Saturday 30 May 2009

The Vampires’ Night Orgy (1973)

The Vampires’ Night Orgy (La orgía nocturna de los vampiros) is pretty much a stock-standard slice of 1970s eurohorror. There’s nothing to make it either particularly outstanding or especially disappointing. Directed by León Klimovsky and released in 1973, it lacks the baroque excess and the trippy weirdness of the best movies of this type.

Somewhere in central Europe a bus is heading towards its destination, a palatial country house owned by a wealthy old family. The passengers are in fact the newly employed staff. They are destined, however, never to each the country house. The driver dies mysteriously, apparently of a heart attack. One of the passengers takes over as driver, but it’s getting late and he’s not familiar with the roads, so when they spot a turnoff to a village only ten kilometres away they decide it might be wise to break their journey there and get some food and sleep. Oddly enough, the village is not marked on their map.

Even more oddly, the village is completely deserted. They’re too exhausted by this time to worry about such minor details - the main thing is there are beds in the village inn. The next morning sees the sudden appearance of the villagers. The mayor tell them they’re welcome to stay, and since the bus has now developed mechanical problems they have little choice, and besides the countess who appears to own the village offers them money to compensate them for their misfortunes. Also stranded is an American tourist, played by eurohorror stalwart Jack Taylor. Things don’t seem too bad, until the bus passengers start to disappear one by one.

There’s no gore, but there are some nicely macabre touches. The villagers of course are all vampires so there’s no food in the inn. The problem is solved by serving the weary travellers human flesh - several of the villagers having (rather unwillingly) given up limbs to provide the meat course for dinner! There’s also a mysterious little boy who seemingly appears from nowhere, and then simply vanishes. The idea that the village is entirely surrounded by mountains that effectively cut off all direct sunlight, allowing a whole community of vampires to thrive even during the hours of daylight, is rather clever. It also gives the movie a ghostly feel, with almost the entire film taking place either at night or in a strange half-light.

The ending is reasonably effective. It’s an idea that’s been used before in a horror context but it works, and I’m not going to spoil the film by revealing it.

There’s surprisingly little nudity for a 1970s eurohorror film, but this one (like many other Spanish horror movies of that era) existed in both a clothed version to satisfy strict Spanish censorship guidelines and another version with a lot more nudity for other European markets. Most of the DVD releases of this film seem to be of the clothed version. It’s competently directed and photographed and the acting is adequate. If you’re a dedicated eurohorror fan then this movie should provide decent enough entertainment. On the other hand if you’re not a fan of the genre it’s not going to convert you.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Britannia Hospital (1982)

Britannia Hospital is usually described as the third part of Lindsay Anderson’s Michael Travis trilogy, although compared to If... and O Lucky Man Travis’s role is relatively minor in this one. It’s a movie that was thoroughly reviled upon its release in 1982 although it’s likely to find slightly more favour among modern audiences. It had much the same effect on Anderson’s career as Peeping Tom had on Michael Powell’s career in 1960 and for much the same reasons - it was not the movie that Anderson’s admirers or British film critics in general wanted from him.

Britannia Hospital is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its founding, but all is not well behind the wall of this venerable institution. In fact there is a great deal of bad craziness going on, as well as corruption and greed and all-round chaos. Things come to a head during a Royal Visit. There are protests against the special treatment of private patients and protests against the presence of a vicious Third World dictator in the hospital, while an investigative reporter (Mick Travis from the earlier films, again played by Malcolm MacDowell) is following up reports of bizarre experiments being carried out by the hospital’s most eminent surgeon, Professor Millar. The protests escalate into a full-scale riot, just as Professor Millar’s experiments are about to climax in true mad scientist fashion with his creation of a replacement for human beings.

It’s easy to see why this movie was so unpopular at the time. Anderson takes aim at an array of sacred cows, including those sacred to both the political left and the political right. While trendy film critics at the time would have enjoyed seeing the Royal Family, the police and the medical profession getting a pasting they would have been outraged that unions and human rights protesters got targeted as well. And Anderson’s style, already over-the-top in the earlier Mick Travis films, was becoming more and more outrageous. In Britannia Hospital he combines the surrealism of 1973’s O Lucky Man with a large dose of bad taste and gore and with humour that at times would not be out of place in a Carry On movie. The British film industry and British critics were just not ready for a blood-drenched art-house Carry On movie.

