Monday 30 November 2009

Torture Garden (1967)

Torture Garden is yet another of the Amicus horror anthology films from the 1960s. If you’re a fan of these movies then this one is a fairly typical member of the breed and you might enjoy it.

I’m personally not the biggest fan of these movies, with the exception of Asylum. What made Asylum so successful was that the framing story wasn’t just an excuse to string together several unconnected and unrelated short horror films. The framing story was the core of the movie, and it was the creepiest part of the movie.

Sadly in the case of Torture Garden the framing story is very feeble indeed. You have a carnival sideshow, with a waxwork fortune-teller who offers you a glimpse into your possible future. Burgess Meredith hams it up outrageously as the carney running the sideshow, in a desperate attempt to inject some life into proceedings.

Four punters are offered a look at their prospective futures. The first story involves an idle chap hoping to inherit his uncle’s fortune who is foiled by a diabolical cat. The one plot twist is all too predictable, and it provides a very disappointing start to the movie.

Things pick up a little with the second story, about an aspiring starlet determined to make it in the world of movies no matter what price she has to pay. She discovers that to become part of the inner circle of stars whose careers seem to go on forever involves a very high price indeed. This story works because the plot twist isn’t quite what we’re expecting it to be.

The third story is about a man whose piano is jealous of his new girlfriend. You know exactly what’s going to happen, and sure enough that is what happens.

The fourth story is by far the best and almost rescues the film. It’s helped quite a bit by a bold casting decision, with Jack Palance as a bookish, rather diffident Poe scholar and collector. Of course being Jack Palance you keep expecting him to suddenly do something very Jack Palance-like, but he doesn’t. And teaming him with Peter Cushing is a similarly odd choice that works. Both men are obsessive collectors of anything and everything Poe-related, but when Cushing invites Palance to his house he discovers that Cushing’s collection contains treasures that are literally beyond anything that he could have imagined in his wildest dreams, or his worst nightmares. He finds himself in a situation as strange and terrifying as any Poe story. It’s a nicely weird story and Palance and Cushing are able to add even more layers of weirdness with their off-beat performances. It’s also the only story that achieves a real atmosphere of horror.

So what we have is one excellent story, one reasonably OK story and two very weak stories, combined with an uninteresting framing story. Robert Bloch was a competent enough writer and Freddie Francis was a compete enough director, so it’s difficult to explain why this movie just doesn’t deliver the goods. There’s not much flair or enthusiasm evident on the production side. But then as I said earlier I’m not a major Amicus fan, and if you’re a hardcore fan of their anthology films you might enjoy this one more than I did.

This one is worth a rental for the Palance-Cushing Poe story, but it’s not one I’d really recommend purchasing.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Killer Nun (1978)

Killer Nun (Suor Omicidi) is a 1978 release that was included on the British Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of banned video nasties in the 80s. It’s now been released uncut, and watching it demonstrates the utter insanity of British censorship practices. It barely even qualifies as a horror movie, much less a video nasty.

One can only assume that the very thought of evil nuns was enough to threaten the entire fabric of British civilisation.

This is actually a very unusual nunsploitation movie. Most nunsploitation flicks have an historical setting and they generally take pace within the confines of a nunnery. This one has a contemporary setting, in a hospital. It’s a psychiatric hospital, and Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) is the head nurse. She had an operation a shirt time previously to remove a brain tumour. The tumour was benign, and she has made a full recovery. But she doesn’t believe it. She is obsessed by the idea that she is dying. She has also developed a rather nasty morphine habit, and this combined with her health obsessions has made her somewhat unstable.

She has also been troubled by sexual thoughts. The fact that she shares a room with Sister Mathieu, who is obviously in lust with her and has a disconcerting habit of wandering about naked, doesn’t help. But Sister Gertrude is not interested in Sister Mathieu. She wants a man. Desperately. And when you add these sexual cravings to her other problems it’s not entirely unexpected when she begins to crack up. She steals a ring from a dead patient, and buys herself lots of drugs and a slinky dress, and indulges in some steamy anonymous sex with a guy she picks up in a bar.

This is bad enough, but patients have started to die rather mysteriously. By falling out of windows, or with their heads smashed in. The hospital administrators and the Mother Superior are determined to avert a scandal. They’re not going to allow a few dead patients to damage the shining reputation of the hospital or of the nursing order. The patients on the other hand are starting to show signs of rebellion, and when more deaths occur it becomes more and more difficult to prevent the police from being involved. And given Sister Gertrude’s increasingly erratic behaviour a police investigation could be very inconvenient. Sister Mathieu is doing her best to protect Sister Gertrude, while also doing her best to find a way of getting into Sister Gertrude’s bed.

This is more a psychological horror/murder mystery than a classic nunsploitation film, even though it does contain many of the essential features of the nunsploitation genre (lesbian nuns and a fairly modest amount of nudity). There is some gore, but hardly enough to explain how it could ever have been considered as a video nasty.

Hardcore gorehounds will be disappointed by this one, and those hoping for a nunsploitation sleaze-fest will be equally disappointed. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. You just have to accept it on its own terms. If you accept it as a psychological thriller with some giallo influence then it’s reasonably effective.

The casting is eccentric but surprisingly successful. Anita Ekberg is rather good, resisting the temptation to indulge in full-on scenery chewing. Joe Dallesandro as the head doctor gives one of his better performances.

Director Giulio Berruti doesn’t seem to have had much of a career but he does a competent job. The movie would probably have enjoyed greater success had the exploitation elements been more strongly emphasised but it stands as an interesting oddity, and it’s worth a look if you enjoy off-beat 1970s Italian cinema.

The Shameless DVD presentation claims to be complete and includes previously cut scenes. Bizarrely enough the cut scenes (which are the only ones in Italian with English sub-titles while the rest of the movie is dubbed in English) are totally innocuous! The picture quality is acceptable, but the sound quality leaves something to be desired. It’s just a little muddy at times.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Satanik (1968)

Both the title and the poster art would lead you to believe that this 1968 Spanish-Italian co-production is going to be somewhat in the style of Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik! but in fact Satanik has nothing in common with Bava’s classic. Although it’s also based on a European comic strip there are no masked criminals or masked crime-fighters in sight.

