Wednesday 30 September 2009

making some slight changes

I'm thinking of making some slight changes here. Mostly I'm considering adding a lot more labels to make it easier to find old posts. It will take quite a while, but at the moment even I find it difficult to locate specific older posts. I'd like to make the layout a bit more exciting as well but that might have to be put on the back burner for the moment.

I've also added a "seach this blog" gadget, but so far my impression of it is that it's almost completely useless. So that might end up being scrapped.

God’s Gun (1976)

When a spaghetti western boasts a cast headed by Lee van Cleef and Jack Palance you’re entitled to feel confident you’re in for an enjoyable ride. Such is the case with God’s Gun (Diamante Lobo). And when Lee van Cleef is playing a gunfighter and a priest, well really what more could you ask? And it is certainly a memorable ride, although it’s memorable in the way car accidents are memorable. Still, if you have a taste for genuinely odd movies this one is worth a look because it’s very odd indeed.

It’s a spaghetti western, but made in Israel. It’s actually an Italian-Israeli co-production, with an Italian director and a partly Italian crew, and obviously made on a very low budget. There are intriguing ideas here, but they don’t quite come off. Which proves that intriguing and original ideas aren’t necessarily good ideas.

Lee van Cleef is a priest in a small town somewhere near the Mexican border. His past is a little mysterious, given that priests don’t normally keep guns in their church. As he explains to his faithful assistant Johnny (played by Leif Garrett, yes Leif Garrett the teen idol pop singer of the 1970s) the guns aren’t his, he’s just holding them for somebody. But clearly there are some secrets about his past that he is hiding. At this point the bad guys arrive in the form of the notorious Clayton gang, led by an outrageously over-acting Jack Palance. When they head for the local saloon, run by Johnny’s mother Jenny, you just know they’re going to cause trouble, and before long somebody is going to get killed. It doesn’t take long. The sheriff is called, the offending member of the gang is arrested, but the Claytons return that night to bust their buddy out of gaol.

With the alcoholic sheriff (played by the alcoholic Richard Boone) seemingly unwilling to do anything the priest sets off to bring the offender to justice. He does so, but is then killed in revenge by the Claytons. Young Johnny heads off in search of the priest’s long-lost brother (both brothers being played by Lee van Cleef) who was an infamous gunslinger. He’s now reformed, but now feels he must exact vengeance for his brother’s death. So far it’s the sort of thing you expect in a spaghetti western, but there are some bizarre plot twists to come, with the Good Book proving mightier than the Gun. And there are some incredibly contrived revelations, but by now the viewer is starting to become accustomed to uncanny coincidences. There’s more mayhem to come, including a mass rape of the saloon girls that comes to an unexpected end with yet another amazing plot twist brought about by yet another astounding coincidence.

The climactic gunfight that you expect in a spaghetti western takes a strange and rather surreal form, with lots of dramatic music and some very poor cinematography that tries to be clever and atmospheric but ends up just being strange. The resolution of the over-complicated plot isn’t terribly satisfactory but it’s difficult to see how such a plot could have been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

Lee van Cleef relies mostly on his spaghetti western charisma, and escapes with a certain amount of dignity intact. Jack Palance overacts even by Jack Palance standards, while Richard Boone looks convincingly drunk, as he probably was. Leif Garrett seems confused, while Sybil Danning as his mother does as well as can be expected given some major script problems in relation to her character.

Despite all its flaws it has to be said that this is a movie that is entertaining in its own idiosyncratic way. It holds your attention because there’s a certain morbid fascination in watching the movie try to avoid complete self-destruction. It so often seems to be heading for self-parody and it becomes increasingly uncertain just how seriously we’re supposed to take it all (the final scene framed by the puppet show stage suggests that perhaps we’re not intended to take it seriously at all). And the ideas are interestingly different. It’s in the public domain so it’s not going to cost you a fortune to get hold of a copy. Worth a look if you enjoy oddball bad movies.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Sound of Horror (1964)

Any horror movie that features both Soledad Miranda and Ingrid Pitt in its cast has to be worth a look. Sound of Horror (El sonido de la muerte) features both these legendary cult actresses in major roles as well. And it’s a reasonably diverting little horror flick as well.

A group of archaeologists is searching for buried treasure in Greece. They believe the treasure is somewhere in a complex of caves. Now these are not your namby-pamby sort of modern archaeologists. Their favoured method of excavating a site involves the use of lots of dynamite. If you want to get ahead in the world of archaeology you have to be prepared to blow stu
ff up.

The older members of the team had apparently been heroes during the war, and turned to archaeology afterwards in their conti
nued quest for danger and excitement (not to mention treasure). The leader of the expedition is accompanied by his beautiful daughter Maria (Soledad Miranda) while another member of the team has brought along his sexy young girlfriend Sofia (Ingrid Pitt). If you’re an archeologist you not only get to blow stuff up, you also get to date women like Ingrid Pitt. And Maria is obviously rather sweet on one of the other expedition members. No wonder archeology is such a popular and glamorous profession - you get thrills and danger, you get to play with dynamite, and you have gorgeous women throwing themselves at you.

Their rather direct methods of excavation do eventually turn up something, but what exactly is it that they’ve found? There’s a strange petrified eg
g. There are skeletons, very ancient human skeletons. And there’s something else. Something they can’t see, but they can hear it. They hear it as it tears one of their number into shreds. These are bold archaeologists so they return to the caves anyway, but when they hear that weird screeching screaming sound again they beat a hasty retreat towards the villa in which they’re staying, and bolt all the windows and doors. But how can you fight something you can’t see?

José Antonio Nieves Conde isn’t an inspired director but he keeps the action moving along. The advantage of an invisible monster is that it saves money on special effects and you don’t have the weakness of having to show an unconvincing monster onscreen. You do get a brief look at the creature at the end, but wisely we’re not allowed to see any more than a glimpse. It’s not a terrifying movie, but it’s reasonably original and it’s fun.

The acting is generally adequate. As you would expect, given their later very successful careers, Soledad Miranda and Ingrid Pitt are the most impressive members of the cast. This was a Spanish movie made in the days when Spanish censorship was still extremely strict, so don’t expect either of these a
ctresses to be getting their kit off. We do get to see both ladies dancing however, and Soledad Miranda already shows signs of both the sensuality and the extraordinary presence that she had in her movies with Jess Franco a few years later.