The movie was also attacked for what was seen as its excessive cynicism. It is unquestionably a bitter and cynical movie, a movie that reflects a comprehensive loss of faith in almost everything, but the point that was missed was that it is a bitter and cynical movie by a man who was not naturally bitter and cynical. It’s a plea for humanity in a world of greed and hypocrisy. The political satire of the movie doesn’t come from support for or opposition to any political ideology. It’s aimed at those who use political ideologies as a cloak for opportunism. Nobody in Britannia Hospital cares about the patients. The union representatives, the administrators, the Palace officials organising the Royal visit and the high-flying surgeons are all equally indifferent to the fate of the unfortunate patients. They are so engrossed in their power struggles that they hardly even seem aware that they are supposed to be caring for the sick. Even greater contempt is reserved for the media.

The wonderful Graham Crowden is at his scenery-chewing best as the crazed Professor Millar. There’s a galaxy of talented actors in this one, all overacting their hearts out. While it doesn’t reach the heights of greatness that Anderson scaled with If... and O Lucky Man it’s a movie that is well worth a look, and the history of our civilisation since 1882 would suggest that Anderson’s bitterness and cynicism were well and truly justified.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Chrome and Hot Leather (1971)

American International Pictures put out a string of biker exploitation movies in the late 60s and early 70s. The best of them by far was the Roger Corman-directed The Wild Angels, but the two released on DVD by MGM as a Midnite Movies double-header - The Mini-Skirt Mob and Chrome and Hot Leather - are both fun in their own ways.

Chrome and Hot Leather isn’t as delightfully camp as The Mini-Skirt Mob but it’s still engagingly trashy. A biker gang called The Wizards become involved in an altercation with a couple of young women in a car. When one of the bikers is accidentally knocked off his bike by the car he takes revenge by smashing in their windscreen with a chain. The car plunges out of control over a cliff, taking the two women to their deaths. Unfortunately for the bikers the driver was the girlfriend of Mitch, a tough Green Berets sergeant from the local army training camp. Mitch and three of his fellow sergeants set off in search of the bikers, determined to bring them to justice.

They decide to go undercover. They apparently think that wearing incredibly dorky biker outfits with sergeant’s stripes on the back of their jackets and riding small Japanese motorcycles will make them look exactly like bikers. As you might expect, the responses they get from the bikers they encounter range from amused derision to even more amused derision. They do eventually find The Wizards. Mitch’s idea that sleeping with the girlfriend of one of the bikers would be a good way to get information turns out to be an exceptionally bad idea. The fact that she’s the girlfriend of Casey, the very biker who killed his own girlfriend, makes it an even worse idea and predictably enough he gets a particularly vicious beating for his trouble.

These Green Berets are tough though and Mitch escapes and he and his buddies then mount a well-planned full-scale military assault (well as full-scale as you can get with only four guys) on the bikers’ hideout in a remote canyon, using rocket launchers and various other equipment borrowed from the US Army.

The plot is ludicrous but amusingly original. The stunts, fight sequences and the action scenes at the climax, as well as the numerous motorcycle chases, are pretty competently executed. The acting is bad, but it’s good bad acting. Seasoned cult movie fans know that there’s a vast difference between bad bad acting (which is merely boring) and good bad acting (which is highly entertaining). William Smith as the leader of the biker gang does some memorable scenery chewing.

The DVD transfer is widescreen and looks superb. And it’s a great double feature. An absolute must for fans of biker exploitation (bikesploitation?) movies and well worth a look for any cult movie lover.

Friday 22 May 2009

Invasion of the Star Creatures (1963)

It’s not very often that I come across a cult movie about which I can think of not a single positive thing to say. But Invasion of the Star Creatures is such a movie. This 1963 production aims to be a zany sci-fi spoof. It manages to be possibly the least funny movie ever made. It’s like watching the excruciatingly unfunny comic relief moments from 1930s/1940s American horror movies extended into an entire movie.

A nuclear test at a US rocket base uncovers a cave. The cave contains a spaceship from another world. The crew consists of two very tall scantily clad women scientists, and a horde of vegetable men. They are planning to invade the Earth, but are foiled by a couple of inept soldiers temporarily detached from their usual duties emptying garbage cans. The alien women realise they can no longer return to their own planet after their spaceship is sabotaged, but they don’t mind because they’ve discovered that what they really want is to be prisoners of Earth men. The two soldiers generously allow the alien women to become their slaves, and they get married and live happily ever after.

OK, the social attitudes of 1950s American sci-fi movies can at times provide amusement, but this film provides nothing but irritation. The most offensive thing about it is its total lack of entertainment value.

Movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Cat-Women of the Moon demonstrate that inept film-makers with zero budgets can still make highly enjoyable and thoroughly likeable movies. Invasion of the Star Creatures is a useful reminder that sometimes inept film-makers with zero budgets simply end up making tedious unwatchable junk.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Female Yakuza Tale (1973)

Female Yakuza Tale is a kind of sequel to Norifumi Suzuki’s superb Sex and Fury but the two films have little in common. Written and directed by Teruo Ishii, Female Yakuza Tale lacks the artistry of the earlier film, and it also lacks the sheer visual brilliance. It also doesn’t have the lyrically beautiful action sequences. What it adds is a hefty dose of serious weirdness, a good deal of near-slapstick comedy, and large quantities of extraordinarily crude humour. Despite its many flaws it does have a kind of cheerful exuberance, and its bad taste has its own strange fascination. And it’s nothing if not off-beat.

Ochô Inoshika, the heroine of Sex and Fury, is back. This time she’s stumbled upon a drug smuggling ring that uses prostitutes to transport the drugs. The drugs are concealed in their vaginas. Ochô makes this discovery when she’s mistaken for one of these couriers and subjected to a painful and humiliating search by a group of gangsters. For some reason that I was never able to fathom one of the several criminal gangs mixed up in these proceedings is murdering and mutilating some of the girls.

The plot is both convoluted and obscure, and the more I tried to figure out exactly what was going on the more confused I became. There’s a yakuza boss who murdered his predecessor. The old boss had done Ochô a very big favour years earlier, so she’s keen to exact revenge on his killer, and she’s also trying to locate the old boss’s missing daughter. The various groups of criminals are all trying to double-cross one another, and there’s an enigmatic figure who may prove to be an ally or an enemy to Ochô. There’s also a lady gang boss, who appears to control prostitution and whose girls are being used, without her approval for the drug-smuggling operations. She also has the potential either to be a friend or an enemy.

The climax involves hordes of naked sword-wielding prostitutes and a chaotic, frenzied, gory but undeniably entertaining fight sequence. Like most of the things in this movie, it’s executed to some degree with tongue in cheek. The madhouse scene is disturbing and effective. And there’s a female assassin with some kind of religious obsession - when she prays, she kills.

Reiko Ike is impressive (as always) in the role of Ochô. She probably takes her role more seriously than the film really deserves. There’s more or less non-stop nudity. The crudity of the film is less offensive in practice than you might expect, since it’s clear that we’re not meant to take any of this seriously. The aim is to provide trashy exploitation fun, and it certainly delivers on the trashiness and the exploitation. Whether it’s fun or not really depends on your taste in humour. If you’re anticipating a worthy sequel to Sex and Fury you’re going to be disappointed. I’ve now seen quite a few of the Japanese pinky violence movies, and this one is unquestionably the weakest I’ve seen so far. It has its moments, and it’s probably worth a rental if you’re a fan of Japanese exploitation cinema.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

War of the Robots (1978)

War of the Robots is pretty much what you expect from an Alfonso Brescia movie. The story makes little sense, the special effects are ultra-cheap, everything looks hokey, it’s outrageously cheesy, and it’s terrific fun.

An Earth scientist working on a project to create artificial life is kidnapped by alien robots in shiny outfits and bizarre wigs. His beautiful female assistant Lois (this is the kind of movie where you know that the scientist will have a beautiful female assistant) is also kidnapped. Unfortunately they forgot to switch off the atomic reactor before leaving home which turns out to be a lot more serious than forgetting to turn off the stove. Unless the professor can be rescued the entire city (located on a space station) will be destroyed when the reactor goes critical.

An intrepid spaceship commander and his gallant crew set off on a mission to retrieve the missing scientist. As it happens the commander of the ship, Captain John Boyd, is in love with the scientist’s assistant. To further complicate matters one of his crew members, Julie, is hopelessly in love with him. Julie is played by Yanti Somer. She looks a bit like a female David Bowie but I must confess to finding her oddly sexy. And to add yet another romantic complication, the Professor is in love with Lois.

After being damaged in a space battle with the aliens the spaceship stops off at an asteroid for repairs. The inhabitants of the asteroid immediately attack them, mistaking them for their inveterate enemies the men of Antar, and are in their turn attacked by the shiny robot men. The robots zap them and send them into convulsion. The Earth spaceship crew decide that any enemies of the shiny robot men are friends of theirs, and rescue the asteroid dwellers. This wins them the undying devotion of the leader of the asteroid people, who promptly joins their crew.

Captain Boyd and his crew find the missing scientist, but things take several unexpected twists which culminates in his having to choose between the woman he loves and the woman who loves him. One must die, and he must decide.

