Thursday 30 July 2009

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

Revenge of the Creature was the first of two sequels to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Although it was made in 1954 and bears a superficial resemblance to other movies of the 50s that mixed sci-fi and horror elements The Creature from the Black Lagoon was really a throwback to the golden age of Universal monster movies. Like the best of those movies It has a monster with whom we can feel a fair bit of sympathy, and it proved to be a substantial hit for Universal.

In this sequel the gill-man has been captured and taken to an oceanarium in Florida to be studied by eager scientists. Scientists like Professor Clete Ferguson (John Agar). Of course you weren’t a real scientist in those days unless you had a beautiful female assistant, and that’s where Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) comes in. Naturally the hunky professor falls in love with the glamorous blonde Helen, but he has a rival in the form of the man who captured the creature, the equally hunky Joe Hayes. He also has another rival, but he doesn’t know it yet. It’s strange that he doesn’t realise this, because it’s a well-known fact that all monsters have a serious weakness for beautiful human females, especially if they happen to be blonde as well. The monster escapes from his tank and runs amok. He kills a number of men, but he spares a woman and her child. Like the classic Universal monsters he has a human side as well, and is capable of feeling compassion. He’s also capable of other human feelings, because when he tracks down the luckless Helen he doesn’t kill her but carries her off. This was the 50s so it couldn’t be explicitly stated that his motivations were sexual but the hints are fairly obvious.

Jack Arnold, who directed the first Creature film, returns for the sequel and does a more than competent job. The cast is adequate, with Lori Nelson being an appealing heroine. The underwater sequences are skillfully executed. Like the first picture it raises disturbing questions about who is really the monster (the scientists’ ideas about studying the creature seem more akin to torture than to genuine scientific investigation consisting as they mostly of delivering electric shocks to the unfortunate gill-man with a cattle prod). So why does Revenge of the Creature fall rather flat? The main problem is the change of locale. Not only does Florida lack the mystique of the exotic Amazon setting of the first movie, it also fatally weakens the menace of the gill-man. Let’s face it, he’s not a particularly terrifying monster. He doesn’t have supernatural powers, and he’s the size of an average human. What made him scary in the first film was that he was on his home ground, able to exploit his knowledge of his home territory, and those hunting him were a handful of people isolated in the middle of the jungle. But when you put him in the contemporary United States, it’s hard to see him as much of a threat. You can’t help feeling that one cop with a gun should be sufficient to deal with this particular threat to civilisation.

There’s some breathtakingly sexist dialogue, with Helen’s two admirers not just discussing her like she’s a piece of livestock they’re negotiating to buy, but doing it right in front of her. But it was the 50s, and that’s what you get in 1950s movies. The scientists are extremely unsympathetic in other ways. The degree of callousness that they display towards the gill-man must have shocked even 1950s audiences, but it does serve to make the creature as much a victim as a monster and I would assume that was the intended effect. While it’s nowhere near as good as the first film it’s still quite entertaining.

The Legacy Collection DVd looks superb, and features a reasonably interesting commentary track with Lori Nelson and a couple of horror movie experts whose names I’ve forgotten.

And look out for Clint Eastwood making his movie debut, providing the comic relief as an inept lab assistant!

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Sweet Violence (1962)

Juvenile delinquent movies are always fun, but trust the French to come up with a classy juvenile delinquent movie with a touch of sophistication. Sweet Violence (the French title was Douce violence but it was also released in the US as Sweet Ecstasy) is such a film.

Director Max Pécas, later to become something of a legend among European exploitation film-makers with a string of erotic thrillers and sex comedies, had had a major hit in 1961 with Daniella by Night (also released with the delightfully lurid title Daniela, Criminal Strip-Tease). That movie, a spy spoof with a dash of sex, had made Elke Sommer’s reputation as a sexy new star. It seemed logical to follow it up with another movie starring the same actress. Sweet Violence was a change of pace however. It’s a tale of bored rich kids living a life of fashionable alienation, existential chic and casual sex. It owes something to the French New Wave, and also (it appears to me) owes quite a bit to Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse which had been a sizeable hit in France. Like the protagonist of Bonjour Tristesse these young people are playing dangerous and destructive emotional and erotic games.

Olivier is the younger brother of a wealthy and successful actress. He finds life empty and meaningless, and he drifts into the orbit of Maddy and his friends, who have elevated empty and meaningless into the guiding principles of their lives. He falls under the spell of Elke (Elke Sommer). You only have to take one look at Elke’s eye make-up to realise she’s a bad girl and she doesn’t care. Elke already has a boyfriend, but in this crowd sexual partners are changed frequently so she is happy enough to engage in some erotic game-playing with the rather innocent Olivier. A wild ship-board party ends with the fiery destruction of an expensive yacht, and leads indirectly to a confrontation between Maddy and Olivier. In an American JD movie this would end with a game of chicken involving drag racing and hot rods. This movie’s climax does involve a game of chicken, but it’s done in a much more interesting and original way (which I won’t spoil for you except to say that it involves cranes and a building site).

Sweet Violence tries to be both an art-house movie and an exploitation movie. As an art film it doesn’t really make the grade but it does capture a certain mood of wistful youthful disaffection rather well. There are some effective sequences, and it’s superbly photographed (in black-and-white of course, the way God meant movies to be).

As an exploitation movie Sweet Violence is all tease. Despite the lurid DVD cover art the sex and nudity is all implied, not shown. There is one slightly perverse scene, in which Elke Sommer is trussed up and her sexual favours are auctioned off by her boyfriend, but it’s clear that she is a more than willing participant in such games. It’s all very very tame by later standards. In the late 50s French movies had achieved major box-office success on the American art-house circuit mainly by virtue of their sexual frankness in comparison with Hollywood movies of the time, but by the early 60s American exploitation movie-makers had upped the sexual ante to a point that made stuff like Sweet Violence seem very tame indeed. Sweet Violence did however have a sufficiently amoral tone and atmosphere of sexual license to make it very successful commercially.

