Sunday 29 June 2008

Trash (1970)

Trash, released in 1970, was the second part of Paul Morrissey’s loose trilogy of films starring Joe Dallesandro, and produced under the aegis of Andy Warhol’s Factory. This time Joe is a junkie, living in squalor with his trash-collecting girlfriend Holly (played by transvestite Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn). Joe really isn’t interested in anything any more, apart from heroin. He is no longer capable of satisfying Holly sexually, despite her strenuous, even frantic, efforts to arouse him. Although Joe can’t perform any more, that doesn’t stop people from trying to get into his pants, although none of them have any notable success. Joe’s attempts to get money to buy more drugs involve him in a series of escapades with some of the most outlandishly outrageous characters in the history of cinema. It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite character.

What makes Trash so fascinating is that it’s an underground movie that is genuinely funny. In fact, extremely funny. The experimental nature of the movie, the constant going in and out of focus, the improvised acting (or rather non-acting), the documentary-style approach, the deliberately amateurish camerawork – all this could so easily add up to a movie that is pretentious and cold, but Trash is monstrously entertaining.

Much has been made of Paul Morrissey’s basically conservative and moralistic approach to his material, and while that’s undoubtedly true there’s no doubt that there’s a considerable affection for this collection of misfits mixed in with that. No-one has ever portrayed the essential boredom, dreariness, banality and utter emptiness of the drug culture more effectively or more chillingly, but at the same time you can’t help falling in love with Joe and Holly. They’re pathetic, but they’re so sweet. Holly Woodlawn is simply adorable, and gives what is not only one of the finest comic performances you’ll ever see, but also a dramatic performance of considerable and surprising power. The scene in which she is reduced to pleasuring herself with a beer bottle manages to be both insanely hilarious and desperately sad. Joe Dallesandro’s acting is as minimalist as ever, but it works, and he comes cross as a weird but engaging mixture of innocence and depravity. That perhaps is the key to Morrissey’s approach – his characters are really children hopelessly out of their depth in a society that has nothing better to offer them but a soulless and barren hedonism that leaves them more empty and lost. His anger, and his wickedly barbed satire, is directed towards the society that offers its members so little of value.

Trash is a more effective piece of social criticism than much more highly praised movies like Midnight Cowboy, and it’s also very very funny.

Saturday 28 June 2008

Emmanuelle (1974)

Emmanuelle is one of those movies with a place in cinema history that has little to do with its actual merits as a film. It remains possibly the most commercially successful erotic film of all time (although accurate box office figures aren’t always easy to come by in this genre), the movie that broke down (temporarily at least) the barrier between pornography and mainstream movies, and the movie that proved there was a market for erotic movies aimed at women. Although it’s often touted as the first sex movie aimed at a female audience that’s perhaps not strictly true – Radley Metzger had been pursuing a similar aim for several years in movies such as his 1969 feature Camille 2000. But Emmanuelle was the one that broke through at the box office, a genuine softcore blockbuster. It remains one of French cinema’s biggest hits.

The DVD release is one of those instances where the extras are possibly more interesting than the movie. It contains two superb documentaries. The first is An Erotic Success: The Making of Emmanuelle and it’s a fascinating account of the utter chaos that accompanied the shooting of the movie – with first-time feature director Just Jaeckin not having a clue how to make a feature film, with lead actress Sylvia Kristel unable to speak a word of French, with male star Alain Cuny not merely disinterested but actively hostile, major problems with the authorities in Thailand where most of the shooting took place, and to cap it all off the film had to be processed in France so the crew were filming the movie without being able to see any of the footage they’d shot. Right up to the moment the film was released almost everyone concerned with the making of it was so convinced it would be a disaster that they declined the producer’s offer of shares in the profit. Now weren’t they kicking themselves when it started shattering box office records! Soft Sell: Emmanuelle in America is almost as interesting, especially the sections dealing with the promotion of the movie (one of the most successful promotional campaigns in history).

So what about the movie itself? Emmanuelle is a diplomat’s wife who arrives in Thailand to join her husband. They have an open marriage. Emmanuelle has not yet taken advantage of this arrangement, but now she decides it’s about time she did. She sets out to explore her sexuality. The exploration starts on the plane taking her to Bangkok, this being possibly the most famous scene in the movie. In Thailand the diplomat’s wives have little to do, and they deal with the boredom by bed-hopping. Emmanuelle engages in some light-hearted lesbian flirting, although her friend Ariane soon persuade her to do more than mere flirting. Emmanuelle plays at love as well as sex, with a lady archaeologist, but makes the mistake of really falling in love. She also finds herself drawn into the erotic games of a much older man, Mario, and discovers some fascinating and at time frightening pleasures.

