Monday 31 August 2009

Five Minutes to Live (1961)

Now this really is a odd one. Originally released in 1961 as Five Minutes to Live, it was re-released in 1966 as Door-to-Door Maniac. On the surface it’s a typical ultra-cheap crime B-movie, but it has some genuinely bizarre touches. The plot is ingenious, and I won’t spoil it by revealing any major details other than to say that it involves a bank robbery carried out by means of a threat to the wife of a bank executive.

Johnny Cash (who also sings the title song) plays Johnny Cabot, on the run after a warehouse robbery that went wrong. Johnny is recruited for the bank job because he has a reputation as being a careful criminal. One has to wonder how he gained that reputation, because in fact he’s totally psychotic and wildly unstable. The essence of the plan is to take advantage of the fact that the bank is located in a quiet and incredibly boring small town where all the citizens are perfect and devoted husbands and wives, so naturally the bank executive will co-operate if his wife is threatened. In fact this is where the movie starts to become something else entirely, when we see the reality behind the picture-perfect façade.

It reminds me a little of the very strange movies Sam Fuller made in the early 60s, like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. It seems to be attempting a blend of crime film with social satire. It also throws in some reasonably strong violence (by 1961 standards). It’s an uneasy mix of film noir, black comedy and exploitation movie.

That might make it sound like a ground-breaking film, which it might have been had it been done with any real sense of style, or even a basic level of film-making competence. In reality it’s a bit like Ed Wood trying to do Citizen Kane. The production values are poor, the dialogue is cringe-inducing, none of the disparate elements of the movie come together properly, it’s badly paced, the cinematography is stodgy and unimaginative and the acting is bad beyond belief. Johnny Cash is the worst offender. He should have stuck to singing. It’s a performance of uncontrolled hysteria that achieves a kind of awesome epic quality.

The combination of strangeness, interesting ideas and totally inept execution gives it all certain charm and an undeniable fascination. It’s a train wreck of a movie, but it’s an interesting train wreck. Definitely worth checking out if you have a taste for off-beat movies.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Tower of Evil (1972)

When you have a movie such as Tower of Evil that includes Phoenician gods, buried treasure, hints of devil-worship, madness, a cursed island, plenty of gore and lots of nudity you’d imagine you had the ingredients for a classic piece of 1970s British horror. In this case you’d be almost correct. Tower of Evil is great trashy fun most of the way but it doesn’t quite manage to combine all those ingredients in the most effective way.

Two fishermen visit the lighthouse on the lonely and remote Snape Island. The lighthouse is no longer in use, but it appears that the island is inhabited, after a fashion. And it’s been chosen as a holiday spot by four American teenagers travelling around England. When the fishermen arrive they find one of the teenagers still alive, completely insane, and wielding a knife. And they find a scene of carnage.

No explanation is readily apparent, so it’s left to the wonders of psychiatry to unravel the mystery. Dr Simpson (Anthony Valentine whose appearance in any movie is a decided plus) is young, handsome, charming and keen. An he has at his disposal the latest psychiatric technology - a machine with lots of flashing coloured lights. It’s psychedelic psychiatry! Under the influence of the pretty lights Penny (the sole survivor) starts to have flashbacks, and mumbles a number of words, including the word Baal.

While this is going on an archaeological expedition is about to set out for Snape Island. Indications have been found that suggest it may be the burial site of a shipwrecked Phoenician prince, and there may be a treasure trove of valuable and historically important artifacts, and a temple to the notorious Phoenician god Baal. The expedition consists of a group of assorted people who all seem to be sleeping with one another’s spouses and who appear to have very little in the way of archeological qualifications. There are a couple of local fishermen to act as guides, and a private detective investigating the deaths of the American teenagers. Of course things do not go well for the expedition, and in between bouts of adultery there is further carnage.

The acting is generally pretty decent. The island setting is suitably mysterious and gloomy. Jim O'Connolly handles the directing duties fairly capably. The weakness is, as so often, the script. It just doesn’t exploit the potential of the basic premise, and in particular it fails to do anything interesting with the Phoenician gods angle. It becomes little more than a kind of proto-slasher movie. The ending fails to generate any great amount of suspense or excitement. The plot also relies way too much on horror movie clichés, such as having a small group of people in a threatening situation keep splitting up into smaller groups or going off on their own so they can be picked off one by one. It’s a classic example of having a good idea, but being unable to translate that good idea into as satisfactory screenplay.

The Region 4 DVD from Umbrella Production is typical of Region 4 DVD releases - an OK but not great print and no extras at all, sold at an outrageously high price. I’m glad I rented this one rather than buying it. Having said all that it’s still reasonably entertaining and it’s certainly delightfully trashy.

Saturday 29 August 2009

Carmen, Baby (1967)

Radley Metzger’s reputation was based on his ability to make stylish, arty erotica. Carmen, Baby is one of his earlier films, and for a Metzger movie it’s actually almost completely lacking in sex and nudity. But you don’t watch Metzger’s films for the sex, you watch them for the style, and style is something it has in abundance.

In common with many of his productions (even including some of his later hardcore releases) it’s a literary adaptation, based on a classic novel. In this case it’s Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen. This book has been adapted countless times for stage and screen and it was turned into a celebrated opera by Bizet. Radley Metzger was never one to be intimidated by something like that (anyone who can make a hardcore sex version of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and make it one of the best ever adaptations of that work is not intimidated by very much). A couple of years after this movie Metzger did a version of The Lady of the Camellias set among the 1960s jet set (the movie being the excellent Camillle 2000; this time he’s done Carmen set in the French underworld of the 60s.

Carmen (Uta Levka) is a high-spirited and completely amoral whore in a small French port city. Jose is a cop who is unlucky enough to cross her path. He becomes hopelessly obsessed, he gets into major trouble with his superiors, loses his job and ends up involved in a criminal gang, all through his mad love for Carmen. Carmen of course betrays him, as she betrays everyone.

The setting works surprisingly well, juxtaposing a small town that looks like it could have come straight out of a 19th century version of the novel with sports cars, discotheques and pop music. Uta Levka looks great. Claus Ringer as Jose is a little bland, but that kind of helps since he’s merely a hapless victim.

