Wednesday 30 December 2009

Ms Stiletto (1969)

You take a basic adventure tale set in the 17th century, with a noble family despoiled of its lands and brutally murdered by a powerful neighbour, a cruel and rapacious baron. You have the sole survivor of the murdered family, a master swordsman, devote his life to gaining revenge and regaining the family lands. But you make this sole survivor a beautiful young woman who happens to be a master swordswoman, and you add lots of sex and nudity. You can’t really lose with a formula like that, can you? And in fact Ms Stiletto really is a good deal of fun.

The original title of this 1969 Italian-German co-production was Isabella, duchessa dei diavoli, literally Isabella, Duchess of the Devils. As a child Isabella Frissac witnesses the murder of her family by the wicked Baron von Nutter. She is saved by a faithful servant, grows up among gypsies, and learns to use a sword as well as any man. She never forgets that her sacred duty is to destroy the wicked baron.

She insinuates her way into the chateau (the chateau that used to belong to her own family) in the guise of a prostitute. She enlists the aid of the baron’s dissipated and jealous younger brother. There are various double-crosses, lots of sword fights, some romance, lots of opportunities for our heroine to take her clothes off, the obligatory dungeon torture scene, the obligatory lesbian sex scene when our heroine gets seduced by one of the baron’s ladies, and there’s even a topless sword-fighting scene. More or less everything you could ask for in a eurosleaze movie of this era.

Plus there are really nice 17th century costumes, and a very gothic chateau (with the obligatory secret passage-ways of course).

Brigitte Skay makes a gorgeous heroine as Isabella, she handles a sword fairly convincingly, and she looks very fetching in 17th century male attire (although she also gets to wear some pretty nice dresses as well and a rather sexy harem girl outfit which is probably totally out of period but hey she looks good in it). She’s not the world’s greatest actress but her performance is lively and works well enough. Mimmo Palmara makes a suitably wicked and depraved wicked baron.

There’s plenty of action, some reasonably executed stunts, and no-one is silly enough to allow logic to slow down the plot. And there’s lots of nudity. It was apparently based on one of those 1960s Italian erotic/action comic books (or fumetti) and the movie captures the comic-book feel quite well. Director Bruno Corbucci (brother of the more famous Sergio) does a very competent job.

This is a remarkably obscure movie that I hadn’t even heard of until very recently, and it’s yet another interesting European cult movie that is fairly difficult to track down.

It’s silly and fun in a campy tongue-in-cheek way, it’s fast-paced and it looks good. Enjoyable undemanding entertainment.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Captive Wild Woman (1943)

I’ve always said that you can’t go wrong with a movie that features a guy in a gorilla suit. And if the movie also features John Carradine as a mad scientist, you really should have a sure-fire winner on your hands. Universal’s 1943 picture Captive Wild Woman is proof that in sufficiently incompetent hands even such guaranteed ingredients for success can let you down. 

Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) works for a circus, capturing wild animals and training them. He has just returned from Africa with no less than twenty lions and tigers, plus an added bonus, the most fearsome jungle creature of all, a gorilla. Mason dreams of not merely training the animals, but actually doing a major circus act featuring both lions and tigers (which as everybody knows are natural enemies in their jungle home). His girlfriend Beth is worried about her sister, and has had her placed in an exclusive sanatorium run by the famous specialist Dr Sigmund Walters.

Dr Walter (John Carradine) believes that glands are not merely the answer to all human illness but also the key to the creation of a super race. Through Beth he gets to meet the circus people, and to se the animals being trained. He is very excited by Cheela, the female gorilla. She could prove very useful to him in his experiments. 

 Being a mad scientist he immediately hits on the idea of creating a gorilla/woman hybrid. It turns out that Beth’s sister Dorothy was suffering from an excess of sex hormones, so if he can inject her surplus hormones into the gorilla he should end up with an ape-woman. He’ll need a human cerebellum though, but fortunately he has an annoying female assistant who is starting to cause trouble (some nonsense about medical ethics) so has no problem getting his hands on the requited human brain. The result is just what he had hoped for - Cheela has now taken on the form of a human woman. A beautiful, strangely exotic woman. He christens her Paula Dupree. 

And being a mad scientist, he has hypnotic powers over her. It turns out that Paula has a strange effect on lions and tigers. This is presumably because they’ve seen Tarzan movies and know that gorillas are the king (or in this case queen) of the jungle. Fred decides that Paula could be useful to him in his animal act, exercising a calming effect on the big cats. This works quite well, but unfortunately Paula isn’t quite human. She has strange animal passions and lusts. She has a particularly strong lust for Fred, but Fred has this annoying girlfriend. 

The expected plot developments play our exactly as you would expect. The biggest problem the movie has is the very extended animal training sequences. They’re much too padded out, and modern audiences will find them distastefully cruel. They’re mostly there to disguise the extreme thinness of the plot.

This movie reminds me a lot of another movie in the same Universal boxed set, Night Monster. It’s a basically good idea very poorly developed. The idea of human/animal hybrids wasn’t original, but making the hybrid an attractive female with a confusing mixture of human and animal emotions and lusts was a promising variation on the basic idea. Sadly though the movie doesn’t focus enough on Paula herself, so we don’t really get to know her well enough to feel her tragedy. 

Part of the problem may have been that Paula was played by Universal’s new discovery, an exotic beauty named Acquanetta. The studio billed her as The Venezuelan Volcano although she was actually born in Wyoming. It’s difficult to judge her acting based on this film because she’s given so little to do and has no lines, but one suspects that the studio had little confidence in her ability to do anything more than look exotic and glamorous. 