The movie unquestionably has some major flaws. It’s slow. It has lengthy philosophical speeches rather clumsily shoe-horned into the dialogue. It’s a movie that is very self-consciously arty. And for a movie that was considered softcore porn it really doesn’t have all that much nudity and sex. On the other hand it does look magnificent. Breath-taking locations, and production values and cinematography that would never be seen again in this type of movie. And never will a movie like this be shot on 35mm film. The acting varies quite a bit. Alain Cuny as Mario (the only name actor in the production) is simply awful. Sylvia Kristel’s strangely detached performance was undoubtedly partly the result of her having to learn her lines phonetically, and often literally not knowing what she was saying. Oddly enough it works, and it makes her more intriguing and also more convincingly naïve. All the actresses look like real women, rather than silicone-enhanced walking advertisements for the cosmetic surgery industry.

Despite its flaws, it works. It works because it really does make an attempt to see sexuality from a female perspective – it’s not always successful in this, but at least the attempt was made. And it works because it really does avoid looking sleazy. The sex scenes are aesthetically pleasing. And at times it does generate some real erotic heat – the celebrated sex-on-a-plane scene is very very sexy. Not to mention the notorious girl-smoking-a-cigarette scene (a scene considered too shocking for American audiences). Unusually for this type of film, the lesbian sex scenes are not included for mere titillation – Emmanuelle’s affair with her lady archaeologist is the real thing, this is real love, it’s central to the plot, and the affair is handled with both sensitivity and passion. The rape scene is one that troubled many feminists at the time (and it troubled the British censor so much it was cut entirely for the British release). Camille Paglia argues (in the accompanying documentary) that this is actually a dream sequence, and I’m inclined to agree with her. In fact it make little sense otherwise. Paglia also argues passionately and enthusiastically that the movie is, overall, a very positive and pro-feminist film, and again I find myself agreeing with her.

Not by any means a great movie, not even close, but in its own way Emmanuelle was a landmark movie, a product of a time when it really seemed that there was a big future for well-made commercially mainstream erotic movies. Video put paid to all that, and Emmanuelle shows us what we lost thereby. And it’s one of those legendary movies that one simply has to have seen.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

The Abominable Snowman, released in 1957, was the third of the Hammer science fiction/horror collaborations between director Val Guest and writer Nigel Kneale. While it’s not quite in the same league as The Quatermass Xperiment or Quatermass 2 it’s not far behind. Peter Cushing is a mountaineer/scientist leading an expedition into the Himalayas in search of the elusive yeti, the so-called Abominable Snowman. He wants to capture one for science, while his partner (played by Forest Tucker) sees it as a way to make his fortune.

Val Guest was determined to show as little as possible the monster itself, which not only increases the tension and the horror, it also places the focus very much on the motivations of the expedition members. While they’re hoping to encounter a yeti, in fact they find themselves face to face with their own fears and somewhat dubious motives.

Hammer must have been doing pretty well at the time, since Guest was given enough funds to spend a couple of weeks doing location in the Pyrenees. It certainly paid off. This movie has none of the cheesiness of contemporary American monster movies. It looks slick and expensive. The black-and-white Cinemascope cinematography (by Arthur Grant who was responsible for the wonderful look of so many Hammer classics) is quite breath-taking. Cushing gives a nicely understated performance.

As you’d expect from Nigel Kneale the script is intelligent and literate, posing interesting questions about both the origins and ultimate destiny of our own species, and about the relations between science and entertainment (even more relevant today). Forest Tucker wasn’t a great actor but he does a commendable job, managing to be larger-than-life without verging into mere caricature.

The picture quality on the Region 4 DVD is sensational. One of Hammer’s most underrated movies, and much more than just a monster movie. Highly recommended.

Sunday 22 June 2008

Werewolf Woman (1976)

Werewolf Woman (La Lupa mannara) starts off with every indication that it’s going to be yet another retread of a very hackneyed plot idea. It does, however, add some unexpected twists and some surprising perspectives and the end result is a rather entertaining werewolf movie.

Daniella is a young woman troubled by dreams, dreams that relate to an ancestress of hers, a woman who was executed as a werewolf. Rather than a supernatural explanation, the movie attempts a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) one. More specifically, the explanation is psychological. This young woman was brutally raped some years earlier, and has developed a sexual phobia. This sexual phobia, combined with memories of childhood stories about her werewolf ancestress, convinces her that she really is a werewolf, and her obsession is so strong that she in effect does become a werewolf. The movie is as much a rape revenge movie as a conventional werewolf movie.