The Alpha Video DVD is what you expect from that company - it’s fullscreen, the black-and-white image is washed out, picture quality is grainy and the sound is rather poor. But it’s cheap, and it’s probably fortunate that this fairly obscure movie still exists at all. It provides a chance to see both Soledad Miranda and Ingrid Pitt in the early stages of their careers, and it’s an entertaining and slightly off-beat horror movie. Shop around, and if you can pick up a copy cheaply enough it’s worth a look.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Santo Versus the Martian Invasion (1967)

One of the more glaring gaps in my movie-going career has been that although I’ve seen (and adored) several of the Mexican wrestling women movies, until now I have not seen a single Santo movie. I have now remedied this serious oversight by watching Santo Versus the Martian Invasion (Santo el enmascardo de plata vs la invasión de los marcianos).

This one was made in 1967, and since it’s my first I can’t really say how typical it is of the Mexican masked wrestler superhero genre. What I can say is that it’s enormously entertaining in an outrageously camp way.

The Martians are worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons on Earth, which may one day threaten the survival of the whole solar system. They decide to give us one last chance to abandon our destructive tendencies. Landing in Mexico, they take over the nation’s television transmissions to make their demands - we are to destroy all nuclear weapons and establish peace and universal brotherhood immediately, or they’ll start vaporising people. We’re going to be taught to learn to live in harmony and friendship even if they have to kill us all in order to teach us.

The Martians have technology far in advance of ours so things look fairly grim, but humanity does have one ace up its sleeve - we have Santo, the world’s greatest wrestler. And he’s working closely with Professor Ordorica, an all-round scientific genius, so the Martians are in for a much tougher battle than they anticipated. It’s Professor Ordorica who realises immediately that the Astral Eye used by the Martians to disintegrate people is similar to that used in ancient Atlantis, although tragically this tantalising coincidence is never followed up.

A few encounters with Santo are enough to convince the Martians that they need to capture both Santo and the professor and take them back to Mars - the scientist’s intelligence and Santo’s strength can be used to strengthen their own race. Given that the Martians are supposedly five centuries head of us scientifically it’s not clear why they need this assistance. Their initial attempts to capture Santo also persuade them that brute force may not be enough to subdue the pesky earthlings (again given their incredibly advanced technology including vaporising weapons and belts that allow them to teleport it’s not clear why they decide to rely on brute force in the first place).

Luckily the Martians just happen to look exactly like humans except for their blonde wigs and funny hats (and their cute silver caped costumes). By making use of their Transformation Room they can change themselves into exact replicas of humans, although for some reason this changes their silver spacesuits into costumes that make them look like extras from an Italian sword-and-sandal epic. And even more fortunately their crew just happens to include four beautiful female Martians. They will use their feminine wiles to capture earth people for transportation back to Mars.

Santo meanwhile has a plan of his own. The Martians seem to be strangely addicted to wrestling, so he arranges a wrestling match knowing that the Martians will not be able to resist the challenge of having one of their number fight Santo. This will allow him to get possession of the Martian’s teleportation belt. The fact that the Martians have to take regular pills to avoid asphyxiation by earth’s atmosphere should help. Santo must also find a way to locate the invaders’ spacecraft before it can return to Mars with its human cargo of prisoners. For this purpose the professor has provided him with a tracking device that can detect Martian brain waves.

This movie has everything you could possibly ask for. It has masked wrestlers, a delightfully silly but cute Martian spaceship, aliens in shiny silver spacesuits, beautiful seductive female aliens, lots of wrestling scenes, incredibly lame special effects, an insane plot and outrageous acting. Its camp quotient is right off the scale. It’s wonderfully silly and it’s non-stop fun.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Body Double (1984)

My Brian de Palma obsession is growing by leaps and bounds. I think I liked Body Double even more than Phantom of the Paradise.

Of course de Palma is just one of the countless film-makers who have done Hitchcock-style thrillers. What most of these people miss is Hitchcock’s love of black comedy, and his delight in playing games with the audience. In this respect Body Double arguably captures the authentic flavour of Hitchcock’s movie-making more successfully than almost any other attempt at a Hitchcock-style thriller, even though it’s not actually a Hitchcock-style thriller at all. It’s not even really a thriller. It’s a movie about Hitchcock-style thrillers. Yes folks, we’re in meta-movie territory here, but don’t despair because Brian de Palma is at the helm and this is actually going to be fun.

I’ll try to make this plot synopsis as vague and spoiler-free as possible but I really don’t think spoilers matter much in this case because I strongly suspect de Palma wants us to know what’s going to happen.

Jake Scully is a struggling actor who suffers from claustrophobia, which causes him to freeze up on house-sitting job, in a magnificent and spectacular home that looks like a flying saucer perched on top of a tower. Apart from the luxurious fittings there’s an added bonus. The house boasts a powerful telescope, and it’s trained on the windows of the apartment house across the valley. And every evening, at the same hour, the woman in one of those apartments provides some free entertainment as she undresse the set of the low-budget vampire movie he’s working on. He’s sent home to take a rest, and on arriving home he finds his girlfriend in bed with another man. Since it’s her house he can’t kick her out, so he’s on the streets. Then he has what seems to be a stroke of luck. Another actor offers him as and masturbates in front of a window. Jake may not have been aware of his voyeuristic tendencies before, but he’s certainly aware of them now.

After a couple of days the free show takes a disturbing turn. The woman is being menaced by a man. Jake decides to play the hero and starts to follow the woman around. At least he rationalises it to himself as playing the hero, but he obviously doesn’t mind following this very attractive woman around. After her purse is snatched and he pursues the thief he has the opportunity of meeting her, and it’s love at first sight. But that night he still can’t resist watching her regular performance, but this time she really is in extreme danger and Jake must play the hero for real, but will he be in time?

After this the movie abandons Rear Window territory for Vertigo territory. Jake has been watching porn movies (so his voyeurism is alive and well) and a performance he’s just seen from porn star Holly Body has triggered some vivid memories. He must meet her. And the obvious way to meet her is by auditioning for a role in one of her movies. He gets the part, and he gets to do a scene with her, and the scene involves getting to know her very intimately indeed, to the evident considerable enjoyment of both parties. Now that they’ve been introduced, so to speak, he asks her out on a date and pretends to be a big-time producer, because there’s a vitally important question he has to ask her and he has to win her trust.

The director signals his intentions right from the start, with a movie-within-a-movie sequence. He then goes to ostentatious lengths to make sure we realise the plot is a combination of Rear Window and Vertigo. It is necessary to make absolutely sure we know this, because if for even one minute we forget that we’re watching a movie and actually start to believe in the events or the characters the whole edifice will collapse. The most surprising thing is the number of reviewers over the years who have missed this and have taken the film to task for the predictability of the plot. The plot is supposed to be predictable. We’re supposed to know exactly what is going to happen, because we’ve seen Rear Window and Vertigo. This is not a suspense film. A suspense film requires a suspension of disbelief, it requires us to believe in it enough that we really do fear for the safety of the characters, that we really do believe they’re in danger. And that’s the last thing de Palma wants us to do. It’s all an elaborate joke, and he wants us to be in on it.

