Thursday 30 October 2008

Thirst (1979)

Thirst is a rather interesting 1970s Australian horror film. It may well be the only Australian vampire movie. And it’s actually quite an interesting vampire movie.

The Brotherhood is a centuries-old world-wide organisation of vampires. It’s an ancient society, but these vampires believe in moving with the times. They’ve embraced modern management techniques and now run a network of high-tech factory farms raising blood cows. Blood cows being of course humans raised as vampire food. This means the modern vampire can be guaranteed of blood free from impurities and disease, neatly packaged in cartons that look just like milk cartons. They combine this modern approach with a respect for their own history, so when they discover that a woman named Kate Davis living in Melbourne is a descendant of Countess Elizabeth Bathory they’re keen to recruit her into their ranks. In fact they’re very keen indeed. She is, after all, vampire aristocracy. Trouble is Kate doesn’t know about her blood-drinking heritage, and when she finds out she’s not exactly over the moon about it. She’s a successful businesswoman, she’s in a relationship, and she’s not enthusiastic about a lifestyle change that includes the drinking of human blood. That’s where Dr Fraser and his team come in. They’re a kind of vampire therapy team, experts in reprogramming reluctant vampires.

At the time this movie was made the Australian film industry was stuck in a particularly tedious rut, churning out turgid historical dramas that took themselves much too seriously. In this environment producer Antony I. Ginnane was a bit of a maverick. He modelled himself on Roger Corman, and started turning out contemporary genre movies – thrillers, sexploitation movies, and horror movies – that were aimed very much at international markets. In fact his movies at this time were commercial flops in Australia but enjoyed considerable success elsewhere. He was a firm believer in including at least one reasonably well-known overseas actor in each movie to give it added appeal internationally. The imported star in Thirst is David Hemmings, and in this case it works well. He’s perfectly cast as the charming and rather ambiguous Dr Fraser. The real star of the movie though is Australian actress Chantal Contouri, who plays Kate. She gives a fine performance.

Horror in movies can be achieved in various ways, most crudely by means of gore and violence, and in a more sophisticated manner by use of atmosphere. Thirst on the other hand relies to a large extent on the sheer creepiness of the idea of factory farms for humans, and it works pretty well. That’s not to say the film lacks atmosphere. Much of it was shot at Montsalvat, a very gothic-looking artists’ retreat in Victoria, and the combination of this rather gothic setting with the high-tech factory farming approach and the sophisticated (by 1979 standards) scientific equipment employed by the Brotherhood is interesting and effective. There are some good set-pieces (especially the one involving the helicopter and the power lines) and some moments of rather black humour, as in the scene with the vampire tourists on a guided tour of the farm. Thirst offers enough original ideas and entertainment value to be very much worth checking out. And it’s available on DVD in all regions. I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Russ Meyer’s Up! (1976)

If you’re familiar with Russ Meyer’s movies then you’ll pretty much know what to expect from Up!, and if you like his movies there’s real no reason not to like this one. It’s very much in the style of his previous movie, Supervixens, and like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls it was scripted by Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert). It has a totally insane plot, involving Nazis and a murder mystery. It has plenty of cartoon-style violence, lots of rednecks, and a host of women with extraordinarily large breasts.

It has even more sex and nudity than his earlier films, but like the violence the sex is done in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. It’s easy to make sex look ridiculous, but very few people have had Meyer’s talent for making sex funny. I can’t imagine anyone actually finding this movie titillating – it’s too silly and too funny. The plot involves an old guy with a German accent who looks like an elderly version of a certain well-known 20th century dictator, an old guy who is murdered by the time-honoured method of dropping a hungry piranha into his bathtub. We are then introduced to the spectacularly well-endowed Margo Winchester (Raven de la Croix), who quickly demonstrates that she’s not a woman to be trifled with when she kills a would-be rapist. She soon finds herself working in the local diner, and becoming involved with the sheriff. We also discover that any one of the townspeople may have been the murderer of the elderly German gentleman who lived in the gothic castle just outside of town, or indeed it may have been one of the young ladies with whom he shared the castle (and with whom he indulged in a variety of kinky sexual practices).

To help us keep track of the plot we have the Greek Chorus, in the form of a very naked Kitten Natividad. The resolution of the plot is as delightfully demented as you’d expect, coming from the director/screenwriter team who gave us Beyond the Valley of the Dolls . It’s all great fun. The Region 4 DVD includes interviews with Kitten Natividad and Raven de la Croix, a charming lady with a host of amusing anecdotes about the making of the movie.

If you’re new to the insanely bizarre world of Russ Meyer Up! provides a reasonable introduction, although I’d really recommend starting with some of his earlier films like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Vixen! They truly don’t make movies like this any more, and I happen to think that’s rather sad. Modern cinema could do with a few eccentric mavericks like Russ Meyer.

Tuesday 28 October 2008

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Day of the Woman, better known as I Spit on Your Grave, is not an easy movie to review. This was possibly the most notorious of all the so-called video nasties” and was the movie that cause Roger Ebert to have an attack of apoplexy. It has a reputation as such a vile and misogynistic movie that normally I would not even have bothered to see it, had it not been for Carol Clover’s eloquent and passionate feminist defence of the film in her provocative and fascinating book on the horror movie, Men, Women and Chainsaws.

The story is simple. Jennifer, a woman writer from New York, takes a house in the country, intending to work on her current book. She immediately arouses the resentment of Johnny, who works at the gas station in the town, and his friends. They resent her for being from the city, and for being rich (the two being synonymous as far as they’re concerned). Along with Matthew, a retarded man who delivers groceries, they stalk her and repeatedly rape her. Their ostensible purpose is to help Matthew to lose his virginity. Matthew’s attempt to rape her fails when he loses his nerve. After leaving her unconscious Johnny sends Mathew back to kill her, but he gain loses her nerve. She recovers, and she sets out to revenge herself on her four attackers.

While it’s nowhere near as graphic as its reputation would suggest, it’s still a very uncomfortable film to watch. It does raise some very thorny an important issues though. If you make a movie that condemns violence, but your anti-violence movie itself contains graphic violence, is the movie part of the solution or part of the problem? Does taking revenge empower a female rape victim, or dies it make her more of a victim? Does taking revenge make her as much of a monster as the rapists? I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I don’t claim to, but I do think they’re questions that have to be faced.

I can certainly understand the position of people who find this movie offensive and disgusting, but I tend to agree with Clover that it does confront us with uncomfortable issues in a very direct and very effective way, and that it’s really far less offensive than quite a number of mainstream movies that have a veneer of respectability merely from being big-budget mainstream features (Dirty Harry being a particularly repellent example). While movies such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish glorify both violence and revenge, I Spit on Your Grave takes a much more negative view of violence, and even though Jennifer’s revenge is portrayed as understandable and even justified it’s presented in a way deliberately intended to make us feel some unease about it. The movie also makes it clear that the men involved derive no joy from their crime. The rapes are clearly not about pleasure or lust, they’re simply about male competition, about establishing and maintaining male hierarchies and dealing with male anxieties. As Clover says, “the rapes are presented as almost sexless acts of cruelty that the men seem to commit more for each other’s edification than for their own physical pleasure.”

It’s difficult to imagine a more sweeping condemnation of male group behaviour than the one offered by this movie. Clover also points out that the violence, as in so many American horror movies, is motivated as much by class and regional (city vs country) tensions as it is by tensions between the sexes. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced by Carol Clover’s arguments in favour of this movie (and she herself admits it’s a difficult movie to defend) but I think that its more vehement critics have perhaps missed the point entirely.

