Friday 28 November 2008

The Brain (1962)

Based on Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan's Brain, the 1962 British-German co-production The Brain is a intriguing hybrid, mixing science fiction and a dash of horror with the popular German Edgar Wallace krimi or mystery films.

An aircraft carrying a fabulously wealthy and powerful financier, Max Holt, crashes near an isolated farmhouse. His body is smashed beyond hope of recovery, but when found he is still clinging tenaciously to life. As it happens the farmhouse is being used as a laboratory by two scientists, Dr Peter Corrie (Peter van Eyck) and Dr. Frank Shears (Bernard Lee). They have been conducting experiments on the brain, and have managed to keep the brains of animals alive outside the body, in a tank of chemical nutrients, for considerable lengths of time. The fact that Max Holt’s body has been hopelessly shattered but his brain is still intact and functioning proves too much of a temptation and the two scientists remove the brain and attempt, successfully, to keep it alive.

It turn out that Max Holt’s brain is rather too much alive, and he begins to exert a strange influence over Dr Corrie. Dr Corrie finds himself with many of Holt’s memories, experiencing his thoughts, and to some extent under his control. And he also finds himself caught up in the unravelling of a mystery - was Holt the victim of an accident, or was he murdered?

The basic idea is one that you would expect to be exploited as a vehicle for a science fiction horror movie, but (like the German krimis) it plays out as much more of a murder mystery. And it’s a reasonably effective mystery film.

Peter van Eyck and Bernard Lee make an interesting pair of mad scientists, interesting because they don’t play their parts quite as you’d expect, and they end up fulfilling both the hero and mad scientist roles. Anne Heywood is nicely sinister and enigmatic as the dead (well, mostly dead) businessman’s daughter, while Cecil Parker is fun as a somewhat dubiously honest lawyer.

With Freddie Francis directing the movie is well-paced and quite stylish, and is not at all the kind of low-budget Z-grade shocker that the title and the premise would suggest. It’s actually a rather decent, slightly unconventional and very entertaining little movie, much better than I’d anticipated, and definitely worth a look.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Motor Psycho (1965)

Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho, made earlier the same year, can be seen as a kind of dry run for his 1965 masterpiece Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The formula is more or less the same, but with the genders reversed.

Three drifters on motorcycles suddenly appear, and begin terrorising the locals in a remote desert community. After raping a vet’s wife they encounter an old guy in a truck, accompanied by his new young bride Ruby (played by Meyer regular Haji). As the violence continues to escalate, Ruby and the vet find themselves in pursuit of the three drifters.

It has very much the feel of a western, with motorcycles and trucks in place of horses and covered wagons. The desolate setting is used very effectively. There’s the usual Meyer mix of insanely overheated lust and violence, of men resorting to violence to cover up their personal inadequacies, of melodrama and weirdness. The movie has a similar look to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! but with a slightly less frenetic editing style.

Like most of Meyer’s movies it features sudden outbursts of extreme violence, as lusts and repressions and resentments build up to create a pressure cooker that must inevitably explode. And like most of his films, it has interesting and confronting things to say about the violence of the society it depicts. It’s also notable for being one of the first films to deal with the dark side of the US involvement in Vietnam, with the leader of the hoodlums being a psychotic Vietnam vet spiralling ever downwards into increasing madness, still waiting for the choppers that will never arrive.

It’s not quite as successful as Pussycat but it’s still very much worth seeing. These two films, along with Lorna and the very underrated Mudhoney, complete Meyer’s early cycle of films dealing with repression and violence. The Region 2 DVD pairs Motor Psycho with Good Morning... and Goodbye! The transfer looks wonderful, and does ample justice to Meyer’s stunning black-and-white cinematography.

Monday 24 November 2008

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

One of the saddest things about our present age is the disappearance of the giant bug movie. The golden age of giant bugs was of course the 50s, but they survived in small numbers until the 70s (Empire of the Ants being one of the last).

In most cases giant bugs were the result of nuclear radiation, but The Deadly Mantis presents an interesting variation. This praying mantis the size of a medium-sized airliner isn’t a mutation, it’s a naturally occurring species. Or at least it was a naturally occurring species millions of years ago, and this particular example as frozen in the ice in the polar wastes of northern Canada until it was awakened by a volcanic eruption.

Having been revived, the gigantic insect starts heading south, toward the tropics, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Both the US Navy and the Air Force send up jet fighters to deal with this insectoid menace, but unfortunately their gunnery is so bad they can’t hit an insect the size of a medium-sized airliner even at close range.

Luckily there’s a scientist who eventually figures out what they’re dealing with. Naturally he has a glamorous female assistant. And naturally she falls for one of the brave military types battling the ravenous and murderous bug.

After assorted aircraft, buses, trains, buildings and national monuments have been demolished the mammoth insect is wounded and takes shelter in the Manhattan Tunnel.

If you like 50s giant bug movies you’ll like this one. It’s the sort of thing you have to be in the mod for, but if you are in that mood you’ll have fun with this one.

Sunday 23 November 2008

The Secret of the Red Orchid (1962)

The Secret of the Red Orchid (Das Rätsel der roten Orchidee) is one of those wonderfully outrageous krimis produced by Rialto Films in Germany, starting in the early 60s. Mostly based on the works of Edgar Wallace (who apparently had an enormous following in Germany) they’re a mix of comedy and murder mystery, often with horror and gothic elements as well. And totally insane plots.