I’m probably giving the misleading impression that this movie has more of a coherent plot that it actually does. The sets and props were mostly the same ones used in Brescia’s equally crazed and equally entertaining (and equally cheap) Cosmos: War of the Planets. The special effects are embarrassingly inept, the acting is atrocious, the space battles are totally unconvincing. None of which matters, because if you’re going to enjoy this one you’re going to enjoy it entirely for its camp value, and it has camp value in abundance. The English dubbing is of course appalling, which adds to the fun. There are some truly jaw-dropping dialogue moments. I loved it, but then I do tend to like this sort of movie.

The Alpha Video DVD transfer is unbelievably bad, even by Alpha Video’s terrifyingly low standards.

Sunday 17 May 2009

The Stone Tape (1972)

Nigel Kneal’s 1972 TV movie The Stone Tape starts off seeming like it’s going to be another of those ghost hunting with technology stories, a bit like Richard Matheson’s Hell House (filmed as The Legend of Hell House at around the same time this one was made). Kneale however has some twists in store for us.

An electronics corporation has established a high-tech laboratory in an old house. Their mission is to find a new data storage medium to replace magnetic tape, a development intended to put Britain at the forefront of the technology race. They have all the latest gadgets, including even a computer (a mainframe the size of a small bus). Peter Brock, the director of the project, is disturbed to find that no work has been carried out on the from intended as their computer storage room. The local workers refuse to enter the room, believing it to be haunted.

Brock’s initial scepticism is shaken when several members of his team hear the ghost, and two actually see it. It turns out that a servant named Louisa was killed in a fall on staircase in 1892, and her running footsteps and screams are the sounds they keep hearing. Since they have a whole lab full of high-tech equipment, and since they can’t continue their project until they have the use of the room, Brock decides they should try to capture the ghost on film or audio. This is where the story takes an interesting and unexpected turn. Brock realises there is no ghost as such. What they’re hearing and seeing is a kind of recording. The room has acted as a recording medium, capable of preserving human emotional outbursts of sufficient strength, such as stark terror. Apart from being interesting in itself, Brock feels he may have stumbled upon the very thing their research was looking for - a whole new way of recording data. The room and the human mind seem to be interact on one another, holding out the promise of being able to record images and sounds that can be played back directly into the brain, without the need for loudspeakers or monitor screens.

Jill, the computer programmer who seems most sensitive to these sounds and images, becomes increasingly obsessed, and increasingly convinced that there are in fact many layers of recordings present in this strange room.

Using only the crudest of special effects director Peter Sasdy and writer Nigel Kneale have crafted an intelligent and genuinely creepy little chiller. Good performances by Michel Bryant as Peter Brock and Jane Asher as Jill certainly help. As is usual with Kneale, we get some startlingly accurate predictions of the future, often in the form of what are almost throwaway lines. In this case the local vicar’s predictions of the new forms that our conception of sin will take in the future have proved uncannily prescient.

The Stone Tape demonstrates once again Kneale’s talent for combining science fiction with traditional horror elements, and the film clearly never really commits itself on the question of whether there is anything supernatural or even paranormal going on. The ending is truly frightening, with the tension gradually building to a crescendo of terror, obsession and madness.

While technology has certainly moved on since 1972, the datedness of the technology used by these scientific ghost-hunters doesn’t date the film at all. It’s the ideas that count, and the ideas in this one are as disturbing and thought-provoking today as they were in 1972. Very highly recommended.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

Cat-Women of the Moon illustrates one of the reasons I don’t give movies numerical ratings. If you were to rate this one on plot coherence, pacing, characterisation, directorial flair or set design you would have to rate it at about 2 out of 10. But for entertainment value, it rates much more highly. Its virtues are very much the virtues of movies such as Plan 9 from Outer Space. Lacking the money, resources and technical skill required for movie production, the makers of Cat-Women of the Moon went ahead and made a movie anyway. I tend to admire that sort of spirit.

The first rocket ship to reach the Moon (atomic-powered of course - this was 1953 and atomic power was the future) touches down on the Dark Side of the Moon. The craft has a crew of five, including one woman. She is the navigator, and she advises the pilot to land the ship in a sheltered valley she happens to know about. But how can she possibly know about this valley, since it’s on the Dark Side of the Moon? And how does she know about the nearby cave, which was not visible from the spaceship as it came in to land? It turns out that the Moon is inhabited, by an ancient race whose mastery of advanced science includes telepathy, and they have been communicating with her by his means, without her conscious knowledge. She was chosen because she is a woman, and the inhabitants of the Moon are all women.