Early on there’s a scene in a car which I’m convinced was done in that obviously fake rear-projection technique that is so familiar from Hitchcock’s own movies. The choice of Craig Wasson for the role of Jake is another indication we’re not meant to be taking this seriously. He can’t act at all, but then he is playing the part of a failed actor so it’s rather appropriate, and his bad acting functions quite effectively. Gregg Henry as his actor buddy is very hammy, and again I’m assuming this was intended. And then there’s the casting of Melanie Griffith as porn star Holly Body. I don’t think anyone has ever accused her of being able to act, but she’s actually delightfully funny. Her line delivery is bizarre as always, but then so is her dialogue, and it works. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance. And of course she’s Tippi Hedren’s daughter, which acts as another reminder that we’re watching a movie. And the title of the movie is itself a spoiler.

Not only is de Palma enjoying himself playing Hitchcock games with us, he’s also having fun with some remarkably risque dialogue (which is presumably what earned it an R18+ rating in Australia, the equivalent of a US NC-17 rating). Melanie Griffith has fun talking very dirty, which she manages to make extremely funny. Apparently the British censors cut much of her dialogue, which is tragic. The sex and nudity content isn’t all that high, but would have been much higher if de Palma had been able to convince the studio to go with his original idea of casting an actual porn star as Holly Body, and including unsimulated sex. Which would have enraged his detractors even more, which no doubt would have amused de Palma even more.

This whole movie is a total hoot from start to finish, and I enjoyed every moment of it. It reminds me a little of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct in the sense that it’s also a movie that has been spectacularly misunderstood, and in both cases the director’s use of the sexual content has also been misunderstood. And I suspect that in both cases the directors have deliberately courted that misunderstanding in a deliberate attempt to provoke an extreme reaction. Body Double is a movie for movie-lovers to treasure.

Friday 25 September 2009

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Brian de Palma’s 1974 musical extravaganza Phantom of the Paradise is a movie that combines completely over-the-top campness with surprising intelligence, and outrageous excess with equalling surprising subtlety. It also proves that it’s possible to include homages to other people’s movies that actually serve a purpose, rather than being mere rip-offs.

And Phantom of the Paradise, a clever blending of the basic plots of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, homages just about everything, from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to Dr Mabuse, from The Picture of Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and includes the best ever (and the most diabolically amusing) Psycho homage.

Swan (Paul Williams) is a musical entrepeneur/promoter/producer/manager/all-round music business mogul owing more than a little to Phil Spector. Winslow Leach is a struggling singer/songwriter who attracts Swan’s attention. Winslow has written an ambitious rock cantata based on the Faust legend which he intends to perform himself, but Swan has other ideas. He steals Winslow’s music, and announces that Faust will be premiered at his new club, The Paradise. Winslow’s attempts to reclaim his work gain him nothing but a series of beatings and a spell in prison after Swan frames him for drug dealing. Increasingly unbalanced, Winslow breaks into the corporate headquarters of Swan’ company, Death Records, but is horribly injured and disfigured after his head is crushed by a record press.

His face hidden by an elaborate mask, Winslow takes up residence in Swan’s club, and has now become the Phantom of the Paradise. In a misguided attempt to regain control of his work and to have the cantata performed by a promising young female singer Phoenix with whom he is infatuated he has signed a contract with Swan, not realising that he has (literally) sold his soul. It turns out he’s not the only one who has made this deal.

Swan has decided that Phoenix is too perfect and hires an extravagant glam rock singer improbably named Beef to sing the lead role. This provokes the Phantom to action, and after Beef is disposed of it is Phoenix who takes the starring role after all. She is completely seduced by the adulation of the crowd.

The movie starts in outrageous style and becomes progressively more outrageous, but de Palma retains a sure grip on his material. This is excess, but it’s excess that is exquisitely controlled. Paul Williams is eerie and creepy and exudes evilness, William Finley is great as Winslow/the Phantom, and Jessica Harper is unexpectedly fabulous as Phoenix, nicely combining naïvete, integrity, greed and out-of-control ambition. Gerrit Graham is wonderfully bizarre as Beef.

This is the movie that The Rocky Horror Picture Show aspired to be, but while that movie consistently missed the mark (mesmerised by its own cleverness) this one hits the target every time. Phantom of the Paradise has even more cleverness, but it cleverness with purpose. Brian de Palma uses every visual trick in the book, and all of them work to perfection.

Mention must also be made of the superb soundtrack provided by Paul Williams. It’s a perfect melding of soundtrack and visual imagery.

I love this movie so much. I think I’ve just become a drooling Brian de Palma fanboy.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971)

Any movie that begins with a scantily-clad Susan George go-go dancing over the opening credits is pretty much guaranteed to get my attention. If there’s a better way to start a film I can’t think offhand what it might be.

Tragically this is the only go-go dancing scene in the whole of Die Screaming, Marianne. The lurid title (something that all Pete Walker’s movies seem to have in common) might also suggest that what you are about to see is a horror movie. It isn’t. It’s a thriller. The good news is, it’s a pretty good thriller.

Leo Genn plays a character known only as The Judge. He was in fact an actual British judge until he was sacked for corruption, and he now lives in voluntary exile in Portugal. His second wife somehow managed to get her hands on a large proportion of his ill-gotten gains (in excess of half a million pounds, a colossal amount in 1971) along with an assortment of incriminating documents. She stashed the lot in a numbered account in a Swiss bank just before her untimely death, from poison. The only person who knows the number of the account is Marianne, the daughter born to her and The Judge.

Marianne is now on the run, since she has grave doubts about her likelihood of long-tern survival if she falls into the hands of The Judge and her beautiful but seriously psychotic half-sister Hildegarde. She meets a rather creepy Englishman named Sebastian and after considerable pressuring agrees to marry him. When he checks the paperwork after the wedding it turns out she’s actually married the best man, his saxophone-playing buddy Eli. Sebastian is understandably rather miffed, and storms off. Eli and Marianne decide that since they’re married, they might as well move in together. And soon they’re in love.

Unfortunately The Judge is still on her trail, and a complicated series of double-crosses and attempted double-crosses follows.

