Monday 29 March 2010

Kansas City Bomber (1972)

One of the oddest cultural phenomena of the 60s and 70s was the immense popularity of women’s roller derby leagues. They were a cross between pro wrestling and gladiatorial contests, but on roller skates. In the past few years they’ve made something a comeback, and have spawned a recent Hollywood movie, Whip It. But the original female mayhem on roller-skates classic was Kansas City Bomber , back in 1972.

This was the real thing. Or as close to the real thing as Hollywood ever gets. Raquel Welch is K. C. Carr, star skater of the Kansas City Ramblers and popularly known as the the Kansas City Bomber. In the rough tough world of the roller derby it’s easy to make enemies, and K. C. has made a bitter enemy of Big Bertha Bogliani. Big Bertha challenges her to a one-on-one no-holds-barred match race, and under the rules of the roller derby the loser will have to leave Kansas City forever. K.C. Loses, and finds herself traded to a team in Portland.

Unfortunately the team in Portland already has a star skater, Jackie Burdette, and Jackie is not well pleased at the arrival of a challenger for the title. They’re on the same team but they spend most of their time on the track trying to beat the daylights out of one another. K.C. has also attracted the attention of the manager of the Portland team. He’s a middle-aged businessman, a little bit sleazy, but K. C is divorced and lonely and needs some masculine company. When the news gets out that she’s the manager’s girlfriend she finds herself with a crop of new enemies.

She’s also trying to be a mother to her two children (including a daughter Rita played a very young Jodie Foster) but it’s not easy being on the road all the time, and how own mother is always giving her a hard time. Why can’t she settle down down and marry the nice local store owner who ants to marry her. The fact that K. C. might want more out of life than marrying a local shopkeeper hasn’t occurred to her mother.

K. C. soon finds that the world of the roller derby is more cynical and vicious than she had realised, especially when one of her few friends, a male skater, gets victimised by almost everybody. K.C. is a very tough cookie on the track, but she has a few weaknesses. She is loyal to people, she has some integrity, and she prefers to keep the aggression on the track. Off the track she’s just a woman looking for the same things everybody else is looking for - love, a home, friendships, a decent life for her kids. But she finds it’s just not possible to keep the increasingly bad feelings confined to the track. And and as Jackie spirals into self-destructiveness her bitterness towards K.C. grows.

Most of the performances are good, but this is Raquel Welch’s movie. Raquel Welch had the great misfortune to produce her best acting performances in movies that were either critical and commercial disasters (like Myra Breckinridge) or were the sort of movies the critics were never going to take seriously (like Kansas City Bomber ). It’s doubly unfair because one of her strengths as an actress has always been her willingness to take on the kinds of roles that are never going to get an actress an Oscar nomination.

This was her great opportunity to prove herself as a serious dramatic actress, and she gives it a pretty good shot. It’s an interesting role. K. C. is not a straightforward heroine, and she isn’t the kind of character who immediately tugs at our heart-strings. She has her faults, and she can be a cynical operator, but then her basic decency keeps getting in the way. She’s likeable, but not in an overtly emotionally manipulative way.

It was also a physically demanding role. Miss Welch did most of her own stunts, and sustained quite a few injuries during the course of filming. But it was worth it, since it’s obvious that most of the time it really is her on the track. And when she looks battered and bruised after a match, she’s convincing because she knew how it felt to be battered and bruised after filming the action scenes.

This is one of those low-key movies that I’m very fond of, not an Oscar-bait movie but a sensitive movie about real people. And in 1970s Hollywood, increasingly dominated by macho action movies and male-bonding buddy movies, this is very much a woman’s movie. It’s really a chick flick, but with a lot of extreme violence! A strange quirky movie but I liked it a lot.

Saturday 27 March 2010

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

Terence Fisher gets plenty of respect from horror fans for his celebrated Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein movies, but I’ve always felt that he doesn’t get enough respect for the many other movies he made for Hammer. In fact most of the very large number of movies he directed for Hammer were not part of their Dracula and Frankenstein cycles. The Man Who Could Cheat Death, made in 1959, is typical of these lesser known movies.

This is both a Mad Scientist movie and a There Are Some Things With Which Science Should Not Meddle movie. Fisher wasn’t a great believer in moral ambiguity - he tended to believe that there was good and evil, and that one should know the difference. But his movie-making wasn’t as simplistic as that would imply, since he was also fascinated by characters who found themselves in a situation where they had to confront such problems, and who were not always able to find easy answers.

In this case we have two young and idealistic scientists who found a solution to the problem of death, a way of prolonging life indefinitely. They initially started out with the belief that this discovery would benefit humanity, but 70 years later things are are not quite so straightforward. Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is 104 years old, but looks about 35. His much younger colleague Prof. Ludwig Weiss had declined to use their discovery himself, and looks every bit of his 89 years.

Dr Bonnet has found that immortality has its price. He has to relocate every ten years or so, before people start to notice that he doesn’t age. And he cannot find love, since the women he loves inevitably age while he does not. But he cannot let go of his immortality. Dr Bonnet has immortalised all the women he has loved in the form of statues, sculpture being one of his hobbies.