When her sister arrives at the family home with her new boyfriend, thing start to unravel for Daniella. She watches them having sex, and her horror of the sexual act triggers a major psychotic episode leading to tragic consequences. Daniella roams the countryside, cycling constantly between a confused state of sanity and a severe delusional state. She finds men who try to take advantage of her, but she also finds a good man, a man she can love. But she is not destined to enjoy the simple pleasures of love, and once again she finds that violence and tragedy are stalking her.

Annik Borel is genuinely scary as Daniella. In fact she apparently got into the role so much that it took her quite a while after a take to snap out of character (according to the interview with the director included on the DVD). I wouldn’t say she’s a good actress but it’s a weirdly effective performance. There’s considerable gore, and sleaze aplenty. This is very much an exploitation flick, delightfully trashy, although with a few interesting ideas as well. The werewolf make-up (which we only see fairly briefly) works surprisingly well. There’s also a very strange scene with a lizard. Rino Di Silvestro directs with a certain amount of panache.

If you approach it as a fun feast of sleaze and (moderate) gore then there’s much to enjoy. It’s trash, but it’s fun trash.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)

Rafael Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldición de la Llorona) starts off with a scene taken almost directly from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, released a year or so earlier. The twist here is that in Bava’s film the evil witch-looking woman turns out not to be what you expect, whereas in Baledón’s movie she most certainly is a witch, and a particularly malevolent one. She has the usual plans to gain immense powers, and she also intends to restore to life one of her ancestresses, the finder of a line of witches. To do this she needs the help, willing or unwilling, of the dead witch’s youngest female descendant, Amelia. She summons Amelia and her new husband to her very gothic mansion. It doesn’t take Amelia too long to figure out that her aunt (who looks much younger than she has any right to look) is up to something sinister, but can she thwart her diabolical plot?

Like the other Mexican horror movies I’ve seen, The Curse of the Crying Woman is absolutely dripping with gothic atmosphere – there’s the house itself, there are the spiderwebs, there are the three enormous dogs looking like hounds from Hell, there’s the physically deformed servant who looks exactly like the sort of henchman that a horror movie villain would employ, there’s the ever-present fog, in fact there’s every gothic horror cliché you can think of.

The sheer excessiveness of the atmosphere actually works, aided by some rather nice black-and-white cinematography courtesy of José Ortiz Ramos. The special effects are mostly crude, but fortunately Baledón doesn’t overdo them. The acting is fairly impressive, with Rita Macedo making a wonderful villainess, while Rosita Arenas makes a spirited heroine. It does have a few rather nice touches – the floating eyeballs provide an impressive visual effect. And Baledón keeps the action moving along at a cracking pace.

The Casa Negra DVD release looks superb, which is what we’ve come to expect from this company, and there’s also a commentary track. It’s not quite in the same league as the other Mexican horror movies I’ve seen, The Black Pit of Dr M and The Witch’s Mirror, but it’s a competent and thoroughly entertaining little movie.

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Targets (1968)

Targets is a strange little movie that had its genesis in a typical Roger Corman idea - since Boris Karloff owed him a couple of days’ work, and since he had footage available of Karloff from an earlier horror movie (The Terror), why not get his protege Peter Bogdanovich to shoot an hour or so of additional footage and combine this with the new and old footage of Karloff, and hey presto you have a really cheap feature film starring Boris Karloff! Like so many of Corman’s ideas, it actually worked.

It’s actually two completely different and essentially unconnected plotlines that can’t possibly be successfully combined, but somehow they do connect. Karloff is an ageing horror actor disillusioned by the growing horrors of the real-life world that make the horrors of his own movies seem old-fashioned and irrelevant. So he decides to retire, but is persuaded to make one last public appearance at a drive-on theatre in LA.

The second plotline is based on the real-life case of Charles Whitman, a clean-cut all-American boy from Texas who one day climbed up a tower at the University of Texas and started shooting people. In the movie the character ends his shooting spree at a drive-on theatre in Los Angeles.

Had Bogdanovich simply made a movie about a spree killer the results might well have been merely bleak and depressing, and pointlessly violent. But combined with a rather bitter-sweet story of an elderly actor, and with Karloff’s masterfully sensitive and subtle performance, it becomes a much more moving and effective picture. And the sheer oddness of the movie makes it weirdly fascinating. It also becomes an interesting commentary on movies and real life.

