Wednesday 29 September 2010

The True Story of the Nun of Monza (1980)

Bruno Mattei’s The True Story of the Nun of Monza (La vera storia della monaca di Monza) might not be the sleaziest nunsploitation movie ever made, but it’s plenty sleazy enough.

Virginia de Leyva is heiress to the feudal domains, and title, of the lord of Monza. For some obscure reason her family has decided she should enter a convent, and the Church receives a very handsome amount of money for approving the deal.

The convent chosen is perhaps not the most shining example of the virtues of the religious life. The nuns seem to spend most of their time indulging in intrigues and having sex (with each other or with any men who happen to be available). And the local priest Don Arrigone who also acts as confessor to the nuns is an even less worthy example. His best friend Giampaolo Osio is an unabashed rake. Don Arrigone and Giampaolo regard seducing nuns as a highly attractive sporting activity.

Giampaolo has no great difficulty talking his way into Sister Virginia’s bed. Apart from being possessed of a fairly healthy sexual appetite Sister Virginia is also ambitious an not overly scrupulous. And having the natural confidence that comes of being a noblewoman she appears to have a bright future ahead of her in the Church. When the Mother Superior falls ill it’s no great surprise that Sister Virginia is seen as her natural successor. To strengthen her position she appoints one of her more enthusiastic supporters, Sister Benedetta, as her second-in-command. It will come as no great surprise that Sister Benedetta is not exactly a model of virtue either.

So far life in the convent of Monza seems rather pleasant. When Virginia’s father dies and she becomes the new feudal lady of Monza things are looking even brighter. With immense wealth and power in her hands Virginia as the new Mother Superior seems to be almost unstoppable. Then disaster strikes. She falls pregnant. Attempts to keep the pregnancy a secret are successful until the baby is due and a young novice offers her services as midwife. The novice has ambitions of her own, and she also wants Giampaolo Osio in her own bed. And she gets him, but events are now running out of control. A cabal of older nuns who disapprove of the new regime at the convent have made contact with the Inquisition. The Inquisitor is certainly going to find plenty of things to keep him busy at this convent.

It’s the usual nunsploitation sleaze recipe but it’s also a better made film than you might expect. Bruno Mattei might not have a shining reputation as a director but he manages to come up with some quite evocative images. It’s really a rather professional looking effort for a low-budget exploitation sleazefest.

The acting is reasonably competent as well. Zora Kerova is quite striking and handles the lead role quite adequately. Franco Garofalo as the lecherous priest and Mario Cutini as his even more lecherous buddy are suitably degenerate. Garofalo adds a nice helping of guilt and self-hatred to the mix.

There are no deep messages here apart from the fairly obvious ones about sex and power, but it’s an entertaining enough little movie in its own depraved way.

I picked it up as part of a three-movie nunsploitation DVD package from Media Blasters. The set also includes The Nuns of Saint Archangel and Joe d’Amato’s notorious Images in a Convent. I have no idea if these are the optimum DVD releases for these movies but the set was ridiculously cheap and is undoubtedly a worthwhile investment for those who just can’t get enough of the nunsploitation genre.

Monday 27 September 2010

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Nagisa Ôshima’s 1976 opus In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) set off one of the most bitter censorship disputes of the 1970s. The battle was particularly bitter in Australia, where the movie was finally released more or less uncut in 2001. The most fascinating aspect of the arguments that raged over this movie was what they revealed about the bizarre world of film snobbery.

This movie was one of the more notorious cases of the repellant doctrine of “artistic merit” being used to justify special treatment for a movie. The same argument was trotted out in Australia during the controversies over Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs and Catherine Breillat's Romance. The crux of this argument is that if you can get a note signed by a group of film snobs that says your movie is “art” then you should be allowed to get away with content that would never be allowed to any movie that don’t get that highly coveted “artistic merit” stamp of approval. In Australia any film that shows actual sex is automatically classified as pornography and can only be obtained from sex shops, unless of course the movie is “art.” Personally I find this to be an appallingly elitist and hypocritical argument, with the implication that nice chardonnay-sipping latte-drinking middle-class audiences who will only watch sub-titled movies should be allowed to watch things that the Great Unwashed must be protected from. But that’s the way censorship in Australia works.