Monday 27 October 2008

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Tales from the Crypt was one of the series of very successful horror anthology films made by Amicus Studios in Britain the late 60s and early 70s. This one follows the same basic formula as the others. For my money the best of all the Amicus movies is Asylum, which has a genuinely clever framing story that is just as interesting as the individual segments.

Tales from the Crypt on the other hand boasts a particularly feeble framing story. With one of the best horror directors in Britain at the helm, and some of the country’s finest and most outrageous hams in the cast, this should have been a lot of fun. Somehow it doesn’t quite make it. The individual stories themselves are (with one exception) really too short, and they just don’t go anywhere. Milton Subotsky’s script is rather predictable, and lacks any real imagination.

The first story, with Joan Collins and a murderous Santa Claus, has promise but it’s much too short. The next three stories are all fairly pointless, with Reflection of Death being a complete waste of time. Things finally start looking up with the final instalment, Blind Alleys. A cruel army officer takes over a home for the blind, and ruthlessly exploits the inmates, who are driven to a horrific act of revenge. This story gives Freddie Francis the chance to show what he can do in the way of visual horror, and he produces a superb set-piece involving razor blades and a ravenous dog. It’s genuinely chilling, and it benefits from Patrick Magee doing some of the most gloriously over-the-top scenery-chewing you’ll ever see in a horror movie, or any other kind of movie for that matter. This story is almost good enough to redeem the whole movie.

Overall, Tales from the Crypt is reasonably entertaining if a little flat. Worth a rental, not perhaps not worth buying.

On a slightly different note, I’ve now seen Joan Collins in a couple of 1970s horror movies, and I have a shocking confession to make. I rather like her. She’s a mediocre actress, but she has undeniable presence and she’s fun and she has an instinctive understanding of camp, and it’s not as if she ever pretended to be a great actress.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Mask of Fu Manchu was MGM’s 1932 attempt to make a horror movie more outrageous, and with more sex and horror, than Universal’s huge recent hits, Dracula and Frankenstein. With Boris Karloff starring as Dr Fu Manchu, this is a glossy and quite spectacular movie with some truly superb set design.

The tomb of Genghis Khan has been discovered, and both the British Government and Dr Fu Manchu are determined to get hold of the most precious of the relics contained in the tomb, the mask and the sword of the great conqueror. Fu Manchu intends to use these symbols to make himself the modern successor to the great Mongol warlord, and to assume the leadership of all of Asia in a war to the death with western civilisation. Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of the British Secret Service must prevent this from happening while also trying to rescue the eminent archaeologist Sir Lionel Barton, kidnapped by Fu Manchu’s agents to be used as a bargaining counter. Along with Barton’ daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and handsome square-jawed hero Terry Granville (Charles Starrett) Smith sets off to foil this fiendish plot.

What makes The Mask of Fu Manchu possibly the ultimate pre-code horror film is the way it explicitly links the sex and the horror. The sado-masochist sexual tastes of Fu Manchu’s daughter Fah Lo See (played by Myrna Loy) are very obvious, and in several memorable scenes we see her becoming very excited by the prospect of inflicting torture. Even more daring is the scene in which she has Terry whipped (while she yells “Faster! Faster!”) and then seduces him. Loy is delightfully wicked. If Loy provides the kinky sex, then Karloff provides the high camp, and he does it with style. It’s this very marked tongue-in-cheek approach that mostly prevents the movie from being especially offensive (apart from one very distasteful scene right at the very end). Karloff and Loy are in fine form. Karen Morley’s insanely histrionic over-the-top performance works in the context of what is, after all, pure melodrama, and adds to the fun.

The Mask of Fu Manchu ran into immediate problems with the censors, but oddly enough its biggest censorship problems came in the 1970s when it was hacked to pieces to remove references that were regarded as racially offensive. The recent DVD release, as part of the Warner Home Video Legends of Horror boxed set, was taken from a recently discovered camera negative and is completely uncut. On the whole it looks sensational, and it’s now possible to see why this movie has had such an outrageous reputation. It’s a good deal of fun if you don’t take it seriously, and it’s difficult to imagine how anyone possibly could take it seriously, especially with Karloff’s deliriously campy performance.

Saturday 25 October 2008

The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976)

The first thing that has to be said about Radley Metzger’s The Opening of Misty Beethoven is that it is a hardcore porn film. The second thing to be said about it is that it’s an extremely good film. It’s not merely a good movie by the standards of hardcore porn; it’s a good movie judged by any standards.

It’s a movie that demands to be judged by the same criteria that one would apply to any mainstream film - to be assessed in term of plot, dialogue, acting, cinematography, directing. And in all of these areas it’s a triumph. Which will come as no surprise at all to anyone who is familiar with Metzger’s earlier softcore erotic films.

It’s based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Dr Seymour Love (Jamie Gillis) is a sexologist, and on a visit to Paris he meets an American prostitute, Misty Beethoven (played by Constance Money). He decides that she’s the most incompetent hooker he’s ever encountered. She has no interest in her work, she takes no pride in it, she is unskilful and worst of all - she manages to be completely sexless. He is so appalled that he is moved to describe her as "the nadir of passion.” Despite all this, he makes a bet with his friend Geraldine Rich that he can transform this Eliza Doolittle of streetwalkers into the Golden Rod Girl (the sex industry equivalent of the Oscars).

While Seymour and Geraldine undertake the painstaking task of Misty’s sexual education the relationship between Seymour and Misty becomes more complex and considerably more strained, and while a whole new world is opening up for Misty she is not entirely certain how comfortable she is about her new life.

This is a sophisticated comedy of manners, and it’s also a love story (and a very effective and quite moving if rather unconventional love story). Jamie Gillis is delightful as the Henry Higgins of sex, proving to be a very talented comic actor. Jacqueline Beudant, in her only movie role, is absolutely superb as Geraldine, and is the perfect foil for Gillis. Constance Money does a fine job as Misty Beethoven. She’s both likable and obnoxious, vulnerable and brash, and her character develops as the movie progresses. Yes, this is a hardcore sex movie with character development!

As you’d expect from anything directed by Radley Metzger, The Opening of Misty Beethoven looks fantastic. Wonderful sets, beautiful cinematography, and lashings of style. The Pygmalion plot work extremely well - this is a very successful adaptation of Shaw’s classic play. The sex is most definitely hardcore, so if that’s a problem for you you might want to stay away from this one. If this isn’t a problem for you, you’ll find that this is a smart, elegant, witty and completely delightful movie.

Friday 24 October 2008

Madame Sin (1972)

A science fiction/spy thriller starring Bette Davis has to have considerable camp appeal, so it’s perhaps surprising that Madame Sin isn’t better known. Perhaps the fact that it was a made-for-TV movie explains why it’s often overlooked. It’s a cross between a spy spoof movie and a Fu Manchu-style potboiler (with a dash of Sumuru), with Davis playing an Asiatic female diabolical criminal mastermind planning to steal a ballistic missile-armed British nuclear submarine.

Tony Laurence is an American spy who becomes embroiled in her plot. At her secret headquarters on a mysterious island she employs brainwashing techniques and various high-tech sonic gadgets to bend people to her will, thus giving her useful if unwilling slaves. As it turns out she and Tony’s father (also a spy) were once lovers, so she has a personal interest as well in manipulating him.

