Thursday 29 April 2010

Hercules (1958)

Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole) is the movie that started the Italian sword & sandal boom of the late 50s and early 60s. And it has cinematography and special effects by some guy named Mario Bava. You may have heard of him. So thats at least two reasons to see this movie. And it’s fun, so there’s a third reason.

This initial entry in the cycle tries to stick to the actual Greek mythology. Or at least it confines itself to characters and events mentioned in the original mythology - it does tend to throw them all in together to male one mighty mythological stew, but that’s part of the enjoyment.

It opens with a girl in a chariot. Something has spooked the horses and they’re out of control, and the chariot is about to plunge over a cliff into the seas. Luckily the mighty hero Hercules happens to be on hand, and saves the day. And the girl. Who turns out to exceptionally pretty. And a princess to boot. She’s Iole (played by Sylva Koscina) and she’s the daughter of King Pelias. She also happens to be wearing a remarkably short and very flimsy dress. It’s a dress that certainly gets noticed by our intrepid hero.

Hercules is in fact on his way to Pelias’s kingdom, where he will take up a position as a kind of advisor and military instructor to the king’s son. He’s not all that keen on the job, until he discovers that one of the fringe benefits may be getting to know very attractive and very scantily-clad princesses. Hercules is a bold and noble hero, but he’s not indifferent to the charms of the ladies.

The king’s son turns out to be an obnoxious and thoroughly unpleasant young man, and an unfortunate accident soon has Hercules in the king’s bad books. And there’s a dark secret in the kingdom’s past. Pelias’s brother had been king, but was murdered in mysterious circumstances and his son Jason disappeared and was also assumed to have been killed. Hercules’ friend Chiron had been accused of the murder, and also vanished. Even worse, the famed Golden Fleece, the symbol of the kingship, also disappeared.

At this point the movie suddenly becomes the story of Jason and the Argonauts, with Hercules being rather awkwardly shoe-horned into Jason’s story. While the mythology gets a bit jumbled the movie can’t be accused of being slow-paced. Adventure is piled upon adventure.

And Jason and his men, in search of provisions lost in a storm, encounter the fabled amazons. Initially his men are rather pleased at the chance of some female companionship. Their ardour is cooled somewhat when they discover that while the amazons are equally keen for male companionship, one night of love is all you get with an amazon. After that any man is put to death. The amazons have a nice little cemetery full of the bones of men who’ve strayed into their queendom, tasted the pleasures of the flesh with amazon maidens, and then ended up pushing up the daisies.

Interspersed with all this are a couple of the fabled labours of Hercules, and some dastardly plotting by discontented Argonauts.

The movie’s biggest weakness is the lack of a beautiful but evil queen, which is really an absolute necessity in this type of movie. We also don’t get to see enough of Iole, which is a pity because Sylva Koscina was not only very attractive she as also a competent actress, and the movie really needs more of a love interest to provide a bit more balance.

On the plus side this film had a reasonably generous budget, so the production values are fairly high. And it has Mario Bava behind the camera. Even in the atrocious public domain prints which are the form in which you’re most likely to encounter this movie it’s still evident that Bava had added a lot of his characteristic visual signatures. Colour is used boldly and imaginatively, and without the slightest regard for realism. This is a fantasy, and Bava makes it look suitably fantastic. I suspect that a properly restored print released in the correct aspect ratio would reveal this movie as a true visual masterpiece.

The acting is mostly what you expect from this genre. Steve Reeves as Hercules looks the part, and he’s a reasonably convincing hero. Apart from Ms Koscina most of the other actors are a little on the wooden side, but these movies are all about the spectacle, and there’s plenty of that.

Pietro Francisci’s direction cant really be faulted. He understands that rule number one in movies like this is that you must never allow the audience to become bored, and that’s certainly not likely to happen in this film. The look of the film is so Bava-esque that it’s impossible not to believe that Bava’s was the most significant creative input. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with that!

A movie with great historical importance in having kicked off an entire genre, and a highly entertaining film in its own right.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

I’ve always disliked The Exorcist and regarded it as an overrated horror movie. But Exorcist II: The Heretic is another matter. This movie is totally insane, but fun.

It was directed by John Boorman who was also responsible for the totally insane Zardoz. Yes, the one with Sean Connery running around in red diapers. So you’d be expecting some visually interesting strangeness, and that’s what you get.

Several years after the events of the first film Regan is still undergoing therapy. Dr. Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher) has come up with a system of synchronised hypnosis which effectively allows one person to draw another person into their subconscious, and to experience their dreams and their memories. Dr Tuskin doesn’t believe that any supernatural events occurred or can occur. She believes we create our own demons, but that the psychological demon Regan has created in her mind is still there.

At the same Father Lamont (Richard Burton) has been given a mission, to investigate the events surrounding Regan’s exorcism and the death of Father Merrin. Father Merrin has fallen under suspicion of having been involved in heresy. Father Lamont talks to Regan, and becomes convinced that she is still possessed by the demon Pazuzu. The demon has been lying low, and is not in full control of Regan. The demon is struggling against Regan’s basic goodness.

Father Lamont’s investigations lead him to Africa in search of a young man named Kokumo who had such strong spiritual power that he was able to defeat this same demon on his own, and the demon fears Kokumo. Kokumo is still alive, and the search leads him to a remote church carved out of a mountainside. Father Merrin had pursued this same search, and had met Kokumo.

