Sunday, 28 February 2010

Ken Russell’s The Debussy Film (1965)

The Debussy Film is one of the Ken Russell BBC-TV films made for the Monitor arts documentary series. Made the same year as the Rousseau film, this one is much more ambitious, much more interesting and much more successful.

It’s actually a film about someone making a film about Debussy, and added to the very strong Nouvelle Vague flavour of the piece it invites the obvious comparison - Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt). But it’s actually closer in feel to the more exuberant Godard of Band of Outsiders, with a strong admixture of absurdism and even a hint of Richard Lester’s A Hard Days’ Night. It’s an odd mix but it works. Compared to the Rousseau movie this is also much more obviously a Ken Russell film.

It focuses quite a bit on Debussy’s troubled relations with women (two of his girlfriends attempted suicide) and on his influences. Not his musical influences - what made Debussy so interesting was that he was so heavily influenced by painting and by literature. The film gives the impression that he never really sat down and wrote a piece of pure music - all his music was about something, and mostly it was about a painting or a story or a poem that appealed to the composer. This blending and cross-influencing of different arts is both fascinating in its own right and makes for an interesting film.

The early influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, and especially Rossetti, is stressed. The Symbolist writers were of course immensely important to Debussy’s music, as was one of my favourite decadent writers, Pierre Louÿs (who was effectively Debussy’s patron for a number of years). There’s a considerable dose of fin de siècle decadence, juxtaposed with some Swinging 60s decadence!

I hadn’t realised that Debussy spent years on a musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and that he was quite obsessed by Poe.

Oliver Reed might might not have been most people’s first choice for the role of Debussy, but Ken Russell had great faith in the actor and Ollie never let him down. Reed is in fact extremely good - his natural sensuality makes him perfect casting.

Unlike Always on Sunday, this one has a proper feature-length running time of 82 minutes and it has much more of a real feature film feel to it, albeit on a limited BBC budget! Given the subject matter it’s perhaps just a little unfortunate this one was made before the BBC switched to colour, and the black-and-white cinematography (although very well done) doesn’t quite have the necessary lushness and excessiveness, or the necessary sensuousness.

This is still an intriguing and generally rather satisfying little film. It has the classic Ken Russell stye, not quite as over-the-top as it would later become and on a smaller scale, but it’s still a movie that could only have been made by Ken Russell.

Mondo Topless (1966)

While Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is probably Russ Meyer’s best-known film today, and the film on which his reputation as being something more than just another exploitation fim-maker largely rests, the surprising fact is that at the time it was a major commercial disaster. It left Meyer desperately needing a new movie that would make some money, and he needed it fast. His answer to the problem was Mondo Topless.

“Mondo” movies were all the rage, so to Meyer it was evident that what the world needed was a mondo movie about topless go-go dancers. And that’s what he delivered. The movie consists of topless go-go dancing, and topless go-go dancers talking about being topless go-go dancers. But it’s a topless go-go dancing movie shot and edited by Russ Meyer in his own inimitable style, and with the kind of tongue-in-cheek narration you’d expect in such an exercise made by Meyer. And it does have a certain bizarre charm.

Given that the movie was going to be entirely plotless it was going to have to have a fairly short running time and since Meyer already had a lot of footage shot in Europe for an uncompleted project called Europe in the Raw he really didn’t need to do all that much extra filming. And it required no sets, and no props. And no costumes, apart from bikini bottoms! It took four or five days to film, cost virtually nothing, and made lots of money. Apparently the world really did need a topless go-go dancing movie. And who am I to argue with public taste? It put Meyer back on his feet financially and restored his commercial credibility and his confidence.

It was in many ways a return to the type of movie that launched Meyer’s film-making career, the nudie-cutie. This was a genre he more or less invented. In the late 50s the US Supreme Court had ruled that nudity was not, in itself, obscene. This opened the door to the nudist camp movie boom. As long as the nudity wasn’t specifically sexual the film-makers were on reasonably safe legal ground. But it quickly became apparent that one could only take so much of nude volleyball. Meyer’s breakthrough idea was to add a simple plot and some good-natured humour, and when combined with lots of naked ladies the result was the first nudie-cutie, The Immoral Mr Teas. It was released in 1959, and it made a mint.

Mondo Topless lacks any plot at all, but it does have a kind of theme (the dancing) and it has the same feel that The Immoral Mr Teas had. It’s a good-natured movie that celebrates the female form without ever feeling exploitative or tacky.

As you might expect, most of the ladies are very well-endowed. Perhaps too well-endowed for most tastes, although surprisingly enough several of the models don’t have the spectacular assets that generally caught Meyer’s attention.

The appeal of the movie today is mostly its time capsule quality. It has a classic 60s vibe to it. It not only captures the spirit of the golden age of go-go dancing, but the footage from Europe in the Raw preserves the spirit of what could be seen as the last golden age of live adult entertainment.

It has to be admitted that this is really a movie for Russ Meyer completists only, although fans of camp and of 60s culture in general may find it rewarding.

It’s not exactly Citizen Kane, but Meyer’s approach to his subject is refreshingly shameless and light-hearted. Meyer made some bona fide classic movies in his time but this isn’t one of them. On the other hand it doesn’t have any of the mean-spiritedness or nasty sleaziness of so much modern porn. It’s just a fun movie about boobs basically and Meyer doesn’t even pretend that it’s anything more than that.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Heart of Midnight (1988)

Heart of Midnight is an overlooked late 80s horror flick that is worth tracking down. It’s not your typical 80s horror movie at all.

