was a rare commercial flop for the British horror studio.

It’s not hard to see why the movie failed to attract audiences. Hammer’s early horror films succeeded in part by upping the levels of violence and blood-letting. They may seem tame by later standards, but in the 50s they were considered quite bloodthirsty. With The Phantom of the Opera they took the opposite approach. The violence is considerably toned down compared to earlier film versions, and the emphasis is very much on the romance. It’s not really a horror movie at all; it’s a gothic love story. If you accept it on that level it’s actually a very good movie indeed, but it’s not the sort of thing drive-in audiences were going to flock to see in 1962.

With Arthur Grant as director of photography, Bernard Robinson as production designer and Terence Fisher as director you’d expect this to be a very good-looking movie. And it is. In purely visual terms it’s possibly the best thing Fisher ever did. And Fisher’s direction (never less than extremely competent) becomes quite inspired at times. There’s a considerable emphasis on the opera itself, which ties in very well with the overall feel of the movie. It has more of the tone of the 1932 version of The Mummy than of a typical Hammer horror film.

The lack of a major box office attraction like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing is more of an advantage than a drawback since it gives more space for the other actors. Herbert Lom as the phantom, Michael Gough as the deliciously villainous (and exceptionally lecherous) Lord Ambrose d’Arcy and Thorley Walters as the director of the opera house, all give strong and highly entertaining performances.

Terence Fisher was known for presenting good and evil as clear-cut opposing choices which could have caused problems with the somewhat ambiguous character of the phantom. The problem is solved by making the phantom a completely sympathetic character, a tragic hero in fact, and by making Lord d’Arcy the villain of the piece.

This is one of the most underrated of Hammer’s major productions, a lush and outrageously romantic offering and a misunderstood and neglected gem. The transfer on the DVD in the Universal Hammer boxed set looks fabulous. It’s a movie that needs and deserves the best possible presentation, and it gets it.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

The Italian-French co-production Hercules and the Captive Women (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide) is a fairly typical example of the classic peplum - or sword & sandal - genre of the 50s and 60s. Hercules and his friend Androcles set off on a ship to save Greece from a mysterious invading force. They are shipwrecked, and Hercules finds himself on a small island where a young woman is being held captive by the evil Proteus. She is in fact the only captive woman in the movie, but I guess they thought Hercules and the Captive Woman would have been a less impressive title.

Despite his shape-shifting abilities Proteus is no match for Hercules. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of the Queen of Atlantis, so Atlantis is the next stop on the journey. the Queen of Atlantis isn’t quite as overjoyed as one might expect to have her daughter safely returned to her. It transpires that Atlantis has some dark secrets. There’s a priest who still worships Uranus, the predecessor of Zeus, and there’s a cavern in which some of the blood of Uranus is preserved, blood with extraordinary powers.

Hercules and his pals(including his son and a dwarf named Timotheus) have the usual adventures that you expect in this sort of film. There are some reasonable action scenes, there’s a touch of romance, and there’s treachery and confusion as the evil queen exercises her diabolical powers.

Reg Park is a bit on the wooden side as Hercules, but that’s no great problem. There’s plenty of adventure, there’s a beautiful but evil queen, an army of inhuman super-warriors, and some reasonable (by 1960 standards) special effects. It delivers fun lightweight entertainment, which is all it ever sets out to do, and if you’re a fan of this genre or of old-fashioned adventure movies you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

The Devil Came from Akasava (1971)

The Edgar Wallace krimis that were such a mainstay of the German film industry in the 60s had just about petered out by the end of that decade, but the early 70s saw a couple of unconventional late entries in that cycle. One of these was Jess Franco’s The Devil Came from Akasava (Der Teufel kam aus Akasava), bassed on Edgar Wallace’s story The Akasava.

Given Franco’s flair for sex and psychedelia and his instinctive grasp of pulp/trash aesthetics he was really the obvious person to give the series a 1970s spin, and The Devil Came from Akasava manages to be both a genuine Edgar Wallace krimi and a genuine Jess Franco film. This is one of Franco’s light-hearted caper movies, very much in the style of The Girl from Rio, and this is a side of Franco’s film-making that I’ve always enjoyed. This one is a total romp.