I should add that I don’t believe any movie should be subjected to censorship, but the idea of special treatment for particular audiences really annoys me.

So having got my little rant out of the way, is In the Realm of the Senses any good? The short answer is no. It’s not as terminally boring as 9 Songs, but it’s close. It is basically a porn movie with a few artistic trappings. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re looking for, except that this is also one of the least erotic and most mind-numbingly tedious movies ever made. Perhaps that’s how you can tell that it qualifies as art? Who knows?

The threadbare plot involves a woman working in a geisha house/brothel who has an affair with the man who runs the establishment with his wife. They have lots and lots and lots of sex, and it all ends in tears. Unfortunately so much time is consumed by the sex scenes that we learn nothing of the couple’s motivations or personalities, and so we don’t care what happens to them. Some rather poor acting doesn’t help. Ôshima’s staggeringly dull direction helps even less. He apparently disliked most Japans cinema and considered it to be too aesthetic, so it’s possible he was trying deliberately to make his movie dull and ugly. If so, he succeeded admirably. The “shock” ending isn’t much of a shock since it’s fairly obvious that the movie is leading to some such conclusion, and for me it had no impact since I didn’t care about the characters.

On the plus side it does make an attempt to present a female perspective on sex. That’s a good thing, and it makes it more of a pity that the execution was so poor. And more of a pity that we weren’t offered any hint as to why Sada behaved the way she did. The other argument advanced in favour of the movie was that the director was consciously breaking taboos. Which is OK I guess, although it strikes me as being a bit adolescent unless there’s a point to it. I’ve also heard it argued that the film critiques Japanese society in the 1930s and the rise of militarism. I must have slept through that part.

If you really want to see classy porn dealing with similar kinks see Radley Metzger’s The Image instead. It’s more stylish, more entertaining, more erotic and more intelligent. Of course you can’t see it in Australia since Radley forget to get a note saying his movie was Art.

And if you want to see a much better version of the same story check out Noboru Tanaka's A Woman Called Abe Sada (Jitsuroku Abe Sada), made a year earlier.

Friday 24 September 2010

Good Morning... and Goodbye! (1967)

Good Morning... and Goodbye! is one of Russ Meyer’s lesser known films, and while it can’t match movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! for style or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for camp excessiveness it does have its own charms.

The prologue tells us that this is a movie about losers. Of course you could say that about most of Meyer’s films. Especially about the male characters.

The central characters here are Burt Boland (Stuart Lancaster) and his wife Angel (Alaina Capri). As in so many Meyer movies we have a central male character who is impotent and his wife’s unsatisfied sexual needs drive what there is of a plot. Burt has a daughter named Lana by a previous marriage, a troublesome teenager just discovering her sexuality. Angel finds sexual satisfaction in the arms of a macho quarry worker named Stone, and in the arms of any other man who happens to catch her eye. Meanwhile Lana is trying to lose her virginity to Ray, a young man who spouts a good deal of pretentious but amusing dialogue but seem more interested in talk than sex.

Poor Burt drives off into the woods alone to ponder his future and meets a mysterious woman, played by the wonderful Haji. Is she some kind of wood nymph? A witch? Whatever she is she traps Burt and ravishes him and in the process she restores his manhood. Burt can’t wait to get home and try out his new-found sexual prowess on Angel.

Burt and Angel are in the middle of sampling some marital sexual bliss when Lana arrives home and announces that Stone has had his wicked way with her. Now Burt must prove his manhood in another way, by confronting Stone and taking his revenge on him for seducing his daughter and for his sexual dalliances with Burt’s wife.

