Tuesday 31 March 2009

The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)

The Blood Spattered Bride (La Novia ensangrentada) is yet another vampire movie based on Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s classic 1872 novella Carmilla (other notable adaptations being Roger Vadim’s excellent Blood and Roses and Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers but there have been countless others). This particular film version, from Spanish director Vicente Aranda, adds quite a few interesting twists of its own.

There are actually two brides in this movie. The first bride we meet is Susan, on her honeymoon. Arriving at the hotel, she is raped by a mysterious man, but perhaps it was actually her husband, and perhaps it was a dream. Then her husband really does seem to be about to rape her, but again we’re not sure. This kind of ambiguity carries through to the rest of the movie. And, disturbingly, Aranda gives us no clear indications as to when we’re dealing with reality and when we’re dealing with dreams. At one point one of the characters talks about the wall between reality and dream, and the dangers that ensue if this wall is ever breached. The breaching of that wall is in fact one of the themes of the film.

Susan has further dreams, dreams that involve her in committing acts of violence against her husband. A strange woman, also a bride, appears to her in these dreams. And she makes a curious discovery about her new home (her husband’s family is clearly very old and very wealthy and the house is a huge and rambling gothic pile). There are portraits on the walls, portraits of successive generations of the family, but there are no women represented at all. The portraits of the women of the family have been banished to the cellar. When she explores the cellar she finds an especially interesting painting, a painting of a blood-spattered bride, with the face neatly cut out of the picture. It appears there is a legend attached to the woman depicted in the painting, a certain Mircalla Karnstein. She butchered her husband on her wedding night, after he asked her to perform unspeakable acts, but the legend fails to reveal the nature of these acts.

A few days later her husband finds a naked woman buried on the beach, a woman named Carmilla who turns out to be very much alive, and he takes her back to the house. She is in fact the bride from Susan’s dreams. A strange attachment develops between the two women, and there also appears to be some link between these two women and Carol, the 12-year-old daughter of the housekeeper. Susan’s dreams are increasingly unsettling, and the dagger held by the bride in the painting keeps turning up, to be then hidden by the husband and continually found by Susan. As you would expect, the violence that has appeared in dreams makes its appearance in reality, and escalates until the extremely bloody final scene.

While the plot derives from le Fanu’s Carmilla the real content comes from Freud and from 1970s sexual politics. The lesbian vampire movies of the 70s are often seen as a response to feminism and the sexual liberation of women, and they’re often seen as a hostile response to these developments. This film is much too complex and much too ambiguous to be dismissed in such a manner. There is definitely a very clear conflict between the sexes going on in this film, but it’s impossible to be certain where Aranda’s sympathies lie or where he intends the audience’s sympathies to lie. Mostly we see things from the point of view of the female characters (literally in one case in a strangely surreal homage to Carl Dreyer’s classic 1931 Vampyr). But nothing is clear-cut. The husband seems to have a sadistic streak, both in a sexual and in an emotional sense, but it’s not clear that Susan is an entirely unwilling partner in this area. At one point (after a very disturbing and superbly filmed sequence in a dovecote) Carol confronts her with this, telling her that, “You like it when he hurts you.” But does she really? Possibly she does, but then she also seems repelled by sex altogether. Is it love that he feels for her husband, or is it hate? Or is it both? Does she know which it is?

Using vampirism as a metaphor for sex is certainly by no means unusual, but I can’t think of another movie that links vampirism with specifically female sexuality in such a string and such an effective manner. It’s also significant that both Carol and Susan are undergoing what could be seen as a traumatic rite of passage, in Carol’s case from girlhood to womanhood, and in Susan’s case marriage, and since Susan is a virgin at the time of her marriage both rites of passage can be considered to be signalled by blood.

Perhaps the most interesting thing of all about this movie is that even the element of vampirism is subject to doubt. There’s no absolute certainty that anything supernatural is taking place. This raises fascinating questions about the ending (and I’m not going to reveal any details about the ending) and in fact can radically change one’s interpretation of not just the ending but also crucially one’s interpretation of the reactions of the male characters to what they think is going on. The real monsters may not be those who appear monstrous, and the extreme violence of the response of the men may be the actions of heroic fighters against monstrous evil, or totally unjustified paranoia in the face of the reality of female sexuality. There is very definitely a sense of a threat to male power, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that the movie is coming down on the side of embattled male power. It's also not clear if Carmilla is perceived as a threat to the established order because she's a lesbian vampire, or simply because she's a lesbian, and while the men in the movie do perceive her as a very real and very dangerous threat, it's by no mean certain that Aranda intends us to accept this as a valid or reasonable fear. This movie doesn't explicitly explain anything, but gives out lots of tantalising hints, and then makes us doubt what we thought we were seeing. There's a scene involving Alexandra Bastedo that calls into question almost everything that has gone before.

It’s not as self-consciously arty as some of the female vampire movies of its era, but it does have some wonderful visual sequences. The acting is generally solid, with Alexandra Bastedo (well-known to cult TV fans as Sharron Macready from The Champions) making a rather effective Carmilla. All the actors manage to give performances that add to the atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty. This is an example of 70s eurohorror at its best, an intelligent and highly entertaining movie, and very much worth seeing.

