Saturday 28 February 2009

Sex and Fury (1974)

Norifumi Suzuki was one of the most interesting of 1970s Japanese exploitation directors, helming such pinky violence classics as Girl Boss Guerilla, School of the Holy Beast and the truly stupendously wonderful Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom. Sex and Fury (Furyô anego den: Inoshika Ochô) is a little different, being a period piece set during the Meiji Restoration, although it’s still very much in the pinky violence sub-genre.

It opens in 1885 with the murder of a detective. His young daughter finds him clutching three cards, with pictures of a butterfly, a boar and a deer. These are the clues to the identity of his killers. Cut to 1905, and the daughter, Ocho Inoshika, is a successful gambler and thief, still bent on avenging her father’s murder. The incredibly byzantine plot encompasses various internal Japanese political conspiracies as well as British government plots involving the beautiful British spy Christina (played by Swedish actress Christina Lindberg). Christina is also a famous gambler, and she and Ocho face off cross the gambling table in a memorable scene. Christina, who’s rather handy with a pistol, is in love with a Japanese revolutionary. Ocho’s preferred weapon is the sword.

Th many sub-plots are tied together reasonably well, but the plotting isn’t the reason for watching this film. This is a movie to watch for some superlative and inventive visuals, including some spectacular set-pieces that demonstrate Norifumi Suzuki’s main strengths as a film-maker. The nude sword fighting scene (the sort of thing you’re only going to see in a Japanese movie), the confrontation on the train involving a gang of swithblade-wielding Japanese Catholic nuns and the staircase fight scene are especially notable. The sex scenes (of which there are many) are exceptionally well done, with flair and originality.

Sex and violence are what pinky violence films are all about, and Sex and Fury doesn’t stint in either of these areas. But in a good pinky violence movie the sex and violence is done with style, and this one really excels here. This is sex and violence done with baroque splendour, and with a superb use of colour and light. Being a pinky violence movie, be warned that there are some uncomfortable scenes of sexual violence.

Reiko Ike, one of the the three great female stars of 1970s Japanese exploitation cinema, plays Ocho, and it’s an energetic and impressive performance. Christina Lindberg is odd but strangely effective, with a definite presence.

This is trash art at its best, succeeding equally well as both trash and art. A movie that looks gorgeous and delivers non-stop entertainment. And for a low-budget movie the period detail looks very impressive as well.

Thursday 26 February 2009

Messiah of Evil (1973)

Messiah of Evil (also released under various other titles including Dead People) is a movie about flesh-eating zombies, but despite superficial similarities it’s really very very different from the George Romero style of zombie movie. Very different, and a whole lot better. It’s actually a remarkably interesting little film, and it’s difficult to see why it’s been so neglected compared to Romero’s overrated zombie epics.

The movie opens with a voiceover narration by Arletty, a young woman in a mental hospital, telling us of her journey travels to the sleepy seaside town of Point Dune in search of her artist father. His letters had become increasingly disturbing and incoherent. Arriving in Point Dune she encounters some odd locals, and hears terrible noises which she is assured are just dogs. Through a local gallery she meets a strange young man. He is traveling with a couple of young women, both of whom apparently share his bed, while he researches local history and folklore. She finds her father’s house deserted, and full of enigmatic and unsettling pictures of blank-eyed townspeople.

The main plot idea is fairly basic and not very original, but the movie does have several features that make it much more interesting than a bare plot outline would suggest. Firstly there’s the fact that the narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum, so you have to consider the possibility that you may be dealing with an unreliable narrator here. And secondly, this movie has such a wonderful atmosphere of dream-like weirdness. The use of the father’s paintings is especially effective, particularly in a early scene where Arletty enters her father’s house and it appears she’s in a strange nightmare landscape. The movie definitely has some artistic pretensions, and it carries them off successfully without ever losing sight of the fact that it’s also a fun horror B-movie.

There’s some gore, but the gore is used to real effect rather than simply to disguise the lack of skill of the film-maker, and the most terrifying scenes are totally lacking in gore. They rely instead on atmosphere - remember when horror movies used to employ atmosphere rathe than buckets of fake blood? There’s some nifty camerawork, and again the camerawork is integral to the movie rather than being merely added-on gimmickry.

The acting is adequate and appropriate to the overall mood, the highlight being a cameo by Elisha Cook jnr as a mad old drunk who really does know what’s going on.