In this one Chicago gangsters have started a kidnapping racket in London, targeting the very wealthy. To combat this threat Scotland Yard has the assistance of a gun-toting two-fisted macho crimefighter from the FBI, played by Christopher Lee (yes, really). Also involved in the fight against these dangerous hoodlums is an eccentric butler, played by Eddi Arent (who provided the comedy relief in most of these films). There are numerous shootouts, mostly involving machine-guns, and lots of sorted mayhem. There’s a romantic sub-plot as well, and various shenanigans to do with wills, and a long-lost heir to a fortune with a passion for orchids. Trying to keep track of what’s going on isn’t easy, but it also isn’t necessary. The trick is to sit back and just enjoy the madness.

It’s incredibly badly dubbed, which adds considerably to the fun. Christopher Lee is as good as you’d expect him to be playing an American FBI man. Klaus Kinski plays one of the many rival gangsters, and is delightfully hammy. Eddi Arent is the kind of comic relief that can so often be annoying in the extreme, but in these films his performances actually work, adding yet another layer of weirdness. There are plenty of faces that will be familiar to fans of European exploitation cinema, including Adrian Hoven and the lovely Marisa Mell (who was the girlfriend of Diabolik in Mario Bava’s glorious comic book spoof Danger: Diabolik!).

The Secret of the Red Orchid is available on a double-sided DVD from Retromedia, paired with another krimi, The Monster of London City. Picture and sound quality are quite reasonable, and the package represents great value for anyone who loves off-best movies. Lots of outrageous fun!

Saturday 22 November 2008

Daughter of Horror (AKA Dementia, 1955)

In the early 1950s writer-director John Parker completed his one and only feature film, a very strange little flick called Dementia. He tried to get it released on the art-house circuit in New York, but the New York censors had other ideas. It’s not so much any explicit content that was the problem as the general air of seediness, sexual obsession and sexual deviance.

A few years later another attempt was made to release the film under the title Daughter of Horror, with added voiceover narration (the original
Dementia has no dialogue at all). The narration, by Ed McMahon, is very campy but it does nothing to lessen the impact of this very disturbing little movie.

The obvious influences on the film are German Expressionism and surrealism, but there’s another more obvious influence that most people seem to overlook - the dream sequences in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. But Dementia is much more daring, with no clear demarcation whatsoever between dream sequences and reality. The entire movie may or may not be a dream.

The central character is known only as The Gamine, and the movie is a glimpse inside the mind of this clearly insane young woman. Her mind is filled with visions of her father and mother, and of a police officer who looks exactly like her father and who is pursuing her for a murder she may or may not have committed. She is picked up by a wealthy debauched middle-aged man, and is forced to watch him gorging himself on a roast chicken dinner. This assignation ends in a murder. She may also have murdered her father, and her father may have murdered her mother, but there is absolutely no way to judge the reality or otherwise of any of these events.

Visually it’s reminiscent of a surrealist vision of film noir. The cinematography was done by William C. Thompson, a veteran of countless exploitation movies. His career included several collaborations with the one and only Ed Wood, but this has nothing in common with Wood’s movies. This is both an art-house movie and a horror movie, a weird mix of exploitation and avant-garde. There’s some great jazz on the soundtrack as well. The cast are mostly complete unknowns. Ben Roseman is very creepy as both her father and the cop, and Adrienne Barrett contributes an unsettling performance as The Gamine.

You can find this movie at Although it’s rather dark it’s quite an acceptable print, and it’s probably supposed to be very dark anyway! A very strange but very intriguing and oddly effective move, and well worth a look. I believe both versions of the movie have been released on DVD by Kino.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Nurse Sherri (1978)

Some movies achieve dramatic tension through the brilliance of the director, or the skill of the editing. Nurse Sherri (also released under the title The Possession of Nurse Sherri) achieves dramatic tension through the sheer incoherence of its plot. You have no idea what’s going to happen yet, probably because the film-maker had no idea either. In spite of which, it has to be said that Nurse Sherri is strangely entertaining. OK, it’s the sort of entertainment value you get in an Ed Wood movie, but I happen to enjoy Ed Wood’s movies.

This film opens with some kind of religious cult trying to bring one of its members back from the dead. The charismatic leader of the cult then collapses with a heart attack. He’s taken to hospital, but refuses treatment, putting his faith in his own powers instead. Naturally he soon dies. Shortly afterwards one of the nurses at the hospital, the Nurse Sheri of the title, starts behaving oddly. We eventually discover she’s been possessed by the cult leader, and she sets out to take revenge on the medical staff.

There’s also a blind football player whose mother was a voodoo priestess, so he understands what’s happening. And there are Sherri’s two nurse friends, Tara and Beth, whose approach to nursing is a little unconventional. They seem to have considerable faith in the healing powers of sex, and whether their patients are actually getting better or not they’re certainly not complaining.

Towards the end, rather disappointingly, the plot starts to make some sense. There’s plenty of mayhem, and a small amount of gore. The special effects used in the possession scene are the highlight of the movie. They’re astonishingly bad, but they’re very amusing in a freaked-out psychedelic 60s way! Which is a little odd, since the movie was made in 1978.

The male actors in the movie are uniformly terrible, but they’re terrible in an endearing B-movie kind of way. The actresses playing Sheri and her two nurse buddies approach their task with the same lack of skill but with much more enthusiasm. Jill Jacobson as Sherri is so bad that her performance ends up actually working, providing the weirdness quotient that the movie needs.

