Saturday 30 January 2010

Immortal Love (1972)

Immortal Love (Seidan botan-dôrô, also released as Hellish Love) is a 1972 Japanese erotic ghost story. Or rather it’s a very traditional Japanese ghost story, spiced up with some added sexiness. Either way it’s not a bad little film.

By the beginning of the 70s all the major Japanese studios were in desperate straits, with television having reduced cinema attendances by more than three-quarters. Nikkatsu’s response was to abandon all other projects and to concentrate entirely on a new range of films, their Roman Porno genre. It should be explained that this has nothing whatever to do with the Romans, and very little to do with pornography. Some people believe the name was a shortened form of “romantic pornography” but the most popular explanation seems to be that it derived from the French term for an erotic novel, the roman pornographique. Both explanations make some sense, since these movies were envisaged as sexy films with class.

What made this new genre particularly interesting was that Nikkatsu gave its writers and directors absolute artistic freedom, as long as their films contained at least five sex scenes. And this wasn’t just artistic freedom, this was artistic freedom with the resources of a major studio to draw on, and with thoroughly experience and well-trained film crews, so although budgets were fairly low these movies had quite high production values and a very professional look to them. And even the requirement for sex scenes was no problem, since it gave the film-makers the opportunity to deal with grown-up subject matter.

In fact the sex and nudity in these productions is very tame indeed by comparison with European movies of that era, or even with British and American movies. Japanese censorship remained outrageously strict until very recently. The sexual content of most of these movies would hardly suffice to earn them a PG rating today. But the movies themselves proved to be remarkably interesting.

Immortal Love was directed by Chûsei Sone, who went on to make some interesting projects before suddenly disappearing from the industry in the late 80s.

A penniless samurai ekes out a living by making umbrellas. He falls in love with a young woman, but her father violently opposes their love affair. The young samurai returns from journey to find the house of his lady love deserted. She tells him they were forced to move to another village, but he later discovers that this new village is in fact a cemetery. His girlfriend is in fact a ghost. But while she may be dead, her love has not died. She comes to him that night, and they make love.

Making love with a ghost is apparently a somewhat dangerous thing to do, at least assuming that you’re hoping to remain in the land of the living. He tries to avoid any further ghostly erotic encounters, but her spirit is determined and resourceful and the charms he uses to repel the dead prove to be of no avail.

There are several sub-plots, one involving his servant and his girlfriend, both good-natured enough but exceptionally avaricious, and not above accepting money from visitors from the spirit world. There’s also another member of the ghostly young woman’s former household, a female with somewhat homicidal tendencies.

This is very understated horror, totally lacking in gore. This, combined with the very restrained nature of the sex scenes, may cause some horror fans to find it a little on the bland side. But Japanese ghost stories don’t really seem to be about scaring the daylights out of the reader (or the viewer). They’re essentially just tales of the supernatural, which may be horrific, or romantic, or erotic, or just plain weird. The ghosts are not necessarily evil.

If you accept this movie as a low-key old-fashioned ghost story you’ll find much to enjoy. It has a subtle atmosphere of the uncanny that works extremely well, and it’s an effective if unconventional love story as well.

Friday 29 January 2010

Avalanche (1978)

One of my most notorious guilty pleasures is 1970s disaster movies. And I’ve discovered one I’d never seen before, and wasn’t even aware of - Avalanche! Produced by Roger Corman so you’d expect it to be thoroughly entertaining, and it is.

Disaster movies are by their very nature expensive to make, so it was a slightly odd genre to attract the attention of the king of the B-movies. But Corman has always had a talent for making a small budget go a long way. And while the special effects are pretty cheesy, the whole movie is pretty cheesy, so the dodgy special effects just add to the fun.

Rock Hudson, by this stage of his career reduced to B-movie and television work, is a tycoon who opens a new ski resort in some unspecified mountain wilderness kind of place. Mia Farrow (whose career was also somewhat on the skids until she hooked up with Woody Allen a few years later) is his estranged wife.

There’s also a ruggedly handsome photographer/environmentalist who fulfills the essential disaster movie role of being the prophet of doom, warning that cutting down trees for the resort will really annoy Mother Nature who is likely to then turn nasty. When he points to the snow-covered slopes and warns that the whole area is now unstable, and when we are informed that a huge snowstorm is on its way, we know exactly how the plot is going to develop, which is precisely how it should be in a disaster movie.

The cast spend the first half of the movie bed-hopping, which is at least slightly more entertaining than the usual first half of a disaster movie in which we’re introduced to a whole galaxy of characters we don’t care about involved in complicated situations that we care about even less. The snow setting is used quite well, with a wonderfully goofy snowmobile race that ends in total mayhem.

The anticipated disaster occurs, there are heroic rescue efforts, lots of maudlin sentimentality, and cute little kids in imminent danger.

The supporting characters are the cardboard cutouts you expect in a disaster movie - the figure skating star trying to get her career back on track, the TV reporter, the ski star surrounded by adoring female groupies, the tycoon’s annoying mother, etc. The cast produce the performances you’d expect - delightfully awful. The terrible script is a big help here.

While it’s certainly cheesy, the use of fairly fast cutting means you don’t get to see any of the effects for long enough to realise how cheap they are and the avalanche sequence is actually surprisingly effective and exciting. Today it would be done with CGI and would look a lot less convincing than this.