But the only way to find Kokumo and to find the answers to the questions about the nature of the demon Pazuzu and the means of finally defeating the demon is for Father Lamont to enter Regan’s subconscious mind. He must return to the room in the house in Washington where the exorcism took place, and he must journey again to Africa to discover the mystery of the locusts, of the means by which the touch of a locust’s wings can destroy individuality and create a kind of evil hive mind. Kokumo must teach him about the good locust, and this will give him his weapon against Pazuzu.

If that all sounds completely crazy, you’re right, it is. But it’s crazy in an inspired and fascinating way.

Visually the film is both bizarre and intriguing, with giant locusts and strange dream-like landscapes, and the church in the rock face that can only be reached by means of ropes is a nice touch.

Linda Blair must have been rather pleased when she read the script for this one, and found that she would not be required to do any projectile vomiting, head-spinning or masturbating with crucifixes. And she gets to tap-dance! Her performance is quite good, but Regan is not really the focus of this film. Father Lamont is the central character, and it’s his quest for an understanding of evil, for a strengthening of his shaken faith, and for a means to combat evil, that privides the main themes of the movie. Regan’s mind (or soul if you prefer) is merely the battleground on which he must wage his struggle.

Richard Burton resists the temptation to indulge in acting pyrotechnics. The movie itself is sufficiently strange that an over-the-top performance would have been more of a distraction than anything else. He’s very effective in the role, a man suffering considerable turmoil but keeping it locked up inside. Just as Regan has been keeping her memories of the past locked up.

If you’re not bothered by the fact that it has only a very tenuous connection with the original film, and if you’re prepared to accept a movie packed with ideas that don’t make much real sense but that have a fascinating dream logic of their own, then there’s a great deal to enjoy in this movie. It’s a wild ride, and it’s enormous fun.

Monday 26 April 2010

The Blood Rose (1970)

The tagline claims that Claude Mulot’s 1970 The Blood Rose (La rose écorchée) was “The First Sex-Horror Film Ever Made.” It’s a pretty dubious claim, and it actually does the film an injustice. It suggests a movie that is an historical curiosity, when in fact it’s a pretty nifty little film.

It’s yet another riff on Georges Franju’s 1960 classic Eyes Without a Face. That sounds rather ominous, since this is a movie that has been remade countless times. But Claude Mulot knew what he was doing. But if you’re going to remake a classic, and you want to make it a worthwhile exercise, you have three options. You can try to simply remake the original but do it better. With a film as good as Eyes Without a Face your chances of success are virtually nil. The second option is to change the story so much that it’s more of a variation on a theme than a mere remake. The third option is to give the movie your own personal style. Mulot selected options two and three, and carried them off with considerable success.

Frédéric Lansac is an artist. His wife, how model and his muse is his wife, the stunningly beautiful Anne (Anne Duperey). In the course of an argument with one of Frédéric’s previous lovers a tragic accident occurs, an accident that leaves Anne horribly disfigured. The plot then revolves around the attempt by Frédéric and Anne to recapture Anne’s beauty by means of surgery, surgery that will have catastrophic results for another woman who will literally be giving up her face to Anne.

Of course there has to be a brilliant but insane surgeon in this plot. The major twist that Mulot introduces is that the surgeon is not the father or husband of the initial victim, he’s not mad and in fact he wants no part of the scheme. There are several other twists which I won’t reveal.

Frédéric is in the plant business. But not just any kind of plants. The plants in which he deals are rare and exotic, and frequently deadly, blooms. The blood rose of the title being one of them. These plans not only play a major role in the plot, they also add a very effective atmosphere, and they very effectively suggest the link between beauty and death, and beauty and deadliness.

The events of the movie take place in Frédéric’s chateau. While gothic chateaux are hardly original elements in a horror film, this chateau is combined with some very moody cinematography and some very clever use of colour to provide even more atmosphere. An it combines very nicely with the idea of Frédéric as an artist, and with the juxtaposition of beauty and decay (like Anne the chateau is partly in ruins). Frédéric has two servants, both dwarves and both deformed, an interesting choice for a man who as a painter deals professionally with beauty.

Philippe Lemaire as Frédéric is not really a villain, although he commits terrible crimes. He is a man driven by grief, by desperation, and by his own love for beauty. As an artist he must do something to restore Anne’s beauty, since his career is dedicated to the triumph of beauty over ugliness and decay. Anne is quite mad, but understandably so, and is played very well by Anne Duperey.

Howard Vernon is Professor Romer, the surgeon who may be able to restore Anne’s face. Vernon made some great horror movies but all too often he was relegated to minor supporting roles (although he generally stole every scene he appeared in). This time he has a major part, and a complex and oddly sympathetic one. He has to do more serious acting than usual, and rises to the challenge with complete success.

Director and co-writer Claude Mulot had an odd career, and never really gained the recognition he deserved. The Blood Rose shows a sophisticated understanding of horror cinema and an impressive sense of visual style, and also clearly demonstrates that he had a very different aesthetic from Jean Rollin, who was really the only notable French horror director of that time period. Mulot was not a Rollin imitator, nor was he a Franju imitator. Both those directors naturally had some influence, it would be impossible to make a horror movie in France in 1970 without being influenced by them to some extent, but as the essay included with the DVD notes it’s clear that Jess Franco was an even bigger influence.

