Sunday 28 September 2008

Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)

The first things that one has to to say about Jack Cardiff’s 1968 Anglo-French co-production Girl on a Motorcycle are that it’s arty, it’s pretentious, it’s slow, and it’s very very 1960s. If those things turn you off, don’t even bother with this movie. On the other hand if (like me) you happen to enjoy 60s movies that are arty, pretentious and slow then you’re in for a treat. 

Marianne Faithfull stars as Rebecca, a young woman who is engaged to be married to a very nice young school teacher named Raymond, but who is also hopelessly obsessed with another man, Daniel (Alain Delon). Daniel also teaches, but he isn’t a nice respectable young man. He is however devilishly handsome and very sexy, and he treats society’s rules with contempt. And he rides a motorcycle. A very big, very macho motorcycle, which he presents to Rebecca as a wedding present. 

After a short period of wedded bliss, which turns out to be not very blissful and extremely boring, Rebecca hops on her bike and sets out on a road trip to find Daniel. Most of the movie takes the form of her memories of past events, her daydreams, her imaginings of future happiness and her slightly kinky sexual fantasies. Rebecca is a woman who wants more out of life. She isn’t sure exactly what it is she wants, but she just knows she wants more. She wants to feel alive. Riding her bike makes her feel alive. Bad boy Daniel makes her feel alive. Raymond makes her feel dead. 

Marianne Faithfull might not be a great actress in the conventional sense, but she’s perfect for the role and she’s very effective. It’s a sympathetic and very erotic performance that avoids the potential pitfalls of making the character overly precious or whiney. Alain Delon doesn’t have much to do other than look gorgeous, sexy and dangerous, but he does that very well. 

Jack Cardiff was not only a good director, he was also a cinematographer of genius, and the movie is visually stunning. Some of the techniques he used seem very dated and very 60s now, such as the solarisation used in the sex scenes, but they’re actually quite effective. And it did allow him to include sex scenes that the censor would not otherwise have allowed him to get away with. It didn’t do him any good when it came to a US release though – the movie was still cut to ribbons there. Censors never have liked films that show women taking control of their sex lives, and the sight of a naked Marianne Faithfull was apparently considered much too dangerous for US audiences. 

The solarisation gives the movie a trippy feel that I rather enjoy. It’s also a great example of old-fashioned movie-making, where technical problems (such as the fact that Miss Faithfull could not ride a motorcycle but her character has to spend most of the movie riding one) had to be solved by skill and ingenuity rather than money and CGI. 

I’ve heard reports that the Region 2 DVD release is rather disappointing in terms of image quality. There are no such problems with the Region 4 DVD – the movie looks fabulous, the colours look sensational, and there’s a superb commentary track by director Jack Cardiff. It’s one of those movies that really needs a commentary track. Cardiff was clearly immensely proud of this film. He describes it as a stream-of-consciousness movie and that’s a pretty fair summary of it. If you love off-beat quirky arty movies, and if you like movies that focus on women, then this one is worth checking out. And the scenes with Rebecca on her motorcycle on the autobahn, where she is going as close to having sex with a motorcycle as a person can possibly go, really are extraordinarily erotic.

Saturday 27 September 2008

Tentacles (1977)

Tentacles, a 1977 Italian-US co-production, is one of those movies that you approach believing it can’t possibly be as bad as its reputation suggests. Sadly, I have to report that it really is that bad. It’s not just bad, it’s bad in a not very interesting way.

Which is a pity - a movie about a giant killer octopus, with a cast headed by Shelley Winters and John Huston, should have had at least some potential for camp fun. It’s not like Shelley Winters and John Huston weren’t capable of outrageous over-acting. But this time their hearts just weren’t in it. Even the bizarreness of John Huston (at age 71) playing Shelley Winters’ kid brother doesn’t add the right touch of entertaining silliness.

The plot involves an evil corporation headed by Henry Fonda which is using high-frequency sound as part of a project to build an underwater tunnel. Unfortunately high-frequency sound, as everyone knows, turns otherwise peaceable giant octopi into savage killers of the deep. Luckily there’s a marine biologist on hand with couple of trained killer whales to save the day. You can see what I mean about the potential for high camp silliness. The movie certainly manages to be silly, but the expected fun just doesn’t happen.

Still, any movie with giant cephalopods can’t be all bad, and if you’re in the right mood there’s some amusement to be had.

Friday 26 September 2008

The Night Porter (1974)

On the whole I avoid movies or books dealing with World War II or the Holocaust. There’s very little left to say on these subjects but that doesn’t stop people saying the same old things over and over again. There’s also a worryingly pornographic aspect that tends to creep in – a bit too much wallowing in violence and cruelty. It also depresses me too much; it illustrates all too clearly the human race’s total inability to learn from past mistakes. Supposedly civilised nations have continued to carry out the same kinds of atrocities, and for the same reasons – enemies are dehumanised, so it’s OK to treat them as less than human.

So what makes Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, a story of a sadomasochistic relationship between an SS officer and a concentration camp inmate that is reignited when they meet again years later, different? For one thing, the acting. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling remorselessly expose the darkest corners of their character’s psyches. Their performances go far beyond categories like victim or monster. Max, the former Nazi officer now working as a night porter in a Vienna hotel, has certainly done monstrous things but he remains frighteningly human. He’s not one of them – a mere comic-book monster. He’s one of us. He’s a human being, and he has human emotions. The motivations and emotions of Rampling’s Lucia are complex. Is she a collaborator? A victim? Or both? Or neither? There’s no doubt that she chooses to become involved with Max once again. Whatever the situation in the past, she is now free to choose.