If you’re expecting James Bond-style action sequences you’re going to be disappointed. The budget didn’t run to expensive social effects and spectacular stunts. On the other hand, as TV movies go the production values are respectable enough and the plot has nice twists to it. There’s a dash of 70s cynicism, and the ending can be seen as either upbeat or downbeat depending on where your sympathies lie.

Davis is in great form, and Denholm Elliott as her charming but sinister financial adviser is inspired to try to out-camp Davis, giving a delightfully arch performance. Robert Wagner as Tony Laurence is solid if unremarkable, Gordon Jackson is heroic but baffled as the commander of the submarine and the supporting cast includes the array of delightful character actors you expect in a British production of this vintage.

If you don’t expect too much from it Madame Sin will provide 90 minutes of amusing diversion, with the bonus of Bette Davis in full-on camp mode. The one is rather like 1960s TV shows such as The Avengers and the Man from UNCLE - silly tongue-in-cheek fun.

Thursday 23 October 2008

The Doll Squad (1973)

The Doll Squad is a fun and amusing piece of nonsense from legendary low-budget film-maker Ted V. Mikels. After a US spacecraft is sabotaged by a renegade intelligence agent, the authorities decide that a situation as serious as this can only be dealt with by - The Doll Squad! The Doll Squad being a team of elite female secret agents/commandos. The requirements for membership of this team - you have to be tough and deadly, and gorgeous!

The leader of The Doll Squad is Sabrina Kincaid (played by Francine York). She’s professional, intelligent, dangerous and very feminine. Even her lipstick is deadly. Her professionalism is put to the test when she discovers that the renegade agent is an ex-lover of hers. After several members of The Doll Squad are assassinated, the ream tracks down the bad guy to his island hideout/secret headquarters, where he is plotting to unleash a deadly plague upon the world unless his demands are met. But he’s underestimated these girls.

The acting is slightly better than you might expect from such a deliriously trashy B-movie. Michael Ansara as Eamon O'Reilly makes a marvellous (although amazingly incompetent) diabolical criminal mastermind. Francine York is good as Sabrina. She’s charismatic and tough, but she’s all woman. Tura Satana (yes, the star of Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) has fun as a member of The Doll Squad. The special effects are cheap, silly and amusing.

One thing that’s interesting is the way the violence is handled. It’s not the least bit graphic, there’s no gore, and it’s very cartoonish. But I was a bit shocked the first time one of the Doll Squad members knocked a bad guy out, then pulled out a gun and calmly pumped several rounds into his unconscious body. This turns out to standard operating procedure for these deadly dolls. And several members of The Doll Squad don’t survive the movie. It’s an odd touch of brutal realism in an otherwise very cartoonish movie.

Director Ted V. Mikels claimed that the Charlie’s Angels TV series was a direct rip-off of this movie. While there are definite similarities, the idea of glamorous female spies or crime-fighters wasn’t actually a new one. Jess Franco for one had already done something similar with his two Red Lips movies in the late 60s.

Basically, The Doll Squad is good cheesy fun (and it is very cheesy). It has the amateurish social effects, the mostly hammy acting and the extremely silly plot that such movies require.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Straw Dogs (1971)

Controversies about horror movies accused of going too far are hardly new, and in the early 70s there were a number of celebrated cases. Including this one.

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs really is a very disturbing movie. It’s not the level of violence that is disturbing. It’s not even the notorious rape scene. What’s disturbing is the way Peckinpah deliberately provokes a response in the viewer, and then challenges us to consider the nature of our response. You really need to set aside preconceptions when watching this one. If you assume that this is an ode to violence by a man obsessed with macho fantasies of masculinity you’re likely to completely misunderstand the film. He was certainly fascinated by violence and men’s reaction to violence (and by the response of women to violent men which is also a major theme of his superb 1972 movie The Getaway) but I don’t think it’s either fair or safe to presume that he therefore approved of this violence. Similarly, if you assume the rape scene is going to show you what so many critics of the film claim it shows, a woman being raped who starts to enjoy the experience, and that this reflects Peckinpah’s own simplistic and misogynistic views, then again I think you’re liable to be misled about the movie’s intentions. That scene is unpleasant and confronting, but it’s also much more complex and ambiguous than you may have been led to believe. Her relationship to the man involved is complicated by a previous history and her feelings about him are contradictory and confused, as are her feelings for her husband.

But then there is not a single event, a single character, or a single situation in the movie that is simple and unambiguous. David (Dustin Hoffman) is not a mild-mannered peaceable mathematician driven to extreme violence as an act of revenge for the rape of his wife. Right from the start he’s a seething mass of barely suppressed anger and hostility and self-loathing, and he doesn’t even know his wife was raped. He is not the hero of a western, driven to violence to protect his family, and here Peckinpah uses the fact that he was best known as a director of westerns to play more games with his audience.

The event that triggers the outburst of bloodshed is even more unsettling than the rape in some ways. In this case it’s not only the audience who are likely to be uncertain as to the exact nature of the situation – the characters in the movie all react to this event, but in their various ways they all misinterpret what is going on. The villagers claim to be hunting down Henry Niles (David Warner), a pervert with a fixation on young girls who was seen leading the innocent young daughter of the town drunk to her doom, but the young woman in question is neither a child nor is she innocent. Henry is retarded and is more of a child than she is. And in this case she is the predator and Henry is her victim. But again Peckinpah doesn’t make it easy for us. We really have no idea what her motivations or her intentions were. Was she actually intending to have sex with him? Was she simply taunting him? Was it a twisted revenge on David, who had spurned her advances? Was she playing a game that got out of hand? And, in another irony, her death is in fact an accident. In this scene and in the rape scene I don’t believe that Peckinpah was (as some critics have suggested) painting all women as sluts who prey on men, or that he was suggesting that the women concerned are “asking for it.” I think he’s simply trying to make his audience as uncomfortable as possible, forcing them to confront things they’d rather not confront, to see things that they’d like to believe are straightforward as being in reality anything but clear-cut, and to consider whether any of us can really claim to be innocent.

The relationship between David and his wife Amy is, as pointed out, quite bizarre (and I have to say at this point that although Dustin Hoffman was the darling of the critics at the time for my money he’s comprehensively out-acted by Susan George as Amy). They appear to have nothing in common, and to despise one another. I couldn’t help feeling that for the nerdy and insecure David having a beautiful young wife was essentially a status symbol, a sign that despite that nerdiness and insecurity he was a male with power (a high-status job and money), and that she gave him status with other males. His decision to continue employing a bunch of yokels who harass and ogle his wife could be interpreted as an act of aggression on his part, asserting his dominant social position – that he was rubbing their noses in the fact that this beautiful young woman belonged to him. The men in this movie mostly treat women as possessions to be fought over, and Peckinpah seems to be making sure we notice that. It’s yet another provocative element in this deeply unsettling but audacious and technically brilliant film.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Doctor of Doom (1963)

The 1963 Mexican movie Doctor of Doom (Las Luchadoras contra el médico asesino, released in the US as Rock 'N Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Ape) is based on the simple and obvious premise that the two elements whose presence is most likely to guarantee the success of a film are mad scientists and female wrestlers. So if you make a movie that features both mad scientists and lady wrestlers, you’re bound to have a sure-fire winner. Since it kicked off a sub-genre of wrestling women movies, the producers were obviously right.

The mad scientist in question is working on brain transplants. He believes female subjects are most suitable, since women have more endurance than men. Unfortunately to date all his experiments have ended in failure, although he did manage to successfully transplant a gorilla’s brain into a man. He obtains his experimental subjects by the simple expedient of getting his criminal gang (like any self-respecting mad scientist he has a criminal gang working for him) to kidnap women.