In a Meyer film you always expect a sudden explosion of violence, and this movie certainly provides one. The violence is all male-on-male violence and follows the usual Meyer pattern where violence is always a marker of sexual inadequacy. While Stone might be a stud in the bedroom he fails to satisfy Angel emotionally so he still qualifies as a loser.

Meyer’s heroines are usually strong characters but in this case Angel is also rather sympathetic. She’s driven to other men’s beds by her need for sex but she’d prefer to have her husband satisfy those needs. She actually does love him. He might be twice her age but he ends up proving himself to be more of a man than Stone.

This is in its own way one of Meyer’s most good-natured movies. All of Meyer’s movies are pro-sex, but this is one of his most pro-love movies.

Stuart Lancaster is always fun in Meyer movies but in this one he gets to do some actual acting. And he acquits himself quite well. Alaina Capri is a joy as Angel. Haji is of course perfectly cast as a kind of forest spirit of sexuality and brings to the role exactly the right combination of weirdness, exotica and sex.

The movie is visually rather restrained by the standards of Meyer movies but the dialogue is deliciously outrageous.

It’s all great fun and while it’s not one of his great movies it’s most definitely worth seeing.

The Arrow all-region PAL DVD is not very impressive but their editions are the only available editions of most of Russ Meyer’s movies.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Confessions of a Vice Baron (1943)

Confessions of a Vice Baron is a great example of the recycling abilities of the exploitation movie makes of the 30s and 40s. Can you shoot just a few minutes of new footage, using a single actor and a single set, and still come up with a feature film? Of course you can! Willis Kent Productions can show you how.

The method used was quite ingenious. Willy Castello had made numerous movies for Willis Kent Productions over the preceding decade or so, always playing a sleazy bad guy of some description. So a framing story was devised - gangster Lucky Lombardo is about to go to the electric chair and decides to tell his story as a warning to others that there’s no such thing as easy money, that vice will always be punished. His criminal career is then recounted in a series of flashbacks, the flashbacks being made up entirely from footage from previous Willis Kent films.

The fact that Willy Castello played different characters in all these movies is no problem - he simply tells us he used a wide variety of aliases. And whatever type of bad guy he played in the earlier movies, whether he was a white slaver, a gigolo, an abortionist or whatever, is equally simply explained as another phase in his varied career.

It’s a shameless ploy to produce a movie for almost no outlay whatsoever but it works surprisingly well. All the movies Willy Castello made were of a similar type - outrageous exploitation shockers. So stringing bits and pieces of them together makes perfect sense.

And the advantage of this technique is that you get every imaginable exploitation element combined in one movie! There’s some fairly lurid content here. Plenty of shots of young ladies in sexy 1940s underwear - these were practically compulsory in exploitation movies. But there’s actual nudity as well. Not a while lot of violence but violence wasn’t the main attraction in exploitation movies, even those concerned with organised crime.

Willy Castello was always an entertaining villain. Not a great actor by any means but perfect for these types of movies.

Naturally this movie has the other qualities that aficionados of the classical exploitation movie enjoy - the acting by the supporting players is delightfully bad, the sets are incredibly cheap, and everything looks the way you’d expect in movies made on minuscule budgets. There’s a certain film noirish ambience as well, but with sexual content that you won’t find in actual film noir. Being made entirely outside the Hollywood studio system and not being subject to the Production Code exploitation producers was certainly an advantage. There were still limits, mainly imposed by the various state censorship boards but they could still get away with a lot more than any of the established studios could.

The framing story here provides the perfect “square-up” - the moralising message that Crime Does Not Pay which then justifies all the wickedness presented by the movie. The square-up just makes these movies that much more fun.