As usual Metzger finds interesting and inventive ways to shoot the sex scenes (and there are only two sex scenes in the movie), this time by shooting through differently coloured wine glasses. Metzger always combined his eroticism with a touch of perversity and this is no exception, with Carmen’s bottle dance and her encounter with the head of the local parole board and his wife providing that characteristic touch this time around.

While Carmen, Baby certainly has its charms this is not really the best introduction to Metzger’s work. His visual flair wasn’t yet fully developed, and compared to his later films the eroticism and the stylishness are somewhat muted. It’s also slightly lacking in the wit and good-natured humour so evident in his best movies.

I’d recommend seeing this one after you’ve seen some of his great films such as Camillle 2000, The Lickerish Quartet and Score, and (provided hardcore sex doesn’t bother you) the superb The Opening of Misty Beethoven. But once you’re hooked on Metzger’s brand of classy erotica you’ll want to see all his movies.

Thursday 27 August 2009

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

For some people the 1950s conjures up images of Doris Day, of Eisenhower in the White House, of Ozzie and Harriet. But for others the real spirit of the 50s is encapsulated by rock’n’roll, hot rods and giant monsters. It is for such people that movies like The Giant Gila Monster exist.

This 1959 movie opens with a courting couple in a car who have an unfortunate encounter with a giant gila monster. They were members of what initially (and promisingly) seemed like a gang of hot-rodding juvenile delinquents. Sadly it turns out that they aren’t really juvenile delinquents, they’re actually nice kids who respect their parents and even the local sheriff thinks they’re swell kids. The leader of the gang, even more disappointingly, turns out to be not just a swell kid but an annoyingly virtuous character who work hard and saves his money to help out his polio-stricken kid sister.

After several other cars are mysteriously forced off the road the sheriff comes to the obvious conclusion that a giant lizard is probably responsible. He consults a zoologist (surprisingly the godforsaken hick town in which these events occur apparently boasts its own zoologist) and is assured that it is quite common for animals to grow to gigantic size because of trouble with their pituitary glands. The giant lizard hypothesis is more or less proven when a railway bridge is demolished and a train wrecked by what witnesses swear is an enormous gila monster. Luckily our intrepid hero (Chase, the leader of the hot-rodding teenage gang) just happens to have a shed full of nitro-glycerine, which always comes in handy in situations like this.

There’s also a sub-plot relating to Chase’s dreams of becoming a teenage singing sensation, dreams which seem likely to become a reality when he helps out a drunken motorist whose car has been forced into a ditch by a giant lizard. The motorist is in fact the famous disc jockey Steamroller Smith. Steamroller Smith turns out to be a really swell guy as well, always eager to help out struggling would-be pop stars especially if they are helping to support polio-stricken kid sisters.

This is in fact the major problem with this movie. Everyone is ingratiatingly nice. The movie drowns in a syrupy sea of niceness. When Chase whips out his ukulele and treats us to not one but two separate renditions of a nauseatingly sentimental little ditty called “Laugh, Children, Laugh” one can only pray for a giant gila monster to arrive and devour him. Alas the monster arrives too late and he is allowed to complete the song.

The special effects are classic 1950s giant monster movie stuff. How do you represent a gila monster the size of a bus? That’s easy. You just film an ordinary gila monster alongside toy cars and everyone will think it’s a giant reptile. The fact that it still just looks like an ordinary lizard climbing over toy cars is all part of the charm of 1950s giant monster movies.

This is very much a movie for fans of 50s giant monster movies. If you don’t fall into that category then don’t even think about seeing this movie. If you do love these movies then its extreme cheesiness will be seen as a definite plus, but whether it’s worth enduring the ordeal of Don Sullivan’s singing is open to debate. His songs provide the only real horror in the movie. Writer-director Ray Kellogg was also responsible for the even cheesier, and far more entertaining, The Killer Shrews.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956)

More jungle girls! Because you can’t have too many jungle girl movies. And comparing Liane, Jungle Goddess to Sheena sheds some interesting light on the decline and all of the classic B-movie.

Liane, Jungle Goddess (Liane, das Mädchen aus dem Urwald) is a 1956 German production, and it’s unashamedly a B-movie. It makes copious use of stock footage, it was made on a low budget and it cleaned up on the exploitation circuit. It made money because the jungle girl story provided the opportunity to have a cute German teenager running about the jungle (or at least a set dressed to look like a jungle) semi-naked or even, at times, completely naked. It was also successful because as well as titillation it provides a consistently entertaining little story.

The plot is simply a slight variation on the Tarzan story. A passenger liner sinks off the African coast, and one little girl survives and is brought up by an African tribe. Cut to a decade-and-a-half later and a team of German scientists studying something (we never really find out what it is they’re studying) encounter a mysterious white girl swinging through the trees. This catches their attention. The fact that she’s virtually naked also helps to attract their attention. They have no idea who she is, but they decide to capture her in a net and take her back to Germany for further study!

The story becomes big news, and a Hamburg shipping magnate suspects that the jungle girl may be his grand-daughter Liane, believed drowned years earlier. If this is so, she stands to inherit a fortune, much to the displeasure of the old man’s nephew who thought himself to be the sole heir. Several of the scientists have accompanied the girl back to Germany, and in the meantime the girl has fallen hopelessly in love with handsome young scientist Thoren (Hardy Krüger). He’s been trying to teach her the ways of civilisation, with very limited success.

It starts out as straight exploitation, with lots of topless African women and one topless white jungle girl. Then it switches gears, surprisingly successfully, and becomes a gently whimsical romantic comedy as it follows Liane’s misadventures in the modern world. There’s a crime sub-plot involving the machinations of the old man’s wicked nephew as he endeavours by assorted nefarious methods to hang on to the fortune that he believes is rightfully his. There’s also a romantic sub-plot centred on the hopeless passion of the expedition’s female doctor for Thoren, and one of the male scientist’s equally hopeless passion for her.

