Monday 31 May 2010

Wanda, the Sadistic Hypnotist (1969)

The best thing about buying DVDs from Something Weird Video is that you have absolutely no idea what to expect, except that they’ll certainly be weird. Most have more going for them just weirdness. Wanda, the Sadistic Hypnotist has only weirdness, but it has plenty of it.

This 1969 exploitation epic falls into three distinct sections, without anything distracting like plot coherence to get in the way. After a car crash a young man finds himself in the hands of Wanda and her crazed cult of sado-masochistic lesbians (yes, this is definitely a DVD from Something Weird Video). Poor Sylvester is cruelly brutalised by Wanda, who uses her strange hypnotic powers to keep control of both her gang and Sylvester. Wanda and her women amuse themselves by kidnapping Avon ladies and turning them on to dangerous pastimes like semi-naked go-go dancing.

Then the movie changes gears for the first time as an escaped mental patient arrives. Wanda’s hypnotic powers fail her here, and the tables are turned. Now Wanda and her crew will taste the whip, literally.

Then we get another sudden shift as Sylvester and the escapee from the local asylum discover Wanda’s stash of LSD, which is conveniently kept in a bottle clearly marked LSD. Now the movie becomes a 60 acid-trip freakout movie, with lots of ultra-low budget psychedelic special effects. And lots of naked body painting.

It’s all much too kitschy and deliberately silly to be offensive.

The acting is terrible, even by the standards of low-budget film-making. But then decent acting would have weakened the film’s appeal which is based entirely on kitsch.

This one is interesting mostly as an example of sexploitation crossed with psychedelia. It’s an extremely bad movie but it does have a kind of morbid fascination. And Wanda herself is memorable.

The second movie on the DVD is Ted V. Mikels' Dr Sex which I haven't had a chance to view yet. As usual with Something Weird the extras are bizarre but strangely addictive, comprising a number of completely off-the-wall 1960s nudie shorts.

Sunday 30 May 2010

The Snorkel (1958)

Hammer’s non-horror films from the 50s and early 60s continue to impress me. The Snorkel, released in 1958, is a fairly good one.

White it deals with some of the themes that Jimmy Sangster was to explore obsessively in his early 1960s Hammer psychodramas (the idea of a villain deliberately trying to drive someone to insanity) it has some nice offbeat features of its own, and it has a very satisfying twist ending.

It’s one of those suspense movies that reveals the identity of the killer right at the beginning, and in this case there’s at least one person who also knows who the killer is right from the start. But they can’t prove it.

Candy Brown (played by Mandy Miller) lost her father in an accident when she was eight. Only it was no accident. Candy saw everything but since she was only a child no-one believed her. Now she is fourteen, and her mother has apparently committed suicide. Candy has no doubt that her stepfather Paul (Peter van Eyck) was the murderer in both cases. But her mother was found gassed to death in a room locked from the inside so suicide seems the only possible explanation. The police are satisfied. Candy is not satisfied at all.

A family friend named Jean has flown out from England to care for Candy (Candy and her father live on the Continent), but Candy has decided that if no-one will listen to her she’ll have to play amateur detective and gather the necessary evidence herself.

The movie’s strongest scenes are the opening and closing scenes. The opening sequence sets the nicely twisted mood for the film and it’s a well-constructed and clever visual set-piece. And the ending maintains the same twisted mood in a very effective manner.

Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the rest of the movie. Like many thrillers it does rely a little on plot devices that stretch credibility. It seems slightly strange that nobody will listen to Candy even when she relates things that she has direct knowledge of. She might be a teenager but she’s a sensible enough girl and there’s no obvious reason why nobody ever believes anything she says.

Director Guy Green does a solid job. The use of the snorkel as part of a murder plot adds a nice touch of the bizarre. And the locked room mystery device is done very well.

Peter van Eyck is terrific as Paul. He’s both very creepy and very charming. Mandy Miller is very good as Candy. Those two really dominate the movie completely.

As was usual with Hammer’s non-horror films the black-and-white cinematography is superb.

The DVD transfer on the disc (part of the Hammer Icons of Suspense boxed set) is excellent.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Jess Franco's The Demons (1972)

The Demons (Les démons) is classic nunsploitation eurosleaze from Jess Franco, dating from 1972. As usual with this sort of movie there’s a political subtext about power and the abuses of power, combined with copious quantities of nudity and sex.

The historical and geographical backgrounds to this one are a bit muddled. It seems to be based partly on the career of the notorious Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys in 17th century England (he was also the subject of Franco’s The Bloody Judge). But it appears to take place at least partly in France and/or Spain, and much of the actions centres on a nunnery, which makes 17th century England an unlikely setting. But hey, this is the movies, so let’s not get too hung up on history and geography.