Mulot went on to direct the most celebrated of all French hardcore porn films, Pussy Talk. His career also included crime films. In fact Mulot’s film-making seems to have been an attempt to combine his love for classic American B-movies with a considerable helping of sex. There’s no explicit sex in The Blood Rose but there’s plenty of nudity.

The Blood Rose is a stylish exercise in cinematic horror, and Mondo Macabro have given it a suitably impressive DVD release. Highly recommended.

Sunday 25 April 2010

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

The Flesh and the Fiends (released in the US as Mania) is yet another movie version of the Burke and Hare story. This was made in 1960 at a time when hordes of independent film companies in Britain were jumping on the gothic bandwagon started by Hammer, including the very obscure Triad Productions who were responsible for this one.

The story is so familiar it hardly requires re-telling. A prominent early 19th century Edinburgh surgeon, Dr Robert Knox (Peter Cushing), is being frustrated in his attempts to put surgery on a firm scientific footing. How can he teach anatomy if he cannot obtain cadavers, largely because of government regulations motivated by religious scruples. Instructors in anatomy are forced to deal with grave-robbers in order to obtain cadavers, and the supply is still woefully insufficient. Then he meets a couple of rather disreputable types, a certain Burke and Hare, who seem to have a real knack for finding corpses. Surprisingly fresh ones. In fact their secret is that they murder people in order to keep Dr Knox well supplied with bodies.

There’s a romantic sub-plot involving an idealistic student of Dr Knox’s and his less-than-respectable girlfriend. Mary is a pretty girl, but rather fond of drink and having a good time. And rather fond of male company as well. This sub-plot eventually becomes crucial to the main plot, in a way that is wholly unexpected.

Even in 1960 the plot was becoming a bit creaky, but the movie does have some fine actors to help things along. Peter Cushing does one of his variations on the mad scientist theme. His Dr Knox is so single-minded in his pursuit of knowledge and his desire to impart this knowledge to his students that he willfully shuts his eyes to the obvious fact that Burke and Hare cannot possibly be obtaining such an impressive supply of absolutely fresh cadavers by ethical means.

While the film stresses the conflict between science and humanity, a perennial theme in horror since Mary Shelley’s days, to its credit it does stress the very real moral dilemma involved, and that Dr Knox’s zeal is prompted in part by his horror at the ineptitude of his fellow surgeons whose complete ignorance of scientific medicine has caused the deaths of countless patients. The need for proper medical teaching really was extremely urgent. No-on has ever done this kind of role better than Cushing - he’s a monster who honestly believe he is a benefactor of mankind, and the irony is that he really is doing a great deal of good, and that he has become a monster quite unwittingly by succumbing to the temptation to cut ethical corners and by his inability to appreciate that the most skillful surgeon cannot regard himself as a true healer if he loses sight of the value of human life, even the lives of the poor and destitute who are Burke and Hare’s victims.

Class actually plays an important role in this film, not just in terms of Knox’s contempt for the people of the streets on whom Burke and Hare are preying, but also in the romantic sub-plot involving his student. His girlfriend Mary is not only an habitue of seedy drinking establishments, but clearly a part-time whore as well. The student’s shame at being seen in public with such a disreputable woman provides one of the movie’s most effective scenes (Billie Whitelaw’s superb performance as Mary also helps).

The real highlight though is Donald Pleasance’s performance as William Hare. He’s more than creepy - he has a truly terrifying habit of doing maniacal dances whilst his partner commits murders. It’s a performance that combines creepiness with whimsy, a combination that is very very disturbing indeed.

Director John Gilling went on to do a couple of superb movies for Hammer, while producers Robert Baker and Monty Berman did several memorable horror movies before moving on to distinguished careers as TV producers, being responsible for some of the best British cult TV of the 60s and 70s.

The biggest problem I had with this movie was the shamefully awful Region 4 DVD release. It not only made the movie look old and tired, it was also fullframe, which for a movie originally shot in the Cinemascope ratio is a real problem. It’s a pity, since it made what could have been a true classic horror treat into a rather disappointing experience. If you’re going to chase down this movie, make sure you get a decent DVD release in the correct aspect ratio.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Asylum Erotica (1971)

Asylum Erotica (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo) is another European cult movie that has suffered from poor DVD presentations. It’s a pity, because this is a classic piece of fun eurosleaze.

The DVD from Tango Entertainment is very disappointing, being fullframe and also apparently cut (mind you it was also dirt cheap so I should probably stop complaining). It’s also been released by Shriek Show under its alternative title of Slaughter Hotel. Their release claims to be in the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio.

Moving on to the movie itself, what we have is essentially a giallo with some gothic trappings (a combination that I generally rather enjoy).

The movie takes place in an exclusive private mental hospital. I have to say that it’s not the kind of hospital I’d care to end up in. The first worrying moment would be when you’re introduced to the junior psychiatrist, and it’s Klaus Kinski. Not terribly reassuring. And then you notice the decor, which prominently features the hospital’s impressive collection of medieval edged weapons. And the sword, battle-axes, etc are not kept locked up in cabinets. The administrators of this institution display an admirable degree of trust in their patients. The patients can if they wish simply help themselves to a weapon. Perhaps this is part of the therapy? If they don’t grab a battle-axe and start chopping up other patients then it’s a sign they’re on the road to recovery.