If you’re looking for a horror flick that combines zombies and a certain degree of gore with old-fashioned atmospheric horror and some artiness and some interesting ambiguity, this is the movie. An underrated gem. It appears to be in the public domain and downloadable copies are easy to find, and they’re quite acceptable in terms of image and sound quality.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960)

The more Hammer films I see the more convinced I am that the more obscure the Hammer film, the better it will turn out to be. A case in point being The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll. Made in 1960, it was one of two versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale to be filmed by Hammer. Both it and the later Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde are slightly off-beat adaptations of the story, and in their own ways both are excellent.

The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll was directed by Terence Fisher and stars Paul Massie in the central dual role. The initial transformation scene is particularly well done since we only see Mr Hyde’s back for quite a while, so we’re left in suspense wondering what kind of hideous monster Dr Jekyll has become. In fact there are no monster makeup effects at all. Mr Hyde is young and good-looking and really is just Dr Jekyll without his beard and in flashier clothes with a more outgoing personality. But it works. This Mr Hyde is, as he should be, no monster but merely a part of Jekyll’s own personality, the part that craves freedom from society’s rules, the part that wants to be a party animal.

It turns out Dr Jekyll’s wife also craves excitement. In a major departure from the original story she’s a bit of a part animal herself, and she has a lover, a debauched and profligate (and exceptionally unsuccessful) gambler, played by Christopher Lee. The fates of Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll’s wife and her dissipated lover become hopelessly entwined. Hyde finds a lover of his own, an exotic dancer who performs a somewhat licentious dance routine with a snake, but Hyde is amused by the idea of also taking Jekyll’s wife as his lover.

Terence Fisher was renowned for his belief in a clear-cut struggle between good and evil which makes this movie a rather uncharacteristic one for him. This is a fairly sympathetic Hyde, who is reckless and irresponsible and rather childish in his selfish desires for pleasures rather than being evil as such. He’s like Dr Jekyll’s inner child become a juvenile delinquent inner child. The movie is also, for a Terence Fisher movie, just a little on the risque side. It was apparently cut for its original release but the recent DVD release (as part of the Icons of Horror boxed set) restores the cut sequences. It has a genuine atmosphere of decadance, especially in the scenes set in The Sphinx night-club. The drug-taking scenes in the opium den are pretty daring for 1960.

Paul Massie’s performance is one you’re either going to love or hate. I think he gets away with it. Christopher Lee has great fun playing a character who is neither hero nor villain and he’s delightfully slimy! Dawn Addams as Jekyll’s wife steals the picture though. She’s wonderfully wicked but without becoming a monster or a cliche.

The colours are amazingly lush and along with some splendid sets give the whole movie a kind of hallucinatory decadent feel. This is one of the more interesting movie versions of Stevenson’s tale and it’s vastly superior to both the 1932 and 1941 Hollywood versions. Highly recommended.

Sunday 22 February 2009

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Richard Connell’s story The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed countless times, with some of the odder and more interesting movie versions being Michel Lemoine’s 1976 Les Week-ends maléfiques du Comte Zaroff (released in the US as Seven Women for Satan) and Herb Stanley’s completely off-the-wall 1968 Confessions of a Psycho Cat. The first movie version though was the 1932 US one, from the production team responsible for Kong Kong (and filmed using some of the same sets).

Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks in full-on scenery chewing mode) is a big game hunter in need of ever greater thrills. Tigers just aren’t dangerous enough. Finally he realises that the only cure for his ennui is to stalk the most dangerous game of all - man! He lures ships onto the reef near his island, and hunts down the survivors. His greatest challenge comes when fate delivers to him his most worthy prey yet - another celebrated big game hunter, Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea).

This is a pre-code movie, and it shows. There is clearly a sexual element to Count Zaroff’s sport. He makes it plain that the hunt whets his appetite for sex, and that after successfully killing Ransford he will claim the reward for a successful hunt by raping Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray), another victim of the Count’s shipwrecking activities. He makes it equally obvious that his is his usual practice. Women are simply a different kind of prey. And although the Count would have us believe that the hunt merely adds spice to his sexual diet, one can’t help suspecting that the hunt may in fact be an essential element, that he may in fact be impotent without the excitement of the kill. There’s also the suggestion that Eve is to offered as a prize to Rainsford, should he survive the game.

