Sunday 31 October 2010

Shivers (1975)

Shivers (or to give it its original US title They Came from Within) was David Cronenberg’s first real feature film. Many of the obsessions that run through his work can be seen in this movie so it has perhaps some mild historical interest for that reason. Unfortunately it’s an unbelievably bad movie so if you’re not a Cronenberg completist avoid this one.

I happen to be a major fan of Cronenberg’s work. I consider both Crash and Dead Ringers to be masterpieces. Shivers is simply an embarrassment. In an interview on the DVD Cronenberg admits that his early films were heavily influenced by American underground movies. And Shivers has all the hallmarks of a underground movie - excruciatingly bad acting, inept editing, a flat visual style, a penchant for cheap shocks and a generally infantile tone.

The setting is an ultra-modern (by 1975 standards) apartment building on an island in the St Lawrence River in Montreal. The Starliner is more than just an apartment block though - it’s an entire town in miniature with its own shops, its own medical centre, etc. Were presumably supposed to see this as some kind of comment on the evils of modernist architecture and capitalism.

The doctors at the medical centre have been conducting experiments with parasites. On of the more deranged of these medicos has a theory that parasites can be created that will be over to take over the functions of damaged bodily organs thus making organ transplants unnecessary. Of course these parasites have escaped into the building, and they apparently have the effect of making people sex-crazed.

Cronenberg explains in his interview that he’s a firm believe in not implying anything - all the horror should be shown. Shivers is a classic example of the drawbacks of that approach. When your monsters look too silly to be scary your only option is to try to gross the audience out. The results are almost invariably, as in this case, tedious.

There are some good ideas here, but the film has no dramatic tension, no suspense, no surprises, no unexpected twists. Just a series of gross but silly images.

For a movie that concerns itself with parasites that supposedly drive their victims to sexual frenzy it’s also curiously un-erotic. Later in his career Cronenberg became very good indeed at depicting disturbing aberrant eroticism but sadly there’s no trace of that quality here. Even Lynn Lowry (who had demonstrated in Radley Metzger’s Score the previous year that she could be very disturbingly sexy indeed) fails to generate much excitement, even when she takes her clothes off in a desperate attempt to keep the audience interested.

Cronenberg even gets a dull performance out of Barbara Steele.

Cronenberg and Kim Newman, in discussing the movie, use the words transgressive and subversive a lot. They’re great words, but all too often in practice they end up being things that 19-year-old film students think will shock their parents. And Cronenberg was 32 when he made the movie, which is a bit embarrassing.

I haven’t changed my opinion on Cronenberg. I still think he’s one of the best and most interesting of modern horror directors. Everyone is entitled to one bad movie and its always good to get it over with early in your career. One does have to feel a bit sorry for the Canadian taxpayers who financed this clunker.

The Prism Region 2 DVD suffers from atrocious sound quality, but given that this was a low-budget movie that may be a problem with the source material rather than the DVD. And the dialogue is so awful that most of the time not being able to understand it is actually an advantage.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me, released in 1977, was one of the most successful of the Roger Moore James Bond films.

A British nuclear ballistic missile submarine vanishes without trace. The natural inclination would be to blame the Russians, except that one of their nuclear submarines has disappeared as well. The Russian intelligence services have assigned their top agent Major Anya Amasova, Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) to the job, while the British have (inevitably) assigned James Bond.

One thing that is known is that someone has developed the technology to track nuclear submarines, and the technology is on sale to the highest bidder. Bond journeys to Egypt to find the mysterious someone who is making the sale, and to his considerable surprise finds himself ordered to work with a partner - the top Russian spy. As you might expect Bond is pretty soon trying to persuade her into bed but there’s a complication - events in Austria a short time earlier have given the Soviet agent a grudge against him and she informs him that as soon as their mission is completed she intends to kill him.

There is of course a diabolical criminal mastermind behind the mystery of the vanished submarines, and his fiendish plan isn’t quite what Bond expected it to be. It’s not the usual international blackmail plot - Karl Stromberg dreams of a new future for humanity under the sea, but first he must destroy existing civilisation.

There are plenty of impressive action sequences, there are cool gadgets, there are spectacular sets. And yet somehow it falls rather flat. The problem is the relationship between Bond and the beautiful Russian spy. It has lots of potential, but it just fizzles aimlessly. Given that she wants to kill Bond but that she also seems to want to sleep with him there should be some sparkling dialogue exchanges, but the dialogue is singularly lacking in zing.

