Wednesday 29 April 2009

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (They Call Her One Eye, 1974)

Thriller: A Cruel Picture (released in the US in a savagely cut version as They Call Her One Eye, 1974) is one of only three films made by Swedish writer-director Bo Arne Vibenius, all of which encountered serious distribution and censorship problems.

A young girl was raped as a child and the trauma has left her a mute. She now lives an idyllic existence on a country farm, or at least she did until she encountered Tony. He kidnaps her and forces her into a life of drug addiction and prostitution. But Tony makes one fatal error. He gives the girl (now named Madeleine) one day off per week. She uses her days off to train herself to be the perfect killing machine. She studies martial arts. She becomes a crack shot with a rifle or handgun, although her favoured weapon is a good old-fashioned double-barreled shotgun. She also learns advanced driving techniques from a rally driver.

She certainly intends to have her vengeance, but she has infinite patience. She has accumulated quite a hoard of money, by offering extra services to her clients. She will wait for the right moment. Although her revenge is a long time coming the movie is never dull. In fact it’s perfectly paced, with the long process by which Madeleine hones her killing skills inexorably building up the tension.

The plot is a fairly standard revenge plot, and although in 1974 female revenge movies were comparatively rare they were soon to become quite a considerable sub-genre. The plot doesn’t really matter in this type of movie, which is just as well because this one really stretches credibility to the limit, with the girl becoming a hopeless junkie within about week, and apparently unable to escape because if you go 36 hours without a hit it means instant death. What does count in this kind of film is the execution, and this one is done with considerable style.

The element that really makes this one something special though is Christina Lindberg as Madeleine. Lindberg has a rather minimalist acting style (which seems to be a common characteristic among Swedish actresses, including the truly great ones), but it works extremely well. In scenes where many actresses would be tempted to go over-the-top with emotional outbursts Lindberg takes an exceptionally subtle approach. But you can see Madeleine internalising her pain. She embraces it, because it’s her pain that makes her strong. While Lindberg is best known for her many softcore porn movies during the late 60s and early 70s she was an interesting and effective actress in the right role.

Thriller: A Cruel Picture ran into major censorship trouble almost everywhere at the time of its original release. The Synapse DVD release seems (judging by the running time) to be completely uncut, and it’s difficult to understand why it upset the censors so much. But then trying to make sense of something as absurd as censorship is the sort of thing that can send you mad. There’s a lot of nudity and some sex scenes and some sexual violence, but considering the subject matter that’s unavoidable and the sex is handled with remarkable restraint. There’s also plenty of violence, but again it’s done with restraint. By 1970s standards there’s very little gore. I can only assume it was the drug-taking scenes that aroused the wrath of the moral guardians, and considering that the movie takes such an extreme anti-drugs stance that’s just one more instance of the stupidity of censors. The movie is certainly much less harrowing than some of the other female revenge movies of the time, such as I Spit On Your Grave.

The Synapse DVD is disappointingly short on extras but it’s a nice transfer and most importantly the film is uncut. This is a classic of exploitation cinema, and a must for cult movie fans.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Wild Guitar (1962)

Arch Hall Sr. was an intriguing character as well as a B-movie legend. As a test pilot during the Second World War he gained such a reputation for wildness that he eventually had a movie made about him (The Last Time I Saw Archie) in which he was played by no less an actor than Robert Mitchum. He’s been a B-movie actor since the 1930s and had been writing screenplays for years before finally setting up his own production company called Fairway International Pictures. The company’s first venture was Eegah, a movie with a formidable reputation for insane awfulness.

Like all Fairway’s pictures, it starred Arch Hall Jr. Young Arch’s main asset as an actor, in fact his only asset as an actor, was that he was the son of the producer and owner of the production company. Arch Jr. also contributed original rock’n’roll songs for the soundtracks of all six movies in which he starred. His songwriting and singing skills were every bit as impressive as his acting. When Fairway made Wild Guitar in 1962 Arch Hall Sr had handed over the task of directing to Ray Dennis Steckler, who would later create his own legend by directing The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?.

Wild Guitar is basically a rock’n’roll teen romance movie about a naïve kid named Bud Eagle (Arch Hall Jr) from Spearfish South Dakota who arrives in Hollywood with a motorcycle, a guitar and 15 cents in his pocket. He is befriended by Vicki, a would-be dancer, and thanks to some amazing luck he gets his first break on a TV talent quest. He is then signed by a dishonest and conniving manager named Mike McCauley (played Arch Hall Sr). He becomes a star, but he never gets to see any of the money he’s made. The plots gets sillier and sillier, involving a phoney kidnapping by the world’s most incompetent crooks, before true love triumphs.

Ray Dennis Steckler also acts in the movie, as Mike’s very unmenacing henchman Steak. His acting is very similar to his directing - weird and incompetent but strangely compelling. You don’t believe what you’re seeing, but you have to keep watching. Nancy Czar as Vicki is not only incompetent, she’s also vaguely disturbing, as if she has no idea at all what’s going on. Arch Hall Jr has absolutely zero acting talent.