Two orphaned sisters, Kathleen and Margaret, have been brought up in a nunnery. Their education was paid for by a mysterious anonymous donor, and the truth about their parentage is unknown. In fact their mother had been burnt at the stake as a witch. She had died cursing those whom she blamed for her fate, notably Judge Jeffreys, the powerful Lady De Winter and her henchman Thomas Renfield. Lady De Winter is so concerned about the curse that she decides it might be a good idea to destroy any children of this witch, and she believes that the two young nuns Kathleen and Margaret may be the witch’s daughters.

Lady de Winter and Renfield visit the convent and Kathleen, who has admitted to being troubled by sexual dreams, is accused of witchcraft. But while Lady de Winter is anxious to destroy Kathleen there’s a complication. She’s equally anxious to get this young and very pretty supposed witch into her bed. And Renfield is just as anxious to bed the young nun. Lady de Winter and Renfield have a complicated relationship of their own. They are lovers, and they share all their pleasures. Her ladyship makes it clear that Kathleen is a pleasure that Renfield will not be permitted to keep to himself.

There are numerous plot twists as the unfortunate young nun finds herself imprisoned and tortured, then freed, then recaptured. Several times over. Lady de Winter and Renfield are not the only ones taking a keen interest in her. There’s also a handsome young artist, and Lady de Winter’s father.

While all this is happening Margaret is being called to the service of Satan. After having sex with Satan she promptly seduces the Mother Superior (who has clearly been sexually obsessed by both Kathleen and Margaret).

There are ample opportunities for nuns to disrobe and to cavort in bed with other nuns and with just about anyone else who is available. And Uncle Jess takes advantage of every single opportunity.

The movie boasts a fairly strong cast. Howard Vernon is reliable as ever, playing Lady de Winter’s father Lord Malcolm De Winter. Karin Field is delightfully wicked and lascivious as Lady de Winter. Anne Libert as Kathleen and Britt Nichols as Margaret give solid performances.

This film was apparently banned in Britain until 2008. The torture scenes are fairly graphic, and there’s an extraordinary amount of sex and nudity, but it’s still difficult to imagine why it was ever thought necessary to ban it.

It’s now been released there on DVD by Redemption, in a reasonably impressive-looking transfer.

While the historical details are hopelessly garbled the plot itself is surprisingly coherent. And quite apart from having lots of exploitation elements it’s quite entertaining with plenty of action. This is eurosleaze with extra added sleaze, but it’s fun.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

House of Whipcord (1974)

Women-in-prison movies were one of the exploitation movie staples of the 70s, but Pete Walker’s 1974 production House of Whipcord is a women-in-prison movie with a difference. The prison in this film is not a real prison but a private institution, and the people running it are totally and comprehensively insane.

Ann-Marie (Penny Irving) is a young French model working in London who meets a rather nice young man at a party. He invites her to his parent’s country house at the weekend. It’s not quite what she expected. He abandons her there, and she’s received by a rather burly and mean-looking middle-aged woman who looks a lot like a prison warder. When Ann-Marie is ordered to strip and shower and then don a prison uniform she realises she really is in prison. But what was her crime?

She soon finds out. As a model she has posed for nude photographs, and for this heinous offence she is to be imprisoned indefinitely.

Back in the 1940s Mrs Margaret Wakehurst (Barbara Markham) had been one of Britain’s youngest prison governors. Her career had been cut short by the death of one of her prisoners, a Frenchwoman named Christine Hanson. She had been having an affair with a judge, Mr Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr), who happened to be head of the government’s prisons commission. He had been able to shield her from any criminal prosecution but was unable to prevent her from being dismissed from the prison service.

Bailey had left his wife, and he and Margaret had become social outcasts. This eventually led them to come up with a crazy scheme for exercising private justice. They bought an old gaol and started running it as a secret private prison for wicked women. They are both terribly disturbed by the permissive society of the 70s and they are determined to take a stand against it. They’re firm believers in both capital and corporal punishment, and they’re both completely insane. Perhaps Ann-Marie should have taken closer note of her date’s name - Mark E. Desade.

The old couple’s ideas on how the criminal justice system should be run would have been considered a little on the extreme side even in the Middle Ages but they’ve gathered around them a small circle of fellow believers - mostly ex-prison warders whose inherent sadism has caused them to be dismissed from the official prison system.

Ann-Marie turns out to be a much tougher person that she looks. She is determined to escape and to help the other unfortunate inmates to escape as well. Mrs Wakehurst takes an instant dislike to her and pretty soon has convinced herself that Ann-Marie is really Christine Hanson, a prisoner whose death in custody had led her to Mrs Wakehurst’s disgrace way back in 1946.

Most women-in-prison movies of this era made at least a token effort to include some political comment, as a way of justifying the copious nudity and violence that were the basic ingredients of the genre. House of Whipcord is slightly unusual in that the political comment is rather well done and actually works. The script is intelligent and the acting is generally quite good.

Penny Irving gives a reasonably good performance. Ann Michelle is also quit good as An -Marie’s friend Julia who goes looking for her after the model’s disappearance. Patrick Barr and Barbara Markham are convincingly psychotic, and Robert Tayman is extraordinarily creepy as Mrs Wakehurst’s son Mark E. Desade.

