Saturday 31 October 2009

Rites of Frankenstein (1972)

Rites of Frankenstein (La maldición de Frankenstein) is a classic piece of Jess Franco madness from the early 70s.

Doctor Frankenstein has managed to create an artificial man, but he has a powerful enemy in the form of the magician Cagliostro. Cagliostro has been dead for centuries, but then hasn’t stopped him. Accompanied by his fearsome henchwoman Melisa he breaks into Frankenstein’s castle to steal his creature and his secrets. Melisa is blind and is a kind of birdwoman, with the gift of second sight. And a taste for human flesh. Cagliostro has also set himself up as the leader of a cult, the cult of Panthos, which appears to be mostly composed of dead people.

Frankenstein and his assistant are murdered, but that’s not the end of Frankenstein either. His daughter Vera arrives to continue his work, and is able to revive her father for short periods. She not only wants to continue her father’s experiments, she also wants to avenge his death. There is clearly going to be a major power struggle between Cagliostro and Vera Frankenstein. Also involved, caught in the middle so to speak, is another eminent scientist, Dr Seward. Seward admired Frankenstein without approving of his work.

The plot becomes very convoluted, Vera falls into the clutches of Cagliostro, and there’s lots of trademark Franco weirdness. This is Franco in a fairly playful mood and I don’t think we’re meant to take any of the goings-on all that seriously. But it’s all great fun.

Howard Vernon was often under-utilised in Franco’s movies but this time he has a role he can really sink his teeth into as the diabolical Cagliostro. Dennis Price as Frankenstein is deceased for most of the movie but he still gets to overact even when dead! Anne Libert is very creepy as Melisa. As good as Howard Vernon is in this movie (and he’s very good indeedd) Anne Libert pretty much steals the picture. The movie is also notable for marking the first appearance of Lina Romay in a Jess Franco movie (although it depends which cut of the movie see whether she actually appears or not).

The Image DVD was taken from the Spanish cut which was a “clothed” cut with all the nude scenes reshot with the actors clothed. Image have included all the excised nude scenes as an extra. There are some scenes that don’t really work without the nudity, such as the scene where the painter tells his model she can put her clothes on now when she’s already fully clothed. In the hotter version intended for markets outside of Spain she is of course naked.

The plot is so outrageous that it works. It’s one of those cases where it’s better to go completely over-the-top rather than adopt half-measures, and Franco goes for broke. Having the creature covered in silver paint is an odd touch but it also works.

This is a silly but highly entertaining movie. It probably won’t appeal to you unless you’re a fan of the weirder varieties of eurohorror but if you enjoy horror with lots of strangeness, a dash of surrealism and done with tongue planted firmly in cheek then this one should deliver the goods for you.

Like quite a few of Franco's movies from this era this one exists in several different versions with various titles.

Friday 30 October 2009

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Alice, Sweet Alice (originally released in 1976 as Communion) is a kind of Catholic schoolgirl slasher movie with some major giallo influences. It’s a weird mix that often threatens to self-destruct but somehow it works.

We start with a young mother with two daughters, both preparing for their First Communion. Karen (played by Brooke Shields in her first film role) is the good girl, Alice is the bad crazy one. And she’s seriously bad, and seriously crazy. She’s also severely jealous of Karen, whom she suspects (quite correctly as it happens) of being the favoured daughter. Alice’s favourite hobbies are terrorising her sister, and tormenting their rather gross downstairs neighbour. She also causes trouble for Mrs Tredoni, the housekeeper of the local parish priest, Father Tom (who seems to be a close friend of the family as well as their priest).

When Karen is stabbed to death and set on fire in the church just before her First Communion it’s probably not surprising that suspicion falls on Alice. Her aunt was already convinced she was kind of devil in human form, and she’s only too happy to encourage the police to suspect Alice. The girls’ parents are divorced but after the murder the father turns up and decides to play amateur detective. He’s convinced of Alice’s innocence.

I can’t say too much more about the plot without revealing spoilers, except that there is more murder and mayhem to come and more plot twists.

The Catholic imagery is laid on very thick indeed, but this is not a movie in the Exorcist tradition. While The Exorcist told us that the Devil was real and the Church was our only protection, this movie tells us that evil is human and that the Church serves to encourage the kind of self-hatred, self-torment and obsession with sin that encourages human evil. This is not a movie that would have found much favour with the Vatican.

The murders are shocking not so much because of the gore (there really isn’t that much gore) but because of the hatred behind them, and the horror of knowing that the murderer of the child may be another child. The murderer in the translucent mask and yellow raincoat adds a very creepy touch, reminiscent of Don't Look Now and also giving the movie a definite giallo flavour.

The acting is outrageously over-the-top. These people believe you should never speak a line if you can shout it, and you should never shout a line if you can scream it. The totally overdone hysteria of the acting should have sunk the movie but it actually works. The movie is filled with grotesque imagery, but all this grotesquerie serves a purpose and contributes to the overall atmosphere of dangerous and out-of-control madness. Try to imagine John Waters and David Lynch collaborating on a remake of The Exorcist.

It seems to be set in the early 60s, for no obvious reason except perhaps that the atmosphere of extreme religious obsession seemed more likely to be convincing in that time period.

The Region 4 DVD looks good but this is a movie that really would have benefited from some extras such as a commentary track.

This is a movie that really has lost none of its shock value in the past 30-odd years, but it’s more than just a cheap shockfest. It’s a strange but effective horror flick, and although it won’t appeal to all tastes it’s definitely worth a look.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Wandering Ginza Butterfly (1971)

Wandering Ginza Butterfly (Gincho wataridori) was one of Meiko Kaji’s first films for Toei Studios after leaving Nikkatsu, where she’d starred in the very successful Stray Cat Rock series. While the plot synopsis might make it sound like a pinky violence movie, in fact it’s much more of a traditional Japanese yakuza movie.

Kaji is Nami, a former girl gang leader serving a prison sentence for murdering a yakuza boss. After being released she gets a job as a hostess in a hostess bar. She’s filled with remorse for her crime, and determined to make amends to the dead man’s widow. She meets Ryuji (Tsunehiko Watase), a likeable rogue who’s a borderline yakuza but basically a good guy. She’s doing OK, she’s very successful as a hostess and she also has a considerable talent for collecting debts from recalcitrant customers.