Like most American genre movies of its era it’s all but ruined by some incredibly feeble, annoying and wholly inappropriate comic relief, provided by the excruciatingly unfunny Robert Armstrong. Despite this considerable drawback, and some hamminess in the acting department, the movie works and delivers some genuine thrills and chills. The climactic hunt occupies most of the second half of this very short movie (running just over an hour) and once the hunt begins the excitement doesn’t let up.

The hints of sexual depravity make this more than a mere thriller, and while Leslie Banks goes way over the top as Zaroff it has to be admitted that he’s truly creepy and quite scary, and totally crazed. Fay Wray gets to scream, and Joel McCrea is reasonably effective. Overall it’s a good example of a pre-code horror/adventure film and it’s been so immensely influential that it’s really a must-see for any fans of those genres.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Black Candles (1982)

Black Candles (Los Ritos sexuales del diablo) doesn’t seem to be all that highly though of even among fans of the work of director José Ramón Larraz. This 1982 offering isn’t as good as his classic 1974 Vampyres, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining erotic horror exploitation movie.

After the somewhat mysterious death of her brother Carol and her husband go to stay with her newly bereaved sister-in-law in a house in the countryside. They soon notice a few odd things about the sister-in-law. All the candles in the house are black, and she makes very strange herb teas using very unusual herbs. This should have indicated at once that she was a devil-worshipper, but it takes Carol a while to figure this out. The sister-in-law, Georgina, seems to take a great interest in Carol’s sex life, spying on Carol and her husband when they make love. It transpires that there were some sexual tensions involving Carol, her deceased brother, and Georgina, and now another romantic triangle starts to develop.

The other people in the village are a bit of a worry as well, and it’s not altogether surprising that they all turn out to be witches. They take a particular interest in Carol’s husband, since he’s a former priest. Or at least a former trainee priest. Which would make him a prize acquisition for the coven, and since he’s taking a considerable interest in Georgina there seems every chance they might achieve that prize.

Sexual obsessions seem to be at least as significant a motivation for these witches as serving their Dark Lord. Larraz is particularly good at erotic horror so this gives him plenty of scope. There’s a great deal of bedroom action. As in Vampyres the erotic content isn’t just tacked on but is in fact the driving force behind the movie.

The plot isn’t high on originality, and the ending uses a technique that has been used many times before, but the plot certainly works. The atmosphere of sexual obsession is conveyed very effectively. The acting is solid. It’s a very competent and quite stylish little movie, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

The BCI DVD presentation was a less pleasant surprise. The image quality was acceptable if rather grainy, but the sound is absolutely atrocious. Muddy and distorted, and frequently dropping out altogether.

Friday 20 February 2009

Sexus (1965)

There was a time in the early 60s when José Bénazéraf was being compared favourably to film-makers like Godard. Bénazéraf fell out of favour in the late 70s when he turned to outright sex films, and the stylish erotic thrillers of his early career are now sadly all but forgotten. And even more unfortunately they’re exceptionally difficult to find outside France where he still seems to retain at least some cult following. Sexus (L'Enfer dans la peau) dates from 1965 and it’s a good example of the strengths of Bénazéraf as a movie-maker.

It’s ostensibly a thriller about a kidnapping, but Bénazéraf has very little interest in conventional plotting. We know nothing about the criminal gang involved in the kidnapping, nor do we know anything about the young woman they’ve snatched (apart from the fact that her father is wealthy and that her name is Virginie). What we do know is that they’re holed up in an isolated house, it’s extremely hot, everyone is stressed and growing more stressed by the minute, and the presence of Virginie has unleashed almost unbearable sexual tensions. Everyone, including the girlfriend of one of the gang members, wants Virginie. The sexual tensions lead to murderous violence.

Bénazéraf was fascinated by the disruptive nature of eroticism, and by the possibilities this offered to shake things up, to change society, to liberate as well as to destroy. The miniature society of the gang is utterly destroyed by the eroticism awakened by Virginie, but for one of the criminals, Blackie, it brings an unexpected revelation. He has always lived by violence, lived by the gun, but he now discovers that “love is stronger than bullets.”