There are more than enough exploitation elements to please exploitation movie fans but as is the case with most Pete Walker movies there’s a clever and provocative little movie hidden in there as well.

I can’t make any judgment on the technical merits of the film since the picture on the DVD I saw was so incredibly dark. It was a second-hand copy but I’m told all existing prints of the movie look like this so I’m not going to blame Image Entertainment for that.

Monday 24 May 2010

Pets (1974)

Pets is a movie that at first glance seems like a piece of classic exploitation sleaze, but in fact there’s quite a bit more going on here. It’s trashy certainly, but it’s smart and provocative as well.

Writer-director Raphael Nussbaum based this 1974 movie on a play by Richard Reich. Neither the play nor the movie were appreciated by critics who just couldn’t get past the obvious exploitation elements.

Pets charts the adventures of misadventures of a young woman named Bonnie (Candice Rialson). As the movie opens she’s being beaten up on by her brother. She runs away from him and hooks up with a feisty black woman, Pat (Teri Guzman). They accept a lift from a middle-aged sleazy businessman type in a convertible. He thinks he’s in for some fun and games with a couple of willing hotties but when Pat produces a gun from her handbag and orders him to drive off into the woods he discovers that they’re actually going to have fun and games with him. Only it’s not going to be fun for him at all.

While Pat takes his keys and drives off to rob his house he and Bonnie are engaged in a battle for psychological dominance. Bonnie feels kind of sorry for him but that doesn’t stop her from raping him. She just wants to know how it feels to be in top for a change. But Bonnie’s moment of triumph doesn’t last long, since Pat takes off with the guy’s money and leaves her stranded.

Bonnie is rescued by a female artist, Geraldine. Geraldine can’t wait to get Bonnie naked so she can paint her. It soon transpires that art isn’t the only reason Geraldine wants to get Bonnie naked. They drift into relationship, but it’s an uneasy one. Bonnie feels that Geraldine wants to control her, and since Geraldine has plenty of money and Bonnie has none there’s some justification for Bonnie’s feelings that Geraldine wants to own her. And it’s obvious that while Bonnie is willing to be gay-for-pay she really prefers sex with men. Bonnie’s desire for some male company comes to a head when a burglar breaks into their house. Geraldine captures him at gunpoint, but while she’s off calling the cops Bonnie allows him to scape. Only she doesn’t really help him to escape. She hides him in her bedroom. Now she has a pet of her very own.

Predictably things go badly wrong and Bonnie finds herself on the street again. And again she finds a rescuer, and again the rescuer isn’t motivated by purely selfless motives. Victor Stackman (Ed Bishop) is the very wealthy owner of the gallery that exhibits Geraldine’s work. He’s been trying to get the artist into bed with him for quite some time, but now he finds the idea of bedding Bonnie even more enticing. He finds Bonnie so attractive and so fascinating that he wants to keep her as a pet. Literally. Our heroine just keeps getting herself into the same situations.

The movie is all about dominance and submission, both psychological and sexual. Every relationship is a power struggle. What makes this more than a simple exercise in sexploitation is the complexity of the characters and of their relationships. The power balances constantly shift.

Bonnie seems to both enjoy and resent being dominated, and she’s more than willing to turn the tables and enjoy being on top. Geraldine appears to be the dominant partner in her relationship with Bonnie but it’s a clear case of the master (or mistress in this case) being enslaved by her obsession with her slave. Victor likes to think of himself as an alpha male but it’s obvious he’s spent most of his life being dominated by women. Bonnie is a likeable character, but she’s no angel and she’s also never presented as a passive victim. It’s possible to feel some sympathy for everyone in the film, even Victor. Those who behave badly have some motivation for doing so, some weakness or some hurt that they’re compensating for. No-one is presented as a mere villain or a clear-cut hero.

The promotional campaign was very much targeted at a grindhouse/drive-in audience. That was probably a sound commercial decision but unfortunately it’s one of the reasons this film was overlooked by the art-house crowd. In fact it has enough nudity and kinkiness to please the former audience and enough wit and intelligence to please the latter.

Code Red warn that their DVD release was sourced from a very dodgy theatrical print (the only one they were able to obtain) and that there are picture quality issues. They’re not kidding there, but in a way in makes the movie even more enjoyable - it adds a nice touch of sordidness!

Pets is an intriguing, highly entertaining and very clever movie. It’s trash art that works equally well as both trash and art. Highly recommended.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Spy spoof movies enjoyed a huge vogue in the 60s and the title of Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine suggests that you’re going to get a movie belonging to that genre. But it isn’t really. In fact it’s an attempt to combine the beach party, spy spoof, mad scientist, diabolical criminal mastermind and gothic horror genres. And if you think that such a mixture is likely to turn out as a shambolic mess, you’d be dead right.