Her willingness to rekindle his relationship is one of the many things that upset people about this film when it was released in 1974. The film provoked hysterical reactions at the time. This was not the approved way of dealing with this kind of subject matter. The movie’s refusal to deal in clear-cut categories of hero, villain or victim enraged many viewers. The fact that the movie was directed by a woman provoked even more outrage. The most disturbing thing about The Night Porter though is the fact that it’s a love story. It’s an unhealthy love, it’s a love founded on abuse, but it is still a love story. It’s a movie that tells us things about love that we don’t really want to hear. It’s a movie that tells us all kinds of things about the human condition that we don’t really want to hear. It also raises wider questions about guilt and complicity in regard to events such as the Holocaust. The guilt and complicity of all of us, and of nations as well as individuals. Perhaps we are all like Max and Lucia. We might like to think that in extreme situations we would be heroes but possibly we’re far more likely to behave like Max and Lucia.

It’s not easy viewing but The Night Porter is an important, complex and thought-provoking movie, a movie that is as disturbing to the heart as it is to the mind. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime), made in 1973, was one of the movies that provided the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Unkind people might say that Kill Bill was in fact little more than a remake of this Japanese film. As usual you find that everything in Kill Bill that seemed fresh and innovative was in fact “borrowed” from the work of some other more talented film-maker, even including in this case the use of the interpolated anime sequences (Lady Snowblood uses a succession of still manga images, but the idea is the same). Lady Snowblood is divided into four chapters, and follows the story of Yuki as she tracks down four murderous villains and exacts a bloody revenge on them. There’s a truly astonishing amount of gore. Not just buckets of blood, but oceans of blood. It has that combination of extreme violence and absolute stillness, of butchery and lyrical beauty, that only the Japanese seem to be able to achieve. The movie is set in the late 19th century, at the time when Japan was modernising at an incredibly rapid pace and there was an enormous tension between traditional values and new western ideas. The role of Yuki doesn’t require great acting so much as it requires presence, and Meiko Kaji has presence in abundance. While this is an interesting and well-crafted movie I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. The relentless violence and the obsession with revenge get a bit wearing. It does have surprising layers of complexity and richness, these being just about the only elements that Tarantino didn’t “borrow” for his version. If you like extremely bloody samurai movies than Lady Snowblood will be right up your street; if you’re not into gushing fountains of blood and grim tales of revenge then I’d give it a miss.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Baba Yaga (1973)

Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga is based on Guido Crepax’s Valentina comic books of the 60s. Valentina, a wealthy and successful photographer, finds herself involved in a series of increasingly eerie and unsettling events after an encounter with the mysterious blonde lesbian witch Baba Yaga. The witch takes from her an intimate item of clothing, and gives her in return a doll – a female doll, dressed in fetish gear. As you might expect, the doll turns out to be more than just a doll.

This 1973 movie forms an interesting companion piece to two earlier and better-known adaptations of adult-oriented comics, Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik and of course Vadim’s Barbarella. Much as I adore Danger: Diabolik and regard it as being the greatest of all movies based on comics, Baba Yaga is perhaps the most interesting film of the three. Much of the action is clearly taking place in Valentina’s dream world, an erotically charged world of disturbing and often violent imagery. It’s never quite clear how much, if anything, is actually taking place in the real world. While Bava’s classic film is pure fun with the emphasis on action and outrageous criminal capers, Baba Yaga is more in the fantasy/horror mould, and could possibly be described as magic realism. The emphasis is on the psychological, and specifically it’s an exploration of the fevered interiors of Valentina’s mind.

It’s by far the most arty comic book movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s also a great deal of fun. Isabelle De Funès as Valentina has a wonderful swinging 60s kind of look. Carroll Baker’s performance as Baba Yaga didn’t please everyone, but I think she’s marvellous – ever so subtly creepy, glamorously other-worldly, and with a strangely detached eroticism. Unfortunately the erotic nature of her obsession with Valentina was weakened somewhat by the censors’ decision to cut her nude scene. The scene is included in the extras on the Blue Underground DVD release, and provides a classic example of the silly and destructive nature of censorship, since it’s really the single most crucial scene in the movie.

Farina’s movie is visually impressive, and more importantly he captures the rhythms and the feel of comics more adroitly than anyone else has ever managed to do. Brilliant editing! The brief animated sequences using washed-out black-and-white still images are very effective, especially in the love scene between Valentina and her boyfriend - it’s not at all explicit, but it’s sexy, and it gets us right inside her head.

Blue Underground’s DVD includes some very desirable extras including an interview with the charming and erudite Farina (who sadly made only two feature films in a long career otherwise devoted mainly to documentaries) and a short documentary on the comic book art of Guido Crepax. Baba Yaga is stylish and intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. This one’s a must-see!

Monday 22 September 2008

The Heroic Trio (1993)

The Heroic Trio (Dung fong saam hap) is a completely insane Hong Kong martial arts movie. The plot involves….well actually I have no idea what the plot was about, but it was fun. It had something to do with a scientist working on a way to make people invisible, and three female superheroes, and the kidnapping of babies by an old evil supernatural guy who used to be the master of two of the women superheroes. These three superhero types, played by Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Lui, spend most of the movie trying to bet each other up, while intermittently helping out the police in a number of cases that may or may not have had something to do with the main plot.

The main thing is, you have three beautiful women doing lots of cool stunts, and you have some truly breath-taking visual ideas. Unlike most Hollywood action movies the action sequences don’t just rely on violence, gore and blowing stuff up. They’re bizarre, surreal and surprising and filmed with a great deal of flair. There’s a genuine visual imagination at work here, not just special effects and a big budget. The strange chainmail helmet weapon and the room full of hanging bird cages are particularly noteworthy. There’s also a fairly scary unstoppable bad guy.

The acting is generally pretty decent for the type of film it is, with Michelle Yeoh being especially good. It’s non-stop thrills mixed with comedy, a dash of romance and a touch of pathos. If you’re going to do a comic-book style action movie, this is the way to do it (something that Hollywood will probably never learn).

The Region 4 DVD, from Force Video, features poor audio quality and a terrible English dub, and with no other options and no extras apart from a few trailers. At least it was cheap. The movie though is terrific.