This is a stylish and very dark thriller. While it can’t be described as a horror movie, it does have a couple of very creepy villains. Leo Genn as The Judge is oily and sinister and thoroughly evil. Judy Huxtable is memorably deranged and depraved as Hildegarde. Her hatred of her half-sister Marianne is one of the ruling obsessions of her life, the others being greed and an incestuous passion for her father (which he seems at least half-inclined to reciprocate). Susan George, always an underrated actress, does her usual solid job as Marianne. Barry Evans is a distinctly odd choice as the hero, but then Eli isn’t much of a hero, and mostly Marianne is left to save herself. Luckily she’s both resourceful and extremely determined.

There’s a nice use of locations in both Swinging 60s London and Portugal (The Judge’s villa is rather impressive) and the movie manages to look slick and reasonably expensive although it isn’t. That it succeeds as well as it does is largely due to exceptional acting performances by Genn, Susan George and especially Judy Huxtable who creates one of the great evil sexy film villainesses.

The Region 4 DVD seems, judging by the running time, to be more or less uncut but this is a movie remarkably lacking in sex and gore by the standards of 1971 so it may in fact be slightly cut.

It’s not a great movie by any means but it’s entertaining and it looks good. It really needed more go-go dancing though.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

In 1969, with a string of enormously successful science fiction puppet shows behind them (Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, etc) Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were keen to branch out into live action sci-fi. This led to the TV series UFO, possibly still the best British science fiction television program ever made. But immediately before UFO, they made the far less successful feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (also known as Doppelgänger).

The biggest problem with this film is that it came out in the wake of Kubrick’s sensational, controversial, widely praised and widely condemned but impossible to ignore 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the shadow of 2001 hangs heavily over Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Not that it’s by any stretch of the imagination a rip-off of Kubrick’s movie. The plot has nothing in common with it. But the feel of the movie is very similar. It seems to be aiming for the same arthouse/cult crossover audience as 2001. And although it’s a much shorter film, the pacing is just as leisurely.

It starts in a similar way to 2001, with an unexpected and mysterious discovery that leads to the mounting of a manned space exploration mission to investigate this perplexing find. The puzzle in question is the existence of a hitherto unknown planet, revealed by an unmanned probe launched towards the sun. This planet is the same size as Earth, it’s the same distance from the sun, and its orbit is identical to ours, except that it’s on the opposite side of the sun and has therefore remained hidden until now (yes I know the science there is fairly dodgy but hey this is the movies). Two astronauts are sent by the European Space Agency to take closer look. The journey there and back will take six weeks. Three weeks later the mission ends with a crash landing, and when the chief astronaut is rescued he is surprised to be asked if he speaks English. But where exactly is he? The plot, with many variations, will not be unfamiliar to hardened sci-fi fans but I’ll still try not to give away the solution

American actor Roy Thinnes (best remembered today for the reasonably good 1960s science fiction TV series The Invaders) was imported to play the spacecraft pilot. His performance is less than riveting, and had the movie been made after UFO rather than before I suspect that the star of that series, Ed Bishop (who plays a supporting role here), might have landed the lead role, and would probably have made a much better go of it. The second member of the crew is a British scientist played by Ian Hendry, who gives much the same performance that he gave in every other role he ever played.

The movie’s arty pretensions don’t quite come off, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson would have been well advised to stick with the formula that worked so well for them on TV, combining interesting science fiction ideas with reasonably strong characterisation and a healthy dose of action and adventure. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun just takes itself a bit too seriously. It’s certainly not a complete write-off though. The movie wisely doesn’t try to explain too much and retains some aura of mystery. The special effects are what you expect from the makers of Captain Scarlet, UFO and Space: 1999 - in other words they make very extensive use of models and they look extremely good. The movie as a whole looks terrific, with cool 1960s sets and costumes.

It’s a bit of an oddity, but worth a look, and as well as Ed Bishop you’ll also spot several other members of the cast UFO including George Sewell. Plus there’s a cameo by Herbert Lom, always a plus.

Universal's PAL DVD release looks extremely good.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

The Premature Burial (1962)

Having now watched The Premature Burial I can say that I’ve seen the whole of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. This one is interesting because Corman had originally intended not to make it for AIP, and since Vincent Price was under contract to API he had to find a new star (ironically the movie ended up being made for AIP anyway). Corman’s replacement for Price was Ray Milland, and he proved to be an exceptionally good choice.

Milland plays Guy Carrell, a man convinced that his father, who suffered from catalepsy, as accidentally buried alive. He is tortured by the sounds of his father screaming as he lay trapped in his coffin. As a result, Guy is obsessed by the fear of premature burial. His marriage to the beautiful Emily (Hazel Court) does little to lessen his obsession. He even builds himself an elaborate crypt full of ingenious escape devices so that if he is buried alive he will be able to break free of the tomb.

It seems that nothing anyone can do has the power to distract him from his fears. His sister is certain that their father was not in fact buried alive, that it was only Guy’s imagination, and in any case there is no evidence that Guy has inherited his father’s propensity to catalepsy. None of this is of any avail. His fear dominates his every waking thought, and his dreams as well.

Corman’s Poe films varied quite a bit in tone, from the more serious and very doom-laden efforts (such as the brilliant Masque of the Red Death) to the black comedy of The Raven and Tales of Terror. The Premature Burial is definitely one of the darker entries in the cycle, and Ray Milland contributes considerably to its success. There is not a trace of camp in his acting in this movie, and his fear is frighteningly real and communicates itself to the viewer very effectively. I’m not suggesting that Vincent Price couldn’t have pulled it off (he was a more versatile actor than he’s usually given credit for) but I honestly don’t think anyone could have bettered Milland’s performance.

Hazel Court (who appeared in no less than three of the Corman Poe movies) is extremely good indeed as his wife. She approaches her task with the same seriousness as does Milland.

Corman had assembled a talented production team for these movies, and like Hammer’s movies of the same vintage they look more expensive than they were. Until The Tomb of Ligeia they were very studio-bound, but Corman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby make a virtue out of this necessity and it adds the right touch of claustrophobia. That claustrophobic feel is especially suited to The Premature Burial. The dream sequences are an object lesson in achieving good effects that work without spending a fortune.

The Region 4 DVD includes only one worthwhile extra, a brief but entertaining interview with Corman. It’s a nice transfer though.

I’m a huge fan of these Poe films and this is a particularly good one. A must for any serious gothic horror fan.

Monday 21 September 2009

Teenage Devil Dolls (1955)

Teenage Devil Dolls (AKA One Way Ticket to Hell) is a 1955 juvenile delinquent flick that exposes the shocking truth about teenage dope fiends in the 50s.