Sunday 29 March 2009

Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958)

Teenagers, music, dancing, monsters - it’s always a winning formula, isn’t it? Well at least that’s what the producers of Frankenstein’s Daughter thought. This is an extra cheesy slice of 50s horror kitsch, and it’s fun if you’re in the mood.

Trudy is a nice regular high school kid with a nice regular boyfriend. She lives with her kindly uncle Carter. He’s a mad scientist. As his assistant he has a Dr Oliver Frank, and I don’t think I’m giving away too much of a spoiler if I reveal that his real name turns out to be not Frank but Frankenstein. He’s an even madder scientist. He’s the grandson of the original mad scientist of that name and he’s an interesting variation on the Frankenstein character, being a kind of sleazy lounge lizard mad scientist. He spends as much time drooling over Trudy and her girlfriends from high school and making embarrassingly unsuccessful attempts at seduction as he does bringing the dead back to life.

It turns out that the crippled halfwit gardener is actually an old retainer of the Frankenstein family. He also takes a considerable interest in Trudy and her pals, and in his spare time collects dead bodies for his master. The descendent of the great Frankenstein is carrying on the family’s work, but this time he’s going to use a female brain, on the assumption that this will make the monster more pliable. Sadly the monster tuns out to be as homicidally inclined as its predecessors. Trudy tries desperately to convince both the cops and he boyfriend that something sinister is going on, but they all think it’s just the overheated imagination of these Crazy Kids Today.

The plot plays out exactly as you’d anticipate. The acting is as terrible as you’d expect, and the effects are every bit as inept as you could hope for. The mad scientist laboratory is perhaps the most pitifully lame mad scientist laboratory in the history of horror movies. This is all pure cheese. Plus you get the hot rhythms of Page Cavanaugh and His Trio, performing their classic tracks “Daddy-Bird” and “Special Date” - if you’ve ever wondered why Page Cavanaugh and His Trio didn’t go on to become a major international attraction then here’s your answer. They’re as awful as everything else in this movie!

But this is a 1950s teenagers with monsters movie, it ain’t Citizen Kane, and if you have a soft spot for this sort of thing then you should thoroughly enjoy yourself. I did.

Friday 27 March 2009

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)

What Have You Done to Solange? (Cosa avete fatto a Solange?) was written and directed by Massimo Dallamano, who was resoponsible for the surprisingly excellent 1970 movie The Secret of Dorian Gray which I reviewed here a while ago. What Have You Done to Solange? though is a giallo, and giallos are not my favourite genre of cult movie at all. There’s all too often an undercurrent of unpleasantness and an unwholesome relishing of sexual violence against women in this particular genre, and that’s present to some extent in this movie.

On the other hand it has to be said that this is an extremely well-made film, a stylish and tense thriller. It lacks the baroque visual genius of Argento’s better films, but it also lacks the very distasteful quality of Argento at his worst.

Several students at an exclusive Catholic school for girls in London are brutally murdered, and one of the teachers, Enrico Rosseni, finds himself under suspicion due to his somewhat dubious relationship with one of the girls. The explanation of the murders, as in any giallo worth its salt, turns out to be outrageously but ingeniously complicated. It all hinges on the fate of another girl who at first seems entirely unconnected with these violent events.

Joachim Fuchsberger, a veteran German actor who appeared in some of the best of the Edgar Wallace krimis, once again finds himself playing Scotland Yard inspector, although in this case a not noticeably efficient one. It’s left to the teacher Rosseni (played by Fabio Testi) and his wife Herta (Karin Baal) to play amateur detective, a fairly common device in giallos. As always in a giallo the killer could turn out to be just about anybody.

There are mysterious disappearing priests, strange and possibly sinister little cliques among the girls, and all sorts of sexual undercurrents.

The original story idea comes from an Edgar Wallace novel, so although it’s an Italian movie it can in some ways be seen as one of the last of the long and fascinating (and highly entertaining) series of Edgar Wallace “krimis” cranked out by the German film industry from 1959 onwards. These movies were in any case the ancestor of the giallo.

If you enjoy giallos then this is a well-executed example of the genre and certainly worth a look.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Justine (1977)

Within the space of less than a decade from 1969 to 1977 there were no less than four movie versions of the Marquis de Sade’s infamous novel Justine, along with movie adaptations of several of his other works. In fact de Sade is probably close to being unfilmable, but you have to admire the film-makers of the 70s for trying. Chris Boger’s De Sade’s Justine (also released in a cut version as Cruel Passion) was a 1977 attempt by British director Chris Boger (his only feature film I believe), and while it’s certainly flawed it’s by no means a complete failure.

The novel was subtitled Virtue Well Chastised which sums up de Sade’s theme fairly well. Two penniless orphan girls set off for the big city to make their fortune. Juliette chooses the path of vice, becomes a highly successful whore, gains great wealth, and has a lot of fun. Her younger sister Justine chooses a rigid adherence to virtue. She remains destitute, endures horrific suffering and has no fun at all.