Confessions of a Vice Baron is included in the fabulous Girls Gone Bad - the Delinquent Dames Collection DVD boxed set. They’re all public domain titles and the quality is variable but the picture quality is at least watchable on all of them and it’s a terrific selection of exploitation movie naughtiness.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)

Italian cult cinema of the 60s and 70s produced some brilliant and imaginative film-makers who were masters of the art of spectacular visual imagery and cinematic style. Andrea Bianchi, the director of Strip Nude for Your Killer (Nude per l'assassino), was not one of them.

This movie is often regarded as representing the bottom of the barrel as far as giallos go. This reputation is richly deserved.

I was going to give you a rough outline of the plot but this film doesn’t have one. The concept of plot implies a series of vents that have some connection. If there was any connection between the events in this movie I failed to notice it. At the end we’re told how the events were connected. But they weren’t. Filming a series of random events and then at the end pretending that they form a pattern just isn’t good enough. Massimo Felisatti is credited with the screenplay and frankly I’m surprised that someone actually got paid to write this stuff.

The random events are of course a series of gory murders, filmed with a breath-taking lack of imagination. In between the murders the female members of the cast take their clothes off a lot, presumably so we won’t notice the complete absence of anything remotely resembling a plot. There’s also some comic relief. If there’s one thing that can make bad movie absolutely unendurable it’s comic relief, and the comic relief in this one is truly dire.

Bianchi does understand the ingredients needed for a successful giallo. You need glamour, so we have a fashion photography background. You need gory murders, so he provides gory murders. And you need naked women. So he provides naked women. Lots of naked women. And other giallos feature motorcycle-riding homicidal maniacs so he adds one of those as well. When it comes to assembling the ingredients he unfortunately doesn’t have a clue.

OK, so it’s just a sleazy crime movie, it’s not trying to be a Bergman movie or an Antonioni movie, so the real question is - is it entertaining? The answer to that is, not really. If you’re an Argento you can get away with gore by doing it with style and artistic flair. If you’re a Bianchi or a Fulci you just have gore and it gets tedious. And while I’d be the last person in the world to criticise a movie for its sleaze factor (I do after all own most of the Jess Franco movies released on DVD) sleaze is like gore - it needs to be done with a bit of panache, or at least a bit of enthusiasm.

Oddly enough Andrea Bianchi went on to direct Malabimba, The Malicious Whore a few years later, a movie that is every bit as sleazy as Strip Nude for Your Killer but a great deal more fun. And Malabimba even has a plot. It is in fact one of the all-time sleaze classics and I highly recommend it. So perhaps the failure of Strip Nude for Your Killer isn’t entirely Bianchi’s fault, or perhaps with Malabimba he simply found more congenial material - it certainly has a very high bizarreness factor which helps a good deal.

But even Edwige Fenech can’t do much to save Strip Nude for Your Killer, although she at least looks good. Which raises another problem with this movie - the characters display a very disturbing lack of consistency, switching suddenly from one mood to another for no valid reason. Edwige Fenech’s fame as an actress might rest largely on her willingness to disrobe but she was actually fairly competent. In this movie she isn’t convincing, nor is anyone else.

The biggest problem of all though is that this is a movie that just doesn’t have enough of a weird factor, or a camp factor, to make it entertaining in spite of its glaring flaws.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Carry On Spying (1964)

The success of the early James Bond films unleashed a plethora of imitations, blatant rip-offs and spoofs. It was inevitable that there would be a Carry On Spying movie. The good news is that it’s one of the best of the Carry On movies.

Made in 1964, the film sees British Intelligence desperately short of agents. When a top-secret formula is stolen they are left with no choice - they must assign Simkins to the case. Simkins (Kenneth Williams) is generally regarded as their most incompetent agent so to give his mission a better chance of success three trainee agents are assigned to assist him - Charlie Bind (Charles Hawtrey), Harold Crump (Bernard Cribbins) and the voluptuous Daphne Honeybutt (Barbara Windsor).

