Friday 30 May 2008

The Big Doll House (1971)

The success of Jess Franco’s 99 Women triggered a wave of women-in-prison movies. None were as good as 99 Women, but The Big Doll House does have its own appeal. Directed by Jack Hill and released in 1971, if features all the elements of a classic WiP movie – there’s the sadistic female prison guard, the insane prison governor, the tough lesbian, the junkie, the sympathetic but ineffectual prison doctor and the naïve newbie. There’s the obligatory shower scene, there are beatings, lots of implied lesbianism, and there’s the rebellion of the prisoners. All combined with some classic (but highly entertaining) bad acting. These ingredients are blended with a certain amount of flair and the result is a must for fans of this sub-genre.

Judith Brown is Collier, the new girl in a brutal women’s prison in an unnamed South-East Asian country (it was filmed in the Philippines), sent down for 99 years for the murder of her rich husband. Her cell-mates include the three toughest women in the prison. There’s Bodine, the hard-bitten but idealistic revolutionary. There’s Alcott (Roberta Collins in a memorably outrageous performance), blonde and pretty but as hard as nails and the facto queen of the prison. And lastly there’s Grear, the tough black lesbian (played by the queen of 70s blaxploitation movies, Pam Grier). Collier finds herself torn between Alcott and Grear, Grear already has a girlfriend, a junkie, but she appears to be interested in grooming Collier as a replacement. Collier meanwhile has allied herself with Alcott in the hope that she’ll save her from a Fate Worse Than Death at the hands of Grear. When Lucian (the sadistic female prison guard played with relish by Kathryn Loder) goes too far an escape plot is hatched. There are also a couple of sleazy guys who deliver food to the gaol and bring treats to the prisoners in exchange for being allowed to feel them up. The sleaze factor in this movie is quite remarkably high really. These two bozos get caught up in the escape attempt.

The acting in general is perfect for the type of movie it is, with Roberta Collins and Kathryn Loder being especially over-the-top, while Christiane Schmidtmer as the very strange prison governor is also fun. It’s all very camp, fast-paced and very violent and If you like WiP movies you’ll certainly enjoy this one.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Chained Girls (1965)

Chained Girls, dating from 1965, is one of those bizarre American pseudo-educational movies warning about the dangers to decent society posed by social threats like juvenile delinquency, rock’n’roll, drugs and similar evils. This time it’s lesbianism. We get lots of hysterical statistics from “medical research” informing us of shocking facts about the prevalence of lesbianism on college campuses, and we’re told the terrifying truth that lesbians can be found in any walk of life, and that many lesbians look just like normal women. Most frightening of all is the revelation that cities are being terrorised by roaming gangs of teenage lesbians called Baby Butches, spreading terror with knives, lead pipes and their fists! It’s a mix of scare tactics and titillation, with scenes of young “femme” lesbians being “initiated” at “coming-out parties” where the experienced lesbians draw straws to see who gets to initiate the new girl!

It’s from the same producer as Ed Wood’s infamous Glen or Glenda, and at times it has a vaguely similar feel, when it switches from scare tactics to a surprisingly sympathetic (if ludicrously wrong-headed) approach to the subject, when we’re told that these poor women are really just looking for love and they deserve our understanding.

The mix of paranoia and exploitation that drove so much of the low-budget American movie production up to the 70s is something I find deliciously entertaining in a camp sort of way. The fact that this one is presented as a documentary just makes it all the more amusing. It’s the sort of thing you need to be in the mood for, but when you are in that mood then Chained Girls delivers jaw-dropping entertainment value. And there are more outrageous bouffant hairdos than you’ve ever seen in your life. There’s a very small amount of nudity, but mostly it relies on extravagantly overheated fully clothed make-out sessions for its titillation value.

On the Something Weird DVD release it’s paired with Daughters of Lesbos, an equally silly but much less entertaining film from 1968. It’s really just straightforward sexploitation, although it has occasional bizarre and amusing moments. It also features quite explicit nudity and sex, so I’m not sure it was really the right choice for double-feature billing with Chained Girls. Both movies are in black-and-white, and both look remarkably good considering that they’re not exactly the types of movie that you’d expect anyone to have bothered to carefully preserve.