Director Corey Allen worked mostly in TV. His direction isn’t inspiring but he keeps the action moving along at a good pace. And Corman had enough sense (unlike most producers of disaster movies) to keep the running time short.

The Region 4 DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment is nothing short of a disgrace. It’s fullscreen, the print they used for the transfer looks like it had been retrieved from a dumpster, and the picture is so dark that at times it’s not even possible to know which actor you’re looking at.

But the movie itself is a total hoot. Yes, it’s a bad movie, but it’s always entertaining. If you share my inexplicable but deep love for this much-despised genre then you’ll love this movie.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Devil's Island Lovers (1974)

Devil's Island Lovers (Los amantes de la isla del diablo, also released as Quartier de femmes) is a slight variation on the usual Jess Franco women-in-prison movie. It’s more of a couple-in-prison film, and it’s one of his most overtly political statements.

All of Franco’s women-in-prison movies have at least some political sub-text, but this one is a very direct attack on Franco’s Spain, and on fascism in general.

It’s set in an unnamed South American country, which is clearly standing in for Spain. As it opens the local provincial governor, a man renowned for his cruelty, is dying. He feels a desparate need to seek forgiveness for his many sins, but for one in particular - his part in condemning an innocent young couple to imprisonment on a dreaded prison island. His mistress had been trying for some time to get her godson Raymond into the sack with her, and when he rejected her advances se determined to seek revenge. And not just on her godson, but also on the woman he loves, Beatriz. As it happens both Raymond and Beatriz are involved in anti-government political activism so framing them isn’t too difficult, especially with the governor’s assistance.

Raymond finds himself in the men’s prison. Interestingly, the warden (played by Howard Vernon) isn’t portrayed as a sadist. He’s merely a willing tool of the system. The warden of the women’s prison is another matter. Mrs Cardel is most definitely a sadist, and a lesbian. Beatriz is going to need a protector in order to survive, and she finds one in the ambiguous figure of Rosa. Rosa is the warden’s pet, and gets special treatment by informing on the other prisoners and by offering her sexual favours to the guards (and probably also to Mrs Cardel).

Rosa takes a liking to Beatriz, a liking that is partly based on sexual attraction (Rosa prefers women sexually) but that goes beyond mere sex. Rosa is no monster. She is aware of the unsavoury nature of the things she has done to survive, and Beatriz’s purity and innocence fill her with a desire to do some good for another human being. Of course Beatriz’s purity and innocence also fill her with a desire to have sex with her, but Rosa’s motives are obviously genuinely mixed. Rosa decides she will help Raymond and Beatriz to escape, because she believes they are innocent, and because she believes they are in love.

This is one of the many Franco movies of the early 70s that existed in several different cuts. The Tartan DVD release presents the Spanish “clothed” version which is very tame indeed, but it also includes many alternative scenes from the much raunchier French cut, Quartier de femmes (Women’s Quarters. What’s interesting is that the alternative scenes don’t simply add a bit more violence and a lot more sex and nudity, they also add some very important material relating to the characters. They make Rosa a more important and also a more complex and sympathetic character, and they add some important nuances to the Rosa-Beatriz relationship. The sex scene between Rosa and Beatriz is very ambiguous. Is Beatriz doing it simply because Rosa might help her to be reunited with Raymond? Does she really care about Rosa (it seem that she probably does, up to a point at least)? Or is she just in need of any human contact?

Judging by the alternative scenes this is a case where the raunchier version looks like it’s probably the superior version, but alas it’s not in great condition, which is undoubtedly why Tartan went with the Spanish version.
This is one of Franco’s more straightforward films in terms of plot. There’s a connected narrative. On the other hand it has surprisingly complex characterisations. And it’s typical of Franco to use the most despised and disreputable of all exploitation genres, the women-in-prison movie, to make one of his most serious political films. It’s also one of his bleakest and most cynical films (which I think confirms my suspicion that it’s very much a film about his Spanish homeland).

Howard Vernon has very little to do, but in his brief screen time he gives us a memorable portrait of the kind of person who allows fascism to flourish - a man who will follow orders and carry out the law without any regard for whether the law is just or not. Jess Franco’s women-in-prison movies feature a galaxy of evil sadistic female prison wardens, and while Dyanne Thorne in Ilsa, the Wicked Warden is hard to beat, I think Rosa Palomar in Devil's Island Lovers may be the most chilling of them all. Dennis Price is always good value and in this film he’s the idealistic but alcoholic defence attorney who remains obsessed by the case of Beatriz and Raymond. Is he motivated by idealism, or by a desire to find some kind of personal redemption?

Redemption is in fact a major theme of this movie. Seeing it I can’t help wondering is Jess Franco was a bit of a Graham Greene fan. Dennis Price’s character is very Graham Greene.

