Monday 28 April 2008

Satánico Pandemonium (1975)

Satánico Pandemonium is another slice of Mexican nunsploitation from the 70s brought to us by the good people at Mondo Macabro. It’s not as over-the-top as the marvellous Alucarda. In fact it’s surprisingly restrained and subtle in execution. There is gore, but it’s used sparingly and therefore it actually has an impact when it is used (if only a few other film-makers would learn this simple lesson). A young nun with a reputation for extreme piousness encounters a naked man in the woods. He turns out to be Lucifer, and he sets out to tempt her. His temptations include the pleasures of the flesh, but they also include power – he offers to secure for her the position of Mother Superior. She battles the temptations, but not very successfully, and soon finds herself caught up in events that are running out of control. The movie was helmed by veteran Mexican director Gilberto Martínez Solares, with a screenplay by his son Adolfo Martínez Solares. An interview with the latter is included as an extra, and he has some fascinating snippets of information about the filming, such as the fact that many of the nuns were actually played by prostitutes from a notorious brothel. Satánico Pandemonium is one of those movies that combines exploitation with some political critiques of society in general and the Church in particular, and it combines the two quite effectively. The actual meaning of the movie remains ambiguous, but I can’t say any more for fear of giving away spoilers. While it isn’t quite in the same class as Alucarda it’s still a great little piece of trash cinema and it’s lots of fun. It hardly needs to be added that Mondo Macabro have done another sensational job, the movie looks terrific, and there are some very worthwhile extras.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Purani Mandir (1984)

Purani Mandir, released in 1984, has been my first glimpse into the world of Bollywood horror. It was apparently one of the most successful of all Indian horror movies. I don’t think there’s any point in trying to judge this as a conventional horror movie. It just has to be taken on its own terms. It doesn’t play by the rules of western horror movies. At a point in the movie where an evil unstoppable demon is rampaging about killing everyone in sight and the hero and heroine are chained up about to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali – it’s time to bring on the dancing girls! In fact it’s time for a big-production song-and-dance number. This is Bollywood, and a horror movie includes lots of elements that western audiences don’t really expect to find in a horror movie. There’s the singing and dancing. There’s an extended comic sub-plot, which is really only funny if you’re familiar with the Indian movies that it’s sending up. There’s a very involved romantic sub-plot. If you can accept these things, and if you can put up with the first half of the movie which can be heavy going, then there are considerable pleasures in store for you.

The plot involves an evil demon which was beheaded by the Raja of Bijapur. The demon placed a curse on the raja’s family – all the female members of the family would die in childbirth. Two hundred years later, in the present day, the daughter of the current raja has fallen in love. Her father, knowing of the curse, tries to prevent her from marrying her young man. The lovers, accompanied by a friend who just happens to be a martial arts expert, set out for the ancient palace of the rajas of Bijapur, to find a way to lift the curse. Along the way they encounter an incompetent bandit, a mysterious wild girl who lives in a lake, some crazed villagers, and find several opportunities for song-and-dance numbers. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more insane. Insane in a good way. The second half of this film is non-stop weirdness, mayhem, over-the-top gothic imagery, terror, madness, and song. Ajay Agarwal is a frightening and effective monster, while Arti Gupta as Suman is a likeable and suitably beautiful heroine. The movie tries to be sexy, but censorship in India is strict. So there’s a shower scene in the movie, but for reasons of decency the heroine wears her bathing costume while she’s showering. It all adds to the fun and madness.

The Mondo Macabro Bollywood Horror DVD release includes this movie and Bandh Darwaza and includes (as always with Mondo Macabro) some great extras. Both movies look reasonably good (despite Mondo Macabro’s apologies for the dubious state of the surviving prints of these films). I loved this movie.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Female Vampire (1973)

The Countess Irina Karlstein in Jess Franco’s 1973 film Female Vampire is indeed a vampire, but she doesn’t suck blood from her victims. You could say she sucks sexual energy from them. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how she does this. 

Even for an early 70s Jess Franco movie Female Vampire has an astonishing amount of sex and nudity. Having said this, given the movie’s premise none of the sex or nudity is actually gratuitous. The Countess Irina really is a slave to her hungers, to the extent that really there isn’t any more to her than those hungers. There’s a scene, a rather chilling and very effective scene, in which the Countess continues to take her pleasure from one of her victims after he is clearly dead. That scene conveys her essential emptiness and her loneliness remarkably well, as does her somewhat compulsive self-pleasuring.