The appeal of the movie today is mostly due to its style. And it has plenty of that. Gorgeous locations, great 60s sports cars, a boppy jazzy poppy soundtrack, wonderful clothes and fabulous hairstyles. It’s also delightfully camp and its attempts to be wicked and immoral are enormous fun. And it has Elke Sommer, an actress who had absolutely no need to take her clothes off in order to be sizzlingly sexy. She gives a pretty decent performance too. Sweet Violence is a treat for anyone who loves the early 60s.

Sunday 26 July 2009

The Curse of the Aztec Mummy (1957)

The Curse of the Aztec Mummy (La Maldición de la momia azteca), the second in the Aztec Mummy series, is one of those seques that really requites you to have seen the first movie if you’re going understand what’s going on. Which is a pity in some ways, because it’s a different type of movie to The Aztec Mummy. The first movie had its cheesy moments but it had some real atmosphere and some nice ideas. The Curse of the Aztec Mummy is just silly fun, although it’s still highly entertaining silly fun. Adding a mysterious masked crime-fighter known as The Angel (in a cape and spandex tights no less) inevitably increases the camp quotient considerably!

The diabolical criminal mastermind who meddles so diastrously in Dr Almada’s past life regression experiments in the first film has escaped from custody, and he’s still determined to get hold of the fabulous Aztec treasure. His plan to discover the exact location of the treasure involves kidnapping both Dr Almada and his fiancee Flor and forcing them to repeat their earlier experiment - to send her back to her previous life when she was to be offered as a sacrifice to the Aztec gods.

It plays out very much in the style of an old Hollywood movie serial, with the good guys being captured by the bad guys, then escaping, then being recaptured, then re-escaping, and so on. The diabolical criminal mastermind behaves the way any good movie diabolical criminal mastermind should - when he has the hero at his mercy he doesn’t simply kill him, but instead devises a complicated and ingenious method of execution which of course fails, as such methods always fail in the world of the movies.

The acting is pretty basic, although Rosa Arenas is quite good as Flor. It lacks the wonderful gothic mood of the best Mexican horror movies, it lacks the genuine frisson of terror that the human sacrifice sub-plot in the first movie provided, and Rafael Portillo’s direction isn’t overly imaginative. It does however offer non-stop if somewhat bewildering action and plenty of unlikely plot twists and narrow escapes from certain death.

It can be found in BCI’s three-movie Aztec Mummy boxed set, nicely restored and including both the original Spanish soundtrack with sub-titles and an English dubbed version. It’s all good campy fun, and the boxed set is well worth picking up.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Vibrations (1968)

As much as I love the sexploitation movies of the 60s and 70s have to admit that their charm more often than resides in their weirdness and/or their camp value. Since I’m a fan of both weirdness and camp that isn’t a problem for me. Joe Sarno’s movies on the other hand are rather different. Sarno had more serious intentions than the average sexploitation director, and his movies have a real edge to them.

Many of Sarno’s movies deal with the sexual obsessions and lusts lurking beneath the surface of respectable society. Movies like Sin in the Suburbs and The Swap and How They Make It lift the lid on the hidden world of kinky sex in suburbia. Vibrations, which dates from the late 60s (there seems to be some doubt about the exact year), explores similar territory, but this time in New York City.

Barbara is trying to realise her dream of being a writer. To pay the bills she types manuscripts for other writers. She has a small but comfortable apartment and seems to be reasonably content, until her older sister Julie shows up on the doorstep and invites herself to stay indefinitely. Barbara and Julie had been close when they were young. Very very close, but not quite in the way generally considered acceptable for sisters. Julie would like to re-establish their earlier intimacy, but Barbara rebuffs her in disgust. In fact both sisters are excessively preoccupied with sex; they simply express their obsession in different ways. Julie deals with her obsession by having lots of sex while Barbara deals with hers by not having sex and trying (unsuccessfully) not to think about it. And by thinking of Julie as a slut.

This situation would be stressful enough in itself, but then there’s their neighbour. The neighbour is young, blonde and attractive, and she has a couple of friends - one male and female - who spend a great deal of time with her. The sounds of obviously very satisfying love-making coming from her apartment attract the attention of Julie, and when she finds the neighbour’s door open the following day she can’t resist investigating. She discovers a rather impressive-looking sex toy (hence the name of the movie), and soon Julie has become a more than willing partner in these people’s sex games. She finds that while threesomes can be fun, foursomes can be even more fun. Things reach a climax (so to speak) when she finally persuades Barbara that fivesomes can be even better and that she really should join in. To complicate matters further Julie spends her spare time seducing a hunky writer for whom Barbara had been typing manuscripts, and for whom Barbara had developed the beginnings of a romantic obsession. But the game doesn’t end the way Julie expected.

Apart from being a very competent director with a fine sense of pacing and an ability to explore the emotional costs of sexual obsessions Joe Sarno also had a knack for getting exceptionally good performances from unknown and often completely inexperienced actors. The two actresses who play Barbara and Julie not only take their roles seriously but manage to bring their characters to life and to give them some real emotional depth.

This is of course an erotic movie, but in the world of 60s/70 sexploitation that doesn’t necessarily equate to copious amounts of sex and nudity. In this case there’s quite a bit of both, although it’s very softcore. On the other hand it is genuinely erotic, and the two lead actresses are both very attractive and very sexy while still looking like real human beings rather than the miracles of plastic surgery who dominate such movies today. Vibrations is as much a psychological study as a sex move and it succeeds pretty well on both levels. Any Joe Sarno movie is worth seeing. It comes packaged (courtesy of the good people at Something Weird Video) with two other sexploitation movies of the same era, Fluctuations and Submission. While the other two features can’t be considered to be in quite same class as Vibrations they are delightfully weird and highly entertaining. Which makes this Times Square Triple Feature exceedingly good value. Highly recommended.