It all sounds like terrible film, and it is. But it’s a terrible movie very much in the Ed Wood style. As bad as it is, it’s immensely entertaining. And the worst things about the movie are what makes it most entertaining. The movie also seems torn between trying to be a hard-hitting exposé of corruption in the music business and a sentimental feel-good teen romance movie, and the resulting very confused feel gives it an extra touch of weirdness that adds to the charm. Arch Jr’s songs are awful, but they’re also awful in a fun way.

And it has go-go dancing! Vicki’s dancing is like everything else in the movie. Bad, weird but oddly fascinating. And then there’s the scene where Daisy the stripper tries to seduce poor innocent young Bud. Totally un-erotic, and she doesn’t actually take any of her clothes off, but her dancing is bizarre even by the standards of the rest of the movie. There’s just so much bad movie goodness in this picture. Thoroughly enjoyable, and highly recommended. If you’d always regretted that Ed Wood hadn’t made a rock’n’roll teen romance movie then Wild Guitar is a must-see.

Saturday 25 April 2009

Night of the Assassins (1976)

Jess Franco’s 1976 The Night of the Assassins (La Noche de los asesinos, also released as Night of the Skull) is a movie that becomes a lot more enjoyable once the penny drops and you figure out what he’s trying to do. Superficially it looks like Uncle Jess attempting a giallo but done in an odd period style. In fact it’s an Edgar Wallace krimi. Franco is quite fond of such movies and had already done a couple, most notably The Devil Came from Akasava.

And if you accept that as being his intention then The Night of the Assassins is rather enjoyable. It has most of the characteristics that made the German Wallace krimis so much fun. It has the outlandish and absurdly over-complicated plot, it has the settings that are so unconvincing and so completely wrong that they become fascinatingly surreal, it has very theatrical murders, and it has the same mix of mystery and comedy. Franco adds a little more horror to the mix, but horror was an element in some of the more memorable krimis anyway.

An English lord living in Louisiana is murdered. The reading of the will offers the opportunity to bring together (rather in the style of a 1930s Hollywood old dark house movie) a collection of relatives and hangers-on, all of whom distrust one another and all of whom seem quite capable of murder. More murders follow, and the murders conform to a pattern corresponding to a quotation from the Book of Apocalypse that the deceased lord was fond of. So there is murder by earth, by wind, by water and by fire. And (another indication that we’re dealing with a krimi here) the case is being investigated by a famous detective from Scotland Yard, with Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction apparently extending as far as Louisiana.

I think the idea of this movie as a tribute to the krimis also explains the surprising lack of gore for a eurohorror movie of this period. In fact there’s no gore at all. This lack of gore isn’t a problem - Franco still manages to come up with a couple of the most chilling scenes he ever filmed. The murder by earth is superbly done.

The actors (including Franco himself) all seem to be having a great time. There’s virtually no nudity at all. Even Lina Romay remains fully dressed for almost the entire film. I almost didn’t recognise her with her clothes on! It’s worth pointing out that the Tartan DVD gives us the Spanish release of the movie, so (being a Franco film) it’s quite possible that versions released elsewhere in Europe were somewhat spicier. Maribel Hidalgo is marvellous as the crazed and vicious widow of the deceased Lord Archibald.

The best of Jess Franco’s movies in my opinion are the ones where he gives both the trippiness and the sleaze full rein. The Night of the Assassins is Franco Lite, but it’s still entertaining and it has a rather engaging oddness about it.

Thursday 23 April 2009

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

One-Eyed Jacks is one of those films with a production history so interesting and troubled that it almost overshadows the film itself. It was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, and both Rod Serling and Sam Peckinpah were also involved at some stage in the writing process. After finding that he just couldn’t get along with star Marlon Brando, Kubrick quit. This was probably a good thing for Kubrick, because this is really not his sort of film at all and the end result would probably have been disappointing as Spartacus. Kubrick needed to get out of Hollywood and make his own films.

With Kubrick gone, Brando took over as director and the scene was set for a classic Hollywood disaster. The movie ran months over schedule, and millions over budget. Paramount hated the result, slashed the running time by about half, and took little interest in promoting the movie. It lost money, and Brando never got to direct another movie. Given all that, you’d expect One-Eyed Jacks to be an absolute turkey. In fact it’s an exceptionally interesting movie, and arguably the first modern western, the grand-daddy of the spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and Django, and the revisionist Hollywood westerns such as Little Big Man, High Plains Drifter and McCabe and Mrs Miller. It’s also, perhaps even more surprisingly, extremely entertaining once you get used to its rather leisurely pacing.