Friday 16 May 2008

All the Colors of the Dark (1972)

Sergio Martino’s 1972 All the Colors of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio) is an interesting hybrid, combining elements of both the giallo and the classic Italian gothic horror film. Jane has lost her unborn child in a car accident, and is also haunted by strange dreams of a knife-wielding man trying to kill her. The stress is affecting her marriage, and has effectively put an end to her sexual life. She has sought help from psychiatrists, but without success. Increasingly desperate, she accepts the advice of a friend who tells her that she knows of a group that can help her. Unfortunately this group turns out to be a coven of devil-worshippers. Or at least that’s how it appears to Jane. By this time though she is so disturbed that she is having trouble separating reality from nightmare. Her husband is also dosing her with pills, which may or may not be contributing to what may or may not be her delusions.

It’s quite an ambitious movie in its own way, and also exceptionally ambiguous. Of course Italian horror movies aren’t exactly renowned for overly coherent plotting, but in this case the ambiguity is deliberate and effective. Italian horror movies are known for their impressive visual style, and All the Colors of the Dark is very stylish indeed. There’s comparatively little gore, but this movie doesn’t need gore. The steady spiralling into madness, and Jane’s awareness that she may be going insane but on the other hand the nightmares might be very real indeed, provides more than enough in the way of chills.

Edwige Fenech gives a reasonably competent performance as Jane. She’s not the world’s greatest actress but she effectively conveys Jane’s doubts about her own insanity. Director Sergio Martino does a terrific job – the movie is superbly paced and highly atmospheric, with some fine visual set-pieces. This is a movie that should please both giallo and gothic horror fans. Highly recommended!

Monday 12 May 2008

Petulia (1968)

The opening of Richard Lester’s 1968 film Petulia suggests we’re in for a lightweight, zany, 60s romantic comedy. Very soon, however, the film starts to become disturbing and it ends up a very dark movie indeed. It starts with a young woman named Petulia (Julie Christie) making an assignation with a recently divorced doctor, Archie (George C. Scott). The movie then moves both forward and backwards, with flashbacks and flashforwards, and we gradually learn a little more about Petulia and her husband (Richard Chamberlain) and about Archie’s life pre- and post-divorce. The director of photography was Nicolas Roeg. I wonder if Lester influenced Roeg or Roeg influenced Lester? Either way, you can see in Petulia some of the techniques that Roeg used so successfully in his own movies. The cinematography is certainly superb. It’s extraordinarily vivid and captures the atmosphere of San Francisco in those heady days of 1968. Also there to add to the atmosphere, in the opening charity ball sequence, are the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by a young singer by the name of Janis Joplin.

The movie is really in some ways more concerned with the background than the main story, with the ways that technology was changing society, with the social changes of the 60s, with changing attitudes towards sex and marriage, and with the escalating level of violence in modern life. There’s so much violence in this movie, but everyone is pretending it isn’t there. In shot after shot there are TVs playing inn the background, showing scenes of the Vietnam War, but nobody is watching. And it’s the same with the violence in Petulia’s life. Everyone - her husband, her parents-in-law, Petulia herself, are just pretending it doesn’t exist. In fact the people in this movie seem to be trying not to notice anything at all. Not to notice that their marriages are either pathological or stifling, not to notice how impersonal their lives are becoming, not to notice how unhappy they are. Petulia is a very stylish movie and a very unsettling movie as well. A great movie by a very underrated director.

Sunday 11 May 2008

The Deathless Devil (1973)

Did you know that Turkey had a thriving film industry in the 1970s? An industry that was churning out 300 movies a year. Including gloriously weird science fiction and adventure B-movies. I didn’t know that, but those crazy folks at Mondo Macabro did, and they’ve made two of these cinematic treasure available to us on DVD. So tonight I treated myself to The Deathless Devil (Yilmayan seytan). It’s a masked avenger/mysterious crime-fighter tale, in the comic book superhero mould, but with science fiction elements and a definite hint of those outrageous old 1940s Hollywood serials as well. Like a combination of Batman and Flash Gordon. As for the plot – well I have to say I’m pretty vague about the plot, but I suspect the people who made the movie were just as vague about it as I am! It has something to do with a brilliant but eccentric scientist who invents a gadget that does something with aircraft. A remote control device, or that type of thing. But of course there’s a diabolical criminal mastermind on hand, and he’s determined to steal the gizmo. He’s called Dr Satan, and he possesses one of the finest moustaches in movie history. If not the very finest. Naturally the brilliant but eccentric scientist has a beautiful daughter, and naturally she and the hero fall in love. The hero appears to be a mild-mannered something-or-other, but it turns out he’s actually the son of the famous masked crime-fighter Copperhead, and to combat the nefarious Dr Satan he must become the new Copperhead.