Most spy spoof movies tried to combine a tongue-in-cheek approach with at least a vague attempt at a spy thriller plot. But Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is played as pure comedy. And that’s the problem. If you’re going to take that approach you really need to make sure that the comedy is going to work. Far too often in this one there’s an elaborate setup for a gag, but the punchline just isn’t worth the wait.

The visual comedy is pure slapstick, and slapstick is a style of comedy I’ve always disliked. If you do enjoy this type of humour then you’ll probably like this movie a lot more than I did.

Dr Goldfoot (Vincent Price) is a mad scientist who is creating an army of bikini-clad robot girls. But his plans for world domination don’t involve using his robot girls as soldiers. Instead they’re to be programmed to be the ideal matches for some of the world’s richest men. Once the men have married them the robots will persuade their unfortunate husbands to sign over all their wealth to Dr Goldfoot.

Dr Goldfoot’s latest target is millionaire playboy Tod Amstrong (Dwayne Hickman, best known for playing the title role in the long-running early 60s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). But a mistake by Dr Goldfoot’s incompetent assistant Igor sends Robot Number Eleven after government secret agent Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) instead. Gamble and Armstrong eventually team up to try to foil Dr Goldfoot’s dastardly schemes. And that’s really about it as far as plot is concerned. The movie ends with an overly long chase sequence that is supposed to be zany fun but is actually rather tedious.

But despite its many flaws this movie is not without its charms. Vincent Price is at his hammiest, but that’s what the script calls for and he handles the comedy with his usual assurance. Dwayne Hickman manages not to be annoying. Sadly Frankie Avalon dies become annoying, and he does so very quickly. Fred Clark is even more irritating as his uncle and spymaster boss. Susan Hart isn’t called upon to do much more than look glamorous as Robot #11. There’s a brief cameo by Annette Funicello, or at least I’m told there is although I managed to miss it completely.

The claymation opening sequence is quite nifty and it also features the movie’s theme sung, performed by The Supremes. It wasn’t one of their big hits but it’s an amusing little ditty. Apparently several other songs were written for the movie but all except one were later cut, which in retrospect is probably a pity. The opening sequence is probably the cleverest thing in the film.

AIP spent quite a bit of money on this film (quite a bit of money by AIP’s standards anyway). Dr Goldfoot’s secret laboratory is moderately impressive but on the whole it’s difficult to see where the money went to.

For contemporary drive-in audiences the big attraction, aside from Vincent Price, was obviously the bevy of bikini-clad girlbots. Gold lamé bikinis are of course a classic look.

If you can get yourself into the right frame of mind there’s a certain amount of fun to be had here. It’s not quite my cup of tea, but it does feature go-go dancing and I can forgive almost anything in a movie if there’s go-go dancing. In fact the film’s biggest weakness is that it should have had more go-go dancing and more songs. It’s a movie that tries very hard to be fun but just doesn’t quite deliver.

The MGM DVD looks great but as usual for this company there’s a serious lack of extras.

Friday 21 May 2010

Delinquent Daughters (1944)

Delinquent Daughters is a bit of an oddity. Released in 1944, it looks and sounds like a typical 1930s/1940s exploitation movie but it isn’t really.

True exploitation movies were made by tiny independent production companies that were not members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America or MPPDA (the ancestor of the MPAA) and were therefore not bound by the Hollywood Production Code. But Delinquent Daughters was a studio release. It was made by the cheapest of all the Poverty Row studios, PRC, but even the Poverty Row studios were members of the MPPDA.

The classic exploitation movie if this period always included a square-up - either an introductory message or a speech by one of the characters justifying the movie’s treatment of controversial subject matter by presenting it as a kind of public service, a timely warning of a dire social evil. But being a studio release Delinquent Daughters features an incredibly lengthy and moralistic square-up to justify its treatment of a grave threat to the moral fibre of the nation, juvenile delinquency.

In fact it tries so hard to be moral that it ends up being less fun than the average exploitation film.

The plot centres around a night-spot called the Merry-Go-Round. This club is aimed at teenagers, but exploits a loop-hole in the law by providing “chaperones” so that teenagers can legally go there. The club is run by Nick Gordon, and he’s the villain of the piece. He tempts teenagers into lives of crime, encouraging them to commit robberies on his behalf.

This den of iniquity has already been responsible for driving one teenager to suicide, but the kids from the local high school just can’t stay away. Even good girls like June Thompson hang out there. And bad girls like Sally Higgins encourage good kids into all sorts of wickedness. Basically decent kids like Rocky end up carrying guns and becoming involved in armed robberies. And nice girls like June stay out all night, even on school nights.

The most interesting thing bout such movies is that they reveal that paranoia about juvenile delinquency was not purely a phenomenon of the 1950s. This movie as made in 1944 and the hysteria is already in full bloom. Crazy jazz rhythms are already leading American youth astray.