Cat-Women of the Moon gains major bonus points not just for bad science, but for bad science above and beyond the call of duty. It turn out the Moon has an atmosphere, which proves (contrary to what scientists had thought) that it must have gravity as well! This atmosphere is unfortunately slowly being lost. The moon-people, in order to conserve oxygen in order to save their species, forcibly and drastically reduced their population. This population control included killing all all the males, obviously a wise and far-sighted move if your principal concern is to ensure the survival of your species. The moon-women (who are called cat-women because Cat-Women of the Moon is a cooler title than Women of the Moon) intend to steal the spaceship and use it to colonise the Earth.

The moon-women start getting friendly with the male members of the spaceship crew, so they an learn the skills necessary to pilot the ship back to Earth (luckily learning to fly a spaceship is something you can pick up in a couple of days) and of course one of the cat-women falls in love with one of the human astronauts. Then, as it looks like the movie might be moving towards a dramatic finale, it just sort of ends with a hurried resolution that gives the impression that the money simply ran out and they were unable to film a proper ending. Which is undoubtedly what actually happened.

The most surprising thing about this film is the presence of Marie Windsor as the navigator. It’s surprising because she could in fact act, and she actually attempts to do so, insofar as that’s possible given the wildly nonsensical script and jaw-droppingly bad dialogue which is all she’s given to work with. The acting of the remainder of the cast varies from barely adequate to absolutely deplorable. The costumes and sets are laughable. The pacing, even for such a short movie, is slow. The plot makes no sense at all.

But like an Ed Wood movie, it’s great fun. It’s a must for connoisseurs of spectacularly bad science fiction movies.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Terror at Orgy Castle (1971)

What can one say about a movie like writer-director Zoltan G. Spencer’s Terror at Orgy Castle ? Well, it does contain an orgy, and it does contain a castle. Terror though is in rather short supply. Of course if your idea of terror is having beautiful naked witches constantly trying to have their way with you, then it is indeed pretty terrifying.

A young couple decide to spend a holiday at a remote German castle, mainly because the girlfriend (Lisa) has had sex everywhere except in a castle, and she thinks it’s about time she remedied that sad deficiency in her sexual curriculum vitae. Apart from a servant the only inhabitant appears to be the Countess Dominova (yes, you’d think that might have given them a clue what to expect). The castle looks fairly haunted, which makes her even more excited, and the stones really turn her on. After they’ve made love, Lisa goes to sleep and boyfriend goes off exploring the castle. He finds the countess naked and engaged in some kind of ritual involving two equally naked young ladies. The ritual turns the countess into a count, and he proceeds to pleasure his two lady friends. The boyfriend returns hurriedly to bed, but through a magic mirror the countess’s two playmates appear and have their wicked way with him after sending Lisa into a deep sleep.

The next day is apparently orgy day at the castle. I should mention at this stage that there’s no synchronised dialogue, just a cheesy but occasionally amusing voiceover narration by the boyfriend. Here we see the first hint of horror, but it isn’t very horrifying. A woman has a fearsome rat strapped to her body inside a metal bowl, and the ferocious rodent is supposedly eating his way out through her stomach. The problem is that the rodent in question is obviously an incredibly tame and extremely friendly pet rat, and it’s all a trick anyway. You’ll be relieved to hear that the rat survives the film unscathed, although I don’t think it did his career any good at all. He just didn’t have what it takes to be a successful horror movie rat, although his acting was no worse than that of the rest of the cast.

The couple’s terror, such as it is, culminates in a black mass, and they find themselves initiated into the castle’s nightmare world of horror (which really doesn’t seem like such a terribly bad life, consisting mostly of feasting and sex).

It’s the sort of movie that a European director could have done something with. It has obvious affinities with eurosleaze classics such as Nude for Satan and Satan’s Blood , but those movies combined equally copious quantities of sex with some genuine creepiness and some real horror. Terror at Orgy Castle just doesn’t deliver on the horror front, and it lacks the weirdness that characterises the better American sexploitation/horror movies of the period.

It’s included in a three-movie set from Something Weird, along with Hand of Pleasure (which I haven’t yet seen) and Evil Come Evil Go (which is delightfully bizarre and highly recommended).

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Downtown (Die nackten Puppen der Unterwelt, 1975)

While Jess Franco made plenty of light-hearted comic-book style movies Downtown (Die nackten Puppen der Unterwelt) in 1975 is probably the closest he got to pure comedy. It’s a private eye spoof combined with a sex comedy, and it’s one of his odder movies.

Franco himself (in one of his best acting performances) plays Al Pereira, a down-on-his-luck rather seedy and not especially honest private eye. He’s employed by the glamorous wife (played by Lina Romay) of a wealthy businessman to take photos of the industrialist having sex with his mistress. It sounds sleazy but not not too dangerous, and Al needs the work. It turns out that it’s actually much more complicated, and involves blackmail and murder, and poor Al is in the frame for the slaying.