Friday 24 July 2009

Assignment Outer Space (1960)

I must confess to a considerable fondness for Italian science fiction movies of the 60s and 70s, and one of my favourites is Wild, Wild Planet, directed by Antonio Margheriti. So I had fairly high hopes for Assignment Outer Space (1960) (AKA Space Men), also directed by Margheriti. Assignment Outer Space is a much earlier effort, one of Margheriti’s first directing jobs and also quite possibly the first of the Italian space operas. It lacks the full-blown camp weirdness of movies like Wild, Wild Planet and is closer on feel to the American sci-fi movies of the 50s.

It does however have some of the most outrageously amateurish model work you’ll ever see, and really bad model shots are always a joy. I suspect that the spaceships are actually plastic model kits bought from the local hobby shop! But they’re great fun. The budget for the entire film must have been virtually nothing, but in those happy days that wasn’t going to stop someone from making a science fiction movie dealing with interplanetary space travel and the potential destruction of the whole of human civilisation!

Rik van Nutter (yes, that’s the actor’s name) is Ray Peterson, a blond hunk reporter in the 2nd century who has managed to get permission to accompany the latest space mission. On the whole the crew of space vessel BZ88 aren’t impressed, although the one female crew member, Lucy, is very impressed. It’s that blond California surfer boy look. It would turn any girl’s head. Since she’s having an affair with the commander of the spaceship there is some potential here for conflict. Ray’s tendency to ignore orders to get good film footage ratchets up the tension even more. But none of that that really matters any more when a space station goes out of control and starts heading towards the Earth. The photonic generators have created a deadly photonic field that will destroy all life on the planet! Can a handful of cosmonauts (they’re always referred to as cosmonauts in the English dubbed version) and a hunky reporter save civilisation?

The acting, fortunately, is terrible and the English dubbing is outrageously over-the-top. This provides a good deal of the entertainment. The special effects might be laughable but Margheriti keeps the action moving along. There’s a lot of delightfully absurd pseudoscience, and the movie trues desperately hard to engender an air of breathless excitement. An unusual feature (for a 1960 movie) is that the spaceship crew includes both a woman and a black man and both are portrayed as efficient professionals.

If you’re prepared to accept this one for what it is, a pure popcorn movie, then it’s a good deal of rather silly fun.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

The Undying Monster (1942)

The release of three John Brahm movies in the Fox Horror Classics Collection caused quite a bit of excitement a couple of years ago. Brahm, born in Germany in 1893, was hailed as one of the great forgotten horror auteurs. Having now seen two of the three films included in the set, my own feeling is that Brahm has been highly overrated.

The Undying Monster, made at 20th Century Fox in 1942, is very much a B-movie. Of course there are B-movies and B-movies, but if you’re expecting something of the quality of Val Lewton’s RKO horror films you’re going to be very disappointed. It has reasonably production values, and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is impressively Expressionist. The weaknesses, as in Hangover Square, are the script and the acting. The script is corny and obvious, and contrived. The acting is unfortunately all too reminiscent of that in the Universal horror movies of this period, with totally unnecessary and annoying attempts at providing comic relief.

The Hammond family, or at least the last surviving members of this ancient family, live in one of the oldest inhabited houses in England. There is a curse on the family, the curse of the Hammond monster. When the last male member of the family is found on a ledge below a cliff-top, along with an unconscious young woman, and both show signs of having been attacked by a large creature of unknown species, it seems the curse has struck again.

A scientific officer and his female assistant are sent by Scotland Yard to investigate these strange events. There’s a mysterious butler who knows more than he admits to, and there’s the family doctor, who also appears to know more than he’s prepared to reveal. The plot is no worse than your typical horror B-movie plot, but it fails to develop the necessary dramatic tension. And while Brahm has a good visual sense, and there’s an abundance of fog and shadows, the atmosphere of menace and foreboding doesn’t quite come off.

That’s not to say The Undying Monster isn’t worth seeing, If you treat it as just another 1940s American horror B-film, and if you enjoy that type of movie, then it’s entertaining enough. Just don’t expect a neglected masterpiece.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

The Cocaine Fiends (1935)

The Cocaine Fiends (originally released as The Pace That Kills) was made in 1935 by Willis Kent Productions, one of the main producers of exploitation movies at that period. It’s clearly an attempt to capitalise on the growing drug hysteria in the US at that time.

Jane Bradford is a sweet innocent country girl lured to the big city by a smooth-talking Lothario. He promises to marry her, and he offers her a wonderful cure for her headaches. He has these special headache powders, and after she takes one her headache goes right away - in fact she feels just swell! But of course once a good girl from the country makes the fateful decision to go to the city she’s already taken the first steps on the road to degradation and ruin. Sure enough, once he gets her there he doesn’t marry her. He does keep her supplied with headache powders though.

By the time she realises that his headache cures are actually dope its too late - she’s hooked! And pretty soon he has her working as a prostitute to support her habit. Meanwhile her brother Eddie has gone to the big city as well, to look for his sister. He has a job at a drive-in fast food outlet, and he’s met a real nice girl. Unfortunately it seems that headaches run in the family, but luckily his new friend has these terrific headache powders, and pretty soon he’s feeling just swell again.

Naturally it isn’t long before Eddie and his friend lose their jobs, because that’s what happens when you’re a coke addict. The plot becomes increasingly tortuous, and there’s a sub-plot involving a nice rich girl who befriends Eddie’s girlfriend. The nice rich girl hangs out at the trendy night spot known as The Dead Rat Cafe (the decor of which features drawings of dead rats all over the walls and is one of the highlights of the film), not knowing that it’s run by Jane’s gangster boyfriend. The nice rich girl is kidnapped by the gangster to be sold into white slavery. She is to be the plaything of the big chief of the drugs and vice racket. The conclusion involves several shocking revelations, as Jane battles to save her brother from the wickedness of his life in the big city. He can be saved, but there’s no hope for her because "girls can't go back.”