One major problem with de Sade’s works, and this applies particularly to Justine, is a certain unrelenting grimness. Boger gets around this by putting more emphasis than you might expect on de Sade’s humour. Admittedly de Sade’s humour is cruel and black and dripping with irony, but it is there, and it makes the catalogue of woes that confront our heroine a bit more bearable for a while. And since this is satire it works surprisingly well. The brothel scenes are infused with a bawdy humour that on occasions takes on a Carry On Justine flavour! At the halfway point of the movie the grimness takes over however, and poor Justine stumbles from one misfortune to another.

Juliette in this movie is a surprisingly sympathetic character. Justine herself can tend to be a little annoying, with her blind obsession with virtue, her exasperating naïveté and her persistent refusal to face reality or to do anything positive in the way of self-preservation. We’re supposed to be horrified by her stubborn insistence on pursuing virtue despite the overwhelming evidence she is offered that it doesn’t pay, and we’re supposed to regard her as self-righteous, thoroughly wrong-headed and irritatingly moralistic. Which she is. At the same time we have to care about her or there’s no movie, and Koo Stark manages to make her outrageously innocent and sweet without being cloying. She’s very effective and she’s backed up by fine performances by Lydia Lisle as Juliette, Katherine Kath as the madame of the brothel where Juliette finds prosperity and opportunity and Hope Jackman as a particularly nasty leader of a gang of cut-throats.

Boger and script writer Ian Cullen manage to sneak in at least some of de Sade’s philosophical asides and by concentrating on a few early episodes in the book they successfuly avoid the tedium that would necessarily have resulted from an attempt to cover the entire story. Boger’s direction is well-paced and reasonably stylish while Cullen’s script captures at least a hint of true Sadeianism. The novel contains very large amounts of very unpleasant sex including countless rapes. The movie handles this both discreetly and without avoiding a certain necessary degree of distastefulness. The movie goes far enough in this respect to make it a tolerably honest adaptation without becoming sleazy or overly prurient. Inevitably this film falls a good distance short of total success, but it’s still a worthy attempt and it’s worth a look. The Redemption VHS release was apparently the complete version but I believe their more recent DVD release includes quite a few cuts, which seems very unfortunate and completely unnecessary and is a worrying precedent.

Monday 23 March 2009

The Toy Box (1971)

The fact that The Toy Box has the Something Weird Video logo on the DVD cover gives you a fair indication of some of the delights the movie is going to contain. Massive amounts of sleaze? Yes, it certainly has that. Bizarre horror elements? Yep. A very large dose of just plain weirdness? Oh yes, it most definitely has that. The amazing thing about this company though is their ability to find so many movies of the 60s and 70s that include these ingredients and yet still manage to combine them in such divergent ways, to result in totally different concoctions of sleazy cinematic strangeness.

We start with Donna, a woman on her way to a party, but it’s not just any ordinary party, and she then explains to us how she met a man named Ralph, and how it is that she is now on her way to one of Uncle’s parties. At Uncle’s parties the guests provide the entertainment for Uncle. Uncle likes tricks and games, so each couple on the guest list performs a trick for him. The trick always involves a sex act, and some kind of macabre twist. Afterwards they take their payment from Uncle’s Toy Box.

This party shows signs of being a little bit different. For one thing, Uncle appears to be dead. Well he certainly looks dead. But Uncle is such a joker, you can’t be really certain. In any case the guests still perform their tricks, and still get their reward from the Toy Box. Donna and Ralph get more than they expected though, and find themselves imprisoned in a cellar. They were already a little disturbed to find that all the doors were locked, barring any escape from Uncle’s house. Finding the maid dead was another sign that perhaps everything was not as it should be. Convincing the other guests that something is wrong isn’t easy. They know Uncle’s reputation for being a joker so they’re not inclined to take Donna and Ralph’s warnings seriously, and besides they’re all too busy having sex. When dead bodies start turning up Donna and Ralph are really worried, and when Uncle (who is still evidently very dead) starts talking to them they become even more worried. At this point the movie begins to get much more seriously odd.

It has a bit of a Twilight Zone flavour, with more than a hint of Lost in Space campness, but with lots and lots of nudity and sex. Perhaps surprisingly, it is at times genuinely erotic - Uschi Digard being made love to by her bed is definitely very sexy indeed. The tricks performed for Uncle show enough evidence that real thought was put into them, and do indicate that writer-director Ronald Víctor García was attempting to give us more than just a succession of copulating couples, that he was trying to add some real kinkiness but also some humour and some truly inspired weirdness.