He’s also so deeply enmeshed he can’t see a way to escape, and he’s so sexually obsessed by Lina Romay he’s not sure he even wants to escape. And when he gets the chance to play kinky sex games with both Cynthia (Lina Romay) and her girlfriend Lola he’s well and truly hooked. Unfortunately that means becoming a partner in more blackmail, and being an unwitting accomplice in further murders.

Franco is a lot of fun as Al. He’s nervous, fidgety, neurotic, paranoid and totally consumed by lust. Lina Romay sheds her clothes and her inhibitions and gives a lively and entertaining performance, while Franco regular Paul Muller is good as the cynical police inspector who has a certain sympathy for the hapless Al.

And it has a nightclub performance scene. In fact, several nightclub performance scenes. These are always a highlight of any Franco movie, and Lina Romay goes right over-the-top in her strip-tease sequences. There are staggering quantities of nudity in this film, but there are also some real laughs and some genuine fun. And there’s even an actual mystery plot in there somewhere.

This is second-rank Franco, not to be compared to classics like Vampyros Lesbos or Venus in Furs, but if you accept it for what it is it’s rather silly entertaining fun.

Monday 11 May 2009

The Stranglers of Bombay (1960)

The Stranglers of Bombay, released by Hammer Films in 1960, is ,ore of an historical adventure tale than a horror film (and in fact is included in the Icons of Adventure boxed set). But since it deals with the discovery and suppression of the murderous cult of Thuggee in India it has its moments of horror as well.

The Thugs had been robbing and ritually strangling people in large numbers for many years, as part of their worship of the goddess Kali, but by the 1830s the British authorities in India had become aware of the cult and were determined to stamp it out, which they did with great success. So The Stranglers of Bombay certainly has an authentic historical background, even if the actual events in the movie are fictionalised. In the movie Captain Harry Lewis is an idealistic officer of the British East India Company who has been investigating what appears to be a truly staggering number of mysterious disappearances. He suspects there may be a link to an increasing incidence of robbery that is starting to affect British trade. He convinces his superior to delegate an officer and a squad of men to deal with the problem, but unfortunately his superior chooses the arrogant and foolish Captain Connaught-Smith for the task.

A series of disasters follows, and investigations are met with a wall of silence. Captain Lewis is undaunted however, an gradually begins to uncover some hard evidence.

With Terence Fisher directing, Arthur Grant doing the cinematography and Bernard Robinson in charge of the production design you’d expect The Stranglers of Bombay to be a handsome and entertaining production, and in the main you’d be right. There is a lack of big-name stars though, and Guy Rolfe is just a little bland as the heroic Captain Lewis. One can’t help wondering what a Peter Cushing might have done with that role. Allan Cuthbertson on the other hand takes advantage of a rare opportunity to play a fairly major role, and makes Connaught-Smith a memorably obnoxious character. George Pastell as Kali’s high priest is sinister enough but not particulary well developed. He’s really just a stock villain.

There’s also a lack of any romantic sub-plot, and apart from Lewis there aren’t too many characters that one is likely to find oneself really caring about. So the movie has a bit of a semi-documentary feel to it, and lacks the dramatic tension you expect in a Terence Fisher film. There is a memorably horrifying scene though when Captain Connaught-Smith discovers exactly what the fate is that has befallen the caravan he is protecting.

The movie’s main strength really is its unusual subject matter and exotic setting. It’s a fascinating story and the movie is reasonably entertaining. Not top-rank Hammer, but it’s certainly worth a watch.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Sadomania (1981)

Jess Franco probably made more women-in-prison movies than any other director. Sadomania (Hölle der Lust), released in 1981, was one of his later efforts in the genre. A couple of newlyweds are looking for a place to make out, and end up in the grounds of a rather unconventional women’s correctional facility. The groom is released, but the bride finds herself in the clink. The women are put to work breaking rocks, and there are all the usual elements you expect in a WiP movie - lots of lesbians, a sadistic psycho warden, a crazy sex-obsessed prison governor, and lots of nudity. Lots and lots of nudity. Not only are the prisoners always topless (except when they’re completely naked), the guards are as well.

Of course if you’re watching a women-in-prison movie and you’re taking it seriously then you’re spectacularly missing the point. This is high camp comic book territory, inspired by the sexy and outrageous Italian fumetti comics of the 60s and 70s. There’s plenty of violence, but it’s comic-book violence. The plastic crocodile that eats escaping prisoners is supposed to look plastic. If it didn’t look plastic it wouldn’t be fun, it wouldn’t be comic-book stuff. You can’t take a prison seriously where the guards’ uniform consists of hot pants and nothing else, but you’re not supposed to take it seriously.