Unfortunately her life starts to get complicated when a particularly vicious gangster named Owada tries to take over the bar where she works. He’s holding a phoney debt over the head of the mama-san, and since the mama-san has treated Nami decently she’s anxious to help her to save the bar. Ryuji is keen to help as well, being rather sweet on Nami, while they have another ally in the mama-san’s boyfriend Shin. Shin is a disreputable enough character in his own way, but like Ryuji (and Nami for that matter) he’s essentially decent. So we have a contrast set up between Owada and his gang on one side, who are simply thugs, and on the other side Nami, Ryuji and Shin, who are or have been petty criminals but with a code of honour.

Nami also happens to be a very skillful billiards player (her uncle is a pool-hall hustler from way back), so she challenges Owada. She will take on his champion player. If she loses, Owada will get her uncle’s property; if she wins, Owada will give up his claim on the bar. The billiards duel is filmed very stylishly and is the highlight of the movie. Of course it all gets more complicated, and eventually Nami is forced to resort to violence. The bad guys discover that if it’s foolish to take on Nami on the billiards table it’s even more foolish to mess with her with cold steel! The final showdown, with Meiko Kaji in a kimono wielding a sword (even though the movie is set in 1970s Tokyo) gives director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi an opportunity for another very impressive visual set-piece, a frenetic mix of swordplay and gunplay.

Apart from the ending there’s surprisingly little violence, and even more surprisingly for a 1971 Japanese exploitation movie there’s no sex or nudity at all. In fact the film has a rather old-fashioned feel, more like the Japanese movies of the 60s. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. What it lacks in violence it makes up for in human drama. It also gives Meiko Kaji the chance to do a lot more acting than in her later movies, and she produces one of her best performances. Nami is an engaging mix of toughness and tenderness. And she gets to wear some great 70s clothes in this one! Tsunehiko Watase is also impressive. In fact the acting overall is extremely good.

The plot follows the established formula for a yakuza movie but it’s executed with style and elegance and the actors are good enough to breathe life into what could have been rather cliched characters. There’s plenty of fun to be had, the comic relief is done reasonably well, and while there are moments of sentimentality they’re handled with sufficient skill not to become annoying.

Synapse’s DVD presentation is impressive and includes some worthwhile extras. As long as you accept that this is not an actual pinky violence movie then there’s plenty of entertainment to be found here. There was a sequel, with the delightful title Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler.

Wandering Ginza Butterfly is certainly an absolute must for Meiko Kaji fans.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

The Golden Lotus (1974)

The Golden Lotus (Jin ping shuang yan) is a bit of an oddity. It’s a 1974 Shaw Brothers production, so you expect king fu and/or swordplay. What you get is sex. You also get corruption, deceit and intrigue, and you do get several murders.

It was based on a 16th century Chinese classic of Chinese erotic literature, the Jin Ping Mei, although it’s set much earlier. Ximen Qing is a wealthy young merchant, and as we later find out he’s also less than scrupulous in his business dealings. He’s even less scrupulous in his dealings with women. He collects women the way other men collect paintings or other beautiful objects. Especially women with very tiny feet. Nothing gets him more excited than tiny dainty feet.

Pan Jinlian is the wife of the local pancake seller, the dwarf Wu Dalang. And she has very tiny feet indeed. With the help of the notorious procuress Madame Wang he seduces the rather naïve Pan. Pan may be naïve, but her sexual appetites are well and truly awakened by this first encounter and soon they’re carrying on a torrid love affair. Her husband is a bit of a nuisance though, so they’ll need to get him out of the way. Soon Pan finds herself installed as Ximen Qing’s fifth wife.

But Ximen Qing has no intention of stopping at five wives (plus sorted concubines). He is soon pursuing another married woman. Pan decides she might as well have some sexual adventures as well, but this earns her a brutal beating from Ximen Qing. He is gradually revealed as a rather nasty piece of work, with a vicious temper and a generally selfish and childish outlook on life.

The main interest of the film is Ximen Qing’s household. Entirely dominated by women, whether they be wives, concubines or servants, it is a hotbed of domestic intrigues and power struggles. Survival in this household depends on developing the skills of manipulation and deceit to a fine art. A woman’s only power comes from her beauty and her sexual allure, and these must be used ruthlessly. Especially when dealing with a man as powerful, cruel and corrupt as Ximen Qing. Pan Jinlian becomes a skillful and ruthless intriguer.

The movie’s main problem is that the plot is immensely complex, and as it progresses events become more and more compressed and it can be difficult to follow exactly what is happening with so many plots and counter-plots and and affairs and seductions and shady business deals.

Shaw Brothers movies invariably look good, and renowned director Li Han-Hsang has made The Golden Lotus a very handsome film indeed. The movie’s greatest strength though is the performance of Hu Chin as Pan. She is equally convincing as the innocent victim of a shameless seducer and as the skilled artiste in intrigue that she becomes. She is very wicked and very sexy. Look out for martial arts star Jackie Chan in a small role, very early in his film career.

Despite the subject matter the sex is not very explicit and there’s not a great deal of nudity. But there’s certainly more of both than you generally expect in a Shaw Brothers movie. And some scenes do achieve a genuine erotic intensity. It’s certainly a treat for foot fetishists! It’s reasonably entertaining and represents a fairly successful attempt by SHaw Brothers to widen their appeal to a broader exploitation market. It’s a movie that is as much about power and corruption as it is about sex.

The Region 4 DVD presents the movie in its correct Shawscope aspect ratio and includes a featurette on director Li Han-Hsang.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Man from Hong Kong (1975)

The Man from Hong Kong is one of the more unusual ozploitation flicks of the 70s, being a kung fu movie set mostly in Australia.

It was actually an Australian-Hong Kong co-production, and although most of the action is supposed to take place in Australia many of the interior sequences were shot in the Hong Kong studios of Golden Harvest. It still manages to have a very Australian feel to it.