In fact it’s a horror movie that owes rather a lot to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. A scientist is developing a potion that can not only reverse the ageing process but also cure all kinds of skin blemishes. As it happen the scientist’s female assistant Dr. Marnie Bannister suffers from horrible facial disfigurements, so she’s understandably anxious to try out the formula on herself. The professor is concerned because although the formula works on animals it does seem to have the side-effect of turning them savage. Dr Bannister is prepared to take the risk though, and when the professor tries to stop her she kill him.

The potion transforms her into a beautiful glamorous blonde. She soon finds herself a rich playboy boyfriend, but the effects of the drug are only temporary. She must keep getting another fix. Meanwhile the police are on her trail, but they don’t realise she’s now young and gorgeous. The plot becomes increasingly obscure from this point on, but her new boyfriend is some kind of criminal, jewel theft is involved, and there are further murders.

This is is a movie that no online reviewer seems to have a good word to say for. I can’t help feeling they’re missing the point. It's not a Bergman film. It’s a silly fun B-movie. It’s supposed to be silly. And no eurotrash film worth its salt has a comprehensible plot! If you compare it to one of the better giallos, or one of the classics of gothic eurohorror, or to a masterpiece like Danger: Diabolik! then yes, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re prepared to accept it as lightweight low-budget fun then it’s reasonably entertaining.

There’s a very modest amount of nudity, and hardly any gore. There’s not a huge amount of actual horror either, but I don’t really think it’s a movie that is trying particularly hard to scare us. It’s an odd mix of genres and it might have worked better had they decided to make it an all-out horror film

Magda Konopka is slinky and seductive as Dr Bannister. There’s some wonderful 60s lounge music for those who like that sort of thing. And it has the obligatory 1960s European movie sexy night-club dancing scene. If you enjoy off-beat 60s European cinema it’s worth a look. At worst it’s a harmless time-killer.

This one probably isn’t going to be all that easy to track down. It’s not a movie I’d recommend anybody to pay a fortune for, but if you can pick up an inexpensive copy it’s amusing enough, and it does have a certain camp appeal.

Friday 27 November 2009

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)

Nobody ever combined art and erotica more seductively or more intelligently (or more stylishly) than Radley Metzger. His 1970 movie The Lickerish Quartet may well be his masterpiece.

Questions of whether art can be porn or whether porn can be art are irrelevant when considering Metzger’s films. They so clearly and so effortlessly succeed in being both, and the two elements are combined seamlessly. Although Metzger is an American he made movies in both Europe and the US and all his movies have a flavour that is both European and American. The Lickerish Quartet is his most ambitious foray into the world of avant-garde cinema. It might be soft-core porn but it has more in common with the productions of European art film directors like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Fellini, Godard, etc, than with your average skin flick. It’s also worth pointing out that the sex is very very tame by later standards, in fact much tamer than in most modern mainstream Hollywood movies. And it’s done with a lot more style.

The narrative is fragmented, non-linear, multi-layered and extraordinarily complex. It starts with a middle-aged couple (no names are ever mentioned in this movie) watching a scratchy black-and-white stag film with their son. He’s actually the wife’s son by a previous relationship. The family lives in an enormous gothic castle, a castle so big that they themselves are in constant danger of becoming lost. The castle is the perfect setting for this movie, since it’s structured in much the same way, with lots of blind alleys, hidden rooms, staircases that seem to lead you back to where you started from. You can easily lose your bearings. The son, who appears to be about 20, finds the porno movie disgusting which simply makes it even more amusing for the parents. They are rich, bored and decadent and are perpetually searching for anything to stimulate their jaded palates.

Afterwards they visit a travelling carnival, the main attraction of which is a glamorous young woman who rides her motorcycle on the Wall of Death. When she takes her helmet off they are shocked and delighted to find that she’s the lead actress from the porn movie. This is an exciting discovery, and they simply must persuade her to come to the castle with them. They will provide her with an evening’s entertainment, watching herself in the movie. She readily agrees, but before they watch the movie the son insists on demonstrating his magic tricks. He has a considerable talent for magic, but as he explains, magic is easy, it’s reality that is difficult. He also tells the assembled company about the vision he had several years earlier, of the sufferings and martyrdom of Saint Margaret.

The entertainment doesn’t turn out quite as expected. When they run the movie they notice that it doesn’t seem quite the same as it did before, and when the beautiful blonde actress turns to face the camera, it’s not the same woman who was in the film when they watched it the previous evening!

There isn’t just one movie either. There’s another scratchy old black-and-white movie that we keep seeing, in which an American GI in World War 2 visits an Italian prostitute. And it’s the same woman again. At least it is at first. The man is one we haven’t seen before, but later this film changes as well and it’s the husband from the castle.

We also hear the story of the first meeting between the husband and the wife, but the stories each of them tell are quite radically different, as if they were from different movies. They met in the aftermath of the war, and in his version she was a prostitute, just like the woman in the second movie.

The motorcycle-riding girl from the carnival is also rather vague about her life story. The husband, the wife and the son are all fascinated by her. The wife claims her husband is impotent, but an encounter with the carnival girl in the library suggests otherwise. This is a classic Radley Metzger sex scene - visually inventive and witty as the two roll about on the floor of the library decorated with gigantic dictionary definitions of sexual activities. The carnival girl also has trysts with the son and with the wife, and they’re filmed with just a much style and wit.

As the movie progresses it starts to appear that the movies-within-a-movie are more just as real, or possibly more real, than what originally appeared to be reality. Which is the movie, and which is the audience? Who are the actors, and who is making the movie? Who is watching whom? Are the all watching each other watch each other? Has reality become illusion, or has illusion become reality? As the carnival girl says, the things that happen to people in movies aren’t real. But what is real? This might all sound terribly pretentious but Metzger has such a light touch that he gets away with it.