Lina Romay’s performance has been criticised but I personally think it’s perfect.

Since vampirism does tend to be a metaphor for various types of sexual anxiety and sexual fears the premise of the movie does make perfect sense. What makes Jess Franco both outrageous and interesting as a film–maker is that he’s prepared to push this idea of sexual vampirism much further than any other film-maker would dare. It certainly goes close to being pornographic, but (whatever the failings of his later films) in the early 70 Franco really did go closer than anyone else to achieving a fusion of art an pornography.

 The DVD includes footage from the much tamer version prepared for US release. This version replaces the sexual vampirism with plain old traditional blood-sucking vampirism, and judging by these scenes the non-sexual version is inferior in every way.

  Female Vampire is in fact the best of the half-dozen Franco films I’ve seen so far, and it’s one of the more interesting and atmospheric vampire movies around. It has the typical Jess Franco surreal touches and lack of interest in conventional linear narrative, and they work extremely well. I admit that I’m biased because I’m very much a Franco-phile, but I definitely recommend this movie.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Night Creatures (AKA Captain Clegg, 1962)

Night Creatures (AKA Captain Clegg) is one of those movies that could never get made today. This 1962 Hammer production is 100% B-movie. It’s a story of pirates and smuggling set in the late 18th century, with a hint of the supernatural in the form of a troop of ghostly horsemen who haunt the marshes near the village of Dymchurch, and with a cast headed by Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. These days pirate movies have to be bloated $100 million blockbusters, loaded to the gunwales with CGI. Hammer Films had more sense, and made a perfectly entertaining little movie on a modest budget. The good people of Dymchurch are smugglers on an extensive scale, providing fine imported wines and brandies to much of southern England without the bother of annoying customs duties. Their parson (played by Peter Cushing) seems a respectable enough clergyman sat first glance, but looks can be deceiving. Dymchurch’s other claim to fame is that it is the burial place of the notorious pirate Captain Clegg, hanged 16 years earlier. It just so happens that the naval officer who has now, very inconveniently, shown up to investigate reports of smuggling had spent many years hunting down the infamous Cleg, so he has something of a personal interest in the goings-on in Dymchurch. He also has a secret weapon, in the person of a former member of Clegg’s crew with an uncanny ability to sniff out (quite literally) hidden caches of contraband wine. This man, a mulatto, had been left to die on a deserted island but had survived. You’ll probably see most of the plot twists coming a mile away, but that’s part of the fun. And the special effects, simple as they are, work surprisingly well. The acting is delightfully over-the-top, and Peter Cushing is in fine form. Good harmless fun.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Kiss of the Vampire (1963)

After the huge success of the first Hammer Dracula movie it was, surprisingly, eight years before Christopher Lee played the role again. Hammer were unwilling to cast anyone else in the role, but vampires were good business and they were equally unwilling to forego making vampire movies. So instead they made a couple of quite interesting vampire films without Dracula – Brides of Dracula in 1960 and Kiss of the Vampire in 1963. Kiss of the Vampire was also the first Hammer film to be helmed by Australian director Don Sharp, who went on to make the excellent Rasputin: The Mad Monk for them in 1966. The plot of Kiss of the Vampire is a stock-standard horror movie plot. A young couple are motoring through the countryside (in about 1900 judging from their car) when they run out of petrol. They find an inn, the locals are (naturally) very secretive and seem a little afraid, and they get invited to a party at the home of a wealthy doctor. They receive a warning to take care at the party, the warning coming from a mysterious middle-aged drunk who appears to have some private sorrow of his own (and the spectacularly effective opening sequence at a funeral has given us a fairly good idea what that sorrow might be). They of course ignore the warning, and get themselves into all manner of strife at this unusual social gathering. Fortunately it has other things going for it besides the plot. It’s possibly production designer Bernard Robinson’s finest moment. The vampires in this film do not live in gloomy, cobweb-infested gothic ruins – they live in a house that is all colour and light and brightness, filled with bizarre objets d’art. It’s both gorgeous and magnificently decadent, which is appropriate since these vampires are also both beautiful and decadent. I want to live in their house! These are not quite your standard Hammer vampires. They are able, some of the time at least, to walk in the open during the hours of daylight. Dr Ravna and his family (yes, this is a vampire who is also a family man) appear to be a normal, happy family. Appearances are of course deceptive, and it soon becomes apparent that this is not a normal family at all. There’s a tendency in vampire movies for vampirism to be something that happens to you through carelessness or bad luck, but in Kiss of the Vampire it’s explicitly linked to deviant behaviour. You get in with a bad crowd, and you’ve taken the first step on the road to becoming a vampire. It’s certainly not the only movie (or even the only Hammer movie) to connect vampirism with sexuality, but it is unusual in suggesting that the sexual deviance comes first and that it’s the factor that exposes you to the risk. It’s a somewhat unpleasant idea but it does add some interest to the film.