All these disparate elements come together rather well, mainly because the movie never tries too hard. It’s light entertainment, and doesn’t try to be more than that. Like most German B-movies of that era it benefits from a very competent supporting cast, but its greatest asset is the charm of the two leads. Hardy Krüger is good-natured and slightly baffled, and thoroughly likeable. It’s the kind of role he was always able to carry off with ease. Even more of a plus is the 16-year-old Marion Michael as Liane. Compared to Tanya Roberts in Sheena she is much prettier and has an actual personality. And a very charming personality it is. It’s impossible not to like her. Whether Ms Michael was a great actress or not is difficult to gauge from a role such as this, but her acting is certainly more than adequate. We care what happens to Liane. And she has real chemistry with Hardy Krüger.

Director Eduard von Borsody doesn’t let the pace drag at any point. Unexpectedly, for a 1956 German film, it’s in colour. And like a proper jungle movie, it has all the wrong animals. There are South American toucans in the African treetops, and tribesmen wearing tiger-skins. The makers of Sheena foolishly went on location and so their movie has actual African animals in Africa, which spoils all the fun in this genre of movie. And Liane insists on taking her pet lion cub with her everywhere, which adds an extra cuteness factor.

The mix of gentle humour, romance and bare female flesh made this one a nice little earner in its day, and while Sheena has a very dated 80s quality to it Liane, Jungle Goddess remains fresh and is still thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

First Spaceship on Venus (1960)

First Spaceship on Venus (Der schweigende Stern) is a 1960 East German-Polish co-production. It’s based on a novel by one of the greats of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem, who also wrote Solaris - a great novel which was filmed brilliantly in 1972 and extremely badly in 2002). It’s one of many interesting science fiction movies made around this time in what were then the eastern bloc countries.

It’s set 25 years in the future, in 1985. An enigmatic artifact is found which proves to be of extraterrestrial origin - a spool of magnetic tape which contains some sort of message, although the message defies analysis. The artifact has some connection with the huge and unexplained explosion in Tunguska in Siberia in 1908. A team of international scientists become convinced that the spool originated on the planet Venus. A planned manned mission to Mars is diverted to Venus instead. The crew comprises seven scientists - six men and one women.

The first half of the mo
vie is a fairly conventional space exploration movie of its era, even including the obligatory meteor storm. But don’t be fooled - this is anything but a standard science fiction movie. Once they get to Venus it gets a lot weirder, and a lot more interesting. Before landing they manage to decide the message, and a very disturbing one it is. There is a lot more at stake than they thought. Arriving on the planet’s surface brings more surprises. They find traces of what may or may not be life, and evidence of a civilisation of sorts. But what are the inhabitants really like? Are they still there? Did they represent life in any firm that we could understand? Is there any possibility of communication? This is all very typical of Stanislaw Lem's work, and it’s one of the things that makes him such an important and distinctive voice in science fiction.

The acting is no more than adequate,
but the visuals make up for this. This movie is an object lesson in how to use cheap optical effects to achieve a genuinely mysterious and disorienting atmosphere. The spaceship itself is one of the cooler movie spaceships of that time, and the mini-helicopter craft they use to travel about on Venus are also rather cool. And there’s a cute robot, but it’s not cute in the sentimental kind of way that science fiction robots so often are.

This is a movie that combines thought-provoking ideas and a great sense of style. There’s a message there about technology, and about our possible future, but it isn’t l
aboured and it never feels like propaganda. It’s also a very fast-paced movie, incredibly so for a 1960 movie. There are no space battles or laser cannons or explosions, but the tension and the excitement don’t let up. This is helped by the fact that it avoids the obvious clichés so you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Director Kurt Maetzig keeps it all under tight control.

It’s in the public domain (you can find it online as well as on bargain bin DVD releases) so a lot of the prints floating about aren’t particularly good . Which is a tragedy - this film deserves a decent restoration and a proper DVD release. Highly recommended.

Monday 24 August 2009

Exposed (1971)

Exposed (Exponerad) was one of the movies that launched Christina Lindberg as a major star of exploitation and softcore erotic movies. But this was 1971, when the line between porn and art had become very blurred, and Exposed tries to be both. And it succeeds surprisingly well.

Director Gustav Wiklund was an actor who had been trying unsuccessfully for quite some time to get his first break as a film director. By 1971 he’d come to the conclusion that the only way to do this was by making a softcore sex film, such movies being a highly profitable sector of the Swedish film industry at that time. The great advantage of such movies (and of the American sexploitation movies that had boomed in the preceding decade) was that as long as you included the requisite quantities of sex and nudity you could do pretty much what you wanted to do. In that respect they resembled the Hollywood B-movies of the 40s which also offered (provided you had the talent) more artistic freedom than mainstream movies.

What Wiklund clearly wanted to make was an arty psychological m
ystery thriller, and that’s basically what Exposed is. And it’s a pretty good one. Lena (Christina Lindberg) is a Swedish teenager who’s become involved with a slighty unsavoury older man named Helge. Helge takes nude photos of her, which she has no objections to at the time although later he threatens to blackmail her with them. Helge’s parties are fairly wild and involve a good deal of promiscuous sex, which again Lena is quite happy about. Her boyfriend Jan is not quite so pleased.

Growing tired of the demands of bot
h men Lea hits the road, and while hitchhiking is picked up by an uninhibited couple. She takes them to Jan’s cottage in the country, which causes her more problems when Jan turns up to find them all lying about naked.

This is one of those movies where it is clear that not everything we are seeing is happening at the time we see it, and some of the events may not have happened at all. We see events through Lena’s eyes, and she’s something of an unreliable narrator. These kinds of movies can be annoying and frustrating but this one isn’t, mainly because it’s obvious right fro
m the start that we can’t accept everything we see at face value. Whether we’re seeing Lena’s memories or the products of her imagination is something that remains enigmatic.

What makes Exposed more interesting is that it doesn’t have clear-cut villains. Even Helge is not a mere stock villain or monster, and the exact nature of his feelings for Lena remains uncertain. Perhaps he loves her. Perhaps she loves him. There are many different kinds of lo
ve, and not all of them are necessarily healthy. The sexual games she plays with Helge belong to the same ambiguous category - she is certainly a willing partner, but that doesn’t mean these games are good for her. It also doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad for her either. Her own sexuality is something she’s in the process of exploring and she intends to follow this path of exploration even if it leads to some dark places. How much of this exploration takes place in her own mind and how much takes place in objective reality are open questions.

