Sunday 30 March 2008

Demons (1985)

I’ve just seen my first Lamberto Bava movie, Demons (Dèmoni). And I sincerely hope it will be my last Lamberto Bava movie. A moderately interesting idea (a haunted movie theatre), but executed in a profoundly uninteresting manner. If you can’t scare your audience, and you can’t create an atmosphere of dread, then just nauseate them, that seems to be Lamberto’s motto. Throw lots of pointless and disgusting gore at them, and maybe they won’t notice how dull your movie is. Demons is so bad it makes George Romero’s movies look good! There is real horror here, though, mostly provided by the 80s hairstyles and the 80s music. I have to admit my bias here – I really detest zombie movies on the whole (with a handful of notable exceptions such as Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl), and I detest gore films. If you love zombie movies and you love gore you might find something to like in this movie. Lamberto seems to me to lack any of his father Mario’s visual flair, and even a screenplay co-written by Dario Argento doesn’t inject any interest into proceedings. A pity Argento didn’t direct this one himself – it’s the kind of idea that he could probably have done great things with.

Saturday 29 March 2008

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973)

It’s the 1930s, and thirteen-year-old Lila Lee, The Singin’ Angel, is on of the chief ornaments of her local Baptist Church. Her daddy is a notorious gangster on the run, but the kindly Reverend took her in, and Miss Lila has shown herself to be pure in mind and deed. Everything is just dandy until Lila gets a message from her father. He wants to see her, to ask her forgiveness. Being a good Christian girl, Lila knows it’s her duty to go to him. She hops on a bus (a remarkably ramshackle bus with an even more ramshackle driver) and sets off for the town of Asteroth. There she will find, not her father, but the vampire Lemora.

Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural is quite unlike the average American 1973 horror movie. It’s really a fairy tale, and like real fairy tales (as distinct from sanitised Disneyfied versions) it deals with serious issues, in this case awakening sexuality and the loss of innocence. And it deals with these issues intelligently and sensitively – don’t expect graphic sex or nudity, because there isn’t any. There’s nothing tacky or distasteful about the way this movie tackles its subject matter. The movies to compare it with would not be horror movies as such, but other fairy tale movies such as Jaromil Jires’ 1970 Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (which I reviewed here) and Neil Jordan’s 1984 masterpiece The Company of Wolves. The visual style is more reminiscent of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, with the same curiously flat and very stylised quality to it. You have no doubt, right from the start, that you’re in fairy tale territory (although it’s a kind of combination Lovecraftian and southern gothic fairy tale). The low budget and cheap make-up effects actually work in its favour – the monsters don’t look real, they look like movie monsters or pantomime monsters, in fact they look like the sorts of monster a naïve 13-year-old might imagine. Lemora herself (played with erotic menace by Lesley Gilb) is a wonderfully gothic concoction. Like The Night of the Hunter, this movie was misunderstood and ignored on release, and like Charles Laughton the director of Lemora was fated never to direct another film. Which is a tragedy. This is a very disturbing movie, and (despite the low budget) a visually stunning movie as well. Richard Blackburn achieves his atmosphere with simple but effective use of lighting and some terrific use of sound. Cheryl Smith (whose own life came to a tragic end at the age of 47) gives a marvellous performance as Lila. This really is a must-see movie. The Synapse DVD includes a commentary track by the director and the producer and the transfer is exceptionally good.

Bedlam (1946)

My Lal Lewton Horror Collection DVD set arrived yesterday. We decided to watch Bedlam first – it’s a movie I haven’t seen for years and my flatmate had never seen. It comes with a commentary track, and I never thought I’d say this but the commentary track is almost too informative! The movie was inspired by The Rake's Progress, a series of etchings by the 18th century British artist William Hogarth. It wasn’t just the initial idea for the film that came from Hogarth – Hogarth etchings and paintings inspired many of the individual scenes in the movie as well. The story revolves around a woman who makes an enemy of Sims, the man who ran the infamous lunatic asylum, St Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital. Sims is played by Boris Karloff with a wonderful mix of oiliness and menace, of cruelty to those in his power and obsequiousness to those above him. It was photographed by the great Nicholas Musuraca, so (as you’d expect) it looks great. Most of the Val Lewton RKO horror films have surprisingly few supernatural elements, and this one has none at all. But Bedlam has enough human horrors to provide more than sufficient horror content. I don’t think this is one of the very best of the Lewton films, but it’s still a fine movie, and Karloff is in terrific form.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Shock Corridor (1963)