John Carradine does his best to rescue the movie, giving one of his best insane scientist performances, and being even more crazed and monomaniacal than usual. The other performances are fairly forgettable. Edward Dmytryk directed, but the low budget and the use of stock footage for many of the animal sequences mean he has few opportunities to show any real flair. 

At only 61 minutes the movie still feels much too long, but at the same time the important scenes involving Paula really needed more time. It’s a moderately entertaining time-killer that could almost succeed as a silly fun camp classic if it were not for the unpleasantness of the animal scenes. 

The DVD transfer is very good, but I’m really starting to wonder if the effort put into this Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set was worthwhile. So far I’ve seen two of the five movies, and they’ve both been duds.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Octaman (1971)

Monster of the deep movies can be fun, but it’s a sub-genre that has produced more than its fair share of spectacularly bad movies. Some of the really bad ones are the most fun, but for every inspired camp masterpiece like The Horror of Party Beach there’s an equally uninspired clunker.

I have a nomination for the worst ever monster of the deep movie. Octaman, unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1971. If fact I'm going to nominate it for an all-round achievement award. It has a dopey title, a silly premise, lousy special effects, poor cinematography, leaden pacing, bad acting, embarrassing dialogue, uninspired direction and a lame script.

Plus it commits the one unforgivable sin. If you have a really crappy monster you really should try to avoid showing the monster too often, especially early in the film. Especially in broad daylight. Especially in close-up. But that's what Octaman does.

It also has no suspense since we know what the monster is, what it looks like, and what created it within the first five minutes.

As a special bonus it includes lots of clumsy speechifying about ecology, and about philosophy, life, the universe and everything. All the acting is terrible, even from Pier Angeli (who had been a real actress at one time). And it has the most beloved of horror movie clichés - the fairly small party is constantly splitting up into smaller groups to make it easier for the monster to pick them off.

The plot, if anyone cares, involves a team of ecological scientists who discover a giant half man/half squid created by radiation. They want to capture it for study, but it wants to capture Pier Angeli, although possibly not for study.

This is one of only a handful of movies that Harry Essex made as a director, although he wrote a considerable number of screenplays, and indeed wrote the script for this effort as well. There’s nothing here to suggest that he had any great talent in either area.

This 1971 Mexican/US co-production is almost silly enough to be entertaining. If you’re in the right mood, you might actually manage to enjoy this one. But you really will have to be in the right mood. I love guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster movies as much as anyone, but this is not exactly a classic of its type.

It’s included on a Region 4 DVD double-feature which is still worth buying because the other movie, First Spaceship on Venus (an East German-Polish science fiction film), is truly excellent.

Friday 25 December 2009

The Plumber (1979)

The Plumber is one of Peter Weir’s least-known movies. It was made for Australian TV in 1979, for a very low budget even by the standards of 1970s Australian movies, but it actually shows Weir at his best.

It was a return to the kind of black comedy combined with horror with which he’d had considerable success early in his career.

Jill (Judy Morris) lives with her husband in on-campus accommodation at Adelaide University. He’s a moderately successful academic who’s come up with a theory (which no other academic takes seriously) that nutritional problems in the New Guinea Highlands are caused by ritual cannibalism, a practice thought to have been stamped out many years before. Jill is also an anthropologist. The fact that they are anthropologists is actually quite crucial to the story. Their apartment is filled with artifacts from other cultures, in fact from every culture but their own. Even their erotica (for which they apparently have a bit of a taste) is non-European.

Jill is about to have a spectacular encounter with another culture, but this is another culture must closer to home. And unfortunately one she has never studied. She is about to to come face-to-face with a real live member of the working class. This will be an epic clash of cultures. Max is a plumber, and one day he knocks on the door to inform her that he’s come to fix the pipes. She wasn’t appear there was a problem with the pipes, but he assures her that those are the worst plumbing problems of all - the ones you don’t know about.

His initial estimate that the job will take three hours proves wildly inaccurate. Days later he is still there. Jill’s bathroom has been entirely demolished. The plumber shows no signs of leaving. And he’s displaying a slightly excessive interest in Jill. Jill’s husband is so busy chasing government grants for his latest research project and angling for a cushy UN job in Geneva that he takes little notice of Jill’s problems with the increasing annoyingly and intrusive plumber. And the bathroom continues to look like a bomb site.

Jill’s attempts to report the matter to the university authorities get her nowhere. When he finally becomes much too familiar with her she tells him to get out of her house. But she is convinced that he is watching. And when she tries to have a shower the bathroom suffers the plumbing disaster to end all plumbing disasters. And there’s Max the plumber on the doorstep, telling her she’s going to have to get used to him.

Judy Morris is always a reliable actress and she pays Jill with the right mix of arrogance, paranoia, and slowly increasing anger and fear. Ivor Kants is very good as the plumber - not quite threatening enough to give Jill a reason to call the police but threatening and intrusive enough to be highly unsettling. And it really isn’t at all clear what he’s actually after. He’s been in her house for weeks. If he wanted to rape her he’s had plenty of opportunities. That doesn’t seem to be what he wants. Maybe he’s hoping she’ll weaken and decide she wants him. It’s the doubt about his intentions that makes him so disturbing, and Kants plays the role to perfection. Candy Raymond contributes a good supporting performance as Jill’s slightly randy friend Meg.

Weir maintains the ambiguity of the situation with great skill. We keep waiting for something overt to happen, and Jill keeps waiting for the same thing, but nothing really happens. As a result the tension becomes almost unbearable.

The ending is delightfully twisted and in keeping with the overall black comedy feel.