The film is helped by generally s
trong acting performances. Heinz Hopf is excellent as Helge, slightly creepy but never going overboard. Christina Lindberg may not be the world’s greatest actress but she’s certainly competent, and she has the presence that is even more important in the world of exploitation movies. She is extremely good at projecting a mix of innocence and depravity, of vulnerability and strength. She’s also very likeable so although her behaviour isn’t always wise we never lose sympathy for her. Lindberg is a suprisingly subtle actress who never seems to be doing much acting and yet she generally manages to make us believe in the characters she plays, however unlikely they may be.
Combining art and erotica can be a difficult balancing act, but this film has enough to satisfy both grind-house and art-house fans. The former will be pleased by the amount of time Ms Lindberg spends naked while the latter should find enough psychological and existential puzzles to keep them satisfied as well. Wiklund’s direction is workmanlike but effective and the movie is never in danger of becoming boring.

The Region 2 DVD release from Revelation Films shows quite a bit of print damage and the colours are a little washed out at times. On the other hand it’s very cheap, being included in a three-movie set of Christina Lindberg’s films. Exposed is an effective blend of classy erotica and art, and it’s entertaining as well. Recommended.

Saturday 22 August 2009

Night Tide (1961)

Night Tide is an odd but entrancing 1961 film written and directed by Curtis Harrington, and providing Dennis Hopper with his first starring role. It’s almost impossible to assign this movie to a particular genre although it clearly owes a great deal to Val Lewton’s horror movies made for RKO in the 40s.

Hopper is Johnny, a naïve and awkward young sailor. He meets a girl called Mora at a jazz club, and being the sort of young man who is always going to fall hopelessly in love with a girl he’s only just met, he falls in love with her. She seems interested, but nervous, especially after an encounter with a strange woman in the club. They start to see each other, and he has his first glimpse into her rather peculiar world. She works at an amusement pier, as Mora the Mermaid. She takes her role as a mermaid unusually seriously, and tells him of her deep affinity with the sea.

Johnny meets some of the other amusement pier people, including Captain Murdock. He’s an old sailor who runs the Mora the Mermaid attraction and it transpires that he raised Mora as his own daughter after finding her on a Greek island. He warns Johnny that his involvement with Mora may turn out to be unexpectedly dangerous, a warning echoed by the other amusement pier folk. Ellen, who works the merry-go-round, informs Johnny that Mora’s last two boyfriends (in fact her only two boyfriends ) died in ambiguous and suspicious circumstances. A clairvoyant does a tarot card reading which also points to a dangerous future. And there’s a cop hanging round investigating the deaths of the two young men.

This is no ordinary crime thriller however. Captain Murdock tells Johnny of the Greek legends surrounding mermaids and sirens, and that these legends have a basis in fact. There really are mysterious people of the sea, and they really can lure men to their doom.

So is Mora really a mermaid? Is this a horror movie, a fantasy, a murder mystery, a mythological tale, a psychological study or a love story? I’m not going to spoil it by telling you or offering any clues.

It’s a subtle and very low-key movie, the sort of quirky movie that could only have been made on a low budget. The low budget is no disadvantage to this movie, which is beautifully photographed and sensitively directed. Dennis Hopper’s performance is strange but effective, his inexperience as an actor working in his favour, making Johnny seem even more awkward. Johnny is as out of place in this world as a mermaid on dry land. He has never belonged anywhere. Linda Lawson is nicely enigmatic as Mora. Harrington gets good performances from his entire cast. The movie has a jazz influence to the soundtrack, and to the feel of the movie itself, which works well.

It’s a movie about love and loneliness, and about the sometimes unanticipated power of myth and of belief. Harrington handles his feature film debut with extraordinary skill, giving us a moving and fascinating film full of complex sexual and emotional conflicts. The ending works perfectly, and there’s enough ambiguity to make this a movie to watch more than once. Highly recommended.

Friday 21 August 2009

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Cry of the Banshee is a movie that I’ve read so many bad things about that I must admit to approaching it with very low expectations. Which can sometimes be an advantage. And actually it’s quite a decent little horror flick.

This 1970 AIP production’s biggest problem is probably its superficial similarity to Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, two of the best British horror movies of their era. Cry of the Banshee is not in the same league, but it’s still fun. Vincent Price gives a relatively non-hammy and fairly chilling performance as 16th century English magistrate Lord Edward Whitman who persecutes witches and heretics mercilessly. The witches in this movie are actually followers of the old pagan religion, and when Whitman has a large number of these people butchered their leader curses him, and in fact his whole family. The instrument of her vengeance is Roderick (Patrick Mower), a mysterious young man who is not what he seems. He’s a member of Whitman’s household, but not exactly a faithful member, given that he’s bedding Lord Edward’s wife (and seemingly most of the female members of the family) on a regular basis.

There are no major surprises in the plot. The most interesting thing about the script is the generally sympathetic portrayal of the witches. We are certainly intended to see things mostly from their point of view. The members of Whitman’s family are an interesting mixture. At least one son is a vicious thug, while another is a reasonably decent sort. As Whitman’s household are picked off one by one we have slightly mixed feelings - in some cases we feel they are getting what they deserve, in other cases we’re not so sure.

The acting is generally good, with Vincent Price (as so often) being the standout performer. Director Gordon Hessler does a competent job on a very tight budget, and wisely relies on shadows a good deal to hide slightly dodgy makeup and special effects. Mostly the movie looks quite good despite the budgetary limitations. There’s not much in the way of spectacle but it never looks really cheap or shoddy.

By 1970 standards there’s not a great deal of gore or nudity (there are about the number of topless serving wenches that you’d expect in a British horror movie of this vintage). It’s not by any means the kind of movie that is going to cause you to lose sleep from terror, but it delivers solid entertainment. Definitely worth a look for any fans of 1970s gothic horror. The Monty Python-style opening credits dequence by Terry Gilliam is also worth a mention.

The Region 4 DVD actually includes an extra! A brief doco on director Gordon Hessler. Here in Region 4 we’re grateful for any crumbs at all in the way of extras. And it’s a very decent print, with vibrant colours, and it’s widescreen.