In the accompanying (and very entertaining) commentary track Bogdanovich reveals that his own script was actually completely rewritten by legendary cult movie director Sam Fuller, but that Fuller insisted that Bogdanovich take the writing credit. Most of the ideas that make the film work were in fact apparently Fuller’s ideas, which Bogdanovich generously acknowledges. Bogdanovich also has some interesting comments on the use of colour for emotional effect, and some amusing anecdotes about the guerilla film-making techniques he learned from Corman.

Bogdanovich acts in the movie as well, plying a young up-and-coming writer-director! Tim O’Kelly as wonderfully creepy as the shooter, but this is Karloff’s movie and he’s superb. An intriguing little movie.

Monday 16 June 2008

Caligula (1979)

Today’s review subject is one of the most notorious movies of all time, a movie widely regarded as one of the worst ever made. Yes, the infamous Caligula. Produced by Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine. The conventional wisdom is that it’s simply the most expensive porn film ever made. It’s a movie that has been so savaged by mainstream film critics and subjected to so much vitriol that it’s difficult to approach it without being prejudiced. Reading the various reviews that can be found online it’s evident that very few people have even tried to approach it with an open mind. So extreme is the bias against the movie that many do not like to admit the unpalatable truth that it was a major box office success.

The problem has been compounded by the fact that the two cuts of the movie that have been available have been an R-rated version that was hacked to pieces, and an unrated version that is in effect the Guccione version, complete with extra hardcore scenes shot by Guccione himself that have very little relevance to the film. These additional hardcore scenes have been a gift for those wishing to dismiss the movie as porn. The situation has been improved by the release of the three-disc Imperial Edition. This includes the unrated version, but it also includes the previously unavailable so-called pre-release cut, which is claimed to be the closest in spirit to director Tinto Brass’s original vision. This pre-release cut is the version I watched, and it’s the version I’m reviewing.

Apart from being accused of excessive naughtiness and violence, most reviewers will also tell you that the movie is boring, incoherent and badly made, and a waste of superb acting talent. Perhaps this is true of the other versions, but it certainly isn’t true of the version I watched. And the accusation that the movie is nothing but porn is simply absurd. It’s not only an attempt to bring to the screen the Roman Empire in all its debauched glory, exactly as the historian of the time such as Suetonius described it, it’s also offers a highly original interpretation of the character of the notorious emperor Caligula. Malcolm MacDowell, in the charming, amusing and totally delightful commentary track he contributes to the DVD, says he was determined not to play Caligula as a mere madman because it would have been boring, and that director Tinto Brass agreed with him. Although he doesn’t say this I suspect he was also anxious not to merely reproduce John Hurt’s wonderful performance from I, Claudius.

MacDowell decided to play the character as an anarchist, a man in rebellion against, well against practically everything. Especially the governing classes of Rome. At one point he laments of the Senate, “I just don’t know what else I can do to provoke them.” MacDowell also brings to the role that mix of cruelty, capriciousness and cravenness that only he could bring to a performance. He also makes Caligula a surprisingly human monster, often vulnerable (in fact at times he’s still a scared little boy in a terrifyingly insane world), and showing genuine and quite moving grief at the death of his sister and lover Drusilla. By not making Caligula a madman MacDowell is able to turn him into a symbol of the corrupting influence of power.

Tinto Brass was primarily interested in making a movie about power, absolute power taken to the ultimate extreme, and I think he largely succeeds. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia of the latter days of Tiberius’s reign, when death could come to anyone at any moment for any reason, is conveyed extremely well. And Caligula himself shares this terror. It’s not only a movie about individual power and its corrupting influence, but also about a state that has achieved power beyond imagining and has been fatally corrupted by it. It’s unfortunate that while both the director and the screenwriter, Gore Vidal, were artists with a genuine vision for this movie, their visions were hopelessly incompatible. This led to a falling out, and that falling out made it easier for Guccione to take control and make unfortunate changes. Vidal wanted a naturalistic and ultra-realistic treatment of the subject; Brass was more interested in making a satire with a hefty dose of the surreal. somewhat in the style of Fellini’s Satyricon. It was Brass’ vision that won out, and the movie is visually both stunning and bizarre and does achieve a genuinely Fellini-esque feel. The imperial bordello in the shape of huge and completely land-bound ship is particularly memorable. There are some very Busby Berkeley moments as well. The sets are magnificent, and (despite the claims of many reviewers) it’s beautifully photographed.

MacDowell today has no regrets about doing the movie, and as his commentary track progresses he becomes more and more enthusiastic. Helen Mirren gives an excellent performance as his wife Caesonia, reputedly the most promiscuous woman in Rome. Mirren memorably described the film as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals.” The get great support from Peter O’Toole as Tiberius and John Gielgud (who adored the movie) as Nerva. John Steiner is deliciously sinister as Longinus. While it is a flawed movie, I’m inclined to agree with Malcolm MacDowell’s assessment that it was almost a great movie, and that at times it does go close to achieving that greatness. Even with its flaws it’s well worth watching. I recommend it.