It opens with a drug deal gone wrong on the top of Ayers Rock, which as writer director Brian Trenchard-Smith explains on the commentary track was intended to set the tongue-in-cheek mood of the whole film, this being absolutely the silliest possible place in which to conduct a drug deal. Trenchard-Smith immediately pushes the movie in an even more tongue-in-cheek direction, with a Drug Squad detective chasing the drug courier up the rock where they engage in a spirited kung fu duel, while his partner speeds off in his car with a police helicopter in hot pursuit.

This is followed by the first of many hang-gliding sequences, with a glamorous female Australian reporter hang-gliding into the parade ground of the Royal Hong Kong Police, to land more or less at the feet of the movie’s hero, Inspector Fang Sing Leng (Jimmy Wang Yu). The inspector has been demonstrating his martial arts prowess, and after driving the reporter back to her hotel he proceeds to demonstrate his prowess in the bedroom. By this time Trenchard-Smith’s formula has become pretty clear - we’re going to have lots of action, interspersed with sex, romance and some fairly broad humour. And that’s what we get, done with considerable style and enormous energy.

Inspector Fang flies off to Sydney, to handle the extradition of the suspect captured at Ayers Rock. After interrogating the suspect in his inimitable style (a style that involves very large amounts of physical violence) Inspector Fang gets the name of the man behind the deal - the infamous Sydney gangster Jack Wilton (who also happens to be a formidable king fu master). After several more extended and very impressive fight scenes we finally get to meet Wilton. And it’s none other than George Lazenby, the former James Bond. And a very fine villain he makes too. Lazenby did his fight scenes himself, which wasn’t a problem for him since he’d studied martial arts under some chap by the name of Bruce Lee.

Much to the despair of the two Australian cops assigned to the case Inspector Fang proceeds to leave a trail of devastation in his wake as he pursues his criminal opponent with a zeal bordering on fanaticism. In between acting as a one-man weapon of mass destruction the Inspector also finds time to cut a swathe through the local female population. He is unstoppable on the streets, and irresistible between the sheets.

The mayhem accelerates with car chases, more kung fu and more spectacular stunts, all leading up to an explosive (literally) finale.

Having a former James Bond in the movie is rather appropriate since apart from spoofing kung fu movies The Man from Hong Kong also has a good deal of fun spoofing James Bond-style thrillers. It effectively combines Hong Kong-style action (lots of king fu) and Australian-style action (lots of violent mayhem with cars).

Jimmy Wang Yu and George Lazenby have a great deal of fun with their respective roles, while Hugh Keays-Byrne overacts outrageously as usual as an Australian Drug Squad sergeant. Frank Thring delivers a typically delightful and insanely overripe performance as Lazenby’s chief lieutenant. Ros Spiers and Rebecca Gilling don’t have a great deal to do other than looking sexy and engaging in bedroom romps with Jimmy Wang Yu, but at least they manage to deliver their lines with a straight face, which must have been fairly challenging.

Trenchard-Smith’s script is littered with groan-worthy but undeniably amusing dialogue, and his actors deliver his lines in the right spirit. No-one is taking this seriously, but everyone is enjoying themselves. His direction is frenetic but tightly focused. Russell Boyd (who has since gone on to win an Oscar as a director of photography) handles the cinematography with commendable skill but without succumbing to the temptation to try being arty.

Trenchard-Smith contributes a very entertaining commentary track. The movie was restored for its DVD release and looks splendid. It’s all very exciting and highly enjoyable, and the mix of action, sex and humour works perfectly. Like the best exploitation movies, The Man from Hong Kong glories in being an exploitation film. What more could you want?

Monday 26 October 2009

The Swarm (1978)

I thought that Airport 1975 and Airport '77 had set a standard that very few 1970s disaster movies could live up to. The outrageously hammy acting and the insane silliness of the basic plot premises seemed enough on their own to see off any challengers. But that was before I saw The Swarm.

Directed and produced by Irwin Allen (creator of camp TV classics Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel back in the 60s) this one doesn’t rely on just one spectacularly silly idea. It has one spectacularly silly idea after another. There’s a certain epic grandeur to the silliness of this movie that one can’t help but admire.

Michael Caine is Dr Brad Crane, an entomologist who has been warning for years about the imminent and inevitable war between humanity and the insects. But no-one has listened. When a swarm of mutant African killer bees attacks a US missile base in Texas and wipes out all but a handful of the personnel he is finally vindicated. The president puts him in charge of the war against the bees, much to the disgust of General Slater (Richard Widmark) who thinks of this as just another military operation, best left to professional soldiers.

Dr Crane calls in a team of top scientists who set to work to look for ways of killing the bees, or of protecting humans from their deadly venom. His old mentor Dr Krim, the country’s leading immunologist, is in charge of finding an antidote. Dr Crane is also assisted by a beautiful female air force doctor (played by Katharine Ross whose career was well and truly on the skids by tis stage) and of course pretty soon romance blossoms between them. Meanwhile the bees have turned their attention to the nearby town of Marysville, populated largely by Hollywood has-beens like Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Havilland.

The scientists come up with some ingenious methods of wiping out the bees, but these insects are not just deadly, they’re smart as well. Having caused carnage in Marysville they’re now on their way to Houston. General Slater and Dr Crane argue incessantly, while devastation threatens the whole of Texas.

This film has all the classic hallmarks of 70s disaster movies. Lots of pointless appearances by superannuated stars of yesteryear, or by almost-stars like Patty Duke whose careers were on a fast track to nowhere. A complete absence of logic. Ludicrous pseudoscience. And amazingly cringe-inducing dialogue.

And of course atrocious acting. I happen to think that Michael Caine is a very fine actor, but put him in a bad movie and he’s pure ham. He’s completely unable to take a movie like this seriously, and it shows. Even taking the awfulness of the script into account some of his line readings really do appear to be deliberately and consciously mocking of the entire project. But it all adds to the fun. Katharine Ross seems depressed, and you can’t blame her. Richard Widmark engages Michael Caine in some memorable scenery-chewing duels. The faded stars of the past mostly just embarrass themselves.

The version I saw was the extended version, 40 minutes longer than the original theatrical cut and really about an hour too long. The special effects are reasonably well done, and some are quite impressive.