This was the age of the slasher movie, and the gore movie. Film-makers no longer bothered with mood or atmosphere. If you have enough violence and enough gore, who needs atmosphere? But Heart of Midnight takes precisely the opposite approach. It relies almost entirely on atmosphere, and that’s its greatest strength. It also uses the approach brought to a peak of perfection by Robert Wise in his 1963 version of The Haunting, an approach that relies on the insight that what you don’t see is a good deal more frightening than what you do see.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is Carol, a young woman who’s had her share of problems. She’s had several breakdowns, and she has some major sexual issues. When her last boyfriend got too familiar with her she scratched his face so badly he ended up in hospital, and she had a complete breakdown and temporarily lost her hearing. Now she seems to be slowly getting herself back together. Her problem now is that she’s bored and aimless and fed up with her well-meaning but overwhelming mother (played in over-the-top style by Brenda Vaccaro).

So when she discovers she’s inherited a night-club from her uncle Fletcher, it looks like the opportunity she’s been waiting for. Instead of selling the club as her mother advises, she decides she’ll re-open it. And she’ll live there as well.

But it turns out that The Midnight was no ordinary night-club. It was a sex club combined with a brothel. And not just a sex club, but a club for kinky sex. For a young woman with sexual problem this might not seem like the ideal environment, but Carol finds the ambience oddly attractive. She is disturbed by many of the things she finds there, but drawn to them as well. The Midnight seems to attract certain influences, and it’s located in a very sleazy neighbourhood. Soon after moving in Carol is raped, but strangely this seems to increase her determination to stay.

The cop signed to investigate the rape soon proves to be a disturbing influence as well. He’s clearly taking an inappropriate personal interest in her, and she’s just as obviously becoming personally interested in him.

The Midnight is a club that seems almost to have a life of its own. Odd things happen, doors open and close for no reason, there are inexplicable noises. There is obviously a secret here, a secret that Carol will have to unravel.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is rather good as Carol. It’s a subtle performance that works well. The acting as a whole is good, with a couple of exceptions.

Most of the movie takes place in the club, and it’s a great setting. It’s tacky and sleazy but fascinating and it oozes with weirdness and unhealthiness, but it’s a nicely subtle weirdness and unhealthiness. There’s some very effective use of colour as well.

It was written and directed by Matthew Chapman. As a director he impresses me a lot. The build-up is handled superbly, with the tension slowly ratcheted up. For the first nine-tenths of the film he resists the temptation to be too obvious, or to go for cheap shocks. He lets the extraordinary atmosphere of the club itself do much of the work, and he doesn’t try to get too clever with camera angles. He gets some very creepy sequences by just keeping it simple, with effective compositions that don’t require clever tricks.

As a writer I’m less impressed by him. It may be simply because a couple of the major plot elements are ones that I personally consider to be excessively obvious and very over-used. And when he needs finally to resolve the mystery I felt that things stated to fall apart rather badly.

Despite these reservations the movie has more than enough pluses to compensate for the minuses, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Unfortunately it appears to have only been released on DVD in Region 2, and that release is now out of print (although copies can still be found - I managed to get hold of one).

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Children of the Damned (1964)

Children of the Damned is a kind of sequel to the 1960 British hit Village of the Damned, one of the best science fiction/horror movies of its era (or any other for that matter). But it’s not a true sequel. Today it would probably be described as a reboot! It takes the same basic idea of a group of fantastically gifted children with paranormal powers who turn out to be not exactly human but it uses the idea in a very different way.

The film-makers should at least be given credit for realising the danger that they might end up simply remaking Village of the Damned, and they’ve not only changed the way the idea is developed, they’ve also changed the tone very radically. Unfortunately the results are not entirely satisfactory.

A couple of good-natured British scientists are conducting a study on intelligence in children, and they’ve uncovered a prodigy. In fact Paul is more than just a prodigy. His intelligence is truly mind-boggling. They’re at a loss as to how to explain this boy genius, especially after meeting his mother and deciding that she is most definitely no genius. They realise this at once, when they discover she’s working class (an attitude that a movie today would certainly not get away with). She also tell them that he has no father. Literally. She claims to be still a virgin.

The scientists naturally assume she’s either lying or mad, that is until they encounter Colin Webster. He’s some kind of operative with some mysterious and shady British Intelligence service, and he tells them that there are five other children just like Paul in other parts of the world. Their intelligence isn’t just similar to Paul’s - it’s identical. They get identical test scores. They also solve a complex problem in exactly 37.5 seconds. Spooky.

Naturally the various governments of the various countries from which the children are convinced that the best use for these children is to put them to use designing weapon. Which they promise the children that of course they’ll never use. An attempt to snatch the children from an abandoned church in which they’ve taken refuge with Paul’s attractive young aunt Susan (whom they’ve adopted as their unofficial carer) goes horribly wrong when the children unleash their own super-weapon, the Church Organ of Death. This is way beyond existing Earth technologies, and they’ve also clearly demonstrated their telepathic and mind control powers, and now the enthusiasm of governments has given way to fear. Examination of blood samples has revealed that these super kids have non-human blood. They must be destroyed.

The original movie worked because the children were both truly frightening and very alien. They appeared almost unstoppable and at the same time they clearly had to be stopped somehow. Children of the Damned tries to humanise the children, to make them somewhat sympathetic, and it thereby loses the terrifying impact of the first film.

It tries to raise moral questions about what we have the right to do in order to protect ourselves from a threat, but it ends up with a rather wish-washy “Why can’t we all just get along?” kind of message. The ending tries to be ambiguous but ends up being merely vague and confused, as if the screenwriter suddenly realised he had no idea how to end the movie.

On the plus side it features some excellent and very atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. Changing the setting from a sleepy English village to a rather grimy London cityscape works surprisingly well.