Their search for the missing formula takes them to Vienna and thence to Algiers and they naturally leave behind them a trail of mayhem. Luckily their opponents from the sinister Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans (STENCH) are equally inept. The British do have one big thing going for them - among her other assets Agent Honeybutt has a photographic memory. But will this be enough when they go up against the dreaded chief of STENCH, the mysterious Dr Crow?

It’s classic Carry On silliness, loaded with double entendres but like most of these films it has a certain beguiling innocence about it. It’s good-natured fun, and it can’t even really be accused of sexism. Daphne Honeybutt is probably the least incompetent of the British agents. It’s pleasing to see Barbara Windsor getting more to do than in most of her appearances in these movies.

Dr Crow’s secret headquarters is fairly impressive and provides the setting for a great comic/action chase set-piece. Carry On Spying has all the ingredients you expect in a spy spoof movie.

Of course you either like this style of British humour or you don’t. If you do then this is an excellent example of the breed.

The Region 4 DVD has absolutely no extras at all, but the transfer is quite acceptable.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Atom Age Vampire (1960)

The first thing to be said about Atom Age Vampire (Seddok, l'erede di Satana) is that it’s a bit of a stretch to describe it as a vampire movie except in the broadest metaphorical sort of way. The second thing to be said is that it’s not a very good movie. The third thing to be said is that it’s still a good deal of fun.

Beautiful night-club performer Jeanette is horribly disfigured in a car accident after breaking up with her boyfriend. When she sees what’s happened to her face she decides suicide is the only answer but as luck would have it a mad scientist hears of her plight and thinks she’d be an ideal subject on whom to test his new discovery. His assistant spirits Jeanette out of the hospital and into Professor Levin’s laboratory.

The professor has been working on Derma 28, a derivative of Derma 25. Derma 28 has the promise of restoring practically any kind of cell damage and he believes it can restore Jeanette’s beauty. Which it does, but unfortunately the miracle treatment turns out to be temporary. The Professor has become totally besotted by the glamorous blonde Jeanette and is determined to repeat the treatment. The awkward thing is that Derma 28 requires glands from a living human but such is his passion for Jeanette that murder seem a small price to pay in order to restore her looks and gain her favour.

Of course his assistant Monique isn’t all that pleased. She and the professor are lovers but now she fears she is losing him.

The plot starts to become really bizarre when, for reasons that remain unclear to this viewer, the professor performs some kind of atomic treatment in himself that turns him into a hideous bloodthirsty monster.

The movie's debt to George Franju's horror masterpiece Eyes without a Face is obvious but this is no mere copy. It adds all sorts of weirdness, none of which makes sense but if you’re hung up on boring concepts like plot coherence what are you doing watching a 1960s Italian sci-fi/horror flick?

The public domain copy I saw was very badly dubbed in English so it’s difficult to judge the acting performances. And the picture quality was pretty dodgy as well so it’s equally difficult to make a judgment on the cinematography. The transformation scenes though are done surprisingly well.

With the English dubbing the movie can only be regarded as an exercise in camp, which is fine by me since I like that sort of thing. There’s enough amusing scientific techno-babble to keep me happy and I love the way they keep bringing in the idea of atomic energy even though it has nothing whatever to do with the plot.

This is one of those movies that if it ever got a decent DVD release with good image quality and with subtitles might turn out to be a much better movie than it appears to be in its present form (or it might not). As it stands though it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp if you’re in the mood for some B-movie horror silliness.

Thursday 9 September 2010

The Face at the Window (1939)

A Tod Slaughter melodrama is a unique cinematic experience. Melodrama had an influence on various filmic genres including horror but Tod Slaughter’s movies were melodrama in its pure form, and The Face at the Window is an excellent example.

Tod Slaughter appeared in many stage productions of classic melodrama and the various movies he made maintained the feel of the stage melodrama. A Tod Slaughter melodrama directed by George King is a particular treat since he understood the requirements of the form exactly.