And then if you happen to wander down to the basement you’ll find the hospital’s collection of medieval instruments of torture, including an iron maiden.

But at least you can’t say the nurses aren’t caring. One female nurse is particularly caring, especially towards the female patients, and even more especially to one young pretty female patient. She suffers from agoraphobia, and the nurse appears to believe that naked massages can be very helpful in such cases. I’m not sure if they make the patient feel any better, but they certainly seem to make the nurse in question feel a lot better. And although the patient is in perfect physical health, this nurse also likes to help her take a bath. Of course even though she isn’t actually in the bath the nurse has to strip down to her underwear to do this. She also finds that giving the patient lots of hugs helps her. Naked hugs are an even more effective therapy.

Some of the patients prefer to take charge of their own therapy. Anne (Rosalba Neri) suffers from not feeling loved. Her brother still loves her, but “not the way he used to love her when they were younger.” The kind of love he used to show her is the kind she craves. She craves it a lot. She tends to express this need by taking her clothes off and throwing herself at the male staff members. They resist her advances, but she has more success with the gardener. He’s delighted to help her with her treatment. I guess helping a naked Rosalba Neri with her treatment is more fun than raking leaves.

Meanwhile Dr Clay (Klaus Kinski) is taking a very close personal interest in Cheryl Hume, one of his patients. A very close personal interest indeed.

So as you may have gathered this is a slightly unconventional mental health facility. In fact it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise when patients start getting hacked up. With medieval swords and battle-axes. After three or four patients have been dispatched in this manner, the hospital’s administrator decides that perhaps it might be wise to call the police. The police prove to be every bit as efficient in performing their duties as the hospital staff are in performing theirs.

There’s a great deal of moderately gory bloodshed, and an even greater amount of sex and nudity. And scarily enough the plot actually makes some kind of sense. Sort of.

Director Fernando Di Leo handles all this with a certain amount of style. There’s more than enough general weirdness and mayhem to satisfy any eurocult fan. Plus there’s Klaus Kinski and Rosalba Neri, who happens to be one of my favourite eurocult actresses. And there’s lots of sleaze. So what’s not to love?

But don’t get the Asylum Erotica DVD from Tango Entertainment - get the Slaughter Hotel version from Shriek Show.

Thursday 22 April 2010

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The 1939 movie version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of RKO’s most lavish productions, and one of their biggest hits. It’s very much a Hollywood movie, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris is not primarily about Quasimodo the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral. The real central character is the gypsy girl Esmeralda. She arrives in 15th century Paris with a band of gypsies, at a time when gypsies were finding themselves one of the targets of a campaign against heresy.

On of the king’s chief counsellors, and one of the chief architects of the persecution of heretics, is the humourless Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke). He becomes obsessed with the beautiful Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara), but then just about every man who sees her becomes obsessed with her. Her other admirers include the feckless and idealistic poet Gringoire (an impossibly young Edmond O’Brien) and a handsome officer in the king’s guards, Phoebus. It’s Carnival, and the hideously deformed hunchback Quasimodo has just been crowned King of Fools.

Quasimodo had been rescued as a foundling by Frollo and placed in the are of Frollo’s brother, the archbishop of Paris. The hunchback lives in the cathedral. An unfortunate excursion ends in Quasimodo’s arrest and flogging, and Esmeralda takes pity on him and offers him water while he’s in the pillory. And Quasimodo has now become one of the gypsy girl’s admirers.

The rather complicated plot featuring murder, jealousy and lust sees Esmeralda falsely accused of a murder. There are also numerous sub-plots involving the first printing press in Paris and the kingdom of the beggars. It leads to a spectacular finale.

The film suffers from two of the biggest problems that afflicted Hollywood movies of this period - an excess of both sentimentality and earnestness. The earnestness is compounded by a rather clumsy attempt to make the story relevant to 20th century audiences by inserting some very anachronistic ideas about public opinion and the power of the press. There also seems to have been an intention to make the movie a kind of parable of the struggle between totalitarianism and democracy, which was understandable in 1939 but seems out of place in medieval France.

On the plus side there’s Charles Laughton’s bravura turn as Quasimodo, some extraordinary makeup effects, and some impressive and unquestionably magnificent visual set-pieces.

I’ve always regarded Maureen O’Hara as being a bit insipid and it took me quite a while to warm to her performance. She did eventually win me over, at least partially. Harry Davenport is plays King Louis XI as a kindly but dotty elderly uncle figure, which is alternately charming and annoying. Cedric Hardwicke is sadly rather colourless as Frollo.

William Dieterle’s direction is not particularly inspired, but it’s certainly competent.

It’s been a long while since I saw the 1923 version with Lon Chaney. I have rather fonder memories of that version but I really need to revisit the silent version to make a fair comparison. It’s possible that my liking for the silent version prejudiced me a little against this one.

To enjoy this movie you have to relax and accept its Hollywoodness. If you can do that it’s a moderately entertaining tale of romance and adventure with a hint of horror. Not a favourite of mine though.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

The Boys from Brazil is one of those movies that sounds like it’s going to be a total hoot, but somehow is never quite as much fun as it should have been.