Samuel Fuller’s 1963 opus Shock Corridor is the most bizarre film I’ve seen since….well, since the last Samuel Fuller film I saw (The Naked Kiss). Fuller had made various westerns, war movies and crime films in the 40s and 50 but nothing could have prepared audiences for the sudden extreme weirdness of his early 60s movies. Imagine One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remade by Ed Wood jnr and you have some idea of what to expect from Shock Corridor. A journalist comes with a scheme to solve a murder committed in a mental hospital and at the same time to come up with a story that will be guaranteed to win him a Pulitzer Prize (the Pulitzer Prize being his big obsession). He will pretend to be committing incest with his sister so he can be committed to the mental hospital in question. The fact that he doesn’t have a sister I just a minor detail. He’ll get his girlfriend to pretend to be his sister. Needless to say, he finds that getting into a mental hospital is a lot easier than getting out again! There were three witnesses to the murder, all patients in the institution. All are quite mad, but he’s convinced he can get the answers from them.

What follows is intended to a harrowing account of the horrors of madness and of incarceration in an inane asylum, but the movie is so outrageously badly made that it will provoke more laughs than shudders. There is intended perhaps to be an element of black comedy in this film (I think, although to be honest it’s difficult to know what Fuller was thinking of), but it comes cross as more camp than black comedy. The scene where the journalist inadvertently wanders into the “nympho ward” and the poor boy is subjected to an attempted pack rape by a dozen crazed “nymphomaniacs” will have you howling with laughter. The acting is unforgettable. You’ll try to forget it, but you won’t be able to. Constance Towers plays the journalist’s girlfriend (the one pretending to be his sister). She also starred in Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, made the following year. Her acting reaches Meryl Streepian depths of awfulness, although it has to be said in her favour that you’ll get a few laughs out of it, which is more than you’ll get from Ms Streep’s acting. She has some stern competition in this movie though. Peter Breck as the reporter provides an extraordinary mix of woodenness and hysteria. Despite its staggering ineptness there’s a certain fascination to Shock Corridor. You find yourself compelled to keep watching. And it does have something to say. Nobody knows what it’s trying to say, but it’s definitely trying. It is entertaining, and it’s certainly preferable to the dreary sludge that mainstream Hollywood had been churning out for the previous decade. It’s worth seeing for its strangeness value alone.

Paranoiac (1963)

Paranoiac is another overlooked Hammer film from the early 60s. It’s rather similar to Nightmare – both were directed by Freddie Francis from screenplays by Jimmy Sangster, both were shot in black-and-white and Cinemascope, and both deal with madness and the fear of madness. In Paranoiac we’re introduced to the Ashby family, and a very disturbing little family they are. Mr and Mrs Ashby were killed some years ago in a plane crash, and a few years later Tony Ashby hurled himself off a cliff into the sea. The surviving children, Simon (Oliver Reed) and Eleanor (Janette Scott), were raised by Aunt Harriet. Simon and Eleanor are set to inherit the family money, but Simon’s a bit of a bad boy and has expensive tastes and he’d really prefer to inherit the whole fortune himself. As luck would have it, his sister Eleanor appears to be getting crazier by the day, but then a spanner is thrown into the works when long-lost (and presumed dead) brother Tony shows up on the doorstep. This not only upsets Simon, it also threatens to unlock assorted family secrets.

Oliver Reed is in full-on crazed drunken bad boy mode, and is a delight to watch. Every single character in this movie is disturbing and/or creepy in some way. It’s obvious that at least one family member is totally insane, but it also seems quite possible that more than one might be mad, but which ones? I don’t think this one is quite as good as Nightmare, but it’s still a very very good movie and one that I recommend very highly. It’s included in the recent Universal Hammer Horror boxed set, and the DVD transfer is superb.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Black Sabbath (1963)

Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, made in 1963, is an omnibus film comprising three segments. The first segment, The Telephone, is interesting as a precursor of later giallo films but it really didn’t do anything for me. In the second segment Bava abandons contemporary settings and goes for full-on gothic horror. The Wurdulak (which features Boris Karloff) is a routine vampire story, or at least it would be in anyone else’s hands. In Bava’s hands it’s a gorgeous visual feast. Movies don’t get any more gothic than this. Bava achieves things with colour and lighting that are both strange and exquisite. I don’t think anyone has done better night photography. It’s so good that you expect the third segment to be a bit of an anti-climax but if anything it’s even better visually. The story is again a straightforward story of ghostly punishments for robbing the dead. It concerns a nurse called out one night to prepare a dead countess for her funeral. The nurse spots a valuable ring on the dead woman’s finger and you can guess the rest. What makes it extraordinary is that Bava doesn’t just tell the story through visual images, he tells the story almost entirely with lighting and colour. A stormy night with lightning is the oldest cliché in horror but Bava does it better than it’s ever been done. The pulsating light seen through a single window conveys an atmosphere not just of fear but of something truly uncanny.

I don’t think it’s Bava’s best film (for me his masterpiece is his 1973 movie Lisa and the Devil) but it’s definitely essential viewing.

Monday 24 March 2008

Modesty Blaise (1966)

Modesty Blaise is a movie that most people don’t seem to have a good word for. Be that as it may, I absolutely adored it. This 1966 film, somewhat surprisingly directed by Joseph Losey, is based on the popular comic strip character (at least popular at the time, I have no idea if the comic strip is still remembered). It’s one of those vaguely psychedelic 60s spy spoofs. At the time there was a rash of movies satirising the James Bond spy caper genre. The problem with trying to send up the Bond movies (I mean the real Bond movies, the ones made in the 60s) is that you can’t because they’re already doing that themselves; they’re so tongue-in-cheek already that any attempt at satire inevitably falls flat. To succeed, such a movie has to offer more than the standard spy spoof ingredients of outlandish plots and silly gadgets. Modesty Blaise offers quite a bit more. It offers stupendous visual style, a trippy and outrageously colourful Pop art/comic book concoction that succeeds by virtue of its own excess. It’s the Ken Russell approach – if you’re afraid you may have gone too far over the top, go a bit further. It also offers wonderful larger-than-life acting performances that scale the highest heights of High Camp. Dirk Bogarde is Gabriel, the diabolical criminal mastermind of the piece, but he’s a diabolical criminal mastermind who dislikes having to hurt people. Of course being a diabolical criminal mastermind he has to hurt people sometimes (it’s rather expected of one) but he always feels their pain. It’s Bogarde’s most extravagant comic performance, and he’s a delight. Terence Stamp is quite bizarre as Modesty’s partner in crime Willie Garvin, a kind of working-class international playboy type, like a slum kid who’s suddenly made it rich through football or crime but remains a loveable ragamuffin at heart. He should be an extremely annoying character but Stamp gets away with it through sheer nerve. Monica Vitti is weird and exotic in the title role, playing it all with insane amounts of glamour and managing to be both very sexy and oddly innocent. She and Terence Stamp periodically break into song, which adds a whole extra layer of surrealism to the proceedings. Harry Andrews and Michael Craig provide solid support, their performances in keeping with the bizarreness of the rest of the film. Rossella Falk is Gabriel’s psychopathic killer henchwoman Mrs Fothergill and steals every scene she’s in.

Most of the criticism of the movie is accurate, but misses the point. Losey was a strange choice to direct such a film, but his slightly European art-film sensibility works the movie’s advantage, giving it a rather avant-garde kind of feel. Combining that with a comic strip spy spoof is something that could only have worked in the 1960s, but it does work. Losey also has a keen sense of the absurd, and the movie’s existential absurdism is another ingredient in its success. I think it’s probably fair to say that you have to love the 1960s in order to appreciate this movie, and you probably need a certain familiarity with the 60s as well. If you’re expecting a straightforward comic romp you may be disappointed - Modesty Blaise is actually closer in feel to Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Godard’s Band of Outsiders than it is to Carry on Spying or the Austin Powers movies. It’s a strange brew, but I found it delightfully intoxicating.