The bare bones of the plot is nothing more than a standard western revenge plot. Kid Rio (Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are bank robbers. Dad double-crosses the Kid, who spends five years in a Mexican gaol, while Dad ends up as sheriff of Monterey, California. The Kid escapes, and comes looking for revenge. But Brando wasn’t interested in the plot or any of the conventions of westerns for that matter. He was interested in the psychology of Kid Rio and of Dad Longworth (and yes, the Freudian angle suggested by the names is certainly present) and the relationship between them, and in the relationship between Rio and Dad’s step-daughter Louisa (yes, some more Freudianism there too).

And as a psychological study the movie does, mostly, succeed. Both Rio and Dad have good and bad in them. Dad did double-cross Rio, but it was a momentary giving in to temptation, and it’s been eating away at him ever since. His savage outburst of violence against Rio is clearly motivated by guilt. Rio is a very unheroic hero, but he’s not quite an anti-hero. He’s brave, he’s burning up with anger and the desire for vengeance, but being Brando he also broods a lot. And while he’s brooding he’s not taking action, he’s doing a bit of a Hamlet, he’s hesitating and he’s thinking. Going after revenge is tempting, but is likely to see him ending up dead, and he’s not overly keen on that.

And then there’s Louisa, and that’s turned out to be complicated. He was supposed to seduce her the way he’d seduced so many other women, with his ready capacity for telling lies, and this would be another way of revenging himself on Dad. But she’s really in love with him, and he finds that shaming her doesn’t make him feel good, it makes him feel bad, and he doesn’t really hate women at all, and if all that isn’t enough to brood about there’s also the fact that he has to admit he does love her. Is that love more important than revenge? That requires more brooding. And while Brando’s acting style in this movie can best be described as minimalist, consisting mostly of brooding of varying degrees of intensity, it somehow works. We do get the sense of a man torn between conflicting emotions, and we do care about Rio. In his brooding way, he’s a man you can’t help liking, and for once it’s possible to understand what the heroine sees in the hero and why she loves him.

One-Eyed Jacks is also visually interesting. Westerns don’t normally make much use of ocean backdrops, but this one does, and to good effect. There are some nice set-pieces, especially the early scene on the ridge as the Mexican troopers close in on Rio.

Karl Malden gives a finely judged performance as Dad. There are some fun supporting turns, especially from Slim Pickens as an oily deputy. Pina Pellicer is extremely good as Louisa. But this is Brando’s film, and his understated but complex performance makes this an intriguingly odd but highly watchable western (and I don’t even like westerns as a general rule). In 1961 it was probably much too odd for mainstream audiences, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

Monday 20 April 2009

The Mini-Skirt Mob (1968)

The surprising thing about The Mini-Skirt Mob isn’t that it’s a bad movie. You kind of expect that a movie with a title like that is going to be a bad movie. But it’s such a bizarre bad movie. It’s as if someone decided to make a bad western, then changed their minds and decided to make a bad biker movie, then thought no what I’ll do is make a bad juvenile delinquent movie, or perhaps a bad movie about rodeo riders, and then just before they started shooting they finally settled on making a bad thriller. So it’s all those things combined. Combined very badly.

Jeff Logan is a rodeo star. He used to hang around with other losers who were rodeo riders, and he also used to hang around with a gang of girl bikers called The Mini-Skirts. As far as I can make out The Mini-Skirts are rodeo groupies. I had no idea that rodeo riders attracted miniskirt-wearing motorcycle-riding girl groupies with bleached blonde hair but apparently they do. Which I guess explains why guys would take up rodeo riding. Jeff has decided to put all that behind him though, and he has married a nice middle-class girl called Connie. Why she would be interested in such a loser is never explained, but that’s just one of the many many things that are never adequately explained.

Jeff’s old girlfriend Shayne, the leader of The Mini-Skirts, has no intention of accepting this situation. She is determined to get Jeff back. So she does the obvious thing that anyone would do that in that situation - she instigates a campaign of violent intimidation against Jeff and his new bride. Jeff’s old buddies from the rodeo and the rest of The Mini-Skirts join this campaign of terror. His best friend Lon goes along with this because he is pathetically desperate to take Jeff’s place in Shayne’s bed, and figures the best way to do this is to help Shayne to win Jeff back. Spook and L. G. go along with it because they’re dumb rednecks and don’t know any better. The other Mini-Skirts tag along because they’re Bad Girls Who Live For Kicks.

Why this situation should escalate into murder, gunfights and the hurling of Molotov cocktails at Jeff and Connie’s trailer is a question that only the scriptwriters of this movie could answer.

If the insane plot isn’t enough for you, there’s the acting. Diane McBain’s performance as Shayne has to be seen to be believed, and even after you’ve seen it you still don’t believe it. Cult movie legend Patty McCormack (Rhoda from The Bad Seed) plays her sister, a bad girl who isn’t all bad. The rest of the actors are simply atrocious, including Harry Dean Stanton as Spook.

This is a movie that has everything wrong with it, but everything is wrong in just the right way and the results are outrageously entertaining. Shayne is one of the all-time great bad girls. If you love movies about evil miniskirt-wearing motorcycle-riding girl rodeo groupies (and frankly I can’t imagine how any right-thinking person could not love such movies) then you simply must see The Mini-Skirt Mob.