This movie is the quintessential example of the “blame the parents” style of juvenile delinquent movie. The heroes are a crusading journalist and a hardbitten but idealistic cop (in fact he’s a classic gruff cop with a heart of gold) and they have no doubt that the parents are responsible. And the parents really are presented in an incredibly unsympathetic light. It’s made plain that June’s father is a firm believer and enthusiastic practitioner of corporal punishment and that the constant beatings have led June to hang around with bad girls like Sally. And Rocky’s father fails to show his son any affection, apparently an even worse crime.

The acting is mostly horrifically bad, although Teala Loring is quite good as Sally, a hardened bad girl and aspiring femme fatale.

The script contains far too many pompous speeches and is excessively contrived even by the standards of this type of movie.

This movie is included in the Delinquent Dames: Girls Gone Bad DVD boxed set. They’re all public domain movies but mostly the picture quality is at least passable and the selection of movies offered is superb. And it’s absurdly cheap and extremely good value and I highly recommend it.

Unfortunately this particular movie suffers from a very poor DVD transfer. The night scenes are so dark that nothing whatsoever can be seen.

It’s difficult to make a juvenile delinquent movie that isn’t campy fun, and Delinquent Daughters is reasonable fun in its own cringe-inducing way. But if you’re going to sample the delights of the classical exploitation movie (and you should) you’re better off seeking out a real example of the genre.

The Story of O (1975)

Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O (Histoire d'O) was one of the most celebrated, and most infamous, erotic films from the golden age of cinematic erotica, the 1970s. Banned in Britain for 25 years the movie today seems very tame in its actual sexual content, but even more potent in its ideas.

A young woman known only as O (Corinne Clery) is taken by her lover Rene (Udo Kier) to a remote chateau at Roissy where she is to be trained in the art of sexual submission. It is made clear to O that she is free to leave at any time if she so chooses. Her training involves whippings, various humiliations and it also involves submitting willingly to the sexual advances of a variety of men.

O completes her training, and returns to her career as a successful fashion photographer. She finds that her appreciation of the erotic had ben enhanced, and her photographs of women have a much greater sexual charge than ever before. But her story has only just begun. In order to prove her devotion to her lover he wants her to give herself to other men. Specifically to his brother (although Stephan is not actually his biological brother). This is a test of her love. The results are not quite what any of the parties involved expected. She gives herself more completely to Stephan than anticipated, and to his surprise he falls in love with her.

An added complication is Rene’s infatuation with a beautiful model named Jacqueline. To facilitate Rene’s advances O seduces her first. These interconnected relationships are complex, and the balance of domination and submission is not at all what it originally appeared to be.

To appreciate this film you have to remember that this was the 70s. There was a growing feeling that pornography and art were not mutually exclusive categories. Porn was infiltrating art movies, and art was infiltrating sex movies. Films such as this one were not aimed exclusively at a grindhouse audience. Just Jaeckin had already had a massive crossover hit with Emmanuelle, a softcore porn movie that made it into the mainstream cinema world of the multiplexes. And became France’s most successful movie of all time. The Story of O was another attempt to reach grindhouse, art-house and mainstream audiences.

Something similar has been attempted by modern film-makers like Catherine Breillat (in Romance) and Michael Winterbottom (in 9 Songs) but there’s a major difference. One is never really convinced that a director like Winterbottom has the strength of his convictions. It seems like he tries to make the sex as tedious and ugly as possible in order to prove that he has actually made a Serious Movie. Ironically 9 Songs therefore ends up being mere mechanical porn. 1970s directors like Jaeckin on the other hand were not afraid to make serious erotic movies that were genuinely erotic.

Of course much of the controversy that surrounded The Story of O in 1975 centred on the theme of sado-masochistic sex. The obvious comparison was with the works of the Marquis de Sade, and that’s the comparison that virtually every online reviewer makes. And it’s completely wrong. For de Sade sex was both a political metaphor and a political weapon. The Story of O has no interest in politics - it’s concerned with emotions, with relationships, and with sex for its own sake. That doesn’t make it less significant unless you believe that human emotions and relationships are less important than politics.

This is one of a tiny handful of movies that treats the subject of sado-masochism seriously and non-judgmentally (another is Massimo Dallamano’s 1970 Venus in Furs). It’s made very very clear that everything that happens is entirely consensual. O was not a prisoner at Roissy. She could leave at any time. She is under no compulsion in her relationships with Rene and Stephan. And because she is free, she is in fact the dominant partner psychologically. Both Rene and Stephan are psychologically enslaved by her. Not just by her beauty, but by her personality. Her willingness to be absolutely submissive in a sexual sense paradoxically gives her the real power in these relationships, a fact that is made explicit in the final scene.
It’s also significant that the make characters are fairly two-dimensional. That’s actually a plus rather than a minus because the focus is entirely on O. We see everything from her point of view. She’s the most interesting character, and she’s the strongest character.

Of course if you find the subject matter distasteful you’re not going to enjoy this movie, which is fair enough.