This film doesn’t have the extravagant visual style that characterises Franco’s best movies, but it packs quite an emotional punch. Not quite first-rank Franco, but definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Branded to Kill (1967)

Seijun Suzuki had made a string of yakuza action movies for Nikkatsu Studios in the late 50s and early 60s. While working within what was essentially a B-movie formula he had become more and more ambitious and experimental. Tokyo Drifter in 1966 pushed the boundaries of the crime thriller genre; Branded to Kill in 1967 demolished them entirely. And it got him fired from Nikkatsu and almost ended his career. While this is usually painted as a typical example of a visionary artist being misunderstood and persecuted by the philistine bean-counters who run movie studios in retrospect it’s possible to have some sympathy for Nikkatsu’s position. They claimed his movies weren’t making any money, and in 1967 the Japanese film industry was in desperate trouble. Television was making spectacular inroads into cinema attendances. Branded to Kill is a masterpiece by a great director, but in 1967 Nikkatsu needed box-office hits rather than masterpieces. Iconic yakuza movie star Jo Shishido is Hanada, the number 4 yakuza killer in the country. A meeting with an old friend who is keen to get back into the gangster business leads him indirectly to a strange assignment. The people he has to kill are not the usual people who find themselves targeted by mob hitmen. And he encounters an odd but very striking woman, Misako. It’s not clear exactly who she is, or what her connections to the yakuza are. Is she a hitwoman, or a potential victim? She claims to hate men, but she and Hanada fall in love. Well, it’s love of a kind. The assassinations carried out by Hanada are ingenious in the extreme. In one case he takes up his firing position inside a gigantic cigarette lighter on an advertising hoarding, and another involves a shooting through a drainpipe. Things start to go very wrong indeed for Hanada when Misako offers him as assignment. The hit goes wrong, foiled by a butterfly. Since an innocent passer-by is killed, Hanada has now lost his ranking on the professional killers’ hit parade (all the killers in this movie are obsessed by their rankings and by the mystery of the identity of the unknown Number 1 killer). Even worse, he is now marked down for death himself. All this might suggest that Branded to Kill is a taut, tightly-plotted crime thriller. It’s nothing of the kind. It’s more reminiscent of surrealism than of your classic crime B-movie. Nothing is explained. No plot point is neatly resolved. It actually has a lot in common with John Boorman’s brilliant Point Blank, released the same year. And perhaps some similarities to Ken Russell’s shamefully underrated Billion Dollar Brain, another film released in that epic year of 1967 that gleefully overturns genre conventions and expectations. If I’d been to film school I’d probably describe Branded to Kill as a deconstruction of the crime genre. It has the feel of an acid dream. It also anticipates Jess Franco’s use of jazz as not merely a soundtrack but as the very structure of a movie, a technique he perfected in Venus in Furs in 1969 - movies made as jazz improvisations. And if this suggests that we’re dealing with a very serious-minded art film, that’s partly correct, but it’s also extremely witty and a good deal of fun. There’s plenty of humour, including quite a bit of the scatological humour that crops up in many Japanese exploitation movies. There’s also an extraordinary mount of sex and nudity, given the incredibly strict Japanese censorship regime at that time. But most of all this movie has style. It has the wonderful 1960s set design that seems to be a trademark of Seijun Suzuki’s films. His command of composition and of movement is awe-inspiring. Despite the (deliberate) absence of any kind of coherent plot you’re in no danger of becoming bored. The climax in a boxing ring is as strange and ambiguous as the rest of the film, but it’s certainly striking. Anne Mari is wonderfully enigmatic and unconventionally sexy as Misako. Jo Shishido does the world-weary criminal at the end of his rope thing as though he’d been doing it for his whole career, which he had. This is one of the landmark movies of the 60s. An absolute must-see.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Venus in Furs (Le malizie di Venere, 1969)

Venus in Furs seems to an astonishingly popular film title. I have no less than three movies of this name on my DVD shelves. What’s most surprising is that the three movies have almost nothing in common, but all are terrific movies.

The first was a truly bizarre and very surreal but absolutely fascinating 1967 American sexploitation flick, based very very loosely on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel. The second as Jess Franco’s 1969 psychedelic masterpiece, which has virtually nothing to do with the novel at all. The third is Massimo Dallamano’s version, also released as Devil in the Flesh (the Italian title being Le malizie di Venere). This is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the novel. And even more surprisingly, it’s a very successful adaptation.

Dallamano adopts the same method he used for his film version of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray the following year (and Dallamano’s film, known variously as as Dorian Gray or The Secret of Dorian Gray, is well worth seeing). He moves the action to the present day (which in this case is 1969 when the movie was made) and includes large helpings of sex and nudity. The end of the 60s proves to be an ideal setting for late 19th century literary decadence. And in both cases the generous amounts of sex and nudity are not only justified by the subject matter, they are essential to the overheated but decadent tone of the source material.

Severin is a wealthy and outwardly successful man, but he has some dark secrets. He’s been looking for a woman with whom he can share his special interests, and when he spots the beautiful Wanda (Laura Antonelli) he senses that she may be the one. He becomes even more interested in her when he watches her undressing through two conveniently located spy-holes in the wall of her hotel room. The hotel presumably belongs to Severin, and Room 171 has been provided with these spy-holes so he can watch women from an adjacent room.

Voyeurism is just one of his special interests. It’s a taste he acquired as a boy, watching the maid having sex with the gardener. On that memorable occasion the maid spotted him watching her and gave him a mighty slap for his troubles, and then (since she was actually very fond of the lad) having forgiven him gave him an equally enthusiastic hug. The combination of voyeurism, physical pain and then being hugged by a voluptuous naked woman formed his unusual sexual tastes, and these tastes have taken an ineradicable hold upon him.