The plot is insanely convoluted, but that was always a feature of the Wallace krimis. In a fictitious African country a scientist has discovered a mineral that can transform any base metal into gold, but unfortunately the mineral also produces deadly radiation. The mineral is in fact a classic Hitchcock-style McGuffin - it doesn’t matter what it does, what matters is that absolutely everybody wants to get their hands on it, including Scotland Yard, the secret services of several European nations, and assorted crooks and diabolical criminal masterminds. The chase for this rock triggers off a bewildering series of murders and disappearances, and conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, the action taking place in London and in the steamy jungles of Akasava.

One of those seeking this priceless but dangerous rock is glamorous female secret agent Jane Morgan, played by the wondrous Soledad Miranda. It’s one of her lighter roles, but she’s terrific. And she gets to do not one but two erotic night-club routines, these being always a highlight of a Franco film. She also gets to wear some fabulously groovy clothes, and of course she also gets to take them off. Being Soledad Miranda, she manages to be equally sexy clothed and unclothed, and she makes a thoroughly delightful super-spy. Franco himself plays an Italian spy, while plenty of Franco regulars pop up as well, including the great Howard Vernon.

As in most of the later krimis there’s a definite James Bond influence. The comic relief that was always a feature of this genre is largely dispensed with here, which is perhaps just as well. The tone is very much tongue-in-cheek though, and there’s plenty of action, bizarre plot twists, glamour and sex. It’s an entertaining cocktail and Franco delivers a movie that really provides a great deal of enjoyment. A must for all Francophiles, fans of the German krimis, and anyone who enjoys outrageous spy spoofs and high camp fun.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Dr Jekyll and his Women (1981)

Dr Jekyll and his Women (Docteur Jekyll et les femmes) is Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic tale The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The biggest problem with adaptations of Stevenson’s novella has always been finding a way to do the transformation scenes convincingly and without Mr Hyde looking like a shambling neanderthal. Borowczyk solves the problem by using two different actors, with Udo Kier as Dr Jekyll and Gérard Zalcberg as Hyde.

Borowczyk’s movie is more overtly sexual than the more familiar Hollywood versions, and raises the level of violence and hatred displayed by Hyde as well. It’s also a less sympathetic portrayal of Jekyll, who is motivated more openly by a desire to unleash his darkest desires and to use his Hyde persona to enjoy doing evil. There’s more stress (despite the use of two actors) on the idea of Hyde as being very much an integral part of Jekyll’s personality.

With the action taking place almost entirely within a single house the film has an intensely claustrophobic feel, emphasising both the sexual repression of the era and the catastrophic consequences of Hyde’s violent overturning of that repression. The transformations into Hyde are achieved by Jekyl’s immersing himself in a bathtub filled with a chemical soup. It seems a little ridiculous the first time you see it, but becomes increasingly disturbing.

As much as I adore Udo Kier, it’s Howard Vernon and Patrick Magee who steal this film. Vernon is Dr Lanyon, who taunts Jekyll with the supposed absurdities of his theories of transcendental medicine. Patrick Magee is completely over-the-top (actually he always was completely over-the-top but this time he’s even more so) as an elderly general with a somewhat bizarre relationship with his daughter.

Having Hyde hunting down various members of the household with a bow and poisoned arrows (brought back from Africa by the general as a rather odd wedding present for Jekyll) adds a particularly bizarre touch, but it does convey the idea of Hyde as being a kind of barbarian at war with civilisation). This film combines slightly kinky eroticism and horror with some very definite elements of farce. It makes for an intriguing and unusual mélange. It’s a stylish and erotic film, and certainly takes an interestingly different approach.