The acting is generally pretty good. Ian Hendry and Alan Badel are very good as the two British scientists who discover England’s super child. They’re both well-meaning but without any very clear idea of what has to be done. Alfred Burke (who went on to play the seedy private eye in the superb Public Eye TV series) is impressive as the British government spook. It’s a nicely underplayed performance. He’s the kind of guy who would cut your throat if his political masters asked him to but he’d do it politely and you’d know he really didn’t like doing things like that, but you know how it is, national security and all that.

The children are creepy, but not as creepy as in the original film.

It’s probably worth mentioning that although both Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned were MGM movies they were made by MGM’s British division and they are in fact entirely British movies.

It’s available on DVD in a two-movie set that includes both films. I don’t think Children of the Damned is worth purchasing on its own but the set is quite cheap and if you’re getting both movies anyway it’s worth a look.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Virgin Witch (1972)

Given it’s title, Virgin Witch, and the fact that it’s released on DVD by Redemption, you might expect that this movie is going to be little more than sexploitation with a few horror trappings. And basically, you’d be right! But it’s highly entertaining sexploitation with horror trappings, and it has a few nice little twists.

Ann Michelle is Christine, and she’s keen to break into modeling. She answers an advert, and finds herself in Sybil Waite’s modeling agency. Sybil (played by Patricia Hines) immediately orders her to disrobe so she can check her measurements. Which she proceeds to do, in a rather intimate manner. Sybil clearly likes girls. In that way. But Christine isn’t put out by this and eagerly accepts an invitation to go to the country house of a friend of Sybil’s for a weekend photo shoot. She takes along her sister Betty (played by Ann Michelle’s real-life sister Vicki).

Christine soon discovers that photographic modeling consists mostly of taking your clothes off. The photographer, who is practically drooling, tells her he can’t quite get the right angle for the shot he’s after, but it might help if Christine removes her panties. She’s happy to oblige. Soon Christine and the photographer are getting along rather well, which does not please Sybil (who was obviously hoping for some naked fun of her own with Christine). While this is going on sister Betty discovers some odd and slightly disturbing things in the cellar, things that suggest that the two sisters have stumbled across a coven of witches. Betty collapses from shock, and finds herself attended by a local doctor. At least he says he’s a doctor, although he seems more concerned with finding out if Betty is a virgin than with any strictly medical concerns.

The witches are about to hold a sabbath, and Christine persuades them to allow her to be initiated. Once she’s in they decide they want her sister as well, but Betty is not so enthusiastic. Her boyfriend turns up and is even less enthusiastic about the idea, and is especially worried about the lesbian high priestess. It’s all leading up to the climax you expect, but things don’t turn out as you might expect.

Most of the online reviews for this film are extremely negative, which I find rather puzzling. Yes, there’s a truly prodigious quantity of nudity in the film, but the common criticism that this is at the expense of any actual horror content is a little unfair. In fact it arguably has more horror content than some of Hammer’s movies of the same era, but the horror is done a little unconventionally which may have thrown some reviewers who prefer their British horror films to adhere fairly closely to a familiar pattern. The horror here is more about power relationships than dismembered bodies.

While I enjoy British horror films of the 60s and 70s they do tend to be (with a few exceptions) very conservative. You know that good will triumph and the evil vampires/witches/whatever will be destroyed. And that does make them a tad predictable.

This one avoids that predictability. Rather than having two innocent young women getting caught up in the machinations of an evil satanic cult, what we have here is a little different. It’s the witches who are out of their depth. They’re really fairly harmless, not much more than English eccentrics using witchcraft as an excuse to take their clothes off, indulge in some sexual shenanigans, shock the vicar and generally play at bring wicked and decadent. But in Christine they’ve encountered the real thing. She has real powers, and she’s willing to use them. And she has no inhibitions about the morality of using power over others.

That’s the clever twist. She’s not the classic heroine of British horror, tricked into becoming involved with the forces of darkness. She can hardly wait to get mixed up with dark forces. In fact it’s what she’s been waiting for all her life.

And while the very generous amounts of sex and nudity are mostly gratuitous, they do serve some purpose. For these witches witchcraft is mostly about sex. It’s mostly about getting laid. The witchcraft is a means of getting lots of illicit sex. But for Christine it’s the reverse - she uses sex to gain power, specifically occult power. And in this movie the women are not just there as potential victims or as sex objects - they’re the key players, they’re the ones fighting out the power games that matter.

And this movie doesn’t have the expected ending either.

The acting is quite good. Ann Michelle has some genuinely scary moments, and Patricia Haines is very good as the would-be predatory lesbian Sybil. They’re the two characters that matter most, but the other cast members are solid enough.

So there’s a little bit more to this movie than just lots of T&A, and even if you take it as just a blending of sexploitation and horror it still has enough unusual features to make it work successfully in both genres. And while it’s very British horror in style, it has more of the spectical somewhat amoral tone one associates with eurohorror.

Redemption’s DVD release is pretty impressive as well.

my classic movies blog

I have another blog here, which I stared fairly recently. It's for movies that don't really fit into the cult category, mostly classic movies. There's a moderately heavy emphasis on pre-code Hollywood movies and film noir.

So here's the link to my Classic Movie Ramblings blog.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Sssssss (1973)

A mad scientist movie made in the 70s (1973 in fact) with a plot involving deadly snakes and an attempt to create human-reptile hybrids sounds like it a great deal of fun. And I’m sure it could have been lots of fun. But sadly Sssssss doesn’t quite make it.