It’s a very bad movie indeed, but it’s great fun if you’re prepared to embrace its awfulness and wallow in its campness. It’s released in a package with another movie from the same director, Al Adamson, a horror western called Five Bloody Graves. Two versions of Nurse Sherri are included, a sexploitation version (the one I watched) and a horror version.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Cool It, Baby (1967)

Cool It, Baby is a truly jaw-dropping little gem released by Something Weird as part of a three-movie pack. Directed by Lou Campa and dating from 1967, this ultra-low budget oddity is immensely entertaining, although probably not in the way its makers intended.

It’s an expose of a white slavery/vice/blackmail racket run by a mysterious woman named Monica. The ringleaders are on trial on vice charges and the story is told in flashbacks. A woman tells how she was lured into posing for salacious photos by promises of help in starting her film career, then other unfortunate victims of this racket tell their stories. Other witnesses include Monica’s male partner-in-crime and the cop investigating the case.

The film-makers couldn’t afford to build a court-room set and couldn’t get access to a real court-room, so they cunningly improvised. They just used an ordinary office! In fact I don’t think it’s even an office. I think it’s just a room in somebody’s house that happens to contain a desk and a filing cabinet. It certainly adds a touch of the surreal to the proceedings.

The flashback sequences lack synchronised sound but are accompanied by incredibly talky and meandering voiceover narration. The whole movie has some of the feel of an Ed Wood movie, and some of the feel of the movies Paul Morrissey did for Andy Warhol in the 60s, with perhaps a dash of Doris Wishman as well. It’s tempting to think that there’s an element of parody in this film, but 60s exploitation movies were so strange anyway that it’s impossible to be sure. I’m inclined to think they were actually being serious.

And just when you think it can’t get any weirder, out of nowhere at the halfway point there’s a satanic ritual, as if the producers suddenly decided that what this film really needs is a satanic ritual sub-plot, because who doesn’t love satanic rituals? So now you have something that is like Rosemary’s Baby meets Olga’s Girls. Except that the torture scenes aren’t shocking, they’re just strange. And then there’s the orgy scene, in which dome of the participants have been so carried way by passion that they’re stripped to their underwear. Who knew that such debaucheries existed in our apparently civilised societies? The attempts to add spice to the mix by introducing elements of kinkiness increase the surreal qualities of the movie. Or perhaps sexual kinks involving licorice and scissors are quite common, and I’ve simply lead a very sheltered life.

Cool It, Baby is really quite insane, but you can’t help being mesmerised by it. There’s a crazy jazz score, an essential elements in films of this kind. Although there’s some very mild nudity it’s really one of the most unsexy movies you’ll ever see, but it’s unsexy in a fascinating way, as if the people who made the movie knew nothing whatever about sex except a few things they’d read in books. Nobody behaves as if they’re actually in sexual situations. It’s a very bizarre movie but in its own unique way it is entertaining. They definitely don’t make movies like this any more.

The DVD transfer is surprisingly good. The image quality is very crisp. And there are still two movies to go on this DVD. If they’re half as strange as this one I’ll be quite content.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Teenage Doll (1957)

Roger Corman’s 1957 opus Teenage Doll is fairly typical of low-budget 50s juvenile delinquent movies. Barbara is a good girl involved with a bad boy, the leader of a teen gang called the Vandals. He’s also been playing footsie with a girl, Nan, from the Black Widows, but the Black Widows are the female counterparts of the Tarantulas, deadly rivals of the Vandals. The jealousy between Barbara and Nan has led to a confrontation, and as the movie opens Nan is lying dead on the pavement after falling off a roof. Did she fall or was she pushed?

Barbara is now on the run from the vengeful Black Widows. She can’t ask her father for help, because he’s a total square and can’t imagine that his daughter would dare to date an unsuitable young man. And Barbara is also on the run from the cops

Like most Corman productions it manages to look slicker than its low budget would suggest, and the pace doesn’t let up. The acting is pretty bad, but it’s bad in that wonderfully entertaining B-movie way, all very earnest. There’s a particularly bizarre scene where Barbara is being looked after by one of the Vandals, and he suddenly gets all Method Acting on her. He starts coming on like a bargain store James Dean. It’s the sort of weirdness that makes exploitation movies so much fun.

The movie comes complete with a wonderful intro informing us that the picture we are about to see isn’t pretty. If it was pretty, it wouldn’t be true! And apparently shocking events like the ones depicted in the film could be happening in your city. Within the limitations of what you could show in the 50s it manages to be reasonably sleazy, and there’s the expected hard-bitten dialogue and teenage cynicism.

It’s not quite as bizarrely entertaining as movies like The Violent Years or Girl Gang, but it’s still a good deal of fun. And the DVD from Image looks superb. A must for fans of juvenile delinquent movies.

Monday 17 November 2008

Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961)

When a movie has a title like Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory you do tend to expect the worst. Actually it’s not an American teen movie but a Italian gothic horror flick from 1961. It was originally released with the disappointingly sensible title Lycanthropus.

A new teacher, Dr Julian Olcott, arrives at a girls’ reform school. This is actually a kind of up-market girls’ reform school, where the intention really is to reform rather than punish. Dr Olcott was a medical doctor but was struck off the medical register when his experiments on lycanthropy went wrong and resulted in a patient’s death. He’s been given the chance to make a new start, but has he put his interest in lycanthropy behind him?

When one of the girls is found dead, slashed to ribbons by a savage creature of some kind, it certainly appears that werewolves may be lurking in the nearby woods. Or possibly lurking in the school itself! The school has a creepy caretaker with a withered arm, the sort of sinister figure you always encounter in horror movies, and then there’s Sir Alfred Whiteman, and he’s a pretty sinister figure as well, and looks like he might be a candidate for the role of mad scientist.