Cassandra has the odds stacked against her from the start. Her mother (played by Lucille Price as a particularly monstrous movie mother) has gone through a string of husbands and this selfishness and the resultant lack of a stable home life has made Cassandra immature and vulnerable. She’s a good student but she falls in with the wrong crowd, a gang of motorcycle-rising delinquents. She is desperate to gain acceptance so she is easily drawn into their bad habits and is soon smoking reefers. From there it’s all downhill.

She marries her high school sweetheart, but she is unable to deal with the responsibilities of married life. Her doctor prescribes pills, lots of them. She becomes addicted to Seconal, and walks out on he husband. Pretty soon she’s dealing dope on street corners, involved in a car-stealing racket and she’s graduated to heroin. She’s also attracted the attention of the police, including the movie’s hero, Narcotics Squad cop Lieutenant David Jason. Jason is determined to smash the drugs racket, and tries to get Cassandra to turn informant. Cassandra is torn between her desire to kick the habit and her relationship with her drug-dealer boyfriend. The movie’s climax sees Cassandra and her boyfriend on the run for the Mexican border pursued by hordes of sheriff’s deputies.

This is a fairly typical example of the shocking exposé type of 50s exploitation movie, with a strong moral message but capitalising on the shock value of teen delinquency. There are fairly graphic scenes of drug use, which exploitation movies could get way with as they weren’t subject to Hollywood’s Production Code. The most surprising thing is probably the lack of sexual titillation. This is a movie that tries hard to convince us that it takes itself seriously. The reefer-smoking scenes will undoubtedly amuse many viewers, and some of the later scenes of narcotics withdrawal are extremely melodramatic. But that’s the appeal of classic exploitation cinema.

The omnipresent voice-over narration gives it an interesting semi-documentary feel although it’s really just a way of covering up the fact that the movie was shot was shot without any synchronised sound so there’s no actual dialogue. The movie has a very cheap feel, even by the standards of such movies. The acting is typically overwrought and inept although Barbara Marks as Cassandra has a certain presence.

One surprise is that the movie doesn’t place all the responsibility for her problems on Cassandra and her mother - the medical profession is made to take much of the blame for over-prescribing tranquilisers and sleeping pills. We even get to see the Narcotics Squad cops busting crooked doctors!

Teenage Devil Dolls has a certain amount of entertainment value and like all such movies it holds up a fascinating mirror to its time period, showing us a corrupt and seamy side to life in Eisenhower Era America. It’s not as much fun as true classics of the genre such as Girl Gang and the Ed Wood-scripted The Violent Years but it’s still enjoyable for devotees of juvenile delinquent movies.

It’s in the public domain and can be found online.The online print I saw wasn’t too bad as far as picture quality was concerned. I believe it’s also been released in several compilations of public domain juvenile delinquent films.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual (1983)

Jess Franco’s Macumba Sexual was shot in 1983 in the Canary Islands, at the same time as Mansion of the Living Dead. Macumba Sexual is much closer in feel to his more delirious fever dream films of the 70s, and is by far the better movie.

Linda Romay (appearing in blonde wig under the name Candy Coster once again) is Alice, a real estate agent on holiday with her writer boyfriend. Alice has been troubled by recurring dreams about a mysterious black woman, strange erotic dreams in which this black woman leads around her two slaves (one male and one female) on leashes. The woman is the Princess Tara Obongo, a practitioner of macumba (closely related to voodoo). Alice finds herself ravished by the princess and her slaves. The dreams start to bleed into her real life. While making love with her boyfriend she imagines it’s the princess she is having sex with. More disturbingly, the boyfriend is also imagining making love with the princess. Does this princess have some strange power over both of them? Is it a shared delusion?

Things get more worrying for Alice when she gets a phone call from her boss. It appears that a certain Princess Tara Obongo wants to buy a house, and she has specifically requested that Alice should be the one to close the deal. Alice sets off on camel-back to find the princess’s residence, which turns out to be a kind of combination of villa, palace and African village - a wonderfully exotic and weird setting that is one of the highlights of the movie. It turns out that Tara does indeed possess two naked leashed slaves, and Alice is drawn into a maelstrom of sexual obsession and depraved lust.

She escapes, with some assistance from a very odd character (played by Jess Franco) who works at her hotel and who has been spending a considerable amount of time watching her nude sunbathing sessions. No sooner has Alice freed herself from this dangerous sexual passion than we see her boyfriend setting off on camel-back for the princess’s domains. Alice’s attempts to free him will have decidedly unexpected results.

This is one of those Franco movies where dream and reality intersect so completely that it is impossible to separate the two. I’ve always found Franco’s dream obsession movies to be his best work, and Macumba Sexual compares favourably with the best of them such as Doriana Grey and Venus in Furs. Franco doesn’t try to help us unravel the threads and determine which events are real and which are dreams. And that’s the strength of the movie. Dreams can be more real and more powerful than reality. And when you add eroticism to the mix, the power of dreams is increased even further.

Macumba Sexual is very erotic indeed. Tara’s power, and Alice’s obsessive dreams, are entirely sexual in nature. Tara is a priestess, or more likely a goddess, of sex. There’s a prodigious quantity of both nudity and sex, and the sex is about as explicit as you can get without crossing the line into hardcore, and at times it goes very very close to that line. But in Franco’s best movies the sex, although plentiful and graphic, is never really gratuitous - the movies are about sex and the sex is woven into the film so completely that without the sex you wouldn’t have a movie. So it is with Macumba Sexual. But it isn’t just sex, and thus the movie is not just porn - it has other layers to it. It’s ironic that mainstream directors can be feted for dealing explicitly with sexual subject matter in a heavy-handed and uninteresting way (as in Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) while exploitation directors like Franco who deal with similar subjects in a more provocative and interesting way are often dismissed as mere pornographers.

Ajita Wilson, who plays the Princess Tara, was a post-operative transsexual, which adds another layer of enigma to the movie. It’s a stunning performance. And if you want an actress who can portray sexual obsession in an absolutely convincing manner you really can’t go past Lina Romay. There are obvious parallels to Vampyros Lesbos as far as the plot is concerned, and also with a little-known but somewhat underrated 1970s Franco movie, Voodoo Passion.

It’s a beautifully filmed movie, with magnificent locations. Franco is in fine form visually and produces some mesmerising images. The scene with Tara leading her two slaves around is both kinky and mysterious. This is a movie for people who enjoy Jess Franco’s more extreme movies, the ones where he pushes his personal visions most forcefully and is least constrained by considerations of plot. The movie that are most unapologetically Jess Franco movies. If you fall into that category then you will find Macumba Sexual to be an unexpected late masterpiece.