Things reach a crisis when his colleague Prof Weiss becomes too old and infirm to perform the operation that Bonnet requires every ten years. He has to find another surgeon. He picks on Dr Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee), perhaps not the wisest choice since both Dr Gerard and Dr Bonnet are in love with the same woman, the beautiful Janine Dubois (Hazel Court).

Anton Diffring is both vaguely sympathetic and vaguely creepy as Dr Bonnet. He’s not quite a villain, or at least he didn’t start out to be, but somehow things are not as simple as they used to be. Immortality is not the kind of gift that is easy to give up. And moral compromises are easier the more often you make them.

Hazel Court is wonderful, as always.

Christopher Lee gets to play a hero this time, although a somewhat reluctant hero, the doctor/scientist with a conscience as opposed to the doctor/scientist who has lost his moral bearings.

With Terence Fisher Fisher directing, and with production design by Bernard Robinson, this is classic Hammer and it looks splendid.

It’s a strangely forgotten Hammer film, and an unjustly forgotten one. This is low-key horror, without any gore, but as in the best of Fisher’s films it’s more a movie about moral horror, where the horror comes from the situation the protagonists find themselves in. Like many of Fisher’s movies it was perhaps a little bit too subtle for the drive-in audience on which Hammer relied.

It’s an example of Terence Fisher’s fundamentally conservative approach to the horror genre, where those who defied the moral order and presumed to set themselves up as the equals of God inevitably paid the price for their hubris. But Fisher did this sort of thing exceptionally well.

The Legend Region 1 DVD is pretty good, although I believe Hazel Court's nude scene has been very slightly cut.

Friday 26 March 2010

Holocaust 2000 (AKA Rain of Fire, 1977)

Alberto De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 (also released as Rain of Fire) was a 1977 British/Italian co-production designed to cash in on the success of The Omen. It’s even sillier than The Omen, and in some ways it’s even more fun.

The Antichrist is up to his old tricks again. This time it’s Kirk Douglas rather than Gregory Peck who finds himself in the midst of all the trouble. And since Kirk Douglas is a better scenery chewer than Gregory Peck, he has a definite advantage. Kirk is immensely wealthy business tycoon Robert Caine and he’s planning to build a huge new nuclear power station is an unnamed Third World country. This will be the very last word in nuclear technology. His wife is opposed to the project, but his son Angel (Simon Ward) supports his old man whole-heartedly. His wife dies in mysterious circumstances, apparently the victim of an assassination plot aimed at Caine himself. This conveniently allows Caine to go full speed ahead on the project (his wife had owned a majority of the shares in the family company).

His wife’s death also conveniently allows him to hook up with a beautiful young Italian journalist. You might think his son would be a little upset by this, but in fact he’s delighted that dear old dad has a hot new girlfriend. And he’s equally delighted by the news that he’ll soon have a little brother.

There is of course plenty of opposition to the power plant project. There are the usual environmentalist protestors, but there’s also the super-computer being used to make the project possible, which keeps printing out strange biblical warnings about ominous numerical significances. There’s also a fanatical Catholic priest who’s been just waiting for the Antichrist to make his next move. And there are some concerned dedicated scientists.

Odd accidents keep happening to those who oppose the project. The prime minister of the unnamed Third World country gets decapitated in a helicopter accident. Computers go insane and kill their controllers.

And it turns out that Angel Caine actually had a twin brother who died at birth. All this clearly points to Antichrist activity in the Caine family, but which member of the family is the actual Antichrist?

This movie is usually dismissed as a silly trashy Omen rip-off. Which I think misses the whole point. Whoever heard of an Antichrist movie that made sense or had a coherent plot? Where would be the fun in that? The things that make this such a bad movie are the very things that make it such a great movie.

Kirk Douglas overacts outrageously. Simon Ward spends most of the movie looking vaguely sinister in an innocent cute pouty kind of way. Agostina Belli just has to look sexy and worried, which she does admirably. Anthony Quayle plays the gruff but dedicated scientist who starts to suspect that there are Some Things Science Should Not Meddle With. And he plays the role in the perfectly stereotyped manner in which it should be played. Romolo Valli as the crazed fanatical priest is creepily crazed and fanatical.

The plot combines environmental paranoia, nuclear paranoia, big business paranoia and Satanic paranoia, and combines these elements in a deliriously nonsensical and fun way. There’s lots of sinister significance in numbers. Numbers that when written backwards spell demonic warnings, and other wonderfully silly warning signs of bad stuff about to happen.

It’s a low-budget movie so it doesn’t have much in the way of spectacular action set-pieces. In fact it doesn’t have any, but it makes up for it in silliness and overacting.

I honestly don’t know what more you could want in an Antichrist movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You’ll need lots of popcorn.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Black Emanuelle (1975)

Back in the 70s it didn’t take the Italian film industry long to jump on a bandwagon. Within a year of the release of the mega-hit erotic classic Emmanuelle the Italians had launched their own series of classy softcore features, cunningly changing the heroine’s name to Emanuelle with one “m” to avoid being sued, and making her a black woman. So we get Black Emanuelle (Emanuelle nera).