The lesson of the movie is not so much about the evil of drugs. It’s more the evils of the city, and of pleasure. Looking for fun and pleasure will inevitably lead to destruction and disgrace, especially if you’re a woman.

Like most of the exploitation movies of that era The Cocaine Fiends sheds interesting light on the anxieties engendered by the modern world. Modern life is seen as threatening and dangerous. And like most such films it faces the fascinating contradiction of condemning the very things on which it relies for its chance of commercial success, which for such movies depended entirely on the thrill of the forbidden and the illicit.

It’s really more of an interesting historical curiosity than anything else, and is only worth watching if you have a real taste for these kinds of movies that operated in the netherworld outside the Hollywood studio system.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Carny (1980)

Not the sort of movie I usually post about here, but Carny is a quirky little movie that I'm rather fond of. This is one those movies that takes an outrageously hackneyed idea and somehow makes it work. Jodie Foster is Donna, a small-town girl working as a waitress who is desperate to escape, to anywhere at all as long as it isn’t the small town she grew up in. When a travelling carnival comes to town, and one of the carnies takes a shine to her, she sees her chance and she grabs it.

The guy she hooks up with is Frankie (Gary Busey). His job is to dress as a clown and sit in a cage yelling abuse at the marks, taunting them so they will pay to throw balls at a target. If they hit the target, he gets dunked in a pail of water. His partner is a guy called Patch (musician Robbie Robertson from The Band in one of his very few acting roles). They share a trailer, and a friendship, and pretty soon they’re sharing Donna’s sexual favours as well. Meanwhile Donna has to find a way to earn her keep in the carnival. She tries working in the strip show, but with somewhat disastrous consequences, before finally finding her niche in a rather odd sideshow that involves pulling strings to in prizes.

There really isn’t that much of a plot to the movie, and even such plot elements as there are don’t really go anywhere. That actually turns out to be an unexpected strength of the movie, since after all that’s the carny life - always traveling without going anywhere in particular. With not much plot the emphasis has to be on character and atmosphere, and it scores highly in those areas. It seem to have been something of a personal project for Robbie Robertson, since he is credited as co-writer and co-producer as well as playing one of the leads - I guess the life of the traveling carnival has quite a bit in common with life on the road in a rock’n’roll band.

Director Robert Kaylor is mostly content to let his actors carry the movie, and fortunately his three leads are more than equal to the task. Robbie Robertson and Gary Busey have a wonderful rapport. The 17-year-old Jodie Foster, with more than a dozen movies and an Oscar nomination already behind her, has more than enough experience to handle the role of Donna. All three main characters are complex, with plenty of human weaknesses balanced with genuine warmth. The supporting cast is a mix of amateur actors and seasoned professionals like Elisha Cook Jr, and they all do a fine job.

Carny walks a fine line between excessive sentimentality and excessive cynicism, and does so successfully. It resists the obvious temptations offered by the romantic triangle plot, and it resists the temptation to tie up plot strands neatly. Like the carny life, it’s ambiguous but rich in nuance and filled with the vitality of the life of those who choose this outsider existence.

As far as I know it’s not yet available on DVD, although there are rumours of an upcoming Region 1 release. This movie is an absolute must for Jodie Foster fans, being her first major triumph as an adult actress. An exceptionally interesting and slightly offbeat movie, highly recommended.

Saturday 18 July 2009

My Brother’s Wife (1966)

The films of Doris Wishman, one of the few female exploitation directors of the 60s, have become a major guilty pleasure for me since I discovered Bad Girls Go To Hell last year. She was a true low-budget auteur with a style as distinctive as (although very different from) that of Russ Meyer. I haven’t seen any of her later movies, or her early nudie-cuties, but I’ve now seen several of her “roughies” from the 1960s and they’re immense fun and delightfully off-beat.

At the opening of My Brother’s Wife Frankie returns to his home town to find that his much older and much pudgier brother Bob has acquired a stunningly beautiful 23-year-old wife named Mary. It doesn’t take long before sexual sparks start to fly between Frankie and Mary. The tension is exacerbated by Bob’s lack of sexual interest in his new bride. Frankie has also hooked up with an old flame, Zena. We’re never sure if Frankie is actually a petty criminal or not, but he’s definitely a bad boy and he’s very bad news for any woman who falls for him. Frankie wants to head to more exciting pastures, and both Mary and Zena would like to go with him. To do this he needs money, and that’s where Mary offers to help. The money won’t exactly be legally come by, but that doesn’t trouble Frankie too much. This tangled romantic situation is of course going to end in tears.

My Brother’s Wife is really less of a sexploitation feature than a strange crime/romantic melodrama that manages to be both cynical and campy. There’s only a single actual nude scene. It does have the characteristic features you expect in a Doris Wishman movie - lots of footage of people’s feet, of scenery, and assorted items of furniture. And it has classic jaw-dropping Wishman dialogue (she wrote, directed and produced this one). Despite her odd filmic obsessions Wishman was no Ed Wood. She was not really an incompetent film-maker. She had no formal training, and therefore her movies look nothing whatever like any kind of commercial feature films. Her approach was totally individual, and it’s weirdly fascinating. She had definite arty pretensions, but her art was entirely her own creation. She had a vision, even if it wasn’t a vision shared by too many other people. And this one even has synchronised sound! Well, it’s mostly synchronised!

The cast includes a host of regulars from the sexploitation circuit of that time and most of them appear in quite a few of her movies. The acting is not exactly professional, but it works in the context of the type of movie that My Brother’s Wife is. June Roberts as Mary and Darlene Bennett as Zena have a mid-1960s glamour that is rather seductive, while Sam Stewart is suitably untrustworthy as Frankie.