The Region 2 DVD (labelled as Region 2 but it actually appears to be region-free) from Anchor Bay seems to be more or less uncut, and is presented in its correct aspect ratio and in a very attractive print which emphasises the vibrant colours. And it’s in Spanish with English sub-titles. No much cause for complaint here, but some extras would have been nice.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name, Isle of the Dead is perhaps the most under-appreciated of all the Val Lewton RKO horror movies. It was released in 1945.

During the First Balkan War in 1912 an American war correspondent named Oliver Davis joins a Greek general (General Pherides, played by Boris Karloff) in a journey to a small island. The island is a cemetery, an island of the dead, where the general’s wife is interred. To their surprise they find the island is inhabited by the living as well as the dead. An archaeologist has taken up permanent residence, and has been joined by a group of people fleeing the war. But death is about to reassert its dominion over the island - the travellers have brought plague with them.

General Pherides is determined to face death as a soldier. He has a plan of campaign worked out, and with the assistance of an army surgeon he intends not only to battle death, but to win the battle. The general’s faith in science is not shared by his companions, and the old peasant woman Kyra who serves a housekeeper is convinced that the young companion of the wife of an English diplomat is in fact a vorvolaka - a kind of female vampire.

General Pherides is a man torn between a belief in progress and science on the one hand and the beliefs and superstitions of his youth on the other. That conflict provides the movie with its principal theme, with Greece being a country torn between the modern world and the almost overwhelming burden of the past. As his war against death falters and death claims one victim after another the general finds the pull of the past and of traditional beliefs more and more difficult to resist. There’s also a subplot involving premature burial that adds to the atmosphere of impending doom and steadily growing fear.

Karloff gives one of his best performances, playing a man who is neither hero nor villain, although at times he seems equally capable of filling either role. Helene Thimig is positively terrifying as the peasant woman Kyra.

This one has the visual style that distinguished the Lewton movies - lots of shadows, very film noir-ish. There are no real overt scares, but the psychological horror is built up very effectively and becomes almost unbearable, with the claustrophobic sets and the scenario of people trapped on an island of death being stalked by the plague adding to the horror. Mark Robson was at best a competent director but with Val Lewton’s guiding hand behind him he made a couple of excellent entries in the RKO horror series.

Very few people seem to like this movie, but to me it seems both an original idea and a well-executed piece of psychological horror. Like most of the Lewton movies it uses the supernatural as a motivation for the actions of the characters rather than being an explicitly supernatural movie.

This movie is included in Warner Home Video’s excellent Val Lewton DVD boxed set, a must-but for all serious horror fans. It’s quite a nice print too.

Thursday 17 September 2009

The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

While Hammer were best known for their gothic horror movies their output throughout the company’s history was exceptionally varied. The Terror of the Tongs, released in 1961, was (like The Stranglers of Bombay) an interesting attempt to combine the the horror elements and period settings of their gothics with a crime/adventure plot.

It is 1910, and although the British are as yet scarcely aware of it their colony of Hong Kong is increasingly under the control of the Red Dragon Tong, most feared of all the Chinese organised crime secret societies. The tong runs the gambling clubs and the brothels and of course the opium trade. They also exercise their power over the docks, with a lucrative racket involving pilfered goods from the many ships coming to Hong Kong to trade.

Captain Jackson Sale is a bluff honest British sea captain who, quite by accident, finds himself caught up in the activities of the Red Dragon. A Chinese passenger on his ship passes on to Captain Sale vital intelligence about the activities of the tong, hidden inside a book of Chinese poetry. Unfortunately Captain Sale is unaware that he is in possession of this information, but the tong does know about it. The captain will pay a heavy personal price for this, and subsequent events will cause him to devote himself to the destruction of the tong and to exacting an equally terrible revenge. He acquires some useful allies along the way, including a band of fanatics sworn to the annihilation of the tong, and a beautiful Eurasian girl (played by French actress Yvonne Monlaur who looks and sounds entirely French) who had been sold into white slavery by her mother.

It’s a short movie, and it’s packed with action. It also looks fabulous. Once again the true genius behind Hammer turns out to be production designer Bernard Robinson. The sets are suitably impressive and they look expensive, which of course they aren’t. I have no idea if Hong Kong in 1910 really looked like this, but it doesn’t matter at all - what matters is that they create the perfect atmosphere of the mysterious and the exotic, and of decadence and wickedness. Arthur Grant does his usual splendid job as director of photography.

Geoffrey Toone makes a fine hero, determined and square-jawed. While Yvonne Monlaur fails to look even the slightest bit non-European she’s an attractive and sympathetic heroine. And as the chief villain, the head of the Hong Kong chapter of the Red Dragon Tong, we have Christopher Lee. Although he gets less screen time than you might expect he completely dominates the film with his evil charisma. Also watch out for Roger Delgado (later to become better known as The Master from Doctor Who) as one of Christopher Lee’s more sinister henchmen.

Despite the draconian censorship of the time this movie does have some genuinely chilling moments, especially the torture by bone-scraping scene. Scriptwriter Jimmy Sangster admits he has no idea if such a torture really exists, but within the context of the movie it has the right touch of creepiness and horror. There’s no actual sex but there is a surprising amount of what today gets labelled as adult themes - there’s white slavery, there’s obvious prostitution, there’s overt drug use, and there are (perhaps even more surprisingly) hints of British involvement in the crimes of the tongs and a sceptical attitude towards the competence of the British police force in the colony.

Jimmy Sangster has cheerfully admitted to having done no research at all for any of the scripts he wrote for Hammer, and that may be why they work so well. They’re pure fantasy, taking place in an exotic world that never existed. This is the sort of movie that would probably be considered too politically incorrect to get made today, although it’s worth pointing out that there are just as many brave virtuous Chinese characters fighting the evil of the tongs as there are wicked Chinese characters.

It’s included in the Icons of Adventure boxed set. It comes with a commentary track which includes some amusing anecdotes about British film censorship in the early 60s, and the extraordinarily snobbish and superior attitudes the censors displayed towards movies they disapproved of.

It’s all a great deal of good silly fun. Pure entertainment.

Mighty Peking Man (1977)

Mighty Peking Man (Xing xing wang) was Shaw Brothers Studio’s homage to King Kong. Well perhaps blatant rip-off of King Kong would be more accurate, but it’s done in such a good-humoured way you can’t possibly object. And they improved the original by adding a jungle girl sub-plot. What’s better than a giant gorilla movie? A giant gorilla movie that is also a jungle girl movie.