The Face at the Window involves a classic melodrama villain but odds lots of other fun elements as well - it has a mad scientist and a werewolf. And in a nice twist the mad scientist is one of the good guys.

In Paris in 1880 a series of murders has taken place, each murder being preceded by the sight of a terrifying face at a window. The murders are ascribed by the public to a werewolf. At the same time a bank has been the victim of a daring robbery. The bank faces ruin. Its last hope had been that the Chevalier Lucio del Gardo would entrust his vast fortune to the bank. Surprisingly, despite the robbery, the Chevalier does so, but he makes one condition He wishes to be considered as a suitor for the hand of the banker’s beautiful daughter Cecile.

Cecile is in love with the bank’s chief clerk, Lucien Cortier. After she rejects the Chevalier’s advances evidence comes to light linking Lucien to the robbery. Lucien must try to prove his innocence while at the same time Cecile’s honour is under siege from the Chevalier. Lucien soon finds himself under suspicion for murder as well. Luckily Lucien has a friend who is a mad scientist and has developed a method of communication with the recently deceased - he may be able to get the werewolf’s victims to identify their killer.

This being a melodrama we are left in no doubt that the Chevalier is the villain of the piece, ad it’s essential to the fun of a melodrama that we should know this right from the start so that we can shudder at his wickedness. Tod Slaughter’s outrageous performance is perfectly judged to ensure that the audience will get its full quota of such shudders and a great deal of amusement as well.

John Warwick as the hero Lucien and Marjorie Taylor as the heroine are earnest and virtuous which again is exactly as it should be in melodrama. The focus is, as it should be, entirely on the villain and with Slaughter hamming it up for all he’s worth no-one else is going to get noticed anyway.

The plot is as contrived and silly as you could wish.

The mad scientist’s laboratory is not the spectacular visual set-piece that you would expect in one of Universal’s horror films of the same vintage but there’s still enough goofiness to make it fun.

The gothic atmosphere is piled on with the same love of excess as every other element in this film and the look of the film is pretty impressive. The costumes and the sets are good, and there are ample quantities of fog and shadow. Director George King keeps the action moving along briskly so there’s no chance of boredom.

The Alpha Video DVD release is reasonably good by the standards of this company. The picture is slightly washed-out but it’s quite acceptable and the sound quality is OK for a film of this age.

Tod Slaughter’s movies provide a chance to sample the over-the-top delights of a vanished art form. Devotees of cinematic camp will be in bliss. If you’re a horror fan you must see at least one of Tod Slaughter’s movies and this one is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Monday 6 September 2010

The Living Idol (1957)

The Living Idol seems on the surface to be just another jungle adventure/horror B-movie but actually it isn’t. Not quite. It’s a bit more interesting than that (not that I have any problem with jungle adventure/horror B-movies).

Writer-director Albert Lewin only made a handful of films but he was no B-movie director. And he was clearly attracted by projects that involved an element of the fantastic. His masterpiece was Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, one of the most fascinatingly offbeat major production of the 50s.

The Living Idol takes place in Mexico. A team of archaeologists is excavating a Mayan site. Doctor Alfred Stoner (James Robertson Justice) is a visionary, and a man inclined to take ancient legends seriously. And literally. He has a special interest in human sacrifice. His Mexican colleague and best friend is a man of science who regards Stoner’s ideas with scepticism. Of course there has to be a beautiful young woman, and in this case it’s Juanita, Manuel’s daughter. And there’s a love interest for her in the shape of Stoner’s young assistant Terry (Steve Forrest).

Dr Stoner has just made a major find, a Mayan jaguar idol. He made the discovery by placing his trust in the literal reality of local legends. Juanita was present when the jaguar idol was unearthed and she reacted with unexpected terror. When she shows continued symptoms of agitation and nervousness Dr Stoner starts to suspect that the ancient jaguar god is very much alive, and wants Juanita. Young virgins used to be sacrificed to the jaguar god and the god apparently wants the practice to be revived.