At first he thinks that perhaps he needs more intelligent women, so he tries the operation on a female scientist. That fails also, so then he hits on the idea of using a woman with great physical strength. And it just so happens that his most recent victim has a sister who is Mexico’s most famous female wrestler, Gloria Venus. But kidnapping wrestling women turns out to be hard work, and Gloria and her wrestling partner Golden Rubi beat the mad scientist’s minions to a pulp.

Our two intrepid wrestling women are now working with the police to track down the mad doctor. The two male police officers assigned to the case run into a few problems though, and have to be rescued from the jaws of death by the wrestling women. But the mad doctor is still on the loose, and he has his gorilla/man hybrid monster to protect him. Things get really difficult when he creates a super lady wrestler to take on Gloria Venus.

This movie has everything you could possibly want. If has beautiful glamorous female wrestlers. A mysterious masked mad scientist. Incompetent policemen. A plot that is so obvious that if you don’t know the identity of the villain within the first ten minutes you’re just not trying. Bad sets. Terrible make-up effects. It has an unstoppable monster. Lots of wrestling scenes with the aforementioned beautiful glamorous female wrestlers. What more could you want?

The acting is fairly dodgy, although Lorena Velázquez and Elizabeth Campbell are energetic and likeable as the wrestling women. And the obligatory comic relief actor playing one of the cop is less annoying than is usual with comic relief actors in old horror movies. Some of his exchanges with Golden Rubi (with whom he has fallen passionately in love) are actually quite amusing.

It’s included in the Crypt of Terror: Horror from South of the Border DVD boxed set. It’s presented in an English dub only, and the image quality isn’t fantastic, but you get six movies for a very low price. And it includes another wrestling woman film! So there is certainly no cause for complaint. It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s not even the Citizen Kane of wrestling women movies. But it is lots of extremely cheesy fun, and I loved it.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Dangerous Seductress (1992)

Dangerous Seductress is an Indonesia/Philippines co-production from the director who made Lady Terminator, and in some ways it’s even more fun. Although it starts with a spectacular car chase and shoot-out it’s much less of an action movie than Lady Terminator. It’s more a straight horror film. Susan is raped and beaten up by her boyfriend and decides it’s time to get out of LA. She heads off to Jakarta where her sister works as a model. At a party she is given a book on Indonesian magic, and decides to have a go at it. She summons up the Queen of Darkness, who is prepared to grant her supernatural powers. She then uses these powers to take revenge on an assortment of unpleasant bozo men. She picks up these low-lifes at various bars, but what they think is going to be slightly kinky sex turns out to be more fatal than kinky.

The amusing thing is that it’s a movie all about sex that contains absolutely no actual sex or nudity. This gives it a very dated feel, more like 1962 than 1992 in some ways, but this dated quality adds to the (already considerable) cheesiness factor. It’s trying so hard to be sexy, but its sexiness is like a bizarre mix of 1950s cheesecake and 1980s fashion. In fact the whole movie is trying very hard to be modern and hip and daring, and it’s not succeeding at all. There’s also an absolutely extraordinary re-animation sequence early on, with a walking severed finger, a hand-mirror and lots of blood bringing the Queen of Darkness back to life. It’s a scene that really defies description.

I don’t think anyone is going to claim that Dangerous Seductress is actually a good movie, but it has considerable camp appeal and a great deal going for it in the so-bad-it’s-good department. And if you love cheesy special effects and outrageously bad acting, this one certainly delivers.

The Mondo Macabro Asian Action Deadly Dolls two-movie set that includes this film and Lady Terminator is highly recommended, and comes with (as usual from Mondo Macabro) some great extras.

Friday 17 October 2008

Videodrome (1983)

David Cronenberg’s 1983 opus Videodrome has lost none of its edge in the quarter of a century since its initial release.

The fact that the cutting edge technology depicted in the movie is cable TV and video cassette recorders surprisingly doesn’t date the movie at all. Cronenberg has no interest in the details of technology. What he’s interested in is what technology will do to us, how it will change us. The specifics of the technology are irrelevant. The line between reality and what the media shows us started to become blurred long before 1983. As early as the 60s soap opera stars were being approached in supermarkets and addressed by fans who were unable to make the distinction between the actors and the characters they played.

James Woods plays Max Renn, a sleazy media entrepeneur who runs a cable TV station, a station that specialises in softcore porn and violence. Max is always on the lookout for something edgier, something harder, something that the competition doesn’t offer. When his satellite dish picks up a program called Videodrome, a program that offers torture and murder that seems so hyper-realistic that it may or may not actually be real, he is convinced he’s found a winner.

Appearing on a TV talk show, Max makes the acquaintance of radio personality Nicki Brand, who hosts the Emotional Rescue radio show. She admits that, “I live in a highly-excited state of overstimulation.” Back at his place she is looking for porn videos (which she likes because they get her in the mood) when she discovers the Videodrome cassette. She decides that she was born to appear on that show. Nicki’s sexual tastes are decidedly masochistic - she enjoys things like burning herself with cigarettes, and being cut by her lovers.

But Videodrome comes with a price, and the price is that it triggers an uncontrollable series of hallucinations. Max finds himself in a world of conspiracies, of shadowy organisations intending to use Videodrome for political purposes, of mysterious media gurus who exist only on TV, and there seems no way to stop the hallucinations. And he’s developed a vagina-like opening in his stomach, into which objects such as video-cassettes can be inserted.

Science fiction is notorious for making embarrassingly mistaken predictions about what the future will be like. Videodrome is scary because its predictions have ended up being so chillingly close to the truth. We do have cable TV stations specialising in murder as entertainment - after all, what else is CI if it isn’t that? The combination of sex and technology was a particularly bold prediction in 1983, when concepts like cybersex hadn’t even been thought of (this movie came out a year before another Canadian, William Gibson, first popularised the idea of virtual reality and cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer).

The main criticism leveled at this movie has always been the incoherence of the plot. But anyone looking for a coherent plot has missed the point of the film. Everything is seen from the viewpoint of Max Renn, a man who lives his life switching back and forth between reality and hallucination, existing in a society in which the line between reality and media is fuzzy enough to begin with. And Cronenberg sticks relentlessly to Max’s point of view - there is no comforting explanation at the end where we discover what was reality and what was fantasy.

Of course if you’re going to dispense with logical plotting you’re going to have to rely overwhelmingly on the power of the images, of the mood, and of the acting. Videodrome has more than enough strength in those areas. The images are as unsettling as ever. Effects such as the breathing video-cassettes and the TV set with Nicki’s face emerging from the screen still work perfectly. James Woods (who can at times overdo the edgy thing) is perfectly cast as Max. Debbie Harry is extremely effective as Nicki, bringing a disturbingly kinky eroticism to her performance.

The 1970s had seen a series of science fiction horror movies exploring similar themes of technology merging with humanity and mimicking reality, movies such as Westworld and Demon Seed. Cronenberg takes these ideas to their logical extreme in Videodrome. A great movie. Long live the new flesh!