There’s a superb and very disturbing jazz soundtrack by the great Chet Baker, full of discordant percussion, and then there are the S&M-tinged erotic dancing night-club scenes. Like the night-club scenes in Jess Franco’s movies they do nothing to advance the plot but they do a great deal to create the atmosphere Bénazéraf is after. It’s an atmosphere of eroticism that is threatening but also oddly exhilarating, and manages to be perverse yet still positive. For Bénazéraf sex and politics were inextricably linked, and it’s clear that sex is the dominant element. The film is a heady brew of violence, jazz and sex combined with imagination and style. It’s also very very cool. It’s a 60s cool that still works today. I recommend this one very highly. It won’t be easy to find, and the available versions are dubbed and fullscreen and only obtainable on DVD-R, but it’s still very much worth seeing.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Five Bloody Graves (1970)

Five Bloody Graves was directed by Al Adamson who also gave us the inspired lunacy of the horror/sexploitation classic Nurse Sherri (which I talked about not too long ago). But Five Bloody Graves is a very different piece of exploitation madness. This is Al Adamson’s shot at an existential western, in the style of the best of the Italian spaghetti westerns, and you can even see it as a kind of precursor of Clint Eastwood’s magnificent High Plains Drifter, with perhaps a dash of Peckinpah as well. The DVD cover art suggests this is gong to be a western with a strong admixture of horror, always a promising combination of genres.

It has a narrator, but he’s not just a narrator. He’s the Voice of Death. He tells us that he’s been riding alongside our hero, Ben Thompson, for a long time. Death in fact is riding alongside every character in this movie, including Thompon’s sworn enemy, the man who killed Thompson’s wife, the renegade Apache Setago. The narrator is there to remind us that we’re not just seeing a western, but an existential western. This might have worked with a Clint Eastwood or a Franco Nero as the star, and with a talent like Leone or Corbucci (or even Eastwood in his more inspired moments) behind the camera. But the man behind the camera is Al Adamson, maker of Z-grade exploitation flicks. The contrast between the movie’s slightly arty pretensions and its ultra low-budget execution actually provides much of the entertainment value! It’s a bit like watching Ed Wood attempting Citizen Kane.

There’s no point in talking about the plot, because it’s thin to the point of almost non-existence. That does give it a bit of an Easy Rider on-a-road-to-nowhere vibe, without the hippie druggie stuff. The fact that the movie fails to provide a profound insight into the human condition isn’t surprising. Adamson was just an exploitation movie-maker working on a budget of almost nothing. The real problem with the movie is that it doesn’t deliver on the horror front. Lacking an expansive budget that would have allowed spectacular action sequences, the film might still have succeeded if it had given us some outrageously cheesy horror, or if Adamson had tried to make the action scenes more over-the-top but entertainingly silly. The movie plays it all a bit too straight. But then perhaps that’s its charm. It really does think it’s A Fistful of Dollars.

And it does have John Carradine as a sleazy preacher, and quite a few old-time movie greats including Al Adamson’s father, the legendary cowboy actor Denver Dixon. And some rather impressive photography, filmed somewhere in Utah I believe, by Vilmos Zsigmond. Who later won an Oscar for a Spielberg movie (and while Five Bloody Graves might not be a masterpiece at least it’s not a Spielberg movie). With all its faults Five Bloody Graves is a fascinatingly off-beat western, and it has a healthy dose of 70s darkness and nihilism. Interestingly enough Ben Thompson was apparently a real person, a gunfighter with a death wish in the real Old West.

The Retro Shock-O-Rama DVD includes two versions of Nurse Sherri as well as Five Bloody Graves and commentary tracks for both films. The very entertaining commentary track for Five Bloody Graves is by Adamson’s business partner Sam Sherman and also includes an interview with star, scriptwriter and co-producer Robert Dix. It gives a great sense of the camaraderie and enthusiasm that kept low-budget movie-makers going. This DVD release is an absolute must for exploitation movie fans. Both movies are in their own very different ways well worth seeing.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Venus in Furs (1967)

In 1967 sexploitation producer Lou Campa hired Joe Marzano to work on a bizarre little movie called Cool It, Baby. The movie did quite well, and Campa was sufficiently impressed to give Marzano $10,000 to make another sexploitation pic. Marzano took the money and went away and made Venus in Furs, which was undoubtedly not at all the sort of movie Campa had in mind! It is in fact an art film, admittedly an art film about sex, but it’s very much an art film.

It bears some similarities to the movies that Marzano’s friend Paul Morrissey was making for Andy Warhol at the time, although Venus in Furs is infinitely more surreal. The opening titles state that it was suggested by, rather than based on, the classic novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch ’s classic novel (the word masochism derives from the sexual fixations recounted in this book), which seems fair enough. It’s a strange but oddly engrossing mix of von Sacher-Masoch, Freud and surrealism.