The movie lacks the familiar names associated with Hammer horror but it doesn’t really suffer as a result, and all the players give decent performances. It’s available on DVD as part of Universal’s Hammer Horror Franchise Collection, eight movies on two double-sided discs with no extras, but at a very reasonable price, and it looks terrific. I don’t regard Kiss of the Vampire as one of the great Hammer movies but it’s definitely interesting and slightly out of the ordinary and it is definitely entertaining.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Blood Sabbath (1972)

The title and the extraordinarily lurid cover of Blood Sabbath might lead you to believe you’re in for a rather sleazy slice of satansploitation. Actually, it’s not really that type of movie at all. What it is in fact is a very strange brew indeed. It’s partly a fairy tale love story, about a Vietnam veteran named David who falls in love with a water nymph. Water nymphs don’t have souls, so although she loves him they can’t be together as long as he has a soul. He decides that love is something that is worth giving up your soul for. It’s also a movie about witchcraft. A village in Mexico (which is where the movie takes place) has made an agreement with a local coven of witches; each year they will give up a child to the witches and in return the witches will guarantee a good harvest. The witches also have the power to take a person’s soul, and since David doesn’t want his soul he is happy to come to an agreement with them. This sounds like familiar horror movie territory, but again Blood Sabbath defies expectations. The horror content of this movie is minimal. It’s much closer in feel to a couple of British movies made at about the same time, The Wicker Man and the criminally underrated Eye of the Devil, in that it attempts to deal seriously with paganism as an alternative religion. It’s actually more sympathetic to the pagans than either of the British films however. Extremely surprising indeed for a 1972 American horror movie. I suspect that the reason Blood Sabbath is such an odd movie is that it was, very unusually for that time, directed by a woman. Like Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 The Velvet Vampire it’s very different from horror movies of that time directed by men. There is a positively astonishing amount of nudity in Blood Sabbath, but it’s done in a very matter-of-fact and casual manner, in marked contrast to the way nudity is handled in, for example, Hammer movies at that time, where it’s done as if it’s something naughty and furtive. The witches in Blood Sabbath run around the woods naked because they’re witches. That’s what witches do (at least that’s what most people in 1972 would have imagined that real witches do. There’s a scene where the witches try to seduce the village priest, and it becomes very clear that the conflict between the church and the witches in this movie is all about sex, and more specifically it’s all about female sexuality. The nudity is not only justifiable, it’s essential to the film. It’s also significant that these women are shown very clearly to be completely in charge of their own sexuality, and that they are never depicted as sexual victims. In its own way it’s a rather subversive little flick!

It has to be admitted that it does have some problems. Tony Geary is very bland as David, and Susan Damante isn’t much better as the nymph Yyalah. The mix of genres is sometimes a little uneasy, and the pacing drags a bit early on. And the transfer on the Region 4 DVD release is very poor. On the plus side Dyanne Thorne (yes, the notorious Ilsa herself) is great fun as the queen of the witches. And it’s an offbeat and original movie, and I think it’s worth giving it a chance.

Saturday 19 April 2008

La Belle Captive (1983)

Novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet is best-known in film-making circles as the man who wrote the screenplay for the brilliant Last Year at Marienbad. He has also directed a number of films himself, including La Belle Captive. Released in 1983, it was based on his own novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by the paintings of the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. If all of that leads you to expect a puzzling and rather cryptic movie then you’re spot on. Walter is some kind of detective, or perhaps secret agent is closer to the mark, working for the enigmatic leather-clad motorcycle-riding Sara Zeitgeist. While on an assignment he meets a beautiful but mysterious woman, Marie-Ange, in a bar. Later on that night he finds Marie-Ange lying on the roadway, handcuffed and covered in blood. Seeking assistance at a nearby house, he encounters a group of somewhat sinister, very creepy and obviously powerful and wealthy men, who seem to be under the impression that he is offering to sell this young woman to them. 