Monday 10 November 2008

Swedish Wildcats (1972)

The fact that writer-director Joe Sarno’s 1972 film Swedish Wildcats (also known as Every Afternoon) is released on DVD by Seduction Cinema could lead you to expect that you’re about to see a moderately sleazy sexploitation opus. If so, you’d be quite wrong. What you actually get is an outrageously romantic and rather poignant love story, and an interesting and sensitive look at illusions and why we need them.

Susanna (Cia Löwgren) and Karin (Solveig Andersson) are sisters. They work in a Copenhagen brothel run by their slightly dotty and extremely colourful Aunt Margaretha (Diana Dors). Susanna spends her afternoons wandering about the city day dreaming about being a ballerina. In fact she’s just about convinced herself she really is a ballerina. One day in the park she meets a nice young man named Peter, and they fall in love. He’s a test pilot involved in an ultra-secret government project, but of course he’s really no more a test pilot than she is a ballerina.

They both cling desperately to their fantasy lives, but in both cases they’re about to have an unexpected and not entirely pleasant confrontation with reality. Peter’s nemesis is his boss, Gerhard, an obnoxious thug mixed up in drug smuggling who also happens to be a client of Aunt Margaretha’s brothel. And Aunt Margaretha’s attempts to make her establishment the most celebrated in Denmark lead her to involve the two sisters in ever more dangerous sexual game-playing.

In the interview included on the DVD Sarno claims that his Scandinavian crew on this film were among the best in the business. Looking at the results they achieved on a very low budget, he may well be right. It certainly doesn’t look like a typical low-budget movie. The one technical weakness is the soundtrack, but even that is so delightfully 1970s that you end up growing quite fond of it Well you do if you’re a connoisseur of 1970s cinema!

Two things make this film stand out from the crowd. The first is the surreal quality to the brothel scenes. Aunt Margaretha believes in giving her customers a real show. Dressed up to resemble a circus ringmaster she introduces live performances by her girls before the clients get down to the serious business of choosing a partner for the evening. The scene with the girls in wild animal make-up and costumes is wonderfully bizarre, ending with the customers pursuing them with gigantic butterfly nets. Several of Aunt Margaretha’s other shows involve sado-masochistic elements, something that was forced on the very reluctant Sarno by his producer. If anything they probably strengthen the movie, making the attempts at escape (both literal and in the world of the imagination) by Karin and Susanna more understandable.

The movie’s second great strength is Diana Dors. This very underrated actress gives an extraordinary performance. She’s very funny, at times menacing, more often manipulative, but she’s always delightful. The acting overall is quite decent.

This is the sort of movie that could only have been made in the 70s, which is why I love the movies of that period so much. Sarno obviously cares about his characters, and we end up caring as well. Even Aunt Margaretha is strangely likable. An odd little film, but worth a rental.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is I think one the best of Hammer Films’ horror movies. It has Terence Fisher, the best of the Hammer directors, at the helm. And it has Peter Cushing at the very top of his form. Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is chillingly evil because he isn’t just mad - he is absolutely convinced that he is right and that anyone who stands in his way is standing in the way of progress, science and the happiness of the human race. So he feels that he doesn’t just have the right to destroy anyone who gets in his way and to mercilessly exploit anyone who can be useful to him – he has a positive duty to do these things. He’s a much more convincing figure of evil than Christopher Lee’s Dracula and he’s one of the reasons the Hammer Frankenstein films are, overall, better than their Dracula films.

The other reason the Frankenstein films are better is that the formula is more flexible. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed Baron Frankenstein is working to develop his technique for transplanting brains. He makes use of a young doctor who works at an asylum. The information he needs to perfect his technique is locked in the brain of a former colleague who is now hopelessly insane.

The supporting cast is excellent with Freddie Jones being particularly good. Art director Bernard Robinson does a particularly good job in this one, and with Fisher’s sure touch as a director the movie looks great. It also moves along at a rapid pace right from the start – the opening sequence is very well done and sets the mood nicely.

There are real chills too, chills that don’t rely on gore - Dr Brandt’s realisation of what Frankenstein has done to him, and then his wife’s realisation of what has been done to her husband, and the growing awareness of Frankenstein’s young assistant and his fiancee that they have been hopelessly entrapped in the baron’s schemes. A very fine example of Hammer horror.