The Lickerish Quartet is as thought-provoking and intelligent as it is sexy and entertaining, and you can’t ask much more of a movie than that.
The good news is that most of Metzger’s movies are now available on DVD; the bad news is that most of the DVD releases have been a little disappointing in terms of picture quality. Umbrella Entertainment’s Region 4 DVD is no exception, but it’s at least acceptable and it’s a truly great movie.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Golden Swallow (1968)

Golden Swallow (Jin yan zi) is a kind of sequel to Come Drink With Me, the ground-breaking 1966 Hong Kong martial arts classic.

What made Come Drink With Me so interesting was not just the female protagonist but the emphasis on relationships and emotions as well as on action. Although it has a different director Golden Swallow follows a similar pattern. This is not just an excuse for lots of spectacular fight scenes and general mayhem. It does have plenty of excitement and lots of sword fighting scenes and even a surprising amount of gore for 1968, but it’s really a story about love and about friendship and rivalry, the rivalry being both romantic and professional.

Pei-pei Cheng again plays the great swordswoman Golden Swallow. She finds herself hunted by a large and varied assortment of bad guys all of whom blame her for killing large numbers of their relatives, friends and hangers-on. Since Golden Swallow has been living quietly in her cabin in the mountains with her boyfriend Han Tao she’s rather puzzled by this. She hasn’t actually been killing anybody at all. She’s been blamed because her signature swallow darts have been found at the scenes of the various massacres. When she starts hearing stories of the local adventures of a particularly ruthless swordsman named Silver Roc she starts to wonder if this is really her long-lost friend Little Roc. She and Little Roc had been involved romantically, but he had disappeared after taking a bloody revenge on bandits who had killed his family.

In fact it is the same man, and he’s perpetrating these spectacular acts of violence as a way of forcing Golden Swallow to seek him out. He loves her, and alway has loved her, but he can’t just tell her that. His pride can’t stand the idea that she may have forgotten him.

Golden Swallow and Han Tao both set off in search of the mysterious Silver Roc, whose only home is a series of brothels. Inevitably Han Tao and Silver Roc will fight a duel over Golden Swallow, but the really interesting conflict is that which is occurring within Silver Roc himself. His violent acts are his way of dealing with a world that has left him emotionally crippled. He craves recognition as the greatest of all swordsmen, and as a just man (he kills many people but justifies this on the grounds that they are all evil people). And he desperately craves Golden Swallow’s love, although he already has a woman who loves him, the prostitute Meh Niang. Meh Niang is in fact the woman who could make him happy, if only he could realise that fact.

The duel between the two rivals in love is interrupted by what is almost a full-scale war between the three main characters on one side and the numerous and powerful Golden Dragon gang on the other. The bad guys follow the usual pattern of these movies, with the chief of the Golden Dragon sending hundreds of underlings to be mercilessly slaughtered by the three heroes before we finally get to a showdown between the main good guys and the main bad guy.

The action sequences might not compare to those in later Hong Kong movies but they’re still quite impressive. Director Cheh Chang does a stylish job. Like most Shaw Brothers movie it’s colourful and visually lush. The three leads (Pei-pei Cheng as Golden Swallow, Lieh Lo as Han Tao and Yu Wang as Silver Roc) are all very competent. This is a classy production, and highly entertaining as well. It offers an effective combination of action, human drama and romance.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

A Candle for the Devil (1973)

A Candle for the Devil (Una vela para el diablo, also released in the US under the deplorable title It Happened at Nightmare Inn) is one of those horror movies that turns out to be not quite what one expected. In this case that’s rather a good thing.

Spanish writer-director Eugenio Martín had made the excellent Horror Express the year before, in 1972. He really is an underrated horror movie-maker. A Candle for the Devil is about two middle-aged women, Veronica and Marta, who run a hotel in a quiet Spanish village. They’re being driven slowly mad by sexual frustration and by their own religious bigotry. Veronica has found an outlet for her sexual cravings, taking a man 20 years her junior to her bed. But she doesn’t like getting completely undressed, because as she tells him, even married people don’t do that. Marta has no such outlet. In one memorable scene she watches the young men from the village bathing naked in the river and then runs through a field of thorn bushes, becoming more and more excited as the thorns lacerate her flesh. It’s a wonderfully effective scene.

What really upsets the two sisters is the behaviour of the young female tourists from abroad who stay at their hotel. They’re shameless hussies, parading about in their mini-skirts and hot-pants (it was 1973). They even catch one sunbathing topless on the roof of the hotel. As Marta tells her sister, only a whore would do such a thing. Marta confronts and then pursues the young Englishwoman who slips and falls through a glass window. She is dead. To Marta this is clearly a sign. The Lord is telling her to rid the world of these whores.

A difficulty arises when the dead girl’s sister Laura (played by Judy Geeson) arrives. She had arranged to meet her sister there. While the sister’s suspicions are slowly being aroused Marta and Veronica have killed again. There is one tourist they’re quite fond of though, a young woman with a baby, although they’re puzzled as to why she would be traveling alone without her husband. Then the woman makes a chance remark in a local shop, a remark that is passed on to the two sisters. It seems she doesn’t have a husband after all. Marta and Veronica are very upset, and they’re even more distressed by the idea that the child is going to be raised by a woman who is really no better than a common harlot. They really should do something to save that child.

The idea of religious intolerance and sexual repression leading to murder is hardly new, but good horror isn’t about the newness of the ideas, it’s about the execution of the ideas. In that area A Candle for the Devil rates very highly. The atmosphere of overheated frustrated sexuality is built up very economically. Eugenio Martín resists the temptation to overdo things, and Aurora Bautista as Marta and Esperanza Roy as Veronica show a similar restraint. The two sisters aren’t portrayed as monsters, and we feel a considerable amount of compassion for them. They’re not female versions of Norman Bates, and that makes them more terrifying.

Judy Geeson gives a solid performance as usual, but although she receives top billing the focus is very much on Marta and Veronica, and it’s Bautista and Roy who must carry this film. And they are equal to the task.