If you’re a connoisseur of this type of movie then this one will delight you. You will be amazed at the cunning of those killer insects, and some of the dialogue will stay with you forever, no matter how hard you try to forget it. Outrageously campy, and despite its inordinate length highly entertaining.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Project Moon Base (1953)

Project Moon Base is a 1953 space exploration film that bears the indelible stamp of its creator, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. And I don’t mean that in a good way!

It does make some attempt to avoid the outrageous scientific blunders that characterise most sci-fi movies of its era, and that’s certainly a plus. Unfortunately it also incorporates Heinlein’s attitudes towards women, attitudes that can mot charitably be described as bizarre.

It’s set in what was then the fairly near future, in the late 1960s. The US has established an orbiting space station as a first step towards establishing a permanent base on the Moon, which is apparently a vital defence requirement. But the Enemies of Freedom are determined to destroy the station as part of their nefarious plans for world domination. Even by 1950s standards the anti-communist paranoia has a rather hysterical tone. The enemy has come up with an incredibly cunning plan - they have recruited exact doubles of hundreds of leading Free World scientists, astronauts and technicians. When a Dr Wernher is selected for the first mission to orbit the Moon, he is kidnapped and his place is taken by an enemy agent who is such a perfect double that no-one could possibly tell them apart.

The pilot chosen for the mission is Colonel Briteis, the woman who had made the first ever spaceflight several years earlier. Her co-pilot and second-in-command is Major Bill Moore, and he’s annoyed at being passed over for the command job, his annoyance being exacerbated by the fact that he and Colonel Briteis had been a bit of a romantic item at one time.

Despite a fairly low budget the effects don’t look too bad. The lunar surface looks ore realistic than in most films of this period, and spaceship models are cute in a sleek and streamlined 1950s way and the space station looks rather cool. A very nice touch is that since the station is in zero gravity the crew can choose to walk on either the floor or the ceilings, or even on the walls (although walking on the wall is prohibited in the corridors). So an important briefing takes place with two people seated at a desk anchored to the floor, and two others seated on chairs anchored on the opposite wall! This effect is rendered extremely well.

The plot starts off making a certain amount of sense, if you allow for the extreme paranoia and the basic unlikeliness of even the most diabolically clever enemy being able to find exact doubles for hundreds of peoples. As the movie progresses it gets slightly more unlikely, and towards the end becomes totally crazed as regards the romantic sub-plot. It was apparently originally intended as TV series, which may explain some of the creakiness of the plot.

The acting is as good as anyone could reasonably expect given the script and the often jaw-droppingly weird dialogue.

What really makes this one stand out, even among 1950s American sci-fi movies which are notorious for their sexism, is Heinlein’s understanding of the human female. Or more precisely his spectacular lack of understanding coupled with some extremely creepy ideas about relations between the sexes. On the surface it’s almost a proto-feminist film - the President of the United States is a woman, the commander of the lunar mission is a woman. But as was usual in Heinlein’s books, the women characters bear not the slightest resemblance to any woman who has ever actually lived, and are essentially sexual wish-fulfillment fantasies on the part of the author.

The most extraordinary example of this attitude towards women has to be the scene where the General in charge of the space program (who is creepily known as Pappy) tells Colonel Briteis that if she disobeys another order he’ll put her over his knee and give her a spanking. This was apparently Heinlein’s idea of the appropriate way for a superior officer to address a colonel in the US Air Force. I have an awful sinking feeling that it may well have been his idea of the appropriate way to address women in general.

After that, the ending in which Colonel Briteis willingly and enthusiastically accepts the natural superiority of men will come as no surprise. She’s already apologised for “going all female on him.”

And then there are the uniforms! Very brief shorts, combined with odd pixie hats.

So what you have is a movie that starts off looking like it might actually turn out to be a halfway realistic anticipation of future space exploration that ends up being something that can only be appreciated as a spectacular example of 1950s high camp. But it’s a movie you have to see, because you are most certainly not going to believe it until you’ve actually seen it for yourself.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Another Day, Another Man (1966)

Another Day, Another Man is another serving of weirdness from the queen of 60s sexploitation, the inimitable Doris Wishman. It’s trashy, it’s campy, and it’s fun.

Ann and Steve are married but have not been able to afford place of their own. Now Steve has had a promotion and he can finally afford an apartment, and he can avoid the shame of having a wife who has to go out to work. Ann is beside herself with excitement at the prospect of being a real housewife at last. She’s been sharing an apartment with Tess, who works as a high-priced hooker.

Everything is going swimmingly until Steve is stuck down by a mystery ailment, and the doctor warns that he must have six months of complete bed rest. Clearly in order to cope with the medical bills Ann will have to go back to work, but her old job didn’t pay well enough to cover the rent and the medical expenses. But then she remembers how much Tess was earning as a prostitute. So begins her double life - by day the devoted housewife and nurse to her ailing husband, by night an expensive call girl.

Of course sooner or later she’s not going to be able to keep these two worlds separate, and everything is going to fall apart.

There are sub-plots that have little connection with anything, including one involving an innocent country boy who discovers to his horror that his beloved childhood sweetheart is now a hooker, takes a swipe at her, then comes back to apologise and finds himself seduced by the Bennett twins. What appears to be a major sub-plot, with Tess finding herself pregnant to her pimp Bert (who is also Ann’s pimp), suddenly just disappears from the movie.

As usual, Wishman wrote, produced, directed and edited the film, using a variety of pseudonyms. It has all the classic Wishman touches - lots of shots of ducks on the pond, buildings, items of furniture and people’s feet. The dialogue was dubbed in later, so it isn’t properly synchronised. She uses her usual technique for dealing with this - people turn away from the camera when they speak, their faces are obscured, or they’re filmed in long shot when they’re talking. When we do see them closer up and notice that the sound isn’t synchronised properly it just adds to the charm. She was a true low-budget auteur whose movies could never be mistaken for anyone else’s.

This was one of her “roughies” but in fact there’s not much violence, and what violence there is is so stylised and so silly and bizarre that it’s amusing rather than disturbing. There’s also no actual nudity or sex. This is true to some extent of most of Wishman’s films of this period but this one is unusual in having none at all. There are however lots of shots of women in their underwear. If women with beehive hairdos and wearing suspender belts are your thing then you’ll be in bliss.