Dr Olcott befriends one of the pupils, Priscilla, who’d been a close friend of the girl who’d been killed. Priscilla has uncovered evidence of blackmail, and it seems that the school harbours all sorts of unsavoury secrets.

It’s actually not a bad little horror B-movie. The plot doesn’t develop in quite the predictable manner you expect, and there’s a reasonably effective gothic atmosphere. The acting is adequate, and the movie is well-paced and competently directed. The weakness of most werewolf movies is the werwolf make-up, but in this film it’s done moderately well. On the whole it provides perfectly decent entertainment. There aren’t a huge number of great werewolf movies, so if you’re a fan of the genre, or of 1960s Italian gothic horror in general, it’s worth checking out.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Having enjoyed enormous financial success with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, in 1962 Hammer turned their attentions to another remake of a classic horror film, The Phantom of the Opera. The result was a rare commercial flop for the British horror studio.

It’s not hard to see why the movie failed to attract audiences. Hammer’s early horror films succeeded in part by upping the levels of violence and blood-letting. They may seem tame by later standards, but in the 50s they were considered quite bloodthirsty. With The Phantom of the Opera they took the opposite approach. The violence is considerably toned down compared to earlier film versions, and the emphasis is very much on the romance. It’s not really a horror movie at all; it’s a gothic love story. If you accept it on that level it’s actually a very good movie indeed, but it’s not the sort of thing drive-in audiences were going to flock to see in 1962.

With Arthur Grant as director of photography, Bernard Robinson as production designer and Terence Fisher as director you’d expect this to be a very good-looking movie. And it is. In purely visual terms it’s possibly the best thing Fisher ever did. And Fisher’s direction (never less than extremely competent) becomes quite inspired at times. There’s a considerable emphasis on the opera itself, which ties in very well with the overall feel of the movie. It has more of the tone of the 1932 version of The Mummy than of a typical Hammer horror film.

The lack of a major box office attraction like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing is more of an advantage than a drawback since it gives more space for the other actors. Herbert Lom as the phantom, Michael Gough as the deliciously villainous (and exceptionally lecherous) Lord Ambrose d’Arcy and Thorley Walters as the director of the opera house, all give strong and highly entertaining performances.

Terence Fisher was known for presenting good and evil as clear-cut opposing choices which could have caused problems with the somewhat ambiguous character of the phantom. The problem is solved by making the phantom a completely sympathetic character, a tragic hero in fact, and by making Lord d’Arcy the villain of the piece.

This is one of the most underrated of Hammer’s major productions, a lush and outrageously romantic offering and a misunderstood and neglected gem. The transfer on the DVD in the Universal Hammer boxed set looks fabulous. It’s a movie that needs and deserves the best possible presentation, and it gets it.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)

The Italian-French co-production Hercules and the Captive Women (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide) is a fairly typical example of the classic peplum - or sword & sandal - genre of the 50s and 60s. Hercules and his friend Androcles set off on a ship to save Greece from a mysterious invading force. They are shipwrecked, and Hercules finds himself on a small island where a young woman is being held captive by the evil Proteus. She is in fact the only captive woman in the movie, but I guess they thought Hercules and the Captive Woman would have been a less impressive title.

Despite his shape-shifting abilities Proteus is no match for Hercules. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of the Queen of Atlantis, so Atlantis is the next stop on the journey. the Queen of Atlantis isn’t quite as overjoyed as one might expect to have her daughter safely returned to her. It transpires that Atlantis has some dark secrets. There’s a priest who still worships Uranus, the predecessor of Zeus, and there’s a cavern in which some of the blood of Uranus is preserved, blood with extraordinary powers.

Hercules and his pals(including his son and a dwarf named Timotheus) have the usual adventures that you expect in this sort of film. There are some reasonable action scenes, there’s a touch of romance, and there’s treachery and confusion as the evil queen exercises her diabolical powers.

Reg Park is a bit on the wooden side as Hercules, but that’s no great problem. There’s plenty of adventure, there’s a beautiful but evil queen, an army of inhuman super-warriors, and some reasonable (by 1960 standards) special effects. It delivers fun lightweight entertainment, which is all it ever sets out to do, and if you’re a fan of this genre or of old-fashioned adventure movies you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

The Devil Came from Akasava (1971)

The Edgar Wallace krimis that were such a mainstay of the German film industry in the 60s had just about petered out by the end of that decade, but the early 70s saw a couple of unconventional late entries in that cycle. One of these was Jess Franco’s The Devil Came from Akasava (Der Teufel kam aus Akasava), bassed on Edgar Wallace’s story The Akasava.

Given Franco’s flair for sex and psychedelia and his instinctive grasp of pulp/trash aesthetics he was really the obvious person to give the series a 1970s spin, and The Devil Came from Akasava manages to be both a genuine Edgar Wallace krimi and a genuine Jess Franco film. This is one of Franco’s light-hearted caper movies, very much in the style of The Girl from Rio, and this is a side of Franco’s film-making that I’ve always enjoyed. This one is a total romp.

The plot is insanely convoluted, but that was always a feature of the Wallace krimis. In a fictitious African country a scientist has discovered a mineral that can transform any base metal into gold, but unfortunately the mineral also produces deadly radiation. The mineral is in fact a classic Hitchcock-style McGuffin - it doesn’t matter what it does, what matters is that absolutely everybody wants to get their hands on it, including Scotland Yard, the secret services of several European nations, and assorted crooks and diabolical criminal masterminds. The chase for this rock triggers off a bewildering series of murders and disappearances, and conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, the action taking place in London and in the steamy jungles of Akasava.