This is subtle psychological horror, and superbly done. There’s nothing flashy here, very little gore and only very moderate amounts of sex and nudity. The movie was given an 18 rating by the British censors, which is incomprehensible unless the DVD I saw had been savagely cut, or the British censors were being even sillier than usual when they rated this movie. Or possibly, like a lot of Spanish horror movies of that era, it was made in both a clothed and an unclothed version?

The Odeon DVD is pretty awful, with no language option other than an English dub and fairly poor picture quality. Which is a shame, since it’s an exceptionally good little horror movie that deserves better treatment.

Monday 23 November 2009

Dead Eyes of London (1961)

Dead Eyes of London (Die Toten Augen von London) is one of the early Rialto Edgar Wallace krimis, with the classic Rialto acting line-up - Joachim Fuchsberger as the Scotland Yard inspector, Karin Baal as the ambiguous heroine, Klaus Kinski as a bad guy and Eddi Arendt as comic relief. And it’s tremendous fun.

Wealthy men are being murdered in London, and they’re all men without immediate families and mostly men from overseas. And they’re all insured with the Greenwich Life assurance company. Odd messages written in braille are found on the bodies. Inspector Larry Holt is assigned a special assistant on this case, a woman who can translate braille for him. This brings him into contact with a home for the blind, run by a blind priest. There appears to be a connection here with the muders, and there also appears to be a connection with the life insurance company, but at this stage the inspector is baffled as to how to connect the dots.

One of the murdered men had changed his will just before he was killed, leaving his entire (rather considerable) fortune to his long-lost illegitimate daughter. The inspector would dearly like to speak to this mysterious daughter. There’s also the enigmatic man in dark glasses who seems to be on the same trail as the inspector. There are more murders, and the plot becomes more complicated, building to an extremely effective climax that includes a laundry of death.

The acting is good, with Kinski being subtly creepy and Fuchsberger making a fine hero. The very words “comic relief” are enough to bring a shudder to many fans of older horror movies but if you must have comic relief then Eddi Arendt isn’t too bad. He’s mildly amusing and at least he isn’t actively annoying. Karin Baal is always reliable, and the minor players are all quite competent. Anneli Sauli is terific in a supporting role as the glamorous Fanny Weldon.

Afred Vohrer directed some of the best of the krimis and he’s in good form here. His direction is crisp and efficient without being ostentatious. The black-and-white cinematography is top-notch. There’s lots of fog, which helps to hide the fact that all of the location shooting that is supposed to be in London was done in Germany, but it adds the requisite atmosphere as well.

This particular Edgar Wallace story had been filmed in 1940 with Bel Lugosi. The Lugosi version is fun, but I think that this 1961 German remake is better.

As with most of the Wallace krimis there are definite elements of horror, and the character of Blind Jack is just about enough on its own to qualify it as a horror flick. And any movie that has an ending involving blow torches and laundry equipment used as a murder weapon has to be regarded as being at least marginally horror!

It’s released on DVD by Retromedia, paired with The Ghost (an excellent Ricardo Freda horror film starring the great Babara Steele). The print is in pretty good shape. It’s a pity it’s only available in an English dubbed version, but I suppose we should be grateful that so many of these krimis are now available to us even in less-than-perfect presentations. And part from the dubbing there’s not too much to complain of here. The picture is slightly widescreen, probably not quite the correct aspect ratio but it’s crisp and clear and the film seems to be uncut judging by the running time.

If you’ve never sampled the delights of the German Edgar Wallace krimis then you should do so at once. They’re a great mix of horror and murder mystery with a dash of humour and a serving of romance on the side, and they’re stylish and entertaining. These are B-movies, but superior B-movies. And this is an ideal example to start with. Highly recommended.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Attack of the Robots (1966)

Another early Jess Franco eurospy flick, Attack of the Robots (Cartes sur table) dates from 1966 but has a very different feel to the following years’ Lucky the Inscrutable. It has less of a comic-book feel, but in its own way it’s just as much fun.

Eddie Constantine is a former Interpol agent Al Peterson, brought out of retirement to track down a group of mysterious assassins. These killers are in fact humans turned into automatons, almost unstoppable and without human emotions such as fear or remorse. They have been involved in the slayings of a number of important public figures, but who is behind this dastardly plot? Peterson didn’t want to come out of retirement, preferring to spend his time these days on glamorous blondes and good whisky, but he is not only tricked into it, he is also unwittingly being set up as bait.

He flies to Spain, and it doesn’t take long before he finds not only the criminal gang behind the plot but also two beautiful women. He’s really more interested in the women than the conspiracy, but things become complicated for him when he is kidnapped by Red Chinese spies. They also want to use him as bait, to discover the scientific principles behind the process of turning people into killer robots. There are plenty of plot twists, an lots of double-crossing, as Al becomes the victim of the machinations of both the beautiful blonde Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney and the equally beautiful brunette Cynthia Lewis.

Craggy-faced Eddie Constantine was born in the US but achieved fame in Europe in the 1950s as the star of the French-made series of Lemmy Caution crime/spy thrillers. As far as I know he was only capable of giving one performance, but it didn’t matter because it was a terrific one. And he’s ideal for the kind of spy spoofs that Jess Franco liked to make because that one performance of his was given with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He’s the perfect movie secret agent - brave, resourceful, scrupulously honest but more devoted to womanising and boozing than to the job. He’s immensely likeable and always slyly amusing.

Françoise Brion as Lady Cecilia and Sophie Hardy as Cynthia are equally perfect in their roles.

There’s a nice mix of humour, glamour, action, romance, sexiness and silliness. Franco solves the problems of low-budget film-making with his usual style - Al is provided with the kinds of gadgets that every self-respecting secret agent has to have, but conveniently none of them involve expensive special effects. The diabolical criminal mastermind’s secret laboratory has enough gadgetry to be convincing but it’s clearly done on a shoestring. The lack of elaborate sets and fancy effects makes no difference to the movie since it’s driven mostly by Eddie Constantine’s acting style and Franco’s flair as a director.