As you’d expect from a Just Jaeckin movie, The Story of O is visually gorgeous. It’s the product of an era when porn movies had high production values, were shot in 35mm, had decent sets and costumes, had actual scripts and dialogue, and required real acting. It tries to combine ideas, art and eroticism and mostly it succeeds. It’s one of the fairly small number of erotic movies that one really needs to see.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Atomic Submarine (1959)

I admit I can’t really argue objectively that The Atomic Submarine is any better than other 1950s sci-fi movies such as Fiend without a Face but for some reason I found it to be a lot more fun. It’s just as silly, but in a delightfully goofy B-movie way.

Ships and submarine passenger liners are mysteriously disappearing in the vicinity of the North Pole, so the nuclear missile submarine Tigerfish (with a team of top scientists on board) is dispatched to discover the reason. It is of course a submarine flying saucer from another planet, that fuels itself with magnetic energy from the North Pole.

And the flying saucer is a living creature, and is immune to atomic torpedoes! But it has to be stopped, as the whole future of civilisation as we know it depends on it.

As well as scientists the Tigerfish is also equipped with an advanced deep-sea submersible vessel, which comes in mighty handy. The designer of the submersible is ill so his son comes along to operate the craft. This causes some friction with the submarine’s executive officer, as he doesn’t approve of the son’s way-out ideas about peace being better than war.

The plot unfolds pretty much as you expect it to, and the monsters when revealed are classic 50s B-movie space alien monsters. The model work isn’t too bad for a low-budget movie of this era. There’s the anticipated breathless climax as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

The acting is mostly of the standard B-movie variety although Tom Conway adds a little class as a British scientist.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Oasis of Fear (1971)

Although its release date of 1971 might lead to expect Oasis of Fear (AKA Dirty Pictures, original title Un posto ideale per uccidere) to be a giallo it doesn’t quite fit into the mould of the eurocrime/giallo movies of that era. It’s more of a classic psychological thriller. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Dick and Ingrid are two carefree young hippie kids drifting around the Continent. Dick (played by Anglo-Italian actor Ray Lovelock) is English; Ingrid is presumably Scandinavian although she’s played by Italian actress Ornella Muti. They’re free spirits, and their canary yellow vintage MG sports car with flowers painted on it proclaims the fact. By 1971 even flower children had to earn a living somehow, and Dick and Ingrid earn theirs by selling pornography. They buy a hefty supply in Copenhagen and sell it at a healthy profit in less sexually liberated parts of Europe.

Dick and Ingrid can be a little naïve at times. They decide to camp with some other counter-culture free spirits, and their camping companions relieve the young couple of the oppression of material possessions by stealing all their money. Now they’re forced to go back and start again, at the very lowest ring of the porn industry. You can’t get much more low-budget than taking nudie pictures in a shopping centre photo booth! Ingrid takes the photos of herself while Dick stands guard outside. But some days nothing goes right and Ingrid’s attempts to sell nude photos of herself to an off-duty policeman in Rome finds the young couple facing deportation from Italy.

And then they run out of petrol. But perhaps their luck is changing since there’s a huge rambling country house nearby, and the lady of the house seems rather friendly. She’s Mrs Slater (Irene Papas) and she plies them with wine and offers to let them stay the night. This turns out to be a Big Mistake. Apart from trying to seduce Ingrid, and successfully seducing Dick, Mrs Slater is going to cause our hapless young travellers a lot more problems.

There are numerous plot twists and double-crosses and attempted double-crosses, and Dick and Ingrid find themselves unwittingly involved in a murder.

There’s surprisingly little actual violence, and none of it is in any way graphic. And despite the lurid subject matter there’s considerable less nudity and sex than you might expect. It’s nowhere near as perverse as it sounds. Or rather it’s psychologically perverse rather than sexually perverse.

Ray Lovelock and Ornella Muti are both very good, conveying the right mix of cynicism and starry-eyed idealism. Irene Papas underplays her part but the performance works pretty well. It makes her scheming rather more disturbing.

Director Umberto Lenzi’s style isn’t overly ostentatious but he’s crafted a taut little thriller with a few unusual features, and it’s well-paced and highly entertaining.

This is another very fine DVD release from Shameless. It’s Region 0 and PAL and the picture quality can’t really be faulted. The soundtrack is the English dubbed version with a few scenes that had been deleted from the version restored. The additional scenes are sub-titled but as usual Shameless follow their very sound practice of editing them into the movie rather than including them as extras.

There’s an odd but interesting commentary track which is a sub-title option rather than an audio commentary.

As with many of Shameless’s releases this is a slightly unconventional film that doesn’t quite slot nearly into the expected genre groove.

Sunday 16 May 2010

The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)

Both Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels and the movies based on them are major guilty pleasures of mine. The Castle of Fu Manchu, made in 1969, was the second Fu Manchu movie to be directed by Jess Franco, and it was also the last real Fu Manchu movie. And it marked Christopher Lee’s fifth appearance as the fiendish arch-villain.