What we have here is a bunch of ageing Nazis who have established a fairly formidable organisation in Brazil. One of the leading lights of the organisation is a certain Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck in an interesting piece of casting against type). And as tends to happen when you have unemployed mad scientists with too much time on their hands, Dr Mengele has come up with a cunning plan. He’s not just going to clone Hitler. No, hes going to create 94 Hitler clones!

Now I know what you’re going to say. Merely reproducing Hitler’s DNA is not going to automatically produce another charismatic leader who will usher in the Fourth Reich. Don’t worry Dr Mengele is way ahead of you. He’s anticipated this. Each of these 94 baby Hitler clones will be adopted out to a family as similar to Hitler’s actual family as possible. Same socio-economic backgrounds, parents of the same age, etc. And Mengele and his cronies will intervene at certain crucial points in their lives, in an effort to ensure that their life histories are as similar to the late Nazi leader’s as possible. Sounds clever, doesn’t it? At this point Robert Burns would no doubt chime in with some wise observation about the best-laid schemes of mice and mad scientists, but unfortunately Dr Mengele is too busy to be reading poetry.

Naturally you will appreciate that this is still an amazingly silly idea. Being born in the mid-1960s these miniature Hitlers obviously aren’t going to grow up to be just like their prototype. But of course it’s only a movie, and movies about mad scientists, elderly Nazi conspiring to achieve world domination and Hitler clones aren’t the sorts of movies that are generally all that strong on logic.

But that’s precisely the problem with this film. It’s basically a fun silly B-movie, but made on an A-picture budget. It’s all the fault of Steven Spielberg. With Jaws he’d created the monster that ultimately destroyed good Hollywood film-making - the over-budgeted, over-hyped, over-produced B-movie blockbuster. And unfortunately the British film industry tried to copy that model, with movies such as The Omen and The Boys from Brazil (which came out in 1978). They more or less got away with it in the case of The Omen because whatever its faults it at least knows it’s a serious horror movie. But The Boys from Brazil isn’t sure whether it’s a classy big-budget thriller or a silly campy romp.

That lack of certainty is reflected in the casting. From Gregory Peck you expect gravity and serious acting. From Laurence Olivier you expect complete hamminess. And from James Mason, well he’s the kind of actor who could go either way. What’s possibly most surprising is that the campest performance in the movie comes from Gregory Peck. He’s the one person who seems to understand how the movie should have been approached - with tongue planted firmly in cheek. What’s particularly nice about Peck’s performance though is that it starts off fairly seriously. Mengele is clearly bonkers, but at first he seems frighteningly clear-headed and focused. As the movie progresses he loses his grip on both his plan and his sanity, and he slowly transforms into a ranting madman.

While the movie has its problems, it does have its strengths as well. What I liked most was the fact that both the younger Nazis and younger Nazi-hunters are pretty ineffectual. So the entire movie becomes an epic struggle between two crazed old men, Mengele and Nazi-hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier). Olivier’s portrayal of Lieberman as just as dotty and just as much a yesterday’s man as Mengele was fairly courageous in 1978. In strictly dramatic terms though it works very well. The other characters are all irrelevances. They only exist so the two major characters have someone to explain the plot to. It’s the implacable battle of wills between Lieberman and Mengele that matters.

This next paragraph is mildly spoilerish, but without giving away specific plot details.

There’s a nice touch of irony at the end, because to the boy Hitler (in fact to all the boy Hitlers really) the ideological arguments between Lieberman and Mengele are of no interest whatsoever. They might well grow up to be monsters, but if they do they’ll be the kinds of monsters that neither Lieberman nor Mengele will recognise.They won’t be continuing the struggle that has consumed the lives of these two ageing ideological warriors.

It’s an entertaining enough movie, but I still think it needed a slightly more over-the-top high camp approach.

Monday 19 April 2010

The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966)

One of sexploitation producer Dave Friedman’s specialties was the costume nudie picture. The idea was simple. You pick a glamorous historical period. You buy a whole bunch of fabulous costumes. Then you get some very attractive young ladies to put the costumes on, and then take them off for the cameras. The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill was his first effort in this new sub-genre and the movie’s considerable success led to a whole series of such films.

It sounds like an expensive way to make an exploitation movie, but apparently it wasn’t really. The major studios would spend a fortune on lavish costumes for their own historical pictures, use the costumes in a couple of movies and then sell them to various costume suppliers. So for a fairly small outlay you could pick up enough costumes to make a reasonably impressive-looking historical movies on a small budget.

And by the standards of these kinds of films Friedman’s were not ultra low budget anyway. He would have actual sets constructed, and his movies were made on actual sound stages. This was at a time when many sexploitation films were simply shot in someone’s house or office. Friedman’s movies even had synchronised sound! And with a cinematographer of the calibre of László Kovács behind the camera, they represented what you might call the class end of the sexploitation market.

And that was one of the reasons Friedman was attracted to the historical nudie movie - he was aiming to get his movies a slightly wider distribution. And as he explains on the commentary track accompanying this movie, he was also looking to widen his audience to include couples, not just the raincoat brigade. The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill was his first attempt to give his sexploitation movies some appeal to women.

By 1966, when the movie was made, it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before mainstream Hollywood movies started to include much racier sexual content. Since the mid-50s respectable audiences had been going to art-house cinemas to watch European movies that were often screened without a Production Code Seal of Approval, and which often included much spicier content than mainstream Hollywood was offering. Brigitte Bardot’s bare bottom certainly had a fair bit to do with the major commercial success in the US of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman. So it seemed reasonable to assume that it would be wise for exploitation movie-makers to be ready for a major change in public tastes.