Friday 19 September 2008

Blood of the Virgins (1967)

Emilio Vieyra’s Blood of the Virgins (Sangre de vírgenes) is a 1967 horror movie from Argentina. I have to admit that I didn’t know there were horror movies from Argentina. In fact it’s a vampire movie.

At some time in the 19th century a woman has to choose between two men, not realising that one of them is a vampire. On her wedding night she finds herself the victim of the vampire. Cut to 1967, and a group of young people are on holiday when their car runs out of petrol. They reach an apparently deserted house, where a mysterious servant has a meal already prepared for them. But of course the vampire and the vampire bride are still there, haunting the house, and the girls in the party are bitten and start to transform into the undead.

What’s surprising (apart from the locations in the mountains of Argentina) for a 1967 movie is the amount of gore and nudity. Other than that it’s a fairly well-made low-budget horror flick. It’s strictly B-movie stuff, but it’s entertaining enough. Being a Mondo Macabro release it comes with some fascinating extra, which are actually even more interesting than the movie itself. There’s a documentary about the exploitation film industry in Argentina, the existence of which I had never even suspected.

Emilio Vieyra, the director of Blood of the Virgins, made several other horror films in the 60s, including the gloriously titled The Curious Dr. Humpp (a movie that sounds very bizarre indeed). Blood of the Virgins includes some groovy 60s clothes and some rather naughty go-go dancing, both of which add considerably to the fun. It was filmed in colour and the DVD release looks terrific. Definitely worth a look.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Doctor X (1932)

After the huge commercial success enjoyed by Universal with their early 1930s horror movies Frankenstein and Dracula it was inevitable that other Hollywood studios would jump on the horror bandwagon. Warner Brothers threw their hat into the ring in 1932, with Doctor X.

A series of murders, committed by the so-called Moon Killer, is spreading terror through the city. The police have determined, because of the unusual surgical knife used by the murderer, that the culprit must be one of the doctors working at the prestigious medical research institute run by the brilliant Doctor Xavier. Given that all five doctors at the institute are not merely eccentric, but completely and utterly insane, that seems a reasonable hypothesis. If one mad scientist is fun, five mad scientists must be even more fun! Doctor Xavier comes up with an ingenious plan to unmask the killer, by hooking up all five doctors to an outrageous mad scientist apparatus that will measure their responses to a re-enactment of the crimes.

OK, it’s a silly plot, but the potential is there for plenty of entertainment. Unfortunately there’s a fly in the ointment. Like most of the other Hollywood studios, Warners were convinced that horror movies needed comic relief, and in this case the comic relief is provided by Lee Tracy as a wise-cracking reporter. This might have worked except for the fact that Lee Tracy was the most annoying and most unfunny actor ever to have worked in the US film industry.

All is not lost, however. Doctor X does have the reliable Lionel Atwill in the role of Doctor Xavier, and some competent supporting actors as the other mad scientists. It also has the delightful and gorgeous (and underrated) Fay Wray in the role of Doctor Xavier’s daughter. Its most important asset, though, is the man in the director’s chair - Michael Curtiz. Curtiz could make just about any kind of movie, and do it well. In this film, and in the following year’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, he displayed a considerable flair for horror. Curtiz draws his visual inspiration very much from the German Expressionists. He’s helped considerably by the studio’s decision to shoot the film using the early two-strip Technicolor process. The strange and wildly unrealistic colour palette provided by this process not only gives the movie a wonderfully mysterious and spooky atmosphere, it also gives it a look that is quite different from other horror movies of the period. Curtiz used this colour process again, with even better results, in Mystery of the Wax Museum.

The very impressive visuals, combined with Curtiz’s sure-footed pacing, makes an otherwise routine horror offering into something more. It still doesn’t rate as one of the better American horror films of the 30s, but it’s definitely worth a look. And yes, Fay Wray gets to scream, very impressively.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

José Bénazéraf's Frustration (1971)

José Bénazéraf was once a major figure in French cinema, making movies that combined sex and politics with a great deal of style. There was a time when he was compared to film-makers like Godard. The rise of hardcore in the 70s more or less destroyed his career. He had nothing but contempt for what he saw as the crudity of the new type of sex movie, but the market for his brand of classy erotic horror and erotic thrillers spiced with politics had largely disappeared by the end of the decade.

Frustration, made in 1971 (and released in the US with the ludicrous and irrelevant title The Chambermaid's Dream despite its complete absence of chambermaids), has often been described as a softcore version of Polanki’s Repulsion. That’s a little unfair. Despite sharing the same basic framework other thematic similarities it’s a movie that can stand very well on its own.

Agnès (Elizabeth Teissier) and her doctor husband Michel (Michel Lemoine) live in an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the French countryside. Agnès’s sister Adelaide lives with them. It seems like a perfect little slice of comfortable middle-class domesticity. Unfortunately Adelaide is becoming increasingly disturbed. The sounds of Agnès and Michel having sex are unbearable to her. She is tortured not just by her own sexual frustration, but by her confused feelings of jealousy. Is she jealous of Agnès, or of Michel?
The arrival of a young German couple, stranded tourists, triggers even more disturbing fantasies.

She is obsessed by her sister, and although there are definite incestuous overtones to this obsession, it’s not quite as simple as that. It seem to be more of a problem of over-identification, an inability to separate her own personality from that of her sister, a collapsing of the boundaries that define her own personality. She begins to live more an more in a world of lurid sexual fantasies, with increasingly strongly sado-masochistic elements. There’s a memorable scene in which she imagines herself in a long corridor with dozens of doors. Behind every door she sees Agnès and Michel making love. Finally she locks herself behind a door, and seeks release by pleasuring herself, although there seems to be little genuine pleasure in it for her.