In fact the connection with the official Emmanuelle films is close to non-existent. And the heroine’s name is not actually Emanuele. It’s Mae. But her friends (for no obvious reason) apparently call her Emanuele. Mae Jordan (Laura Gemser) is a photo-journalist. She’s on an assignment in Kenya. Apparently being a photo-journalist mostly involves having sex with an assortment of attractive men and women.

She does at one stage get out in the countryside where there are things like zebras and giraffes to photograph, but she ends up taking naked photographs of her new friend Ann instead. She ends up having sex with both Ann and her husband. But then she ends up having sex with most of the people in Nairobi. Including an entire sports team, on a train. I’ve always found railway journeys boring as well, and this does seem like a way to make them slightly more interesting.

The only real connection with the authentic Emmanuelle movies is that both are attempts to combine classy erotica with exotic settings. While the settings in Black Emanuelle are definitely exotic, the erotica fails to even come close to match the stylish or the imagination of either of the first two Emmanuelle films.

Laura Gemser is certainly beautiful, but she’s not Sylvia Kristel and she lacks the endearing combination of innocence and licentiousness that Kristel brought to the role.

The film does at least understand that part of the appeal of softcore is that it’s not just wham bam thank you ma'am, that the tease does have a part to play. We know we’re going to see Laura Gemser naked, and we’re going to see her naked a lot, but the film makes us wait a very long time before we actually see her take her clothes off.

As an actress Laura Gemser is at best adequate. Of course it’s likely she wasn’t cast for her acting abilities!

While it’s still streets ahead of what passes for erotica these days, the movie generates surprisingly little heat. It looks like what it is, a second-rate rip-off of a much better movie.

The Region 4 DVD presentation doesn’t help. It’s a a very poor transfer, from a deservedly obscure company called BSV. A better transfer might have made some difference.

Monday 22 March 2010

The Silencers (1966)

The 60s was the golden age of the spy spoof. There were European spy spoofs and British spy spoofs, and quite a few American attempts as well. The American entries in this genre included the Matt Helm movies, starting with The Silencers in 1966. The Matt Helm films are certainly far from being the best of the breed. If you’re expecting the visual inventiveness of Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik or the wit and sheer camp joy of Joseph Losey's Modesty Blaise you're going to be sorely disappointed. The secret to enjoying The Silencers is to set your expectations fairly low. If you do this you’ll find that it has a certain amount of entertainment value. And it definitely has a 1960s time capsule appeal to it. Of course being a major studio production (Columbia in fact) from the mid-60s there’s no actual sex or nudity. But it’s a sexy spy spoof, so it relies on lots of implied nudity, lots of shots of young ladies in bikinis and lingerie, and large amounts of sexual innuendo. These were the days when lingerie-clad young ladies were enough to get young men very hot and bothered. And that in itself gives it a certain charm. The plot won’t take us very long to deal with. An organisation of diabolical criminal masterminds known as the Big O plans to start a nuclear war and then take over when the super-powers have destroyed each other. America’s top secret agent, Matt Helm, is now in retirement, spending his days as a glamour photographer for girlie magazines. He has to be persuaded to come out of retirement since the fate of civilisation depends upon his secret agent skills. He naturally becomes involved with several beautiful young women who are almost certainly spies although whether they’re on the side of the good guys or the bad guys remains in doubt. Matt Helm must foil the Big O’s schemes, whilst hopefully enticing as many as possible of the aforementioned glamorous female spies into his bed. There are of course plenty of silly but reasonably amusing gadgets. There’s no graphic violence, and not a huge amount of action. Dean Martin was not a bad choice for the role of Matt Helm. He has a knack for making fairly innocuous dialogue sound dirtier than it is, and there’s no danger whatsoever that he’s going to take any of the proceedings seriously. He plays it as pure camp, which is the only way this movie can be played. And he’s sufficiently adept at comedy to make the most out of a not overly inspired script. Stella Stevens and Daliah Lavi provide the glamour. They’re not called on to do a great deal else, but their performances are suitably campy. Columbia obviously didn’t spend too much money on this one, since there’s a notable absence of action sequences and special effects. This is strictly guilty pleasure material and I don’t think I could in all honesty recommend that you go out and buy this one. In fact I don’t even know if it’s available on DVD - I caught it on late-night Australian TV. But if you can rent it, or if it turns up on cable, and you’re a fan of 60s spy spoofs, it’s worth a look. It was successful enough to spawn no less than three sequels.

Saturday 20 March 2010

House (1977)

Even by the standards of 1970s Japanese cinema Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu) is one very very strange film. But it’s strange in a good way.

It was based on an original idea by the director’s 12-year-old daughter Chigumi. I can’t even begin to guess to which genre to assign this film. It’s sort of a horror movie. It does have a witch in it. It’s perhaps more a fantasy. It’s also a zany comedy. And a teen movie for teenage girls. And an exercise in surrealism. And a comic-book inspired romp. And a fairy tale.