When Wanda accidentally slaps him he takes the opportunity to tell her about his sexual proclivities, and he persuades her to marry him and to help him in playing out his fantasies. He wants to watch her having sex with other men, and he wants her to beat him. But he desires more than just physical cruelty from Wanda; he wants to be humiliated as well. He will play the role of Wanda’s chaffeur, driving Wanda to various engagements including her trysts with other men. She is not entirely happy with the arrangement, but agrees. It’s not that she objects to having sex with other men - she has never been monogamous anyway. But she’s not entirely comfortable with Severin’s strange mix of physical passivity and emotional manipulation. The arrangement soon comes under extreme stress. It also causes stress in the household. The two servants employed by Severin and Wanda are lesbians, and after watching Wanda disciplining Severin with a whip they start to play a similar game between themselves.

This is one of the few cinematic attempts to deal with the complexities and subtleties of a sado-masochistic relationship. While Severin wishes to be the submissive partner physically and sexually, he also wants to remain in psychological control of the games he and Wanda are playing. The dominant/submissive elements of the relationship are far more complicated than they appear to be on the surface, and there is in fact a power struggle being conducted by Wanda and Severin. When Wanda picks up a macho biker as her latest sex toy he too is drawn into these games.

Régis Vallée is quite good in the role of Severin, avoiding the temptation to play him as a milquetoast. The stunningly beautiful Laura Antonelli is equally good as Wanda, a dominatrix who is not sure she really wants to fulfill that role.

Massimo Dallamano is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Italian cult directors. His giallo What Have They Done to Solange? is excellent, and with Venus in Furs and Dorian Gray he shows himself to be extremely adept at combining sex, art and trash, a peculiarly 1970s skill that now seems to be lost to the world of film-making. Venus in Furs also has an abundance of visual style, with plenty of classic late 60s/early 70s sets. Régis Vallée as Severin wears either a business suit or a chaffeur’s uniform throughout the movie, so we’re spared the worst excesses of the men’s fashions of the period. Laura Antonelli oozes both class and sex, whether clothed or unclothed (and she’s unclothed for a considerable proportion of the movie’s running time).

The Region 2 DVD from Shameless lacks extras but looks superb. This is a true classic of arty eurosleaze, and I highly recommend it.

Friday 22 January 2010

In the Folds of the Flesh (1970)

In the Folds of the Flesh (Nelle pieghe della carne) is certainly a strange little film. This 1970 Italian release seems to be a giallo, but a giallo of a weird mutant variety.

It has all the ingredients you expect in a giallo - lots of murders done in a relatively gory and excessive style, lots of perverse sexuality, an insanely convoluted and unlikely plot and more style than substance. But somehow they’re mixed together in such a way that the tone is not quite right for a giallo. While you expect a giallo to be over-the-top, you don’t really expect high camp, but this movie definitely veers quite markedly in that direction. And it has extra ingredients as well, such as vultures and Nazis. If you could imagine a cross between The Bird withh the Crystal Plumage, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Night Porter you have some idea of the tone of this film.

Lucille (Eleonora Rossi Drago) lives in a villa with her daughter (played by Pier Angeli) and her son. At least we assume they’re her daughter and her son, although they also appear to be lovers. As the movie opens a man is decapitated, a grave is being dug and the police are pursuing a criminal. They pursue him into the grounds of the villa before apprehending him.

We then cut to a few years later, or at least I think we do. Keeping track of the timeline is as much of a challenge as keeping a handle on the twists and turns of the plot. The family has become very odd indeed, with the daughter Falese experiencing flashbacks to her murder of her father. A stranger arrives at the villa. Followed by another stranger, although they appear to be perhaps not entirely strangers. More murders ensue. More heads roll - literally. Then the criminal who was being pursued in the beginning turns up, and holds the family hostage. He is intending to blackmail them, with his knowledge of what is lying in the grave in the grounds of their villa. A rape and another murder ensue.

By this time the plot has started to become very tortuous indeed, with several flashbacks, including a flashback to what we assume was Lucille’s wartime experiences in concentration camp. And then Falese’s father (the one ho had ben murdered earlier) shows up at the villa. Falese’s behaviour becomes even more unstable, and it soon becomes apparent that everything we think has happened did not happen the way we thought it did, and everyone is not the person we originally thought they were. A plot twist at the end of a thriller is not unexpected, but this one has a whole series of plot twists at the end, each more bizarre and more unbelievable than the preceding one.

The weirdness of the film is enhanced by the fact that Pier Angeli is clearly much too old to be Eleonora Rossi Drago’s daughter. The weirdness is further enhanced by the qualities of the performances. Eleonora Rossi Drago is reasonably competent, but the other players gave performances that are either bizarrely stilted or overly hammy, or even manage to combine both those qualities which isn’t easy to do. Pier Angeli seems to be in a daze. This was only a year before her suicide, so it’s perhaps understandable that she was having trouble keeping it together. There’s a marked psychedelic ambience as well.

I have no idea what was in writer-director Sergio Bergonzelli’s mind when he made this one. It’s the kind of film that really would have benefited from a director’s commentary track, which was sadly impossible since Bergonzelli passed away in 2002. I’d love to know just how seriously he really meant this movie to be taken.

It’s a jumbled mess and judged by any objective standards the movie is a total failure, but it has to be admitted that it’s a fascinating mess. You have to keep watching. There are so many moments when you really can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. In its own way it’s quite entertaining, and if you’re a fan of Italian cult cinema you’re hardly likely to be put off by minor details like a spectacularly incoherent plot. So despite its shambolic nature it’s still worth watching. It will definitely be an experience.