Things get more baffling still when he later finds out that the young lady has been dead for several years; after possibly spending the night with her (or was it a dream?) he wakes to find what appear to be bite marks on his neck. He is also being followed by a man claiming to be a police inspector. From this point on things become more confusing still, with the whole movie being possibly no more than a succession of dream images.

 The obvious movie with which to compare La Belle Captive is Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. If you hated Kubrick’s final film, and if you despised David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and you can’t stand Jean Rollin’s movies, then don’t go anywhere near this one. If on the other hand you enjoy cinematic puzzles and a hefty dose of the surreal and the disturbingly erotic then La Belle Captive will be right up your alley. I loved it.

The DVD includes no extras, apart from a theatrical trailer, which is a pity since it’s the sort of movie that would probably benefit from some background information. You certainly need at least a vague familiarity with Magritte’s paintings, images from which recur throughout the film.

Friday 18 April 2008

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Opinion is sharply divided on the merits of Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, but then you could say that of most of his films. What’s surprising is that so many people seem to believe that it’s a movie about sex. To me it seem to be a movie about reality and dream. Nothing in the movie looks real. It’s supposed to be set in contemporary New York but it doesn’t look like New York or any other city in the real world. It also doesn’t look like 1999. This is absolutely deliberate. It’s as if the two main characters, Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), have strayed into the ball room of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, and are now in a kind of temporal limbo. At the beginning of the movie they are attending a party, a party which could just as easily be taking place in the 1920s as the 1990s. A man attempts to seduce Alice, a man who looks and behaves like he’s wandered into the movie from an old black-and-white Hollywood film of the 40s. The street scenes look like they were shot on a sound stage, and everything moves impossibly slowly for New York in the 90s. Everything moves at the pace of a dream. Interiors are shot in typically Kubrickian fashion, with such an obsessive eye for detail and with such perfectionism that they seem hyper-real rather than real. We notice the details, in the way that we would in a dream and in the way that we would not notice them in real life.

Alice and Bill have been married for nine years. After attending a party at which they both spent a good deal of time flirting with other people Alice tells Bill about an affair she almost had. They’d been on holiday, and she saw this man in a hotel, became obsessed by him, and couldn’t stop thinking about having sex with him. Bill (a doctor) is then called away to the home of one of his patients who has just died. The deceased patient’s daughter tries to seduce him, but the whole scene has a bizarre dreamlike quality to it. Bill already appears like a man in a nightmare, unable to affect events, compelled to watch obsessively as increasingly odd things start to happen. He picks up a hooker, but seems unable to bring himself to have sex with her. He goes to a bar, and has a few drinks with an old friend from medical school who is now a pianist. The friend tells him about a mysterious gathering at which he regularly plays the piano, a gathering that meets at various locations, and he reluctantly gives Bill the password to gain admittance. Bill then finds himself at a palatial country house that looks like it belongs in an old gothic horror movie rather than in present-day Manhattan. The gathering is a kind of combination orgy and black mass, with everyone wearing masks. All kinds of sexual activities are on offer, but again Bill behaves in an oddly detached manner, as if he was being compelled to be a spectator rather than being allowed to be a participant. Events take a sinister turn when he is unmasked as an intruder. The movie now starts to resemble a horror thriller, with what may be a gigantic conspiracy involving powerful people, and possible murders, and vague threats. When he hired his costume for the orgy he witnessed an odd scene at the costume hire shop; when he returns the costume the following day he witnesses another scene that casts doubt on what he saw the previous night. The key point seems to be that both Alice and Bill have a little sexual adventure. Alice’s adventure takes place in a dream that seems real; Bill’s takes place in a reality that seems like a dream. Is there a difference? Which is real? Is any of it real? There are mirrors and masks everywhere, and in the most intimate scene that takes place between Alice and Bill she is looking not at him, but at herself in a mirror. Is she watching herself watching herself? Or is she watching us watching her?