There are all kinds of subtle commentaries on gender and class politics, and on cultural politics. But it’s done with extreme subtlety. You never feel you’re being lectured at.

This is a wickedly clever little movie, suspenseful and highly entertaining, intelligent and amusing. It was arguably Weir’s last great film. Highly recommended.

Thursday 24 December 2009

The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1967)

The Girl with the Hungry Eyes is part of a two-movie set of Harry Novak-produced sexploitation movies from the 60s released by Something Weird, the other being the excellent The Agony of Love. Both were written and directed by William Rotsler, who also directed the wonderful sexploitation/horror flick Mantis in Lace. Those three films on their own are enough to establish him as one of the most interesting directors working in this field during the 60s.

All three movies are stylish and visually interesting, and are a good example of the advantages for a low-budget film-maker of working in this genre - as long as you included some titillation and could keep within a very limited budget and a very tight shooting schedule most producers didn’t really mind what else you did. If you wanted to get arty, that was no problem.

The Girl with the Hungry Eyes is the story of two lesbians, Tigercat and Kitty. Well Tigercat is a lesbian. Kitty isn’t quite sure. She’s had some bad experiences with men, and Tigercat was there for her when that happened, but on the other hand some men seem rather nice and some are definitely rather hunky. Kitty’s confusion about her sexuality comes to a head when the two women pick up a man named Tom whose car has broken down. Kitty and Tom started getting acquainted and Tigercat throws them out of the car. She can’t stand being without Kitty though, so she goes back to retrieve her, to find Kitty mating with her Tom in a field. Tigercat does not take this well, and the whole episode ends in an act of extreme violence.

Tigercat and Kitty are back together, but Kitty keeps thinking back to the events of the past that have led her to her current situation. She’s been involved with some low-life guys, but they weren’t all bad. One of them, Brian, was pretty nice and they were very much in love until the relationship ended due to a misunderstanding.

Kitty’s doubts about her sexuality come to the fire again during a mildly psychedelic lesbian sex party (the highlight of which is an extended topless go-go dancing routine by sexploitation icon Pat Barrington). Tigercat comes to blows with a butch lesbian who’s been making movies on Kitty, and while Tigercat is pummeling her rival senseless Kitty flees. The rest of the movie is occupied by Tigercat’s frantic efforts to find her vanished girlfriend.

What really makes this movie work is the performance of Cathy Crowfoot as Tigercat. She might not be the world’s greatest actress but she has real presence, and she makes Tigercat an intriguingly ambiguous character. She’s not just a stereotypical predatory lesbian. Her violently obsessive jealousy and possessiveness are certainly scary, but her equally obsessive love for Kitty makes her a somewhat sympathetic character as well. And she makes a convincing lesbian. That’s another fascinating feature of the film. Lesbian sex was always one of the staples of sexploitation and of porn, but it’s almost always lesbian sex involving women who are very obviously straight. But this movie gives the impression of having been made by someone who had actually met real lesbians.

Like other exploitation movies of its era it’s also a great time capsule of 1960s attitudes. The sexual revolution was just beginning, and thriving gay and lesbian subcultures were developing. Experimentation with sexuality and gender roles was the order of the day.

It may sometimes seem that I take these sorts of movies more seriously than they deserve to be taken, but I’ve always felt that exploitation movies often reflect such social tensions in a much more direct and honest way than mainstream movies, and this movie is a good example. It deals with male fears of lesbians stealing their women, but it also deals with lesbians’ fears of heterosexual men stealing their girlfriends! Kitty’s ambivalence about her feelings towards both men and women and Tigercat’s struggles to assume a male role are both portrayed with surprisingly complexity. Kitty’s old boyfriend does deliver a little speech on the unnaturalness of the lesbian lifestyle, but this was almost certainly the traditional exploitation movie square-up - a moral message inserted to justify the movie’s treatment of controversial subject matter.

It’s also a terrific time capsule of 1960s style, with Tigercat’s amazingly sexy mid-60s Corvette being a highlight, and some great mid-60s LA streetscapes. And some terrific hairdos!

It certainly has its flaws. The 85 minute running time is much too long for the very slight plot. It could easily have been cut to around 60 minutes, and it would have benefited considerably. I guess I have a fairly high tolerance for these sorts of movies - I love the style and the campness.

The image quality varies quite a bit, some scenes being very grainy while others are very sharp. This is probably more to do with the source material than anything else. Being a low-budget film it may well have been shot on a variety of film stocks including short ends (unused leftovers from used cans of film). The picture quality is still quite acceptable and it's another highly entertaining double feature from Something Weird.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Foxy Brown (1974)

You can’t really go wrong with a blaxploitation flick directed by Jack Hill and starring Pam Grier. While Foxy Brown isn’t quite as good as their first blaxploitation collaboration, Coffy, it’s still enormous fun.

Pam Grier is Foxy Brown, a smart woman with plenty of attitude and confidence but some real problems. Her biggest problem is her loser of a brother. It’s not just that he’s an habitual criminal, he’s also the world’s most unsuccessful criminal. Foxy has to get him out of one jam after another.

Her other problem is her boyfriend. He’s a nice guy and they’re totally in love, but he’s also an undercover federal narcotics cop with a price on his head. At the moment the bad guys think he’s dead, and he’s had plastic surgery to change his appearance. It was a good plan, and it might have worked except for Foxy’s low-life brother. He has no morals, but he has a naturally suspicious mind, and he notices that Foxy’s new boyfriend Michael reminds him vaguely of the old undercover cop one. And he senses that this insight could be worth some money to him.