Saturday 14 June 2008

Tarkan versus the Vikings (1971)

Tarkan versus the Vikings (Tarkan Viking kani) is the second movie included on Mondo Macabro’s Turkish Pop Cinema Double Bill DVD (the first being The Deathless Devil which I reviewed here a while back). Made in 1971, Tarkan versus the Vikingsis if anything even more fun.

Really this movie has everything you could possibly want. It has a beautiful warrior princess (she’s Attila the Hun’s daughter, no less), a bad guy with very impressive moustache, a giant killer octopus and lots of cute female Viking warriors. You probably didn’t know the Vikings had cute female warriors either, but you live and learn. It also has a hero, Tarkan, who possesses the main qualifications for an adventure film hero - he’s very brave and exceedingly stupid. Luckily he has his faithful wolf companion Kurt with him, an even more fortunately it turns out that Kurt is considerably smarter than Tarkan. The movie also has a glamorous but evil Chinese female villain, accompanied by blowgun-armed henchmen.

If all that’s not enough, it has loads of nudity and quite a bit of sex. And great costumes. The Vikings wear mostly furs, and for the cute female Viking warriors the furs come in bright orange and a rather pretty shade of pink. Just because you’re a female Viking warrior doesn’t mean you can’t be feminine. The make Viking chieftain favours a rather fetching shade of powder blue for his fur outfits. Yes, it’s pink for girls and blue for boys in the world of the Vikings.

The plot has something to do with both the Vikings and the wicked Chinese lady trying to kidnap Attila’s daughter. It might not make too much sense, but it doesn’t let up. The action is non-stop (in spite of which there’s still time for a spot of romance).

The settings are fairly impressive, and the action sequences are executed with considerable enthusiasm. People are constantly being captured and tied up and subjected to hideous tortures. At one stage a young Turkish woman is subjected to that most feared of all Viking tortures. Yes, the Trampoline of Death. The scene where a Turkish captive is suspended by her pigtails over a pit filled with venomous snakes is also memorable. This movie is positively bursting with energy. And there’s an actual Viking longship, in the traditional Viking colours of canary yellow with bright blue trim and fire-engine red oars. These are very colourful Vikings.

The acting is pure B-movie, but it gets the job done. Director Mehmet Aslan understands that the secret to a good adventure/exploitation movie is to keep things moving, and his sense of pacing is admirable. It’s pleasing to note that the heroines are brave and feisty, abs frequently they’re the ones getting Tarkan out of a jam. Lotus (the evil Chinese lady) is a classic movie villain - diabolically clever, beautiful, and possessed of equal measures of cruelty and sexual perversity. When she has Tarkan strung up over a bottomless pit and is slowly cutting the ropes holding him up by throwing knives at them, she decides this game would be even more fun if she took her clothes off so she could taunt poor old Tarkan with her evil beauty. This movie is just so much fun!

Mondo Macabro include an apology for the poor quality of the source materials used for this DVD. I have no idea why. Tarkan versus the Vikings looks absolutely splendid - the picture is quite crisp, the colours are vivid, the audio is perfectly acceptable. Given that the other movie included in the set is every bit as entertaining as this one, and there are the usual great Mondo Macabro extras giving us a potted history of Turkish pop cinema, this set is insanely good value and is an absolute must-buy for every self-respecting cult movie fan.

Friday 13 June 2008

Slaves in Bondage (1937)

Slaves in Bondage is one of the many ultra-low budget exploitation movies cranked out by independent producers in the US during the 1930s, 40s and 50. Since they were not destined for exhibition in major mainstream movie theatres and were not distributed by the major studios they were able to circumvent the Production Code and deal with otherwise forbidden topics such as prostitution.

This one deals with the dreaded white slave racket - innocent young country girls lured to the wicked big city with promises of jobs as manicurists only to find themselves forced into working at the Berrywood Roadhouse, a notorious (and apparently rather expensive and high-class) brothel. I must say that these poor unfortunates seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and don’t seem to be terribly worried about their lost virtue.

An ambitious young reporter (now where would a crime film be without an ambitious young reporter) and his girlfriend find themselves unwittingly caught up in this racket and set out to bring the evil racketeers to justice, with some help from an idealistic crusading newspaper editor. Although the editor does seem to be more interested in this moral crusade as a way of selling newspapers. The reporter’s girlfriend is a real manicurist, working in a beauty salon that serves as a front for the white slave racket.