Kidman is good, but the surprise is Cruise. He’s perfect. Totally detached, distant, uninvolved, trapped and rendered impotent by his inability to distinguish what is real. Kubrick has a reputation for being obsessed by the idea of dehumanisation, but it’s important to
realise that the movie is not (as many people seem to think) claiming that casual sex dehumanises people. The anonymous and weirdly uninvolved sex in the movie is a symptom rather than a cause of dehumanisation. I don’t think it’s an anti-erotic film, and I don’t think it’s anything as dreary or uninteresting as a propaganda piece for monogamy, as some have interpreted it. It’s a movie that obviously needs to be watched more than once, a movie that is as complex and enigmatic as anything in Kubrick’s career. Ideally I think you should watch The Shining first, then watch this one. They seem to be to be very closely linked in mood and in theme. Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s final masterpiece, and a masterpiece it is.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Blacula (1972)

After hearing so many good things about Blacula I just had to see it. And it’s splendid fun! William Marshall isn’t just good; he’s one of the classic screen vampires. Having a classically trained actor play the role of the black vampire, and having him play it straight, was a slightly surprising choice but it worked superbly. Actually the acting in general was pretty good for an exploitation flick. In common with the other blaxploitation movies I’ve seen recently it really didn’t strike me as being racist.

The movie starts with an African prince in Europe in the 18th century, trying to drum up support for a campaign against slavery. He encounters Count Dracula, and is transformed into a vampire and cursed by the count. Two hundred years later a couple of gay interior decorators (with the kind of gay stereotyping you’d never get away with these days) buy up the estate of a deceased European nobleman. The estate includes a coffin, and once they get it back to Los Angeles they decide to open it (these guys have never seen a horror movie so they don’t realise what a bad idea this is likely to be) and Blacula is unleashed on the streets of LA. Having Blacula as a cultured aristocrat himself, rather than an urban street hipster, works extremely well. The whole movie is played pretty straight, and it works as a highly entertaining vampire movie. Plus you get some groovy 70 threads, and some outrageous early 70s music and dancing - what more could you want?

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Nightmare (1964)

Nightmare is one of Hammer’s lesser known movies, a 1964 black-and-white contemporary chiller about madness. A girl, Janet, has witnessed her insane mother’s murder of her father, and fears she will inherit her mother’s madness. She is sent home from boarding school when her nightmares start to get out of control. Her guardian has found a nurse/companion for her, but the nightmares keep getting worse, and she starts seeing disturbing visions when she’s awake as well. To say anything more would be to risk spoilers. Freddie Francis does a terrific job as director (as always), and the movie looks sensational. The cast does not include the usual familiar faces from Hammer films, but they do a fine job. Jennie Linden is extremely good as Janet. The screenplay (by Jimmy Sangster) has as many twists and turns as you could possibly hope for. And although at times it’s far-fetched the movie is so well done that it’s not difficult to maintain the suspension of disbelief. There’s very little gore, but this is quite a chilling movie and delivers the goods without any need for gore. It’s impossible not to share the protagonist’s growing terror and the awful fear of madness. In all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable superbly crafted film. Definitely one of Hammer’s forgotten gems, and highly recommended.

The transfer on the Universal Franchise Collection Hammer Horror boxed set is magnificent. If you don’t have this set, buy it now. No extras, just eight great movies at a ridiculously cheap price.

Monday 14 April 2008

Mad Love (1935)

Mad Love, one of MGM’s 1930s forays into the horror arena, was one of several film versions of Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac. It opens memorably, with the famous surgeon Dr Gogol (Peter Lorre) visiting Paris’s notorious Grand Guignol theatre. He is obsessed Yvonne, one of the actresses at this theatre of horrors, but she finds him repulsive. When her husband, renowned concert pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), is injured on a train accident she is forced to turn to Dr Gogol for help. Orlac’s hands have been crushed beyond repair, but Dr Gogol believes he can replace them with the hands of a condemned murderer. Orlac soon comes to believe that these hands have a will of their own.

Unfortunately American studios in the 30s believed that horror movies had to have comic relief and Mad Love has two annoying characters, an irritating American reporter (Ted Healy) and Dr Gogol’s drunken housekeeper, providing supposed humour. Luckily the movie is good enough to survive this. Karl Freund directs with his accustomed skill and adds some impressive German Expressionist flourishes. Colin Clive overacts outrageously but his performance is nonetheless entertaining and effective. Frances Drake is also quite good, but Peter Lorre is very much the star of this movie. He is both creepy and sympathetic, a man driven to madness by rejection and lack of love. Lorre emphasises the sexual nature of Dr Gogol’s insanity, to an extent that is slightly surprising for a movie released after the imposition of the draconian Production Code. MGM had very little luck with horror movies, and Mad Love was an even bigger flop than Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks. Like Freaks it was regarded by exhibitors as being too extreme and too horrific for contemporary audiences. Despite its commercial failure at the time it’s one of the great American horror films and the DVD release in Warner’s Legends of Horror boxed set is highly recommended.