Something Weird’s DVD transfer is superb as usual. For lovers of camp and connoisseurs of unconventional and eccentric cinema this movie delivers the goods.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Crimes of Passion (1984)

Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion was apparently quite controversial when originally released in 1984. Which just shows how much trouble some people have with movies dealing with grown-up problems.

Bobby Grady is a self-described Boy Scout, a guy who’s been married for twelve years and has never looked at another woman in all that time. He’s good-looking in a bland Tom Cruise-ish sort of way, naïve but well-meaning. With two kids he has some financial pressures, so he takes on a night job doing surveillance. Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) is a sportswear designer suspected by her boss of selling the film’s designs to a competitor. It turns out that she isn’t doing that at all, but she does have a secret life. At night the hard-working and slightly aloof businesswoman becomes China Blue, a very expensive and rather exotic prostitute. China Blue will play out any man’s fantasy. As she says, to be an expensive hooker you have to be a good actress, and she’s a very good actress. In fact both her day-time and night-time lives involve acting a part.

Bobby soon discovers that China Blue isn’t the only person acting a part. In fact his whole marriage has been nothing but play-acting. He and Amy have played at Happy Families, acting the roles of perfect husband and perfect wife, but it’s been nothing but lies. She’s not only been faking orgasms for the whole of their married life, she’s been faking everything else. She’s never told Bobby the truth about any of her feelings about him, and indeed it appears she’s never told herself the truth about any of these things either.

Inevitably Bobby ends up in China Blue’s bed, and discovers that sex is something that doesn’t have to involve anxiety and emotional manipulation. It can actually be fun, and it can be honest. You pay your fifty bucks, and you get your money’s worth, and she gets her fifty bucks. The sex might be sensational, but things are about to get complicated. Bobby has left Amy, and turns up on China Blue’s doorstep. He looks so sad and bedraggled, like a lost puppy, and he also looks so damned cute, that she just can’t turn him away. But there’s yet another complication - a crazed street preacher (Anthony Perkins) who wants to save China Blue’s soul, and is prepared to use the most extreme measures to do so.

The weakness of the film is in the plotting of screenwriter Barry Sandler. He’s created some fascinating and complex characters, and he’s done some interesting things with them, but the plot just doesn’t hang together. The crazed preacher sub-plot seems to belong to another film. As an erotic thriller it doesn’t really work. However the characters and the acting, aided by some nicely moody cinematography by Dick Bush, are more than enough to compensate for the weaknesses in plotting. Even Tony Perkins, while going outrageously over-the-top, manages to give the sex-obsessed preacher some complexity. He’s a man who honestly doesn’t know whether he hates women for being desirable, or hates men for desiring them, and he honestly doesn’t know if it’s sex or death he wants most.

The key character is Joanna/China Blue. Kathleen Turner doesn’t play her as a Whore With a Heart of Gold, but neither does she play her as the Cynical Hardbitten Whore, or as the Whore as Victim. China Blue is all these things and more. She’s a complicated person with complicated problems. She’s turned to prostitution as a way of avoiding emotional entanglements, of staying in control, of not getting hurt emotionally. At the same time, she has the emotional needs that we all have. Her involvement with Bobby, which could easily have come across as an unlikely and contrived plot development, instead comes across as believable. Joanna’s life as a prostitute is neither demonised nor glamorised - it’s simply her way of dealing with things. There are obvious similarities to the character of Bree in Klute, and there’s a rather nice homage to that film that really is a homage, not a rip-off.

Bobby is the character who could easily have wrecked the movie. If for one moment we’d started to regard him with contempt or pity the film would have fallen apart, but John Laughlin gives him enough dignity and enough charm to avoid those pitfalls. Annie Potts also succeeds in making Amy a tragic character rather than a villain. Amy has made disastrous mistakes, but her lies were motivated not by malice but by her own inability to face the truth and her inability to face any genuine emotion. She really thought that play-acting the part of the perfect happy wife was the right thing to do. And Bobby isn’t blameless - the warning signs have been there for years, but he’s also chosen to embrace the fantasy of the perfect marriage rather than face the reality. So everyone is acting a part, and everybody is afraid of being honest.

It’s also nice to see a US movie that is at least technically in the erotic thriller genre that isn’t misogynistic and doesn’t hand us a moral message about the emptiness and futility of sex. If anything the message of the film isn’t that sex without love is empty, but that love without sex is empty. Perhaps that’s the real reason it was controversial - it’s essentially positive about sex and it’s not exactly positive about the nuclear family of the American Dream. It’s a flawed movie but still an exceptionally interesting one, and as always even a Ken Russell movie that doesn’t succeed completely is still infinitely more interesting than the entire output of a hack like Spielberg. And as quite correctly pointed out in a comment to my review on , Crimes of Passion has the camp sensibility that is present in all Ken Russell’s movies, including the more serious ones. So although it’s technically a US movie, that camp sensibility sharply distinguishes it from any US erotic thriller and again, as points out, gives it a European flavour. It also makes the comparison to Klute (one of the best US movies in this genre and a very fine movie by any standard) even more interesting, since Klute plays it very straight.

Oddly enough, the Region 4 release (judging by the running time) appears to be uncut. Of course being a Region 4 release it includes none of the extras that are featured on overseas releases.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Gambling with Souls (1936)

Gambling with Souls (AKA The Vice Racket) is another bizarre 1930s exploitation shocker from the boxed set Girls Gone Bad: The Delinquent Dames Collection.