Severin’s DVD release looks great but is sadly lacking in extras. And it’s a movie that requires some explanation!

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Enter the Dragon, released shortly after the actor’s tragic death in 1973, is the movie that made Bruce Lee a legend. It’s also the movie that more than any other was responsible for introducing the kung fu Hong Kong action film to western audiences.

In the early 70s there was a general expectation that kung fu movies were about to make the crossover into the mainstream among western audiences, and this expectation was the driving force behind three fascinating multi-national co-productions. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a collaboration between Hammer Films and Shaw Brothers Studios, was an unlikely combination of a Hammer Dracula movie and a king fu movie. The most surprising thing about it is that the combination works and it’s an outrageously entertaining movie. The Man from Hong Kong was an Australian-Hong Kong co-production, combining martial arts with the outrageous and frequently extremely dangerous stunts that characterised ozploitation movies, and with a considerable James Bond influence as well. It’s also enormous fun, and was commercially quite successful.

The most significant and biggest-budgeted of these crossovers movies though was Enter the Dragon, made by a Warner Brothers subsidiary and a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studios. It was an attempt to mix a traditional Hong Kong king fu revenge film with an American-style action thriller, with a bit of James Bond and a bit of blaxploitation thrown in. Overall it would probably have been the least satisfactory of these multinational hybrids except for one thing - Bruce Lee. Lee choreographed all the fight scenes himself, and they’re still breath-taking. He was great in the action sequences, but more importantly he had real charisma and a talent for sly humour that would undoubtedly have made him a major international star had he lived.

The plot is frankly ludicrous. There’s really not a single thing about the plot that makes sense or is even vaguely plausible, or that connects to anything else. Lee (played by Bruce Lee) is a shaolin monk kung fu expert recruited by a mysterious agency (presumably some shadowy British covet law enforcement agency) to infiltrate an island owned by a master criminal heavily involved in both narcotics and prostitution rackets. Han, the criminal concerned, is a renegade shaolin monk himself. For reasons that are never explained (but then nothing in the plot is ever explained) Han decides to host an international kung fu tournament. Among the many martial artists attracted by this tournament three are significant to the action of the film - Lee, Williams (Jim Kelly providing the blaxploitation element) and Roper (John Saxon).

Lee meets up with one of Han’s stable of high-class hookers, who is actually a British undercover cop. She can’t provide him with any useful information, and plays no further part in the films. This is another plot element that simply goes nowhere. Lee encounters the man who killed his sister, one of Han’s agents (this provides the traditional revenge motif), and exacts his vengeance in fairly spectacular fashion. From this point on the plot more or less stops and we have a succession of action and fight sequences.

Despite the incredibly silly and disconnected script the movie still works, and it works mostly because the action sequences are done with such superb style. The hall of mirrors showdown between Lee and Han is one of the best action scenes you’ll ever see.

It also works because Lee has sufficient charisma to keep us interested even when the storyline starts to unravel completely. John Saxon’s performance as Roper also helps considerably. Pretty much everyone else in the film is just a stock character, which is not a criticism - it’s more or less a convention in this type of movie, as it is in many genre movies. Roper has a bit of depth though. He seems to be a cynical and basically amoral opportunist, but he’s incapable of behaving like a cynical opportunist because he’s really hopelessly sentimental and is willing to risk death to save a cute and cuddly kitten from the wicked bad guy. He almost seems as if he’d like to be a bad guy, but his inherent decency keep interfering.

But when it comes right down to it there are three reasons to see this movie - spectacular fights, general stylishness and Bruce Lee. Those three reasons are more than enough. Despite its flaws it remains a must-see movie for cult movie fans.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Witchcraft (1964)

Witchcraft is a solid British gothic horror flick from the early 60s (1964 in fact). With the very competent Don Sharp at the helm it hits most of the right notes and provides plenty of entertainment.

The core of the plot is a family feud dating back to the Norman Conquest. The Laniers, a Norman family, dispossessed an old Anglo-Saxon family, the Whitlocks, of much of their land after the conquest. In the 17th century the Laniers used the witch trials as a mean of despoiling the Whitlocks of even more of their property, and had Vanessa Whitlock buried alive for practising witchcraft.

The feud turns even nastier when the latest scion of the Lanier clan, Bill Lanier, becomes involved in a major housing development. The development will require the relocation of an ancient cemetery, which happens to be where the Whitlock family have buried their dead for countless centuries. When bulldozers start smashing gravestones the current head of the Whitlock family, Morgan Whitlock, is understandably enraged. He threatens dire consequences for the Laniers. Bill Lanier visits the construction site, and finds an odd carved stone, the carvings being indicative of witchcraft. As he drives off the grave opens, and a woman emerges, a woman we assume (correctly as it turns out) is the long-dead Vanessa Whitlock.

There’s a further complication, in that Bill Lanier’s brother Todd and Morgan Whitlock’s niece Amy are in love. Which enrages Morgan Whitlock still further.

The matriarch of the Lanier clan predicts grave danger for the family, and this danger is soon seen to be very real, although the first victim is Bill Lanier’s business partner. The Lanier women already suspected Morgan Whitlock of heading up a coven of witches. Bill is sceptical at first, but when he realises that his wife is in dire peril he starts to reconsider his views on the existence of witchcraft in the modern world.