Saturday 18 April 2009

Watcher in the Attic (1976)

By the end of the 1960s the major Japanese studios were in financial trouble. To combat the menace of television they decided to chase a younger audience by the time-honoured method of adding more sex and violence. Toei Studios produced their pinky violence films, and Nikkatsu produced their “roman porno” movies, “roman porno” being short for romanic pornography. Noboru Tanaka’s The Watcher in the Attic is one of the more notable examples, and it’s now on DVD.

In fact there’s nothing remotely pornographic about it. It deals with adult subject matter and there’s plenty of sex, but it’s more art film than anything else. It’s based on several short stories by Edogawa Rampo. Rampo was one of Japan’s foremost writers of mystery novels, but his mysteries contained considerable elements of horror, weirdness and sexual perversity. He was a great writer and I highly recommend his stories. The Watcher in the Attic captures the flavour of his tales superbly.

A man hides in an attic, spying on the guests in a boarding house. He witnesses a murder, and becomes obsessed with a high-class prostitute. They become enmeshed in a mutual web of voyeurism, murder and sexual obsession. This story is interwoven with another, about a man whose sexual obsession is to become the chair in which his beloved sits. So he designs a chair that he can sit inside, so that his lover can literally use him as a chair, and pleasure herself at the same time.

It sounds sleazy, but somehow it isn’t (although it’s most certainly perverse). The production values are surprisingly high. This might be an exploitation movie, but it’s not by any means cheap and nasty. The period settings look wonderful. It’s set in 1923, a time when an era of comparative liberalism was about to be succeeded by the militarism and repression of the Showa Era. All Japanese exploitation movies have a political edge to them, and this one is no exception. The acting is exceptional. This is a classy production.

If you like unconventional erotic horror you really can’t go past this one. An excellent movie, and highly recommended. And since it’s from Mondo Mcabro, the transfer is exquisite, there’s a fascinating documentary on Nikkatsu’s 1970s erotic horror movies, an interview with the author of a book on the subject, and loads of trailers. No cult movie fan can afford to be without this one.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Fellowship of the Frog (1959)

Fellowship of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske) appeared in 1959 and was the first of the long-running series of “krimis” made by Rialto Studios, based on the works of Edgar Wallace. Wallace already had a huge following in Germany which these movies were intended to exploit. Other German studios started turning out Wallace krimis as well, and by the early 70s even the Italians were getting in on the act. These films are in some ways the precursors of the Italian giallos, with outlandishly complicated and unlikely plots and a slightly surreal edge. For their time they were also surprisingly violent and sexy, and Fellowship of the Frog features a rather brutal machine-gunning which still seems quite graphic even today.

The other wonderful thing about these movies was that they were made in Germany but set in England, and the English settings are outrageously and delightfully wrong in just about every respect. The sleazy night clubs that feature in almost every one of these movies seem like they belong in Hamburg or Berlin, the British police are depicted as being armed to the teeth and continually involved in bloody Chicago-style shootouts with mobsters, and the stock footage of London landmarks interspersed with scenes that don’t look remotely English makes the settings even more unreal. The English settings are so inaccurate that on is tempted to believe it was a deliberate stylistic choice. Even if it was merely serendipity, it works. This is an alternate universe London, a world that exists only in these movies, but it’s an amazingly rich and entertaining world.

Fellowship of the Frog got the series off to a flying start, and includes all the best-loved ingredients of the krimi. There’s a comic-book style diabolical criminal mastermind wearing a frog mask. He’s the leader of a gigantic Dr Mabuse-style criminal organisation, the members of which are all marked with a frog tattoo. There’s Eddi Arendt providing comic relief as a crime-fighting butler in the service of wealthy American amateur detective Richard Gordon, played by the debonair Joachim Fuchsberger. Both Arendt and Fuchsberger would appear in many more of these films. There’s a sexy night-club singer. There’s jazz and there’s a seedy night-spot. There’s a beautiful young woman caught up in a bizarre criminal plot. There’s romance, violence and comedy. There’s a plot so convoluted that it defies analysis. And there’s non-stop action and non-stop entertainment.

Connoisseurs of this genre consider the movies directed by Alfred Vohrer for Rialto to be the cream of the crop, but Harald Reinl does a fine job in this one. The acting is never dull. The film has very much a film noir look which contrasts nicely with the outrageous pulp storyline.

The Edgar Wallace Collection, vol 1, from Retromedia include this film and a second Wallace krimi, The Mad Executioners. The transfer of Fellowship of the Frog is fullscreen and has a few blemishes but overall it’s quite satisfactory. And the set is great value.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Inseminoid (1981)

With a sleazy title and a sleazy advertising campaign to match you just knew that Norman J. Warren’s 1981 sci-fi/horror flick Inseminoid was going to arouse the ire of society’s self-appointed moral guardians. And it did. Strangely enough, despite its premise (a female member of an archaeological expedition to a distant planet is raped and impregnated by a gruesome alien) this movie is nowhere near as exploitative as you’d expect. And although it’s a fairly obvious rip-off of Ridley Scott’s overrated Alien it stands up pretty well on its own.