Terry goes away for a time and when he returns he finds that although Juanita still wants to marry him she is still very troubled. And Dr Stoner has taken to spending a good deal of time at the local zoo, where he is (inevitably) fascinated by the jaguar. He believes this jaguar is more than just a cat.

There’s an obvious influence at work from Cat People, and from Val Lewton’s 1940s horror movies in general. Which is no bad thing - it’s a pity more movies haven’t been influenced by Lewton’s serious approach to the genre. As with Cat People there’s a sexual element to the story. Juanita was at the stage where her sexuality was awakening when the idol was unearthed and thats clearly the reason she wa so susceptible, and the reason the god was interested in her.

The similarities to Lewton’s films go further, since we’re never entirely certain if the jaguar god is real or if there is merely a process of suggestion going on, of imaginations getting out of hand.

There’s some nice widescreen colour cinematography and some nifty location shooting. Much of the movie was shot in Mexico (the movie was a US-Mexican co-production). And not just footage of jungles and ancient ruins but also some effective use of the modernist architecture of the university in Mexico City which helps to set up the conflict between the ancient and the modern, between superstition and science. The scenes of the jaguar prowling through the university grounds work rather well.

The acting is mostly merely competent but James Robertson Justice is (as usual) larger-than-life and immense fun and he makes a good eccentric visionary archaeologist. Liliane Montevecchi is quite good as Juanita.

I’m not sure the movie entirely succeeds but it’s to Lewin’s credit that he tried to make a horror movie that was both intelligent and entertaining. It’s definitely worth a look.

I have no idea if this one is available on DVD. I caught it on late-night Australian TV, where it was shown in the proper Cinemascope ratio. It was a reasonably decent print although the colours were perhaps a little faded.

Sunday 5 September 2010

my new blog - Vintage Pop Fictions

I've started a new blog, Vintage Pop Fictions, for my reviews of pulp novels, trash fiction, detective stories, Victorian adventure tales, spy fiction and other similar books published up until around the 1970s. Sort of a literary version of this blog.

Friday 3 September 2010

Pirates of Blood River (1962)

Pirates of Blood River is one of two pirate movies that Christopher Lee starred in for Hammer in the early 60s. Sadly it’s not one of Hammer’s finest moments.

It seems to take place in South America somewhere, in a remote colony known as the Isle of Devon founded by Huguenot refugees from religious oppression. Rather ironic since this community is about as religiously oppressive a community as could be imagined. A young man, Jonathon Standing, has been carrying on a clandestine love affair with the wife of one of the elders. The affair is discovered, with fatal consequences for the woman. The young man is the son of the leader of the community so he gets off lightly - he only gets sentenced to fifteen years hard labour in a penal settlement!

He escapes and encounters a group of pirates. The leader of the pirates, Captain LaRoche (Christopher Lee), seems like a friendly decent sort of chap. He persuades poor Jonathon (who is good-hearted but rather naïve) that his intentions towards the people of the Isle of Devon are entirely peaceful. Jonathon volunteers to lead the pirates to the township. But those dastardly buccaneers turn out not to be so friendly after all! And Captain LaRoche is convinced that the original settlers of the Isle of Devon a hundred years earlier had brought a fabulous treasure with them from Europe.

There are several problems with this movie. One is the budget. Hammer were generally good at making a low-budget movie look a lot more expensive that it really was but this time it doesn’t work. The lack of a pirate ship in a pirate movie is bad enough but the attempts at spectacular action scenes fall very flat. It’s summed up rather well by the scene where the pirates emerge onto a hilltop overlooking the stockaded township and the leader of the townsfolk exclaims, “There must be at least thirty of them!” Cut to the hill, where there are at most a dozen pirates.

The other problem is the script. It’s full of good ideas that are never developed. At the beginning we see a community divided against itself, with one faction supporting a rigid and puritanical enforcement of biblical law while the other would like to see a relaxation of this oppressive atmosphere. There are real possibilities here for this division to be exploited by the pirates and to provide some real dramatic interest, but nothing is done with it.