Saturday 12 April 2008

Camille 2000 (1969)

Imagine Camille remade as an adult film, with the action transposed from 19th century Paris to the world of the 1960s jet set, and you pretty much have the idea behind Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000. But this is a 1969 adult film, so by the standards of the 1970s (or of today) it’s ridiculously tame. Which doesn’t matter, because no-one is going to watch this movie today as a softcore sex movie. You’re going to watch it as an exercise in 60s style, and as a reminder of a vanished era when art and trash, and sex and serious film-making, were able to co-exist without difficulty. And this movie is gloriously and deliriously stylish. It’s a glimpse of a world of outrageous wealth and decadence, and the sets are simply magnificent. It’s also an extravagantly arty film, which manages to get away with its artistic pretensions. There’s actually very little sex, but the sex scenes that are there are an object lesson in how to film sex scenes. It’s all done with mirrors, Lots and lots of mirrors. It should end up being excessively precious and pretentious but somehow it works. It manages to be genuinely erotic while showing so little that it would probably get a PG rating today. It’s a visually stunning movie, with wonderful sets, clothing and assorted 1960s objets d’art. The DVD transfer is a little disappointing, with rather washed-out colours and quite a few scratches. It’s all surprisingly entertaining, and a must for lovers of 60s style and 60s camp.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

Taste the Blood of Dracula is a fairly typical entry in the Hammer Dracula cycle, with a couple of interesting features. A group of middle-aged and very respectable middle-class men are actually notorious rakes who haunt London’s brothels looking for the thrills offered by sex and wickedness. They’re becoming a bit jaded, so when a dissolute young lord offers them the chance to do something really evil they jump at it. I mean, raising Count Dracula from the dead has to be fun, and what could go wrong? Compared to most of the Hammer vampire movies this one is more sympathetic to the vampires (the revived Count loses no time in recruiting an undead army of attractive young ladies) and much less sympathetic to those ostensibly on the side of law and order and decency. The determination of the middle-aged fathers to exert their power and their discipline over their daughters is especially creepy, and leads to a one of the more memorable staking scenes in a Hammer film.

Christopher Lee has never really impressed me in the Hammer Dracula films (although I thought he was great playing the same role for Jess Franco), and Taste the Blood of Dracula dies nothing to make me revise my opinion. Still, there’s a strong supporting cast, Peter Sasdy’s direction is competent if uninspired, the presumably deconsecrated church in which Dracula has taken up residence looks good, and there’s plenty of entertainment.

Friday 11 April 2008

Nightmare Castle (1965)

When you feel the need for some pure entertainment there’s nothing like a good 1960s or 1970s Italian horror movie, and if you can’t find a good one even a bad 60s or 70s Italian horror flick will do. Mario Caiano’s 1965 horror movie Nightmare Castle (Gli Amanti d'oltretomba) really has only one major thing going for it – its star, Barbara Steele. Fortunately Steele, perhaps the greatest scream queen of them all, is in good form and the film is worth watching just for her. She plays a woman whose husband has married her for her money, and also the husband’s first wife, murdered by him in a jealous rage. The first wife won’t stay dead, though, and tries to take over her sister’s body. The husband happens to be a mad scientist, and he’s keeping his mistress young and beautiful using typical mad scientist methods involving blood from younger women. It’s best not to think about the plot too much – there’s nothing there you haven’t encountered in countless other horror movies. It’s quite well executed though, and it has some nice gothic atmosphere. And it has Barbara Steele. It’s perfectly decent entertainment.