Friday 21 March 2008

Island of Terror (1966)

Island of Terror (made by Planet Productions in 1966) is one of those horror films that motors along quite well, with a premise that is silly certainly, but ingenious, creepy and quite scary, until about its halfway point. At that point the monster must be revealed, and as so often happens the monster just doesn’t cut it, and the movie never quite recovers. But it is a Terence Fisher movie, and Terence Fisher is never less than competent and you know he’ll keep the action moving along at a great pace. In some ways, though, Terence Fisher is the problem – he was probably just too good a director for this movie. I’ve always thought that the more seriously Fisher took himself the better he was. In movies like Dracula, Prince of Darkness and The Devil Rides Out that seriousness gives us genuinely chilling movies that make us feel that This Is Not a Game – there are more serious things even than life and death at stake here, and there are serious moral issues to confront as well. Island of Terror just doesn’t lend itself to such serious treatment. This tale of medical experiments gone wrong on a remote island off the cost of Ireland is at times strongly reminiscent of The Day of the Triffids. Peter Cushing gives a solid but slightly subdued performance as a doctor battling the effects of the experiments, while the rest of the cast is quite adequate. It’s not by any means a terrible film, and Fisher does provide us with some real chills. If you like 1960s British sci-fi/horror this one’s fairly entertaining. Just don’t expect something in the same league as Terence Fisher’s Hammer movies.

The Girl from Rio (1969)

During the 1960s quite a few European movie-makers tried to capture the spirit of comic books on film, with varying degrees of success. The best of these attempts were Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! and Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga. Roger Vadim’s Barbarella is better known, but less successful. Several of Jess Franco’s late 60s movies also fall into this category. The Girl from Rio is not actually based on a comic, but on a series of delightfully pulpy potboilers by Sax Rohmer, but he’s clearly trying to get that comic book vibe (and in fact admits as much in the accompanying interview).

Jeff Sutton is in Rio, having just stolen $10 million, but he’s having trouble hanging on to his loot. Crime lord Masius (George Sanders) wants to take it off him, and so does Sumuru, the beautiful but evil ruler of the all-female city of Femina. Sumuru finances her private queendom through a large-scale kidnapping racket, with most of her victims being shady businessmen, corrupt officials or out-and-out crooks. It soon turns out that Sutton is not what he seems to be. Franco had a minuscule budget to work with but achieves a futuristic sci-fi look in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard did in Alphaville, by using the stark brutalist buildings of modernist architecture as his settings. While Godard combined these with black-and-and-white cinematography to create an atmosphere of alienation, Franco uses glorious colours, bright sunshine and psychedelic costumes to create a campy 60s Pop Art world. To criticise this movie, as some have done, for its lack of realistic action sequences is to miss the point of the entirely. The fact that Sumuru’s amazonian warriors are simply waving their guns about because the budget didn’t extend even as far as blank ammunition simply adds another level of stylisation to the film and enhances the comic book ambience. Franco is a master of the art of making a virtue of a necessity, and a non-existent budget was for him merely a very minor obstacle. The fact that it’s also a movie that spoofs spy 60s spy films and therefore requires some high-tech gadgetry, but there was no budget for even low-tech gadgetry, is another obstacle that Uncle Jess takes in his stride. The death ray machines in this movie emit invisible death rays, so the fact that the gadgets don’t actually do anything simply doesn’t matter! Despite its lack of high-tech and special effects The Girl from Rio works as a spy spoof in a way that much more expensive Hollywood attempts at the same genre (like the Matt Helm movies) fail, because Franco’s love of trash culture is genuine. He’s not a would-be mainstream film-maker slumming it making movies like this, and he understands the pop aesthetics of this type of movie to perfection. Approached in the right way The Girl from Rio is a great deal of fun. Shirley Eaton makes a splendid glamorous diabolical criminal mastermind, and George Sanders camps it up outrageously as the gangster Masius. I loved this movie. And the Blue Underground DVD release is, as you’d expect from that company, absolutely superb.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Mudhoney (1964)

If you’re only familiar with Russ Meyer from movies like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls or Supervixens then his 1965 movie Mudhoney is going to come as quite a surprise. It has the sudden eruptions of violence that also feature in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but it’s much darker, and much grimmer. Yes, it has huge-breasted women, and some nudity, and some of the characteristic and rather black and bizarre Russ Meyer humour, but mostly it’s an unrelentingly serious and very disturbing movie. Set in a small town during the Depression, it tells the story of an ex-convict called Calif who takes a job as a farm hand. His employer is a woman named Hannah, who lives on the farm with her kindly father and her violent alcoholic husband. The husband spends most of his time at the local whorehouse. He’s just waiting for dear old dad to die so he can sell the farm from under his wife and take off with the money. When Calif falls in love with Hannah a train of violence and madness is set in motion, partially fuelled by an hysterical and almost certainly insane preacher who has decided that both Hannah and Calif are adulterous spawn of Satan.