Pretty soon Foxy finds herself going up against the big drug boss, a beautiful but exceptionally ruthless white woman. This crime ring also runs a stable of high-class call-girls, but their job is not to take money for the organisation but to provide sexual favours to powerful judges, law-makers, politicians, cops, etc. This is the reason the police have found it so difficult to get convictions against members of this organisation. Foxy decides to apply for a job as a call-girl. Given her glamour and her spectacular figure she has no problems getting in. She and another girl are sent out on an assignment to keep a judge happy. He likes black girls, and being provided with two beautiful black girls should certainly keep him onside. The other hooker, Claudia, turns out to be less than happy with her employees and she’s also a rather feisty lady so she’s happy to help Foxy bring down the evil crime queen.

There’s the usual mix of action with a touch of camp that you expect from Jack Hill. The violence isn’t graphic, but it’s done with style. There’s some nudity, but not much. Pam Grier takes her clothes off less often than usual. There’s outrageous 1970s interior design and fashions, and lots of afros.

Pam Grier was so good in these types of movies because she was more than just a hot body combined with kickass attitude. She has a basic likeability so you always want to see her get the better of the bad guys.

The plot is fairly silly, but in an exploitation movie that’s more likely to be an advantage than otherwise. The main thing is it’s an adrenaline-charged 90 minutes of entertainment with style, and it never makes the mistake of taking itself seriously.

If you’re new to blaxploitation or if you’re not familiar with the fabulous Pam Grier then Coffy is probably a better place to start, but Foxy Brown is fun in its own right. It’s also great to see a movie in which a black woman requires no help from the men in her life in order to sort out her problems, and their problems as well. And she does this with a mix of kickass attitude, intelligence and guts.

The Region 2 DVD is what you expect from MGM. The movie looks good, but there’s a shameful lack of extras. But if you shop around you can pick this one up very cheaply indeed.

Monday 21 December 2009

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

If George Roy Hill had asked anybody in 1972 whether it was a good idea to try to film Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five their advice would probably have been - don’t even think about it. Maybe people did give him that advice. In any case Hill went ahead and filmed it anyway, and the result is one of the most interesting American movies of the 70s.

It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and Vonnegut loved it, but it died at the American box-office. It’s since been more or less forgotten, and most people who’ve heard of it assume it was a turkey. It’s hard to imagine the director of such staggeringly mainstream movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting being able to successfully film an unfilmable Kurt Vonnegut book, but that’s exactly what he did.

Billy Pilgrim, the hero of the story, has come unstuck in time. His life has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. He moves randomly between past, present and future although in fact his life is simply a collection of moments and past, present and future have little meaning. He lives some of these moments over and over again, and not all of them occur on Earth. A significant part of his life takes place on the planet Tralfamadore.

Billy was training to be an optometrist when the Second World War intervened. He is taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and as a prisoner-of-war he is present in the city of Dresden when it is fire-bombed by the Allies. This was one of the most horrific episodes of the war, causing a greater loss of life than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and being all the more horrifying since Dresden was not a military target. Vonnegut himself was in fact a prisoner-of-war in Dresden when it was bombed, and this was in some ways the central event in his life.

Billy’s experiences in the war are crucial but the movie, like Billy’s life, cuts back and forth to other events both before and after the war. Billy’s postwar life as a respectable and rather dull optometrist, a pillar of the community and president of the local Lions’ Club, is enlivened by other strange events. He survives a disastrous plane crash, which of course he knows is going to happen because it’s happened to him before. He has a wife and son on Earth, but he has a kind of second family on Tralfamadore. He was kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, but they just want to observe and study him. They’re particularly fascinated by the mating habits of other species so they provide him with a potential mate, a sexy Hollywood starlet named Montana Wildhack. She’s about as big a contrast as one could imagine with Billy’s wife on Earth, but he loves them both in his own way. He accepts Montana Wildhack as part of his destiny, just as he accepts everything else that happens to him.

The most pleasing thing about the film is that Hill and screenwriter Stephen Geller assume their audience will not be panicked by the non-linear narrative and will work out what’s going on. The cuts between various episodes in Billy’s life are not explained. They just happen. For a mainstream Hollywood movie in 1972 that’s a fairly bold approach. The movie’s commercial failure suggests that perhaps Hill was a little too bold, but artistically it’s the right approach.

The movie successfully preserves Vonnegut’s sense of the absurdity of life. It also captures his black comedy, which is done rather subtly in the movie which again proves to the right approach - the juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrific provides the black comedy, and there is no need for the actors to try to play any of the scenes in an overtly comic way. They play it straight, and the results are funnier and more disturbing as a result.

Michael Sacks, an actor with a remarkably short career, is superb as Billy Pilgrim - innocent but accepting. Valerie Perrine attracted most of the publicity at the time because of her frequent disrobing in the movie. Her role as Montana Wildhack is really fairly minor. Her performance can best be described as adequate, but she has the right mix of innocence and sexiness for the part.

The scenes of the bombing of Dresden are exceptionally well done. Hill resists the temptation to sentimentalise the events or to consciously manipulate the audience’s responses. This matter-of-fact treatment is much more effective, and the events in themselves are sufficiently harrowing not to require editorialising.

While the movie omits parts of the novel it does this mainly to keep the running time within acceptable limits (it runs for 104 minutes). Most directors today would have succumbed to the temptation to try to include too much. There is no attempt to dumb down the story.

This is an adventurous, complex and intelligent movie, a relic of a time when major Hollywood studios were still prepared to take risks and to accept the reality that on occasions those risks would not pay off at the box office. I caught it on Australian television (on the ABC so it was uncut and commercial-free) but it’s available on DVD. It’s well worth seeking out.