You have a mad scientist (Dr Stoner) working on totally insane plans to assure the survival of the human species by creating human-snake hybrids that will be able to survive any future environmental catastrophes. Being a movie mad scientist he naturally has a young beautiful daughter, Kristina. And he needs an assistant, so he calls on an old colleague (Dr Daniels) who teaches at the local college, hoping to borrow one of his students. Since these two scientists hate each others guts it’s not quite clear why he calls on Daniels for help, but that’s one of the least glaring plot inconsistencies in this movie. So young David Blake not only goes to work for Dr Stoner, he moves into his house.

His previous assistant has mysteriously disappeared, and when Dr Stoner informs young David that he will need regular injections of king cobra venom you start to get the idea that maybe young David should be just a little bit worried. But he seems to think this is normal procedure if you’re working with snakes. Of course our young hero and the mad scientist’s beautiful daughter start to fall in love. So far it seems like a pretty god job that he’s landed, and even when he starts experiencing acid-trip type hallucinations, his skin begins to take on a slightly scaly texture and actually begins to shed, and his facial features undergo some subtle changes he’s still sublimely unconcerned. By now you pretty much know where the plot is heading.

The problem with this film is not the remarkably silly premise or the even sillier way in which the premise is developed. This is a horror movie, so you expect (or even welcome) a very silly premise.

The problem is not the bad acting, because really the acting isn’t outrageously bad. It’s more or less par for the course for low-budget 1970s horror flicks. Strother Martin makes a fun mad scientist, and the other players are at least adequate.

The problem is not even low production values and cheesy makeup and special effects. In fact the makeup effects are fairly impressive and the special effects are not too bad.

No, the real problems are that at 99 minutes the movie is about 20 minutes too long, the plot is a tad too easy to predict and the director and scriptwriter fail to inject any real sense of urgency or suspense into the proceedings. We’re kept waiting too long for any real horror, and when horrific events do happen they fall rather flat. There’s a key scene where the non-evil scientist discovers what the mad scientist is up to. He looks through the window of Dr Stoner’s laboratory and sees a shocking sight, but we don’t get any sense of actual shock. It’s very ineptly handled.

I believe it was originally intended as a TV movie, which may explain why it’s a little on the bland side. It was apparently considered to be a bit too strong for television, but as a cinematic release it’s not quite strong enough.

The carnival scenes are probably the highlight, and they are genuinely creepy.

That’s not to say there isn’t some enjoyment to be derived from this movie. The plot is delightfully nonsensical and jaw-droppingly unscientific, both definite pluses in my book. There are a few genuinely creepy scenes. Technically it’s surprisingly competent for this type of low-budget fare. It’s not horrendously bad, but it just doesn’t deliver quite as much fun as you’d expect.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Frivolous Lola (1998)

One of the many sad things about our modern age is the disappearance of erotica. Sure we have porn. Lots and lots it. On demand. But erotica is something different. One of the last living exponents of the art of cinematic erotica is Tinto Brass, and his 1998 movie Frivolous Lola (Monella) is a good demonstration of the reasons why erotica is more fun.

Someone once said that if you watch porn for ten minutes you want to have sex right now. If you watch porn for an hour, you never want to have sex again. One can only take so much of mechanical images of anonymous body parts. The makers of the sexploitation movies of the 60s and the softcore sex films of the early 70s understood that there was more to sex than this.

Of course this was partly because they had no choice. Not being able to get away with the explicitness of hardcore porn they had to include other things in their movies to maintain the audience’s interest. Things like actual characters. Dialogue that was slightly more complex than, “Oh God yes, yes, yes.” Even proper stories. So when you got to a sex scene it meant something because you’d actually got to know the characters. And they had to rely on the art of the tease, just as the old-time strip-tease artistes had done. And the truth is that while anonymous body parts pumping away gets boring very quickly, the tease never gets boring.

Which brings us back to Frivolous Lola. Set in rural Italy in the 50s it tells the story of a young woman who is to be married shortly. Lola (Anna Ammirati) has just discovered her sexuality. And she likes it. A lot. She’s very anxious to try out her new discovery with her fiance Masetto, but he’s an old-fashioned kind of guy. He thinks they should wait until they get married. Well actually he thinks she should wait until they get married. In the meantime he’ll continue to amuse himself with whores. This is not very satisfactory to Lola.

Lola gets her own amusement by flirting shamelessly with every man she encounters. This includes a rather amusing dance routine to a jukebox in a cafe, with Lola taunting Masetto, and three soldiers as well. She also has a little escapade in a taxi-cab that almost lands her in big trouble.

Lola is not the only sex-obsessed person in this town. There’s also André (Patrick Mower), her mother’s boyfriend. Who might be Lola’s father, but her mother isn’t telling. André and another middle-aged pal of his amuse themselves by taking nude photographs of women. There seems to be no shortage of women willing to pose for the photos, and they have quite a collection dating back some years. They like to reminisce over these photos, and especially to reminisce over the more impressive bottoms. This is a Tinto Brass movie, so the female derrière naturally plays a very significant role.

André used to be a sailor on an ocean liner, and looks back fondly on his various ship-board sexual escapades with female passengers. He also likes to relive these escapades with various willing female accomplices, whilst wearing his old sailor’s uniform. While Lola amuses herself by watching. Lola is quite the little voyeur.

The plot is extremely simple, revolving entirely around the question of whether Lola will be able to control herself until her wedding day, or whether she will manage to persuade Masetto (or if not Masetto then some other obliging male) to give her the satisfaction she craves right now. Much of the movie has the feel of a series of fantasy sequences, or at least sequences done in a semi-fantasy style. It’s a technique that works surprisingly well.