Her homicidal intentions towards Bond should provide some real zest but the script totally fails to develop this angle. I have no idea if Barbara Bach can actually act but certainly in this film she is given nothing to work with and her performance is uninspired.

I’ve always found that the most satisfactory Bond movies are the ones where the Bond Girl (whoever she may be) gets to do more than just look decorative. Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, all make the female lead central to the plot and manage to be slightly more than just action films.

Curd Jürgens is a favourite actor of mine but he is also, although to a lesser extent, let down by the script. Again there is a lack of the kind of witty dialogue exchanges that would have added some interest. Which is a pity since witty dialogue is exactly the sort of thing at which Roger Moore excels.

On the plus side Caroline Munro is fun, as always.

Détente was in the air during the 70s so the plot was timely. The aquatic headquarters of Stromberg is pretty cool although perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Dr No’s headquarters.

For my money this one, although entertaining enough, doesn’t make into the top rank of Bond films.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Phantom from Space (1953)

Phantom from Space isn’t going to make anyone’s greatest movies of all time list but it’s an amusing and entertaining slice of 50s American sci-fi.

Radar stations pick up an unidentified craft traveling at very high altitude and at a fantastic speed. The craft is slowly losing altitude and airspeed, and finally disappears. Shortly afterwards unexplained interference starts to play havoc with radio reception. The Communications Commission has its radio trucks out trying to trace the source of the interference.

Then a series of odd murders takes place, involving a mysterious stranger, strangely dressed and wearing what looks like a diver’s helmet. Witnesses aren’t entirely certain but they have the impression there was no face inside the helmet!

The usual team of scientists that you expect in a 1953 sci-fi movie are called in to investigate, along with the police lieutenant in charge of the murder cases and an air force officer. They find the stranger’s clothing, and discover it’s made if an unknown material. And the helmet has an air tank attached, but the mixture of gases it contains would be instantly fatal to a human. Given all this plus the fact that the stranger appears to be invisible it takes an extraordinarily long time to come to the fairly obvious conclusion that they’re not dealing with someone from our planet.

Phantom from Space addresses what was a very popular them in 50s science fiction. It was assumed that of course we would eventually encounter aliens, but would they be friendly or hostile? More importantly, would we be able to tell the difference? Would we be able to communicate on any meaningful level? The movie doesn’t deal with the issue in great depth but it does deal with it reasonably convincingly.

It starts out appearing to be another alien invasion movie but it becomes more and more doubtful that the alien is really an invader. What I like about this movie is that it leaves things open. The mystery is never resolved, and the humans are left wondering if they could have handled things better. They’re also left with both a sense of wonder and of loss.

That’s not to suggest this is a forgotten classic. It’s very much a B-movie, but a B-movie that at least has a few ideas.

It’s also very talky, but that’s more or less par for the course for low-budget movies of this vintage. One of the great attractions of any fun science fiction movie is the technobabble, and this one has some truly classic examples. My favourite piece of pseudoscientific gobblydegook is when the chief scientist theorises that the alien may not be a carbon-based lifeform, but a silicon-based lifeform. Glass is made of silicon. And glass is transparent. Therefore it makes sense that the alien should be invisible!

The acting is standard B-movie acting, the special effects are ultra-cheap, there’s lots of stock footage of interceptors being scrambled to meet the mysterious alien spacecraft. That it does have though is really cool 1950 high-tech radio cars with gigantic radio aerials. They’re a lot of fun.

If you’re a fan of 50 American sci-fi this one is worth seeing. The public domain print I saw was pretty rough but I believe there’s been a quite decent DVD release.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Mundo Depravados (1967)