Janine Reynaud, who was so intriguing in Jess Franco’s superb Succubus, gives a great performance as Adelaide. There’s a fair amount of sex and nudity, all of which are absolutely integral to the film. Adelaide’s fevered sado-masochistic fantasies are not gratuitous but are crucial in charting the progress of her mental disintegration through shame and guilt combined with a lack of any normal sexual outlet. This is true erotic horror, in which both elements are equally important. Bénazéraf saw sex as a force that could shatter the complacencies of self-satisfied middle-class conventionality and morality, and the movie is a perfect example of his theories put into practice.

It’s a movie that is provocative, thought-provoking, erotic and entertaining, and very stylish. Bénazéraf is clearly a movie-maker who deserves to be rediscovered.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Myra Breckinridge is one of those legendary Hollywood bad movies, a movie that regularly appears on those silly “worst movie of all time” lists. It was savaged by critics at the time of its release in 1970 and was a commercial disaster.

The main problem really was that 20th Century Fox had convinced themselves (in much the same way as they had done in the case of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls which they also released in the same year) that they were going to have a box-office bonanza with a movie that really never had a chance of attracting more than a cult audience. It was an art-house/avant-garde movie made on a blockbuster budget, always a recipe for commercial catastrophe.

The movie opens with movie buff Myron Breckinridge (played by film critic Rex Reed) on an operating table, about to transformed from a man into a woman. He is reborn as Myra Breckinridge (played by Raquel Welch), and sets out to take over the acting academy run by Byron’s uncle, a one-time star of cowboy movies named Buck Loner (John Huston). Myra becomes fascinated by two of the students, the hunky and very macho ex-football player Rusty and his girlfriend Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett). Eventually she rapes Rusty (in the movie’s most notorious scene) and then sets out to seduce Mary Ann. Her actual intention is to rape the very concept of American manhood. There’s also a sub-plot involving a lascivious talent agent played by Mae West.

While the movie is undoubtedly a bit of a mess, probably inevitable given its troubled production history, constant script changes and endless studio interference, I found myself loving it. The first thing that needs to be made clear is that this film has nothing whatever to do with transexuals. The Myron/Myra thing is simply a device to have some fun with gender and sexuality stereotypes. Myron and Myra represent two sides of the same personality. It’s not just a male/female split, but also a gay/straight split.

It’s also very much a movie about movies. Myron/Myra is obsessed with the golden age of Hollywood. On her commentary track Raquel Welch makes the interesting observation that the movie might have actually worked better as a musical, and she may well be right. Although that may have added yet another idea to a movie that is already somewhat overloaded with ideas. Not just ideas from Gore Vidal’s original novel, and ideas added by director Michael Sarne, but ideas about movies and then there’s the Fellini influence as well. Michael Sarne had seen Fellini’s Toby Dammit and wanted to achieve a similar feel. Sarne also told the story partly though the use of old film clips from the 30s and 40s. So there’s an awful lot going on.

By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered a realist film. It’s pure fantasy. This was the major change that Sarne made to the story, compared to Vidal’s novel, making the entire story the product of Myron’s imagination. This is very obvious right from the start, with both Myron and Myra appearing in scenes together although Myron is supposed to have ceased to exist when he became Myra. In a scene almost as notorious as the rape scene Myra even treats Myron to a spot of oral sex.

John Huston and Rex Reed also do extremely well in their respective roles, but the movie’s greatest strength is Raquel Welch. She is truly fabulous. It’s not only a bold, brassy bravura performance, it’s also a superbly judged performance. She knows just how far over-the-top to go. Welch has very mixed feelings about the movie today, which is understandable. It should have established her as a serious actor, but instead it did her career an enormous amount of harm. But she’s terrific.

The incoherence and the lack of any real structure might have been fatal flaws in another movie, but they really don’t matter in this one. The more spectacularly Myra Breckinridge fails, the more spectacularly it succeeds. It becomes an outrageous exercise in high camp, which was Sarne’s intention anyway. And it is extremely funny. The most spectacular failure of all was the failure of critics (yet again) to appreciate a movie that breaks the rules. I loved this movie!

Monday 15 September 2008

The Aztec Mummy (1957)

The Aztec Mummy (La Momia azteca), released in 1957, was the first of a fairly extensive series of Aztec mummy movies. While it’s fairly cheesy compared to some of the Mexican gothic horror classics, and is certainly not the equal of movies like The Black Pit of Dr M, The Curse of the Crying Woman and The Witch’s Mirror, it is at least more original. It does represent a genuine attempt to create a distinctively Mexican horror film.

Dr Almada has become convinced that hypnosis can unlock memories of our past lives. all he needs is someone willing to offer themselves as an experimental subject and he is sure his theory will be triumphantly vindicated. His girlfriend rather unwisely volunteers herself for this role. She is regressed to a past life, as a young woman destined from birth to be a virgin sacrifice to an Aztec god. Unfortunately she has fallen in love with a young Aztec warrior, and when their love is discovered he is punished by being buried alive and damned for all eternity. As a result the pyramid temple and the tomb associated with this sad tale is under a perpetual curse.

Being a horror movie scientist, Dr Almada naturally ignores all the warnings he receives abut tampering with Aztec curses. You just can’t tell these scientists anything. To complicate matters, Dr Almada’s house is being staked out by the gang led by the mysterious masked diabolical criminal mastermind known only as The Bat. They’re not interested in his scientific work, but they do see a chance to get their hands on a fabulous buried Aztec treasure.

While it bears some superficial resemblance to the Universal classic The Mummy, this is actually a very different sort of movie. The Aztec practice of human sacrifice makes the Aztec mummy far more sinister and purely monstrous than Boris Karloff’s rather sympathetic Egyptian mummy.

At around this time there were many in Mexico who, for political reasons, wanted to idealise the Aztec past as part of a process of forging a distinctive Mexican national identity. The movie’s sceptical attitude towards the glories of Aztec civilisation would have given it considerable resonance for a contemporary Mexican audience. There’s also the theme of modernism in conflict with traditionalism, which adds an interesting additional layer to the film.