The archeological expedition in question is just about to pull out and head for home when they discover some strange crystals. And one of the crew members starts to behave oddly after an accident in which another member of the team was seriously injured. Tensions are rising, further accidents occur, and there’s an unfortunate incident in which a team member is shot. It appears that Kate (Stephanie Beacham) acted in self-defence, but did she have to kill him? Then Sandy (Judy Geeson) is raped by an alien in a strange dream-like sequence, and finds herself pregnant.

She isn’t just pregnant though. Her mind is being taken over, she becomes savagely violent and develops a taste for human flesh. And she now has enormous strength. She begins to pick off the other team members one by one.

What makes this movie interesting is that Sandy doesn’t simply become a monster. The human part of her is still there, and she is horrified by her own actions. Judy Geeson switches instantaneously from vulnerability to a quite surprising degree of scariness (she does a very good mad look with her eyes). There’s a particularly chilling and effective scene as Sandy waits outside the Operations Room, telling the occupants in a silky and frighteningly calm voice that they might as well come out now because she’s going to get them eventually anyway.

Inseminoid was filmed in Chislehurst Caves in England, mostly in sets constructed in the caves themselves. Production designer Hayden Pearce, working in appalling conditions with a very limited budget, does a terrific job. The caves were apparently a nightmare location in which to film, but it was worth the effort, and cinematographer John Metcalfe shows what you can achieve with a few coloured filters while filming in virtually no light, if you happen to know what you’re doing. The costumes are also surprisingly good, with space suits that don’t look silly. Inseminoid looks better than it has any right to look. The actors are mostly adequate, but Judy Geeson is quite superb.

If only all Region 4 DVD releases were like this one. It looks splendid and it’s packed with extras. Norman J. Warren (who come across as a remarkably cheerful sort of person) contributes an entertaining commentary track, there’s a documentary on the making of the film and a short featurette on star Judy Geeson. Despite the horrendously uncomfortable conditions it sounds like everyone involved had enormous fun making this movie. Both the commentary track and the documentary capture the enthusiasm and the spirit of adventurous improvisation that fueled low-budget film-making in those halcyon days.

By the time Norman J. Warren hit his stride with Satan’s Slave the classic British horror film was already in its death throes. Which is a great pity because the three movies of his that I’ve seen so far have all been exceptionally good. Inseminoid is perhaps the last of its breed, and it’s a great little movie.

Monday 13 April 2009

Blood for Dracula (1974)

Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (Dracula cerca sangue di vergine... e morì di sete!!!) is one of the oddest of all vampire movies, not so much for its content as for its tone, which manages to be both supremely decadent and delightfully tongue-in-cheek.

Count Dracula has been forced to leave his native Romania because of the chronic shortage of virgins. He can only drink virgin blood, and his health is failing badly. His faithful manservant assures him that there is a plentiful supply of virgins in Italy, where “they need them for their weddings.” So putting the coffin and the count’s wheelchair on top of their old car they set off for Italy. They think they’ve had a stroke of luck when they discover a decaying and penniless Italian aristocrat (played by legendary Italian film director Vittorio de Sica) with four marriageable daughters and a desperate craving for money. Sadly it turns out that his first two choices among the daughters are not virgins at all, which may have something to do with the family handyman (played by Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro) who divides his time between reading revolutionary literature and bedding the daughters of the family.

Dracula (played with gloriously decadent sickliness by the great Udo Kier) is getting sicker by the hour, being quite unable to digest non-virgin blood. He has however gained two allies, with two of the daughters now being under his power. Unfortunately the handyman has now discovered his secret, and seeing this as another sign of the degeneracy of the aristocracy and the imminence of world revolution he is determined to destroy the count, while protecting the family’s remaining daughters be ensuring that they are no longer virgins.

There’s the usual mix of camp, humour and politics that you expect from Paul Morrissey, but allied with a very definite eurohorror aesthetic. There is some debate as to how much of the movie was actually directed by Morrissey (who certainly wrote the script) and how much by Italian director Antonio Margheriti (who knew a thing or two about gothic horror). The most surprising thing is that the combination of Morrisey’s style with eurohorror works delightfully.

There’s lots of gore, but it’s high camp gore, and there’s lots of sex and nudity. Everything in this movie is wildly excessive, and it all comes together perfectly. This is horror played for laughs, but without the crudity or the obviousness that you would expect in a modern production. There’s some effective and amusing political satire as well, but mostly it’s just insane fun. Perhaps not quite as good as its companion piece, Flesh for Frankenstein, but still essential viewing for any cult movie fan.