The subject matter is lurid enough, and while the treatment of the material is actually pretty tame (the most daring scenes feature ladies of easy virtue in their underwear) you have to consider that mainstream Hollywood movies were more or less entirely prevented by the Code from dealing with such topics at all. Audiences in 1937 undoubtedly found this hot stuff. And there are at least hints of genuine kinkiness.

Even at a mere 70 minutes this movie is a tad on the slow side. On the other hand it does have some truly bizarre touches - the two acrobats in the boarding house constantly practising a routine in which they kind of entwine themselves around one another just has to be seen to be believed. I still have no idea if it’s supposed to be vaguely kinky. The fact that it’s totally irrelevant adds to the weirdness factor. The night club acts are a little on the odd side as well.

I can’t honestly say that Slaves in Bondage offers great entertainment, but it’s different and it does have curiosity value (and some campy appeal as well). It’s in the public domain so it can be found on DVD very cheaply, or even legally downloaded. If you can download it or pick it up for a couple of dollars it’s worth a look. This was my first glimpse into the world of the low-budget exploitation flicks of the 30s and 40s, and it was interesting enough to inspire me to try to hunt down more examples of this genre.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962)

The Invisible Dr Mabuse (1962) is one of the many many sequels to Fritz Lang’s original 1922 silent classic Dr Mabuse The Gambler. That film was not only a masterpiece of German Expressionism, it was directly and indirectly an influence on the development of countless movie genres - the film noir, the spy film, the science fiction film and the mystery thriller. Dr Mabuse became a legendary figure, a German equivalent of Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty, an evil genius sitting like a malevolent spider at the centre of a web of deception and corruption. No matter how many times it seemed that Dr Mabuse had finally been destroyed, he just kept coming back for the next sequel. The Mabuse movies, like the Edgar Wallace krimis with which they had much in common, were a staple of the German film industry in the 60s.

The Invisible Dr Mabuse has everything you’d expect in a Mabuse film and more. It has the great diabolical criminal mastermind himself, an evil clown, a top-secret scientific project of such importance that the fate of civilisation is at stake, a mad scientist, a beautiful actress, glamorous showgirls, unlikely gadgetry and some of the most gloriously silly technobabble ever committed to celluloid. The plot involves Operation X, an ingenious scientific invention that allows light beams to pass through the gaps between particles of matter, thus making an object (or person) effectively invisible. FBI agent Joe Como has battled Dr Mabuse before, and is convinced that he is still alive and plotting to get his hands on this invention. The FBI and the German authorities believe that Mabuse is dead, but Joe Como can recognise a Dr Mabuse plot when he sees one.

The cast includes plenty of faces that will be familiar to fans of 1960s German movies of this type, with Lex Barker as Joe Como, Karin Dor as the beautiful actress involved with the mad scientist, and Wolfgang Preiss playing two different roles. Harald Reinl had plenty of experience directing this type of movie and keeps the action moving along nicely. It’s not as good as the previous year’s The Return of Dr Mabuse but it’s still a great deal of fun.

Monday 9 June 2008

The Arena (1974)

With women-in-prison movies like The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage proving to be nice little earners for New World Pictures the temptation was to just keep churning them out. But for The Arena in 1974 they decided to vary the formula a little. Instead of a women-in-prison movie, we have a women-slaves movie set in the Roman Empire. And with Pam Grier heading the cast, how could it lose?

The dynamics are very similar to the WiP genre (and somehow the producers even managed to work in the obligatory shower scene!) with the women initially fighting among themselves, then eventually having to learn to stand together in order to survive. The female slaves are intended as sex slaves for the male gladiators, but then their owner gets the bright idea of using them as women gladiators. So we not only get the standard female fight scenes, we get to see them fighting each other with swords and tridents as well. There’s also plenty of nudity and sex - in fact all the standard exploitation elements.

When one of the women has to kill one of her friends in the arena they decide enough is enough, and start making plans to escape. This leads to much mayhem an considerable action, and it’s done pretty well despite an obviously very limited budget. Pam Grier has a much more rewarding role in this one compared to The Big Doll House, and she makes the most of it. Margaret Markov is her chief rival who becomes her chief ally, and she’s pretty impressive as well. It’s all great fun, the gladiatorial scenes in the arena are splendid, and it’s really a must-see for exploitation fans, and of course for fans of Pam Grier.

It would be nice to be able to say something positive about the Region 4 DVD release, but I can’t. It’s just awful. It’s a grainy pan and scanned print and it looks fairly terrible. It sounds like it’s the same transfer as the Region 2 release. If you can pick it up cheaply though it’s a highly entertaining little movie.