The setting of father and son against each other has similar possibilities, and again nothing really happens.

There’s also the fat that the hero’s love interest is devoured by piranhas in the first five minutes of the movie, so there’s no romantic sub-plot to provide a focus for the audience’s sympathies.

A basic problem with all Hammer movies is that they always adhered rigidly to the principle that the bad guys must be destroyed and good must triumph. Since you know how the movie is going to end it’s vital that the plot provides a few distractions and a few twists along the way. The best Hammer movies manage to do this and are able to overcome the limitations of the evil-must-be-vanquished principle. Pirates of Blood River provides plenty of missed opportunities in this respect.

The excellent cast are left with too little to work with. Andrew Keir as Jonathon Standing’s father is somewhat wasted, a great pity because he was always good at playing crazed clergymen. Oliver Reed as one of the pirates gets drunk and gets into a couple of fights but it’s not a role that stretches his abilities very much. Christopher Lee looks very dashing with his eyepatch but LaRoche remains a two-dimensional character.

It’s by no means an awful movie and it’s a harmless enough way to kill an hour and a half but definitely not vintage Hammer.

Pirates of Blood River is part of the Hammer Icons of Adventure DVD set.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Varietease (1954)/Teaserama (1955)

One of the odder exploitation movie genres of the 50s was the burlesque movie. In most cases all you had to do was to set up a camera in a burlesque theatre and film so their big advantage was that they were just about the cheapest movies that could possibly be made. The two released by Something Weird in their Bettie Page set, Varietease and Teaserama, are more or less of the same type although not actually filmed in a theatre.

Burlesque itself was a curious piece of Americana (which has undergone a unexpected revival recently). Burlesque movies give us the chance to see what this odd art form was really like. That’s something we can’t really do with other similar theatrical phenomena such as vaudeville, music-hall or Victorian melodrama.

Burlesque was essentially a mixture of comedy routines and strip-tease. Both the comedy and the stripping are quite unlike their modern descendants. The classic burlesque comic was the baggy-pants comic. Unlike modern stand-up comedy these routines involved two or more people and were more in the nature of comic dialogues than comic monologues.

And the classic strip-tease artiste was not what we think of when we think of strippers. These ladies were never actually naked. It was, like the cheesecake photography and the pin-up illustrations of the same era, a curiously innocent form of erotica. What it lacked in explicitness it made up for in glamour. Which explains why, in this age of all-pervasive internet porn, these art forms still have a following. Sex can be glamorous and fun.

Another odd thing about burlesque was that it was extremely popular among women. Burlesque theatres were not all-male preserves.

Varietease and Teaserama provide a pretty extensive sampling of the burlesque of the 50s. While they’re both promoted as Bettie Page films, which is natural enough given her iconic status, she’s not the star of either of them (although she’s certainly featured). The real stars are two of the most famous of all burlesque queens, Lili St Cyr and Tempest Storm. Of course the modern idea of feminine beauty is that women should look like anorexic boys. And Lili St Cyr and Tempest Storm most definitely do not fit that mould. They were nonetheless, for a whole generation of American men, the personification of female beauty. And they have the glamour.

Both movies were clearly very cheaply produced and you won’t see much in the way of imaginative filming techniques. Perhaps that’s fitting since it means the emphasis is on the performers.

Both movies include a commentary track by Something Weird head honcho Mike Vraney and sexploitation movie legend Dave Friedman. Watching with the commentary track is probably the way to go. You need to know the historical background to get anything out of these movies and these guys prove that background.

They’re really historical curiosities more than anything else but they do provide a fascinating glimpse of a very different world of cinematic erotica. And if you’re a Bettie Page fan she’s not only in both features but also in the shorts included as extras - she even gets some dialogue in one of the shorts!