Mae is a respectable doctor’s wife in a decent clean-living town. She is befriended by an older woman, Molly Murdock, who convinces her that perhaps playing bridge isn’t the ultimate thrill that life has to offer. She lures her to a gambling club. At first Mae has a remarkable streak of luck, and is able to but herself all the luxuries her husband can’t provide. Pretty soon though her luck begins to change, and before she knows it she’s in debt up to her eyeballs. And the owner of the gambling club, Lucky Wilder, turns out not to be such a nice man as she initially thought. Molly then explains to her how she can work off her debt - by entertaining wealthy gentlemen.

The gambling club was just a front for a white slavery racket! The first gentleman she has to entertain seems rather nice though, and it doesn’t take too much encouragement on his part to get her out of her clothes. And at least it’s better than having her husband find out she’s been gambling! This first man actually works for Lucky Wilder - his job is to provide an easy introduction to the world of prostitution for innocent women like Mae. Before long Mae is having to entertain lots of other men, and they’re not so much fun. Mae is so ashamed she leaves her husband, but her husband (a dedicated doctor and a paragon of domestic virtue) and her sister are determined to track her down and restore her to married bliss. Unfortunately the sister also fall into Lucky Wilder’s clutches, and takes the same road to ruin that Mae has already traveled.

This delightfully lurid story is told in flashbacks, as Mae is interrogated by the District Attorney after a raid on the gambling club. During the course of the raid Lucky Wilder’s bullet-riddled body had been discovered by the cops. Mae recounts the whole sad story, punctuated by moralising asides from the DA and by her still-devoted husband.

This movie has everything you expect from a 1936 American exploitation movie - almost non-existent production values, wonderfully hammy acting, plenty of little moral lectures, and lots of shots of young ladies in their underwear. And it has the illicit thrill of moral wickedness - gambling, prostitution, abortion, good girls gone bad, and all without the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code (since the tiny independent production companies that churned out these potboilers weren’t bound by the Code). If you’re a fan of these lurid exposes of shocking immorality lurking behind the respectable facade of American society then you’ll find plenty to enjoy in Gambling with Souls.

Monday 13 July 2009

The Leopard Man (1943)

The Leopard Man was the third and final collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, following Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. On a first viewing I regarded it as the weakest of the three, but having watched it again and listened to the commentary track by William Friedkin I’m inclined to revise my opinion dramatically.

Friedkin’s commentary track isn’t overly informative, but the points that he does make are very important and very striking. He emphasises the very unconventional and highly experimental narrative structure, and considers it to be a precursor of postmodernism and a major influence on modern movies like Pulp Fiction. I must admit that watching the movie and paying attention to the structure it really is noticeable just how revolutionary it is for a 1940s Hollywood movie. The narrative follows one character, the camera follows that character, then the camera suddenly switches its attention to some other character who has been randomly encountered, and that character then becomes the focus of the narrative. The sub-plots have no connection whatsoever with each other, apart from the fact that all become involved in the mysterious series of killings.

It’s also notable that every single event in the film is a result of pure chance, of a random conjunction of circumstances. It’s an amazingly fatalistic movie. Only one character tries to avoid her fate, and it’s her attempt to do so that dooms her. The workings of fate are senseless, random and inexorable. Everyone, both the innocent and the guilty, can be regarded as victims of fate. The second killing occurs purely as a result of an unlucky chance, a situation suddenly encountered that threw a wholly unexpected temptation in the way of one character, who might never have committed such an act otherwise.

Apart from those features there are of course the great visual set-pieces you expect in a Jacques Tourneur film. The first killing is one of those scenes that remains chilling no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie.

It’s a mystery to me why Jean Brooks and Isabel Jewell didn’t become at least minor stars. Their performances in this film and in The Seventh Victim really were exceptional. I especially loved Isabel Jewell’s world-weary fortune-teller in The Leopard Man. Lewton got generally very strong performances from all his actors in his RKO films.

For me The Leopard Man is now right up there alongside Cat People as one of the great American horror movies.

Friday 10 July 2009

Ed Wood's Jail Bait (1954)

Jail Bait is a 1954 film noir written and directed by Ed Wood. Yes, that Ed Wood. As you might expect, the results aren’t quite in the same league as Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep.

The plot is a definite film noir plot, with a young criminal who isn’t really evil but is seduced by the excitement of a life of crime, and by the fast talking and apparently glamorous life of an older hoodlum. He soon finds himself in way over his head, involved in a murder, and with his partner hunting him down. The twist is that the young hood is the son of an eminent plastic surgeon, and the older hood ends up employing the doctor to give him a new face to escape the clutches of the law. But this is an Ed Wood film, and it has the terrible acting, jaw-dropping dialogue and generally bizarre scripting that were his hallmark.

The cast includes the faces you expect to see in this type of ultra low budget exploitation movie, with Timothy Farrell giving his standard bad guy performance (which is always fun as he makes his bad guys delightfully sleazy) and Lyle Talbot as the decent older cop.

The problem with this movie is that Wood was trying to make a conventional mainstream movie, and it lacks the extreme weirdness that makes his other movies so watchable. This one even has a plot that makes sense, which is very disappointing indeed. The dialogue is bad, but it’s also a little too much like a bad version of standard film noir dialogue, with not enough Ed Wood strangeness.

The plot twist at the end does add a touch of horror, and it’s even filmed quite competently, with actual dramatic tension. The most enjoyable thing about it is the sound-track - it’s the most outrageously inappropriate use of classical Spanish guitar music you could possibly imagine! There’s also a strip-tease sequence that has absolutely no connection whatsoever with the rest of the movie, but Ed must have just liked it.

Jail Bait really demonstrates that Ed Wood’s genius could never have flourished in the world of even slightly mainstream film-making. It’s an amusing way to spend an hour or so, and no Ed Wood movie is ever truly dull, but just don’t expect an off-the-wall masterpiece of weirdness.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Jack the Ripper (1976)

With Klaus Kinski in the starring role you’d think that Jess Franco’s 1976 Jack the Ripper would be a winner. It is good, but I was left feeling that it could have been even better. I’ve always thought that Franco is at his best when he’s at his most outrageous and most trippy, and Jack the Ripper is played just a little too straight. If Kinski had gone a it more over-the-top it might have helped. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, or that Kinski is bad, but to me it just needed to be a bit more excessive stylistically.