The movie was clearly made on a minuscule budget, but the combination of ultra-cheap and very amateurish special effects with a strange and twisted vision is one I’ve always enjoyed. Harry Novak was one of the legendary exploitation movie producers, and The Toy Box gave him something he could sell just as easily as a softcore sex film or a campy horror film, or an offbeat trippy comedy, and that kind of versatility was always the Holy Grail of the exploitation producer. The Toy Box is another fun present to cult movie fans from those wonderful folks at Something Weird. If you generally like the movies they release on DVD then this is one you’ll want to add to your own toy box.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Something Weird (1967)

In the case of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1967 movie Something Weird, the title really says it all. This is an attempt to cash in on just about every craze and every obsession of its time period, from the occult to the paranormal, from the Cold War to the drug culture, all thrown together without any real consideration as to whether any of these elements are compatible with one another. And all filmed with the amateurish enthusiasm and technical ineptitude you expect from a Herschell Gordon Lewis film.

I’ve only seen one of Lewis’s celebrated gore films, Two Thousand Maniacs, which I found to be one of the most tedious experiences of my life. She-Devils on Wheels was slightly better. Possibly even more inept, but with an edge of true weirdness and a certain manic energy. My expectations of Something Weird were therefore somewhat low, but strangely enough this one actually works. It even has a coherent plot. The plot is outlandish and bizarre and outrageously nonsensical, but scarily enough it holds together.

Mitch is an electrical linesman accidentally electrocuted on the job. He is left horribly disfigured by burns, burns so severe that plastic surgery is impossible, but the electric current has left another legacy - he now possesses immensely powerful psychic abilities. While he is pleased to have these powers, he’s still fairly despondent about his ravaged face, and especially by the effect this is going to have on his love life. Fortunately he meets a witch who offers him a deal - if he becomes her lover she will repair his face. She’s one of those witches who is impossibly old and hideous but is capable of appearing to be a young and beautiful woman.

Things get complicated when the US government hears about his psychic powers. They want him brought to Washington to take part in a secret project to combat the psychic warriors being trained by the Kremlin. Mitch is always wanted by the police in a town in Wisconsin. Not for any crimes, but they want him to help them catch a serial killer using his paranormal abilities. Meanwhile the US government operative sent to retrieve Mitch has fallen in love with Mitch’s girlfriend, not realising that she’s a witch. The drug angle is introduced when the government doctor suggests that Mitch might want to use an exciting new drug called LSD to enhance his powers. This gives Lewis the opportunity to stage a surprisingly well-filmed and interestingly executed drug trip sequence.

What really makes Something Weird special is the acting. It’s atrocious, but it’s atrocious in just the right way. The actors recite their lines with such delightful seriousness, and Tony McCabe is wonderfully intense as Mitch. Elizabeth Lee tries to vamp it up as his witch girlfriend, with very amusingly unsuccessful results. While the pacing and the editing are fairly ponderous the movie just has so much extreme weirdness that it remains consistently entertaining. No-one has ever made a movie quite like this before, and no sane person is ever likely to do so again, but I rather enjoyed it.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Tetsu, the hero of Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, is a gangster trying to go straight, Oddly enough, his boss is also trying to go straight. Mr Kurata is tired of being a yakuza boss, and now he just wants to run a legitimate business with his faithful assistant Tetsu. Rival yakuza boss Otsuka is unfortunately determined to settle scores with Kurata, and the fact that Kurata had to borrow money to set up his nightclub business gives him his chance. He intimidates the money lender who financed Kurata, and gains control of the building housing Mr Kurata’s new venture. It seems that, despite their best efforts, Kurata and Tetsu will be dragged back into the shady and violent world of the yakuza.

It’s a very film noir kind of plot, with lots of treachery and conflicts of loyalty. Tetsu’s girlfriend Chiharu, a singer at Kurata’s nautically themed Porthole Lounge, is also drawn into the conflict. A complex series of kidnappings and murders and double-crosses ensues. Tokyo becomes too hot for Tetsu, who has been implicated in a murder he did not commit, and he becomes a “drifter” - a kind of wandering freelance yakuza. He remains fiercely loyal to Mr Kurata through all this, convinced that his loyalty will never be betrayed. The web of loyalty and obligation binding Tetsu becomes more complicated when his life is saved by another drifter, a man he had always regarded as an enemy. Several plot twists later, there’s a spectacular climax in the nightclub in which the various strands of the plot are brought together and resolved with extraordinary flair and cinematic showmanship.

While the plot is very film noir, the style is very different. It’s paced like an out-of-control roller-coaster ride. The colours are dazzling, there are some great Swinging 60s sets and night-club scenes. Everything looks bright and exciting. It’s like film noir on crystal meth, done in comic book style. There’s no attempt to pretend this is realism. Fight scenes and gun battles are exquisitely and intricately choreographed, and they’re all utterly impossible, but the movie has a tongue-in-cheek feel to it so it doesn’t matter. To complain about the unrealistic elements is to miss the point; it’s like complaining that a 60s James Bond movie isn’t realistic. Tetsu repeatedly makes miraculous escapes from impossible situations. He’s like a comic book hero.

The visuals are overwhelming. Seijun Suzuki’s flair for composition is stunning, and he’s one of those rare directors who can almost make the widescreen format seem worthwhile. Every shot is interesting. Nobody simply walks through a door. Everyone makes spectacular entrances. The world of this movie is like a gigantic stage set, but despite this very theatrical feel he is the most cinematic of film-makers and the movie most emphatically does not have a stagey feel to it. It’s more like a manga than a play.