Lon Chaney Jr is great fun as Morgan Whitlock. The other players are quite competent, and Yvette Rees is suitably creepy and mysterious as the centuries-old witch Vanessa.

The methods used to exact vengeance upon the Laniers and their allies involve devil dolls and auto-suggestion, and the killings and attempted killings are handled quite well.

The very old house in which the Laniers live, with priest-holes and secret passage-ways and vast subterranean cellars, provides the required gothic flavouring to the setting.

While the plot contains nothing startlingly original it’s executed with energy and a certain amount of style. Don Sharp was always good at pacing his films, and this is no exception. The black-and-white cinematography looks pretty good, and most of the ingredients you’d expect are there, including the obligatory Black Mass.

The movie was released on DVD as a Midnite Movies double-feature, paired with Devils of Darkness. There are no extras but both movies look very good. Devils of Darkness was made by Planet Pictures while Witchcraft was a product of Lippert Films, both small companies seeking to cash in on the gothic movie boom started in Britain by Hammer. And while neither movie can be accused of being a horror masterpiece they’re both reasonably entertaining in a rather lightweight way. It’s pretty good value as a double-feature, and definitely worth picking up if you enjoy early 60 British gothic horror.

Monday 18 January 2010

The War of the Planets (1966)

There are few cult movie pleasures to rival that of 1960s Italian science fiction. One of my absolute favourites is Antonio Margheriti’s Wild, Wild Planet, so I was looking forward to his 1966 entry in this field The War of the Planets (I diafanoidi vengono da Marte). And I was not disappointed.

The plot is quite insane. The space stations of Earth have come under a very mysterious form of attack. Strange clouds of lights have suddenly enveloped them. These attacks were preceded by even stranger portents - negative radiation readings. After the lights appear around each space station in turn, contact is lost between the station and Space Headquarters. This all happens on New Year’s Eve, when the inhabitants of the stations were preoccupied with their celebrations, which seemed to consist mostly assorted romantic assignations between the various male and female crew members.

A spaceship is immediately sent to investigate the situation on one of the stations. The crew members appear to be dead, frozen into a rather spooky mannequin-like immobility. In fact they’re not dead, but are they alive? While this is happening several key personnel of Space Command are apparently taken over by some weird kind of hypnotic force.

While in the midst of their inspection of the stricken space station the crew members of the scout spacecraft find themselves targeted by the lights. Gaseous clouds penetrate the station, and crew members contacted by this gas take on the same zombie-like nature as the earlier victims. I must confess that I’m not at all clear whether the gas was a kind of emanation of the lights, or whether it was just a cheap special effect meant to represent the effect of the lights.

Some explanation of these events is forthcoming when Captain Dubois, who had disappeared just as he was supposed to be taking over command of one of the stations, suddenly reappears. He tells them that al has been done For the Good of the Whole, and it seems he’s been taken over by some alien force. These aliens are a kind of mind parasite. Dubois assures the Earth spacemen that the intentions of these entities are peaceful, but this assurance is met with considerable scepticism. From this point on the plot becomes even more delightfully silly.

Tony Russel, an American actor who worked mostly in Italy, makes an ideal hero for an Italian 1960s space opera. Commander Mike Halstead is very brave, but inclined to exceed his orders. Yes, he’s a bit of a maverick. It’s just as well that his dad is the overall commander of the space force. Franco Nero plays a supporting role as one of his officers (this was fairly early in his career). Lisa Gastoni adds a touch of glamour as another of Halstead’s officers, who also happens to be his gilfriend.

Margheriti directs with his customary energy and efficiency, and his equally customary lack of interest in boring things like plot coherence. This film was in fact a sequel to Wild, Wild Planet with many of the same actors, and many of the same sets and costumes. And the same wonderfully goofy but fun models. If only real spacecraft were as much fun as the spaceships in this movie. And it has really cool cars that look exactly like flying cars except they don’t actually fly. They just look cool, which is fine by me. None of the models look even remotely realistic, which adds to the enjoyment. If you’re going to be pedantic about tedious things like spaceships that look like cheap plastic toys, non-flying flying cars and a plot that makes very little sense then you really have no business watching an Italian science fiction movie from the 60s. This movie is all about fun and style.

The TCM print is unfortunately fairly poor. It’s fullscreen and very badly dubbed. The terrible dubbing is more or less traditional in Italian movies of this era and for me it only serves to enhance the movie’s entertainment value. It makes a very camp movie even more camp.

It’s all great fun and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Lucifera Demonlover (1972)

Sometimes your enjoyment of a cult movie depends very much on just how high (or how low) your expectations are. That’s very much the case with MYA DVD’s recent DVD release of Lucifera Demonlover. It applies both to the movie itself, and to the actual DVD.

You don’t expect to be able to judge cult movies by the same standards you’d apply to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and you also don’t approach cult movies expecting them all to measure up to the standards of the very best. This 1972 Italian gothic horror film (originally released as L'amante del demonio) is definitely not in the same class as a masterpiece of the genre like Bava’s Black Sunday. This is a minor film, and was never intended to be anything else. If you accept it on those terms, it has a certain appeal, and is quite enjoyable. Most of the reviews I’ve read have been very negative, and I can’t help wondering what the reviewers expected.