Angel is a high school girl whose father has announced his intention to remarry. Angel takes this very badly, and instead of spending her holidays with her dad she decides to go to visit her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen for many years. And she decides to take her friends along. Her friends’ names are Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Sweetie, Kung Fu and Melody. There are seven girls, because as the director explains it’s a fantasy movie and seven is the correct number for a fantasy movie. Especially for a movie about a house that eats girls. Before she leaves Angel discovers a cat on her doorstep, who more or less adopts her. And when she boards the train with her friends she discovers the cat has stowed way with them. By now you’re probably guessing this is no ordinary cat, and you’re absolutely right.

The girls are hoping that their favourite teacher will join them at some stage, since they’re all madly in love with him. He drives a dune buggy and is generally the kind of teacher that girl students fall in love with.

The aunt’s house is a rather forbidding gothic structure, but the aunt seems friendly. She has somewhat surprisingly glamorous blonde hair and is confined to a wheelchair. Everything goes well until Mac goes outside to the well to retrieve the watermelon they left there to cool, and she doesn’t return. Things take a decided turn for the worse when auntie’s piano eats Melody. The girls now realise they’re in big trouble. But teacher is on the way, and he’s sure to rescue them, because he’s handsome and that makes him a hero.

The plot is weird enough, but the visual style is beyond bizarre. There’s amazing use of colour, and some very innovative editing that still looks cutting edge even today. The film has a deliberately artificial look. This is not the real world, it’s a fairy tale fantasy world.

The acting is just right - it’s totally over-the-top and breathless and tongue-in-cheek all at the same time.

The real genius of Nobuhiko Obayashi undoubtedly lay in the fact that he was prepared to trust his 12-year-old daughter’s instincts and to go with her ideas. This is not an adult’s idea of a movie that kids will like. It’s a kid’s idea of a movie that will appeal to other kids. And some of Chigumi’s ideas are delightfully weird - like the girl who plays the piano, and then gets eaten by the piano.

It’s also interesting in that it’s a horror movie for girls. It’s very girly and very giggly, but since so many horror movies are so obviously aimed at adolescent boys it actually makes a refreshing change. It’s not afraid to be cute. And it captures the dark spirit of fairy tales wonderfully well.

Right up until the time that the cameras started rolling Obayashi didn’t believe Toho would actually give him the go ahead, but to their credit at a very difficult time for the Japanese film industry they were prepared to take a huge risk with such an unconventional property.

Eureka’s Region 2 DVD includes more than an hour-and-a-half of interviews, mostly with Obayashi but also including an interesting discussion between the director and his daughter 25 years after the movie was made.

This is a seriously weird but totally entrancing movie. You’re not likely to see another movie like this one. And it’s also enormous fun.

Friday 19 March 2010

The Manitou (1978)

The Manitou came out at about the same time as David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Which is interesting since they both deal with women suffering from monstrous pregnancies.

It’s hard to say which movie is the weirder of the two. In the case of The Manitou Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) develops a strange lump on the back of her neck, which turns out to be a foetus. Which turns out to be the reincarnation of a Native American medicine man who died 400 years ago. Attempts to have the foetus surgically removed end badly, with much hospital mayhem ensuing.

Karen calls on her ex-boyfriend for help. Harry (Tony Curtis) is a fraudulent medium/fraudulent tarot reader/fraudulent clairvoyant. He’s an all-round bogus psychic, but he’s not a bad guy, he’s just trying to make a buck. And he’s quite fond of Karen, and is keen to help her out. He calls on the assistance of the woman who trained him in occult practices. Amelia (Stella Stevens) suggests that what they need is an anthropologist rather than a doctor. Dr Snow (Burgess Meredith) is certainly an anthropologist, although personally I wouldn’t entrust him with any vital anthropological emergencies. It’s probably fortunate that vital anthropological emergencies don’t arise very often. He tells Harry to find a modern-day Native American medicine man.

John Singing Rock (played by Michael Ansara who got to play lots of Native American roles although he is in fact Syrian) reluctantly agrees to do battle on Karen’s behalf. He’s not confident about the outcome, since the foetus is in fact an immensely powerful medicine man. He explains that a manitou is a kind of spirit, and that everything has a manitou. That comes in handy later on, when they need the assistance of some high-tech manitous.

John Singing Rock and Harry arrive at the hospital just as the doctors have made another foolish attempt to remove the foetus, this time with a laser. The ancient medicine man takes control of the medical laser and starts shooting up the operating theatre with it. This debacle convinces the hospital authority to let John Singing Rock and Harry take over Karen’s treatment. You might think the plot so far sounds silly, but I sure you it gets a lot sillier.

Director William Girdler was the man responsible for such cinematic classics as Three on a Meathook and Grizzly, as well as the notorious blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby. His directing style isn’t exactly subtle, but then subtlety isn’t really required in this case.

Tony Curtis has a good deal of fun with the role of Harry. He hams it up fairly outrageously, and honestly I can’t see what else he could have done. His performance works for me. Michael Ansara seems to be taking things fairy seriously, in fact so seriously that I suspect he was consciously playing the straight man and letting Curtis make the running in the acting department. They make an amusing team.

The special effects have that wonderful 1970s low-budget feel to them. They’re bizarre but they’re fun.

It’s based on a novel by Graham Masterton, and while I suspect that it all has very little to do with actual Native American folklore the manitou stuff is all very entertaining.