Thursday 20 August 2009

The Curious Dr Humpp (1967)

Argentinian exploitation movies are possibly something you never even knew existed, but in fact Emilio Vieyra not only made exploitation movies in that country, but several are now available on DVD, including Blood of the Virgins (1967). It’s not a bad little horror flick, but La venganza del sexo is something else again. Made in 1967, a distributor added extra softcore sex scenes and it was released in the US in 1971 as The Curious Dr Humpp.

The practice of adding additional nudity or sex scenes was fairly common back in the golden age of grindhouse movies. Mostly the results are jarring and disjointed but it has to be admitted that in this case it was done with a certain amount of skill, and in any case the movie itself is so bizarre and so sexual that you can’t really argue that any harm was done to Vieyra’s very strange vision.

Dr Humpp is a mad scientist, continuing the work of an earlier mad scientist on the prolonging of human life by the use of chemicals produced during sex. He kidnaps people, pumps them full of aphrodisiacs, and they then have sex until they literally exhaust themselves to death. Dr Humpp and his assistant collect blood from their victims at the moment of climax, and this provides the raw materials for his experiments. The disappearances attract the attention of both the local police and a zealous newspaper reporter. The reporter manages to get himself captured by the mad doctor, and falls in love with one of the other captives who has been assigned to him as his sexual partner.

Dr Humpp also has a small army of people who have been transformed into human automatons, to provide a security force and to help collect further victims. For some reason that is never explained they sometimes seem to end up looking like monsters.
This is a true camp classic, an amazingly odd but undeniably fascinating little movie. Vieyra’s movies have something of the outrageously campy feel of Mexican horror movies of the 50s and 60s with a dash of Swinging 60s vibe as well. Vieyra made a lot of movies and it’s to be hoped that a few more show up on DVD. It would also be nice to see more Argentinian exploitation features from other director, although a few have been released by Something Weird.

The Curious Dr Humpp is not a great film by any means, but if you’re in the mood for goofy weirdness then it’s an enjoyable romp. Something Weird’s DVD release isn’t one of their best. The film is presented full-frame and there’s quite a bit of damage, but considering they probably had very poor source materials to work with and considering the movie’s obscurity I’m sure they did the best they could. This is definitely one for aficionados of odd but appealing trash cinema.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

An Angel for Satan (1966)

An Angel for Satan (Un angelo per Satana) is not one of the more highly thought of of Barbara Steele’s Italian gothic movies. Which is perhaps a pity because it’s really a highly entertaining slice of eurohorror.

Freak weather conditions have caused the water levels in an unnamed lake to drop dramatically. The receding waters have revealed a statue, a statue with an evil reputation. This statue of a nude woman is apparently cursed. Nevertheless the owners of the estate have commissioned an up-and-coming sculptor to restore the statue. But in fact the Count who awards this commission is not the real owner of the estate. The real owner is Harriet Barbara Steele), a young woman who has been at school in England.

The statue is a likeness of one of Harriet’s forebears, and bears a striking resemblance to her. The statue ended up at the bottom of the lake as a result of the jealousy of another woman, a woman who cursed the statue. The curse has endowed the statue not only with the property of bringing misfortune to the local villagers, but with an ability to exert an uncanny influence on Harriet. She takes on aspects of the personality of her ancestress, with unfortunate results. Her lusts cause chaos and misery. The unlucky sculptor finds himself drawn into her web, while her personal maid and the local school teacher with whom she is in love are also drawn into her plots and her general taste for creating mayhem.

This might not be one of Barbara Steele’s best films, but it features some of her best acting. She gets to play a character inhabited by two conflicting personalities, a task she handles with great skill. And she gets to be extremely wicked. It’s one of her most erotic performances. There’s quite a bit of implied nudity but no actual nudity. Barbara Steele certainly has no need to take her clothes off in order to project an overwhelming and malevolent sexuality.

Director Camillo Mastrocinque does a competent job. The movie is well-paced and consistently entertaining. It lacks the visual brilliance of a Bava movie but it still looks quite impressive. The acting overall is quite adequate but Barbara Steele dominates proceedings so completely you scarcely notice anyone else. There’s no need to talk about the special effects because there aren’t any. It’s a movie that doesn’t require them. It does have plenty of atmosphere, and the sets and costumes look good.

An Angel for Satan is available on DVD paired with another great Barbara Steele gothic horror film, The Long Hair of Death. The good news is that An Angel for Satan is sub-titled rather than dubbed, and the print looks pretty reasonable. This film is an absolute must for anyone who is a fan of gothic horror and/or a fan of the great Barbara Steele. A classic of erotic horror, and one of her most underrated movies.

Monday 17 August 2009

Fright (1971)

Fright is the second movie included on the DVD with Demons of the Mind. It’s a relatively obscure 1971 British horror film that I’d never even heard of. I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching it, but when I saw that the cast included Susan George and Honor Blackman which seemed like an interesting combination, I decided to give it a go.

It’s actually a rather competent psychological thriller. Susan George is Amanda, a college student earning extra money by baby-sitting for Mr and Mrs Lloyd. They appear to be a nice enough couple although perhaps a little on the middle-aged side to be parents of a three-year-old. And Mrs Lloyd (Honor Blackman) does seem awfully nervous. And she becomes very uneasy at the mention of ghosts. We will later discover that she has reason to be worried about ghosts, although not in the supernatural sense. More in the ghosts from the past sense.

At first it seems that Amanda’s only problem is going to be her annoying boyfriend (a very dorky-looking pre-Sweeney Dennis Waterman) turning up on the doorstep and practically begging her for sex. She isn’t interested, and really you only have to take one look at the cardigan he’s wearing to see why he isn’t getting any, and isn’t likely to be getting any for the foreseeable future. One of the harsh lessons that men must learn early in life is that girls don’t sleep with guys who wear cardigans like that.

It turns out that there are a few things Mr and Mrs Lloyd hadn’t told Amanda about. Like the fact that he isn’t her husband, and the present whereabouts of her actual husband. Or possibly ex-husband as it’s suggested she’s either divorced or in the throes of a divorce, and a very messy one considering the circumstances that led to it. Circumstances that might lead Amanda to be feeling somewhat nervous about what the evening has in store for her.