Thursday 10 April 2008

The Naked Kiss (1964)

The Naked Kiss, written and directed by Samuel Fuller, has to be one of the oddest movies ever made, a strange disjointed mix of film noir and melodrama. The tone of the movie combines the hardboiled cynicism of Kiss Me Deadly with some of the most vomit-inducing sentimentality you’ll ever see. It’s like Mickey Spillane channelling Walt Disney, but done with a crudity and a degree of technical incompetence that would have had Ed Wood demanding to have his name taken off the credits. The plot concerns a prostitute who suddenly decides that what she really wants to do is to devote her life to helping cute little crippled kids. Then she makes an alarming discovery about her husband-to-be, the most respected citizen in the town, and her past comes back to haunt her. The acting is almost unimaginably bad. The dialogue defies belief. “A sweetheart is a bottle of wine; a wife is a wine bottle.” That’s deep Sam. And there’s more, and worse, where that came from. This has been claimed as a kind of proto-feminist film, presumably because the prostitute turns out to have a Heart of Gold (and she really loves those cute little crippled kids – she even sings to them). I’m not so sure about this movie’s politics though. I suspect a conservative and even puritan agenda, but it’s so incoherent it’s hard to tell. It gets points for attempting to deal with controversial adult subject matter back in 1964, but it’s about as a subtle as being run over by a bus. Fuller became something of a cult director during the 60s and was even for a time the darling of the French Nouvelle Vague. The Naked Kiss is certainly different, and it’s definitely untypical of Hollywood movies of its era. It just shows that being different and non-mainstream is not always a good thing! It does have considerable so-bad-it’s-good entertainment value if you’re in the right mood. You could say it’s the Valley of the Dolls of film noir. It probably helps if your brain is deranged by the ingesting of certain chemical substances. Not that I’m advocating the use of such substances, but if you’re going to watch this movie it’s probably essential if you hope to retain your sanity. Especially when you get to the song about the bluebird of happiness.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Immoral Tales (1974)

Walerian Borowczyk started his career as a painter, then moved into animation, before finally starting to make movies with live actors. You might expect that his movies would therefore look like a series of still images that have been animated, and in the case of Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales) you’d be absolutely right. The movie comprises four short pieces, but they’re completely plotless. In fact what Borowczyk seems mostly interested in is textures and patterns. He achieved considerable notoriety in the 1970s with his erotic films, of which Immoral Tales is probably the best-known. Despite truly staggering amounts of nudity the results are strangely non-erotic, perhaps because there’s a certain lifelessness to the images. It’s as if he’s only interested in the bodies for the interesting patterns he can create with them. Of the four tales the most interesting is the one featuring Paloma Picasso (yes, the daughter of the painter) as Elisabeth Bathory, the Hungarian noblewoman who bathed in the blood of virgins and was one of the sources for the legends of vampires. It was a major hit in 1974 (despite its extreme artiness), although Borowczyk now seems to be all but forgotten. One of those movies that could only have been made in the 70s, with that characteristic 70s blend of the arty and the erotic. I definitely wouldn’t recommend buying this one unless you’re sure you like Borowczyk’s movies – otherwise rent it first.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Demoniacs (Les Démoniaques, 1974)

A pirate movie is not quite what you expect from Jean Rollin, but Demoniacs (Les Démoniaques) is definitely not your typical pirate movie. There are no thrilling adventures or heroic deeds. These pirates (well actually they’re wreckers, luring ships to their doom with false lights) are vicious cowardly thugs, raping and murdering any survivors before making off with the loot. The gang includes a female pirate who is perhaps even more depraved than the men, getting off on watching the violence of the men and joining in herself. Things start to go wrong when they murder two young women from the latest wreck, and the two women turn up again alive. Or possibly not alive. But definitely wandering about. The stage seems set for a fairly typical revenge story, but this is a Jean Rollin movie, and things start to get weird very quickly, especially when the girls visit the old ruin and encounter the odd characters there, one of whom promises to give the girls the magical powers they need to take their vengeance.

Plot isn’t the essential ingredient of a Jean Rollin movie though. It’s the surreal imagery that matters, and the unsettling atmosphere, and the generally enigmatic quality of the whole movie. And Demoniacs has those qualities of mystery and weirdness. There’s the stuffed seagull for instance. And there are naturally two girls, since Rollin’s movies generally feature pairs of young women who appear to be twins, or doubles. The relationship between the two women is always ambiguous. Are they sisters? Lovers? Or really just one woman? Are they even real? And in this case, if they’re real are they alive or dead? Demoniacs also features a female clown, another typical Rollin touch. And of course, being a 70s Rollin film, lots of nudity and sex. The movie is like a surreal erotic horror fairy tale. Apart from the pirates, there’s considerable doubt about the nature and even the reality of all the other characters. It’s not my favourite Rollin film by a long way (I think his best movies are The Iron Rose and Shiver of the Vampires), and it’s probably not the ideal starting place for anyone unfamiliar with his work (The Living Dead Girl would be a better choice), but if you’re a fan it’s most certainly worth seeing. The Redemption DVD looks terrific.