It’s also an interesting example of medical horror, with Karen trapped in the hospital in the hands of doctors who have no idea what they’re doing. The use of machine spirits is interesting. It really taps into lots of late 70s anxieties, from the impersonal nature of western medicine to the rise of the machine to the idea of nature striking back.

Anchor Bay’s Region 1 DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras, but looks reasonably impressive.

If you love weird over-the-top 70s horror it’s difficult not to like The Manitou.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Malabimba, the Malicious Whore (1979)

Malabimba, the Malicious Whore is often dismissed as yet another 1970s Italian rip-off of The Exorcist, but the similarities are actually purely superficial. This is a typically over-the-top slice of Italian horror eurosleaze, which is fortunately just the sort of thing I enjoy!

Andrea Karoli has some problems. The family is wealthy, but the wealth is mostly in the hands of his brother Adolfo. Adolfo is more or less bed-ridden and cannot speak. Andrea’s mother wants him to marry his sister-in-law Nais when Adolfo dies, to keep the family money in the family. But Andrea is still mourning the death of his wife, and isn’t interested. Despite Nais’s constant sexual taintings. Nais sexually taunts everyone, and her special pleasure is to torment a man enough to persuade him to give her the sort of rough sex she craves.

Andrea has even bigger problems than this. There’s his 16-year-old daughter Bimba. Bimba is going through a difficult stage. A difficult stage that involves wandering about naked and talking dirty at the dinner table for starters, but soon progresses to much greater heights (or depths) of depravity. She also has a tendency to speak in a strange slightly gravelly voice, a voice that sounds too deep and too old for her. Is it possibly that something happened during the séance at the beginning of the film, when the medium made contact with Andrea’s dead wife?

Bimba’s hobby is watching other people having sex, and she tries to persuade her aunt Sofiato join her in these innocent pleasures. Her aunt, being a nun, isn’t keen but is eventually persuaded. Sofia is hoping to save Bimba, but Bimba has other disturbing habits. Like trying to persuade Sofia out of her habit and into Bimba’s bed. Bimba also likes to have sex with her teddy bear.

As you might expect events start to spiral out of control as Bimba becomes more and more sexually obsessed. Meanwhile Nais has managed to get Andrea into her bed for some hot sex, proceedings that are watched with interest by Bimba and her aunt the nun.

Since both films deal with the possession of a teenage girl the comparisons to The Exorcist are obvious, but really they’re too obvious. Bimba is not possessed by Satan, or by demons, but by the spirit of her deceased mother. And that spirit wants to corrupt Aunt Sofia, who had apparently rejected her sexual advances when she was alive. And while The Exorcist is little more than religious propaganda, a dire warning about the dangers of the Evil One, in Malabimba the possession is much more overtly sexual in nature. It’s a movie about the horrors of adolescence and the sexual turmoil that it brings rather than being movie about the Devil.

Malabimba is certainly a whole lot sleazier than The Exorcist. I saw the unrated version, but there’s also an even sleazier version with hardcore inserts which were added later (a fate that befell quite a few eurohorror movies). The unrated version is more than sleazy enough. And while it’s an unashamed piece of sexploitation Malabimba is also a whole lot more entertaining than The Exorcist, and not just because of the copious quantities of sex and nudity. It’s also a more interesting movie. The idea of adolescence, malevolent possession and sexual obsession being intimately linked works well.

The acting is mostly reasonably good. Katell Laennec as Bimba is the standout performer, in what was unfortunately her only movie role. She’s truly remarkable, managing to achieve just the right combination of innocence and depravity.

Severin have done a fine job as usual with the DVD release.

This is a fun combination of sex, sleaze and genuine horror combined with considerable flair by director Andrea Bianchi. What more could you want?

Sunday 14 March 2010

Flesh and Lace (1965)

Flesh and Lace, which dates from 1965, isn’t quite a classical example of Joe Sarno sexploitation. Sarno’s forte was always the exploration of the hidden sexual underworld behind the neat curtains of neat suburban houses, which he did brilliantly in movies like The Swap and How They Make It and Sin in the Suburbs. But Flesh and Lace still has enough Sarno signatures to make it worth seeing.

What makes Sarno’s films unique in the sexploitation genre is their psychological intensity. They’re not movies about sex; they’re movies about people. Sex is something that makes us feel intensely, either in a positive or a negative way, and that’s what interests Sarno.

The movie opens in a strip club, where Gilda (sexploitation icon June Roberts) is just finishing her act. One of the girls, Bev, is about to get fired. Bev’s problem is that she can’t relax enough to persuade guys to buy drinks for her, so she’s not a great success as a bar girl. Her friend and room-mate Joan manages to persuade the manager to give her one last chance. But Joan’s life is about to be turned upside down. Rook is back in town.

Rook is a complete loser, a gambler who doesn’t know when to quit. Joan knows he’s a loser and that he’ll bring her nothing but misery, but she loves him anyway. So it doesn’t take him long to talk his way back into her bed.