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Nightmares Come at Night (1970)

While Jess Franco was quite capable of making coherent well-plotted movies I personally find those to be his least interesting efforts. When he cast side the bonds of conventional narrative completely and produced movies that were like psychedelic fever dream cinematic versions of improvised jazz jam sessions – that’s when he really grabs me as a movie-maker. Movies like Venus in Furs, Succubus and Vampyros Lesbos. The problem with Nightmares Come at Night (Les Cauchemars naissent la nuit) is that it’s not quite one thing or the other. It has the nightmare illusions bleeding into reality sequences, but it’s a bit too straightforward. I enjoy his movies when I’m no more certain than the protagonists where reality ends and dreams begin. In this one the underlying reality is a little too obvious.

It also suffers from having the best of the three actresses in the movie, the late great Soledad Miranda, in a minor supporting role. This leaves Diana Lorys in the main role, to which she’s not really equal. Had this movie been made a few months later I don’t think there’s any doubt that Franco would have cast Miranda in the lead role, and it would unquestionably have been a far more successful film.

Lorys is Anna, a woman who’s been performing as an exotic dancer in a sleazy night-club. She becomes involved with a woman who has been attending her every show, and as their love affair progresses Anna begins having nightmares, nightmares filled with violent imagery and with herself in the role of a murderess. The nightmares soon come to seem to be all too real. Paul Muller is very impressive as her psychiatrist, subtly creepy but never going over the top.

It’s not a bad film, and it has its moments, but Franco seems to be holding himself back, not really allowing the dream logic to take over as it does in his best movies. The eroticism, despite copious amounts of nudity, doesn’t really happen either. Whereas a Soledad Miranda, or a Lina Romay, or a Janine Reynaud, would have ignited the screen in a role like this, Diana Lorys fails to light even a small fire. The movie does have an impressive and very effective score though, courtesy of Bruno Nicolai. I’m a huge fan of Franco, and I greatly admire even some of the Franco movies that everyone else seems to despise (like Female Vampire), but this one was definitely a little disappointing. And if you’re buying this to see what all the fuss was about regarding Soledad Miranda, be advised that her role really is very minor. You’re much better off picking up a copy of Vampyros Lesbos or Eugenie de Sade instead.

Monday 13 October 2008

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Last Year at Marienbad is a movie I’ve wanted to see for years. It’s a movie that sharply divided opinion when it was released in 1961, and it’s a movie that continue to annoy people who dislike any semblance of artiness in their movies. And Last Year at Marienbad is certainly arty. I fact it’s the apotheosis of the European art film.

At some unspecified time a group of people are staying at a hotel. These people are curiously devoid of emotion and indeed seem hardly alive. One man, whose name we never learn, tries to convince a woman (also unnamed) that they had a love affair a year ago, at Marienbad. Or at least it may have been Marienbad. She has no memory of the affair. He tries to persuade her to leave with him. There is another man, who may be her husband. Or possibly not her husband. The guests spend their time playing games, including an odd game played with matchsticks, or cards, or any objects at all. One of the guests tells the others he could lose at this game, but he never has.

If it sounds enigmatic to begin with, it steadily becomes more enigmatic. Who are these people? Are they real? Did the unnamed man and woman really meet a year ago at Marienbad, or possibly somewhere else? This is a movie that doesn’t just reject conventional narrative, it rejects conventional characterisation as well. Alain Resnais, who directed the film, had created something of a sensation a couple of years earlier with his debut feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour, while scriptwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet went on to direct movies himself. Last Year at Marienbad could be described as hardcore New Wave.

While it is on the surface lacking in emotion, it is deeply disturbing and strangely affecting. The black-and-white cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and the settings (it was filmed I believe at a castle in Germany) are magnificent.

The Region 2 DVD includes an introduction to the film and a documentary, both of which are fascinating and illuminating and shed light on the many different interpretations of this film. One interesting suggestion in the documentary is that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining could almost be considered to be a remake of Last Year at Marienbad. The more I think about it the more I tend to agree. This is a movie that you may find exasperating, or intriguing, or utterly fabulous. I adored it.

Sunday 12 October 2008

The Inn on the River (1962)

While the plot of The Inn on the River (Das Gasthaus an der Themse) can’t match the other German Edgar Wallace krimis I’ve seen for sheer outrageousness, and while it lacks the gothic touches that made those films even more fun, it still provides decent entertainment for fan of this movie genre.

This entry in the cycle was based on Wallace’s novel The India-Rubber Men. A mysterious scuba-diving killer is stalking the waterways of London, emerging to dispatch his victims with a harpoon and then disappearing into the sewers. Inspector Wade of Scotland Yard (played by the very likeable Joachim Fuchsberger who starred in countless krimis) is on the case, and his investigations have led him to a notorious waterfront dive, The Mekka. He believes the killings are connected with smuggling operations and jewel thefts.

Eddi Arent is on hand as usual to provide comic relief, and although the comic relief is completely unnecessary he does it reasonably well and without becoming too annoying. Klaus Kinski is on hand also, to add his social brand of vaguely sinister weirdness to the proceedings. Karl Löb provides some wonderfully moody black-and-white cinematography – you can almost feel the damp and the fog. Director Alfred Vohrer keeps things moving along at a good clip. Good solid entertainment for B-movie fans.

Saturday 11 October 2008

El Vampiro (1957)

Although Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein is generally credited with triggering the revival of horror movies, and particularly of gothic horror, in fact it seems that the rediscovery of gothic horror happened more or less simultaneously in three different countries. In Britain, with Hammer’s film, in Italy with Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri, and in Mexico with El Vampiro (The Vampire).

Of these three movies, El Vampiro is the most traditional. It’s closest in feel to the Universal monster movies of the 30s and 40s. On the other hand, it is an attempt to make the vampire overtly sexy, so in that respect it resembles Hammer’s first vampire movie, Dracula, which came out a year or so later.

A young woman, Marta, alights from a train at a rural railway station in Mexico, only to find that it is impossible to obtain transport to Los Sicomoros, the hacienda where she grew up. There’s another traveller stranded at the station, a young man who claims to be a commercial traveller, and he eventually persuades a mysterious wagon driver to take them both to Los Sicomoros. On arrival, Marta is told that her much-loved aunt died the previous day. The hacienda itself appears to be slowly falling apart, and there’s an uneasy atmosphere. Her uncle seems worried, while her strangely youthful-looking remaining aunt is behaving a little oddly.

It transpires that an offer has been made for the purchase of the hacienda by a neighbour, a Mr Duval. This had caused a rift between her uncle and her aunts, and this had been complicated by the now deceased aunt’s growing conviction that she was being stalked by a vampire. In fact the young man from the railway station is a doctor, called in by the uncle to make a medical determination on her sanity.

There’s nothing especially original about El Vampiro, but the traditional ingredients are blended with considerable skill. The sets are superb, and the gothic atmosphere is overwhelming. Rosalío Solano’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning. The overall look is similar to the Universal films, and there are distinct resemblances to the underrated 1943 Son of Dracula in particular. The special effects are simple but the bat transformations work better than they have any right to do.

Germán Robles makes a smoothly sinister vampire, while Abel Salazar (who also produced the film) is a likeable hero as the doctor. Ariadna Welter is an effective (and remarkably beautiful) heroine as Marta. All the supporting players are extremely competent. There’s nothing cheap or shoddy about the style or the look of this movie, and there’s nothing campy about its treatment of the material. It relies on atmosphere rather than shocks, and the end result is an impressive horror film.

Casa Negra’s Region 1 DVD looks as wonderful as all their other DVDs, and includes plentiful extras.

Friday 10 October 2008

Bowery at Midnight (1942)

By the beginning of the 1940s Bela Lugosi’s days as a star at Universal were over. He was now getting supporting roles only, so when he was offered a nine-picture deal at Monogram he was happy to take it. They would be ultra-cheap B-movies made at a Poverty Row studio, but he would at least be the star.