One of those seeking this priceless but dangerous rock is glamorous female secret agent Jane Morgan, played by the wondrous Soledad Miranda. It’s one of her lighter roles, but she’s terrific. And she gets to do not one but two erotic night-club routines, these being always a highlight of a Franco film. She also gets to wear some fabulously groovy clothes, and of course she also gets to take them off. Being Soledad Miranda, she manages to be equally sexy clothed and unclothed, and she makes a thoroughly delightful super-spy. Franco himself plays an Italian spy, while plenty of Franco regulars pop up as well, including the great Howard Vernon.

As in most of the later krimis there’s a definite James Bond influence. The comic relief that was always a feature of this genre is largely dispensed with here, which is perhaps just as well. The tone is very much tongue-in-cheek though, and there’s plenty of action, bizarre plot twists, glamour and sex. It’s an entertaining cocktail and Franco delivers a movie that really provides a great deal of enjoyment. A must for all Francophiles, fans of the German krimis, and anyone who enjoys outrageous spy spoofs and high camp fun.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Dr Jekyll and his Women (1981)

Dr Jekyll and his Women (Docteur Jekyll et les femmes) is Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic tale The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The biggest problem with adaptations of Stevenson’s novella has always been finding a way to do the transformation scenes convincingly and without Mr Hyde looking like a shambling neanderthal. Borowczyk solves the problem by using two different actors, with Udo Kier as Dr Jekyll and Gérard Zalcberg as Hyde.

Borowczyk’s movie is more overtly sexual than the more familiar Hollywood versions, and raises the level of violence and hatred displayed by Hyde as well. It’s also a less sympathetic portrayal of Jekyll, who is motivated more openly by a desire to unleash his darkest desires and to use his Hyde persona to enjoy doing evil. There’s more stress (despite the use of two actors) on the idea of Hyde as being very much an integral part of Jekyll’s personality.

With the action taking place almost entirely within a single house the film has an intensely claustrophobic feel, emphasising both the sexual repression of the era and the catastrophic consequences of Hyde’s violent overturning of that repression. The transformations into Hyde are achieved by Jekyl’s immersing himself in a bathtub filled with a chemical soup. It seems a little ridiculous the first time you see it, but becomes increasingly disturbing.

As much as I adore Udo Kier, it’s Howard Vernon and Patrick Magee who steal this film. Vernon is Dr Lanyon, who taunts Jekyll with the supposed absurdities of his theories of transcendental medicine. Patrick Magee is completely over-the-top (actually he always was completely over-the-top but this time he’s even more so) as an elderly general with a somewhat bizarre relationship with his daughter.

Having Hyde hunting down various members of the household with a bow and poisoned arrows (brought back from Africa by the general as a rather odd wedding present for Jekyll) adds a particularly bizarre touch, but it does convey the idea of Hyde as being a kind of barbarian at war with civilisation). This film combines slightly kinky eroticism and horror with some very definite elements of farce. It makes for an intriguing and unusual mélange. It’s a stylish and erotic film, and certainly takes an interestingly different approach.

Monday 10 November 2008

Swedish Wildcats (1972)

The fact that writer-director Joe Sarno’s 1972 film Swedish Wildcats (also known as Every Afternoon) is released on DVD by Seduction Cinema could lead you to expect that you’re about to see a moderately sleazy sexploitation opus. If so, you’d be quite wrong. What you actually get is an outrageously romantic and rather poignant love story, and an interesting and sensitive look at illusions and why we need them.

Susanna (Cia Löwgren) and Karin (Solveig Andersson) are sisters. They work in a Copenhagen brothel run by their slightly dotty and extremely colourful Aunt Margaretha (Diana Dors). Susanna spends her afternoons wandering about the city day dreaming about being a ballerina. In fact she’s just about convinced herself she really is a ballerina. One day in the park she meets a nice young man named Peter, and they fall in love. He’s a test pilot involved in an ultra-secret government project, but of course he’s really no more a test pilot than she is a ballerina.

They both cling desperately to their fantasy lives, but in both cases they’re about to have an unexpected and not entirely pleasant confrontation with reality. Peter’s nemesis is his boss, Gerhard, an obnoxious thug mixed up in drug smuggling who also happens to be a client of Aunt Margaretha’s brothel. And Aunt Margaretha’s attempts to make her establishment the most celebrated in Denmark lead her to involve the two sisters in ever more dangerous sexual game-playing.

In the interview included on the DVD Sarno claims that his Scandinavian crew on this film were among the best in the business. Looking at the results they achieved on a very low budget, he may well be right. It certainly doesn’t look like a typical low-budget movie. The one technical weakness is the soundtrack, but even that is so delightfully 1970s that you end up growing quite fond of it Well you do if you’re a connoisseur of 1970s cinema!

Two things make this film stand out from the crowd. The first is the surreal quality to the brothel scenes. Aunt Margaretha believes in giving her customers a real show. Dressed up to resemble a circus ringmaster she introduces live performances by her girls before the clients get down to the serious business of choosing a partner for the evening. The scene with the girls in wild animal make-up and costumes is wonderfully bizarre, ending with the customers pursuing them with gigantic butterfly nets. Several of Aunt Margaretha’s other shows involve sado-masochistic elements, something that was forced on the very reluctant Sarno by his producer. If anything they probably strengthen the movie, making the attempts at escape (both literal and in the world of the imagination) by Karin and Susanna more understandable.