Saturday 19 December 2009

The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)

The Curse of the Living Corpse was Del Tenney’s second movie as a director, and was shot back-to-back with his best-known production, The Horror of Party Beach. The two movies are very different animals, with The Curse of the Living Corpse being a period gothic chiller in a style radically different from the joyously tongue-in-cheek camp of The Horror of Party Beach.

The two most surprising things about Del Tenney’s career as a film-maker are firstly, that he made so few films, and secondly that the ones he did make are so good. Corpse and Party Beach were both picked up by Fox and became major box-office hits. Fox were delighted with them, so it’s something of a mystery that his career as a director virtually ended at that point.

While The Horror of Party Beach is often mistakenly described as a so-bad-it’s-good movie it was in fact intended from the outset as an exercise in camp and as a fun spoof movie, and it succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do. The Curse of the Living Corpse is much more of a conventional gothic horror movie, and for a low-budget movie it’s quite impressive.

When the formidable patriarch of the Sinclair clan dies in 1892, he leaves a rather strange will. He had always been obsessed by the fear of being buried live, so the will specifies that his tomb must not be locked, that torches must be kept burning there, and that he should not even be placed in the tomb for at least five days, to make absolutely certain that he really is dead. And the will threatens that if these provisions are ignored, he will return from the grave to exact a terrible vengeance - each member of the family will meet the fate they most fear.

In fact the family are so relieved that he’s finally dead that they can’t wait to place him in his mausoleum. Their relief turns to horror when it appears that he has carried out his threat to return from the dead and is starting to carry out his plans to revenge himself.

The murders that inevitably follow are quite imaginatively staged. They’re also moderately gruesome for a movie made in 1962, especially when the eldest son meets his fate by having his handsome face completely destroyed. There are plenty of spooky scenes of a mysterious caped and masked figure. There are secret passage-ways, empty coffins, and just about everything you expect in a gothic horror film.

It has, as Tenney admits, a very stagey feel to it. His background was in the theatre, so that’s not surprising, but for a gothic horror movie this is no great disadvantage. In fact for a movie that is intentionally melodramatic it can even be an asset.

The acting is quite competent. Unusually for a low-budget drive-in movie Tenney rehearsed his actors for a couple of weeks before he started shooting, and the extra trouble this involved does pay off. It gives the movie less of the amateur hour feel that you generally associate with drive-in fodder. Roy Scheider made his film debut in this one, as the weak-willed alcoholic younger son of the family. And Candace Hilligloss (best-known from the superb Carnival of Souls made the same year) makes one of her very few film appearances.

The movie is visually fairly impressive, with some very well thought-out and well-executed scenes. The sets and costumes are also extremely good, giving the movie a professional and rather slick (and even at times quite classy) appearance.

This is not a movie in the same league as, for example, Bava’s Black Sunday. Tenney was aiming for the drive-in market, and his intention was to make a fun fast-paced movie with plenty of atmosphere and plenty of chills, but he was not trying to make Citizen Kane. You’re not expected to take it too seriously. It’s deliberately and consciously melodramatic, and that’s part of its charm. It’s light entertainment, but it’s done with quite a bit of flair. If you approach it with realistic expectations it’s all thoroughly enjoyable.

Dark Sky released this film in a double-movie set along with The Horror of Party Beach. Both movies look absolutely magnificent, and both include commentary tracks done by Tenney himself. It’s a great value DVD that I can’t recommend too highly for lovers of drive-in movies.

Friday 18 December 2009

Shock Waves (1977)

Shock Waves, released in 1977, was the first and probably the best of several Nazi zombie movies that would appear sporadically during the late 70s and early 80s.

Like Jess Franco’s 1981 Oasis of the Zombies it was an attempt to do something a little bit different with the basic format of the zombie movie. The problem with zombies is that they’re inherently rather uninteresting. They just shuffle about and kill people, but because they just shuffle about it’s always difficult to take them entirely seriously. You really have to be pretty careless to get caught by a zombie. Shock Waves solves this problem fairly effectively.

The intro to the movie gives us the background. The Nazis were trying to develop the ultimate soldier, an unstoppable killing machine they felt no pain, no emotions, no fear. What they developed were in fact zombie soldiers, who were neither truly alive nor truly dead. The experiment proved (inevitably) to be a failure since mindless unstoppable killing machines tend to be as much of a threat to one’s own side as they are to the enemy!

The film proper opens with a woman found adrift in an open boat. She tells her story in a flashback. On a pleasure cruise in a rather unsafe boat manned by a fairly incompetent crew and a bad-tempered captain (cult movie legend John Carradine) they encounter strange atmospheric disturbances, odd and inexplicable currents and finally a mysterious ghost ship. In attempting to avoid this ship they run aground. Luckily (well actually unluckily as it turns out) there’s a nearby island.

The island has one living inhabitant, but quite a few non-living ones. The living one is an elderly Nazi officer (Peter Cushing). He had been in command of a special detachment of zombie soldiers modified for submarine duties. They would be ideal submarine crews (apart from their unfortunate habits mentioned earlier) since they could actually live underwater, so the submarine could remain submerged permanently. As the war was ending they set off in old freighter and ended up on a deserted island, where Cushing has lived ever since in a huge abandoned hotel. He’s not really particularly evil, and he warns our shipwrecked mariners to take a small boat he has concealed in a cove and to leave the island as quickly as they possibly can. Due to various dramas within the group they fail to heed the urgency of his warning, and find themselves hunted by the zombie sailors.