In retrospect it was probably the right decision to make. The movies he made for Monogram were often remarkably silly, but all were entertaining, and several were actually very good. Bowery at Midnight, made in 1942, is one of the best of them. Lugosi plays a murderous master criminal living a double life. By day he’s a psychology professor, by night he runs a soup kitchen for the poor. The soup kitchen is actually a front, a way of recruiting confederates to assist him in his real business, masterminding a series of daring robberies. Lugosi has fun with the role, and gives a terrific performance.

The plot is absurdly complicated, with the rich boyfriend of a nurse who works at the soup kitchen, who also happens to be a student of Lugosi’s psychology professor, pretending to be studying the psychology of the under-privileged when in reality he’s just trying to impress his girlfriend. There’s also an ambitious cop who is hoping to catch the master criminal and thereby in a promotion. It ends up with multiple sub-plots all converging, with unlikely coincidences and none of it making a huge amount of sense, but it’s vastly enjoyable anyway.

Stylistically it’s what you expect from Monogram. The dark shadowy cinematography was probably intended mainly to hide the cheapness of the sets, but it adds the right urban gothic atmosphere. Wallace Fox’s direction may not be especially inspired but it’s energetic. The supporting players are terrible, but it doesn’t matter. It’s Lugosi’s film and he carries it with ease.

Like most of his Monogram films it’s a mix of crime and horror, and for fans of 1940s B-movies it’s a treat.

Thursday 9 October 2008

Mantis in Lace (1968)

What do you think of when you think of the 60s? If, like most people, your answer is LSD, go-go dancing and female axe murderers, then Mantis in Lace may be just the movie for you.

It was originally released as a sexploitation movie in 1968 under the title Lila. It flopped badly. But being a good exploitation producer, Harry Novak was not dismayed. He simply re-titled it Mantis in Lace and re-released it as a horror movie. It was a huge hit.

Lila is a topless go-go dancer who takes men back to an abandoned warehouse that she’s set up as her little private hideaway where she can do things she can’t do anywhere else. All goes well until one of her pick-ups introduced her to LSD. Now as everyone knows, the effect of acid on women is to turn them into paranoid homicidal maniacs. And unluckily for the guy, there happens to be a screwdriver lying within easy reach when the acid starts to take its effect. Even more unluckily for this guy, there’s also a meat cleaver within similarly easy reach. A few days later the cops find the guy in a cardboard box, in several pieces.

The cops are pretty sure the murder is the work of hippies (hippies being known for their extreme violence) but it doesn’t occur to them that the murderer might be a woman. Cops being not exactly renowned for their imagination. Meanwhile Lila has decided she likes acid, especially during sex, and she’s completely forgotten about its slightly unfortunate side-effects since she was still tripping when she disposed of her unfortunate paramour’s body. Pretty soon the police are amassing a nice collection of disassembled men in packing cases.

Mantis in Lace showcases the usual 1960s psychedelic bad acid trip visuals, the sorts of visuals that make 60s drug scare movies so much fun. The acting is average exploitation movie quality, although Susan Stewart does make a pretty good psycho killer. It also features groovy 60s music, including a song called Lila that recurs throughout the movie. There’s very little gore, and quite a lot of nudity and sex. As was the case with so many exploitation movies there were several alternative cuts of the movie, with varying mixes of (fairly moderate) gore and sex. The good people at Something Weird Video have included out-takes and alternative scenes, including even more outrageous psychedelic effects.

Mantis in Lace is trashy but fun, with an amusing 60s trying-to-be-hip vibe,and any movie with go-go dancing is worth seeing. It doesn’t have a great deal to say about the human condition or the meaning of life, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable for what it is.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968)

The Blood of Fu Manchu was the fourth of the Fu Manchu movies produced by Harry Alan Towers in the 1960s, with Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu. This one and the final film in the series were both directed by Jess Franco and a lot of people will tell you they’re terrible. In the case of The Blood of Fu Manchu at least (I haven’t seen the final film yet) don’t listen to them. This is a Fu Manchu movie. It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s supposed to provide pure entertainment, and it does so.

By the 1960s it was impossible to take the Fu Manchu stories even vaguely seriously. They could only be made to work as movies by treating them as campy comic-book romps, and this was an approach that suited Jess Franco just fine. He used the same approach in The Girl from Rio, made simultaneously with The Blood of Fu Manchu.

The plot, naturally, involves yet another far-fetched plan for world domination. This time a bevy of beautiful young women will be unleashed on Dr Fu Manchu’s enemies, young women infected with a deadly poison that enables them to kill with a kiss. Not surprisingly Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith is at the top of the list. Smith is blinded by the poison but survives, and he and the faithful Dr Petrie set off for South America which has, oddly enough, been chosen by the evil doctor as his base of operations. Since we’re in South America, we have to have bandits. It’s not entirely clear whose side they’re on, but bandits are always fun. And the bandit chieftain Sancho Lopez, played with insane glee by Ricardo Palacios, is one of the highlights of the movie. There’s also a dashing and terribly brave young archaeologist who looks like an early version of Indiana Jones. I don’t know why he’s there, but he’s fun as well.

Franco keeps the pacing as frantic as possible, which helps when you have a plot that you really don’t want the viewer to have time to think too much about! Richard Greene is a rather subdued Nayland Smith, but Howard Marion-Crawford’s outrageous over-acting as Dr Petrie more than compensates for this. Christopher Lee plays Fu Manchu as a dignified aristocrat, and his restrained performance works well. Lee believes in trying to stay as close as possible to the literary source material and I’m sure that’s what he was trying to do here, with some success. Tsai Chin is, as always, deliciously cruel and villainous as Fu Manchu’s beautiful but evil daughter Lin Tang. The Brazilian locations don’t entirely fit the mood of the Fu Manchu stories but they look pretty.

Blue Underground’s DVD release looks simply gorgeous. The pint is crystal clear and the colours are outrageously bright, giving the movie a fun pop art look. The extras include interviews with Harry Alan Towers, Jess Franco (always a wonderful interview subject), Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin. It’s Tsai Chin who is the real treat. She’s a charming, intelligent and very funny lady. She talks frankly of her reservations about the inherent racism of the Fu Manchu stories, but it’s also clear that she threw herself into the part with enthusiasm and had a good deal of fun with it. She also talks of her disappointment at Towers’ refusal to allow her to play Lin Tang as a raging nymphomaniac, which she feels (quite correctly I’m sure) would have added considerably to the fun. The Blood of Fu Manchu is no masterpiece, and it’s definitely a minor Franco film, but if you accept it on its own terms as very much a B-movie then it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970)

I’ve seen quite a few of the Japanese pinky violence films made by Toho studios in the 70s, but Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is the first example I’ve seen from rival studio Nikkatsu. It lacks the nudity and much of the sex that characterises later pinky violence movies, but it doesn’t stint on the violence.

Meiko Kaji is boss of a girl gang, and is the girlfriend of Baron, the leader of a male gang known as The Eagles. Baron hates “half-breeds” the offspring of American servicemen in the occupying forces in Japan after the war. His sister was raped by one, although his anger and resentment is also fueled by his impotence. When two of the girls in Mako’s gang start dating half-breeds he isn’t at all pleased, and he’s even less pleased when it turns out that one of the girls is Mako. His dislike of those of mixed race, coupled with the thought that Mako might now be getting the sexual satisfaction he couldn’t provide, is the trigger for a campaign of violence by The Eagles.