Plenty of Wishman regulars turn up in the cast, including Darlene Bennett and Gigi Darlene. Sam Stewart plays his usual sleazeball role. The acting is as delightfully bad as you could wish. The sets look pretty much identical with those used in Bad Girls Go To Hell.

The movie is sleazy but in a good-natured campy fun sort of way. It lacks the edge of true weirdness that makes other Wishman movies of this era so wildly entertaining - if you’re new to the strange world of Doris Wishman then I’d recommend Bad Girls Go To Hell (which is included on the same DVD double bill) or Indecent Desires as better places to start. If you’re a dedicated fan of her work though you’ll find much to enjoy in this outing. Her movies are always fascinating and enjoyable in their own off-beat way.

Something Weird have again come up with a stunningly good print of an obscure movie. It’s crystal clear and looks fabulous.

Friday 23 October 2009

Mad Max (1979)

The plot of George Miller’soriginal 1979 Mad Max is a stock-standard revenge plot that could have been lifted from any one of several dozen westerns. Not that it matters, because this is a movie that is all about style, energy and mood. It’s how you tell the story that matters.

The first of the three Mad Max films is not quite a post-apocalyptic film. It depicts a society on the way to becoming a post-apocalyptic society. Civilisation hasn’t collapsed, but it’s in a lot of trouble. The battle between the forces of law and order and the forces of anarchy and violence has become a war with few rules, a war in which the cops are only marginally less brutal than the criminals. Miller cleverly doesn’t give us too many details - we have no idea what has brought this situation about, but we don’t need to know. This is minimalist film-making, with no time wasted on filling in backstories or detailed exposition. The tone is set, and that’s enough.

The title character drives an Interceptor vehicle for the Main Force Patrol. Whether this is an official or unofficial police force is irrelevant - it’s all there is. After a spectacular opening sequence that ends in the fiery death of an escaped road criminal known as the Night Rider the Main Force Patrol officers involved find themselves targeted for revenge by the Night Rider’s buddies. A cycle of revenge is established and it steadily escalates.

When the bad guys go after Max’s wife and kid you just know things are going to get really out of hand. Max isn’t well balanced at the best of times.

The obvious influence on this production was an earlier Australian movie, Peter Weir’s 1974 The Cars That Ate Paris, which had the same blurred lines between authority and anarchy, the same moral nihilism, the same black comedy, the same almost religious obsession with car culture. What Miller did was to increase the level of action and violence by several orders of magnitude.

Mad Max caused much teeth-gnashing in Australian film circles. It was regarded as being thoroughly disreputable and its huge commercial success caused even more resentment. It launched Mel Gibson as an international star, although whether that was a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It is interesting to see the Mel Gibson person still only partially formed at this stage. He does a lot less scenery chewing than in later roles. He’s blander, but less annoying. And he’s completely overshadowed by Hugh Keays-Byrne as the sinister Toecutter.

The acting has a slightly stylised, theatrical quality to it that was probably intentional. It adds to the feeling that this is not reality, this is not the present day. It’s not quite science fiction, but it’s not quite our world either.

It’s a stylish and highly entertaining movie for those who like adrenaline-charged action movies. It’s certainly a classic of its type. It inspired some tedious imitations, but that sadly is the way of the world. On a less positive note it reinforced the unfortunate trend towards totally male-oriented testosterone-fests, although to be fair Miller does appear to take a slightly sardonic attitude towards the whole male bonding thing, and to the car fetishism.

Mad Max remains the best known of all ozploitation movies, and whether you love it or hate it it’s one of those must-see movies simply because of the extent of its influence on popular culture in general and on exploitation movies in particular.

Thursday 22 October 2009

The Witches (1966)

Whether you enjoy Hammer’s 1966 movie The Witches depends very much on what you expect from your horror movies. If you expect a film dripping with gore that will scare you out of your wits, then don’t bother with this one. There’s no gore and it’s not the least bit scary. If you want an atmosphere of subtle weirdness and suppressed evil then you might think slightly more highly of this one.

Joan Fontaine is Gwen Mayfield, an English teacher at a mission school in Africa. She gets caught up in a tribal rebellion fomented by witch-doctors and suffers a mental breakdown. After making a slow recovery she applies for a job as head teacher in small private school in the sleepy little English village of Heddaby. At first it seems idyllic, although it is a little puzzling that the village’s only church has lain in ruins for several centuries, and that the ice young clergyman who offered her the job turns out not to be a man of the cloth at all, but the local lord of the manor. And wearing a fake clerical collar is just one of Alan Bax’s little eccentricities. She’s also a little surprised to find one of her pupils, 14-year-old Linda, still carrying around a doll. Especially since Linda has clearly reached the stage of taking an interest in boys, and spends a good deal of time with young Ronnie Dowsett.

Gwen’s discovery that young Ronnie is extremely gifted and worthy of special attention also provokes a slightly odd reaction from both the boys’ parents and Alan Bax. More dolls make their appearance, and there are stories of odd happenings, of people falling ill without any rational explanation. Gwen begins to suspect that Linda’s grandmother may be playing at witchcraft. At first this seems merely amusing, a quaint survival of old beliefs in 1960s Britain, but soon Miss Mayfield finds cause to suspect that these events may have a more sinister aspect. The discovery of a doll stuck with pins, another unexplained illness, and a mysterious drowning all serve to heighten Gwen’s fears. And after what she saw in Africa, she is particularly susceptible to such fears.

Gwen takes Alan Bax’s sister Stephanie into her confidence, Stephanie having something of an interest in the occult. When Linda disappears it becomes increasingly likely that some sinister fate may be awaiting the girl.

The first half of the movie is quite good. The mood of something not quite right about the village, of a certain wrongness about things and people, is built up subtly but skillfully. The problem is that the payoff falls rather flat. With a script by Nigel Kneale you expect more than this. I suspect the problem was that Cyril Frankel as director was simply not up to the job, and was unable to deliver the finale that the movie needed. The film is also somewhat hampered by censorship restrictions, with a rather ridiculous orgy scene in which everyone is fully clothed. There’s a complete lack of any erotic charge to this movie, and a movie dealing with witchcraft and/or the survival of pagan beliefs in the modern world really needs some kind of erotic frisson. The whole exercise suffers from a fatal blandness.