Saturday 8 November 2008

The Curse of the Doll People (1961)

When a team of Mexican anthropologists on a field trip to Haiti return with a voodoo idol you just know trouble is sure to follow. In this case they were told they were bringing a curse upon themselves, but scientists never do listen. Sure enough it’s not long before death is stalking both them and their families. The chosen instruments of the voodoo priest’s revenge are murderous dolls the size of children.

The Curse of the Doll People (Muñecos infernales) is a terrific 1961 Mexican horror film. It’s a fairly stock-standard horror movie plot but the key to making a successful horror movie has always been to concentrate on atmosphere rather than plotting. This movie scores highly in that area. It’s the doll people themselves who are the highlight of the movie. They really are genuinely very very creepy and delightfully sinister. The make-up effects are exceptionally well done.

The acting is quite decent, with Elvira Quintana being particularly effective as a female scientist who combines a belief in science with a healthy respect for the powers of the occult. She proves to be a worthy adversary for the diabolical voodoo priest.

This is a well-made and highly effective horror movie. Benito Alazraki’s direction is very competent, and when you have black magic, zombies, killer dolls and evil priests with hypnotic powers you really have everything you could possibly ask for in a horror flick. I loved it.

This movie is included in BCI’s Crypt of Terror: Horror from South of the Border, volume 2 boxed set. It’s dubbed, unrestored, fullscreen and quite grainy. It’s a pity, because it’s a great little movie that deserves a decent restoration and a quality DVD release. Even in the unsatisfactory state of BCI’s release it’s still a movie very much worth seeing.

Friday 7 November 2008

Olga’s Girls (1964)

The Olga films are among the more notorious sexploitation movies of the 60s. Olga's Girls, dating from 1964, was the second film in the series. To some extent they were a throwback to the classic exploitation movies of the 30s and 40s, focusing on the dreaded “white slavery” rackets, but with lots of extra sleaze.

They’re like an early version of the Ilsa films in some ways, with Olga being a sadistic lesbian who runs a prostitution and drugs operation in New York. There’s the same mix of nudity, S&M and general nastiness and tackiness, made even more sleazy by being filmed in black-and-white. And there’s the same outrageous cartoonish feel. Olga’s operation is actually funded by an international communist conspiracy aimed at undermining America’s youth!

There’s no synchronised sound, but there is a gloriously campy voice-over narration having the advantages of saving money and giving a quasi-documentary feel, and we also get a kind of running commentary by Olga herself. There is a plot, with one of Olga’s chief lieutenants trying to break away to set up her own operation, and luring away several of Olga’s choicest girls. This sets the stage for a showdown between Olga and the treacherous Colette.

It’s quite extraordinarily lurid, even by more recent standards. Olga maintains discipline in her organisation by the extravagant use of torture. There’s enough in this movie to satisfy just about every unusual taste. There are also surprisingly graphic portrayals of drug use. Although the girls are all supposedly hooked on dope, they seem remarkably cheerful and healthy (except for the occasions when they’re getting tortured by Olga). It’s all delightfully kinky - lots of black stockings, boots, and assorted bondage gear. It’s the early 60s ambience that gives this movie such a wonderful flavour, with great 60s hairdos, and lot of scenes of Olga’s girls doing The Twist and go-go dancing.

Had it been made more recently and in colour it might actually be objectionable, but the combination of black-and-white and voice-over narration and the 60s vibe, added to the generally cartoonish nature of the plot, makes it more camp than offensive. Audrey Campbell as Olga is one of the great iconic screen villainessess, glamourous and cruel.