A rather introverted and very bookish man who works at a shoe store is obsessed by von Sacher-Masoch’s novel. He’s also obsessed by women’s shoes and by fantasies of being dominated by women. He mets a woman named Marna, who takes him away to a strange house inhabited by an assortment of people who spend their time indulging their unusual sexual interests (which involve things like exercise bikes, chess and ping pong). By this time the movie has taken on a distinctly dream-like quality. The man wanders from room to room, each room containing two or more people engaged in activities that seem like sexual fantasies seen through a haze of drugs. My favourite was the fetish that involves a hip bath, a saucer and a jug of milk.

He finds a book of photographs which obviously disturb him, although we don’t know what the book contains. There are also readings of children’s stories, and finally the climactic orgy scene. The orgy scene is again more disturbing than erotic, more like a fever dream. There’s a man in drag dancing with a woman. There’s a woman lying on the floor fully clothed while another woman obsessively deals playing cards onto her back. There are various writhing couples, all fully clothed. This was common enough in 1960s sexploitation movies and usually looks silly, but in this case it adds to the unsettling quality of the film. The couples are driven by something, but it doesn’t appear to be sex. There’s a peculiar unerotic quality to the eroticism, a kind of thwarted sterile quality. The plot doesn’t really go anywhere, but that seems more of a strength than a weakness, contributing to the feeling of events moving in a futile circular manner like endlessly recycled dream images.

Barbara Ellen (who co-wrote the script) plays Marna, and she may now be my favourite sexploitation actress. She plays Marna in a delightfully perverse way, and also plays the goddess Venus in the opening sequence. There’s very little nudity and no graphic sex, but the movie still manages to be kinky in a strangely non-sexual sexual way. The film is in constant danger of taking itself too seriously, but Marzano comes up with enough striking and disquieting images to justify its pretensions to being a genuine art film.

This was truly the golden age of American sexploitation, when a director could make a feature film such as this for $10,000 and be allowed to follow their own private obsessions wherever they happened to take them and end up with fantastically weird little gems such as this. It’s released on DVD by Something Weird, and in common with most of their releases the black-and-white cinematography looks absolutely gorgeous, as if it had been filmed yesterday. Highly recommended for devotees of cinematic strangeness.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Django (1966)

Spaghetti westerns form a cult movie genre that I’m not all that familiar with. But after seeing Sergio Corbucci’s Django (following a recommendation on this community) I can see myself exploring this area much more fully.

Like Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns Django is amazingly violent, very dark and very very cynical. Django himself is a former Union soldier whose wife was murdered by the corrupt and sadistic Major Jackson. He arrives in an exceptionally forlorn town near the Mexican border, to find the town so terrorised by both Mexican bandits and Major Jackson’s red-hooded cut-throats that it now seems entirely deserted apart from Nathaniel’s whorehouse. Django has a reputation as a murderer and a thief himself, but he also has a deep aversion to those like Jackson who kill for pleasure, and he has an understandable dislike of people who enjoy brutalising women.

Our hero isn’t worried about being outnumbered by Jackson’s thugs, because he has a very useful little toy in the coffin that he takes with him everywhere. The toy is a Gatling gun. And why does he drag a coffin around with him? Apparently because he considers himself dead, after the murder of his wife. He’s one of those brooding tragic anti-hero types. He becomes involved in a plan to steal a hoard of gold from a military fort, and what follows is a series of double-crosses and outrageous amounts of mayhem. There’s a romantic interest as well - a whore named Maria, rescued by Django at the beginning of the film. Django wants the gold, and Maria wants Django.

Corbucci directs with considerable panache. He’s not Sergio Leone, but he has almost as much style and a fine sense of pacing. The anonymous town is superbly done - it’s all mud and desolation, like a vision of the aftermath of the apocalypse. On a low budget this movie manages to look rather impressive with plenty of exciting action sequences and copious amounts of atmposphere. In the title role Franco Nero does his best to duplicate the sort of effect that Clint Eastwood achieved in his Italian western roles, and he does a splendid job. Loredana Nusciak is likeable and spirited as Maria and the supporting cast show plenty of enthusiasm and verve.