There are some good running gags, such as Al’s Mexican friend who is determined that next time he’s going to get the first punch in, but he never does. Being a Franco movie there are of course night-club scenes with sexy dancers and with jazz musicians (including Franco himself). Despite Al’s womanising the movie is considerably less sexist than the James Bond movies (movies that this one was obviously cashing in on). There’s no nudity, and no graphic violence. It’s a Jess Franco movie that could almost qualify for a G rating!

It’s fast-paced and consistently good-humoured, very stylish and always highly entertaining. An absolute must for eurospy fans, for Jess Franco fan, or for anyone who loves tongue-in-cheek 60s spy movies.

Saturday 21 November 2009

’Tis Pity She's a Whore (1971)

I’m moving off-topic a bit here, but actually the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s ’Tis Pity She's a Whore (Addio, fratello crudele) is very much on-topic even if it is an adaptation of a 17th century play.

It is after all based on a Jacobean tragedy by John Ford (OK if you want to be pedantic it was probably written a year or so after the death of James I in 1625 so technically it’s not Jacobean but in style and content it’s pure Jacobean tragedy). The Jacobean revenge tragedies were among the most significant ancestors of gothic fiction, and gothic fiction is where horror started, so you could in fact argue that it’s a horror movie. And it certainly has more blood and gore than most horror movies!

Giovanni has been away from home for many years studying at the university in Bologna. He’s been away so long that when he returns home he and his sister Annabella don’t even recognise one another. Their re-union proves to be exceptionally warm and tender. Perhaps a little too warm and tender, since they soon realise they are desperately in love. Giovanni’s friend is a monk, and he advises Giovanni to adopt prayer and self-mortification. It is to no avail, and before long brother and sister are lovers.

When Annabella finds herself pregnant she is offered mercy by the Church. Rather than being executed for her heinous sin she must give up Giovanni, and she must marry a man chosen for her by her family, to save her child from the disgrace of illegitimacy. She marries Soranzo, who happens to be an old friend of her brother’s. There’s a nice twist here, since Soranzo turns out to be an attentive and affectionate husband, and he’s very much in love with her. And he’s very handsome. Annabella finds herself reconciled to the marriage. Everything is going swimmingly until Soranzo finds out about her little secret. To say he does not take it well would be an understatement of epic proportions. He vows to take a bloody revenge on every single person involved in bringing shame to his family name. The stage is set for the classic Jacobean revenge tragedy bloodbath ending.

Some elements in this story are going to be difficult for a modern audience to relate to. Soranzo takes his obsession with family honour, and with vengeance as a sacred duty, to an extreme in what seems like the most colossal over-reaction imaginable. The incest theme still resonates though, this being a taboo that remains as strong as ever, and the tragic nature of the love between Giovanni and Annabella retain its impact. They are truly made for one another, their love is strong and devoted, they would have made the perfect couple, but of course no-one is going to allow them to live in peace as lovers.

Charlotte Rampling is extremely good as Annabella, but she’s overshadowed a little by Oliver Tobias’s powerful performance as Giovanni. He doesn’t go over-the-top until the very end, but when he does go he really goes. Fabio Testi as Soranzo is almost as impressive. In fact all the actors are exceptional.

Having originated as a play the movie does run the danger of having a stagey feel. And it certainly does have a very artificial feel, which is probably necessary. A naturalistic approach would have made the events and the responses of the characters seem too implausible, but by embracing artificiality this conflict is avoided. Despite its artificial quality it doesn’t actually feel stage-bound - director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi has gone to great lengths to keep the movie visually interesting and dynamic. He’s aided by some superb settings and some imaginative production design. There are lots of strange wooden structures, wooden statues that look rather Cubist but somehow don’t seem out of place, and odd slightly ominous wooden structures that enclose the characters at vital stages of the action.

One intriguing feature is the way Giovanni is at times filmed to resemble the hero in a spaghetti western, and this is strengthened by the fact that the score is by Ennio Morricone who created so many memorable soundtracks for spaghetti westerns. I suspect this was deliberately done, since revenge is such a dominant theme in the western and especially in the Italian variety. It provides a way for a modern audience to feel a stronger connection with the themes of the story.

The ending is spectacularly bloody, but given the source material that’s really unavoidable. It does provide the movie with some very obvious links to exploitation movies, and there’s some sex and nudity as well, but again it’s very much in keeping with Jacobean drama which was the 17th century equivalent of the slasher film! It’s fast-paced and never in any danger of becoming boring and horror fans will find much to enjoy. It’s a heady mix of art and gore, and it’s worth seeking out if you’re in the mood for something a little different.

Friday 20 November 2009

The Touch of Her Flesh (1967)

The Touch of Her Flesh has the reputation of being one of the more sleazy sexlpoitation films of the 60s, so of course I just had to see it.

The three movies in the Her Flesh trilogy were made by the legendary husband-and-wife team of Roberta and Michael Findlay (they co-wrote the scripts, Roberta did the cinematography, Michael directed and edited and acted as well), this one, the first of the series, appearing in 1967. All three are included on the one DVD from Something Weird.

Michael Findlay plays a slightly nerdy weapons collector who finds out his wife Claudia is having an affair when he returns home early from a business trip to find her in bed with another man. He runs into the street, distraught, and is knocked down by a car. The accident leaves him blind in one eye and half-crippled. He vows to have his revenge, not just on Claudia but on all women, especially those who display themselves naked and sell themselves, tempting men with their bodies. He’s not a happy camper, and he’s not really quite all there any more. He lives alone in a grungy apartment, and he broods a lot.

He starts his campaign of revenge in the burlesque theatres of New York, but he’s also tracking down Claudia. She’s been working as an artist’s model for a woman painter, and he intends to find out where her studio is. There’s the expected showdown in the studio, and that’s pretty much all there is as far as a plot is concerned.

These films have a reputation for extreme misogyny, but while there’s some truth in that contention it isn’t really any worse in that respect than any one of a dozen big-budget Hollywood crime thrillers. It’s just a bit more honest. The later movies in the trilogy are however reputed to be considerably more violent.