Mostly though it’s an ode to the joys of life, love and sex. Especially sex. There are some scenes in which Lola is fully clothed, but they are few and far between. Even when she isn’t naked her clothes just seem to have a way of revealing considerably more than they conceal. The nudity is very contrived, but it’s contrived in a fun way, and while we’re certainly expected to share Signor Brass’s admiration for Anna Ammirati’s very considerable physical charms it’s done in such a light-hearted way that it somehow manages not to seem exploitative.

Even more pleasing is the movie’s tone, which is entirely free from any suggestion or moral judgments. There’s not a trace of mean-spiritedness in this film. Lola is an outrageous flirt, but she’s also a thoroughly likeable high-spirited young woman. André is a lecherous old reprobate, but he’s a warm generous kind-hearted fellow. They recognise each other as kindred spirits. Both believe life is there to be enjoyed, a sentiment that is clearly shared by Signor Brass.

The great revelation of the move is Patrick Mower. He’s an absolute delight. It’s a tricky role, since there’s the danger that the character could end up seeming merely sleazy, or pathetic, or be overly sentimentalised. Mower gives a perfectly judged performance, and appears to be reveling in the opportunity to play a likeable comic role. Having to play quite a few scenes with a completely naked Anna Ammirati was probably not too much of an ordeal, and we all have to make sacrifices for our art.

Frivolous Lola is sexy good-natured fun. What more can I say?

Saturday, 20 February 2010

A Woman Called Abe Sada (1975)

The celebrated real-life murder case involving Abe Sada has inspired at least four Japanese movies. Of course the best-known version is Nagisa Ôshima's 1976 In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida). Noboru Tanaka was always irritated that Ôshima's movie attracted more international attention and was more highly regarded by critics than his own version, A Woman Called Abe Sada (Jitsuroku Abe Sada). Having now seen both films, I have to say I can sympathise with Tanaka’s annoyance.

In 1936 Abe Sada had caused something of a sensation in Japan by strangling her lover and then cutting off his penis and carrying it around with her. She then disappeared, sparking a nation-wide media frenzy until her eventual arrest. She served five years in prison as a result, and was still alive in the 1970s.

In the Realm of the Senses was famous (or infamous) for featuring non-simulated sex. Ôshima was able to get away with that because technically it was a French film, but it was still banned in Japan and to this day has not been released uncut in that country. Tanaka on the other hand, making his movie for the Nikkatsu Studio, had to abide by the very strict Japanese censorship requirements regarding sexual content, requirements so stringent that Japanese erotic films of that era are tame even by the standards of western softcore porn of the time. And obviously very tame indeed compared to the hardcore content of Ôshima’s movie.

The interesting thing is though, that Tanaka’s movie is the more erotic of the two. Talented directors always tend to be able to some extent subvert even the strictest censorship, and Tanaka was a very talented director indeed. His movie also feels kinkier. And it has a greater emotional impact. It’s also more entertaining. It might sound like I’m claiming that A Woman Called Abe Sada is in fact a better movie than the critically lauded In the Realm of the Senses, that’s exactly what I am claiming

Ôshima of course inserted a few seconds of footage of Japanese soldiers marching down a street, allowing him to claim his film as a metaphor for the rise of militarism in Japan in the 30s and the struggle against political oppression. He was making a Serious Political Statement. The only problem with that is, the scene in question was pretty much copied from a similar scene in Tanaka’s earlier movie. And Tanaka included at least one other scene dealing with the war against China, which should have led to his movie being regarded as An Even More Serious Political Statement. But that cut no ice with film critics in the West because A Woman Called Abe Sada was merely a low-budget exploitation movie made as part of Nikkatsu’s “roman porno” series, while Ôshima’s movie was made by a Serious Film Artist.

And as a Serious Film Artist Ôshima didn’t have to worry abut his movie being labelled porn. it was Art. To make sure people got the point, he made the sex scenes extremely boring (a technique copied recently by Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs which also features some of the most tedious unsimulated sex you’re ever going to be unfortunate enough to see). Tanaka on the other hand thought that since the story was about a sexual obsession it might be a good idea to make it actually sexy, and he did so. Interestingly enough the Japanese seemed to agree with Mr Tanaka and his movie was very well received in that country.

All that is not to say that Tanaka’s version simply emphasises the sex. It also conveys the emotional intensity of the relationship far more effectively, and makes Abe Sada’s actions more plausible and more tragic. Her madness is more terrifying and yet we feel more sympathy for her. Partly this is because Junko Miyashita is a much better actress than Eiko Matsuda. Partly it’s because the character is better developed so we understand that she was genuinely motivated by love, even if her method of expressing it was a little unconventional. Tanaka’s version is even more claustrophobic than Ôshima’s (one of the side benefits of a low budget which means most of the film is shot on a single set).

Tanaka’s version differs from Ôshima’s in another significant respect. The key event of the film happens two-thirds of the way in, and the rest of the movie focuses heart-breakingly on Abe Sada’s utter inability to come to terms with what she’d done. Once again I think Tanaka’s choice was sounder than Ôshima’s.

Another fascinating aspect of the two films is that the most controversial scenes of In the Realm of the Senses are all present in A Woman Called Abe Sada. Yes, including the unusual choice of marinade for a mushroom dish. They’re much less graphic, but in some ways more effective.

Tanaka went on to make other notable movies, including the superb The Watcher in the Attic (available on DVD from Mondo Macabro) and Angel Guts: Nami. But A Woman Called Abe Sada is generally considered to be his finest work, and it’s an exceptionally good movie.