Despite the bravura style of the visuals, the story itself is not overwhelmed by this extravagance, and despite the fantastic elements the moral and emotional dilemmas are real and they are moving. This is one of the most intoxicatingly stylish movies I’ve ever seen, made with a technical mastery that is truly awe-inspiring.

The Region 4 DVD release doesn’t have much in the way of extras, but there are no complaints about the quality of the transfer. An absolutely terrific movie.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Scream of Fear (AKA Taste of Fear, 1961)

Scream of Fear (also known as Taste of Fear) was one of a series of contemporary horror thrillers made by Hammer Studios on the early 60s. For some reason all were made in black-and-white, and all dealt with similar themes. All involved madness in one form or another, and all lacked any element of the supernatural (although at times some of the characters might have believed there were supernatural forces at work). And all were highly effective little films.

Scream of Fear dates from 1961, and was directed with considerable flair by Seth Holt from a script by Jimmy Sangster. A young woman, Penny, whose mother has recently died arrives at her father’s house in the south of France. She is confined to a wheelchair after a childhood riding accident. She has not seen her father for many years, since her parent’s divorce. Her father is away on a business trip, but her stepmother seems genuinely pleased to see her. At first all is smooth sailing, until Penny sees a mysterious light in the summerhouse and goes to investigate. What she sees causes her to doubt her sanity, and no-one will believe her.

She becomes increasingly suspicious of her stepmother, and her stepmother’s much too smooth and charming friend Dr Gerrard (played by Christopher Lee, making a heroic attempt at a French accent). It seems that the only person she can trust is the family chauffeur, Robert. Further strange happenings compound her fears for both her sanity and her safety.

Sangster throws in some fairly neat plot twists, and the whole thing is superbly executed. The black-and-white cinematography looks terrific and gives the movie something of the feel of the thrillers of an earlier era, of Hitchcock movies like Suspicion. Susan Strasberg is excellent as Penny, and Ronald Lewis is equally good as the chauffeur. Ann Todd manages to be both warm and vaguely menacing as the stepmother. Christopher Lee never does quite convince as a French country doctor but he plays the role with the right degree of ambiguity and sleazy charm.

This is yet another relatively little known Hammer movie that turns out to be rather good. It combines effective suspense with fine acting and delivers solid entertainment. The DVD transfer (in the Icons of Horror boxed set) looks superb. More a crime mystery thriller than a horror movie, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Death Rides a Horse (1967)

Another foray into what is for me the almost totally unexplored world of the spaghetti western. This time it’s Death Rides a Horse, directed by Giulio Petroni. Made in 1967, it is (like so many westerns) a revenge story. During the course of a robbery a gang of thieves hold up in a ranch house where they embark on an orgy of rape and murder that leaves an entire family dead. Well not quite. A young boy survives. As Bill (John Phillip Law) grows up his one obsession is to avenge this crime. Each of the perpetrators has a distinctive feature - a scar, or a tattoo, or a characteristic item of clothing or personal jewelry - and these features are burnt into the mind of young Bill.

Fifteen years later he has been unable to track down any of the killers, but things are about to change. A man named Ryan (Lee van Cleef) has just been released from prison, and he’s on the trail of the same gang, for very different reasons. His motivation is money. Bill and Ryan establish an uneasy partnership although Ryan is in fact not very pleased to have Bill hunting the same prey. Bill just wants to kill these men, and while Ryan has no problems with that he’d like to get some money out of them first. The hunt eventually leads them to Mexico and to an epic showdown with the leader of the original gang and the very large crew of cutthroats he has subsequently recruited. For both Bill and Ryan this prolonged hunt will have unexpected consequences.

While it can’t quite match the style and panache of a movie like Django, or Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Petroni provides some effective action sequences and plenty of mayhem. This seems to be a characteristic of the spaghetti western - gunfights of an order of magnitude close to small-scale wars! The opening sequence is brutal and shocking, and establishes a very dark tone for the film to come. This is going to be more like a blood-drenched gothic Jacobean revenge tragedy than a classical western.

A lot of people don’t like John Phillip Law’s performance, finding it wooden. I don’t agree. This guy has been left competely empty and completely blank by the horror he has witnessed, and it makes sense that he’s more like an automaton than a human being. Law’s emotionally closed-down performance works for me. It also meshes well with Lee van Cleef’s performance. Ryan claims to be a man who uses his head, in contrast with the inexperienced and sometimes headstrong Bill, but he’s really a man driven a mix of conflicting emotional drives. Van Cleef is quite superb. The supporting cast does a fine job.

There’s a nice use of weather in this film, with both a rainstorm and a windstorm being employed very effectively and adding considerably to the impact of the movie, rather than being used merely for background atmosphere. Overall this is an impressive movie, and I’m now going to be searching for even more spaghetti westerns!