The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill also had the added cachet of being based on a literary classic, even if it was a literary classic of somewhat dubious reputation. In fact the movie has no actual connection with John Cleland’s novel. In fact it has virtually no actual plot at all. In the first half of the movie Kissey Hill, the daughter of Fanny Hill, has a number of amorous encounters with wealthy and titled admirers. These encounters are remarkably tame (the movie would have little trouble getting away with a PG-13 rating today) while still managing to at least imply a certain amount of decadence and even kinkiness. Her tryst with the Duke of Roxburgh consists mostly of sharing a feast, but it gives Kissey Hall the opportunity to show just how dirty you can make the act of eating a carrot.

The second half of the film merely comprises what are in effect striptease sequences by Kissey and two of her friends and fellow courtesans.

There’s nothing even remotely approaching sex, and only a fairly limited amount of nudity, with no frontal nudity at all. Combining this with the total lack of a plot you might expect this to be fairly dull viewing, but surprisingly enough it has its own charm and it’s sexier than you’d expect from the overt content. This is partly because this is a product of an age that still understood that what made striptease sexy wasn’t the stripping, it was the tease.

But there’s another very major reason to see this movie, and that reason is Stacey Walker, who plays Kissey. Stacey Walker’s entire filmography comprises two feature films and one short, but she’s one of the legends of sexploitation, and with good reason. Her legend was really cemented by her second film, the amazing A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine, in which she plays the bad girl to end all bad girls. But she’s pretty amazing in this movie as well. It’s not that she’s stunning (although she’s certainly extremely attractive) or that she has a great body (although her body is not unimpressive). But what makes her extraordinary is that attitude of hers, that ability to make even the most innocent actions and remarks seem unbelievably and delightfully perverse. And to make everything seem sexual.

Being part of a Something Weird double-feature there are naturally oodles of extras, including Stacey Walker’s short film, But Charlie, I Never Played Volleyball! (in which Stacey plays an up-and-coming starlet whose agent cons her into being a judge in the Miss Nude Universe contest, one of the rules of the contest being that the judges must be as naked as the contestants). It’s silly but harmless. Much more interesting is Dave Friedman’s commentary track. The man is a born story-teller and showman, and what he doesn’t know about the exploitation movie business isn’t worth knowing.

If you’re expecting anything approaching what today would be regarded as adult content you’re not going to find any in this movie. That’s why sexploitation movies are so much more fun than what passes for erotica today - they’re all about the tease, and about having fun.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia) is really pretty much a stock-standard Italian peplum (the European term for what Hollywood called sword and sandal epics). It unfortunately lacks the edge of weirdness and the ultra-camp quality that distinguishes the best of these movies, but this 1964 release is entertaining enough.

Following on the death of the previous king, the mighty empire of Babylon is now under the joint rule of his three children two brothers and a sister. All three of them equally treacherous, and equally ruthless. But Babylon has problems. Its slave trade is being interrupted by the activities of a mighty warrior who can take on whole armies single-handedly. Could this be the legendary Hercules? If so, what is he doing in Babylonia?

The answer is that he is searching for his girlfriend, who happens to be the Queen of the Hellenes. She was carried off in a slave raid. The Babylonians know that one of the women captured in the raid was the queen, but they don’t know which one. And Hercules is not the only one searching for her. The king of the Assyrians is anxious to find her, and to marry her to further his own imperial ambitions. And both of the Babylonian kings also have plans to marry her, in order to unite the mighty empires of Babylon and Greece. Their sister Queen Taneal has mysterious plans of her own, involving the Assyrian king.

There are no supernatural elements in this film. It’s straight palace intrigue mixed with adventure, and a touch of romance (although the sexual chemistry between Hercules and his lady love doesn’t exactly set the screen alight). There are a couple of nice touches though. The gigantic winch attached to equally enormous chains linked to all the major buildings in the city of Babylon is a cute idea (I won’t spoil things by revealing its rather odd purpose or the use to which Queen Taneal intends to put it).

Hercules of course must rescue the queen of the Hellenes and the other slaves as well, while avoiding the potentially fatal attentions (and I mean literally fatal) of Queen Taneal.

Director Domenico Paolella churned out vast numbers of B-movies, and although the script lacks and real inspiration Paolella’s direction is quite competent.

The various villains are suitably villainous. Hercules is played by Peter Lupus, under the name Rock Stevens. Lupus is apparently still working. He looks the part, being pure beefcake and mostly wearing very little clothing, and while his acting is pretty basic he’s by no means the worst actor to play this kind of role.

Of course any movie of this type must have a beautiful but evil queen who spends her time hatching diabolical plots and committing random assassinations. And Helga Liné fulfills this function admirably. She’s glamorous, sexy, depraved and murderous, and she has the right touch of exoticism. With a slightly more inspired script and given slightly more to do she could have been a classic screen villainous, and even as the film stands she’s fairly impressively wicked.

The special effects are reasonably well done by the standards of the genre and given the obvious budgetary limitations, and the climax is reasonably impressive with considerable amounts of destructive mayhem.