Thursday 3 April 2008

If Don Juan Were a Woman (1973)

Roger Vadim seems to be regarded with more or less universal disdain as a film-maker. He certainly had his weaknesses, but his 1973 outing Don Juan ou Si Don Juan était une femme... (Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman is actually rather interesting. Brigitte Bardot is a woman who believes she was once a man, in fact she was once Don Juan, and she treats men the way Don Juan treated women – they’re just conquests to be made, notches to be carved into her bedstead. This could be seen as Vadim’s rather confused take on feminism, or even as a kind of misogynistic paranoia, but in practice it’s rather more interesting. Partly this is because of Bardot’s remarkably detached performance, and because the movie makes no attempt to psychoanalyse her or to speculate on why she behaves the way she does. And although she behaves rather badly most of the men she becomes involved with behave in much more reprehensible ways – as soon as they don’t get what they expect from a woman they resort to violence. And does she really behave badly, or does she simply behave the way so many wealthy powerful men behave? Does she treat sex simply as a means to power? She appears to get little actual pleasure from it. The movie seems to be using the gender reversal to day some fairly pertinent things about male attitudes towards love and sex. And although Vadim has a reputation for being a somewhat exploitative director, there’s no explicit sex and, for a 1973 movie, very little nudity. What it does have is fairly imaginative direction, and some wonderful sets – she lives in a female version of Jason King’s groovy bachelor pad!

Not a great movie, and not one that entirely succeeds, but it’s still worth a look if you have a taste for odd but intriguing movies.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

It: The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

It: The Terror from Beyond Space is rather like a 1958 version of Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s the same basic plot idea. The first spaceship to land on Mars has its crew mysteriously killed. A rescue ship takes off the sole survivor, but they’ve unwittingly taken on another, unwelcome, passenger as well. The problem with It: The Terror from Beyond Space is not the lack of expensive special effects, or the acting (although it has to be said that the acting is pretty uninspiring). The problem is the monster. Even by 1958 standards this is one lame monster. Of course there are things you can do in that situation – you can try to show the monster as little as possible, or try to shoot the monster in dim light, or obscured by smoke or shadows, or avoid close-ups of the monster. None of these techniques occurred to the makes of this film, so we have a very lame man-in-a-rubber-suit monster and we get to see him up close so we can see that he’s a man in a rubber suit. Aside from that the movie is a fairly standard 1950s sci-fi horror flick which actually makes some effort to get at least some of the science right. They actually understand about air-locks and vacuums. I do wonder, though, whether it really would be advisable to fire a bazooka inside a spacecraft. Not to mention throwing hand grenades (this is a peaceful scientific mission so naturally our astronauts are armed to the teeth).
There’s not a huge amount of suspense – the appearance of the monster comes as no surprise whatsoever. The movie does move along at a rapid pace, though. It’s a movie that can be a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood, and if you really like 1950s American sci-fi horror.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Tenebrae (1982)

The first time I saw Dario Argento’s Tenebrae I was very disappointed. I was hoping for another Suspiria, and I couldn’t get into the giallo thing at all. Seeing it again now (on a bigger and better TV and on DVD rather than VHS) I found a lot more to admire in the skill with which Argento sets up his visual set-pieces. I also have marginally more sympathy for the giallo genre, although I still have reservations about it. The absurdity of the plot no longer bothers me. I find I’m less and less interested in coherent linear plots anyway. The sexual ambiguities are interesting, especially the flashback scenes involving the woman on the beach, with the use of a transsexual actor to play the woman. As the movie progresses and the body count climbs and things gets bloodier and bloodier I found my interesting starting to wane. The ending just combines too many twists for my taste, and is just an excuse for a visually spectacular but entirely pointless death scene.

After Lamberto Bava’s lamentable Demons it’s like taking a quantum leap in film-making quality though. Argento’s technical mastery is nothing less than awe-inspiring. The giallo genre is something I continue to have mixed feelings about, and the amount of gore in this movie makes me uncomfortable. I much prefer Argento’s supernatural films.