Meanwhile Bev is overcoming her inhibitions about men. She’s possibly overcoming those inhibitions a little bit too successfully! Even worse, she’s overcome them to the extent of sleeping with Rook. Joan doesn’t take this very well. In fact she beats Bev up quite badly. Bev anders off into the night, and ends up in a nearby toy shop. She had visited the store earlier, and an unlikely romance had started to blossom with the store owner, Julian.

The problem is that Bev has now decided she likes sex do much that one man can’t satisfy her. Luckily Julian is an accommodating kind of guy, and he’s happy to find other men for her in order to keep her happy.

Things are not going so well for Joan. Rook has, as usual, lost all his money and landed himself in serious debt with people who don’t take kindly to non-payment of gambling debts. Rook and Joan come up with a risky scheme but Joan doesn’t realise just how reckless her no-hoper boyfriend really is.

It might seem strange to say this about a sexploitation flick, but one of the strengths of Flesh and Lace is the acting. And that matters, because being a Joe Sarno film it has a real script and it needs people who can really act. Alice Lin as Joan is outstanding. She’s believable and sympathetic, and although we know she’s making bad choices we care about her. John Aristedes as Rook and Joe Santos as Julian are also very good, giving their characters some real depth. June Roberts has little to do other than to take her clothes off, but she does that with style so one can’t complain.

Heather Hall as Bev is perhaps the weak link. The role really needed someone with more personality.

Another trademark of Sarno’s films is their moodiness. This one has an atmosphere of sordidness, but it’s sordidness with a touch of the tragic, and even the most self-destructive characters are painted with a certain degree of compassion. The black-and-white cinematography is perfect for conveying the right mood. The toy shop scenes add an odd touch of warmth tinged with sadness.

Like most of Sarno’s 60s sexploitation movies this one has no graphic sex but quite a bit of nudity, although it’s fairly tame nudity. And the women are attractive but look like real women.

It’s not quite in the front rank of Sarno movies but Flesh and Lace is still worth a look.

The Something Weird DVD pairs it with another Sarno film, Passion in Hot Hollows, which I haven’t watched yet. While the picture quality is up to the usual Something Weird standards the sound quality is unfortunately rather poor. But any Joe Sarno DVD releases are welcome. He was a true sexploitation auteur.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973)

Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things is an attempt to combine a Night of the Living Dead rip-off with some gothic trappings and some hints 70s psychedelia. It fails on every conceivable level.

A troupe of actors led by Alan (Alan Ormsby) travel by boat to a deserted graveyard. Alan intends to raise the dead. But it’s really just a big joke he’s playing on them. Only it isn’t, because once the joke is revealed he has a further revelation. He really is going to raise the dead. He has a grimoire, and he’s been practising his spells.

To achieve his purposes he needs a corpse, so he has his friends dig one up for him. When the spell apparently fails he decides it would be fun to take the corpse back to the cottage in which they’re staying, and to conduct a mock wedding. But the dead are not so easily mocked. His spell has succeeded, much more spectacularly than he could have imagined.

The plot doesn’t really kick in until 68 minutes into the film, and when it does kick in it’s pure Night of the Living Dead pastiche.

Unfortunately most of the first 68 minutes of the movie consists of talk. Lots and lots of talk. This may be the talkiest horror movie ever made. Talkiness is often used in a desperate attempt to cover up the embarrassing fact that nothing is actually happening, and that’s very much the case here. Talkiness is bad enough when you have good actors, but when you have the unbelievably talentless crew that Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things boasts, it’s almost unbearable. Alan is supposed to be wicked and charismatic, but he merely succeeds in being annoying. Very annoying. So annoying that you can’t wait for the zombies to arrive to kill him. But it’s an interminable wait. And while we’re waiting, he just keeps talking.

And bad as he is, he’s the best of the cast, which just shows how stupendously awful and boring the others are. The word that keeps recurring when I think of this film is boring. Boring combined with annoying.

Eventually the zombies rise, and a short period of unimaginative mayhem ensues before the film mercifully ends. At 83 minutes this movie feels like it runs for three or four hours. You just keep feeling that it’s never going to end, that they’re going to keep talking forever.

The makeup effects are standards 1970s zombie makeup effects. The special effects are puerile. If you’ve seen Night of the Living Dead then you’ve seen the zombie attack.

The movie also tries to be a far-out with-it 1970s groovy teen movie and to combine humour with the horror, with dire results. Everything about the production just screams amateurish self-indulgent film school project.

At this point I feel I should insert my standard disclaimer, to the effect that I’m not a fan of zombie movies. But honestly, even if you like zombie movies there’s not much in this one to recommend it.

Director Bob Clark went on to make such cinematic classics as Porky's.

The Region 4 DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment is atrocious, although being a very low-budget film it’s possible that it always did look as bad as this. It’s so dark it’s difficult to know what’s going on. Perhaps it’s better that way.

I can’t think of a single reason to buy this film, or even to rent it.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Crimes at the Dark House (1940)

Crimes at the Dark House is another completely over-the-top Tod Slaughter melodrama from Alpha Video’s Tod Slaughter boxed set. This 1940 British production has a slightly more resectable literary source than some of Slaughter’s other films - it was based on Wilkie Collins’s superb 1860 sensation novel The Woman In White.