The print I saw was a downloaded public domain print but the quality was rather better than is usual in such cases. Thee was a bit of print damage but overall it wasn’t too bad at all, and it appears from the running time to have been complete, or at least substantially complete. And the English dubbing isn’t as horrendous as it is in some 60s Italian gene movies. In fact it’s reasonably OK. Even the sound quality was acceptable.

This is certainly a movie for fans of this particular genre. If you’re not a fan of these movies this one won’t convert you, but if you are a fan there’s enough of the expected elements to provide an hour-and-a-half of decent entertainment.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Nude on the Moon (1961)

You expect a fairly high weirdness quotient in any Doris Wishman movie, but Nude on the Moon really is very weird indeed. This was sexploitation auteur Wishman’s only real foray into the world of science fiction, which is certainly science fiction’s loss.

Dr Jeff Huntley is a brilliant young scientist who dreams of taking part in the first manned mission to the Moon. He and his older colleague have in fact been undertaking their own private space program, and now that Jeff’s grandpa has died and left him $3 million they have enough money to make their dream a reality. They don’t all kinds of fancy stuff like mission control centres and radar tracking stations. They have a rocket and a couple of spacesuits, and some home-made rocket fuel. And really if you need more than that then you don’t deserve to be a real space explorer.

So they set off for the Moon. The journey there provides us with some of our first classic Doris Wishman touches. Apart from the delightful amateurishness of the model shots, the rocket that makes the journey is clearly not the same rocket that blasted off from Earth, and it’s clearly not the same rocket than lands on the Moon. But then if you’re expecting a serious science fiction film, what are you doing watching a Doris Wishman movie anyway?

Once they arrive on the lunar surface, our two intrepid explorers encounter their first surprise. The Moon has trees and grass and in fact looks pretty much like the Earth. But they’re in for even bigger surprises. Earth’s satellite is inhabited - by nudists! Well technically they’re not really nudists, since they’re not completely nude. Apparently lunar technology advanced as far as inventing the bikini bottom, but the bikini top proved to be beyond their capabilities. In any case, the Moon supports a thriving population of topless women. But this is an equal opportunity sexploitation movie, since the male inhabitants of the Moon also go shirtless. So there’s just as much male eye candy as female eye candy.

The moon people don’t actually speak, but communicate telepathically by means of little antenna thingies on their heads. At first they’re a little suspicious of their strange visitors from Earth, but eventually decide they’re probably harmless. They hold a kind of committee meeting of the leading lunar citizens to discuss what their response should be. Committee meetings can be fairly dull affairs, but there’s no doubt that topless committee meetings are an improvement on the more usual variety.

The Moon has a kind of queen, but she’s a fairly benevolent kind of queen. Our two astronauts gather rock samples, and take lots of photographs. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of their photographs seem to be of topless moon women. But that’s understandable, since clearly such photographs will have immense scientific importance.

One unexected feature of this film is that there’s very little footage of people’s feet. This is highly unusual for a Doris Wishman movie. It’s also in colour, while most of her 60s sexploitation classics are in black-and-white. The usual practice at that time seemed to be for nudie-cuties (and this movie definitely belongs to that sub-genre) to be shot in colour, while the later varieties of American sexploitation such as the roughies were mostly in black-and-white.

The nudie-cutie genre was essentially a response to a 1950s Supreme Court decision that ruled that nudity was not obscene. That decision led to a rash of nudist camp movies, but naked volleyball gets pretty tiresome after a while so the nudie-cutie was an attempt to add some humour and at least some kind of plot. The enormous success of the first such movie, Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr Teas, led to a tidal wave of imitators.

Nude on the Moon is definitely one of the more off-beat examples. The nudie-cuties were mostly good-natured fun and totally lacking in any kind of violence. Seen today this gives them a kind of innocent charm.

Nude on the Moon is part of a Something Weird double-feature, along with Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (which I’ve yet to see) and the usual array of Something Weird extras.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)

I know Lucio Fulci has an extremely high reputation among many cult movie fans. After seeing The Beyond I was somewhat bemused by this - it’s just a total mess of a film I wondered what I was missing in Fulci’s work. But I decided to give him another chance. And now after seeing Don't Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino)I’m still bemused by his reputation. Don't Torture a Duckling, released in 1972, is a routine giallo. It has the standard giallo elements - the series of murders that appear to have some sexual motivation (although in this case the motivation is initially rathe obscure), the hard-bitten reporter who is a better crime-solver than the police, the beautiful mysterious woman whose sole function is to provide the movie’s token nudity, and a plot with far too many twists and turns. What Fulci adds to the mix is some very crude and totally unnecessary gore, which actually weakens the film. Most giallos rely on having at least one star who is a competent actor, and at least one actress with some real sexual charisma. This movie does have one very competent actress, Florinda Bolkan, but she’s largely wasted. Most giallos also rely very heavily on visual style, but Don't Torture a Duckling is fairly weak in that area as well. A number of young boys have been murdered. A local madwoman (Florinda Bolkan) finds herself under suspicion, but there are the usual plentiful red herrings. A beautiful blonde woman also becomes a suspect, apparently because she’s beautiful and blonde so she must be up to no good. The boys had disturbed the grave of the dead child of the madwoman, and in fact they’re as thoroughly unlikeable and obnoxious a group of boys as you’ll ever find in one movie. They’re obsessed with slaughtering the local wildlife, perving on the local prostitutes, persecuting anyone they can, and in at least one case they’re also obsessed with sexual fantasies about the mysterious beautiful blonde woman. She tends to encourage this by flaunting her naked body at the boy. There’s also a dedicated young priest who believes soccer is the answer to everything, there’s a retarded girl and there’s a disturbed mother. While it’s very much a by-the-numbers giallo, it’s at least competently done. If you really love the genre you may enjoy it. I personally mostly enjoy giallos that play around with the conventions of genre and spring some genuine surprises rather than just convoluted plot twists. The typical giallo is a type of film that doesn’t hold all that much interest for me, so those with more enthusiasm for the genre will undoubtedly respond to it more positively than I did. Blue Underground’s DVD release is more impressive than the film itself, despite a lack of extras.