Director Yilmaz Atadeniz might not know much about constructing a coherent movie, but he does understand one thing about this type of movie, and it’s the most important thing of all. You have to keep things happening. It doesn’t matter in the least whether these things make any kind of sense, as long as they keep happening. And they certainly do keep happening in The Deathless Devil. There’s lots of action. There are fist-fights. There are chases. There’s a killer robot. Poison gas. Remote-controlled bombs strapped to Dr Satan’s minions. There are glamorous girls. There’s also, rather surprisingly perhaps considering the country of origin, some illicit sex and even a dash of nudity. There’s comedy also, in the form of the hero’s buddy who has a strange Sherlock Holmes fixation. And it’s cheesy. It is so cheesy. We’re talking Ed Wood levels of cheesiness here. And it work for the same reason that an Ed Wood movie like Plan 9 from Outer Space works – because it’s non-stop fun and everyone is so delightfully enthusiastic. The robot is so lame than even Ed Wood would have thought twice about using it. Dr Satan has a terrific diabolical criminal mastermind costume. Copperhead’s costume looks every bit as silly as it should. The cheesiness in this movie is just so consistent! The DVD includes an apology from Mondo Macabro for the poor state of the source materials, but in fact the movie looks just fine. It’s absurdly entertaining and I loved every minute of it.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Youth of the Beast (1963)

Seijun Suzuki’s 1963 yakuza thriller Youth of the Beast (Yaju no seishun) is a kind of mutant off-shoot of film noir, although it actually reminds me more of French crime movies influenced by noir (like some of the very early films of Godard and Truffaut) than of American noir. It has a slightly surreal and rather stylised feel to it, which is something I’m very fond of. There’s also a hint of Sam Fuller to it. The plot is never really the point in a good crime movie – style and character are what matter (at least in my view). Which is perhaps just as well in this case, since the plot is so outrageously convoluted. A mysterious stranger, Jo Mizuno, muscles his way into a major yakuza gang, proving his mettle by beating up just about everybody whose path he crosses, so that the gang boss decides he’s just too dangerous not to hire! It soon becomes evident that Jo has some agenda of his own, and what follows is a bewildering series of double-crosses and plots and counter-plots. And of course, lots of violence, although mostly not particularly graphic. There’s also a definite hint of sadism, which you seem to get in Japanese crime movies. Jo Shishido makes a very effective obsessed tough guy loner hero. The major debt to film noir involves a plot element that would reveal a major spoiler, so you’ll have to watch the movie yourself to find out what it is. There are some other noirish touches, with a palpable feeling of paranoia and betrayal, and institutionalised corruption. Mostly it’s an exercise in style, and a very effective one. There are some wonderfully atmospheric scenes, plenty of imaginative camera angels, and some great visual set-pieces. There’s a scene early in the movie in a night-club, with a soundproofed room and a one-way mirror, that is a great example of visual style that not only looks great but genuinely adds to the mood of the film. The use of black-and-white segments in a colour film can come cross as gimmicky, but it works well in this one. The splashes of colour in the black-and-white sections are also notable.

I’m now totally hooked on Seijun Suzuki, and amazingly enough quite a few of his movies have been released in Region 4, so I’m just about to add them all to my rental queue. I highly recommend Youth of the Beast.

Monday 5 May 2008

Jess Franco’s Voodoo Passion (1977)

Voodoo Passion (Der Ruf der blonden Göttin) isn’t exactly one of Jess Franco’s most admired films, and even his staunchest fans are unlikely to name this 1977 offering as one of their favourites. I actually found it to be much better than I expected. It’s a blend of sexploitation, horror and murder mystery, with the emphasis on the sexploitation factor.

Susan is a woman who has just arrived in Haiti to join her diplomat husband, and she soon finds herself enmeshed in a heavy atmosphere of, well voodoo and passion basically. Her husband is having an affair with a woman who claims to be his sister, and there’s also a beautiful Haitian housekeeper. Susan starts having disturbing dreams, and starts to become fascinated by voodoo and by the sensual abandon that accompanies it (well the sensual abandon that accompanies it in a Jess Franco film anyway). It transpires that the situation in Susan’s new home is not at all as it appears to be, and that there is foul play afoot.