The novel was actually filmed twice during the 1940s, the second version being a moderately star-studded 1948 Warner Brothers production with Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead and Sydney Greenstreet. The Hollywood version is much more polished and genteel and is admirable in its own way and is definitely worth seeing. The Tod Slaughter version plays the story as pure melodrama, but it’s an approach that works extremely well with the source material and although it’s much more outrageous it’s perhaps even more enjoyable than the American film.

Tod Slaughter is Sir Percival Glyde. The young baronet had set off twenty years earlier to the Australian goldfields to make his fortune. But right from the start we know that the real Sir Percival was murdered in Australia, and that the character played by Slaughter is a wicked impostor. He’s also a very unhappy impostor when he returns to England to find that he’s inherited an estate mortgaged to the hilt and a huge assortment of other debts. The net value of the state is considerable less than zero.

But all is not lost. An arrangement had been made by the respective families years earlier that Sir Percival would marry Laura Fairlie. Laura has no desire to go through with this marriage, having fallen in love with her drawing instructor, but her uncle and guardian is determined that the wedding should go forward. In truth her uncle, a foolish and self-indulgent professional invalid, is simply anxious to get his two nieces off his hands as quickly as possible.

Laura is horrified by the prospect of her impending marriage, but neither she nor her sister Marion can think of any way of avoiding this calamity. In the interim Sir Percival is pleasuring himself with one of the chambermaids. When the chambermaid falls pregnant she reminds him of his promise to marry her. The villainous baronet arranges to meet her near the old boat-house to discuss their wedding plans, and the unfortunate servant is never heard from again. Sir Percival has other problems as well. The equally villainous Dr Fosco turns up on his doorstep, accompanied by a Mrs Catterick who claims that Sir Percival is the father of her child, born shortly after his departure for Australia. Of course she recognises at once that whoever this man is he is not Sir Percival Glyde. Dr Fosco persuades her that rather than exposing him, a spot of blackmail might be more profitable. And she needs the money to keep her insane daughter in Dr Fosco’s lunatic asylum.

The insane daughter, Anne, escapes with the intention of destroying the perfidious aristocrat who ruined her mother’s life and reputation. Meanwhile Sir Percival arranges a meeting with Mrs Catterick to discuss matters. He suggest the old boat-house as a suitable meeting place. Sir Percival has hatched a very diabolical scheme indeed, based on the extraordinary coincidence that Anne Catterick is the spitting image of Laura Fairlie, or Lady Glyde as she is now.

The plot becomes more and more far-fetched, as it does in the novel. That’s where this movie’s very melodramatic treatment of the material becomes a decided advantage. Tod Slaughter plays Sir Percival as a stereotypical villain of melodrama, complete with a very nice line in evil maniacal laughter. The whole thing becomes a complete romp, and it’s all great fun.

Sylvia Marriott is an attractive and likeable heroine. The whole cast overacts, which is exactly as it should be.

For a 1940 British film there’s a surprising amount of sexual innuendo. Partly this is due to Tod Slaughter’s amazing ability to deliver lines in a leering and suggestive manner. His lascivious excitement at the thought of bedding his reluctant bride is particularly amusing in a depraved sort of way.

The plot is a maze of bizarre coincidences, mistaken identities and ingenious and spectacularly wicked conspiracies. And it has a truly dastardly villain. It’s all highly entertaining.

The Alpha Video DVD is about what you expect from that company, but it’s quite watchable.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Following recent discussions on related subjects I just had to see The Stepford Wives. The 1975 version of course, not the remake. It’s an unconventional horror movie that doesn’t seem quite sure if it is a horror movie, but if you stick with it it works surprisingly well.

Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross), her husband Walter and their two kids have had enough of the sleaze and crime of Manhattan and so they’ve relocated to the peace and quiet of the town of Stepford in Connecticut. Stepford looks kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Joanna actually preferred the sleaze and crime of New York, and she fears death by boredom in Stepford. This place is so 1950s. But when she meets another exile from the big city, the wildly eccentric Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), she decides life in Stepford might be just about bearable. And at least one of the other women, Charmaine, seems OK. She’s also fairly new to Stepford.

Initially Stepford seems to be exactly what it appears to be on the surface - boring, backward and provincial but safe. Thee are a couple of little things that Joanna finds to be just a bit creepy though. Like the Stepford Men’s Association (from which women are strictly excluded). As time goes on she and Bobbie notice other slightly strange things. They didn’t expect the locals to be like New Yorkers, but the women of Stepford are rather worrying. They’re not interested in anything except housework and baking and cleaning products, and looking nice for their husbands. And the way they dress is bizarre. Not just hyper-feminine, but in a way they seems excessively old-fashioned even for a sleepy village like Stepford. All those frills!

Joanna’s first encounter with the men of the Stepford Men’s Association leaves her rather bewildered. Why does her husband want to hang around with bores like these guys? Especially the one who runs it, some kind of computer expert who used to work at Disneyland. Most of the men in Stepford apparently work in similar fields. And her first Stepford party is a bit weird, with the very mousy Mrs van Sant wandering about repeating the same phrase over and over again.