It’s actually less sleazy than some of Franco’s earlier movies in this genre, such as Ilsa the Wicked Warden and Barbed Wire Dolls. But those movies were very very sleazy indeed, so that’s not saying much! Sadomania is sillier, but it’s definitely fun if you’re in the mood. It’s so silly that it’s impossible to find any of it truly offensive.

The movie’s main claim is that the wicked warden Magda is played by African-American post-operative transexual Ajita Wilson. Wilson spends a good deal of the movie naked. It’s rumoured that some of her co-stars in various movies who performed sex scenes with her had no idea she was born a man. Seeing her naked, it’s not hard to understand why. She’s quite effective in the role, and according to Franco she was an absolutely delightful person.

There’s not a huge amount in the way of extras, but there is a brief interview with Uncle Jess, who proves to be as entertaining and provocative as always.

This is by no means one of Franco’s best movies, but if you have a taste for this particular genre and you enjoy Franco in comic-book mode then it’s an enjoyable exercise in high camp sleaze.

Thursday 7 May 2009

The Sadist (1963)

The Sadist was one of the half-dozen movies made by Arch Hall Sr’s production company Fairway International Pictures, all starring his son Arch Hall Jr. The movies ran the gamut from prehistoric monsters (Eegah) to teen rock’n’roll romance (Wild Guitar) to The Sadist, an exceptionally violent (by the standards of 1963) juvenile delinquent movie about a couple of teenage thrill killers. It was based on a real-life case that occurred in 1958.

Three very strait-laced conservative school teachers on their way to a baseball game pull in to an apparently deserted gas station. Their car has broken down, but they can’t find anybody to fix it. The reason for this soon becomes apparent. The owner of the gas station and his family have been slaughtered by 20-year-old Charlie Tibbs and his 18-year-old girlfriend Judy. Charlie and Judy are both clearly very crazy and very dangerous. They like killing people. But they like to make them beg for mercy first. They’ve already committed a number of murders.

The three school teachers find themselves held hostage while one of them repairs a car for Charlie and Judy to use to make their escape. In the meantime the three are subjected to physical abuse and psychological torture. For a 1963 movie it’s very nasty indeed, with a couple of scenes that are quite surprisingly and shockingly violent.

No-one is seriously going to argue that Arch Hall Jr could act, but this performance in this film does work in its own twisted scenery-chewing way. He really does appear quite psychotic and to take a great deal of pleasure in inflicting pain. Most of the actors were amateurs, and they do an adequate job. Marilyn Manning is convincingly out-of-control as Judy.

This is not a slick and polished major studio production. It’s an ultra low budget exploitation flick, but it delivers the goods. It’s effectively horrifying, and it has a couple of very clever plot twists up its sleeve. Writer-director James Landis didn’t exactly have a glittering career following this promising start but he manages to maintain the tension rather well. Having Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer would have helped, and the atmosphere of isolation and desolation works well.

This was certainly not the first movie to be made in Hollywood about violent criminal lovers on the run but it did up the ante quite considerable as far as the level of violence as concerned, and for better or worse pointed the way to the future for such movies. It’s certainly worth checking out.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Return of the Kung Fu Dragon (1976)

If you were to judge Return of the Kung Fu Dragon (Ju ma pao) by boring irrelevant standards like technical competence and plot coherence you’d probably have to conclude that it’s a fairly bad film. And kung fu movies aren’t usually my thing anyway. But this 1976 Taiwanese production is public domain so it cost me nothing, and I wanted mindless entertainment. And who wants to judge movies by technical competence and plot coherence anyway?

In fact, it’s enormous fun. The Golden City on Phoenix Island has been protected by the wisdom of its rulers and the kung fu skills of its three great generals. Then along comes an evil wizard, whose magic is able to overcome their king fu, and the city is conquered and comes under the rule of a wicked (and clearly fairly insane) general. In the confusion of the sack of the city one of the three good generals was able to rescue the city’s infant princess, but only at the cost of having to abandon his own wife and child. The child princess is hidden on a mountain under the protection of a good wizard, who creates an impenetrable fog that hides both the mountain and the princess in safety for nineteen years.

The nineteen years has now now passed, and the good wizard decides it’s time the Golden City was freed from tyranny. This can only be done by the descendants of the three good generals, whose identities have also been shrouded in mystery (and the identity of one of them is certainly a surprise for the evil ruler of the Golden City). It turns out that most of the descendants are teenage girls, but fortunately they all possess exceptionally advanced kung fu skills. The wicked general has a huge army at his disposal, but they’re clearly going to be no match for a handful of teenagers.