At this time also Hammer was still, at least in their gothic horror films, too locked in to the “good must triumph and evil must be vanquished” mentality. In the hands of a skillful director like Terence Fisher such movies could still generate a real feeling of suspense (as in Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out) but in the hands of lesser directors and combined with the lack of eroticism and the lack of blood it could easily result in a movie that is much too predictable and lacking in excitement. Such is the case here.

It’s not a complete loss though. The film was a personal project for Joan Fontaine who had liked the original novel The Devil's Own enough to but the movie rights. And her instincts were sound enough. The potential was there, and she was certainly perfect for the role of Gwen Mayfield and does a fine job. Kay Walsh is equally good as Stephanie Bax. The acting overall is very solid. With Bernard Robinson as production designer and Arthur Grant as cinematographer the movie looks good.

This is definitely a lesser Hammer film, but still worth a look if you’re a major fan of 60s British horror. It’s one to rent rather than buy though.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Revolver (1973)

Revolver is a rather cynical 1973 Italian crime thriller with political overtones, not the sort of movie I’d normally watch except for the presence of Oliver Reed in the cast.

Reed is prison governor Vito Cipriani who becomes unwittingly involved in a complex web of political and criminal intrigue. Someone wants one of his prisoners out of gaol, and kidnaps his wife to force him to arrange the escape. Milo Ruiz is a petty criminal and he doesn’t know himself why anyone would want to go to such lengths to free him from incarceration. Vito is determined not just to get his wife back, but to make the kidnappers pay. He forms an unlikely alliance with Milo, and increasingly they discover that they’re both victims, and both pawns in a very big game.

Vito’s hunt for the kidnappers will take them both to France, and to the home of pop star Al Niko, whose connection with plots involving political assassinations seems even more unlikely than Milo’s. Both Vito and Milo will find themselves questioning their assumptions about each other and about themselves. Director Sergio Sollima was most interested in the idea that there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and as he says in the accompanying featurette, it’s often the good guys who do the most harm.

The strange friendship that develops between these two mismatched characters provides the most interesting moments in the film. Oliver Reed and Fabio Testi (as Milo) deliver powerful and surprisingly subtle performances.

The plot is heavily laced with paranoia, and is formidably complex. There’s plenty of action and quite a bit of violence, but the violence is used effectively to underscore the increasingly anomalous position that Vito finds himself in, a lawman unable to turn to the law for help and having as his only reliable ally an habitual criminal.

Sergio Sollima’s direction is assured and very stylish. Ennio Morricone provides a memorable and effective score. The scenes involving pop star Al Niko include some of the most unforgettable fashion catastrophes of the 1970s.

The Blue Underground DVD includes a very short but reasonably interesting making-of featurette. Sollima remembers Oliver Reed with fondness, although he admits that after his 26th bottle of wine for the day he could become a little difficult, while Reed’s co-star Fabio Testi seems to have enjoyed working with him.

Revolver is a very dark and very pessimistic little movie, offering little hope for the triumph of justice or for ay worthwhile human ideals. Corruption is inescapable and all-pervasive. It’s entertaining and engrossing, and it’s a must for fans of Oliver Reed.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Airport '77 (1977)

The production team behind Airport '77 found themselves facing a formidable challenge indeed - to come up with something even more ridiculous than Airport 1975. And it has to be said that they succeeded admirably. While it’s just about possible to believe that we’re meant to take Airport 1975 seriously, or that it at least takes place in our reality, we can be under no such illusions in the case of Airport '77. This one is pure fantasy. Wealthy industrialist and art collector Philip Stevens (James Stewart) has had a 747 fitted out as a gigantic luxury corporate jet. Its first task is to ferry a planeload of his friends, relations and some assorted VIPs (along with some extremely valuable paintings) to the opening of his new art gallery. Disaster strikes over the Bermuda Triangle when the aircraft is hijacked by a gang that includes the co-pilot and the chief steward. They intend to land the 747 on a disused World War 2 landing field on an island, transfer the paintings to another aircraft and then head off to South America.

The plot naturally miscarries. Flying low to avoid radar, the co-pilot manages to fly the plane straight into an oil rig. The aircraft crashes into the ocean and sinks, with the crew and passengers still alive on board! Since the gang had been evading the air traffic control radar and heading in the opposite direction from the original course the resulting search takes place in entirely the wrong area of ocean. Somehow the survivors must find a way to alert the searchers to their actual location, while also dealing with the fact that the aircraft is slowly filling with water. And the worst news of all is that Charlton Heston is not in this picture, so who is going to save them?
Standing in as the chief hero is the aircraft’s pilot Captain Don Gallagher, played by Jack Lemmon at his hammiest (and that’s saying quite a lot). Lemmon tries hard, but he just isn’t square-jawed enough to inspire confidence. The lack of a plucky stewardess like Karen Black is an added concern. Captain Don does have Darren McGavin as a kind of general purpose assistant hero, but he’s no Chuck Heston either. Also aboard is Christopher Lee as a scuba-diving scientist, so there is some hope. And although he does very little George Kennedy is wandering about in the background somewhere.

The passengers include the expected assortment of Hollywood has-beens, in this case headed by Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten. Oddly enough there are no nuns or critically ill children desperately awaiting kidney transplants on the passenger list, but there are a couple of kids and one of them soon falls ill, thus satisfying one of the main requirements of any good disaster movie. And luckily the passengers include a vet, so the injured have someone to look after them. Compared to Airport 1975 though the cast is a little on the disappointing side.

The main attraction of this film is of course the remarkably improbable plot. Some rather iffy special effects add to the fun. There’s lots of breathless excitement as the plane keeps springing new leaks while the Navy is frantically scouring the oceans looking for the missing 747. It’s your classic race against time, and naturally there’s the added factor of the steadily depleting air supply. If you like your disaster movies campy and silly (and I’m assuming that’s how all disaster movie fans do like them) then this one should satisfy your requirements quite satisfactorily. Good enjoyable nonsense.

Monday 19 October 2009

Obsession (1976)

Yet another Brian De Palma movie. A slightly more obscure one this time -Obsession, from 1976. This was released shortly before the movie before Carrie brought him major mainstream recognition. Obsession has a very different feel compared to the other De Palma movies I’ve seen recently, but in its own way it’s just as impressive.