It has a very low budget feel, and the acting is mostly pretty dire, with the notable exceptions of the always reliable Carradine and Cushing. Cushing in fact is extremely good, playing the kind of ambiguous role in which he always excelled.

The initial appearance of the zombies from beneath the waters is wonderfully creepy and it’s pretty scary as well. The makeup effects are reasonably effective. It’s a movie that doesn’t require very much in the way of special effects, which is just as well since I’m certain the budget wouldn’t have allowed for such things anyway. It’s also a little unusual among zombie movies in not relying at all on gore. The general creepiness of the concept and the situation of the shipwrecked group - trapped on an island infested with zombies who were as much at home under the water as on land - were sufficient in themselves to provide the necessary terror.

It’s not by any means a perfect movie. It’s a bit clunky in places, and the cinematography is fairly basic. Despite some weaknesses it succeeds as an original and interesting variation on the zombie movie, and it’s most definitely worth seeking out.

The Region 4 DVD is absolutely awful. The picture quality is terrible. It’s grainy and muddy and in the night sequences it’s difficult to see anything at all. This is a movie that deserves better treatment.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Night Monster (1942)

I’d been told that Night Monster was the best of the five movies in the recent Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive boxed set. All I can say is that if this is the best of them I shudder to think what the rest are like.

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is a fabulously rich recluse. He’s become a recluse since undergoing a disastrous course of medical treatment for a serious illness. He’s been left a helpless twisted wreck of a man, confined permanently to a wheelchair.

The doctors who treated him are a little surprised to receive an invitation to his house (which is of course secluded and gothic). But their doubts are overruled by their greed for funding for their research, Mr Ingstrom being a generous contributor to the cause of advancing medical science. Also present in the house is the young and beautiful Dr Harper, a psychiatrist summoned by Ingstrom’s sister. The sister has become half convinced that she is going insane, after witnessing strange events. There’s also an Indian yogi, who is employed by Mr Ingstrom. He gives a demonstration of his powers. that allow him to dematerialise and rematerialise objects by the force of his will.

The doctors start to get themselves murdered, and in fact there have been a couple of other recent murders in the area as well, one of them being yet another medical practitioner.

It’s basically an old dark house movie with a few twists. The ideas are very good, and the potential is there But the the 40s Universal just didn’t care. Horror movies were reliable money-makers but were regarded by the studio with contempt, and the contempt shows all too clearly. The script by Clarence Upson Young is embarrassingly inept. It’s obvious who the victims will be, and it’s equally obvious who the perpetrator is. There is zero suspense.

The only actors to demonstrate even a glimmer of interest or ability are Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, and both are relegated to insignificant minor roles.

The production values are reasonably good and technically it’s moderately impressive. Universal were a major studio and were still capable of making even their most despised B-movies look pretty good. There’s an extravagant but fairly effective use of fog.

Director Ford Beebe had done serials and was able to give the movie a certain sense of urgency. Nothing interesting happens, but at least it happens quickly. Mercifully there’s not too much in the way of comic relief. The big problem is the dismal script, and Beebe lacked the finesse to add the atmosphere and the tension that the writer had failed to include.

Universal have done a more than acceptable job with the DVD release. The movie looks and sounds extremely good.

By this time (the movie came out in 1942) if Universal managed to produce a truly great horror movie (as they did with Son of Dracula) it was purely accidental and was not intended. Night Monster is for Universal, and Bela Lugosi, completists only. It highlights the wisdom of Lugosi’s decision in the 40s to abandon Universal in favour of Monogram. Monogram may have been a Poverty Row studio but their 1940s horror/thriller movies were more interesting than this creaky snoozefest and they were prepared to offer him much more interesting roles.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Stone (1974)

I’m still catching up on 1970s ozploitation movies. This time it’s Stone, a biker movie that built up a huge cult following in Australia.

A political assassination is witnessed by a member of an outlaw biker gang, The Grave Diggers. Well he sort of witnesses it - in fact he’s so out of it on drugs he doesn’t even remember it. But the assassin is taking no chances. He’s not sure which member of the gang was the witness, so he sets out to kill off the entire gang one by one (in very creative ways).

The police don’t get much co-operation from the bikers in trying to crack the case until they send in Stone. Stone is a long-haired cool guy hip young motorcycle-riding cop, although in fact he has a university degree and a very upper-class girlfriend. Stone’s job is to go undercover with The Grave Diggers. They’ve very unimpressed with the idea of having a cop joining their gang, even on a temporary basis, but when Stone saves one of the gang from a murder attempt by crossbow they reluctantly accept him.

Stone is a good cop, but he has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak. Yes, he’s a bit of a maverick loner cop! He takes a bit of liking to the gang. He see them (and the film portrays them this way) as a genuine alternative society with its own moral rules and code of honour. This is going to cause him major problems, since his loyalty to the gang isn’t always going to be consistent with his equally strong belief in justice and the due process of the law. Especially when The Grave Diggers make it clear they intend to execute their own brand of justice.

It’s an ultra-low budget movie, but like so many Australian movies of its era (it was released in 1974) it’s quite spectacular, with some frighteningly dangerous stunts and some pretty impressive high-speed motorcycle scenes.

The plot includes some interesting ideas, and the ending (which I can’t say anything about since it’s really the whole point of the film) brings Stone’s divided loyalties and their consequences into sharp perspective. Unfortunately the plot includes some silly ideas as well, but its sheer energy more or less carries it through.