The action is non-stop. It’s not as spectacular as modern kung fu epics but the pace certainly never flags. The costumes are delightfully bizarre, especially the white go-go boots sported by one of the young female kung fu experts. There’s a great deal of engaging silliness - the evil wizard is constantly being hampered by his incredibly long white beard, which his enemies have a habit of tying to things thus rendering him temporarily immobile, even though he has a female assistant whose sole duty is to hold his beard for him. There’s also the good wizard’s very strange assistant, whose belief in his power of invisibility seems sadly misplaced.

It’s mostly a blend of action and comedy, with just the faintest hint of romance. It’s the inspired silliness and the insane manic energy that makes this one worth watching. Even if you’re not a kung fu cognoscenti it’s an enjoyably zany romp.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Amongst the Universal horror movies of the 30s Murders in the Rue Morgue is not one of the more highly thought of entries. In fact Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver do quite a savage hatchet job on it in their Book Universal Horrors: The Studio’ Classic Films, 1931-1946. While it’s definitely not a good film, they do overstate their case a little.

Poe’s original story was a mystery with a shock ending, but writer-director Robert Florey has turned it into a horror tale with the horror coming from the fact that we know what’s going on more or less from the start. That was possibly a wise move, but his script is somewhat bungled and the problems were compounded by Universal’s decision to do reshoots and generally tamper with the already almost completed movie.

Bela Lugosi is Dr Mirakle, a scientist working in the field of human evolution who is experimenting with ape-human hybridisation in Paris in 1845. He finances his experiments by displaying his ape in a sideshow. His encounter with a medical student and his girlfriend triggers off a series of unfortunate incidents, and a number of women are found floating in the Seine.

The script doesn’t come together at all, and the movie suffers particularly badly from the comic relief that makes so many American horror movies of that period heavy going. On the other hand it does look sensational. Cine

Sunday 3 May 2009

The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

The Year of the Sex Olympics was done by the BBC in 1968 as part of their Theatre 625 series. It’s essentially a TV movie. Writer Nigel Kneale is probably best-known for his classic Quatermass serials that revolutionised TV science fiction in the moid-50s. The Year of the Sex Olympics is still science fiction, but combined with some of the most savage satire directed at the media that you’re ever likely to see.

At some point in the future things have become so bad, with wars and civil unrest and violence, that the government has resorted to an extremely successful policy called Apathy Control. The idea is that the masses are allowed to watch, but not do. It’s been discovered that if they’re allowed to watch unlimited amounts of explicit sex on television they’ll be perfectly satisfied to do nothing else other than watch TV. There’s nothing useful for them to do anyway, and so the best thing is to keep them “cool and cozy.” All decision-making is in the hands of a small elite, the High Drive people, and the Low Drive people just get upset if they have to think about anything.

Tony Vogel is Nat Mender and Vickery Turner is Misch, co-presenters of the Sportsex program. Nat has a child with Deanie, who works on Artsex. There are no families any longer, but High Drive people can still have permission to have children although they don’t actually raise them. Despite having two High Drive parents, their child Keten is showing disturbing Low Drive tendencies.

The prediction of reality TV is terrifyingly accurate, and the cynicism about media audiences is overwhelming. This society of the future seems uncomfortably close to the reality of our own times, to both the reality TV craze and to the consumption of sex at second-hand on the internet. It isn’t just about reality TV, but a satire on the media in general and the use of media as social control. There are hints of 1984 as well, with language being simplified into a kind of mindless textspeak that is incapable of articulating genuine emotion or thought. It’s a combination of Survivor and Big Brother with a bit of Facebook and Twitter thrown in.

Unfortunately the audience just aren’t responding to all the sex and longer. So it’s decided that perhaps what they need is laughter. That should be a harmless release. But all attempts to get the audience laughing fail, until one day a rogue technician is accidentally killed on camera.The audience erupts into gales of laughter. Thus reality TV is born. A new program, Live-Life, is devised, in which a couple and their child are left on an island to live the way people lived in the Old Days. They’re told the island is uninhabited but in fact a psychotic killer is also placed on the island, because TV requires some drama. The audience will be able to experience Old Days emotions vicariously, like fear and grief and horror.

Leonard Rossitter is memorable as the Co-Ordinator of TV programming. The very 60s costumes (with lots of paisley) may be off-putting to some, although I thought they were fun. Despite the surface kitschiness this is a very dark and pessimistic production, much darker in tone than Kneale’s earlier Quatermass stories. It’s difficult to find, but well worth the effort.