It is 1959, and wealthy real estate speculator Michael Courtland and his wife Elizabeth have just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary. They have a daughter, and life is very good, until disaster strikes from out of a clear blue sky. Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held to ransom. The police are called in, but their ambitious operation to catch the kidnappers and free the hostages goes badly and tragically wrong.

Sixteen years later Michael Courtland has not moved on at all. He is still a successful businessman, but life holds little interest for him until he makes a business trip to Florence. This is the city where he met his wife shortly after the war, and wandering into the church where they met he catches sight of a young Italian woman working on the restoration of a fresco. Her name is Sandra. The resemblance to his late wife is uncanny, and she is about the same age Elizabeth had been when they first met. Inevitably he is fascinated, he asks her out, they get along well, the fascination develops into obsession, and he asks her to marry him.

She returns with him to his palatial home in New Orleans, to find that Michael still keeps a room in the house, which had been their bedroom, as a kind of shrine to Elizabeth. She becomes obsessed with Elizabeth - in her own way as obsessed as Michael. For both Michael and Sandra herself the two women are increasingly merging into one. But this is a De Palma movie, and the situation is not at all as it appears. For both Michael and Sandra a crisis of identity is approaching as the past begins to replay itself. They will both be given an unexpected second chance, but will they be able to grasp it? There are major plot twists to come, but I don’t intend to spoil the movie for you.

As is usual with De Palma’s movies, this is not the kind of movie it initially appears to be. It has elements of the thriller genre, but it’s not a thriller. It’s a story about love, and the power of memory, and the unpredictable operations of chance. This is not Vertigo, although the movie was conceived after De Palma and scriptwriter Paul Schrader had watched Vertigo. Comparisons to Hitchcock's masterpiece can be both enlightening and misleading, which is typically De Palma. The style is very lush and romantic, with director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond giving everything a hazy soft-focus dream-like quality which works superbly.

De Palma chose Cliff Robertson for the role of Michael Courtland because he wanted an old-style leading man, the kind of actor who could easily have turned up as a leading man in a Hitchcock movie of the 50s. It was an inspired choice and Robertson gives one of his finest performances. He approaches the role with a good deal of subtlety and makes a character who might have been just a tad creepy into a very sympathetic if slightly misguided figure. Geneviève Bujold is equally good in a role that was incredibly challenging, for reasons I can’t go into without revealing spoilers. John Lithgow is also good as Courtland’s friend and business partner.

This is a De Palma movie entirely lacking in sleaze! There’s no nudity and no sex, and no graphic violence. This was a deliberate decision on the director’s part, since he anticipated (quite correctly) that he would have enough problems persuading distributors to accept the very touchy subject matter, the controversial nature of which does not become apparent until very late in the movie.

It’s a stylish movie, as you expect from this director, but with a strangely old-fashioned feel to it. Although it was in fact a low budget independent production it has the feel of a 1950s Hollywood studio film. This is appropriate, since for Michael time stopped in 1959. This is De Palma in a serious but very romantic mood, and it’s a psychologically and emotionally gripping and very moving film. Many of De Palma’s signature tricks are there, but this time he doesn’t want us to see them, and they’re done with such subtlety that in fact we generally don’t notice them. Another unexpected treasure from Brian De Palma.

Amazingly enough the Region 4 DVD includes extras! Well one extra anyway, but it’s a good one - a documentary that includes interviews with De Palma, Bujold and Robertson as well as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Vampyrer (2008)

Vampyrer (Vampires) is a Swedish vampire movie that was released in 2008 and apparently vanished without trace. As modern horror movies go it’s not as bad as most, and at least it doesn’t have any CGI.

Vera and Vanja are sisters. They are vampires. They live on the streets of a city (presumably Stockholm) and they prey on urban low-lifes. Including neo-nazi bikers, which is possibly not the smartest thing they could do, especially given that they are vampires possessing no supernatural powers and no special abilities.

Vera is content with life as a vampire, but she is worried about her sister. Vanja seems depressed. She shows worrying signs of existential angst. I suspect she’s simply watched too many episodes of Angel. She yearns to be like the normal people. She wants an ordinary life. And she’s met this guy she really likes. It isn’t clear if she’s told him about her odd little habits, like drinking blood and killing people, but he says he loves her so she’s sure it will all be OK. Although there’s still the matter of the neo-nazi bikers, and the fact that Vera killed their leader.

The most interesting thing about the movie is that these vampires are not fearsome hunters of the night. They’re more scared, vulnerable and helpless than their potential victims. In fact they’re so helpless and hopeless you can’t help wondering how they managed to survive on the streets of any city for more than 15 minutes. They appear to have no survival skills and no instincts for self-preservation.

The movie is very Dark and Edgy. It’s very grainy and badly lit, although that might be more to do with budgetary limitations rather than artistic choices. Writer-director Peter Pontikis appears to have little idea of what he wanted to achieve other than to make his movie Dark and Edgy. He fails to explore the relationship between the sisters or to develop their personalities in sufficient detail to make us care about them. The ending is predictable and unsatisfying.

Jenny Lampa as Vera is the one thing the movie really has going for it. With a better script she might really have done something with this role.

While it’s not a great movie, when compared to the usual run of modern horror movies it at least has one or two good ideas and it at least aspires to rely more on mood and character than on gore and special effects. So by the admittedly catastrophically low standards of modern horror it’s worth a look. And it appears to be Peter Pontikis’s first feature film so taking that into consideration it would be unfair to write him off on the basis of this one movie.

Since watching this movie I've seen the other modern Swedish vampire movie, Let the Right One In (which I didn't like at all) and it's made me appreciate the virtues of Vampyrer a lot more. Vampyrer is a very rare beast, a modern movie that doesn't feel bloated and overlong. And it has far more interesting characters.

Friday 16 October 2009

Hot Rod Girl (1956)

There is just no way I could pass up a juvenile delinquent movie with a title like Hot Rod Girl. This 1956 movie is certainly fun, although disappointingly it’s not actually about a hot rod girl.