Our hero (played by Danny Lee) is an explorer suffering from depression after finding his girlfriend in bed with his brother. The best cure for depression is of course to mount an expedition into the steamy tropical rainforests of the Himalayas. And since there have been reports of a monstrous 50-foot gorilla being sighted in that area, what better excuse for an expedition? He’s interested in advancing scientific knowledge, but the backer of the project, the nefarious Mr Lu, sees it as a way of becoming very rich by displaying the giant gorilla in the Hong Kong Stadium.

It turns out that the jungles of the Himalayas are populated by other fascinating creatures in addition to gorillas, elephants, tigers and orang-utans. They are also home to a beautiful blonde jungle girl named Ah Wei. No matter what part of the world you may find beautiful jungle girls in, they will always be blonde. It’s a rule. Her parents were killed in a plane crash and she was raised by the giant gorilla, whose name is Ah Wang. Our intrepid hero naturally falls in love with her, and his feelings are warmly reciprocated. He persuades her to accompany the gorilla back to Hong Kong. Of course things don’t turn out well for our giant ape friend, and the stage is set for a very King Kong-style ending.

This is a movie that has not the slightest intention of taking itself seriously. Making a movie that deliberately aims for camp, that is consciously played tongue-in-cheek and that celebrates its own cheesiness and does all this successfully isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s so easy to end up with something that is too contrived and too clever for its own good. And when there’s the potential for major cuteness (Ah wei has lots of loveable animal friends) and huge servings of sentimentality the dangers multiply. In this case director Meng Hua Ho and scriptwriter Kuang Ni effortlessly avoid all these pitfalls.

They’re helped considerably by the two leads. While I would hesitate to claim that either Danny Lee or Evelyne Kraft (who plays jungle girl Ah Wei) are great actors, they know what’s expected of them and they deliver the goods. Lee is handsome and brave without being annoying, while Evelyne Kraft manages to be everything a jungle girl should be - blonde, pretty, likable and very scantily clad - while also not being annoying. And they have good chemistry between them.

The movie is also careful not to strain too hard for laughs. The premise is silly enough to provide more than enough amusement. It’s also mildly sexy, but in a thoroughly cheerful and good-natured way. The pacing is spot-on, with not a single wasted scene.

The special effects work perfectly for the type of film this is. If you remade it with expensive CGI you’d simply spoil the fun. Traditional giant monster movies are supposed to de done with not overly convincing models, and this is a movie that is very much aware of being part of that tradition. And the effects are spectacular enough, even if you don’t for one minute believe they’re real. They’re fun, like everything else in this film. You expect to see Hong Kong get stomped in model form the way Tokyo gets stomped in model form in Godzilla movies, and that’s what you get.

The addition of a major romantic sub-plot adds an extra dimension to the ending, and at the risk of being accused of heresy I think it’s superior to the ending of the original King Kong, although it is at the same time very much a homage to the ending of that film.

The Region 4 DVD is totally lacking in extras but it looks marvellous. This is an insanely enjoyable romp, and I really can’t recommend this one too highly. It’s an absolute treat.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

This was my third viewing of Vampyros Lesbos, part of my project to re-watch all of the Soledad Miranda films I can get my hands on. Like Eugénie de Sade, also directed by Jess Franco, it just seems to get better and better the more times I watch it.

It really was a very clever idea - making a radical break from the traditions of the vampire film while still remaining remarkably faithful to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It really was a very clever idea - making a radical break from the traditions of the vampire film while still remaining remarkably faithful to the plot of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

There are no gloomy Carpathian Mountains here, everything is drenched in brilliant Mediterranean sunshine. The vampire doesn’t live in a decaying gothic castle. She lives in an ultra-modern beach house furnished in the height of early 70s chic. She adores sunbathing. She dresses in the latest fashions (when she’s wearing clothes at all). There’s very little emphasis on religious symbols as defences against vampires, or on the occult in general. She is clearly possessed of supernatural powers, but the film displays no interest in matters spiritual or diabolical.

On the other hand, apart from the elimination of a few minor characters, we have the core of Stoker’s plot. The representative of a legal firm is dispatched to the remote home of a reclusive aristocrat, the Countess Carmody, to oversee the details of the transference of some property. Like Jonathan Harker this character falls prey to the aristocrat’s vampiric appetites but manages to escape. There’s a Dr Seward, and there’s a psychiatrist, Dr Steiner, and they play much the same roles in the film that van Helsing and Dr Seward play in the book. And there’s a counterpart to Renfield, a lunatic under the influence of the vampire. The principal changes are that the movie’s equivalents of the Dracula, Jonathan Harker and Renfield characters are all women. Linda Westinghouse in fact combines the roles of Jonathan Harker and Mina.

This is Jess Franco at his most stylish, and technically it’s quite accomplished without having a low-budget feel to it. In fact the clothes and the modernist interior design of the Countess’s house give it an almost opulent feel. Franco at his best could make a very low-budget movie look a lot more expensive than it was. The strange blood-red wall hangings (well really they’re ceiling hangings) in Countess Carmody’s villa are a very nice touch. The sound-track is typical of 70s eurohorror, an odd but very effective mix of prog-rock, jazz and electronic music. The Turkish locations serve two purposes extremely well, providing Mediterranean sunshine and an exotic ambience. The scorpion is another interesting touch.

Soledad Miranda has less actual acting to do in this movie compared to Eugénie de Sade. Mostly she has to look exotic, sexy, other-worldly and charismatic, and she does it supremely well. Ewa Strömberg is excellent as Linda, while Heidrun Kussin is suitably maniacal as Agra (the movie’s version of Renfield). Dennis Price and Paul Muller as Drs Seward and Steiner are also extremely good.

There is of course a very strong emphasis on sex (and being a Franco movie, that of course includes quite a bit of lesbian sex). The erotic elements that are present but disguised in Stoker’s novel are out in the open here. There’s a great deal of nudity. Also present is one of the most characteristic features of Franco’s movies of this period, the erotic night-club sequence. He always did these scenes superbly, and this is one of his finest efforts. The dance performed by Soledad Miranda with her unnamed partner is extraordinarily perverse and sexual and absolutely fascinating, with the dancers exchanging roles and with an eroticism that is clearly dangerous and rather sinister.

Strangely enough this film was made in the same year as one of his less successful projects, an even more faithful adaptation of Stoker’s book, Count Dracula (although it is redeemed by one of Christopher Lee’s finest ever acting performances). Count Dracula sticks very closely indeed to the novel, and is one of the least erotic of all Franco’s movies. Comparison of the two films is an object lesson in the superiority of films that do not attempt to slavishly imitate their literary source.