At one point one of the characters refers to himself as a character in western, and in fact the movie was clearly heavily influenced by westerns, and especially by the bleakness and apocalyptic tone of Sergio Leone’s westerns. A wonderful example of cross-cultural pollination - a Japanese movie inspired by a Italian western!

Like so much of the Japanese exploitation cinema of this era the film displays a strongly ambivalent attitude towards the all-pervasive influence of American pop culture on Japan. And it makes some very clever use of American cultural icons, especially the Coke bottles used by Mako as Molotov cocktails!

And, like all 1970s Japanese exploitation movies, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter is very very stylish. It’s all exceptionally pessimistic. They really aren’t any winners in this movie.

Meiko Kaji is of course awesome, with her big black hat making her look like a cooler version of Clint Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars. The Stray Cat Rock series as one of no less than three ongoing series in the 70s that showcased her talents , the others being the Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner #701 series.

This is not my favourite pinky violence film (my favourite being the amazing Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom), but it does have some intriguing features, it has style, and it has Meiko Kaji, so it’s well worth a look if you’re a fan of this genre.

Monday 6 October 2008

Psych-Out (1968)

Psych-Out, made in 1968, was one of the many cinematic attempts to cash in on the hippie/drug culture/teen rebellion thing of the 60s. Even at the time most of the movies that focused specifically on the drug culture were pretty embarrassing, Roger Corman’s The Trip being one of the better efforts. Psych-Out falls into the more usual trap of trying much too hard to be hip while at the same time delivering a moral message on the evil of drugs.

It is however quite entertaining in a campy sort of way. Susan Strasberg is Jenny, a deaf girl who arrives in San Francisco looking for her missing brother. The brother is on a quest of his own, to find God and the meaning of life and all that sort of thing. She falls in with a bunch of hippie musicians. After that, very little actually happens. But with Jack Nicholson as the band’s guitarist Stoney and Dean Stockwell as Dave, a seriously drug-addled former member of the band who now serves them as a kind of guru/spiritual advisor, there’s plenty of delightfully entertaining over-the-top hamminess. Dave appears to have split from the band when there seemed to be a danger they might achieve actual success, which would of course mean selling out and having to deal with the nightmare of having lots of money and lots of sex-crazed groupies. This is a risk that Stoney seems to regard as being worth taking.

Things get weirder (and the acting reaches new heights of badness) when Bruce Dern turns up as the lost brother, looking a bit like Jesus. Towards the end Jenny naturally decides to drop some acid and learns at first-hand that drugs are really really bad.

There’s some truly appalling psychedelic rock courtesy of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the drug freak-out scenes are moderately interesting, and the dialogue is what you’d expect with lines like “it’s all just one big plastic hassle man.” Psych-Out is silly fun if you’re in the mood for such things.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Blue Rita (1977)

Although it dates from 1977 Jess Franco’s Blue Rita it really has more of the vibe of the late 60s than the late 70s. It’s a return to the feel of his silly but fun movies of that period, movies like The Girl from Rio and Kiss Me, Monster. Like those films it’s a sexy comic book-style spy spoof. Blue Rita runs a kind of combination night club/up-market strip joint/high-class brothel, but she and her all-lesbian staff deal in other commodities besides sex. Their main business is freelance espionage, blackmailing and kidnapping clients attracted by the girls. These unfortunate men are then chained up and doused in mysterious green goo. This goo has the effect of raising their libidos to an unbearable level, and they are then taunted and tempted by offers of sex by Blue Rita’s beautiful naked lesbians until they are prepared to provide whatever classified information they possess.

Perhaps unwisely, Rita has been selling this information to more than one intelligence service, and she has made powerful enemies. When she kidnaps a European boxing champion (who apparently has links to the intelligence community) things start to get out of hand. To add to her difficulties, she appears to have a traitor in her own organisation, and one of her girls seems to have been disloyal enough to fall in love. The plot becomes steadily more tortuous, but if you’re trying to make sense of the plot then you’re missing out on the point, and most of the fun, of this movie.

As in all good spy spoofs, and indeed all good spy movies, the plot is too complicated to make any real sense. It’s all about style, and Blue Rita has style to burn. In fact it’s an object lesson in Jess Franco’s ability to make a visually interesting movie on a minuscule budget. Very stark, mostly white, very bare sets, lots of bright primary colours, outrageous costumes (on the rare occasions when the women are actually wearing anything at all) and daft gadgets - it all enhances the comic-book feel. The fight scenes are absurdly silly, but again this adds to the comic-book ambience, and adds a camp quality somewhat reminiscent of the old 60s Batman TV series.

While l’m a huge fan of Jess Franco, I have to admit that in the 70s some of his films pushed the sexual violence and sadism angles to a bit of an extreme. That criticism can’t be levelled at Blue Rita. There’s an enormous amount of nudity and lots of sex, and it’s sometimes kinky, but it’s all done in a light-hearted fun way. This is one of Uncle Jess’s sunniest and most playful movies. Night club settings, especially when combined with kinky sex, always appealed to him and brought out the best in him as a film-maker, and this movie is no exception. Blue Rita is pure entertainment, done with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and it’s one of Franco’s most engaging and delightful movies.

Saturday 4 October 2008

The Other (1972)

The Other takes us back to an apparently idyllic world, New England in the 30s. Lots of beautiful countryside, picturesque old buildings, a world in which people helped their neighbours and decency and traditional family values reigned supreme. But of course, as always, decency and traditional family values are simply an illusion, and evil lurks within.

The Perry twins, Niles and Holland, live on the family farm with their mother, their aunt and uncle, and their grandmother. Their grandmother came from Russia, and she has some slightly odd beliefs. She has taught them The Game. The Game is a kind of exercise of the imagination, a way of projecting oneself into the consciousness of other living things. Is it simply imagination though? Or is it something more? And why does the twins’ mother never leave her room? And why does she cry so much? What is the strange secret that binds these twins together?

Evil children movies are always fun, and this is a particularly good example of the breed. Directed by Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Thomas Tryon (from his own novel), this 1972 production is a great piece of subtle horror. There are great (and very very creepy) performances by the real-life twins playing the movie twins. There are no shadows or obvious gothic touches in the way the movie is filmed. It’s all bright sunshine, cheerful colours, and as pretty as a picture postcard, and early on you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto the set of The Waltons or a Disney movie. This visual style makes the gradual revelation of the horrors beneath the surface even more effective. It doesn’t look gothic, but this movie is gothic on the inside.

While it’s not quite in the absolute top rank of horror movies, it’s still compelling and very entertaining viewing, and well worth a look. The lack of extras on the DVD is a little disappointing, but if you can find it at a reasonable price it’s highly recommended, and it’s definitely worth a rental.

Come Drink with Me (1966)

Come Drink with Me (Da zui xia) is one of the legendary movies in the canon of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. This Shaw Brothers production is also arguably the first of the great Chicks with Swords epics. Dating from 1966 it naturally can’t compete with later movies of this type when it comes to breath-taking action sequences. It does however have its own very definite charms.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this genre but to me it seems even more stylised than later Hong Kong action movies. It has a very operatic feel to it. The characters are types rather than people. The sets look artificial. That’s not to say the movie looks cheap or shoddy. Far from it. It looks magnificent. The artificiality appears to be deliberate, especially the scenes in the house near the waterfall. At one point the heroine is supposed to be disguised as a man. In fact she’s not disguised at all and still looks completely female but the other characters are all fooled by her. Again, all very operatic and stylised, and rather appealing.