On to the plot. Three Swinging 60s girls (OK it’s 1972 so it’s not quite the Swinging 60s but I’m sure you get my drift) decide it might be fun to visit a gothic castle that is reputed to belong to the Devil himself. When the caretaker lets them in they decide it might be even more fun to stay overnight, so they can dispose of those silly old legends. Helga (Rosalba Neri) is clearly the leader of the pack, and the other girls go along with her plan. Just as Helga is about to bed down for the night she notices a disturbing painting - a woman who looks just like her, burning. As she’s about to go to sleep she suddenly finds herself in the 16th century.

Is this a dream? A memory from a past life? An illusion created by the castle, or possibly by Satan himself? Or her own fantasy? The movie doesn’t answer this question, and I think the ambiguity works more effectively than a detailed and possibly rather implausible explanation would have done.

She’s a girl about to get married, but one of the other village girls (who is in fact one of her pals from her modern real life) is fairly annoyed because she believes Helga has indulged in a bit of boyfriend-stealing. Which causes the friend to consult a local witch on the subject of curses to be used against boyfriend-stealers.

Helga has other problems. As she’s trying on her wedding dress she sees a man watching her through an open window. And of course if any man but your husband-to-be sees you in your wedding dress before the wedding your marriage will be cursed. So Helga also requires the services of the witch, for the purposes of curse-breaking.

While her friend is plotting with her new boyfriend, looking for more ways to revenge herself on Helga, Helga herself has an encounter with the Mysterious Stranger who had been watching her through the window. He tells her that her womanly passions are much too strong to be satisfied by a mere mortal lover. As he speaks to her she feels the stirrings of those womanly passions, and realises that he is right, and wonders how she could ever have believed that a mortal man could satisfy her desires. He promises her that he can satisfy her cravings. There will of course be a price, but by this time she is so desperate to have her cravings satisfied that she’ll pay any price.
The director of Lucifera Demonlover, Paolo Lombardo (who also wrote the script) doesn’t have the spectacular visual style of a Bava or an Argento, but he knows how to tell a fairly lightweight story economically and efficiently. The sets and the costumes are pretty reasonable. Edmund Purdom is good as the Mysterious Stranger, and Rosalba Neri added a touch of class to any movie she appeared in. There’s nowhere near as much sex and nudity as the lurid plot might suggest, but Rosalba Neri still manages to smoulder.

It’s a fun little gothic horror flick with a framing story that works quite well. It’s not going to scare you out of your seat, but it’s entertaining.

The MYA DVD has been much criticised, and it does have a suspiciously VHS look to it. MYA is obviously a shoe-string operation and their strategy seems to be to cut their costs to the bone while pursuing a fairly adventurous releasing policy. In the present economic climate it’s probably a fairly sensible strategy and they are releasing movies that just haven’t been available anywhere on DVD before. I’m inclined to cut them some slack, and while the picture quality on this one isn’t great it’s perfectly watchable. Just don’t expect Blue Underground quality.

If you’re a fan of this type of eurocult movie I think it’s worth picking up.

Friday 15 January 2010

White Slaves of Chinatown (1964)

White Slaves of Chinatown, made in 1964, was the first of the notorious Olga films. It established the basic formula - lots of sadism and perversity combined with some nudity (the nudity increasing with each film in the series). The Olga films were a product of a censorship climate where nudity was likely to get you into trouble (even after the US Supreme Court had ruled that nudity was not obscene) but violence and sadism directed against women was no problem. So sexploitation movies, by necessity, emphasised violence rather than sex. In the case of the Olga movies the results were so outrageously camp that it’s impossible to take offence. Olga (played by the wonderful Audrey Campbell) runs a white slavery/prostitution/drugs racket in New York. She uses her girls as drug distributors as well as prostitutes, and rules them with an iron fist. Any girl who steps out of line can expect a visit to Olga’s torture chamber. Olga likes to supervise the tortures herself - it’s one of her chief pleasures. The plot is minimalist, to say the least. A couple of Olga’s girls break the rules, and Olga brings them back into line. We’re introduced to the shady syndicate that finances Olga’s operations, one of whom is a doctor who’s been struck off the medical register. He performs abortions on the girls when needed. Sometimes they even survive his medical treatment. Olga obtains new recruits by various means, in some cases by taking advantage of naïvete but in other cases she’s prepared to resort to kidnapping and brainwashing. And of course she quickly gets the young women hooked on drugs. There’s no synchronised sound, so the story is told through a mock-serious voice-over narration, constantly emphasising the dire threat to the nation’s youth posed by sex ad drugs. It adds a quasi-documentary feel that actually makes the movie even more camp than it would have been otherwise. In some ways this is a throwback to the classic American exploitation movies of the 1930s and 1940s, with the heavy emphasis on vice and narcotics rackets, and the generous use of “square-ups” - moralistic messages intended to justify the scandalous subject matter and to give the impression that the movie is performing a public service by revealing these shocking truths. On the other hand the sadism puts it more in the category of the “roughies” that were starting to become such a prominent feature of sexploitation by this time. Compared to the only one of the later Olga films I’ve seen, Olga's Girls, this one is fairly tame stuff, with very little nudity and with the sadism rather downplayed. Olga's Girls is also a lot stronger in the plotting department. Apart from their very considerable camp value and their sheer outrageousness the great asset of the Olga movies is Audrey Campbell. She really is memorably wicked and perversely sexy. They’re not exactly high art, but there’s an undeniable sleazy appeal to these movies. White Slaves of Chinatown is included on a Something Weird triple bill with two other Olga movies. The picture and sound quality are remarkably good.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Lisztomania (1975)

Lisztomania, released in 1975, can be seen as a logical development of Ken Russell’s early 70s movies, with the bizarre surreal dream/fantasy sequences finally taking over the movie completely. Such plot as the film possesses is driven entirely by these sequences. There is no conventional narrative at all. And even by Ken Russell standards, this movie is excessive. In fact excessive is a pitifully inadequate word to describe this movie.