And did I mention that it stars Udo Kier? Which is reason enough in itself to see this one. And watch out for Roman Polanski in a minor role.

Saturday 11 April 2009

The Beast (1975)

Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (La Bête) is the most notorious film of a most notorious director. Borowczyk’s career started with animated films, and by the early 1970s he had moved into live-action features and was one of the darlings of the art-house set. That was before he made Immoral Tales. That film was shocking enough, but the response to The Beast in 1975 was nothing short of outright hysteria. The tabloid press in Britain went berserk, and the film was banned there for 26 years.

The reason for the ban was the infamous bestiality rape scene, which just shows how absurd film censorship really is, since there was no rape scene. What there is is a fantasy sequence, and I don’t think any reasonable person could interpret it even as a rape fantasy. You just have to look at the expression on the woman’s face when she sees the beast - her reaction is the reaction of a fairy tale heroine. The whole sequence is a dream inspired by fairy tales and by an overheated imagination.

Lucy Broadbent is the heiress to a fabulous fortune, but to get the fortune (according to the terms of her father’s rather eccentric will) she must marry Mathurin, son and heir of the Comte de l’Esperance. For Lucy it’s a romantic adventure, but for everyone else the marriage is about greed. This proud aristocratic family is penniless. Mathurin is quite unsuitable as a husband for anyone, and is not even baptised (a slight problem since the will stipulates that the marriage must be performed by the Cardinal de Balo, one of Mathurin’s uncles). The reason he has remained unbaptised is one of many shameful secrets concealed behind the splendid facade of the Chateau de l’Esperance. For Lucy’s mother, there’s the lure of marriage to a titled family. Both families are in effect selling their children, who have never met, to satisfy a greed for money or status.

As the wedding day draws near, Lucy becomes increasingly preoccupied with erotic fantasies, culminating in the scandalous and controversial fantasy of a woman and a beast-like creature. It is in fact Beauty and the Beast, and her fantasy is inspired by what she’s heard of strange family legends involving The Beast. And Beauty turns out to be far more powerful than the Beast, and the end result is unfortunate for both the Beast and for Mathurin, the fates of Beast and Mathurin being inextricably linked.

Mathurin gets on well with horses. He knows nothing of people. In that sense he is the beast, untouched by civilisation, and beasts rarely survive their first encounter with civilisation. The representatives of civilisation in this film are corrupt and vicious. Lucy is attracted by the non-civilised world of dream and fairy tale. The first time she runs into the forest, after her mother’s car breaks down, she feels the call of that other world, that knows nothing of civilisation.

Most reviewers can’t really get past the more startling imagery, especially the enormous phalluses, of which there are many, beginning with a very graphic scene of mating horses (which excites Lucy who enthusiastically photographs the event). What most people seem to miss with Borowczyk is his humour. These people are appalling, and Borowczyk is mocking them with outrageous glee. The desperate attempts of Mathurin’s father to present his family as being thoroughly respectable (while his daughter spends most of her time bedding the butler while the family priest amuses himself with ) and to maintain the pretend that everything is going fine are ludicrous and they’re funny. The whole situation is farcical and that’s how Borowczyk plays it. His earlier reputation as an art-house director seems to mislead many reviewers into taking him much too seriously, and much too literally.

In some ways he’s doing what writers like Angela Carter were doing at about the same time, restoring or rediscovering the erotic content to fairy tales and folk tales. Borowczyk takes it to an extreme, but that’s his nature, he obviously likes to provoke. This is a strange film, a mix of eroticism, satire, farce and fantasy. It’s sometimes an uneasy mix, but it’s still fascinating.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Samurai Pirate (1963)

Samurai Pirate (Dai tozoku) makes an interesting comparison with Hammer’s The Devil-Ship Pirates which I watched a few days ago. Both were low-budget pirate adventure movies made in the early 60s, but as films they couldn’t be more different. Samurai Pirate is more like an Italian peplum or sword and sandal epic, but with pirates. In fact it’s so much like the Italian peplum genre of the late 50s and early 60s so I feel sure the director and the scriptwriter must have been watching lots of Hercules and Maciste movies. Samurai Pirate was released in the US as The Lost World of Sinbad, and for once the ludicrous renaming of foreign movies for the US market almost makes sense. This movie owes as much to Sinbad as it does to any Japanese legend or Japanese movie genre. Although there isn’t actually any lost world!

Luzon is a bandit accused of piracy who decides he might as well become an actual pirate. His first voyage ends in disaster, his ship is wrecked and his treasure stolen, and he is washed upon the shore of an unnamed kingdom. He falls in with bandits, but then fate steps in as he catches a glimpse of the beautiful Princes Yaya (played by Mie Hama who is best known to western audiences as Kissy Suzuki in the 1967 James Bond flick You Only Live Twice) and he falls in love. He talks his way into the palace, only to be caught up in deadly intrigue. The Prime Minister is plotting to poison the king and marry the princess, and in order to facilitate this he also plans to murder the Chinese prince to whom the princess is betrothed. Luzon hopes to save the princess, with the aid of some bumbling bandits and a sex-crazed holy man who is also a moderately competent magician.