The most noticeable thing about the movie is that it’s very competently made. Roberta Findlay’s black-and-white cinematography is thoroughly professional, and there are some reasonably nifty and ambitious sequences, especially late in the film. The acting on the other hand is bad even by the standards of sexploitation movies, although Michael Findlay’s performance does manage to be fairly unsettling. There are some nicely atmospheric scenes in the burlesque clubs, and as always with these types of movies some fascinating glimpses of 1960s New York street life.

The sex and nudity are quite tame by later standards, and there’s very little graphic violence. It’s the subject matter that is disturbing (which is the case with most of the sexploitation “roughies” of this period).

The obsessiveness of Michael Findlay’s performance and the stylishness of the production make this one worth watching, and Something Weird have done their usual superb job with the DVD transfer.

And there’s go-go dancing, always a plus in my book.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Sisters of Death (1977)

Although the release date is usually given as 1977 Sisters of Death was apparently made several years earlier. It’s an interesting little murder mystery thriller with a dash of horror, not a great movie but an underrated and reasonably entertaining one.

An initiation at a sorority house involving a game of Russian roulette with an antique pistol goes horribly wrong, and a girl has her brains blown out. That’s before the opening credits. Then we move forward seven years in time. Five of the sorority members receive anonymous invitations to a reunion. They’re picked up by two guys in a station wagon and driven miles out into the desert to a mysterious house in an incredibly remote location. And left there. OK, if it was me, I wouldn’t even have have gotten into the car, but this is a horror movie and if we’re going to have a movie it’s necessary for the cast to do the obligatory Really Dumb Things.

At the house they find champagne and food laid out, the house is luxurious, there’s a pool and they each have a nifty separate bedroom laid on for them. But there’s no sign of their hostess (at this stage they’re assuming that another member of the sisterhood must have arranged all this). Their two drivers decide that it would be a pity to leave five beautiful girls all alone without any male company, so they (rather unwisely) decide to stay and party rather than just leaving the girls. Then they discover that they can’t leave. No-one can leave. They’re trapped behind an electrified fence with a lunatic, and the events of seven years previously have come back to haunt these young women. Elizabeth, the girl who was killed at the initiation, is going to be avenged. The inquest had come down with a finding of accidental death, the assumption being that it was all a horrible mix-up. But what really happened?

As you might expect, our seven hapless party-goers are going to be picked off one by one while the aforementioned lunatic tries to figure out which one of them was responsible for Elizabeth’s death.

There are some nifty plot twists, and there are some classic horror clichés that are used rather wittily (such as the dreaded gigantic tarantula used as a weapon of mayhem and the equally dreaded rattlesnake guarding the cellar). The tension is built up and maintained fairly effectively although it does drag a little at times. The ending has a wonderfully over-the-top use of a gatling gun!

The main drawcard for this movie at the time was probably the presence of 1970 Playboy Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings in the lead role. That might lead you to anticipate lots of nudity but in fact there’s none at all. Jennings (who died tragically in 1979 at the age of 29) is actually reasonably good. The acting in general is fun in a cult movie kind of way - lots of scenery chewing! There’s virtually no gore, despite the presence of the gatling gun, but the initial shooting is still reasonably shocking, probably more so because it is a horror movie so you’re expecting it to happen.

The public domain print I saw was so awful that it’s impossible to make any judgments at all about the cinematography. I believe it’s available on DVD in a somewhat better although still not fantastic print.

If you don’t go into it with excessively high expectations this is an entertaining enough movie. Worth a look.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Juve contre Fantômas (1913)

Juve Against Fantômas (Juve contre Fantômas) is the second installment of Louis Feuillade's 1913 Fantômas serial, which had an immense influence on the crime, adventure and horror movie genres. And despite being almost a century old it’s still great fun.

This second installment is itself divided into four parts with a total running time of around an hour. The diabolical criminal mastermind Fantômas is up to more wickedness, and is once again being pursued by his arch-nemesis, Inspector Juve of the Sûreté. Plot coherence has been more or less thrown out the window this time around, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as there are dastardly deeds afoot and we know that Fantômas is behind them and as long as the action keeps coming we don’t need to worry about details. After all, Fantômas is a master of disguise so who can tell exactly which crimes he might be responsible for?

There are links to the first installment, with Lady Beltham (the mistress of Fantômas) making another appearance. The master criminal is using her villa as his secret hide-out. And Juve is once again assisted by the energetic journalist Jérôme Fandor. Fantômas is also plotting to eliminate the witnesses to his earlier crimes, by destroying an entire train carriage by uncoupling it and leaving it in the path of a speeding express train.

It would be another decade or so before film-makers learnt the art of using a moving camera but Feuillade is clearly already aware of the limitations of the static camera. And he has found a number of ways to overcome this limitation. He uses depth of field, with action taking place in the background as well as the foreground, to maintain visual interest. And he makes sure there is always movement within the frame. These techniques are enough to give his movie a sense of dynamism so that you really don’t notice the stationary camera. The camera may be static, but his compositions never are. The use of different coloured tints also helps.

He also makes considerable (and effective) use of location shooting. Apart from adding a sense of excitement to the film this also gives us some wonderful glimpses of Paris street life before the Great War. In several scenes you can see passers-by suddenly noticing the film crew!

And although this is 1913 there are special effects, with some quite impressive model shots.

The acting is fairly naturalistic, which works well since the subject matter is so melodramatic that you don’t want the actors getting too histrionic. The costumes are great and you have to keep reminding yourself that these weren’t really costumes as such, it really was 1913 and the actors were simply wearing contemporary dress!

There are some very fine visual set-pieces - the train hijacking and especially the shoot-out on the beach among the wine barrels still seem imaginative after all these years. And there’s even an attempted murder by python. Fantômas makes a series of dramatic escapes, but Inspector Juve sticks to his trail with dogged determination.

It’s wonderful that these serials survive at all, but what’s even more pleasing is that they’re complete and in exceptionally good condition, and they look absolutely splendid.