It’s one of three films included in BCI’s Aztec Mummy Collection. While the image quality isn’t up to the standards maintained by Casa Negra in their Mexican horror DVD releases, it’s perfectly acceptable and the movie appears to be complete and uncut. It is cheesy, but it has some nice ideas as well. And it’s certainly fun.

Saturday 13 September 2008

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976)

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is my first experience of an “official” Ilsa film. I’d previously seen Jess Franco’s Ilsa, the Wicked Warden, but since it was not originally filmed as a Ilsa movie it doesn’t really count in the eyes of hardcore Ilsa devotees.

It’s pointless looking for redeeming features in a movie like this. It’s the sort of production that glories in its complete lack of any redeeming qualities. It’s brutal, although it’s really too silly and far-fetched for the violence to be really offensive.

Ilsa, who may or may not be the same Ilsa who featured in the notorious Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (it’s now 30 years later so really she can’t possibly be the same person, but in the cartoonish world of the Ilsa films that’s a mere detail), is in charge of the household of an Arab oil sheikh. Her main responsibility is to look,after the harem, and to maintain discipline in the harem, the discipline being the part of her job that she enjoys most. The women of the harem were all kidnapped by white slavers (this movie contains just about every possible exploitation element you can think of).

As the movie opens an American intelligence agent is just about to arrive in this desert sheikhdom. He’s part of a plot to get rid of the sheikh in order to secure a more favourable oil deal. To do this he will have to deal with Ilsa, but she has already discovered the agent he had planted in the harem. But the American agent and Ilsa hit it off surprisingly well, especially in the bedroom, and soon the plots and counter-plots become even more complicated.

There’s really only one reason to watch an Ilsa movie, and that’s Dyanne Thorne. She really is wonderful. In this movie she has two beautiful black female assistants, Satin and Velvet. Armed with spears and almost naked for the entire film, they’re a lot of fun.

I can’t imagine myself bothering to chase up the other movies in this series, but if you’re a cult movie fan do you need to see at least one Ilsa film. While Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks is certainly somewhat campy, I personally would have preferred it to be more campy still. But it is an experience. I thought Franco’s Ilsa, the Wicked Warden was more entertaining. It’s much more perverse and brutal, but Franco at least does perverse and brutal with a certain amount of relish and a good deal of style.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Sin in the Suburbs (1964)

Sin in the Suburbs is a terrifically odd and entertaining early sexploitation flick from Joe Sarno, released by Something Weird Video. It was made in 1964, it features nothing even approaching graphic sex, and virtually no nudity, and in fact it’s a surprisingly serious look at suburban hypocrisy.

In a perfect little small town somewhere in Middle America, life seems to be about as respectable as could possibly be imagined. But behind the doors of those perfect little suburban houses, there’s sin and debauchery aplenty! In fact the favoured social activity in
this town is wife-swapping. But not just wife-swapping, but wife-swapping on a commercial basis, and organised as something that bears a remarkable resemblance to a satanic cult!

In fact the wife-swapping circle is extraordinarily similar to the mysterious cult in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. So similar, that one can’t help suspecting that Kubrick must have seen this movie!

Sin in the Suburbs deals with sexual hypocrisy, but it also deals with emptiness and alienation. The lives of these denizens of small town USA are so lonely and empty, so emotionally dead, that they are simply desperate for any kind of sensation. And it’s made as a serious movie, it has a coherent plot, and reasonably competent acting. It also manages to be surprisingly sleazy. Not so much sleazy in a cheap exploitative way, but in a rather confronting sort of way.

Joe Sarno’s career roughly parallels that of Russ Meyer, but what’s fascinating is that their styles make them almost polar opposites. Where Meyer’s movies are over-the-top and cartoonish and wildly extravagant, Sin in the Suburbs is dark and brooding and subtle. There are no sudden outbursts of violence, just a slow unravelling of people’s lives. The sex club/cult scenes, with the respectable townsfolk in their masks getting up to sexual naughtiness, are very effectively done.

It’s a fascinating social document, made even more interesting by the revelation that it’s based on actual events in a perfect little small town. It’s a much better movie than I was expecting, so it looks like I’ll be seeking out more Joe Sarno films.

The transfer on the Something Weird DVD isn’t pristine by any means, but many of Sarno’s movies don’t survive at all, and the source material used was apparently the last surviving print of this particular movie so we should be grateful for the opportunity of seeing it at all. I recommend this one. It’s also worth mentioning that the cast includes Dyanne Thorne (star of the notorious Ilsa movies) and Audrey Campbell (star of the equally notorious Olga films).

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Death Ray Mirror of Dr Mabuse (1964)