There is a hot rod girl in the movie, Lisa, and we do see her participating in (and winning) a drag race early in the movie. But the central character is her boyfriend Jeff. Jeff and Lisa hang around with the other hot rod fanatics in some unnamed town. They’re not really juvenile delinquents - they’re basically Swell Kids, but the squares just won’t give them a chance.

The exception to this is Detective Ben Merrill (Chuck Connors). Ben is a bit of a square, but he likes the kids and he’s come up with a plan. By providing the kids with a proper drag strip they’ll be able to satisfy their urge for speed without resorting to street racing. Jeff and Lisa are his main allies among the hot rodders. Jeff is so virtuous and so responsible it’ a wonder the other hot rodders can stand to be around him. Of course Ben’s plan doesn’t work, and Jeff’s hot-headed kid brother is enticed into a street race, with fatal consequences. Jeff wasn’t driving, but the police take his driver’s licence away anyway. This was the 50s, and the police seem to make up the law as they go along.

Jeff decides to give up drag racing completely, and he also starts to neglect Lisa. Trouble starts go brew when a stranger rolls into town into his hotted-up car. The stranger is Bronc Talbott, and he’s a Bad Boy. He decides he wants Lisa, and he wants to put the local hot rodders in their place. He taunts one of the kids into a potentially deadly game of chicken. Bronc’s next step is to try to force Jeff into a duel on the highway. Is Jeff going to stand by while this outsider steals his girl? Will Ben be able to convince the Gruff But Kindly Police Captain that the hot rodders are really decent kids and to let him continue to operate the drag strip?

The plot sounds impossibly contrived and that’s how it plays out. No opportunity for a moral message is allowed to slip by. The dialogue is cringe-inducing. The acting is mostly awful. In other words it’s a fairly typical 50s juvenile delinquent movie, and these are the very features that make such movies so much fun.

Chuck Connors as Ben is an impossibly square-jawed figure, but his performance should provide endless amusement. Lori Nelson makes Lisa reasonably sympathetic and at least makes an attempt at acting, and she looks good behind the wheel of her incredibly sexy sports car. The movie has plenty of action scenes involving cars, at least one brawl, and plenty of romance as well as Lisa battles to save her man and restore his faith in the world, and in hot rodding.

There are naturally a couple of comic relief characters, but they’re not excessively annoying. There’s some of the sexism you expect in 1950s movies, but not too much, and we do get to see Lisa as the champion drag racer showing the boys how it’s done.

If you’re a fan of juvenile delinquent movies you know you want to see this film, and you shouldn’t be disappointed.

It’s included in the Classic Teenage Rebels boxed set from St Clair Vision - eleven public domain JD movies on three DVDs for a ridiculously cheap price. The prints aren’t sensational but they’re watchable, the movies are fun, and it’s really pretty good value.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Trasgredire (2000)

Tinto Brass is a director who has spent the last 30 years totally and cheerfully ignoring everything that has happened in the world of cinema. He makes the sorts of movies that conventional wisdom says can’t be made any more - classy erotica, politically charged erotica and sex comedies. And since people continue to give him money to make his movies one can only assume that he’s doing reasonably well at it. Trasgredire (also released under the titles Cheeky and Transgessions) is a 1970s sex comedy made in 2000, and it’s a pretty good one.

Carla is a rather high-spirited and uninhibited Italian girl just arrived in London. She finds a rather nice flat, but she’d have to sleep with the lesbian real estate agent in order to get it. But it’s a very nice flat, and Carla is open-minded, so her accommodation problems are soon solved. Moira (the real estate agent) believes in giving her clients lots of after-sales servicing, but since Carla’s boyfriend Matteo is still in Venice and Carla doesn’t like to go for really long periods (say more than two or three hours) without having sex the arrangement suits them both. When Moira makes it obvious that she’s looking for more than just casual sex complications do seem likely to ensue, but Carla’s appetites

Meanwhile back in Venice the boyfriend is starting to worry that perhaps Carla isn’t being completely faithful to him while she’s in London. He becomes even more worried when his best friend points out to him something he hadn’t known - that women are often quite fond of sex so it’s quite likely that Carla has found alternative outlets for her desires. Matteo’s jealousies become really inflamed when he goes around to her house in Venice to pick up a few items she’s asked him to send on to her, and he discovers a stack of very steamy love letters she’s written to a young Frenchman she met on holiday shortly before, while he and Matteo were already dating. The letters are accompanied by a nude photo of Carla on the beach, apparently taken by her young Frenchman.

Matteo is soon on a plane to London, determined to confront Carla with the evidence of her betrayals. But Matteo has made an interesting discovery. Jealousy acts as a powerful aphrodisiac. The more jealous he is, the more he wants her. The Italian title of the movie was rendered as Tra(sgre)dire, incorporating the Italian word for betrayal within the word for transgression, but the interesting thing about the movie is that it suggests that betrayal is not always a bad thing, and of course transgression can always be fun. And infidelity can do wonders in spicing up your sex life.

Yuliya Mayarchuk is likeable as Carla, while Francesca Nunzi is fairly sympathetic as the obsessed lesbian Moira. There aren’t any villains in this movie - everyone is basically decent even if completely and joyously amoral.

Tinto Brass’s famous obsession with the female derrière is certainly very much in evidence. This is a very erotic movie with lots of nudity and lots of sex, and could be described as being at the harder end of the softcore spectrum. It’s also a very good-natured movie. It’s a celebration of sex, and it’s a celebration of love as well. As Brass himself famously out it, pornography is there to give you an erection while erotica is there to give you emotions. By that definition this is definitely erotica.

If you think all modern softcore porn is badly and unimaginatively photographed with little attention to lighting and filmed on digital video so it looks awful then Trasgredire will come as a revelation. This is the way erotic movies such as Emmanuelle were made back in the 70s, with style and class, by someone who actually cares about how the movie looks and not just about how much flesh is on display, with competent actors and a script that consists of more than just excuses for having everyone taking their clothes off. They do take their clothes off, and they do so very frequently, but at least there’s some semblance of a reason for it.

I don’t want to give the impression that Trasgredire is the Citizen Kane of the 21st century, but it’s fun and it’s sexy and it leaves you feeling reasonably well disposed towards one’s fellow humans and also feeling that life is not such a bad thing after all. And that’s more than most movies these days can offer.