The level of violence and brutality was enough to get the film banned in Britain for 25 years. It’s a much better movie than I’d expected it to be, and it’s definitely more than just a retread of Leone’s films. There are some great visual set pieces and it delivers stylish entertainment. The Region 4 DVD includes a brief documentary featuring interviews with the movie’s assistant director Ruggero Deodato and with star Franco Nero (who is charming and amusing and remembers the film with a good deal of affection).

Friday 13 February 2009

Girly (1969)

A brief synopsis of the plot and a glance at the DVD box art would lead you to believe that the 1969 British horror flick Girly (or to give it its full title, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) is going to be a feast of sex and gore. In fact it’s almost entirely lacking in those two attributes. All it has going for it is a quirky script, skillful direction and good acting, so it’s not going to please most modern horror fans.

Sonny and Girly are a brother and sister who live in a large decaying gothic mansion with their mother (Mumsy) and their nanny. Nanny sleeps at the foot of Mumsy’s bed. They’re apparently still at school, since they’re in school uniform when we first met them (although Vanessa Howard does look just a tad too old to be convincing as a teenager). When they get lonely they go to the park looking for new friends. After making sure that these new friends don’t have any other friends or relatives, no-one who is going to miss them if they suddenly disappear, they take them home. And the new friends always stay. Forever. Or at least until they are sent to the angels. The new friends get to participate in all sorts of lovely games. Sonny likes to film these games. Girly’s games often involve an axe.

Sonny and Girly’s latest new friend has a girlfriend, or at last he has a girlfriend until she meets with an unfortunate accident while playing with Sonny and Girly. The new friend decides to stay with the family, and is soon caught up in the games. Now you have to remember that this is a horror movie, and people in horror movies aren’t supposed to behave rationally (they always go down into the cellar when you know they shouldn’t), so there’s no point in asking why he stays even when it becomes clear just how dangerous Sonny and Girly’s games can be. If you notice how short Girly’s skirts are, you have another explanation for his reluctance to leave. And Girly can be very very friendly. Mumsy can be rather friendly as well. They’re an affectionate sort of family, in their own way.

Of course it goes without saying that the games start to get a little out of hand, and it’s not easy to tell who is playing with whom.

Freddie Francis was always a stylish director with plenty of visual flair and he’s in good form. Brian Comport’s screenplay (from his own novel) is nicely twisted. The contemporary setting is combined effectively with the rambling gothic house. Ursula Howells as Mumsy is delightfully odd and dotty, and Vanessa Howard projects a disturbingly naïve and precocious sexuality. The claustrophobic mix of eccentricity carried to the point of lunacy and bizarre lust works well. The 60s vibe is equally effective. This is subtle horror executed with panache, and it’s well worth a look.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Hercules against the Moon Men (1964)

By 1964 the Italian movie industry had cranked out countless highly entertaining and extremely profitable movies in the sword and sandal (or peplum as it was know in Europe) genre, and what was ned was a way to keep things interesting, to vary the formula just a little. The solution adopted in Hercules against the Moon Men (Maciste e la regina di Samar) was to add some science fiction elements. And since this is an Italian genre movie, those added science fiction elements are deliciously bizarre!

The wicked queen of Samar hides an abominable secret. This is an Italian sword and sandal epic so of course there has to be a beautiful wicked queen, not that I’m complaining, beautiful but wicked queens are always fun. The people of Samar live under the shadow of a volcano, but they live even more under the shadow of the terrible monsters of the mountain. At regular intervals they must make human sacrifices to the mountain. Queen Samar has gone beyond such commonplace evils however. She is in league with the inhabitants of the moon, the cruel and rapacious Moon Men! And she plans to sacrifice her own sister so that the queen of the Moon Men may be revived from her eternal sleep.

This is clearly a job for a hero, and luckily there’s one wandering about nearby who volunteers to help the struggling masses of Samar to overthrow their cruel but beautiful tyrant. The hero in question is Maciste, a recurring character in Italian movies of this type going way back to the very beginnings, the 1914 epic Cabiria. This movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Hercules, so for its US release the title was naturally changed to give the impression that it was a Hercules movie. Maciste hooks up with the rebels, and soon becomes involved in romance with the daughter of the rebel leader, Agar. Since this is a peplum Agar is brave and virtuous, but terminally dull.