Mundo Depravados is an odd little sexploitation murder mystery from 1967, notable mostly for featuring strip-tease artiste Tempest Storm in one of her very few straight acting roles. Tempest Storm is of course one of the great ladies of American burlesque. I use the present tense deliberately - she’s not only still with us, but as recently as 2008 was apparently still performing. The plot concerns a sex killer stalking women who appear in a bizarre TV exercise program. This TV program is associated in some obscure way with a burlesque theatre, with the sleazy TV host being a business partner of Tango (Tempest Storm), the lady who not only runs the burlesque theatre but is also its star attraction. The murders are being investigated by two detectives who also provide the comic relief. They’re pretty incompetent as cops, but when they suddenly break into an impromptu comic routine you have to be grateful that they decided on law enforcement rather than show business as their primary careers. The murders are lacking in anything even remotely resembling graphic violence and in fact have a very cartoonish feel to them. The entire movie is of course not to be taken the slightest bit seriously. There are naturally (this being primarily a sexloitation flick) various ingenious excuses to show the young ladies without their clothes on. The nudity is fairly tame. It’s notable mostly for the fact that these are actual women who look like women rather than famine victims or the products of cosmetic surgery. This is of course one of the most endearing things about 1960s sexploitation movies - the actresses usually looked pretty much like ordinary women. We also get to see Tempest Storm perform. Rather surprisingly she isn’t just included for that reason and Tango is in fact the central character in the film. So she has to do some real acting. As an actress she’s terrible but luckily everybody else in the movie is equally bad so it doesn’t matter, and she does have a certain presence. And it’s the sort of movie that is enhanced rather than damaged by the awfulness of the acting. This is not a movie that has any artistic pretensions whatsoever. It’s straight grindhouse fare but it has a certain undeniable charm to it. There’s some delightfully kooky dialogue and it has that slight touch of weirdness that connoisseurs of the genre look for. Of course the most important question you will be wanting to ask is - does it include nude go-go dancing? The answer to that question is a definite yes. It comes as part of one of Something Weird Video’s two-movie sets, paired with The Love Cult (which I haven’t yet watched). The DVD transfer is pretty good. It’s probably not a must-see for fans of sexploitation but it’s worth a look.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973)

The opening credits of Anita: Swedish Nymphet (Anita - ur en tonårsflickas dagbok) tell us that this is the true story of a nymphomaniac. This might lead you to expect that you’re about to see a typical 1970s sex comedy. But this is a Swedish erotic film. These are the people who gave the world Ingmar Bergman. There are no laughs in this movie. It takes itself very seriously, and it’s somewhat self-consciously arty.

This might sound a trifle dull, but don’t despair. This film does star Christina Lindberg, and she can make absolutely anything worth watching. It might also be worth mentioning that she’s naked for a considerable proportion of the movie.

She plays a teenager named Anita whose life is being destroyed by her compulsive need for sex. To make things more difficult for her she can only have sex with any man once, after which she will have nothing further to do with him. Since she needs to have sex several times a day she faces a major problem. Sweden does not have a large population, and she’s rapidly running out of men.

She’s also earned herself a somewhat dubious reputation in her home town. No-one at her school wants to know her. Her parents constantly compare her unfavourably to her studious good girl sister. The town’s prostitutes regard her as unfair competition. These factors, along with the man shortage, have driven her to hanging out at the local railway station where she snares men from out of town and drags them off and has her way with them.

Things are getting a little desperate when she meets a rather quiet young male college student. Erik lives in a household full of musicians but he’s a psychology student as well as being a musician. He becomes very interested in her case, genuine full-blown nymphomaniacs being fairly rare, and decides to take her on as a psychology project. He’s also rather drawn to her which is not altogether surprising since apart from being a nymphomaniac Anita is a rather sweet girl. But knowing her history he is determined not to have sex with her. That’s rather a challenge because Anita finds it very difficult to spend more than a few minutes with a man without trying to get his trousers off.

Erik soon realises that Anita’s sex obsession has two main causes. The first cause is that she regards herself as worthless because her parents neglect her emotionally and favour her sister. The second cause is that despite spending most of her waking hours engaging in sexual acts she has never had an orgasm. Diagnosing the causes of her nymphomania was easy, but now he has to find a way to overcome these twin obstacles to her happiness.

The very earnest tone of the film, especially when combined with the lurid subject matter, the huge quantities of sex and nudity, and the half-baked pop psychology could easily invite ridicule. That it doesn’t collapse into utter silliness and pomposity is due entirely to star Christina Lindberg. Ms Lindberg may not be the world’s greatest actress but she’s competent and the role is well within her acting range. She also has undoubted charisma, and she has an intensity that works well here. And most importantly she’s able to make Anita extremely likeable, and she also manages to avoid any wallowing in victimhood. In addition to which Ms Lindberg is of course a remarkably beautiful woman.

The mixture of high moral seriousness with outrageous exploitation elements makes this a rather amusing movie. Nobody could possibly take it as seriously as it takes itself but Anita herself is sympathetic enough and engaging enough to make the seriousness bearable.