The movie’s second great strength is Diana Dors. This very underrated actress gives an extraordinary performance. She’s very funny, at times menacing, more often manipulative, but she’s always delightful. The acting overall is quite decent.

This is the sort of movie that could only have been made in the 70s, which is why I love the movies of that period so much. Sarno obviously cares about his characters, and we end up caring as well. Even Aunt Margaretha is strangely likable. An odd little film, but worth a rental.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is I think one the best of Hammer Films’ horror movies. It has Terence Fisher, the best of the Hammer directors, at the helm. And it has Peter Cushing at the very top of his form. Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein is chillingly evil because he isn’t just mad - he is absolutely convinced that he is right and that anyone who stands in his way is standing in the way of progress, science and the happiness of the human race. So he feels that he doesn’t just have the right to destroy anyone who gets in his way and to mercilessly exploit anyone who can be useful to him – he has a positive duty to do these things. He’s a much more convincing figure of evil than Christopher Lee’s Dracula and he’s one of the reasons the Hammer Frankenstein films are, overall, better than their Dracula films.

The other reason the Frankenstein films are better is that the formula is more flexible. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed Baron Frankenstein is working to develop his technique for transplanting brains. He makes use of a young doctor who works at an asylum. The information he needs to perfect his technique is locked in the brain of a former colleague who is now hopelessly insane.

The supporting cast is excellent with Freddie Jones being particularly good. Art director Bernard Robinson does a particularly good job in this one, and with Fisher’s sure touch as a director the movie looks great. It also moves along at a rapid pace right from the start – the opening sequence is very well done and sets the mood nicely.

There are real chills too, chills that don’t rely on gore - Dr Brandt’s realisation of what Frankenstein has done to him, and then his wife’s realisation of what has been done to her husband, and the growing awareness of Frankenstein’s young assistant and his fiancee that they have been hopelessly entrapped in the baron’s schemes. A very fine example of Hammer horror.

Saturday 8 November 2008

The Curse of the Doll People (1961)

When a team of Mexican anthropologists on a field trip to Haiti return with a voodoo idol you just know trouble is sure to follow. In this case they were told they were bringing a curse upon themselves, but scientists never do listen. Sure enough it’s not long before death is stalking both them and their families. The chosen instruments of the voodoo priest’s revenge are murderous dolls the size of children.

The Curse of the Doll People (Muñecos infernales) is a terrific 1961 Mexican horror film. It’s a fairly stock-standard horror movie plot but the key to making a successful horror movie has always been to concentrate on atmosphere rather than plotting. This movie scores highly in that area. It’s the doll people themselves who are the highlight of the movie. They really are genuinely very very creepy and delightfully sinister. The make-up effects are exceptionally well done.

The acting is quite decent, with Elvira Quintana being particularly effective as a female scientist who combines a belief in science with a healthy respect for the powers of the occult. She proves to be a worthy adversary for the diabolical voodoo priest.

This is a well-made and highly effective horror movie. Benito Alazraki’s direction is very competent, and when you have black magic, zombies, killer dolls and evil priests with hypnotic powers you really have everything you could possibly ask for in a horror flick. I loved it.

This movie is included in BCI’s Crypt of Terror: Horror from South of the Border, volume 2 boxed set. It’s dubbed, unrestored, fullscreen and quite grainy. It’s a pity, because it’s a great little movie that deserves a decent restoration and a quality DVD release. Even in the unsatisfactory state of BCI’s release it’s still a movie very much worth seeing.

Friday 7 November 2008

Olga’s Girls (1964)

The Olga films are among the more notorious sexploitation movies of the 60s. Olga's Girls, dating from 1964, was the second film in the series. To some extent they were a throwback to the classic exploitation movies of the 30s and 40s, focusing on the dreaded “white slavery” rackets, but with lots of extra sleaze.

They’re like an early version of the Ilsa films in some ways, with Olga being a sadistic lesbian who runs a prostitution and drugs operation in New York. There’s the same mix of nudity, S&M and general nastiness and tackiness, made even more sleazy by being filmed in black-and-white. And there’s the same outrageous cartoonish feel. Olga’s operation is actually funded by an international communist conspiracy aimed at undermining America’s youth!

There’s no synchronised sound, but there is a gloriously campy voice-over narration having the advantages of saving money and giving a quasi-documentary feel, and we also get a kind of running commentary by Olga herself. There is a plot, with one of Olga’s chief lieutenants trying to break away to set up her own operation, and luring away several of Olga’s choicest girls. This sets the stage for a showdown between Olga and the treacherous Colette.

It’s quite extraordinarily lurid, even by more recent standards. Olga maintains discipline in her organisation by the extravagant use of torture. There’s enough in this movie to satisfy just about every unusual taste. There are also surprisingly graphic portrayals of drug use. Although the girls are all supposedly hooked on dope, they seem remarkably cheerful and healthy (except for the occasions when they’re getting tortured by Olga). It’s all delightfully kinky - lots of black stockings, boots, and assorted bondage gear. It’s the early 60s ambience that gives this movie such a wonderful flavour, with great 60s hairdos, and lot of scenes of Olga’s girls doing The Twist and go-go dancing.

Had it been made more recently and in colour it might actually be objectionable, but the combination of black-and-white and voice-over narration and the 60s vibe, added to the generally cartoonish nature of the plot, makes it more camp than offensive. Audrey Campbell as Olga is one of the great iconic screen villainessess, glamourous and cruel.