The biggest problem facing Fright for a modern viewer is that there have been about 2,000 “beautiful female babysitter stalked by psychotic axe-murderer” movies made since, so it doesn’t have quite the impact it would have had in 1971. It still manages to be surprisingly frightening. The script by Tudor Gates is perhaps a little bit too predictable at times, but director Peter Collinson proves to be exceptionally skillful at suggesting menace and producing the require number of scares.

Its greatest strength is in the acting department. Ian Bannen makes a splendidly deranged psycho killer. Honor Blackman is superb as the mother, her hysteria never far under the surface and ready to go over the top at any moment. Susan George is likeable and does an exceptionally good job at communicating terror. She’s particularly good in the scene in which the knife-wielding maniac is under the delusion that she’s his wife and decides they need to make love. She’s not afraid to pull out all the stops and go for broke with her performance, but remains convincing and never becomes annoying.

There’s no gore, not a huge amount of graphic violence and no nudity. But it delivers some genuine chills. Fright is no masterpiece, but it does an admirable job at achieving what it sets out to do.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Sheena (1984)

Sheena is one of those movies that raises the question - do the people running movie studios have any clue at all what they’re doing? Made in 1984 for a reputed $25 million (a sizeable sum by the standards of the time) it’s such an old-fashioned B-movie that it must surely have been obvious it had no chance of turning any kind of profit.

While Star Wars was also a B-movie and made a fortune at the box office, Sheena just doesn’t have the dazzling action sequences or the spectacle to match movies like that. It’s questionable whether such a movie was viable at all in 1984. The kinds of alternative distribution channels, such as the drive-in circuit, that made low-budget B-movies so profitable were rapidly disappearing. In the age of the multiplex such movies simply had nowhere to go, so it probably wasn’t going to work even on a modest budget, much less the sum that Columbia spent on it.

You also have to wonder what target audience the film-makers and the studio had in mind. It mostly has a Saturday morning kids’ TV kind of feel to it, with cute animals, action scenes that are mostly low on graphic violence, and a generally good-natured rather goofy ambience. But then there are the nude scenes, and the extraordinary number of shots with the camera positioned to shoot straight up Tanya Roberts’ skirt. Given that the skirt is almost non-existent to start with and she’s wearing nothing but an incredibly skimpy thong underneath, you can’t help being a little surprised they got away with a PG rating. On the other hand the movie handles its only major sex scene with amazing coyness. The impression it gives is that they were aiming for two different audiences, and the end result was unlikely to be entirely satisfactory for either. It’s a movie that either should have had a lot more sex and nudity, or a lot less.

As or the plot, it’s harmless enough by B-movie standards. Set in contemporary Africa, it has the wicked brother of an African king conspiring to murder his brother and claim the throne, so he can begin mining the sacred mountain of the Zambuli tribe. The Zambuli tribe is ruled by Sheena (Tanya Roberts), the daughter of two white explorers who managed to get themselves killed in the prologue. Sheena has been raised by the shaman of the tribe, and has all the usual Tarzan-like abilities to communicate with animals, travel by swinging from tree to tree, etc. Although she has lived among this remote tribe since early girlhood she still manages to look like she’s just had an appointment with a very expensive Beverly Hills hairdresser. Helping her in her struggle to save the sacred mountain are two American TV reporters. She naturally falls in love with one of them.

There are relatively bloodless battles with a band of mercenaries employed by the wicked prince, some fairly unspectacular stunts, a very moderate amount of excitement, and some rather chaste romantic scenes. There are also occasional moments when the level of violence escalates surprisingly, which again tends to indicate a fumbled attempt to reach two quite different audiences. And there are the killer flamingoes.

None of it really works as it was presumably intended to work. But luckily all of it works beautifully on the level of camp. What really makes this a camp classic though is Tanya Roberts. She delivers one of the most staggeringly atrocious and incompetent performances in the history of movies. She’s an absolute delight. The role of Sheena was apparently originally intended for Jodie Foster(!!!) which would certainly have made it a very different movie. I imagine Foster would have played the part in a much more self-consciously tongue-in-cheek way, which might have worked but I suspect it would have been less fun. Tanya Roberts is simply awesome in her awfulness. You have never seen acting like this before. She’s a goddess of camp.

Columbia’s DVD release is an object lesson in how not to release a movie on DVD. The image is frequently grainy, and it’s fullscreen. And this is a movie that desperately needs to be seen in its correct aspect ratio. Without ever having seen it in its proper format I can still state this as an absolute fact - there were just so many shots that were simply butchered by being pan-and-scanned. And while this is a terrible movie, it’s a gorgeously photographed and extremely handsome terrible movie, and it would have been nice to see it properly. And there are no extras. The good news is that it’s available at rock-bottom bargain-bin prices if you shop around, and despite the horribleness of the DVD presentation it’s still worth picking up. What can I say? I'm a sucker for jungle girl movies, and this one is enormous fun.

Thursday 13 August 2009

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973)

It’s been a few years since I last saw The Satanic Rites of Dracula. This 1973 production was not quite the last Hammer Dracula movie (he makes an appearance in the excellent Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) but it was Christopher Lee’s last Hammer vampire film. I’ve grown more and more fond of the 1970s Hammer movies, so I wasn’t surprised to find that I enjoyed The Satanic Rites of Dracula quite a bit more this time around.

This was also Hammer’s second attempt at updating the Dracula series by bringing the Count into the 20th century, after the disastrous Dracula AD 1972. It’s a much more successful effort than that ill-fated but interesting venture.

Pelham House in England is the centre of a mysterious cult that has come to the attention of the British security services. One of their agents managed to penetrate the cult but at the cost of his life. He did manage to smuggle out photos of some very important and powerful people indeed who are heavily involved. He witnessed a strange ritual that culminated in the human sacrifice of a young woman. A Special Branch officer called in to assist suggests that the man they really need to unravel this mystery is a certain Professor van Helsing, whose family have several generations’ worth of experience in such matters. It doesn’t take long for van Helsing to determine the true purpose of the ritual, and to suspect that his family’s old foe is involved. Even more disturbingly, the Count (now a fabulously wealthy businessman) seems to have turned his attention to biological warfare of a modern kind, with scientists under his control developing a new and deadly strain of bubonic plague.