There was a 1980 Fu Manchu spoof starring Peter Sellers, but that doesn’t really count.

The Castle of Fu Manchu ends with Dr Fu Manchu promising that the world will hear from him again it seems more and more unlikely that will ever happen. I can’t imagine any modern film-maker daring to try to resurrect this series. Which is a great pity. It’s a symptom of the increasingly lack of fun in our modern world.

The Jess Franco Fu Manchu movies, and this one in particular, are often criticised for their exceptionally low production values and their lack of historically accurate settings and even costumes. Personally I don’t really mind. I see this as a example of Franco’s ability to make entertaining movies on budgets of almost nothing. And Fu Manchu movies are supposed to be campy fun, and on that level I think The Castle of Fu Manchu succeeds.

This time around Fu Manchu is using water as a weapon in his plans for world domination. He has found a scientist who has perfected a method of turning water into ice, even in warm temperatures. And the method works on large bodies of water. In fact it has the potential to work on very large bodies of water indeed - entire seas if necessary. As a first step the evil doctor creates an iceberg in the tropics and sends an ocean liner to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.

Once again the world’s only hope of salvation is the courage and determination of the doctor’s arch-nemesis Nayland Smith. This time Nayland Smith has an unlikely ally. Fu Manchu had made a temporary alliance with a Turkish drug baron, and then turned on his erstwhile ally. Even worse, he captured and imprisoned the drug baron’s beautiful machinegun-toting girlfriend Lisa (Rosalba Neri). Fu Manchu has also kidnapped an eminent surgeon, needing his services to keep alive the ailing scientist who discovered the technique of changing the nature of water at will. The surgeon and his beautiful female assistant join the alliance against Fu Manchu.

The great strength of the movie is the teaming of Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin as Fu Manchu and his wicked sadistic daughter. They played these roles in all five 1960s Fu Manchu movies, and played the roles exceptionally well. Richard Greene is a perfectly adequate Nayland Smith. The real bonus in this film is Rosalba Neri. Putting her in male drag and giving her a machinegun was an inspired decision. She looks even sexier than usual and deadly to boot.

It’s best not to think about the production values at all. If you try to spot all the glaring anachronisms you’ll go mad. It’s a popcorn movie, so the best approach is to just go with the flow. And this movie is fun. It’s silly fun, but it’s supposed to be silly.

The DVD extras feature Jess Franco, Christopher Lee and producer Harry Alan Towers reminiscing about the production. Franco is always entertaining to listen to, and Christopher Lee is surprisingly unembarrassed by the movie.

The Region 4 DVD features a pretty reasonable DVD transfer.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Lightning Bolt (1966)

Lightning Bolt (Operazione Goldman) is a fun little 1966 Italian-Spanish co-production. Like so many eurospy movies it’s a kind of James Bond spoof, although it’s worth remembering that the roots of the eurospy genre go back to the popular French Lemmy Caution movies of the 50s starring Eddie Constantine so the eurospy genre actually pre-dates the Bond movies.

But this one is certainly very much a Bond clone. The American space program is in complete disarray due to a series of mysterious malfunctions that necessitate the destruction of half a dozen successive rockets shortly after launch. It seems certain that sabotage is involved. The plans for a mission to the Moon are under serious threat. The American government turns to its most super-secret intelligence organisations, and two crack operatives are assigned to find the saboteurs.

One of these is Lieutenant Harry Sennet, who also functions as the narrator of the movie. The voiceover narration attempts to be both hardboiled and amusing, with limited success (at least in the English dubbed version I saw). On this case he’ll be working with Captain Patricia Flanagan. When the female super-spy is introduced as Agent 36-22-36 you know you’re watching a 1960s spy movie. When Harry gives his superior officer a playful pat on the bottom you definitely know know you’re watching a 1960s spy movie. But don’t despair. Aside from the certain degree of sexism that seems inescapable in this genre this turns out to be a rather nifty little movie.

The two American agents soon determine that the rocket launches are being disrupted by radiation beams (no I don’t know how that works either). And these are no ordinary saboteurs. They’re working for a diabolical criminal mastermind who is bent on world domination! And he has an automated underwater city at his disposal. And his own rocket. His plans are nothing if not ambitious - he intends to direct laser beams at the Earth from the Moon, thereby holding the governments of the world to ransom.

Very early on Harry and Patricia manage encounter their first serious obstacle, managing to get themselves trapped inside what appears to be a grain silo but is actually part of the vast complex controlled by the diabolical criminal mastermind. An ordinary criminal would have simply had them shot, but if you’re a diabolical criminal mastermind you can’t do that. People expect something more imaginative from you. Luckily the grain silo is set up so it can be flooded whenever it happens to be occupied by annoying government agents who need to be eliminated.

There’s also the obligatory glamorous and dangerous blonde super-spy, of course.