It’s a mix of action, comedy, fantasy, horror and romance with just a dash of sex, and it has all the ingredients any reasonable fan of adventure movies could ask for - a lovable rogue as the hero, a beautiful princess, an evil witch, a kindly (if lecherous) magician, a suitably evil villain and his equally wicked mistress, a sexy bandit queen and pirates. It has a very very cool pirate ship, some reasonable action sequences (just don’t expect the level of spectacle you get in later Asian martial arts and swordplay films), and some cheesy but amusing special effects. And it has Toshirô Mifune in the lead role, someone with real charisma and acting skills.

The sets and costumes are fairly impressive, and it was filmed in colour and in Toho Studio’s version of Cinemascope. It looks good, and the emphasis is very much on fun. To make things really confusing, it’s also been released as The Great Thief and The Great Bandit. It’s available on DVD in Region 4, but seems like it might be more difficult to find elsewhere. This is not a movie with any pretensions to being a major work like The Seven Samurai . But if you’re a fan of the Italian peplum genre and you like pirates you’re unlikely to be disappointed by Samurai Pirate.

Monday 6 April 2009

How Awful About Allan (1970)

How Awful About Allan is a 1970 made-for-TV movie which casts Anthony Perkins in yet another variation of his Psycho performance. Allan (Perkins) has just been released from a state mental hospital. He is suffering from, among other things, hysterical blindness as a result of a house fore in which his father was killed. It appears that Allan may have accidentally started the fire, and since he disliked his father he is naturally having to deal not just with guilt but with vague suspicions against him. He is to stay with his sister Katherine (Julie Harris) who was left badly disfigured after the fire, which of course adds to the guilt. Allan and Katherine were left very little money by their father so they have to take in a lodger, a student from the nearby university, which makes an already stressful situation even more stressful.

Katherine worshipped her father, a professor at the university. Allan disapproved of what he saw as an excessively close and unhealthy relationship between father and daughter, and Katherine was clearly the favoured child, so there are all sorts of Freudian tensions.

Allan suspects that there is something about Harold, the lodger. Harold seems to be secretive, and keeps to himself to a degree that is certainly extreme. Allan starts to wonder about the identity of this mysterious lodger is, and to suspect he may be someone else, an old boyfriend of Katherine’s. He hears strange voices. He confides his suspicions to his girlfriend Olive, but his relationship with Olive is also somewhat uneasy and she is inclined to think he might not really have been ready to leave the hospital. Allan becomes increasingly paranoid, and tensions mount until the inevitable crisis.

The major weakness of How Awful About Allan is the plotting. The main plot twist is no great surprise, since there doesn’t seem anywhere else the plot could go. The major strength of the movie is Allan’s partial blindness. There are lots of point-of-view shots where we see the world as the same hazy blur that Allan sees, and crucially this means that neither Allan nor the audience can distinguish the face of the enigmatic lodger. And Harold has a convenient speech impediment, so his voice is merely a low mumble, impossible to recognise. Allan’s suspicions could just be paranoia exacerbated by his frustration at being unable to recognise faces, but his suspicions could just as easily be well-founded. Director Curtis Harrington uses Allan’s blindness with considerable skill to create an atmosphere of confusion and fear.

The rather studio-bound feel, the inevitable result of being a low-budget TV movie, is more of an asset than a liability, and we feel as trapped as Allan within the walls of this ever-so-slightly gothic house. Watching Anthony Perkins unravel is always fun, and in this one he is careful not to go too far over-the-top. It’s a decent enough little psychological thriller, and worth a look.

Saturday 4 April 2009

La Fiancée de Dracula (2002)

Jean Rollin’s career had its ups and downs during the 80s and 90s, a period that saw him moving away from the vampire movies that established him as one of the most interesting of eurohorror directors in the late 60s and the 70s. The film industry had changed, horror had changed, and Rollin was struggling to find a niche for himself. In 1997 he found a solution to his creative problem. He would simply ignore everything that had happened in the cinematic world since the 1970s, and go back to making the movies he wanted to make. He would take up his cycle of surrealist erotic horror vampire films where he had left off in 1979 with the brilliant Fascination. The result was Two Orphan Vampires (Les Deux orphelines vampires), which was a classic 1970s Rollin movie, and a very good one. La Fiancée de Dracula, released in 2002, continues his vampire cycle. This time he has even gone to his beloved beach at Dieppe, a beach that features in practically all of his early films. If anything, La Fiancée de Dracula has even more of a 70s Rollin feel than Two Orphan Vampires.