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Fluctuations (1970)

Made in 1970 by writer-director Joel Landwehr (under the name Leo J. Rhewonal) Fluctuations, included in a three-movie pack from Something Weird Video along with Vibrations and Submission, may just be the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. Which is saying something.

Of course in the 70s movies that mixed art and exploitation were common, but rarely is it so difficult to discern what the film-maker’s actual intentions were. Is this supposed to be an experimental film, an exercise in avant-garde weirdness? Is it meant to be softcore porn? An attempt at surrealist sexploitation? Or did a group of people simply consume way too many illicit drugs and then start randomly filming? Is it the cinematic equivalent of the ravings of a madman, or does it offer a profound insight into the human condition? I have absolutely no idea. It may have been influenced by Paul Morrissey films such as Trash, but it makes Morrissey’s offerings seem staid and conservative in style and structure.

There is nothing even resembling a plot. As the movie opens a woman us reading aloud from an erotic novel. we then cut to a scene of a couple making love, and then we cut again to two guys practising their karate. And we keep cutting between these more or less disconnected scenarios, and several others as well. There’s no synchronised sound and the soundtrack consists of the sounds of the two guys doing their karate exercise interspersed with another couple having what appears to be a mutually satisfying obscene phone call. It’s possible that all these events are taking place in a single apartment building, but I wouldn’t swear to that. The participants in the various scenarios seem to move from one scenario to another.

There are copious helpings of nudity and sex, but the movie manages to be totally lacking eroticism. This may be intended as a comment on the way modern industrial society alienates us from our true feelings, or it may just be incompetent movie-making. The camera is out of focus at times, symbolising the difficulty of perceiving events clearly in the chaos of urban life. Or perhaps they just forgot to focus the camera.

It doesn’t sound promising, but it’s oddly fascinating. At times it’s very close to surrealist cinema. Just when you think it can’t get any more bizarre, a young lady dressed only in a blouse and a pair of stockings joins the karate guys for some erotic karate. The strange juxtapositions of images, whether the result of visionary film-making or pure serendipity, do succeed at times in being genuinely striking and disturbing. I finally came to the conclusion that Landwehr was trying to make an avant-garde art film with enough sex and nudity to be marketed on the grindhouse circuit, although I honestly can’t imagine why he thought that was a good idea.

The transfer is what you expect from Something Weird. Apart from a few scratches at the beginning it looks sensational. If you like your weird cinema very very weird indeed then you can’t go past this one.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Vengeance of the Zombies (1973)

Spanish horror star Paul Naschy is best known for his many appearances as werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. Vengeance of the Zombies (La Rebelión de las muertas), directed by León Klimovsky from a script by Naschy himself, is a bit of a change of pace. This time he plays two roles, as an Indian guru and his crazed brother. Or possibly three roles, although I’m not certain the third file was actually a different character. The film is set in London, and I believe they did some actual location shooting there.

A woman becomes involved with guru named Krishna after the unexplained murder of her sister. Eventually she comes to realise that both Krishna and her sister were involved in a series of strange event that started back in 1957 in Benares in India. It involved several English families, a rape, a terrible revenge exacted for the rape, and an even more terrible plan of counter-revenge. It also involves voodoo, and zombies. What connection could an Indian guru possibly have with voodoo? Scotland Yard is as puzzled as the viewer.

Apart from the combination of eastern mysticism and voodoo, the other unusual feature of this movie is that although it was made in 1973 the zombies are your traditional horror movie zombies, having more in common with the zombies in 1930s American horror licks such as White Zombie than with what was then the new wave of Romero-style zombies.

The plot is a little over-complicated, which might be a problem if this movie took itself more seriously. As it is it’s more of a slightly trippy and slightly camp 70s horror romp, and so the convoluted plot just adds to the weirdness. There are some quite successful scenes, with Klimovsky using slow motion rather effectively to create a dream-like ambience. The outrageous 1970s soundtrack also helps. Naschy is reasonably good. In fact all the players are at least adequate. There’s moderate gory, and mild nudity. Klimivsky keeps things moving along at a good pace.

The movie manages to be campy without looking merely silly, Naschy has fun in bizarre makeup and costumes, and the zombies look acceptably undead and shambling. If it has a fault it’s possibly the fact that it doesn’t get trippy enough, but it’s still highly entertaining. Definitely worthwhile for 70s eurohorror fans.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Amazons vs Supermen (1975)

Alfonso Brescia’s Amazons vs Supermen (Superuomini, superdonne, superbotte) may well be the strangest movie you’re ever going to see. One of its many many alternative titles is Three Stooges vs the Wonder Women , and that, along with the fact that this is an Italian/Hong Kong/Mexican co-production, gives a fairly good idea of what to expect. This is a king fu superhero slapstick comedy.