The inspiration for the movie was the career of 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He was not merely a notable composer. As a concert pianist he was arguably the first musician to develop the kind of following later to be associated with rock stars. He also lived something of a rock star lifestyle, involving numerous liaisons with rich and important women, none of whom he married. He was an early champion of Wagner, and his daughter Cosima later married Wagner. In later life he entered the Franciscan order.

Despite its outrageous style, most of the events of the movie have some basis in Liszt’s actual life. But the style is very outrageous indeed - with Wagner as a Nazi vampire, a gigantic penis, rock’n’roll, a pipe-organ spaceship, groupies, lots of sex, Ringo Starr as the pope in a rather cool motorised papal throne and a drunken mechanical Norse God being some of the highlights. The fact that Wagner wields an electric guitar that doubles as a nachine-gun, while Liszt fights back with a flamethrower-equipped piano, will give you some idea of the film’s tone.

The casting of The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltrey, as Liszt works surprisingly well. Daltrey’s perfomance isn’t a conventional acting performance, but that’s not what the film calls for. He has the charisma, and he has the right combination of arrogance, charm and a rather naïve likeability. And he succeeds in capturing much of the actual personality of the composer, and most certainly captures the magic that was the secret of his immense popular appeal. He’s a showman, and he plays Liszt as a showman.

The movie takes a particular aspect of Russell’s film-making as far as it can possibly go, and even without the chronic financing problems that have bedeviled his subsequent career he would still have needed to change direction after this film. It’s to his credit that he realised this, and despite their lack of critical and public acceptance the movies he made from the late 70s to the early 90s, movies like Valentino, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm and Whore, represent an interesting and impressive achievement.

It’s impossible to do justice to the full extent of this movie’s weirdness. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that it is essentially a comedy. If you remember this then I think the movie can be considered a success. The director’s intention was to have some fun, and you're not supposed to take it as seriously as, for example, The Music Lovers or Mahler.

The cleverest thing about the movie is the way Ken Russell is able to weave such bizarre and grotesque fantasy sequences without actually departing from the essential facts of Liszt’s life. The very term Lisztomania was in fact coined in the 19th century to describe the hysterical reactions of Liszt’s female fans to his concert performances.

If you like Ken Russell’s style you’ll probably like this one, but if you don’t like his work then Lisztomania will probably confirm every negative feeling you have about him! I don’t think it’s a great Ken Russell movie, but it’s amusing and I quite enjoyed it.

The Region 2 DVD includes a commentary track by Ken Russell.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

The Spider Woman (1944)

The Spider Woman (also known as Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman) is one of the best of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series. It displays all the best features of this, one of their best and most successful B-movie series.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are in fine form as Holmes and Watson in this 1944 release, but most importantly Holmes has a worthy (and refreshingly new) adversary. It has the right mix of humour and suspense, with just the right amount of campiness. And just a touch of horror as well.

The movie also has a solid script script, courtesy of screenwriter Bertram Millhauser. While Holmes and Watson have been trout-fishing in Scotland a mysterious series of apparent suicides, the pyjama suicides, has created a sensation in the London press. The victims were all wealthy men who seemingly awakened during the night and hurled themselves, for no obvious reason, out of windows whilst still clad in their pyjamas. Scotland Yard might be taken in, but right from the start Holmes has no doubt that these acts of self-destruction are in fact fiendishly planned and executed murders. And he also has no doubt that the diabolical criminal mastermind behind them is a woman. To Holmes the murders clearly have a feminine touch to them!

After first faking his own death Holmes disguises himself as a reasonably rich although minor Indian potentate, a distinguished army officer with a weakness for gambling. All the pyjama suicides shared an addiction to the gaming tables. He soon attracts the attention of his prey. Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard) encourages him to bet, and to lose, heavily, all part of her cunning plot.

The plot also involves some imaginative murders, deadly venomous spiders, eccentric entomologists, and a wonderful evil child. In fact one of the screen’s great evil children, a kind of trainee Renfield with a penchant for capturing flies in mid-air. There are also deadly games in a fairground, and rooftop shoot-outs.

Roy William Neill directs with the vigour and economy that made him such a fine maker of B-pictures. The pacing never lets up, and there are some nice visual set-pieces.

Gale Sondergaard indulges in some epic scenery-chewing, throwing down an acting challenge to Basil Rathbone which he gleefully accepts, and to which he proves himself equal. The film positively zings when these two are on on screen together.

It’s unfortunate that Universal (and indeed most of the major studios) cared so little about B-pictures that they were often content to see them as mere cash cows, and to churn out uninspired and inferior genre movies whilst lavishing much cash and attention on worthy but dull A-pictures. It’s unfortunate because the B-movie arguably represents 1940s Hollywood at its best, combining craftsmanship and great entertainment.

This is pure fun, never taking itself seriously but a well-made little movie that succeeds perfectly in what it what it sets out to do.