Sunday 8 June 2008

Devil Doll (1964)

Devil Doll is an almost forgotten 1964 British horror movie, one of that intriguing sub-genre of horror movies dealing with ventriloquists and ventriloquists’ dummies. The classic of this sub-genre is of course the memorable sequence in the 1945 omnibus film Dead of Night, with Michael Redgrave as the ventriloquist. Devil Doll adds its own unique twist to the sub-genre.

The Great Vorelli has a spectacularly successful stage act involving both ventriloquism and hypnotism. His dummy, Hugo, seems much more human than any dummy has a right to be, even appearing to walk around on his own during the act. He also seems to be engaged in a battle of wills with Vorelli. This is of course all part of the act – or is it? The Great Vorelli uses his exceptional hypnotic powers for other purposes besides show business – seducing beautiful women being one of those purposes. When Vorelli starts to take an interest in an attractive heiress, Marianne Horn, his aim is not merely to seduce her, but to get his hands on her money as well. Her boyfriend is a nosy reporter, already suspicious of Vorelli, and becoming steadily more suspicious as Marianne falls under the hypnotist’s spell. His suspicions lead him to Berlin where he uncovers the bizarre story behind the relationship between Vorelli and his dummy.

Devil Doll is rather slow-paced even for 1964, there’s no action and little overt horror. Given that it’s also in black-and-white it’s probably not surprising that it’s been overshadowed by the more sensational and more colourful films being made at that time by studios such as Hammer. In fact Devil Doll in its own unassuming way is quite a good horror film. Bryant Haliday is creepily charismatic as Vorelli, William Sylvester is solid as the inquisitive reporter boyfriend, and Yvonne Romain is delightful as Marianne. The effects are very simple but those involving the dummy work extremely well, but this is a movie that relies mostly on a slow build-up of tension and psychological horror as the truth behind the Great Vorelli is slowly revealed. Made on a very low budget, but with great care and considerable skill, this movie delivers the goods.

The Region 4 DVD includes two versions of the movie, one of them being the “racier” continental version including a striptease sequence that was probably quite hot stuff in 1964. It also includes an entertaining commentary track with film historian Tom Weaver talking to producer Richard Gordon. If you’re a fan of ventriloquism horror then Devil Doll is an absolute must-see, and even if you’re not it’s still most definitely worth a look.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Malpertuis (1971)

Malpertuis was Belgian director Harry Kümel’s follow-up to his gothic horror masterpiece Daughters of Darkness. It’s more in the tradition of the cinema fantastique rather than a pure horror film, but it certainly has elements of horror. It’s an exploration of dream, and myth, and the power of belief.

Jan, a young sailor, follows a woman, believing her to be a woman he is searching for. He finds himself in the red light district, gets into a fight with a pimp, and receives a savage blow on the head. When he awakes he is in Malpertuis, a mysterious rambling house belonging to a old man named Cassavius (played by Orson Welles). Cassavius is dying, and a strange assortment of eccentric relatives and hangers-on have gathered for the reading of the will. What they get is the answer to their dreams, and a living nightmare as well. To say anything further about the plot would reveal far too much.

Malpertuis is a triumph of visual style, with cinematographer Gerry Fisher doing marvels with colour. That’s not to say that the movie lacks substance. Based on a novel by Belgian writer Jean Ray, it’s a strange, enigmatic and fascinating film. Welles is terrific as Cassavius, but it’s strictly a supporting role. The real star is Susan Hampshire. She doesn’t just give the best performance of her career, she gives the three best performances of her career, in three different roles. In fact she plays a total of five roles, three of them being crucial ones. And she’s magnificent.

The DVD release from Barrel Entertainment contains two different versions of the film. There’s the version originally shown at Cannes in 1971, in English, and there’s a longer version in Dutch completely recut by director Harry Kümel. Both versions are worth watching, with the English version making the performances of Orson Welles and especially Susan Hampshire even more impressive since we hear their own voices. There are generous extras, including a commentary track by Harry Kümel, an interview with Susan Hampshire and a documentary. I recommend this one very very highly.

Monday 2 June 2008

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

With Easy Rider having made bucketloads of money for Columbia in 1969 Universal must have thought they were going to enjoy a similar bonanza with Two-Lane Blacktop. With a plot involving drifters challenging each other to a cross-country road race across America, with a cast headed by major youth culture icons (singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson), and with a director who’d started his career making movies for Roger Corman it seemed to have all the credentials to clean up in the exploitation, youth and counter-culture markets. The only trouble was, director Monte Hellman was not interested in delivering a movie packed with spectacular car crashes and explosions. Two-Lane Blacktop has no explosions, no shoot-outs, on fact no violence at all, no nudity, and the only sex takes place off-screen. The movie Hellman actually made is a bleak and incredibly austere existential road movie.