The image quality on the Synapse DVD release is astoundingly good, and allied with some astonishingly nice black-and-white cinematography the result is a movie that looks superb. There’s a commentary track which includes Olga herself (Audrey Campbell). The Olga movies are like the Ilsa films in that you simply have to see at least one of them. You don’t really believe them until you actually see them. Olga's Girls is sleazy and fun, and undeniably fascinating.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)

Tombs of the Blind Dead (La Noche del terror ciego) was the first of four Blind Dead movies made in Spain back in the 70s. The village of Berzano was in the 13th century a stronghold of the Knights Templar. The order was accused of witchcraft and various assorted evil practices and suppressed, and the knights were executed. They won’t stay dead though. Periodically they rise from their tombs, blind and silent, and seek human blood for their infernal sacrifices.

Cut to the present day and a young woman quarrels with her friends and jumps off a (very slow-moving) train as it passes the ruins of Berzano, and decides that the ruined abbey would be a great place for a young woman on her own to spend the night. What could possibly go wrong, in the middle of nowhere, in a place of such evil reputation that the train driver is too terrified to stop the train?

This is more or less a zombie movie. The dead knights are decaying and skeletal, they shuffle about like typical 70s movie zombies, and they appear to possess very little in the way of intelligence other than their thirst for victims. But Tombs of the Blind Dead has a number of advantages over the typical zombie movie. The basic idea of the dead Knights Templar is a good one, it has plenty of atmosphere, and the knights themselves are very very creepy. Director Amando de Ossorio uses some very simple but very effective techniques to add to the feeling of dread, such as having the knights on horseback filmed in ever-so-slightly slow motion. The makeup effects are exceptional. And since the undead knights aren’t done with CGI they don’t have that fake look that you always get with CGI – these guys are really very scary.

This is a highly effective and very entertaining slice of eurohorror, and although the Region 2 DVD from Anchor Bay has very little in the way of extras the transfer is very impressive.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Bandh Darwaza (1990)

Bandh Darwaza is included in the same Mondo Macabro double movie pack as Purana Mandir. It’s an enjoyably weird slice of Bollywood horror, although Purana Mandir (also a Ramsay Brothers production) is definitely the better of the two films. Bandh Darwaza, made in 1990, is closer to being a conventional western-style horror movie. Apart, of course, from the song-and-dance numbers and the comic interludes and the amazingly involved romantic sub-plots.

A woman finds herself unable to have children, despite performing all the appropriate religious rituals and visiting every shrine in the province. Then her maid informs her that there is a way for her to conceive a child. What she doesn’t tell her is that she belongs to the devil-worshipping cult on Black Mountain and that the child’s father will in reality be a demonic monster. A vampire in fact. If her child is a boy, she can keep him, but if the child is female she must be given to the cult. Naturally when the child is born and turns out to be a girl the mother conveniently forgets her promise to the cult. Eighteen years later this same child finds herself caught up in the cult’s plot to take revenge.

From this point on the plot becomes increasingly bewildering, with various female friends and family members also becoming involved in the demonic shenanigans. A mysterious woman encountered on a country road leads them to a ruined temple where the devil-worshippers do their devil-worshipping thing.

You know it’s a horror movie when one of the lead female characters is chained up in a dungeon. You know it’s a Bollywood horror film when one of the lead female characters is chained up in a dungeon and bursts into song. Yes, really. It’s touches like this that make Bollywood horror so deliciously bizarre and exotic. Sadly the musical numbers aren’t as well one as the ones in the earlier Purana Mandir, but they’re still an essential part of the enjoyment of a movie such as this. The acting is mostly up to the standard you expect in a horror movie.

The actual horror movie component of the production is totally insane and enormous fun, so you end up not worrying about whether the plot makes any sense at all and just enjoying the ride. The cinematography and the special effects are both outrageous collections of horror movie clichés, which is just as it should be. The gothic atmosphere is laid on with a trowel. Fog. Lots of fog. And then more fog. And thunder. And then more thunder. It’s a movie that is unlikely to scare anyone, but despite being a very long film it’s consistently entertaining. The print is, as Mondo Macabro freely admit, not in fantastic shape, but then you do get two movies plus a documentary and other extras. It’s all great fun in a delightfully strange way. Another winner from Mondo Macabro.