The acting is a real problem. Ken Shorter is OK as Stone. Writer-director Sandy Harbutt tries hard as Undertaker, the gang leader, but he doesn’t quite have the necessary charisma. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives one of his usual unintentionally campy performances - how this guy gets taken seriously as an actor in Australia is beyond me. Most of the gang members aren’t totally convincing, although VIncent Gil is very good as Dr Death (and having him as The Grave Diggers’ resident Satanist priest is an interesting touch that turns out much less embarrassingly than you might expect).

This is very much a guy movie. The women characters are there to provide the nudity that any 1970s exploitation movie required (although strangely for the 70s there’s actually as much male nudity as female). Rebecca Gilling must have appeared in just about very Australian movie of the 70s! And she must have taken her clothes off in every one of them. She’s a good actress but she’s wasted in this one. Sandy Harbutt clearly has zero interest in his female characters. It’s all about male bonding and loyalty and male codes of honour, which gets pretty tedious after a while.

At least it isn’t afflicted with the drug-addled hippie nonsense that made Easy Rider almost unwatchable.

There are some memorable scenes, such as The Grave Diggers’ funeral procession early in the film. It’s well-made, but whether you’re going to enjoy it or not depends on how much tolerance you have for such extremely male-oriented movies, and for the glamourisation of violent outsiders. It didn’t really appeal to me, but it’s still an interesting example of the sheer variety of ozploitation movies. It would make an interesting double feature with Mad Max - dealing with similar subject matter but taking a diametrically opposite approach.

Monday 14 December 2009

Evil Face (1974)

Georges Franjus’ superb Eyes Without a Face started an entire sub-genre of horror movies - plastic surgery horrors. Evil Face (La mano che nutre la morte), a 1974 Italo-Turkish co-production, is a relatively typical example of the breed but with enough twists to make it worth a watch.

Klaus Kinski is Professor Nijinski, a brilliant surgeon carrying on the controversial work of his equally brilliant surgeon father-in-law. He has personal reason for his obsession with this field - his beautiful wife was horribly disfigured by fire in an accident. His aim is to restore her beauty. As is usual in this sub-genre, this can only be done at the expense of other beautiful young women whose faces must be sacrificed to provide the necessary tissue for the skin grafts. And many experiments are needed to perfect the process, so the professor must kidnap and murder a succession of young women.

A young couple staying the night in the professor’s gothic castle will provide his latest victims - the husband to be murdered quickly while the wife will provide material for the latest experiment. The plan miscarries, partly due to the interference of a woman who is convinced (quite correctly) that the doctor has murdered her sister. She and her friend have talked their way into staying at the castle as well.

There are some reasonably good plot twists which I’m not going to give away.

The 19th century setting and the castle provide a suitably Frankenstein-like mad scientist atmosphere. The direction and the cinematography are competent. The production values are fairly impressive fir what was obviously a low-budget movie, and the mad scientist laboratory has some nice steampunkesque touches.

The acting is generally adequate, and Klaus Kinski is, as you’d expect, a very convincing insane scientist. He overacts rather less than you’d anticipate.

There are some fairly gory surgical scenes, and the disfigured wife with her strange doll is rather disturbing.

Yilmaz Duru and Sergio Garrone are co-credited as directors. They don’t have the visual brilliance or the visionary qualities to make a great eurohorror movie from the material at their disposal but they’ve still managed to make a fairly entertaining film.

The woman investigating the disappearance of her sister has a friend with her, the friend’s sole function in the movie apparently being to allow the inclusion of the lesbian sex scene without which no eurohorror movie would be complete. But that’s the wonderful world of eurohorror!

MYA Communications have attracted a certain amount of flak for some of their releases, including this one. It does have the look of being taken from a VHS source, and there’s a distinct lack of extras. On the other hand if this is so it was certainly a very good VHS source, and the picture quality is more than acceptable. It’s not the kind of pristine transfer you might get from Blue Underground, but MYA Communications are putting out some very obscure, hard-to-find and rather interesting titles and I’m happy to support any company that will make these previously unobtainable European cult movies available to cult movie fans in reasonably good DVD editions.

It’s not one of Kinski’s greatest performances and it’s not a forgotten masterpiece, but for eurohorror fans it should provide good solid entertainment.

Sunday 13 December 2009

The Stud (1978)

Sometimes, when life is getting too much for you with lots of stupid dramas, there’s only one thing that will really cheer you up. And that’s a really classic trashy movie. If said movie happens to star Joan Collins, even better. The Stud is a movie tailor-made for these situations.

Oliver Tobias is the stud of the title, Tony Blake. He was a waiter, a poor working-class kid with big ambitions, a pretty face and a hot body. He attracted the attention of the fabulously wealthy Fontaine Khaled (Joan Collins), or rather his hot body attracted her attention. So she set him up as manager of a night-club, although his main duties are to satisfy her sexual appetites. He’s constantly on call in case she has a sexual emergency that requires immediate servicing. And this happens to Fontaine quite frequently.

Tony’s services are also available to other women, and they’re in high demand. He’s a busy boy, even if he spends most of his life in bed! Tony’s friends are gigolos as well, but Tony’s problem is that he thinks he’s more than that. Unfortunately he isn’t smart enough to be more than an amusing sex toy for wealthy women, and he also isn’t smart enough to realise that that’s the only use women have for him.