The combination of Count Dracula with high technology and with teams of motorcycle-riding assassins armed with high velocity sniper rifles works better than you might expect. And the blending ancient conspiracies with modern political intrigue is also fairly successful. Hammer didn’t have much to work with in the way of budgets by this time but the movie still looks reasonable, and Alan Gibson does a competent job as director. It’s moderately racy, with some nudity and with a very strong sexual charge to the vampire attacks, especially the first female victim we see bitten by the Count.

Peter Cushing as van Helsing looks old and tired but that doesn’t really hurt his performance. Christopher Lee seem a little bored. As compensation there’s a strong supporting cast, headed by Joanna Lumley as van Helsing’s grand-daughter and assistant. Richard Vernon and Freddie Jones contribute amusingly hammy performances. One thing you have to say for Hammer - they always came up with interesting and original methods of disposing of troublesome vampires, and this film is no exception.

It’s not one of the greats of Hammer horror but it’s all thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not really very frightening and is perhaps best enjoyed as fun campy entertainment. It was released under several alternative titles and some versions were cut, so you need to be careful to get an uncut edition. I liked it.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

There have been countless film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, but few have been quite so strange as French surrealist film-maker Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent version. When you find out that the script was co-written by a certain Luis Buñuel, the strangeness becomes somewhat less surprising.

This movie version concentrates obsessively on Roderick Usher’s compulsion to paint his wife Madeleine’s portrait, although as the portrait takes on more and more the appearance of reality so Madeleine’s own vitality seems to drain away. Roderick comments that it is in the painting that she truly lives.

The fact that it’s a surrealist film (and a silent one) would lead you to expect an almost purely visual treatment, with plot largely disregarded. And you’d be right. Fortunately Epstein’s visual imagination is sufficiently brilliant to carry this off with ease. The sets are sparse, the house seems almost empty, but there’s one superb visual set-piece after another. Candles are used repeatedly and very effectively, there’s an atmosphere of complete other-worldliness, as if the Ushers have long since departed from what we regard as reality.

The photographic effects are primitive (it was 1928) but extremely effective. The images of the countless nails being hammered into the coffin are exceptionally disturbing. There are strange processions through the countryside with the coffin, and a crypt that seems more like a cave.

The acting complements the visual images perfectly. Jean Debucourt is clearly both oversensitive and overcivilised and also clearly quite insane, but he has an almost alien quality as well, as if this is not the world to which he rightly belongs. The destruction of the house is similarly unearthly, as if something was being destroyed that never truly existed anyway.

An unconventional but enthralling version of Poe’s tale, a must for lovers of Poe, of surrealist movies, and of weird cinema in general. And highly entertaining as well. To make things slightly confusing, there were two versions of The Fall of the House of Usher made in 1928. The Epstein version is the one to look out for.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Nymphs Anonymous (1968)

Nymphs Anonymous is the other half of Something Weird’s double-feature that also includes the wonderfully strange She Mob. And in its own way Nymphs Anonymous is just as much fun. This is a classic 1960s sexploitation comedy.

The plot (yes it has a plot) revolves around the Federation. This is an organisation set up by women to help other women in need. Women who desperately require additional sexual services and whose husbands are simply not up to the job. If their situation is sufficiently urgent the Federation will dispatch a fast response team of studs to provide immediate relief.

Things are going well until a new woman, Laura, applies for membership. Her husband is not pleased to arrive home to find the fast response team in action with his wife. He’s put up with her seducing a string of hapless door-to-salesmen and miscellaneous tradesmen, but this is the final straw. He grabs a rifle and starts taking pot shots at the Federation guys, several of whom are unfortunately killed in the line of duty, so to speak. When Laura discovers the first body she thinks she’s finally had a breakdown and calls her psychiatrist.

At this point the movie, already somewhat surreal, becomes much much stranger. Laura’s husband is himself recruited by the Federation. Bodies start turning up all over the place. Laura tries to seduce her psychiatrist. In between fending off her physical attentions he tries to persuade her that she’s simply imagined the bodies. A rather lackadaisical Irish cop is called out to the house where Laura’s husband is servicing his first client for the Federation. Attempts are made to seduce the cop. And then a pair of lesbians arrive from the Federation, and they end up fighting over Laura’s husband, with the butch one challenging him to prove he’s more virile than she is.

And then there are the undertakers who arrive periodically to collect the bodies, but usually end up taking the wrong bodies. Their method is to put anyone not moving into a coffin, even if the person happens to be not moving simply because they’re asleep (possibly in an exhausted sleep after performing arduous duties for the Federation).

The movie is like a bedroom farce with occasional murders, but it’s all played strictly for laughs. The most pleasing and surprising thing is that it really is funny. It’s also (despite a moderately high body count) a remarkably amiable and infectiously likeable sort of movie. It’s quite sexy, with some extremely attractive women who spend a considerable amount of time naked or near-naked, but it’s really too frenetic and too bizarre and too surreal to be really titillating. And it’s really a rather good-natured sort of film, with none of the misogyny that mars some of the “roughies” of this era. It’s more of a very camp nudie-cutie punctuated by sporadic gunfire and lots of surreal humour. It’s both exceptionally weird and thoroughly enjoyable. This particular Something Weird double feature is very highly recommended for all connoisseurs of cinematic strangeness.

Monday 10 August 2009

The Choppers (1961)

One of the legends of 1960s exploitation movies was Arch Hall Sr. A producer, writer and occasional director, his Fairway International Pictures made a string of weird and wonderful movies in the early 60s, all starring his son Arch Hall Jr (who usually contributed the music as well, the music bring a treat for fans of awesomely bad early 60s pop music). The Choppers, which first saw the light of day in 1961, was the first of these genuinely amazing productions.

There’s a definite Ed Wood quality to these films. Very low budgets, wooden acting, clunky scripts and jaw-dropping dialogue. But like Ed Wood’s movies they include more entertainment value than many movies made with budgets hundreds of times greater.

The title refers to a gang of juvenile delinquent car thieves. They don’t actually steal cars, they strip them on the spot, carrying off the valuable bits in an old truck loaded with crates of live chickens (which makes the perfect cover and gives the impression they’re hayseed farmers). The leader of the gang is Cruiser (Arch Hall Jr). He acts as scout and lookout, tooling about in his expensive hot rod and communicating with his accomplices by means of a breathtakingly gigantic walkie-talkie. The gang has a fence, in the form of Moose, who runs a sleazy junk yard. The gang has wrecked so many cars that the police are getting serious about catching them, especially after they find a vital clue in the form of a chicken feather.