The Death Ray Mirror of Dr Mabuse (also know as The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse, Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse) was the last of the main cycle of Dr Mabuse films. Released in 1964, it’s usually considered to be the weakest film in the cycle. Perhaps it was the fact that my expectations were very low, but I thought it was rather enjoyable. It’s true that it doesn’t quite have the feel of a real Dr Mabuse film. Producer Artur Brauner was trying to jump on the James Bond bandwagon, and it’s more of a lightweight spy movie, with less of the darkness and paranoia of previous films. It tries to be sexy and fun, and it succeeds reasonably well. Peter van Eyck plays a secret agent (Major Anders) investigating a plot to steal a deadly death ray mirror, a weapon so powerful that could destroy the world. Just the sort of thing that a diabolical criminal mastermind like Mabuse would like to get his hands on. The death ray is the brainchild of the eccentric genius Professor Larsen, and he keeps it in a laboratory underneath the island of Malta, a laboratory so secure that non-one, not even Professor Larsen himself, has the combination to the door. The explanation of how he can gain access to the laboratory without actually knowing the combination is one of the cleverer things about the movie. He has an enigmatic assistant, a Dr Krishna, and naturally he has a beautiful daughter (all eccentric genius scientists have beautiful daughters for the hero to fall in love with). Major Anders sets off for Malta, and in order to provide a cover story for himself he takes along the beautiful Judy to pose as his girlfriend. Judy takes her role quite seriously, and spends much of the movie wearing very little clothing and trying to entice Major Anders into bed. The eccentric genius scientist’s beautiful daughter (Gilda) seems equally keen to get better acquainted with our noble hero. The plot becomes fairly convoluted, with an army of killer frogmen and with chess playing a major role. After a mysterious gunman starts taking potshots at the major it is decided that Judy (who is actually enjoying playing at being a super spy) needs to be placed somewhere safe, and what better place to keep her out of harm’s way than a brothel? It’s all very silly, but it doesn’t take itself seriously and if you accept it for what it is, an insubstantial piece of harmless fun, then it’s quite entertaining. It’s certainly nowhere near as bad as most reviewers would have you believe. Its main weakness is the casting, with most of the wonderful character actors like Gert Fröbe who made the earlier movies so enjoyable missing from this one. Peter van Eyck does a solid job, while Yvonne Furneaux is competent as Gilda and Rika Dialina is amusing as the enthusiastic and somewhat amorous Judy. This movie is one of the three included in the Image Entertainment/Retromedia Dr Mabuse Collection, along with The Return of Dr Mabuse and The Invisible Dr Mabuse. Considering its cheapness the set is extremely good value and it’s a lot of fun.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Doriana Grey (1976)

It’s probably fair to say that all Jess Franco’s horror films are exercises in erotic horror. He didn’t invent the erotic horror movie, but he took it further than anyone else had taken it up to that point, and further than anyone has taken it since. And in Doriana Grey (or Die Marquise von Sade), made in 1976, he took the form to its logical conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any other film-maker having the nerve to make such a movie (and I mean that in a good way).

Given that the movie contains very explicit non-simulated sex, it raises the obvious questions. Is this pornography or art? Is this pornography or a horror movie? The answer is that it’s pornography, and it’s art, and it’s a horror movie.

It deals with the same themes Franco had already explored in Female Vampire in 1973, and to a certain extent in Vampyros Lesbos in 1970. Vampirism is no longer a metaphor for sex. Vampirism is sex. Superficially these movies seem to equate sex with death, but given that the theme is obviously important and personal for Franco I find it difficult to believe that he’s actually intending such a puritanical message. I’m more inclined to think that he’s equating sex with life, sex as the life force, sex as the alpha and the omega of life. It’s not a case of the blood is the life; it’s sex that is the life.

Doriana Grey is a fabulously wealthy, exquisitely beautiful and eternal youthful woman. She is also a vampire. Like the Countess Irina in Female Vampire she has an insatiable hunger for sex, and like the Countess Irina she drains the life from her victims through sex. But she can never satisfy her hunger; she is incapable of experiencing the physical fulfillment of sex. She has a twin sister, from whom she was surgically separated birth. She was left without the ability to experience sexual ecstacy no matter how much she craves it; her sister was left with little except that ability. They are both incomplete. Doriana has sex obsessively, but it’s her twin who experiences the pleasure.

The link to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray may seem somewhat tenuous, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as an adaptation of the novel, but Wilde’s tale was undoubtedly one of the inspirations for the movie. In this case the twin sister takes the place of the painting.

Lina Romay plays both sisters. She looks ravishing, and I doubt that any other actress could have combined the necessary feel for the character with the necessary very high degree of uninhibitedness that the role demands. I personally think she’s a very underrated actress, and this is one of her best performances.

Those who dislike Franco’s movies in general will hate this one. Apart from an enormous amount of sex it features the stylistic touches that annoy his critics so much. There’s an obsessive use of the zoom lens, and there’s an equally obsessive and at times bewildering tendency to move in and out of focus, with the focus frequently dissolving altogether. There’s no question it’s a deliberate technique, and it works, conveying very effectively Doriana’s disconnection and alienation from herself (in fact the disconnection and alienation from self of both halves of her personality housed in separate bodies).

I think it’s vitally important not to see this movie until you’ve seen Vampyros Lesbos and Female Vampire - they form a sort of vampire trilogy, with each film pushing the theme a little bit further. It’s not a movie for everyone, but then no Jess Franco movie could be described as a movie for everyone. And be warned, I’m not kidding about the sex. It really is explicit and it really is non-simulated. Personally I think it’s a bold and brilliant film.

Sunday 7 September 2008

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

The Beast of Yucca Flats has the reputation of being one of the worst movies ever made, and possibly the only movie ever made that is more technically inept than anything in Ed Wood’s cinematic output. And it lives up to its reputation.

At the height of the Cold War (the movie was made in 1961) a defecting Russian scientist, played by the legendary Tor Johnson, is chased onto a nuclear testing ground by a couple of KGB agents. The resulting nuclear explosion turns him into a shambling homicidal maniac. When the body of a murdered man is found by a roadside, the local sheriff’s deputies adopt what one assumes is their standard investigative procedure. They fly over the area where the body was found and start shooting the first person they see. When that person turns out not to be the murderer, they shoot the next person they see. In this part of the US shambling nuclear-irradiated and mutated homicidal maniacs actually seem rather less dangerous than the local police.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that this movie has a coherent plot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lack of any story-telling logic is the least of this film’s problems however. There’s also the lack of any dramatic tension, the acting (atrocious even by ultra low budget movie standards), the uninteresting cinematography, and most of all the sheer tedium of the movie. Ed Wood was technically incompetent, but his movies were redeemed by their extreme bizarreness. The Beast of Yucca Flats is mostly just dull.

Such entertainment as it has to offer comes mostly from the narration by the movie’s writer-director, Coleman Francis. The movie requires a narrator, because it was not only shot without sound, it wasn’t even properly dubbed later. The only dialogue occurs when the character supposed to be speaking is looking away from the camera, or is out of shot altogether. This does provide some amusement. As for the narration, it has virtually no connection to any of the events shown onscreen. When the narrator informs us (over a shot of a dozing gas station attendant) that nothing bothers some people, not even flying saucers, we might expect that flying saucers will play some part in the movie. But no, flying saucers do not make an appearance and are never mentioned again. The narrator seem to be simply repeating random thoughts that have popped into his head.