Perhaps the problem is that Franco isn’t quite sure if he wants to do a realistic movie about the infamous Whitechapel murders or if he wants to do a real Franco film. It certainly plays fast and loose with the known facts of the case, to the extent where it might have been better to go all the way and create a surreal nightmare film. It looks good though. And there are moments when things start to get really interesting, especially the scene where he’s haunted by memories of his mother. And one of the murders is especially well done, although I won’t spoil things by saying any more.

It was filmed in Switzerland. Franco concentrates on capturing the overall feel of fog-bound London rather worrying too much about details, and it’s an approach that works well. Josephine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie Chaplin) is extremely good as the girlfriend of the police inspector hunting the Ripper, a respectable young woman who decides it might be fun playing at being a whore. Lina Romay steals the picture as the outrageous and adorable prostitute Marika.

How much you like this one really depends on whether you prefer Franco’s more conventional horror movies such as Count Dracula and The Awful Dr Orloff (with which this one has quite a bit in common thematically) or whether you prefer his forays into the world of psychedelic dreamscapes, nightmare and madness. As an exercise in fairly straightforward horror it’s very successful. There’s also less gore and a lot less sex than you’d expect in a 1976 Franco film.

The Region 2 DVD includes a documentary on the restoration of the film, and it’s one of the best of its kind that I’ve seen. And the restoration really is magnificent - the movie looks stunning. It’s not by any means a bad movie, but the combination of the subject matter, the director and the presence of Klaus Kinski meant that my expectations were abnormally high.

Monday 6 July 2009

Rica (1972)

Rica, released by Toho Studios in 1972, is a fairly typical example of the Japanese pinky violence film. It doesn’t have the craziness or the visual inspiration of Norifumi Suzuki’s entries in this genre, and it doesn’t have a star with the charisma of a Meiko Kaji or a Miki Sugimoto, but it still delivers non-stop action and plenty of entertainment.

The movie opens with a flashback to the days of the Korean War. A Japanese schoolgirl, Kayo, is brutally raped by two American GIs on leave in Japan and becomes pregnant as a result. We then return to the present day, with Kayo living with a sleazy businessman while raising her daughter Rica (Rika Aoki) but when the businessman rapes the teenaged Rica the girl decides she’s had enough. She joins a gang, tangles with some nasty yakuza types, and ends up in reform school. In between numerous escape attempts she is involved in a struggle for power with Reiko, the girl boss of the reform school. While she’s in the reform school a yakuza gang boss sells the members of Rica’s girl gang into prostitution. They are to be shipped off to Vietnam to service the sexual needs of American servicemen. The plot becomes steadily more convoluted, with several rival yakuza gangs involved as well as corrupt government officials.

As so often in these films, the girl hero finds an unlikely ally in a mysterious male loner. He’s usually a former yakuza but who is basically a decent guy. In this case he’s named Tetsu. Rica and Tetsu must rescue a shipload of girls who are destined for sex slavery in Vietnam.

The action doesn’t let up for a moment, and director Kô Nakahira is certainly more than competent at directing action scenes. The acting is more than adequate, and although Rika Aoki can’t challenge the female superstars of 1970s Japanese exploitation cinema she’s still pretty good.

Like most pinky violence films it contains a political sub-text, and displays a cynical attitude towards authority. There’s a sub-plot involving American deserters, the intention of which seems to be to make the point that war makes everyone a victim, from the soldiers to the women who become victims of the sexual violence that is part and parcel of the price of military glory. And like most pinky violence movies it’s both exploitative towards women and also very pro-woman. There’s a lot of violence, large quantities of gushing blood (which you expect in a 70s Japanese flick) and a moderate of nudity. There’s also a hint of romance, and even some tenderness, which you don’t so much expect.

Rica doesn’t make it into the top rank of pinky violence films but it’s still a fast-paced and very enjoyable ride.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Viva Maria! (1965)

Viva Maria! is the sort of movie that could only have been made in the 60s. Only in the 60s could someone have come up with the idea of doing an epic western combined with a sex comedy combined with slapstick combined with a Marxist political tract. And getting Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot to star in it, as two women who invent striptease and in their spare time lead a Central American revolution. And getting Louis Malle to direct it.

Now you might think this sounds like a catastrophically bad idea for a movie. And you’d be right. The film is not all bad. It has some good moments. There’s some real visual wit and inventiveness in the street battle scenes towards the end. Some of the gags work. And it has Brigitte Bardot. Her charm, cheerfully unabashed sexiness and comedic talents almost rescue the movie.

Bardot plays the daughter of an IRA man who follows in her dad’s footsteps. After spending most of her childhood and adolescence blowing up British soldiers she ends up on the run in Central America where she hides out with a traveling vaudeville troupe. The year is 1907. She befriends a singer/dancer named Maria (Jeanne Moreau) and since her name is Maria as well they decide to do a double act as the Two Marias. Initially the act goes over like the proverbial lead balloon, but then Bardot has a moment of inspiration and starts taking her clothes off. Moreau follows suit, and not surprisingly the act is a major hit and the Two Marias become stars.

So far it’s been a mildly amusing moderately sexy romp. The movie then switches gears in a rather alarming fashion, as Moreau falls in love with the leader of a revolutionary peasant army and she and Bardot end up leading a revolution.

There are many things to admire in French cinema but a talent for high camp isn’t one of them. Unfortunately that’s the only approach that would have worked for this movie. It really needed a British director. The British understand camp. A Lindsay Anderson might have made something out of it. Even a British-based American like Joseph Losey might have pulled it off, rather in the style of his very underrated Modesty Blaise. Malle tries for camp, but he doesn’t have the right touch, and his satire is much too heavy handed. It’s just not funny enough. The movie also suffers from being much too long.