The Pagan Region 2 DVD features a reasonably good widescreen transfer and some extras, and it’s very cheap and it’s in print. It’s also available on DVD from Hanzibar Films in what is claimed to be a Region 0 PAL release. It’s more expensive and I have no idea how the quality compares.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Voyage to the End of the Universe (Ikarie XB 1, 1963)

Ikarie XB 1 (released in the US as Voyage to the End of the Universe) is a 1963 Czech science fiction film. Like so many other great sci-fi films (such as the 1972 classic Solaris, not to be confused with the abysmal Hollywood remake) it was based on a story by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, not a particularly well known writer in the West but in fact one of the greatest talents produced by the science fiction genre.

And this is no cheapjack B-movie. This was a major production, with lavish sets and an excellent cast and some of the best production design you’ll se in any sci-fi movie. The look of the movie was an obvious influence on later western movies such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

It was also a major influence on later serious science fiction movies in that it’s not a space opera or a shoot ’em up in space, but deals with the big issues such as our place in the universe, our ultimate destiny, our motivations for wanting to explore space, our likely response to contact with alien cultures and the human costs involved in space exploration. Notwithstanding these serious themes, it’s also a highly entertaining and gripping human drama.

The spaceship Ikarie XB 1 and its crew have been sent on an epic mission into deep space to investigate what appears to be a very distant but very earth-like planet. They run into the usual hazards, but some unusual ones as well. They encounter what seems to be a derelict spacecraft in orbit around this remote planet. The first chilling discovery is that the spacecraft is of human construction, and has been floating in space for centuries, since the earliest days of space exploration. But there are more disturbing revelations to come. The passengers are all dead, and all apparently expired at the same time. They are wearing evening dress, and are surrounded by the impedimenta of some kind of gambling operation. And the craft is loaded with weapons, weapons of terrifying destructiveness. It is an unsettling reminder of a violent human past.

A stranger hazard is a vast and mysterious cloud of some radioactive substance that has the unusual property of putting all of the crew of the Ikarie to sleep. As they succumb one by one the question that haunts them is - will they ever wake up?

There are plenty of human touches. A baby is born. Two crew members fall in love. There are tensions, but there is also a willingness to pull together and to work to overcome problems. There is certainly hope.

Some superb science fiction movies were made in eastern Europe at this time, but unfortunately most were butchered for their US releases. Ikarie XB 1 fared reasonably well by comparison, especially considering that it was distributed in the US by AIP who were especially notorious for vandalising excellent eastern European science fiction films. Ikarie XB 1 was left substantially in its original form, with only one very small piece of additional (and completely unnecessary) footage added. It was of course dubbed, and dubbed in such a way as to disguise the fact that these space explorers were in fact wicked commies. There were also apparently a couple of minor cuts made, also for political reasons.

Despite this the movie remains more or less intact and these small changes are unable to ruin what is in fact one of the best and most interesting science fiction movies of the 60s.

I have no idea if the original Czech version is available on DVD or not. There was a German DVD release, but I don’t know if it was the original cut. The version I saw was on a budget Region 4 DVD and it was quite atrocious - fullscreen and with quite a bit of print damage. On the other hand it was a rental and it’s such a good movie it’s still worth seeing even in this very unsatisfactory form. I imagine that a restored version in the original aspect ratio would be quite breath-taking.

Lost Virgin (2001)

I’m continuing my exploration of the world of Japanese pink cinema, this time with a modern example - Toshiki Sato’s 2001 film Lost Virgin (also released as Cuffs, original title Rosuto Baajin: Yamitsuki Enjo Kosai).

It’s really quite similar to the much earlier examples I’ve seen - there’s no graphic sex or nudity, and it’s much more focused on character and on emotional states than on titillation. And it’s very much seen from the female perspective. Essentially it’s a romantic tragi-comedy, and a rather good one.

It deals with three summers in the life of a young woman, Chisato. The first summer was ten years ago, the second was five years ago, the third is today. On all three occasions our heroine manages to find herself in handcuffs, although not quite in the kinky sex way you might imagine. The handcuffs become a kind of metaphor for her life, but again not in the obvious way.

Ten years ago Chisato was a high school girl desperate to lose her virginity. She’d made a date through a telephone dating service, but when the guy tells her he’ll have to handcuff her because “virgins go crazy the first time” Chisato decides this is a good time to leave. She finds herself wandering the streets, handcuffed but still a virgin. She encounters a schoolmate, Takashi. He manages to get the hand cuffs partly off her, and lends her a pair of sneakers. And she finally manages to lose her virginity. It’s not a terribly romantic occasion, but she’s just relieved to have finally done it.

Takashi is a bit like Chisato. He’s likeable but rather aimless. She’s certainly not in love with him, but she’s oddly fond of him. When she returns his sneakers she find his girlfriend Hikari at home, They get drunk together, and form a kind of bond.

Five years later Chisato’s path crosses Hikari’s again. Hikari has a child, and she’s married to Takashi. Chisato is holding down a day job, and doing a bit of part-time prostitution on the side. She appears to be motivated more by boredom than by anything else, and she likes sex and she likes the extra pocket money. She and Takashi find themselves in bed together again, and somehow or other Chisato manages to handcuff herself this time.

Another five years pass. Chisato and Takashi are still leading rather directionless lives, and they encounter one another again. They try sleeping together in a rather desultory fashion, but it just doesn’t happen. They go looking for Takashi’s old house, searching for memories of their past, and they wake up together. And Chisato still manages to find herself wearing handcuffs. If she sees a pair of handcuffs, she just can’t resist putting them on for fun. And she still hasn’t learnt to make sure she knows where the key is first.

The movie is gently humorous, and is oddly touching. It’s a story with plenty of potential for sentimentality and for portraying Chisato as a loser or a victim, but both screenwriter Shinji Imaoka and director Toshiki Sato avoid this trap. I can’t imagine a Hollywood director showing the same self-restraint.