The main thing this movie has going for it is the sheer outrageous loopiness of the plot, and some delightfully silly moon man costumes. Giacomo Gentilomo’s direction is less than inspired, and the effects are fairly cheap (although the gigantic jaws of death from which Maciste must escape are quite cool). To enjoy it you really have to be a fan of this type of movie, and of movie campiness in general. The acting is generally unexciting, although it has to be admitted that the actress playing the evil queen is very good, and rather sexy in a beautiful wicked queen sort of way. Perhaps I was just in a particularly benevolent mood when I watched it, but I found its oddness reasonably appealing. Not a peplum classic, but an interesting curiosity.

Monday 9 February 2009

Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960)

Ma Barker's Killer Brood tells the story of infamous Depression-era gangster Ma Barker and her equally infamous sons. Well actually it’s almost entirely fiction, but it doesn’t do to let anything as tedious as facts get in the way of a fun story! And this is most definitely a fun story.

Ma Barker wants her boys to have all the good things she missed out on when she was growing up. But opportunities to make honest money are scarce, so Ma encourages her sons into a life of crime. They start by robbing the collection plate at their local church. Her husband doesn’t approve of this kind of criminality but Ma despises him as a weakling and soon dumps him. Ma and her boys embark on a violent crime spree, in the course of which they become involved with just about every other famous Depression-era gangster, from Machine Gun Kelly to John Dillinger.

Herman, the eldest of the Barker boys, would really have preferred to continue with his violin lessons rather than rob banks, but Ma has no patience with weakness and Herman has little choice other than to join his brothers. Ma’s ruthlessness reaches a peak when she disposes of her second husband by forcing him to play Russian roulette in a surprisingly chilling scene. In fact for a 1960 movie Ma Barker's Killer Brood is exceptionally violent. When Herman can’t bring himself to shoot an armoured car guard his mother not only drives her car into the unfortunate guard but then calmly runs over his prone body.

The production values are low, but the dialogue is priceless. Ma’s exchanges with Machine Gun Kelly’s girlfriend are especially memorable. Veteran character actress Lorene Tuttle relishes the opportunity to play a rare starring role, going completely over-the-top as Ma Barker. Imagine a female version of Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. It’s a delightful performance.

Writer-director Bill Karn produced a classic piece of exploitation cinema with this bizarre little offering. Highly recommended for those who love trash cinema.

Friday 6 February 2009

Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

Simon, King of the Witches is one of those odd little films that failed to find an audience on its initial release in 1971, but that turns out to be rather interesting. Director Bruce Kessler believed the film’s failure had a lot to do with the title, which suggested that this was a straightforward horror movie when in fact it’s anything but. He’s probably right. The movie is part horror movie, part counter-culture film, part black comedy, and probably has more in common with a film like Harold and Maude than with the sort of movie horror fans expected to see at their local drive-in.

Simon is a witch. He’s not a minion of Satan, though. He’s more of a pagan witch, deriving his powers from the old gods like Poseidon and Aphrodite. He’s a true magus, the genuine article, with real powers. He lives in a storm water drain. You might wonder why, if he has such dread powers, he lives in a storm water drain. The truth is that Simon is not terribly concerned with money or possessions. He has a larger agenda - nothing less than challenging the powers of the gods themselves. Which you can do just as easily from a storm water drain as a penthouse, apparently.

After being arrested for vagrancy (being a true magus isn’t as glamorous as you might imagine) he befriends a young hustler named Turk who introduces him to the mysterious Hercules, a kind of wealthy dandy with a mild interest in the occult. Through Hercules he becomes involved with Linda, the daughter of the District Attorney, and is drawn into a web of police corruption centred on the drug trade. This involvement threatens to distract him from his plans to extend his occult powers so as to sit among the gods.

The essentially incompatible plot elements do become a little muddled at times, and the corrupt police sub-plot seems to be there mainly to give the film suitable counter-culture credentials. Unfortunately that sub-plot doesn’t really work, and distracts from the far more successful black comedy elements.

It’s still an intriguing movie. Its greatest strength is Andrew Prine as Simon. He plays the role straight, taking the character perfectly seriously. His performance is extravagant, but never hammy (which would have been the obvious temptation). It’s actually almost Shakespearean, an impression reinforced by his habit of addressing the audience directly. There’s an amusing cameo by Warhol superstar Ultra Violet as a witch queen, and some entertainingly trippy 1970s special effects. There’s no gore at all, but quite a bit of nudity. The Dark Sky DVD boasts a nice transfer plus brief but worthwhile interviews with Andrew Prine and director Bruce Kessler. Simon, King of the Witches is an oddity that’s worth seeing, if only for Andrew Prine.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Submission (1969)

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