On the plus side the movie takes a positive view of aggressive female sexuality, with Bardot keeping a running tally of her sexual conquests on the wall of her caravan. She is soon in danger of running out of wall space. And it can be seen as a female counterpart of the male buddy movies that were to become such a tedious feature of film-making in the 60s and 70s. Thelma and Louise without the self-pity.

The movie caused some controversy and became the subject of a major Supreme Court battle in the United States. It played an important role in re-affirming First Amendment protection for movies, and also played its part in destroying the Hollywood Production Code. In fact for a movie about strippers it’s extraordinarily tame, with not a hint of actual nudity. What upset the moral watchdogs was its approving attitude towards Bardot’s character’s voracious sexual appetites.

It’s worth a look if you’re a Bardot fan.

Friday 3 July 2009

Mansion of the Living Dead (1985)

Although I’ve seen a lot of Jess Franco films until recently my viewing had been entirely confined to his 1960s and 1970s movies. Of late I’ve been tentatively delving into his 80s output. While I’m very much a fan of his earlier work I had fairly low expectations of these later works. OK, it’s not in the same league as films like Vampyros Lesbos or Eugénie de Sade, but Mansion of the Living Dead (La mansión de los muertos vivientes) was a fair bit better than I’d expected.

Four topless waitresses book a bargain holiday at a Mediterranean resort hotel. The hotel turns out to be curiously deserted. In fact there’s virtually nobody around anywhere, apart from an eccentric gardener and the ever so slightly sinister hotel manager (the fact that he’s named Carlos Savonarola should certainly have caused them some unease). The girls were hoping there’d be lots of men to provide them with the sort of entertainment they were craving, but since there’s a noticeable lack of men they decide to make their own fun (this is a Franco film, so the resultant lesbian couplings should not come as any great shock). At this stage the movie seems more like a 70s sex comedy (with Lina Romay camping it up as a very ditzy blonde named Candy) than a horror flick, but that’s about to change. The first sign that perhaps the situation at the resort is even weirder than at first appeared comes when the girls are sunbathing and a meat cleaver is thrown at them from a window. It misses them, but it does rather ruin their afternoon.

One of the women subsequently disappears, and another finds herself confronting a group of rather unsettling monks, monks who were agents of the Inquisition but now claim to be Cathar heretics and who worship darkness and evil. They may also be dead. Whatever life they possess is certainly not natural. Candy makes a few discoveries of her own, including a woman kept chained in one of the rooms, a woman involved with the resort manager in what evidently started as consensual S&M sex games but became something a little more dangerous. She now hates Carlos, but she still loves him as well. Carlos has meanwhile become preoccupied by the idea that Candy is actually the witch Irina they had burned several centuries earlier, a fact that becomes of crucial importance.

The movie is often regarded as a kind of tribute to Armando De Ossorio’s popular Blind Dead series involving blind zombie Templars but the resemblance is superficial at best. The erotic elements start out being fairly standard Franco softcore hijinks but they do develop into a vital part of the plot since the monks are obsessed with sins, particularly sins of the carnal variety. It seems more than likely that this obsession had led them into madness, madness that culminated in certain events involving Irina/Candy. The link between sexual and religious obsession is made quite clear.

Although working as usual on a very limited budget Franco uses the setting (a hotel in the Canary Islands) to create quite an effective atmosphere of isolation, desolation and subtle menace. The use of lighting in the many shots of long completely deserted corridors works especially well. And once Lina Romay switches from ditzy to crazy those enormous eyes of hers become very scary indeed.

It’s the usual mixture of sex, sleaze and horror that one expects from Uncle Jess. If you don’t like sex and sleaze and lots of nudity with your horror then you’re not going to be watching a Jess Franco movie in the first place. It lacks the extreme trippiness of his best work, but it’s still an effective piece of contemporary gothic horror and it’s worth a look.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Undersea Kingdom (1936, serial)

Undersea Kingdom is a 1936 Republic serial, with the kind of crazed and nonsensical storyline that made these old movie serials such fun. Ray “Crash” Corrigan plays a US naval officer engaged in testing a new rocket-powered experimental submarine. On board are the craft’s inventor (Professor Norton), his mildly annoying son Billy and a glamorous female reporter named Diana. They are investigating mysterious earthquakes, and after diving all the way to the ocean floor they find themselves in the undersea kingdom of Atlantis. Which just happens to look exactly like the kind of country where Republic would film their low-budget westerns. Atlantis is under the sea, but it has sky, and trees, and looks just like home. It’s best not even to try to figure out how this could possibly be.

Atlantis has two rival rulers, one being a noble high priest and the other being the wicked power-crazed Unga Khan. Unga Khan dreams of conquering the upper world, which he intends to reach by means of a huge tower powered by rocker motors. He has advanced technology, including a kind of missile launcher and some extremely silly robots, but the Atlanteans tend to rely mainly on chariots and bows and arrows. Plus they have the Juggernaut, a kind of tank that makes a really cool whooshing noise. It doesn’t seem to do anything else useful, but it is a cool noise.

Unga Khan needs scientific help, so he turns Professor Norton into a willing slave by placing him in the Transforming Room. Meanwhile there’s lots of racing about in chariots. Diana seems to have no idea why she was even included in the cast, since she doesn’t get to do anything at all. Crash gets to do lots, mostly involving hitting people and being heroic.

So will Crash Corrigan save the world from the evil Unga Khan? Well of course there’s not much doubt that he will, but it’s all good fun in a very B-movie way.

It’s not as wildly entertaining as The Lost City, which is by far the best of the serials I’ve seen so far, but if you have a taste for this sort of thing Undersea Kingdom is worth a look. Plus the robots are just amazingly silly looking.