Things become really worrying when she and Bobbie arrive at Charmaine’s house just as Charmaine’s tennis court is being bulldozed. She adores tennis, but now Charmaine assures them that she realises how selfish she’d been, and how much happier she’s going to be now that she’s decided to devote herself to the housework and to being a better wife. And Charmaine is not the only new arrival in Stepford who becomes a sudden and wholly unexpected convert to the joys of 50s-style domesticity. And perhaps Joanna is imagining it, but did these women have such large breasts before they embraced the idea of becoming career housewives? What exactly is going on with the women of Stepford?

Those expecting a standard horror movie may find the pacing of this one to be excessively slow, but it serves a dramatic purpose. We need to see events as Joanna sees them. The realisation that something sinister is going on has to sneak up on us gradually. And like Joanna we have to keep on assuming that really it’s just a matter of adjustment to a different lifestyle - the explanation can’t possibly be anything really strange, like the sort of thing you’d see in a horror movie.

The lively and engaging performances of Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss keep things entertaining and ensure that despite the leisurely pacing things never become dull. I was more surprised by Katharine Ross, an actress I've always regarded with indifference - she’s extremely good. And there’s a sly but subtle humour at work as well. This is as much social satire as horror, and it’s done pretty well.

The twist ending is handled well, and although we have to wait a long time for any overt horror when it does come director Bryan Forbes delivers the goods. And the final scene is very effectively creepy. Forbes says he was attracted by the project because it offered the opportunity to do a horror thriller without having to resort to clichés like shooting everything in shadow. The entire movie is bathed in sunshine and light, which suits the combination of satire and slowly building weirdness extremely well.

Based on a novel by Ira Levin (author of Rosemary's Baby), the screenplay is credited to William Goldman. In fact director Bryan Forbes rewrote Goldman’s script so extensively that Goldman apparently hasn’t spoken to him since! Ira Levin on the other hand was very impressed by Forbes’s interpretation of his novel. Curiously enough the movie was savagely criticised upon release by some feminist groups, although it’s probably the single most pro-feminist American movie of the 70s.

Columbia’s Region 4 DVD release is a little disappointing. The picture is quite grainy. It does include a brief featurette though, so I suppose we should be grateful since actual extras on Region 4 DVDs are pretty rare.

A story that could have been laboured is done with a pleasing degree of subtlety. The Stepford Wives is highly recommended.

Monday 8 March 2010

The Screaming Skull (1958)

The Screaming Skull is a low-budget 1958 American horror B-movie from AIP that just doesn’t really have much going for it at all.

It starts with a William Castle-like gimmick - a warning from the producers that the film we are about to see is so terrifying that they will offer a free funeral to any member of the audience who dies of fright. Unfortunately that’s the highlight of the movie. And I don’t think there’s a great deal of danger that anyone will actually die of fright whilst watching this movie, although they well die of boredom.

It’s not that the idea is especially bad. Great horror movies have been made from flimsier plots. It’s the execution that is sadly lacking.

Eric Whitlock brings his new wife Jenni home to his palatial but strangely empty house. He explains that he and his former wife had intended to re-furnish it but that she had died. Apparently in mysterious circumstances. He keeps a portrait of his first wife in the house, and for some reason Jenni is rather spooked by the painting. She’s also somewhat uneasy about the gardener, Mickey. Mickey had been devoted to the first Mrs Whitlock and doesn’t seem to have accepted her death. Mickey is obviously rather simple, and walks with a strange shuffling gait (this movie does tend to throw too many horror movie clichés about in a rather ineffective fashion).

Jenni has had several “nervous breakdowns” and has spent time in a mental hospital. She has never recovered from the drowning deaths of her parents, and from her own feelings of guilt (she hated her mother). Finding out the way that her new husband’s former wife met her death - she slipped on a pathway in the garden, cracked her skull and drowned in the pond - doesn’t help matters. And the screaming of the peacocks in the garden is not exactly reassuring (I didn’t know that peacocks scream but apparently they do).

And then Jenni finds a skull in the house. She hurls it out of the window, but this skull proves to be difficult to get rid of. Jenni is starting to lose her grip. The Whitlocks’ neighbours, a clergyman and his wife, are concerned. Eric assures them that things are under control, but it soon becomes obvious that that is far from being the case.

One of the many problems this movie has is the exceptionally inept acting. Alex Nicol, the director of the movie, also plays Mickey. His acting is about on par with his directing, and that’s not a good thing.

Even worse, the movie telegraphs its punches in a very clumsy fashion. The vital clue to the mystery is revealed much too obviously much too early on. And the main plot point is revealed too early, so you know there has to be a twist and it’s obvious what the twist is going to be.

The biggest problem is that the movie doesn’t really deliver the horror goods, and it doesn’t really deliver much in the way of silly fun either. It seems to be trying to take itself fairly seriously.

It’s a public domain movie, and the fact that the downloaded copy I saw was in atrocious condition didn’t help. Perhaps seeing it on a decent DVD release might have made it a more entertaining experience. But I don’t think I could honestly recommend the purchase of this film to anyone. Maybe as a rental, but if you’re going to watch a bad horror movie you’re better off watching a bad horror movie that is fun as well. Something like Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.