The action sequences are neither as fast nor as spectacular as later movies, but they have a wonderful elegance to them. There are also several songs, adding a wonderful touch of strangeness to the proceedings!

Cheng Pei-pei stars as Golden Swallow, a famous and exceptionally formidable swordswoman whose task it is to bring to justice a gang of notorious bandits who have kidnapped the son of the provincial governor. This unfortunate young man just happens to be Golden Swallow’s brother. The bandits are demanding the release of one of their own men. Golden Swallow manages to find herself an unlikely ally in the form of a disreputable alcoholic beggar known as Drunken Cat. The bandits discover to their cost that there is more to this shabby beggar than meets the eye. There’s also an evil Buddhist abbot, and an army of women warriors.

The plot is simple to the point of minimalism, but this is a movie that relies on style, and style is something it has in abundance. I caught up with this movie on cable on World Movies although I believe it’s also available on DVD. The print screened by World Movies looks absolutely superb. I found myself loving this movie.

Friday 3 October 2008

Pleasures of a Woman (1972)

Pleasures of a Woman is one of a series of early 70s softcore/sexploitation movies released by Seduction Cinema as part of their Retro Seduction line, with each of the 70s movies paired with a modern remake. It’s an interesting idea and undoubtedly a good marketing idea. Not surprisingly in this case what it demonstrates most clearly is the superiority of the 70s original.

The 1972 Pleasures of a Woman, directed by Nick Millard under the name Nick Phillips, is a tale of erotic obsession and sensual excess. A young woman attends the funeral of her uncle, who has left her a considerable sum of money. She meets his widow, a woman in her 30s who is apparently regarded with some suspicion by the rest of the family, and a lesbian relationship rapidly develops. It turns out that the younger woman is not so innocent after all, and is more than willing to be seduced. Unfortunately she’s seduced by her aunt’s drug habits as well.

There’s no synchronised sound, just a voice-over narration, which does have the effect of increasing the feeling of alienation (as well as presumably saving money). The jazzy soundtrack has a similar effect. The movie is remarkable for the extraordinary emphasis on shoe fetishism! I had no idea you could do so many wicked things with shoes and boots! It gives the movie a kinky edge that is typical of 60s and 70s sexploitation, an atmosphere of overheated and forbidden passions. The movies of Nick Millard came rather late in the sexploitation cycle and they represent a move away from the violence of the roughies of the late 60s. There’s no violence at all in this one. The emphasis is on the hedonism of the hippie era and its accompanying lifestyle of excess.

It’s also interesting in being a movie that is very focused on women. It tries to be a movie about female sexuality rather than just a male fantasy about female sexuality. There’s an attempt to present lesbianism as more than just a male fantasy. The attraction between the two women is much more plausible than is the case with most of the lesbian sex in sexploitation and softcore porn movies of its era. And despite the absence of dialogue the two women are portrayed as real people rather than just naked bodies. Which is not to say that the movie doesn’t have its share of naked bodies. If there’s enough existential alienation to please modern connoisseurs of this genre there’s also more than enough nudity and sex to satisfy the grindhouse audience of its day. In fact there’s a truly prodigious amount of sex, much of it with a decidedly kinky edge.

The acting is adequate, with Lynn Harris being quite good as the younger woman. The older woman is played by sexploitation legend Uschi Digard. Not the world’s greatest actress, but she had a definite presence, not to mention a spectacular figure (she appeared in a couple of Russ Meyer’s films).

The 2002 remake makes an attempt to recapture the feel of the original, and even retains the shoe fetishism. It doesn’t completely succeed but it is at least a genuine attempt to reproduce the flavour of the original. Its main problem is that the original was a product of its time and you just can’t recapture that time.

The original 1972 version probably never looked any better than it does on this DVD, and the graininess actually adds to the sleazy ambience. And the sleazy ambience is what it’s all about, so that’s a definite plus. Nick Millard’s movies have a very definite flavour of their own and Seduction Cinema are to be commended for making at least a handful of his movies available to modern audiences. If you’re a fan of sexploitation you’ll find they’re very much worth checking out.

Thursday 2 October 2008

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)

Many ageing Hollywood female stars found new career opportunities in the 1960s playing in horror movies. Two of the best opportunities for such actresses were provided by Hammer Films in 1965, with Bette Davis playing the lead role in The Nanny and Tallulah Bankhead starring in Die! Die! My Darling! (also known as Fanatic).

In Die! Die! My Darling! Stefanie Powers is Patricia, a young woman about to be married. She’d been engaged before, but her fiance had died. Arriving in England she decides it might be a nice thing to do to pay a visit to the mother of her deceased fiance, a Mrs Trefoil. This turns out not to be a good idea after all. The mother (played by Bankhead) is not just a religious fanatic. She’s a religious fanatic who believes that remarriage, even if your spouse has died, is a terrible sin. She also believes that betrothal is the same as marriage in the eyes of the Almighty, and so therefore Patricia was as good as married to her son, and thus has no right to marry anyone else. In fact Patricia is extremely fortunate, since the death of her husband-to-be has spared both of them from the horrors of a physical consummation of the marriage, and they can remain pure for all eternity.

When Patricia doesn’t quite see things in this light the stage is set for a battle of wills, with Mrs Trefoil prepared to go to any lengths at all to save Patricia from the heinous sin she has been contemplating. Bankhead, as you might expect, goes right over-the-top, and she’s superb. Peter Vaughan and Yootha Joyce add extra creepiness to the mix as Mrs Trefoil’s sinister and slightly deranged servants. Powers is in danger of being out-gunned in the acting department, but she gives it her best shot and she’s quite adequate.

This movie has a slightly European feel to it, with a fairly extravagant and very effective use of colour. Director Silvio Narizzano does a fine job, keeping the plot moving along and showing considerable flair while allowing Bankhead every opportunity to overact outrageously. This is another movie that demonstrates the ability of Hammer Films inn its prime to make great contemporary horror chillers as well as their better-known gothic horrors. A terrific movie. The Region 2 DVD lacks extras, but it’s very inexpensive and it looks great.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963)

The Virgin of Nuremberg is mostly your standard 1960s Italian gothic horror movie, but with one or two interesting twists. New bride Mary arrives at her husband’s gothic castle in Germany to find that her new home comes complete with a fully equipped torture chamber in the dungeon. It appears that one of her husband’s ancestors had a particularly evil reputation, and earned the nickname The Punisher for his fondness for torture. This is disturbing enough, but then she starts seeing a mysterious figure prowling the castle, bodies start turning up, and the vaguely sinister housekeeping starts mumbling about The Punisher’s return. Could it be that he really has come back?

Variations on this basic plot turn up in several other Italian gothic horror flicks of this period, but the twist here is the way The Punisher’s story is tied in to more modern history, specifically involving the Nazis.

Director Antonio Margheriti was no Mario Bava, but he was a highly competent craftsman with a sound sense of visual composition and a genuine flair for the gothic, and he generally (as in this case) keeps things moving along at a fairly brisk clip. The presence of Christopher Lee as a sinister and badly scarred family retainer with a possibly dubious military career behind him adds to the general atmosphere of foreboding. Rossana Podestà is an appealing enough heroine, and the supporting cast is perfectly capable. The movie is surprisingly gruesome for 1963.

The Shriek Show DVD release lacks extras but looks and sounds terrific. It’s definitely worth a look if you enjoy 60s eurohorror.