Fantômas has influenced countless cinematic bad guys (and heroes as well) in the century that has passed since his first appearance on celluloid. He’s still a compelling villain, and Feuillade's serials remain fascinating and highly entertaining.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Devil's Partner (1962)

Devil's Partner is a little unusual for a 1962 American horror movie in being a supernatural horror setting in a contemporary setting. When you see a small town on dusty highway in movies of this era you’re always expecting giant bugs to appear, but this one is about black magic.

Pete Jensen is a bad-tempered and very much disliked (and very scruffy and dirty) old man living in a shack on the outskirts of a miserable little town named Furnace Flats. As the movie opens he’s performing some kind of ritual that leads to his death. Shortly thereafter his nephew Nick arrives in town. He seems a harmless enough sort of guy, although he is curiously unaffected by the stifling heat in this desert town.

He becomes friendly with Nell, the daughter of Furnace Flats’ lovable old doctor (played by Edgar Buchanan who was a specialist in annoyingly loveable roles). Nell is engaged to be married to David Simpson who owns the gas station. Some unexplained odd events start to occur. An elderly patient of Doc Lucas dies after drinking goat’s milk from Pete Jensen’s goat. David is mauled by his beloved pet dog and left horribly disfigured. Nick volunteers to take over the running of the gas station while he’s recovering. Everyone agrees that Nick is a remarkably helpful young man, although David seems to think he’s a little bit too nice. Especially towards Nell.

When the town drunk becomes very friendly with Nick and is then discovered dead, in puzzling circumstances, the suspicions of the sheriff and Doc Lucas are aroused. Where exactly did this Nick character come from? Why have odd things been happening since he arrived? And why on earth is he never affected by the heat even on the hottest days?

There’s a very low budget feel to this production, the pacing is a little off at times, and some of the acting is pretty wooden. Ed Nelson though brings a very effective and very subtle creepiness to the mysterious Nick.

The combination of the black magic storyline with the stark desert landscape and the sleepy dusty small town environment of Furnace Flats is interesting and unusual. That’s probably the movie’s biggest strength. The script avoids most of the expected cliches associated with witchcraft. There are no sexy female witches. No decadent aristocrats. No crumbling gothic mansions. It has a very seedy feel to it, an air of boredom and desolation, of black magic as something a person would turn out to out of hopelessness, frustration, bitterness and anger. The entire motivation for the villain seems to be a kind of despairing spitefulness.

Horror movies often rely on atmosphere or gore to compensate for the deficiencies of the screenplay, so this movie is unusual in that the script is its strongest feature. There’s no gore at all, not much violence, no sex. There is a certain amount of atmosphere, and the setting in some ways anticipates the way American horror would go in the following decade with its emphasis on horror in decaying rural settings.

It was directed by Charles R. Rondeau about whom I know nothing apart from the fact that he mostly worked in television. And it does have a bit of a TV movie feel.

The public domain print I saw was extraordinarily bad, which is a pity because the movie has enough original features to make it worth checking out. It can be downloaded legally for free, so for that price it’s worth a look!

And the amazingly lurid poster has nothing whatsoever to do with the content of the movie!

Monday 16 November 2009

Mad Youth (1940)

The 1940 exploitation shocker Mad Youth (later re-released as Girls of the Underworld) is another delightfully lurid little movie from the wonderful Girls Gone Bad: The Delinquent Dames Collection boxed set.

This one deals with some of the great social evils of the 1940s - male prostitution, white slavery and jitterbugging. Lucy Morgan is a middle-aged woman with a teenaged daughter. After years of being trapped in a loveless marriage Lucy is now divorced and she’s decided she wants to have the things she missed out on. Mostly what she wants is good-looking young men in her bed. She starts hiring male escorts. The latest escort sent out by the agency is the Count DeHoven (of course it goes without saying that he isn’t a real count but that’s all part of the fantasy that the agency sells). He’s happy wining and dining her but he haughtily informs her that if she requires any additional services she’ll have to pay extra.

While Mrs Morgan is out on the town with her gigolo her daughter Marian is indulging an equally pernicious vice - jitterbugging. She invites her friends over and pretty soon jitterbugging leads inevitably to strip poker. But while Marian and her friends are mostly just having innocent fun they will soon pay the price for the shameful neglect displayed by their parents. When Marian’s friend Helen gets into trouble from her grandmother fir sneaking out at night she decides she’s had enough. She’s going to run off and get married. She’s met a man through a matrimonial agency but she has an unpleasant surprise in store for her. He’s actually a while slaver! And when Helen writes to Marian inviting her to come and stay for a few days Mrs Morgan is happy to get her daughter out of the way, since the daughter and the gigolo had been getting way too friendly for her liking. This will give Mrs Morgan the chance to have the Count all to herself. But her selfish lusts will indirectly lead Marian into the clutches of the white slavery ring, and the hapless teenager finds herself imprisoned in a brothel.

At this point the plot takes a slightly unexpected turn as the Count turns out not to be quite the sort of man we’d taken him to be. But will Marian be saved from the white slavers before she suffers a Fate Worse Than Death?

This is a fairly typical example of the classical exploitation movie made, distributed and exhibited outside the boundaries of the Hollywood studio system and the rules of the Hollywood Production Code. In this case it’s from Willis Kent Productions who made some of the better known examples of the genre. They generally promise more lurid delights than they actually deliver. It’s what David Friedman, one of the greats of the exploitation movie business, terms “selling the sizzle rather than the steak.” What makes this one slightly unusual is that you do get some actual steak - the content really is fairly salacious. It’s also a little more polished than is usually the case with these movies.

It has the padding provided by a series of variety acts that was such a common feature of these movies. As soon as the characters walk into a night club you know you’re going to be treated to some fairly bizarre routines. It has the square-up that was one of the essential ingredients of the exploitation film. The square-up was the earnest moral message, usually in the firm of a title card at the beginning of the movie, explaining that what you are about to see may be shocking but the producers are bringing you the movie as a public service to expose a dangerous social evil! This then justifies the film-maker in presenting an hour or so of scandalous titillation and throughly enjoyable sin. In this one the square-up comes in the form of a couple of speeches delivered in a wonderfully pompous manner. It turn out it’s all the fault of the parents!