A tribe of fierce amazon warriors is terrorising the communities of a valley somewhere or other. But the villagers are under the protection of Darma, a mysterious immortal caped superhero who has been fighting injustice and oppression for 400 years. Or at least he claims to be a 400-year-old immortal caped superhero; in fact he’s a middle-aged magician who relies on trickery. The amazons have a grudge against Darma; their queen wants the secret of the sacred fire that confers the gift of immortality. There’s also an African superhero, Moog, and a Chinese king fu master, Chung, although how they happen to be living in what appear to be a medieval European valley we never find out. Moog and Chung find themselves acting as slightly reluctant allies of Darma.

And then there are the bandits of the forest, remarkably incompetent slapstick bandits, and they’re trying to turn the conflict between the amazons and Darma to their own advantage. But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a coherent plot to this movie. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I guess you really need to be a fan of slapstick humour to fully enjoy this one. It really is like a combination of an Italian peplum, a Hong Kong fung fu movie and a Three Stooges movie. With a very Three Stooges-type soundtrack. There’s plenty of weirdness, but I really prefer my movie weirdness without slapstick. There’s quite a bit of action, there’s a little romance, and lots of falling over.

The Rarescope DVD release is pretty unimpressive. The colours are drab and muddy and the picture is a tad grainy. There are no extras, aside from a few trailers. Amazons vs Supermen is certainly different.

Condemned to Live (1935)

Condemned to Live is an interesting little 1935 vampire film from Poverty Row studio Invincible Pictures. A village is being terrorised by a series of grisly murders which the villagers blame on a giant vampire bat. But eventually it becomes obvious that the monster is human, or at least human in form.

What distinguishes this from other vampire movies of the time is that the vampire doesn’t know he’s a vampire, and the origin of his vampirism is also a rather original idea - his mother was bitten by a vampire bat in Africa just before his birth, and the bite infected the child. The identity of the monster is revealed fairly early so I don’t think it really qualifies as a spoiler. In fact the movie relies on the audience knowing the identity of the monster and still feeling considerable sympathy for him.

It has some of the fun horror movie cliches of its era - a horde of stupid superstitious villagers with flaming torches determined to kill the wrong person, a hunchbacked servant, etc, but it adds enough original touches to remain fairly gripping. The movie’s biggest weaknesses are the pacing, which even with a running time of just 67 minutes is quite slow, and some rather stiff acting. Ralph Morgan though is quite good as the tragic and tortured Professor Kristan. Maxine Doyle is terrible as the film’s love interest.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of other horror movies of that era that feature sympathetic monsters, movies like Frankenstein and The Mummy. Since the identity of the fiendish murderer is obvious from the start it’s clear that the intention of the movie is to focus on the tragic consequences for the unwitting monster, and the moral dilemmas face by his friends when they discover his secret. Unfortunately the quality of the writing, the directing and the acting are not equal to the challenge, but for a Poverty Row movie it’s a brave attempt. And it does have more good ideas than many of the bigger budgeted and much more celebrated Hollywood horror films of the 30s.

The best thing about this movie is the absence of comic relief! The ending is reasonably well done. Despite its flaws it’s well worth a look, and it’s considerably more interesting than a movie like Mark of the Vampire.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

The Gorgon (1964)

The Gorgon was an interesting 1964 attempt by Hammer Studios to get away from the vampires/mad scientists movies and from recyclings of the old Universal films. So this time they came up with a monster that was certainly original. A gorgon. Yes, one of those ladies with the snakes for hair, that turn you to stone if you look at them. Quite what a figure from Greek mythology (in fact one of Medusa’s sisters) is doing in Central Europe in around 1910 I’m not sure, but she’s causing plenty of problems.

The local people are in denial about all this, and the doctor responsible for conducting medical examinations of murder victims (played by Peter Cushing) doesn’t even mention the tuned-to-stone part in his post-mortem reports! When a young artist, Bruno Heitz, disappears after his girlfriend is turned to stone his brother Paul and his father come to the town looking for answers. They find Dr Namaroff (Cushing) to be decidedly unhelpful, although his assistant Carla (Barbara Shelley) is more forthcoming. Soon she and Paul are in love but Dr Namaroff is also in love with her. Investigating the mysterious Castle Borski, reputed to be the haunt of the gorgon, Paul has his first encounter with this creature, in a scene that really shows director Terence Fisher at his best - it’s moody and imaginatively and skillfully filmed and Fisher wisely shows us only the briefest indirect glimpse of the gorgon. Paul is left physically shattered, but the investigation is continued by his mentor, Professor Karl Meister (Christopher Lee).

There’s not too much outright excitement in this movie, but there’s plenty of atmosphere and Hammer’s ace production designer Bernard Robinson really excelled himself in this one. Cushing was always good playing character with a certain degree of moral ambiguity and he does a fine job. Christopher Lee plays a blustering hero type and seems to enjoying himself. Patrick Troughton of Doctor Who fame contributes an entertaining supporting turn as the local police chief.

The Gorgon doesn’t have enough actual scare value to qualify it as front-rank Hammer (and the makeup effects for the gorgon when we finally see her are rather disappointing) but it tries to do something different, it consistently looks good, it’s superbly photographed by Michel Reed, it delivers the atmosphere and overall its decent entertainment. Second-rank Hammer then, but good second-rank Hammer, and anything directed by Terence Fisher is worth a look.