Tony’s big problems start when Fontaine has a sexual emergency in the elevator of her apartment building. She’s turned on by the fact that the security camera is filming their encounter, but perhaps she should have been a little more careful about making sure the resulting video tape wouldn’t be found by anyone inconvenient. Like her husband. Or her husband’s daughter, who already dislikes her. And Tony finds his life starting to spiral out of control when Fontaine decides she should share her toy boy with her friends, like Vanessa. Vanessa is very keen to try Tony out. And while Vanessa amuses herself with Tony Fontaine can screw Vanessa’s husband, which she’s been wanting to do for a while. So Fontaine arranges a little holiday for them all in Paris - shopping, drugs and lots of sex. She didn’t need to ask Tony if it was OK with him - she does own him after all. This little trip will have momentous consequences for both Fontaine and Tony.

Tony has been playing some dangerous games of his own, pursuing Fontaine’s step-daughter. He thinks he’s in love. He’s certainly in love with her money and her social position, but whether Tony is actually capable of loving a woman for herself is debatable. If it sounds like it’s all going to end messily, it is.

These are the beautiful people of the 70s. Their lives consist of night-clubbing, shopping, and sex. After which they go to another night-club, shop some more, and have lots more sex. It’s 1978, London is a smorgasbord of night-clubs and sex, and no-one imagines that this lifestyle can’t go on forever.

Oliver Tobias does a good job as Tony, although he doesn’t really need to do much more than pout a bit and look hot. Sue Lloyd is amusing as Fontaine’s lecherous friend Vanessa, The supporting cast seem to have been chosen more for their willingness to take their clothes off than for their acting abilities, and that turns out to be an asset. The last thing a film like this needs is people trying to do serious acting.

And of course there’s Joan Collins. After her Hollywood career hadn’t really taken off she’d returned to England, and by the 70s she was pursuing a varied and interesting if not overly distinguished career, high-lighted by some wonderfully camp performances in some wonderfully camp horror movies. She was certainly a busy actress, but The Stud marks the beginning of her classical uber-bitch period when she really found her niche. And it helped her to transform her, at last, into a major box-office star. She’s in top form. Her great asset has always been that she has no illusions about being a great actress, but put her in something really trashy and set her loose and she knows exactly what to do. This movie gives her the chance to be both bitch and sex-bomb, and she performs both roles admirably, shedding her clothes at every possible opportunity.

This is absolutely top-notch high-gloss trash, and demonstrates that Britain could make great movie trash as well as anyone else could. The swimming pool orgy scene is as excessive as anyone could possibly desire. And you get disco music. A must-see for anyone who adores Joan Collins as I do. I loved every sleazy minute of it.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The Fifth Cord (1971)

The Fifth Cord (Giornata nera per l'ariete) is an interesting entry in the 1971s Italian giallo cycle, depending even more heavily on style than most films of this type. And style it certainly has in abundance.

The plot has the usual rather bizarre twists and turns you expect in this genre. Franco Nero is Andrea Bild, a journalist who has crawled inside a bottle after a marriage break-up. He’s still somewhat obsessed with his ex-wife, and he’s involved in a moderately destructive relationship with a woman named Lu. His excessive jealousies are clearly going to destroy that relationship, while his drinking combined with his natural tendencies towards being a trouble-maker mean that his job is usually hanging by a thread.

His life becomes more complicated when a young man is brutally bashed after attending a party, at which Andrea was one of the guests, and apparently the last person to see the victim before the bashing. But his life is going to get a lot more complicated. A wealthy doctor’s wife is murdered, and Andrea knew the wife slightly while the doctor is a major shareholder in the paper he works for. More murders follow, one of the victims being his editor with whom he’d quarreled violently. There always seems to be some link to Andrea. And he never has an alibi.

The police are naturally intrigued by the fact that Andrea has a connection with all the murder victims. Andrea is naturally anxious to solve this puzzling case both to clear his own name and because it’s obviously going to make a good story.

The movie has most of the classic giallo elements, including the black gloved killer. The sexual dimension isn’t as obvious as in most giallos. There is a sexual dimension, but most of the killings are not obvious sex killings. The script is workmanlike, although the connections between the various characters aren’t really delineated as clearly as one would like.

Franco Nero gives a typically understated but solid performance as Andrea. Rosella Falk is outstanding in a fairly minor role as the doctor’s wife, Wolfgang Preiss is the police inspector, the kind of role he specialised in and always did extremely well. Pamela Tiffin as Andrea’s girlfriend is impressive.

The real star of the movie though is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. He’d worked with Bernardo Bertolucci and he’d photographed The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for Dario Argento, and he’s since gone on to pick up three cinematography Oscars. He and director Luigi Bazzoni give this movie a very film noir visual feel. Storaro does shadows better than anyone else I can think of, with the possible exception of master film noir cinematographers John Alton and Nick Musuraca. Ad they had the advantage of working in black-and-white - I don’t think anyone has used shadows more effectively and more moodily in colour than Stararo does in this film.

The sets are also superb - Bazzoni makes tremendous use of modernist architecture and interior design to give the movie both style and mood.

While the plot is nothing special, this is a movie worth seeing just for its technical mastery and its breath-taking visuals. In that respect I think it even outdoes Argento at his best. Every visual element is there for a reason, and works perfectly, but the movie never seems gimmicky. Strangely enough, for a giallo, the most impressive visuals aren’t reserved for the murders (apart from the murder of the doctor’s wife which is a stunning set-piece). Bazzoni and Storaro use disturbing images to build mood and tension rather than for spectacular individual scenes of action or violence. The entire movie works as a single visual entity.

So what could have been a routine giallo is executed with so much flair that it becomes a must-see.

Blue Underground’s DVD release includes only one significant extra, a 16-minute featurette in which Franco Nero and Vittorio Storaro discuss both the movie and their careers. But the transfer is superb, and that’s what matters with a movie such as this.