Sunday 11 April 2010

House of Dracula (1945)

Although I’ve owned the Dracula Legacy Collection for years I’ve resisted watching The House of Dracula. I had a strong gut feeling I wasn’t going to like it. Which just shows that sometimes you should go with your gut feelings!

To describe the plot of this movie is a rather pointless exercise. There’s the danger you might start looking for things that make sense, and that way lies madness. But since I’m arguably mad already, I’ll try.

Dr. Franz Edelmann is an idealistic doctor who specialises, apparently, in the treatment of superannuated movie monsters. If you’re a movie monster and you find your audience has disappeared, you go to Dr Edelmann and he’ll cure your monsterhood. His waiting room is packed with has-been vampires and ageing werewolves.

One day Dracula himself turns up. He’s apparently bored with eternal life, and wants to be normal. Dr Edelmann has a revolutionary treatment for curing monsters involves mysterious tropical spores, and something to do with glands and cranial surgery without surgery. I think. The fact that his head nurse is a hunchback and he hasn’t managed to cure her doesn’t seem to discourage his customers.

Of course things don’t go smoothly. Dracula refuses to take his medication regularly, and there’s an unfortunate incident in which the Wolfman throws himself off a cliff. Luckily there’s an underground cavern in which anyone who tries to throw themselves off the cliff invariably ends up. The doctor rescues him, and who should they meet down there but Frankenstein’s Monster?

I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but from his point on the plot actually gets even sillier. There are blood transfusions, attempts to revivify Frankenstein’s Monster, mysterious murders (hardly surprising considering the kind of practice Dr Edelmann runs) and of course the obligatory mob of torch-bearing villagers bent on killing someone. Anyone will do.

Lon Chaney jnr tries to give his performance some dignity, but it’s a forlorn hope. John Carridine proves to be the most boring Dracula in screen history.

There’s no suspense, no horror, no mystery. Mercifully there’s also not a huge amount of comic relief. Perhaps because any kind of comic relief woud simply accentuate the silliness of the whole project.

This movie simply reeks of the contempt in which Universal held its horror audience by this time.

After this you might think Universal couldn’t sink any lower, but that would be a serious underestimate of the studio’s cynicism. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was yet to come.

The amazing thing is that The House of Dracula has actually been rather nicely restored. Why anyone would have bothered is utterly beyond me. So many great movies have been lost over the years, which is even more heart-breaking when you consider that stuff like this has survived. It’s not scary, it’s not funny, it’s not campy, it’s just a sad waste of celluloid.

Saturday 10 April 2010

The Wild and the Naked (1962)

The Wild and the Naked is a strange little slice of US sexploitation dating from 1962. It’s included as an extra on Something Weird’s DVD release of Satan in High Heels .

Paulette is a French nude model living in the US. We see her driving off to a modelling session, then taking a break and having a nap. She falls asleep and has a strange dream, and that’s pretty much what the movie consists of. She has all manner of odd adventures in her dream, and somehow she just always seems to end up naked. She encounters the usual hazards that you expect to come across while wandering through an American forest - gorillas, naked jungle girls, cute men, sex-crazed hermits.

It’s not much more than an excuse to get Paulette naked as often as possible, but at least in the days of sexploitation movies there was some kind of plot (however flimsy) to justify the nudity. To be honest it starts to drag after a while, at least until the arrival of the go-go dancing nude jungle girls. That adds the kind of surreal touch the movie needs.

This is essentially a nudie-cutie, a genre that relied on outrageously unlikely plot devices and mostly rather innocent nudity without overt sexual content, but there are hints in this movie of the genre that would take the place of the nudie-cutie, the roughie (such as Russ Meyer’s Lorna which came out in 1964). There’s a bondage scene where the ex-crazed hermit ties up poor Paulette, but it’s done in such a bizarre manner that it’s hard to find it offensive - it’s just much too silly, and it is after all only a dream.

US sexploitation movies of the 60s are often extremely interesting, off-beat, quirky, sometimes quite experimental movies that reveal a good deal about the culture that produced them. The Wild and the Naked is a reminder that not all sexploitation films are as interesting as that, and some are nothing more than nudies pure and simple. Having said that, this one has a couple of odd touches and a strange innocence about it that prevents it from being a complete waste of time.

The image quality is acceptable, but not up to Something Weird’s usual standards. That’s presumably why they included this one as an extra (on the Satan in High Heels DVD) rather than advertising the DVD as one of their double features. It’s also, to be honest, not much more than an amusing curio but whenever someone gives you a whole feature film as an extra you can’t really complain.