Two men, one young and one old and looking rather like a kindly professor, are on the track of the parallels. These parallels are etities from another plane of existence, vampires and similar creatures of the night, and may in fact exist only in dreams. But the dreams may be real, and there may be ways to each their world, or for them to reach ours, These two men believe that a mad girl may hold the key. This mad girl, together with a dwarf jester (clowns are another classic Rollin motif that surface one again in this movie) and a vampire woman whom he loves lead our investigators to a convent, run by the Order of the White Virgin. The nuns are caring for a young woman left at the convent as a foundling, but she is slowly infecting them with madness.

This young woman, Isabelle, is to play a crucial role in a ceremony that may create a bridge the fantasy world of the parallels and our world, although it is of course possible that it’s actually our world which is the fantasy world. The ceremony will release Dracula, and she will be his bride. The parallel world may by accessed by means of clocks, clocks being another familiar Rollin obsession. Isabelle must enter the clock, where her betrothed may be waiting for her, but if he is not waiting she will find only death.

This is full-blown Rollin surrealism, and it’s a magic that still works for Rollin. There are memorable images, including a great library scene. The library scene includes a painting by surrealist Clovis Trouille, Rollin’s favourite artist (and one of my favourites as well, since I discovered his work through Rollin). There are insane nuns and evil nuns, although it’s possible they are not evil at all. It’s all a matter of perspective, and whatever powers control our world (or worlds) they certainly work in mysterious ways. Dracula may be the villain of the story, or the hero. It may be a love story, if it really is love rather than death that Isabelle is to find, although perhaps she will find both and they will turn out to be the same. It may be simply a fairy tale, or a dream.

Jean Rollin at his best effortlessly combines the surreal, the erotic and horror. There’s a moderate amount of gore in this movie, but it’s not a movie that is going to appeal to fans of mainstream horror. It’s as much an art film as a horror film. The acting is better overall than in most of his early movies, although Rollin admits he is more interested in the image an actor creates than in their acting ability. Rollin regular Brigitte Lahaie contributes a cameo as the she-wolf. Although Rollin has always had trouble getting finance for his very individual and very personal movies and he often has to work on a shoestring budget this particular movie looks quite polished. Rollin’s vision has not deserted him and he remains a fascinating and provocative film-maker.

Friday 3 April 2009

The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964)

The Devil-Ship Pirates, released in 1964, was the last of Hammer’s pirate adventure movies. And, curiously enough, the only one for which the studio actually bothered to provide a pirate ship. In fact they built a small but fairly realistic galleon, after engaging the services of the man who built ship models for the National Maritime Museum. They spent £16,000 on the galleon, which in 1964 and for a small studio like Hammer was a considerable amount of money. The ship looks rather splendid, although as in Hammer’s other pirate movies these buccaneers spend most of their time ashore.

The idea behind the movie is quite a good one, and the movie is unusual for several reasons. Period settings for Hammer films were fairly standard, but this one is set in the 16th century so it has a slightly different kind of look. And some nice costumes. And while it might not be surprising to find Christopher Lee in command of the pirate ship Diablo, what is surprising is that he isn’t a dashing English corsair in the style of Sir Francis Drake, plundering the Spanish Main - he’s a Spanish pirate. At the beginning of the movie Captain Robeles is in fact a semi-reformed pirate, serving as a privateer in the service of the Kong of Spain, and forming part of the Spanish Armada. With the Armada defeated Robeles decides to return to piracy, much to the disgust of his second-in-command.

Before his plans can be put into action urgent repairs are needed to the Diablo and the nearest place to take shelter for that task happens to be a rather marshy stretch of the English coastline. The Spanish were not exactly Flavour of the Month in England in the summer of 1588 so they can expect a hostile reception from the local villagers, but Captain Robeles has a cunning plan. They will tell the locals that Spain was victorious and that they have come to take possession of this particular small piece of England on behalf of King Philip of Spain. They place a cordon around the village, but not everyone is convinced by their story of a great Spanish victory. With the militia on its way they must complete the repairs as quickly as possible, while maintaining control of the increasingly restive townspeople.

The biggest problem with the movie is that the characters are badly underwritten, and we don’t really know enough about either the heroes or the villains to become totally engaged. Listening to the commentary track makes the reason for this weakness very obvious, as screenwriter Jimmy Sangster cheerfully admits it was his standard practice to do no research at all for a script. Mostly it didn’t matter, but in this case a small amount of research might have allowed him to flesh out the characters a little. There’s potential for an interesting conflict between Robeles and his second-in-command, but we just don’t have sufficient background to understand why they detest each other so much. None of the characters really come to life. There is a love interest, but it’s very low-key and not very involving.

On the other hand, this is just a low-budget pirate adventure flick, so perhaps I’m asking for too much. It’s harmless fun, and director Don Sharp was always good at action sequences on a tight budget. It looks good, the ending is fairly spectacular, it has Michael Ripper overacting even more outrageously than usual as a Spanish pirate, and there’s the race against time as the pirates desperately try to get their ship ready to put to sea before English troops arrive and that adds the necessary dramatic tension. It’s more of a kids’ adventure movie than most of Hammer’s productions, but it’s still an enjoyable enough romp.