The movie just doesn’t have enough weirdness value to qualify as a so-bad-it’s good movie, and it isn’t sufficiently outrageous to have much camp appeal. I got it in one of those multi-disc public domain boxed sets which work out at around 50 cents a movie, and for 50 cents it does provide some mild amusement. It’s one of those movies you do probably need to see if only because you you’re not really going to believe that anyone would make such a movie if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes.

Saturday 6 September 2008

A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973)

Even by the standards of Jess Franco films A Virgin Among the Living Dead is slightly odd. As you’d expect in a 1973 offering from this director there’s not much plot, but there’s a wonderfully strange moodiness to this film. It’s very much in the realm of dream and it has a very dreamlike combination of the bizarre, the disturbing and the comically grotesque. Christina is a young woman who has set out to visit the family chateau. She has never met any of the members of her family living in this chateau. Arriving at a nearby inn she encounters surprise from the locals who weren’t aware that the chateau was still inhabited, but when she reaches the chateau her family are indeed waiting for her. They turn out to be a rather disturbing lot. She finds herself plunged into a world of erotic fantasies and a series of encounters with her dead father. Is she going mad? Is there some malevolent supernatural influence at work?

Christina von Blanc made (according to the IMDb) only a handful of movies in the early 70s. She’s actually surprisingly good as the heroine. There’s the usual assortment of actors you expect to see in a Jess Franco movie, including Howard Vernon and Franco himself. Much has been made of Franco’s supposed overuse of the zoom lens. He certainly employs the technique in this picture, but I think it works pretty well. There’s also some great location photography.

The DVD includes a number of scenes, shot by other directors, that were added to various versions of the film released back in the 70s. These must have made the movie absolutely incomprehensible, as they have no relevance whatsoever to the rest of the movie. European horror movies of this era really were treated appallingly by distributors at the time, and it’s easy to see why the reputations of directors like Franco suffered.

A Virgin Among the Living Dead is a movie that, like the other films of this director I’ve seen from this era, is probably not going to please the average horror movie enthusiast. If you abandon the notion that you’re watching a horror movie and approach it with an open mind you may well find yourself getting sucked into Franco’s strange, disturbing world and you may find yourself enjoying this film as much as I did.

Coffy (1973)

Jack Hill’s Coffy is a tale of vegeance. Coffy is a black woman whose sister is languishing in a drug rehab centre. Coffy sets out to destroy those she sees as being responsible for destroying her sister’s life. Within the first few minutes of the film two men have ready met violent deaths at Coffy’s hands. And she’s only just started.

In the course of her revenge spree she uncovers a web of corruption and deceit, of crooked cops and sleazy politicians. As director Jack Hill points out in his excellent commentary track, he didn’t want to make his central character a martial arts expert, a professional killer or a superhero. She’s just an ordinary woman pushed over the edge, and she spends the movie in what is essentially a dream state, a kind of warrior trance which allows her to do things she would never consider doing at any other time.

That the movie works so well is due in no small measure to Pam Grier’s performance as Coffy. She’d already established her credentials as an entertaining and charismatic performer in exploitation movies, but Coffy gave her the chance to do some real acting as well. And, despite the outrageous and rather unlikely plot, she makes Coffy a believable and compelling character. In fact the acting in general in this movie is remarkably good by exploitation movie standards. Hill deliberately cast several key actors against type, and they repaid him with wonderful performances.

The movie itself is a fairly violent action thriller, but it never becomes a dumb action movie. Even minor characters have real depth. I particularly like the way Hill sets up characters so that initially they appear to be mere stereotypes (like the pimp King George and his call-girl girlfriend) and then shows us that they’re real people.

This was Hill’s first movie for American International Pictures and the experience as apparently anything but a pleasant one for him. They threatened to fire him several times for spending too much time on developing characters and not enough on action, but he stuck to his guns and had the last laugh when Coffy turned out to be a major box office hit.

It’s a stylish and highly entertaining movie, combining sizeable quantities of mayhem and enormous quantities of gratuitous nudity. The nudity is so gratuitous, and so obviously gratuitous, that it becomes rather amusing. The commentary track is the only significant extra on the Region 1 DVD, but it’s a very worthwhile one. If you’re already a Pam Grier fan I don’t need to tell you to see Coffy. If you’re already a fan of hers, this movie should be mote than sufficient to convert you. Highly recommended.

Thursday 4 September 2008

She Shoulda Said No (1949)

She Shoulda Said No (AKA Killer Weed) is perhaps best known for the fact that its young female star Lila Leeds had been busted for marijuana possession the year before. Along with a Hollywood actor by the name of Robert Mitchum. They both served time in the county jail. After her release Lila Leeds decided to cash in on her notoriety by making this lurid exploitation pit-boiler about the evils of drugs.

Leeds plays a nice young girl who is working hard to put her incredibly dorky kid brother through college. Things are going swell until she meets an evil dope pusher, who convinces her that she needs to learn to relax, and that just one puff of a reefer can’t possibly hurt her. She soon learns how wrong she was, and he seduces her as well as turning her into a dope fiend. She is sucked into a nightmare world of parties, fun, sex, money, swanky apartments, flash cars and beautiful clothes. Some of these innocent kids get so “turned on” by the drugs that they start laughing and dancing. But luckily the police are doing their job, and they save her from this horror by arresting her and throwing in jail.

The movie then switches to being an equally lurid crime B-movie as the cops hunt down the kingpins behind this hideous plot to introduce America’s teenagers to fun and excitement.