While the acting in general is fairly deplorable it has to be said that Arch Hall Jr isn’t that bad (and he’s extremely good indeed in one of their later movies, The Sadist). And the rest of the cast may be bad actors, but they’re bad in a fun way. There are the obligatory moral messages, delivered to the audience by a self-righteous radio reporter covering the investigation. He warns us solemnly that stealing hub caps is almost always the start of a violent and spectacular criminal career. In fact one member of the gang got his start in serious crime by stealing a peanut butter sandwich in grade school.

It all comes to an action-packed and bloody end, proving once again that crime does not pay. Although the last words we hear from Cruiser are, “We had a ball.” Truly these crazy kids will do anything for kicks.

It’s not ground-breaking cinema, but it’s a good deal of fun and a must for fans of JD movies. My copy came in a boxed set called Classic Teenage Rebels from St Clair Vision. All public domain titles, but the sound and image quality on The Choppers was more than acceptable. The set itself is ridiculously cheap if you shop around, and you just can’t own too many juvenile delinquent movies. I recommend this one.

Saturday 8 August 2009

The Devil's Daughter (1939)

An often overlooked aspect of American movie history is the existence of the all-black movie during the 1930s and 1940s. Small studios churned out quite considerable numbers of movies with entirely black casts, intended for entirely black audiences. There were all-black musicals, and even all-black horror movies such as this The Devil's Daughter. Although whether this one can truly be described as a horror film is perhaps debatable. It’s more of a romantic melodrama with a suggestion of horror.

Sylvia Walton (Ida James) has been living in Harlem, but returns to Jamaica to take possession of her father’s plantation. Her half-sister Isabelle (Nina Mae McKinney) has been managing the plantation and had expected to inherit. Isabelle isn’t well pleased at missing out, and plans to frighten Sylvia into running back to Harlem by making her think she is practising obeah (which is similar to voodoo). As an added complication the two sisters are in love with the same man. There’s the inevitable - this was the 1930s - comic relief sub-plot involving Sylvia’s chauffeur (Hamtree Harrington) being tricked into thinking his soul has been transferred into the body of a pig.

It’s a fairly bad movie, although no worse than the average Poverty Row feature. The main problem is that there’s just not enough plot to fill even the very modest running time of around an hour. The pacing is uneven. The ending is contrived and feeble.

Despite its major flaws, the movie is worth seeing for other reasons. These all-black films gave black actors the very rare opportunity to play leading roles, rather than supporting roles as servants. They were not required to conform to racial stereotypes. Even Hamtree Harrington as the comic relief isn’t a racial stereotype, and he isn’t portrayed as being stupid. He’s just a city boy who finds himself the target of good-humoured fun at the hands of country people. The other players speak in educated tones, since they are after all playing characters who are wealthy, powerful and well-educated.

The movie doesn’t even resort to showing the Jamaicans as superstitious natives believing in magic, since not even Isabelle truly believes in obeah.

Nina Mae McKinney was a talented actress (known as the Black Garbo) who was unable to break through the barrier of prejudice to achieve a real career in Hollywood. Ida James is a little bland but her performance is acceptable, and the rest of the cast is adequate. Given a better script they could undoubtedly have done rather better, and given more opportunities they could have gained sufficient experience to handle major roles with more success.

The movie seems to have been cut, and given it obscurity it’s possible that a complete version no longer exists. The loss of around ten minutes of its running time might explain some of the problems with the plotting. The use of constant drumbeats, which are present throughout the movie right from the very beginning, is quite effective in building atmosphere. Overall it’s more a movie to see out of historical interest than for its entertainment value, but it’s still worth a look, and it’s public domain and can be legally downloaded for free.

Friday 7 August 2009

Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)

Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is one of the least highly regarded of Hammer’s horror movies. This 1964 offering was one of a handful of films directed by Michael Carreras, son of Hammer’s founder Sir James Carreras. Michael Carreras had a very successful career as a producer but was less comfortable in the director’s chair. Carreras also wrote and produced the movie.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with the plot. It’s a mummy movie so you know the mummy will come back to life at some point and start wreaking havoc. Carreras does his best to build an interesting story around these inescapable elements. In 1900 an archaeological expedition has discovered the tomb of the son of the Pharaoh Rameses VIII. They receive a generous offer from the Egyptian government which wants the treasures to be permanently housed in a Cairo museum, but the American financier of the expedition has other ideas. He wants to emulate the success of his buddy P. T. Barnum. He is going to turn the relics of the unlucky Egyptian prince into a traveling circus. It goes without saying that at this point the inevitable curse begins to take effect on the members of the expedition.

Fred Clark is delightfully larger than life as the vulgar but enthusiastic American impresario. Unfortunately the rest of the cast is less memorable, and that’s one of the major weaknesses of this movie. Jack Gwillam as the leader of the expedition and Ronald Howard as his assistant and protégé do their best but they don’t have the necessary presence and their parts are somewhat underwritten. Howard (the son of Leslie Howard) also lacks the charisma requited for a romantic lead. Jeanne Roland provides the female element in the inevitable romantic triangle but she’s a little too bland. Terence Morgan is the third portion of the triangle. The script fails to give him enough to work with to make such an unlikely character convincing.

Carreras also lacks the instinct for pacing that allowed directors like Terence Fisher to get away with sometimes not entirely satisfying plots. On the other hand the movie looks fabulous. Production designer Bernard Robinson is the real star of the picture.

Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb has some surprisingly grim moments. I’m surprised the censor let them get way with some of the violence. Admittedly the violence is implied rather than explicitly shown, but what is implied is fairly blood-curdling.

The movie is included in the Icons of Horror boxed set and the transfer is, like that of the other three films, exquisite. The movie itself is not even good enough to qualify as second-rank Hammer but it’s not totally lacking in entertainment value if you’re prepared to lower your expectations sufficiently. In any case the other three movies are more than adequate reasons for buying this superb boxed set. You can’t really complain about a boxed set that contains three excellent movie and one that is barely passable.