James Taylor (The Driver) and Dennis Wilson (The Mechanic) have no interests in life outside of their 1955 Chevy coupe, a car that they have turned into an awesomely fast racing machine. They make a living by racing and by challenging suckers who think they can beat their car. They are in effect car hustlers. At a diner The Girl (Laurie Bird) joins them. They keep encountering a bright yellow Pontiac GTO, whose driver (known to us only as GTO and played by Warren Oates) seems anxious to take them on. Eventually a formal challenge is issued - a race to Washington DC, with the winner to get the loser’s car.

That might make it sound like the plot is fairly important, but it isn’t. In fact the race scarcely matters, and neither side seems to take it very seriously. At times they’re more like allies than rivals, united perhaps by the understanding that they’re all outsiders and they’re all equally in love with the road. You might also expect a major romantic sub-plot involving The Girl, but again Hellman defies our expectations. All three male characters have at least a passing interest in sleeping with her, and one of them does, but the romantic angle ends up being as vague as the race itself. Nothing really matters except the road. None of the characters knows where the road is taking them, and they don’t seem to care. One moment they’re heading for Florida, the next it’s Arizona. The road is in fact a road to nowhere, and the characters seem aware of this.

Using non-actors for three of the four main roles (Laurie Bird was a photographer who only appeared in two further movies before her tragically early death) works extremely well. The performances are disconnected and detached, and devoid of emotional content. Which is exactly as it should be. We know nothing at all about the four characters. We don’t know their names, or where they come from. And they tell us nothing bout themselves. The only one who talks about himself is GTO, and we soon realise that we cannot believe a single word he says. His stories about himself are simply stories about other people that he’s picked up on the road from passengers he’s picked up. The lack of any kind of characterisation would be a flaw in most movies, but this movie is about the road, not the people on it.

It’s a movie that succeeds in being quintessentially American, and yet the sensibility behind it is European rather than American. Although made by Americans it has the feel of a film by a Bergman or an Antonioni or a Godard. Hellman and his screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer manage to view America in the kind of dispassionate way that is generally possible to outsiders. And they succeeded in making one of the greatest American movies of the 70s, the greatest decade in the history of American cinema. A magnificent film.

Super Fly (1972)

Priest, the hero of the 1972 blaxploitation classic Super Fly, is a coke dealer who who wants to make one last big score and then get out. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but he knows this is not it. He appears to have it all. He has the fancy car, the flash apartment in New York city, the cool threads, and two beautiful girlfriends - one white and one black. But as he says, he’d like to get out of this life before he finds himself having to kill someone, or someone kills him.

There’s a serious political edge to Super Fly. The life Priest leads is not one he would have chosen willingly, but as a black man he has few options. Blaxploitation movies were also among the first American movies to show the corruption and casual brutality, and the racism, of the police.

Made on a shoestring budget, this movie oozes style and energy and features a great soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. Ron O’Neal plays Priest absolutely straight, and it works. This is not a cartoonish or campy movie. It’s also nowhere near as violent as you might expect. The impact of the film comes from the sense of people being trapped in lives that are slowly destroying their humanity, rather than from overt violence. The threat of violence is always there however.

First-time director Gordon Parks Jr does a fine job. His tragically early death in an air crash robbed American cinema of a very promising talent. The acting is terrific, with Carl Lee providing both menace and amusement in his over-the-top portrayal of Priest’s business partner. Shiela Frazier is impressive as Georgia, who loves Priest and struggles to understand his sense of alienation and frustration. There’s a very well-done love scene between Priest and Georgia that serves as a telling illustration of the way that sex was done so much better in the movies of the 70s compared to today.

And then there are the clothes! They’re truly amazing. Yes, they’re outrageously 70s, but they’re fun and they’re a great example of fashion being used as an expression of growing sense of confidence among urban blacks. And Nate Adams, who was responsible for the costumes, still has most of them (much to the horror of his wife) and proudly shows them off in one of the extras! We also get a brief interview with the guy who did the customising on the Caddy that Priest drives. In fact the extras are superb. Although it’s a budget-priced DVD Warner Brothers have given us premium selection of extras. It’s great to see a cult or exploitation movie getting such a respectful DVD release! Super Fly is both an important film and an outrageously entertaining movie.