The widescreen DVD transfer in the Icons of Horror boxed set is absolutely magnificent. If you’re a hammer fan you’ll want to see this one.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Land of the Pharaohs, the one and only attempt by Howard Hawks to make a large-scale Cinemascope costume epic, is one of those movies that has the odds stacked against it when it comes to the way most people are going to judge it. It was not a major commercial success, Hawks himself disliked it, and it’s generally been dismissed as both very inferior Howard Hawks movie and an inferior example of the epic genre. To compound the problem, Warner Home Video have released it as a Cult Camp Classic, and with a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way Bogdanovich does commentary tracks, and he’s certainly knowledgeable about Hawks, but he clearly has a low opinion of the movie. So I imagine most people will approach this picture expecting it to be at best an amusing bad film, at worst a major turkey.

While few people (apart from eccentric weirdos like myself) are likely to argue that it’s actually a good movie, I think at the very least it’s worth looking at his one with an open mind. It is after all a Howard Hawks movie, with a script by William Faulkner, so it’s not exactly the product of some talentless hack. And in France it’s apparently widely regarded as the best of all the 1950s Hollywood epics.

This is the story of a man and his obsession. The man is the Pharaoh Khufu, and his obsession is with the afterlife. He has amassed enormous power and wealth, and he very firmly believes that you can take it with you. He employs an architect of genius, captured in war and now the Pharaoh’s slave, to build the biggest pyramid of them all, with the most secure tomb human ingenuity can design. A tomb that will thwart even the most determined tomb robber. Pharaoh has everything worked out, or at least he would have if it wasn’t for the Lady Nellifer. Nellifer is his secondary wife, and she has her own plans.

Hawks himself is also featured on the commentary track, in excerpts from interviews he did with Bogdanovich many years ago. Hawks wasn’t happy with the movie, but creative people aren’t always the best judges of their own work. In this case he’s right about the movie’s weaknesses, but I think his awareness of those weaknesses has blinded him to the things he got right and to the movie’s very real strengths, and most critics have followed him. He’s correct that the lead characters aren’t sufficiently well defined and that their motivations (particularly those of Khufu) aren’t sufficiently comprehensible, and that the characters are not easy for a modern audience to connect with. I don’t think that’s necessarily a fatal weakness though. It gives the movie a certain ambiguity which you don’t expect in a classical Hollywood film, and especially not in a costume epic.

You expect to be given a clear indication as to where your sympathies are supposed to lie, but in fact the movie is unsettlingly neutral about its protagonists. The Pharaoh is certainly not a hero, but he’s not really a villain either. His obsession has to some extent made him a monster, and although his obsession is difficult to comprehend that does have the effect of making us feel that this really is a film about ancient Egyptians, people whose values are alien to us, rather than just modern characters in costume drag. Jack Hawkins resists any temptation to give a hammy performance. He plays it straight, he takes the role seriously, and he gives Khufu a certain lonely dignity that allows us to feel at least some sympathy for him.

Joan Collins is quite effective as Nellifer. She’s the femme fatale, the arch-villainess, but she does have clear and understandable motivations for her actions. She has been given to Pharaoh by her country in place of the tribute owed to Egypt. Given as a slave, in effect sold as a whore, and Pharaoh’s first action was to have her flogged to teach her obedience. Although she establishes an erotic hold over Khufu, she is only a secondary wife, little more than an official concubine, and she is a foreigner, an outsider. When Khufu dies (and he’s obviously at least 30 years older than her) she will face an uncertain future, if she has any future ay all. Given those factors, I for one find her actions to secure her position and to become queen perfectly understandable and logical. She’s vicious, but it’s the viciousness of a cornered animal determined to survive.

So what about those very real strengths I claimed for this movie? Well firstly, there’s the production design. The sets and costumes are magnificent without being tacky, and they’re genuinely exotic. Hawks handles the spectacle side of things extremely well. The film is packed with impressive visual set-pieces. The pyramid interior scenes are superb. The final scenes in the pyramid are memorable and supremely well executed. This is an epic without any battle scenes, in fact the only fight scene is a brief sword fight, but it’s still very epic indeed. It lacks the cloying sentimentality and annoying moralising of the typical Hollywood epic. And far from being camp, it’s a rather cool and detached and even intellectual kind of epic. Bogdanovich makes the point that Cecil B. DeMille did this kind of thing better because he truly believed in movies like this. That’s probably true, and DeMille at his peak would have given it more of an erotic charge and more of a perverse edge, which would most likely have made it a bigger box office success, but in a way it’s the fact that it’s a movie made by someone who didn’t really believe in this type of picture that makes it more interesting than most movies of its genre. It’s unusual enough and offbeat enough that I think it’s worth giving it a chance to stand on its merits, rather than merely being treated as a so-bad-it’s-good kind of movie.

Not a masterpiece, but interesting and visually stunning. It’s a movie I’ve always been fond of, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. And it has Joan Collins as a sexy bad girl, which is always a bonus.