The image quality on the Synapse DVD release is astoundingly good, and allied with some astonishingly nice black-and-white cinematography the result is a movie that looks superb. There’s a commentary track which includes Olga herself (Audrey Campbell). The Olga movies are like the Ilsa films in that you simply have to see at least one of them. You don’t really believe them until you actually see them. Olga's Girls is sleazy and fun, and undeniably fascinating.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)

Tombs of the Blind Dead (La Noche del terror ciego) was the first of four Blind Dead movies made in Spain back in the 70s. The village of Berzano was in the 13th century a stronghold of the Knights Templar. The order was accused of witchcraft and various assorted evil practices and suppressed, and the knights were executed. They won’t stay dead though. Periodically they rise from their tombs, blind and silent, and seek human blood for their infernal sacrifices.

Cut to the present day and a young woman quarrels with her friends and jumps off a (very slow-moving) train as it passes the ruins of Berzano, and decides that the ruined abbey would be a great place for a young woman on her own to spend the night. What could possibly go wrong, in the middle of nowhere, in a place of such evil reputation that the train driver is too terrified to stop the train?

This is more or less a zombie movie. The dead knights are decaying and skeletal, they shuffle about like typical 70s movie zombies, and they appear to possess very little in the way of intelligence other than their thirst for victims. But Tombs of the Blind Dead has a number of advantages over the typical zombie movie. The basic idea of the dead Knights Templar is a good one, it has plenty of atmosphere, and the knights themselves are very very creepy. Director Amando de Ossorio uses some very simple but very effective techniques to add to the feeling of dread, such as having the knights on horseback filmed in ever-so-slightly slow motion. The makeup effects are exceptional. And since the undead knights aren’t done with CGI they don’t have that fake look that you always get with CGI – these guys are really very scary.

This is a highly effective and very entertaining slice of eurohorror, and although the Region 2 DVD from Anchor Bay has very little in the way of extras the transfer is very impressive.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Bandh Darwaza (1990)

Bandh Darwaza is included in the same Mondo Macabro double movie pack as Purana Mandir. It’s an enjoyably weird slice of Bollywood horror, although Purana Mandir (also a Ramsay Brothers production) is definitely the better of the two films. Bandh Darwaza, made in 1990, is closer to being a conventional western-style horror movie. Apart, of course, from the song-and-dance numbers and the comic interludes and the amazingly involved romantic sub-plots.

A woman finds herself unable to have children, despite performing all the appropriate religious rituals and visiting every shrine in the province. Then her maid informs her that there is a way for her to conceive a child. What she doesn’t tell her is that she belongs to the devil-worshipping cult on Black Mountain and that the child’s father will in reality be a demonic monster. A vampire in fact. If her child is a boy, she can keep him, but if the child is female she must be given to the cult. Naturally when the child is born and turns out to be a girl the mother conveniently forgets her promise to the cult. Eighteen years later this same child finds herself caught up in the cult’s plot to take revenge.

From this point on the plot becomes increasingly bewildering, with various female friends and family members also becoming involved in the demonic shenanigans. A mysterious woman encountered on a country road leads them to a ruined temple where the devil-worshippers do their devil-worshipping thing.

You know it’s a horror movie when one of the lead female characters is chained up in a dungeon. You know it’s a Bollywood horror film when one of the lead female characters is chained up in a dungeon and bursts into song. Yes, really. It’s touches like this that make Bollywood horror so deliciously bizarre and exotic. Sadly the musical numbers aren’t as well one as the ones in the earlier Purana Mandir, but they’re still an essential part of the enjoyment of a movie such as this. The acting is mostly up to the standard you expect in a horror movie.

The actual horror movie component of the production is totally insane and enormous fun, so you end up not worrying about whether the plot makes any sense at all and just enjoying the ride. The cinematography and the special effects are both outrageous collections of horror movie clichés, which is just as it should be. The gothic atmosphere is laid on with a trowel. Fog. Lots of fog. And then more fog. And thunder. And then more thunder. It’s a movie that is unlikely to scare anyone, but despite being a very long film it’s consistently entertaining. The print is, as Mondo Macabro freely admit, not in fantastic shape, but then you do get two movies plus a documentary and other extras. It’s all great fun in a delightfully strange way. Another winner from Mondo Macabro.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Gwendoline (1984)

Based on a strong recommendation from someone whose tastes I resoect, I just had to see Gwendoline. It was actually quite a change of pace for director Just Jaeckin. While I have a soft spot for Emmanuelle it does take itself a tad seriously. That accusation certainly can’t be leveled at Gwendoline. This movie is just pure fun.

Gwendoline makes a spectacular entrance to the film, having being shipped somewhere to the Mysterious Orient in a packing case. She is trying to find her father, who vanished while hunting for a particularly rare and exotic butterfly. Gwendoline finds herself in the hands in the hands of some very shady characters, with her virtue in very real and imminent danger. Fortunately she and her faithful companion Beth are rescued by Willard.

Willard turns out to be an adventurer, although in fact he’s really just as much of a crook as the guys he rescued Gwendoline and Beth from. But Gwendoline manages to convince him to help her in her quest to find her father and the elusive butterfly. The methods she uses to secure his assistance are as underhanded as his own methods of doing business, and for that reason they prove quite successful. Soon this unlikely trio are trekking through jungles and trackless deserts, on the trail of exotic lepidoptera. They find more than they bargained for, including a lost city of amazons.

Being a Just Jaeckin movie you’d expect it to look gorgeous, and you’d be right. You’d also expect lots of sex and nudity, but in that respect you’d be quite wrong. The nudity is very tame indeed. And the only sex scene is between two people who don’t even touch (and it’s actually a very clever and effectively erotic scene).