There’s no actual nudity, but there is the obligatory scene of the girls in the brothel lounging about in sexy lingerie. The print included in this set does seem to be a little short of the stated running time so it may have been cut. Of course the nature of these films meant that often there was no definitive cut - there were different versions for exhibition in states with differing censorship regimes so there may have been a “hot” version that is now lost.

The acting is of the standard you expect in such low-budget features. Willy Castello (who plays the Count) was something of a fixture in Willis Kent exploitation flicks. Mary Ainslee is reasonably good as Marian and Betty Compson is entertainingly lecherous as Mrs Morgan.

Mad Youth is more entertaining than most exploitation movies of its kind. The jitterbugging sequences are rather fun and it’s reasonably fast-paced, and the final shot of the movie gives it an unexpected kick. It goes without saying that movies of this type are going to be viewed mainly for their appeal as camp, and Mad Youth doesn’t disappoint in that area. Along with Dorothy Davenport’s The Road to Ruin it’s a fine introduction to this enjoyably sleazy genre of American film.

Sunday 15 November 2009

The Lodger (1944)

John Brahm’s 1944 movie The Lodger was the third (but certainly not the last) movie adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1912 novel, based loosely on the career of Jack the Ripper.The first film version was made in 1927 by a young up-and-coming English director named Alfred Hitchcock. Brahm’s version is the most celebrated one, and it’s certainly the boldest and most unusual.

The novel, which doesn’t mention the Ripper but refers to the mysterious killer as The Avenger, had been set in contemporary London, and Hitchcock had followed suit by setting his film in the London of 1927. Brahm and screenwriter Barré Lyndon on the other hand made their movie specifically about Jack the Ripper and set it in the London of Jack’s time, in the late 1880s.

The movie opens with one of the Ripper’s murders, and then we see a very large and very imposing man appear on the doorstep of a middle-class household, having answered an advertisement for a room to let. The man calls himself Mr Slade, but the name is false, taken from the name of a nearby street. This Mr Slade (played by Laird Cregar) is a rather diffident softly spoken man, who wants to rent the attic rooms in the house as well, ostensibly to be used for his medical researches (he is a medical man of some description).

The middle-aged couple who own the house have a daughter, Kitty (Merle Oberon), a rising music-hall actress. It becomes apparent that Mr Slade strongly disapproves of actresses, and his disapproval seems to stem from some deep personal reasons.

One really bold decision made by Brahm and Lyndon was to make it clear right from the outset that Mr Slade is indeed the Ripper. This is not a spoiler - it’s not only absolutely clear, but it’s also essential to the success of the film that we should know from the start that he is without a shadow of a doubt the killer. Such suspense as the film offers comes from the fact that the other characters in the movie, most notably Kitty, do not know he is the murderer, and in fact they believe fairly strongly in his innocence.

An even bolder decision was to give Cregar more or less a free hand to interpret the part as he saw fit, and to put the emphasis of the film on the killer’s psychology. And equally bravely, to make the killer a strangely sympathetic character, a man tortured by his own demons and driven to kill by his sexual obsessions. Cregar, who was homosexual and who had major problems accepting his own nature, gave the character not just homoerotic overtones but also added an incestuous obsession with his dead brother. Mr Slade gazes longingly and lustfully at a portrait of his deceased brother as he bitterly tells Kitty how the young man was destroyed by his love for an actress. Mr Slade hates women as destroyers, but loves them for their beauty. The most extraordinary thing about all this is that somehow or other both 20th Century-Fox and the Hays Office appear to have completely missed the blindingly obvious sexual aspects of Cregar’s characterisation.

Brahm makes extensive use of low-angle shots to emphasise Cregar’s bulk, which contrasts oddly yet effectively with his very quite very soft voice. It also serves to heighten the strange menace of the character and the way he dominates the other characters so completely. George Sanders gives a very muted performance as the police inspector in charge of the investigation who falls for the charms of the glamorous Kitty. Sanders and Cregar were friends, so it’s possible that Sanders deliberately played the role in that subdued manner to allow Cregar to dominate the movie. It actually makes the movie more effective since it keeps the focus squarely on Mr Slade. Merle Oberon is exceptionally good as Kitty.

There’s a rather funny scene where Sanders is chatting Kitty up while showing her through the grisly displays of murder weapons and killers’ death masks in Scotland Yard’s Black Museum. While most female characters in a 1940s movie would be inclined to swoon in horror or shudder with distaste, Kitty is entirely unaffected - she has the undivided attention of an attractive man and that’s all that matters, and if anything she seems mildly excited by the exhibits. The scene is not just amusing but also very effectively sums up Kitty’s character and her priorities.

Brahm and cinematographer Lucien Ballard shot the movie in a very Expressionist and very excessive gothic style with enormous quantities of both fog and shadows. There are some wonderfully effective shots, and there are plenty of unusual camera angles but the effect is never merely gimmicky. The movie is absolutely awash with over-the-top gothic atmosphere. The use of lighting is superb. The visual aspects of the movie and Cregar’s performance are the two factors on which the movie’s success is based. The plot has some serious logical deficiencies and some gaping holes, but the plot is of very little importance. As a suspense film or a mystery film it doesn’t really succeed, but as a fascinating character study of psycho-sexual aberration it succeeds so well that its weaknesses as a suspense movie are of little consequence. And mercifully there’s none of the puerile comic relief that ruined so many American horror movies of this era.

The DVD includes a host of extras, including an amazingly poor commentary track by Alan Silver and James Ursini. There’s a brief featurette that adds little of importance. It’s a compelling argument for not wasting money and effort on providing worthless extras. Kim Newman does provide a few good insights on the featurette - a commentary track from him would have been a much more worthwhile extra.

This is a strange but undeniably intriguing movie to have been made by a major studio in 1944. It’s also much much better than the other films of Brahm’s film that I’ve seen.
Despite some minor flaws it’s one of the most interesting horror films of that decade, a movie worthy to stand alongside Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Son of Dracula as one of the four or five best American horror movies of the 40s.