Nikki Sasaki’s sparkling performance as Chisato helps a good deal. There is no trace of self-pity in Chisato. She gets herself into plenty of awkward and often pathetic situations, but somehow she never quite loses a fundamental belief that life will somehow work out, and that love, sex and men are still worth bothering with. She always manages to free herself from the handcuffs, so in a strange way they’re a symbol of her unwillingness to become a victim. She just patiently sits down and works at it until she finally gets them loose, and then carries on with her life.

There’s a good deal of sex, but Japanese censorship even in the 21st century remains fairly strict and it rarely goes much beyond PG-13 stuff. It still manages to be erotic, but it’s erotic mostly because we come to like Chisato, and we identify with her search for love and sexual fulfillment. It’s more chick flick than softcore porn (using chick flick as convenient shorthand rather than as a disparaging term). And Nikki Sasaki projects a slightly offbeat but quite appealing sexuality. She’s not a conventional beauty, but she’s earthy, humorous, self-confident and unselfconscious about sex.

Toshiki Sato is one of the most highly thought of of modern pink directors, and it’s easy to see why. It’s also easy to see why he’s gained a considerable following among female audiences in Japan. If you’re looking for a change from the predictability and obviousness, and emotional manipulativeness, of Hollywood rom-coms then you could do a lot worse than to give this one a go.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Frightened Woman (1969)

Shameless is rapidly becoming the DVD label to watch. With Piero Schivazappa’s 1969 giallo The Frightened Woman (Femina ridens) they’ve come up with yet another unjustly forgotten masterpiece of Italian cult cinema.

This is one of those movies where you really have to be careful about jumping to conclusions until you’ve seen the whole movie.

Dagmar Lassander plays Maria, a young and ambitious female reporter about to do a story on the subject of male sterilisation. Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) lectures her about how vitally important it is to do nothing that would interfere in any way with male fertility, although clearly he’s much more concerned with male virility than with fertility. So obsessed is he that we immediately suspect he’s either gay, impotent or has some very disturbing sexual issues.

Dr Sayer lures Maria to his palatial ultra-modern pop art home. It turns out that the hooker who was going to be his playmate for the weekend hasn’t shown up. He decides that Maria will provide his entertainment instead.

He kidnaps her, and enslaves her. He subjects to her to various humiliations, and informs her that he gets his kicks by killing women at the exact moment he reaches orgasm. He tells her that he has murdered many women in this way, and shows her the photos to prove it. The good doctor likes to photograph himself in the act of dominating women. He assures Maria that this is the fate in store for her, but that he is going to draw out the fun for as long as possible.

Now I know what you’re thinking at this point. You’re thinking that even by giallo standards this is going to be a nasty, misogynistic and thoroughly unpleasant slice of cinema. You’re thinking that because writer-director Piero Schivazappa wants you to think that, because you’ve fallen into his trap and you’ve taken everything you’ve seen so far at face value. The true situation is very very different indeed.

Not only are you about to encounter a stunningly dramatic plot twist, you’re also going to see the entire tone of the movie change. You’re going to be left wondering if you even know what kind of movie it is you’re watching. Is it really a giallo at all? Is it a black comedy? A satire? A sex comedy? A twisted love story? Or is it in fact a giallo after all, but a giallo hiding its true nature?

Now you can relax. It’s all become clear, and you know what the real situation is. Or do you? Or does Signor Schivazappa have more tricks up his sleeve? Has he led us down the garden path once again?

There is certainly a dangerous sexual game being played, but it’s not the game that Dr Sayer thought he was playing, or that Maria thought she was playing. It’s certainly not the game the audience assumed they were watching. And it’s not the only game being played - Schivazappa is playing an equally perverse game with the viewer.

Stylistically it’s certainly a giallo. Or once again, perhaps that’s just the impression we’re supposed to form. As it progresses there are moments that would be more at home in a Ken Russell movie, or even a Fellini movie (including a couple of priceless and very amusing sexual sight gags). There’s some of the psychedelic ambience of late 60s Jess Franco, of movies like Venus in Furs and Succubus. And it has quite a bit in common with Massimo Dallamano’s movies of the same period, such as his version of Venus in Furs and The Secret of Dorian Gray.

Radley Metzger picked it up for US distribution by his Audobon Films, and it fits quite well with the kind of stylish erotica he specialised in. It is very erotic, but it’s the erotica of ideas rather than the erotica of explicit sex. There’s virtually no actual nudity or sex. This is all mind-sex.

For 90 percent of the film’s running time there are only two people on screen, Philippe Leroy and Dagmar Lassander. So an enormous amount depends on how well they play their roles. And both give outstanding performances.

Piero Schivazappa has worked mostly in TV as a writer and director and has only made a handful of feature films. Perhaps films like The Frightened Woman were just too unconventional to be commercially successful. Whatever the explanation, The Frightened Woman is one of the greatest Italian cult movies of its era.

Incidentally, I’m told that the Region 1 DVD from First Run Features is to avoided at all costs. The Region 0 release from Shameless in the UK is superb and is clearly the one to go for.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Scared to Death (1947)

Scared to Death’s main claim to fame is that it was, as far as I know, Bela Lugosi’s only feature film in colour. Sadly that’s the only thing it really has going for it.

It wasn’t made in Technicolor (far too expensive for a cheapo B-movie such as this) but using a cut-price colour format. The public domain print I saw was so awful it’s impossible to say if the colour ever looked any good or not.

This is typical 1940s American horror, and that is definitely not a good thing. It’s more murder mystery/thriller than actual horror, and (the worst nightmare of all) it’s yet another misguided attempt to combine horror with comedy.