It’s a fairly typical example of the classic American exploitation movie, made outside the studio system and therefore not subject to the restrictions of the Production Code. These movies were the Jerry Springer Show of their day. While putting a moralistic gloss on the depravity (well depravity by the standards of the time) of the subject matter they raked in the dollars with their outrageous sensationalism and aura of wickedness. And with taglines such as the one for this film - How Bad Can a Good Girl Get?

These movies played in small theatres, and were often “roadshowed” - being taken from town to town, sometimes screened in tents, with the exhibitors often possessing several versions of each movie of varying degrees of luridness, with tame versions to show the local authorities to reassure them that these were actually serious educational films and not dirty movies! She Shoulda Said No is lacking in sex, but the wild drug parties would undoubtedly have thrilled audiences at the time.

The exploitation movies were a constant irritant to the nation’s moral watchdogs, and an annoyance to the studio bosses who were outraged that somebody besides them should be making money out of movies. Modern audiences (judging by comments on the IMDb) often make the mistake of thinking that these movies really were intended to be taken seriously as moral warnings, or that they had some kind of official government backing. In fact they were mostly produced by people who’d started out as carnival hucksters and their entire operations were marginally legal at best and they spent a good deal of their time trying to keep one step ahead of local law enforcement agencies. They were true underground movies.

And they’re a good deal of fun.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Sin, You Sinners (1963)

It’s hard to know where to start when discussing a movie like Sin, You Sinners. It really is a bizarre one. The title would suggest that this very low budget 1963 film is going to a sexploitation flick, but it’s something much stranger.

It involves a stripper who came into possession of a medallion while on a visit to Haiti. The medallion, in the form of a doubloon, had belonged to a voodoo priestess. The stripper now runs her on little voodoo/fortune-telling cult. Although she’s no longer exactly in the first blush of youth, this medallion gives her a hypnotic control over others, and leads them to see her as being outrageously desirable sexually. As a result her strip-tease act is immensely popular, and she is able to maintain a constant supply of attractive boy toys.

Unfortunately her latest boy toy is also attracted to her grown daughter Julie, and he has another girlfriend on the side as well. Both Julie and this other woman know about the power of the amulet and want it for themselves. Julie’s relationship with her mother isn’t exactly affectionate, but Julie can’t break away because her mother needs her participation in her voodoo rites, and Julie is under her hypnotic control. Her mother isn’t entirely unreasonable though, and is quite happy for Julie to share her lovers.

Being an early 60s exploitation movie it’s likely that the movie existed in several versions, some racier than others, buy the version I saw (in the Girls Gone Bad: Delinquent Dames boxed set) is very tame as far as actual content goes. Despite this, it achieves a quite extraordinary level of sleaziness! It’s the treatment of the material, the atmosphere, the grunginess, and the perversity of the characters that makes it so delightfully sordid. There’s no nudity, but the scenes of Julie dancing in her underwear have a strange perverse lasciviousness to them.

Sin, You Sinners has the classic hallmarks of the exploitation movies of this period, with choppy editing, incoherent plotting, idiosyncratic camerawork and odd episodes that seem to bear no relationship to the rest of the movie. It was scripted by Joseph W. Sarno, later to become a exploitation legend. The acting is as bad as you’d expect, but strangely compelling. Dian Lloyd apparently never made another movie, but her performance as Julie is engagingly quirky, and oddly likeable despite her amorality.

If you’re a fan of off-beat cinema this one should be more than sufficiently off-beat to keep you happy! I found it weirdly fascinating.

Monday 1 September 2008

The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970)

The Secret of Dorian Gray (also released as simply Dorian Gray) is a 1971 eurotrash updating of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The plot adheres fairly closely to Wilde’s novel. I have no objection in principle to updating classics to modern settings, but this is one of those rare cases where the updating not only works, it works perfectly. Dorian is entirely at home in the world of wealthy, jaded, elegantly decadent late 60s jet-setters, and he rather enjoys the Sexual Revolution.

Being 1970, Dorian is allowed to indulge in actual debauchery and sexual excess, rather than being just the slightly naughty boy of the 1945 version. And indulge he certainly does. The version I saw appears to have been heavily cut, so it’s impossible to judge just how far director Massimo Dallamano actually went. There’s no doubt though that the more grownup attitude towards sex (a grownup attitude sadly not shared by film censors) was a huge advantage. It allows full play to Dorian’s destructive seductiveness, to both men and women. Dorian’s bisexuality, and Henry Wotton’s homosexuality, are made quite explicit but without being over-stressed. Even the lesbian love scene between two of Dorian’s admirers (obligatory in a European movie of this era) is not merely justifiable but serves a very definite purpose. And for once it involves two women whom one can actually imagine having lesbian sex.

The biggest plus is the casting. Helmut Berger was born to play Dorian Gray. He’s drop-dead gorgeous and sexually ambiguous, with just the right mix of innocence and depravity, of shallowness and self-absorption. Herbert Lom is equally good as Henry Wotton. The supporting cast is generally excellent. Marie Liljedahl is perhaps the weak link, as Sybil Vane, but even her slightly vacuous performance works in the context of the film.

The movie is worth seeing just for the costumes. Dorian in his latest Carnaby Street threads, looking utterly outrageous but he wears them with such a sense of style that he never looks ridiculous. His groovy 1970 bachelor pad is also a sight to behold. Visually the film has a slightly similar feel to Radley Metzger’s wonderful Camille 2000, and like Metzger’s film it manages to go completely over-the-top without becoming overly camp. For all its sex and style it’s a perfectly serious adaptation of Wilde’s masterpiece (just as Metzger’s movie manages to be both a perfectly serious adaptation of Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias and a skin flick).

This may in fact be the definite movie version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Helmut Berger is unquestionably the definitive Dorian Gray. It’s trashy, but it manages to be classy and arty at the same time. The eurotrash/eurosleaze ambience just seems so right. This movie definitely requires the Blue Underground treatment. Released by a company like that, uncut and with some worthwhile extras, this movie might finally get the recognition it deserves.