This is one of the most savage and uncompromisingly negative portrayals of American small town life in movie history. It has the lot – small-minded townsfolk, a bigoted preacher, mindless violence, drunkenness, lynchings, rape, mob violence and more inbred rednecks than you’ve ever seen in one movie. As usual in a Russ Meyer movie, the most sympathetic characters are the women – there’s Clara Belle, a good-natured and fun-loving whore; her mute sister Eula, also a whore; and Hannah herself, a typical strong and very sexual Meter woman. Apart from Calif, the men are mostly violent or ineffectual or both. Or, in the case of the preacher, crazed as well. To me the movie seems like a classic example of American gothic at its best. Meyer’s satire is rarely subtle, but it’s undeniably effective. Hal Hopper is superb as the drunken husband. It’s a savage little movie that still packs a punch, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday 16 March 2008

And Soon the Darkness (1970)

And Soon the Darkness is a well-crafted and very tense British horror thriller. Director Robert Fuest is probably best-known for the two Dr Phibes movies with Vincent Price, while co-writer Brian Clemens was responsible for countless fine British TV and movie scripts. Two English nurses, Cathy and Jane, are on a cycling holiday in France. They quarrel, and Jane rides off leaving Cathy behind. When she goes back to find her friend, she has disappeared, and Jane notices that a young man who was following them earlier is now following her. She becomes really worried when she reaches a nearby village, and hears people talking about a murder. With her rudimentary command of French she can’t be entirely sure what they’re saying, but it’s enough to alarm her, and she has great difficulty locating the local gendarme, which alarms her still further. This movie is a great example of the principle that you don’t need big stars and huge budgets to make entertaining movies, and you don’t need buckets of gore to make a terrifying movie. And Soon the Darkness relies entirely on atmosphere and on suspense, and it works superbly. Jane’s sense of helplessness and isolation, alone in a foreign country and unable to make herself understood clearly (this is emphasised by having all the supporting characters speaking French without any sub-titles, so the viewer feels Jane’s frustration at her inability to communicate effectively) is almost unbearable. There’s nothing fancy about this movie, and there’s nothing startling about the plot. It’s simply done very very well. A highly effective little horror thriller.

Girl Boss Guerilla (1972)

As the opening credits of Girl Boss Guerilla (Sukeban gerira) roll the members of the Shinjuku Red Helmets, a girl biker gang from Tokyo, ride into Kyoto. Their leader, Sachiko (Miki Sugimoto) intends to establish herself as the new girl boss of Kyoto. She achieves this by challenging her rival to single combat, and defeating her in a remarkably brutal fight sequence. She also encounters Nami (Reiko Ike), who had been girl boss of Kyoto until she retired to become a sort of freelance juvenile delinquent. They also fight, and after beating each other to a pulp become firm friends. These girls have a fairly rugged concept of female bonding. Nami’s brother is a mid-ranking goon with the local yakuza, and he and Nami don’t get on, to say the least. As the Red Helmets start to dabble in more ambitious Criminal activities they find themselves increasingly in conflict with the local yakuza boss, especially after Sachiko’s boxer boyfriend beats up several of the yakuza gang members. The stage is set for a vicious showdown between the yakuza and the biker girls.

The first half of Girl Boss Guerilla, one of the more celebrated of the Japanese “pinky violence” movies of the 70s, is a mix of action, violence, sex and extraordinarily crude humour. It also has a truly bizarre quality to it. To give a sense of the flavour of this movie, at one point one of the Red Helmets has her motorcycle stolen by a bald Buddhist nun. When the nun falls off the stolen bike and injures her leg, the girls take her to a local gynaecologist. He turns out not to be a real gynaecologist, so the girls take the opportunity to indulge in a spot of blackmail, at which point the nun decides that she what she really wants is to become a girl biker. Director Norifumi Suzuki’s hostility to organised religion is awe-inspiring, and both Catholics and Buddhists find themselves in the firing line. The feel of the movie is a little like a Russ Meyer movie, with a dash of John Waters. The second half of the movie is much darker and more violent, in fact outrageously violent. This was my first exposure to the “pinky violence” genre, although I have a couple of other titles I haven’t watched yet. An odd little movie, but entertaining.