It’s told in flashback by a dead woman on a slab in the county morgue, and that fact along with the title effectively kills just about any suspense at all. The incredibly inept direction by Christy Cabanne and a truly abysmal and hopelessly confused script also contributes to making this a supremely uninteresting little movie.

George Zucco is Dr Josef Van Ee who runs an expensive private clinic. His son, in a moment of drunken inspiration, married a woman he now hates. And although she hates him and accuses father and son of keeping her locked in the clinic against her will, she won’t give him a divorce. This is one of the many glaring plot inconsistencies.

Things become marginally interesting when Dr Van ee’s long-lost cousin Professor Leonide turns up. This is Bela Lugosi, and he’s a stage magician and hypnotist, and had ben his cousin’s business partner before absconding with a large sum of money. The professor is accompanied by a midget, for reasons that are never explained. There’s a private detective (the almost unbelievably unfunny and annoying Nat Pendleton providing some dismal comic relief) permanently stationed in the clinic, for reasons that are never adequately explained.

There’s a suspicion that murder may be afoot, and a newspaper reporter suddenly shows up (for reasons that are never adequately explained). There’s lots of running about, some excruciatingly bad dialogue, there’s a masked face that keeps appearing at the window, and there’s a maid who appears to be dead. An there are hidden passages in the clinic (for reasons that are never adequately explained).

It’s finally all explained in an outrageous cheat ending, but by that stage one is simply relieved that the movie is finally over. That was a remarkably long and arduous 65

The bad dialogue, inept direction and poor acting are par for the course for 1940s US horror (with a few outstanding exceptions of course such as the Val Lewton RKO horror films). This movie suffers from an additional weakness - the flashback structure doesn’t work at all and wrecks what little chance the movie ever had of being a worthwhile exercise. And the flashbacks are executed in an appallingly ham-fisted manner.

It’s also fairly typical of much American horror of this period in that it contains some reasonably decent ideas that could have provided the basis for a good horror B-movie, but it’s so poorly made and the comic relief is so annoying that the ideas are wasted completely.

On the plus side George Zucco is quite good but he isn’t given anywhere near enough to do. And Bela Lugosi gives it his best shot, and is pretty good. And he gets to wear a cape.

For Bela Lugosi completists only.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)

The Million Eyes of Sumuru is a movie I’ve been lusting to see for years. I love Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru novels, and this 1967 movie sounded like great campy fun.

And mostly it is. If only they hadn’t tried quite so hard to be funny, and to insert a wise-crack in every line of dialogue, it could have been one of the great camp classics. They really should have relied on the sheer outrageousness of the idea and the delightful loopiness of the plot which are more than enough on their own. As it is, it’s still pretty good, although I think Jess Franco’s “sequel” The Girl from Rio is better. Franco knows how to do silly comic-book style campy fun as well as anyone I can think of.

The Million Eyes of Sumuru introduces us to the world’s most glamorous and most beautiful diabolical criminal mastermind. But Sumuru doesn’t see herself as evil. She dreams of a world run by women, a world in which ugliness, violence and hate have been abolished. And in order to bring this world to fruition, she’s forced to use some slightly unpleasant methods. Such as murder and torture.

George Nader is Nick West, a CIA agent who’s been conned into working for British Intelligence, since the CIA owes them a favour. And Colonel Sir Anthony Baisbrook (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is very good at manipulating people into doing things they don’t want to do, in the most polite way possible. The British have been trying, without success, to crack Sumuru’s operation. They know that Sumuru plans to assassinate the president of an obscure but oil-rich Asian nation, so they’re hoping to lay a trap for Sumuru by allowing her to use West to infiltrate the president’s security services.

West and his wealthy playboy buddy Tommy Carter (Frankie Avalon) find themseves deeply enmeshed in Sumuru’s plans, and equally deeply enmeshed with a bevy of beautiful but deadly young women. There is one flaw in Sumuru’s operation - her female operatives have a distressing tendency to either fall in love with, or jump into bed with, and good-looking man they happen to encounter. Love is Sumuru’s greatest enemy! And Sumuru herself admits to being unable to overcome her insatiable desire for men. Especially handsome American secret agents.

The plot becomes wonderfully far-fetched and excessively convoluted, which is exactly as it should be in this type of movie. West and Carter find plenty of time for romancing Sumuru’s agents, particularly the gorgeous Helga (played by Maria Rohm, later to become familiar face in eurosleaze movies). It builds to an exciting and action-packed climax with plenty of explosions and gunplay.

George Nader and Frankie Avalon are the big weaknesses. They try too hard and quickly become annoying. Fortunately the movie has plenty of other compensations. For starters there’s Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, camping it up in full-on Beautiful Evil Vamp mode. She’s superb. And there’s Klaus Kinski as President Boong, in a very camp performance indeed. Eaton and Kinski are more than good enough to compensate for the deficiencies of the two male leads. And Wilfrid Hyde-White is, as always, immensely entertaining.

The film was made partly in Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong, which is where most of the action takes place. There are outlandish 60s costumes, and suitably excessive sets. The action scenes are impressively mounted for what was a fairly low-budget movie.

There’s the degree of sexism that you’d expect given the time period and the subject matter but it’s all done in such an obviously tongue-in-cheek manner that I don’t think anyone could find it offensive. And, refreshingly (and surprisingly), it’s almost entirely free of racial stereotypes. So really you can just sit back and enjoy the silliness.

There’s no gore, no nudity and virtually no sex. Apart from a scene where Sumuru takes a whip to Nick West it’s all pretty innocuous, but the emphasis is on fun and in that area it delivers the goods. If you enjoy 1960s spy spoof/secret agent adventure romp movies it would be almost impossible not to enjoy this one. Shirley Eaton’s performance makes it compulsory viewing.