Tawny Kitaen makes a delightful heroine. She’s not exactly a great actress, but it’s not like she’s playing Lady Macbeth. For the type of film this is she does a splendid job, combining wide-eyed innocence with feistiness and being generally rather enchanting. Brent Huff is equally good as the male lead, providing the right mix of cynicism and sexiness.

Jaeckin handles the action sequences surprisingly well, and the pacing is perfect. There are great locations (it was shot in the Philippines and Morocco with the studio scenes done in Paris), suitably bizarre S&M-flavoured costumes, great sets and just the right tone of tongue-in-cheek humour laced with adventure and romance.

There’s a commentary track by the director on the director’s cut DVD, with Jaeckin immediately establishing himself as charming and amusing and without any of the arrogance that is unfortunately so common among modern directors. He clearly had enormous fun making this film and he conveys that enthusiasm in his commentary. A wonderfully enjoyable romp of a movie. Highly recommended.

Monday 3 November 2008

Teenage Gang Debs (1966)

Teenage Gang Debs is a story of overwhelming ambition and of revenge of almost Shakespearian intensity. It’s the tale of a ruthless woman who uses sex and manipulation to satisfy her insatiable thirst for power, and it’s a tale of a terrible and horrifying vengeance exacted by women upon their tormentor. And it’s also a 1960s juvenile delinquent movie, with a frenetic soundtrack and go-go dancing. So it’s clearly a movie not to be missed.

The Rebels are a teenage gang in New York. The movie was released in 1966 but (like a lot of juvenile delinquent movies) it actually has the look of a slightly earlier period, more early 60s than mid-60s. Everything changes for the Rebels the day that a new girl, Terry, arrives on their turf. Terry decides that there’s only one place to start, and that’s at the top. The easiest way to get to the top is by being the girlfriend of the gang president. He already has a girl, but Terry disposes of her very quickly.

The only problem now is that gang leader Johnny has one little quirk. He likes to carve his initials into the breasts of his women, as a token of his ownership. Terry isn’t very impressed with this idea. So clearly Johnny has to go, and that’s arranged by manipulating his second-in-command Nino into challenging him for the position. The manipulation is simplicity itself. She seduces Nino and makes sure Johnny discovers them in the gang president’s bedroom, giving Nino no choice but to fight Johnny. The fact that Nino already has a girlfriend is a very minor complication, and she is rapidly discarded. To make sure she gets the message she’s no longer wanted Terry persuades Nino to sanction a fitting punishment Nino’s old girlfriend - she has her raped by the entire male membership of the gang.

The next step in the achievement of Terry’s boundless ambitions is to establish the Rebels as the premier teen gang, which requires the other gangs to be brutally dealt with. A major rumble with a rival gang leaves five teenagers dead. Terry’s methods naturally make her plenty of enemies and the stage is set for a final violent showdown.

This isn’t a campy 50s juvenile delinquent flick. There are numerous murders and vicious bashings as well as the previously mentioned gang rape. The stark black-and-white cinematography accentuates the mood of casual violence. There aren’t many laughs, but the movie undeniably has a certain power. The acting is fairly amateurish but has an intensity that you don’t often get in teen B movies.

It’s released by Something Weird, paired with another movie (Teenage Strangler) which I haven’t watched yet. Something Weird really do come up with some strange and fascinating forgotten movies. Teenage Gang Debs is unquestionably a must for any fan of juvenile delinquent films. It’s interesting to compare it to Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters - very different movies made in very different styles, but both having a Shakespearian quality to them.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Confessions of a Psycho Cat (1968)

Confessions of a Psycho Cat is a bizarre but fascinating 1968 variation on The Most Dangerous Game. Like so many exploitation movies of this period it existed in several versions. The version released by Something Weird Video had extra sexploitation scenes added, and although those scenes make no sense their very disconnectedness adds to the surreal quality of the film.

The psycho cat of the title is Virginia, played with extraordinary enthusiasm and wide-eyed craziness by Eileen Lord. Her brother is a big-game hunter, and while he’s on safari in Africa Virginia decides to go on a safari of her own in New York City. First she needs some game to hunt. She finds three men who have all committed a murder but been acquitted, and offers each of them $100,000 if they can survive in Manhattan for 24 hours while she stalks them. Her three victims are an ageing actor who killed a jealous husband who caught him with his wife, a wrestler who killed a man in the ring by stomping on his face, and a junkie drug-dealer who gave his girlfriend a fatal dose of heroin.

The sequences in which she hunts them down have a wonderfully off-the-wall surreal quality to them, especially with Virginia dressed as a matador in her final showdown with the wrestler. The wrestler fights like a wounded bull, which is appropriate enough since he’s played by legendary boxer Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull himself. The drug-dealer is pursued through Central Park by Virginia, her weapon this time being a cross-bow.

While Virginia hunts her human prey she is also being hunted, by her psychiatrist. He ha been increasingly disturbed by her erratic behaviour. Can the good doctor find her in time? And what has caused her mania for hunting, and what is driving her to murder?

Eileen Lord’s performance is definitely the highlight. She’s amazing, truly and utterly amazing. This is scenery-chewing on a level rarely achieved before or since, and it’s superbly entertaining. The movie itself is weird but compelling and a great deal of fun. The Something Weird DVD release looks extremely good and there are lots of extras, including an odd little educational film on mental health from the 50s that is guaranteed to reduce any prospective parent to a guilt-ridden shambles, and there’s a second feature film as well (which I have yet to see).

If you have a taste for the strange then Confessions of a Psycho Cat is highly recommended.