As usual in a Franco movie (and especially in his best movies) dream and reality start bleeding into one another. And also as usual in a Franco movie there’s a frenetic and mesmerising jazz-influenced sound-track, with the blending of jazz and vaguely Haitian music working surprisingly well. And of course there’s sex, lots of it, and nudity, lots of that too. In some of Franco’s movies 1970s movies there was a slightly disturbing trend towards excessive sexualised violence and overtones of sadism, but that’s not evident in this film. You can’t even really say that the sex and nudity is gratuitous, Susan’s response to the air of sexual freedom she finds on the island being a central part of the plot (and yes, there is a plot).

It’s also refreshing to find a movie that treats voodoo in such a sympathetic way, not at all in the demonising manner so familiar in horror movies. It’s a movie about voodoo and sexual passion, and the movie is very much on the side of both of those things. As an erotic movie it works well, and it also works as a reasonably effective horror/mystery thriller.

Friday 2 May 2008

The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936)

The Man Who Changed His Mind is a 1936 British mad scientist movie, with Boris Karloff as the mad scientist. He’s Dr Laurience – brilliant, but just a trifle unstable, and regarded with suspicion by his more conventional colleagues. He is on the verge of perfecting a method by which the personality can be transferred from one body to another. He has succeeded wit animals, and is naturally anxious to try on humans. He has just acquire a beautiful young assistant, Dr. Clare Wyatt (Anna Lee), and has made a deal with a newspaper tycoon. The deal gives him access to money and a modern fully equipped mad scientist laboratory. Of course when he reveals the nature of his work to a gathering of eminent scientists he is mocked and reviled. His becomes bitter and twisted, and is also painfully aware that he is no longer young. If only he had a young body, he could continue his experiments indefinitely. You can pretty much see where the plot is going from this point on.

It’s the performances that lift this one above the general run of such films. Karloff is in fine form, giving us a villain who misunderstood and fairly sympathetic but still frightening in his obsessiveness. Anna Lee is delightful. Great support is offered by Donald Calthrop as one of the good doctor’s patients, a man crippled and embittered by a horrible illness, and by Frank Cellier as the newspaper magnate. John Loder is likeable enough as Clare’s boyfriend, who happens to be the son of the wealthy press baron. With direction by Robert Stevenson and cinematography by Jack E. Cox there’s nothing flashy about the movie but it does boast some nice use of shadows and lighting and it generally looks quite impressive. There are some very cool mad scientist gizmos. A nice touch is that it’s the beautiful female assistant who saves the day, without any help from any of the men. It’s a movie that compares quite favourably with the Universal horror films of the same period. An absolute must for Karloff fans. Great entertainment.

Fascination (1979)

Jean Rollin’s 1979 film Fascination opens with a sequence clearly inspired by Jean Lorrain’s 1893 short story The Glass of Blood (Jean Lorrain being a shamefully neglected Decadent writer). This story was based on a somewhat bizarre real-life practice of the time in which wealthy people suffering from anaemia or similar disorders would start their day with a glass of cow’s blood at a local slaughter-house. This strange obsession with blood provides the theme of the movie, another of Rollin’s very unconventional filmic explorations of vampirism. We then see a falling-out among a group of thieves, one of whom takes shelter in an apparently deserted chateau. The chateau is not quite deserted however. He soon encounters two rather unsettling young women, whose interest in him is obviously sexual but equally obviously goes beyond the merely sexual. He is warned not to stay around until dark, as they are having other guests, apparently very dangerous ones.

Fascination has the lyrical, poetic visual style you expect from Rollin. It also has extremely competent acting, with Brigitte Lahaie and Franca Mai as the two disturbing young women and Jean-Marie Lemaire as the thief on the run all giving strong performances. The elegant chateau provides a perfect setting for a Rollin film. The movie is set in the early years of the 20th century and captures the feel of fin de siècle decadence very effectively. If you’re already a fan of Rollin’s brand of poetic and deliciously perverse erotic horror you won’t be disappointed by Fascination. If you’re unfamiliar with his work it’s not a bad place to start – the surrealist elements always present in his movies are less extreme in this one, or at least they’re less overwhelming. It also has (by the standards of a Rollin movie) a relatively straightforward plot. In the late 70s Rollin was moving towards a slightly more accessible style, but without sacrificing the strengths of his earlier productions. It’s still a million miles away from Hollywood notions of horror. A great movie by a great director. Available on DVD from Redemption.