There are a couple of original touches. Harry doesn’t always reach for his gun when confronted by bad guys. Sometimes he reaches for his cheque book. If he can buy the bad guys off it saves a lot of unpleasantness, and he’s been granted unlimited funds for this purpose. There’s also an interesting twist with the villain, who doesn’t like actually killing people who get in his way. He has another and much nastier way of dealing with them.

The movie was directed by Antonio Margheriti, who made movies in just about every genre and sub-genre of cult movie you can think of. While he wasn’t exactly a visionary or an auteur he did have a knack of taking whatever materials he had to work with and turning them into highly entertaining movies. Especially in the 60s, when he made a couple of excellent gothic horror movies starring Barbara Steele and some of the most outrageously entertaining low-budget space opera movies ever made. In this movie he proves equally adept at outlandish spy thrillers.

The acting isn’t great but it’s the right kind of bad acting for the type of movie this is and most of the performances work well enough.

The diabolical criminal mastermind’s underwater headquarters is surprisingly impressive. There are enough explosions to keep anyone happy. This being 1966 there’s no nudity and the sex doesn’t really go beyond plentiful sexual innuendos.

Lightning Bolt has everything any eurospy fan could ask for, and the ingredients are combined very successfully. The result is exciting but silly fun, and provides non-stop entertainment. I’d go so far as to say that this just about qualifies as essential viewing for eurospy aficionados.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Lunch Box (2004)

Shinji Imaoka’s Lunch Box (Tamamono) is an odd little tale of sexual and emotional obsession. It’s a pink film, but like so many pink films the emphasis is very much on character and on emotion, with the sex being merely one element within the film.

The pink film is one of the more interesting creations of the Japanese film industry. These movies emerged in the 60s as the Japanese film studios were facing financial disaster and erotic movies seemed to be the only hope of salvation. But the unbelievably stringent Japanese censorship laws meant that these movies have always been extremely tame by comparison with western movies. This has worked to the pink film’s advantage since it has allowed writers and directors to use the genre to make real movies with real characters.

Shinji Imaoka is one of the most celebrated modern film-makers in this area, and since the Japanese don’t despise pink films as mere sex films he’s become a highly respected movie-maker.

Lunch Box charts the course of a sexual relationship between Yoshio, a young male postal worker, and a somewhat older mute woman, Aiko. Aiko works in a bowling alley, loves bowling, and seems to believe the bowling balls can cmmunicate with her (hence the Japanese title which means “bowling ball”). They meet when Aiko accidentally knocks Yoshio off his bicycle. Yoshio later offers her a lift home, and an intense sexual relationship begins immediately.

For Yoshio at first it’s every young male’s dream - an attractive woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. But it’s clear from the start that for Aiko this is more than just sex. At least it would be clear to anyone with even a trace of intelligence or sensitivity, two qualities sadly lacking in Yoshio. Aiko cannot communicate with words, and spends the entire movie trying to use other means of communication to somehow reach Yoshio. The two methods she uses are to make him lovingly prepared boxed lunches to take to work (hence the English title) and incredibly intense sex.

Sadly, even if Aiko could speak it’s doubtful if Yoshio would listen. And while Aiko’s obsession grows, Yoshio is being pursued by one of the girls in his office. Yoshio is uncomfortable with Aiko’s obsessiveness. And since the office girl is younger and more “normal” he agrees to marry her. But he can’t give up the sex with Aiko. The situation is obviously not going to end well, and it doesn’t.

Yumika Hayashi gives an extraordinary performance as Aiko. Without being able to speak she still manages to convey her emotional intensity and neediness very powerfully. Lemon Hanazawa is also impressive as Yoshio’s new love from the office, while Mutsuo Yoshioka is effective in the much less rewarding role of Yoshio.

The movie was filmed on 16mm deliberately to give it a more desperate kind of look. This deliberate graininess can be an annoying trick but in this movie it works.

Shinji Imaoka pushes the boundaries of the pink film, including full frontal nudity which until recently was absolutely off-limits for Japanese film-makers. And the sex is non-simulated. In recent years several mainstream directors (notable Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs and Catherine Breillat in Romance) have used non-simulated sex in their movies and tried to justify it on artistic grounds.The results have generally been tedious and completely un-erotic. Lunch Box is a rare case where the use of real sex actually does sex, giving the sex scenes the intensity that the story requires. And while the sex is not simulated the movie is still strictly softcore, and in fact still quite tame even compared to western softcore erotica. But Shinji Imaoka isn’t really interested in showing us graphic sex. He’s interested in what his characters are feeling.

Lunch Box isn’t really disturbing in the way that many pink films are but it’s an oddly compelling and rather touching movie. It has its dark moments but unlike far too any recent western movies it never gives the impression of trying too hard to be Dark and Edgy. It’s quirky, erotic and entertaining, and emotionally involving. And it’s nice to find a modern film-maker who can tell a completely satisfying story in just 65 minutes.

It was released by Redemption as part of their Sacrament range. The DVD is now rather difficult to get hold of, unfortunately.