Vampyros Lesbos is one of the half-dozen best films Franco ever made. A triumph for both Franco and for Soledad Miranda.

The Region 4 DVD from Umbrella Entertainment is uncut and is presented widescreen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the image is rather grainy, and there are no extras apart from a trailer.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

The Snake Woman’s Curse (1968)

The Snake Woman’s Curse was Japan’s Toei Studios’ attempt to break into the horror market, and although it appeared in 1968 it is (compared to more modern Japanese horror) very much in the pattern of a traditional Japanese ghost story or kwaidan. Director Nobuo Nakagawa had already made a reputation for himself as a director of that type of horror movie. The Snake Woman’s Curse adds to this a very strong element of political and social criticism.

It is set during the Meiji period (which lasted from 1868 to 1912). This was a period of rapid modernisation and westernisation but this has had only a limited impact in the area in which the events of the film take place, one of the more backward parts of the country. The head of the Ônuma family still exercises an almost feudal level of control over his tenant farmers, but on the other hand the economy of this area is moving from traditional farming to rural industry based on silk weaving, and the family runs a silk weaving factory based on the back-breaking labour of several dozen poorly paid and badly exploited women. The movie opens with one of these tenant farmers, Yasuke, begging his Ônuma for more time to repay a debt so as to avoid having his farm seized, but his appeal is contemptuously rejected. He is knocked into a ditch by the landlord’s carriage and dies shortly thereafter.

The man’s wife Sue and daughter Asa have their farm taken away from them and must face a future of ten years of unpaid labour in the silk factory in order to discharge the debt. The old master’s much younger wife, Masae, suspects Sue of having designs upon her husband, while the young master really does have designs on Asa. Yasuke’s whole family is destined for destruction as a result of these machinations, but their ghosts will wreak a terrible vengeance.

As a ghost story the movie works fairly well. The political elements are the major weaknesses. Not that there’s anything wrong with using horror for such purposes, but the politics is handled clumsily. Everything is black or white, the rich are mere monsters, the peasants are noble and virtuous. Modernisation and industry are bad, traditional values and farming are good. Most Japanese exploitation films of the 70s also had strong political overtones but the younger directors emerging during that period seemed to be able to include political messages with some real wit and without becoming strident and preachy, faults that are unfortunately very apparent in The Snake Woman’s Curse.

The strength of the film is its visual power. It’s an exceptionally well made and beautifully shot movie, without any B-movie feel to it. The acting is also impressive. Akemi Negishi (who went on to appear in some of the most memorable Japanese exploitation movies of the 70s) is particularly good as Masae, making her a frighteningly malignant figure but achieving this effect with great subtlety. She is beautiful and elegant and utterly evil and ruthless.

The Snake Woman’s Curse moves along at a fairly sedate pace, and those accustomed to later Japanese movies may be surprised at the complete lack of gore and also of sex and nudity. While the pace is leisurely the tension is built up skillfully and there’s certainly no lack of entertainment value here. There’s also no lack of artistic competence and if you can overlook the heavy handed political message it’s a movie worth seeing. It’s not likely to become one of my favourites but I would still recommend it with some reservations, especially if you enjoy the more traditional type of Japanese horror film, such as Masaki Kobayashi’s brilliant 1964 opus Kwaidan (although it has to be said that it’s not in the same league as that magnificent film).

The Synapse DVD looks great and includes a moderately informative commentary track.

Monday 14 September 2009

A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine (1966)

A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine is a notorious 1966 “roughie” from legendary sexploitation producer David F. Friedman. And it’s one of the most entertaining movies in this particular sub-genre.

Sharon Winters (played by the extraordinary Stacey Walker) is a tease. She’s not just a tease, she’s the ultimate tease, and she destroys men for kicks. She uses her sexuality as a weapon. And not just against men - a lesson her lesbian room-mate learns when she tries to entice Sharon into bed. This prompts Sharon to utter one of the classic lines in exploitation cinema: “I may be a bitch, but I’ll never be a butch.”

Sharon works in an office, and her latest chosen victim is the firm’s newest accountant (she destroyed the previous one). Inevitably her games are going to end in bloodshed, and so it proves. And than at about the midway point we get an extended dream sequence, brought on by Sharon’s teasing acting on the overheated imagination of the luckless accountant. There’s almost a touch of very early psychedelia to it, and it’s certainly a highlight.

This is the sort of movie you could find offensive if you took it seriously, but anyone who takes this one seriously is spectacularly missing the point. This is the strange fantastic world of the sexploitation movie, the world of bizarre twisted visionaries like Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman, and it’s a world in which the story-telling is done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s also worth pointing out that the old-style exploitation film-makers (and Friedman definitely falls into this category) operated very much in the mode of old-time carny hucksters - to take their movies literally is to betray oneself as one of the “marks” who falls for the tall tales spun for them by the carny folk.

The movie is shot in the exaggerated melodramatic style typical of the genre. The acting (and I’m perhaps being generous in using the word acting) is delightfully over-the-top. Whatever deficiencies Stacey Walker may have had as a serious actress she has undeniable presence and her performance is effective the way a sledge hammer is effective. I think she’s wonderful.

The black-and-white cinematography is by László Kovács, who went on to shoot movies such as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters and New York, New York and to win numerous awards. And his cinematography is striking and effective. It’s really a rather competently made movie as far as the technical aspects go. It was filmed in LA and captures a rather nice mid-60s sleazy ambience.

Friedman was rather embarrassed by the soundtrack, provided by an obscure LA band of the time, but I think it works extremely well. At times when they get into extended instrumental breaks they almost sound like a California version of the early Velvet Underground, with a definite hint of urban paranoia thrown in. It worked for me anyway. When they attempt a conventional song they fall apart completely, but that just adds to the charm of the movie.

The movie is not only about a tease, the movie is (like any good 1960s sexploitation film) a tease in itself. Friedman’s technique, the technique of classic sexploitation and of course the classic carny technique, was always to promise much but to show little. There’s abundant nudity but nothing even remotely approaching actual sex. The result is a movie awash in suppressed sexuality that manages to be very erotic in its own warped way.

Something Weird’s DVD release not only includes two other sexploitation features, it also includes an immensely enjoyable commentary track done by Friedman himself and Something Weird’s Mike Vraney. Friedman is funny, utterly shameless and completely delightful and has a vast store of terrific anecdotes about the odd little world of sexploitation film-making. This commentary track is enough on its own to justify the purchase price, so the fact that A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine is outrageously entertaining simply comes as an added bonus! If you’ve never delved into the world of the “roughie” this one (along with Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go To Hell) provides a great starting point.