It’s included in the Region 2 three-movie set Swedish Erotica from a company called Revelation. It’s fullscreen and the picture quality is deplorable but it is a Christina Lindberg movie and if you’re a fan of hers you’ll want it anyway, and the set includes another very good movie of hers called Exposed which makes it a reasonable buy.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Blind Beast (1969)

Blind Beast (Môjû) is based on one of Edogawa Rampo’s tales so one expects a certain amount of weirdness. And that’s exactly what you get. In fact a great deal of weirdness.

This 1969 Japanese production isn’t technically a pink film since it was made by a major studio (in this case Daiei Studios) but it certainly has affinities with the pink film.

Aki Shima is a very attractive young woman who earns her living as a photographic model. She does a lot of nude modelling, and has become quite well known for her work with a particular photographer. His photographs have a definite S&M flavour to them. Attending the opening of an exhibition of his work at a Tokyo gallery she notices a man taking a very unusual interest in a nude sculpture of her. He isn’t interested in looking at the sculpture; he wants to touch it.

That evening she is feeling tense so she calls up the massage service she uses regularly. The masseur who arrives isn’t her regular masseur; in fact it’s the man from the gallery. His idea of massage is a little more intimate than she’s comfortable with. He wants to feel every part of her body. He is blind. Where a sighted man would appreciate a woman’s beauty visually he does it by touch. She’s slightly freaked out by this but worse is to come. He returns shortly afterwards and kidnaps her.

The blind man, Michio, is a sculptor. His chosen subject is the female body. Aki finds herself in a bizarre gallery of gigantic sculptures of female body parts. Michio is planning his masterpiece. Aki is to be his model. It will be a nude study of her. He will use his sense of touch to map and then reproduce the contours of her body. Aki is more than a little reluctant but decides it might be wise to agree, and then hope for an opportunity to get way.

Michio has never known a woman, never had sex, never even kissed a woman. Not surprisingly after several days of touching Aki’s body he starts to take a sexual interest in her. She encourages him in the hope that this will facilitate her plans to escape. The relationship between Aki and Michio gradually changes from that between gaoler and captive to something much stranger and much more perverse. Aki starts to lose her sight as well, and the relationship slips further and further into a world of pleasure and pain, of sadomasochistic obsession. They are now both captives of their destructive desires. The climax is inevitable but nonetheless shocking.

Eiji Funakoshi as Michio is very disturbing. Mako Midori gives a remarkable performance as Aki. She’s vulnerable and calculating, innocent and depraved, an in her own way just as disturbing as MIchio.

Director Yasuzo Masumura has created a movie with a visual style that is as excessive and as decadent as the subject matter. The sets are terrific, with the huge female body parts serving as a kind of stage on which Michio and Aki play out their psychosexual drama.

This movie reflects Japan’s strange censorship policies. It is extremely coy so far as nudity is concerned, and yet the subject matter couldn’t possibly be any more perversely erotic.

Sex, horror and art combine in a deliciously twisted way in this warped but enthralling film. Highly recommended.

The Region 2 DVD release is lacking in extras but the transfer is quite satisfactory.

Friday 8 October 2010

Journey Among Women (1977)

Anyone who has pursued a love of cult movies will have at some stage in the course of that pursuit come cross some spectacularly bad movies. And if you fall into this category it’s likely that at some point you have considered the perennial question - what is the absolute worst movie ever made? I can now provide you with an unequivocal answer to that question. The worst movie of all time is Journey Among Women.

This 1977 Australian film has every possible qualification for this exalted title. It has artistic pretensions without any actual art, it has cringe-inducingly crude political content, the acting is ghastly, it looks horrible, the plot makes no sense, the direction is inept, and most of all it’s boring.

Some time in Australia’s early colonial period, presumably in approximately the first decade of the 19th century, a group of women convicts endure harsh mistreatment by the Wicked British Military Machine. They rebel and escape, and form a kind of lesbian separatist commune in the bush. At first they find survival a struggle, but then they meet some Indigenous Women and bond with them, and soon learn to live in Harmony With Nature.

But of course the forces of patriarchal oppression can’t allow them to live in peace and oneness with the land because soon all the women of the colony would run off into the bush to join them. The stage is set for a showdown.

Every single male character in the movie is a rapist and a Wicked Patriarchal Oppressor. The women are all virtuous because, you know, they’re women. They’re also very spiritual and in touch with the oneness of nature, and they like to set round and form a healing circle. They reject the oppressiveness of the evil patriarchy by taking their clothes off a lot.

While it’s supposed to be the early 19th century the women all look, speak and behave like
unwashed 1970s hippies. They also paint themselves so they can be more like the Wise and Virtuous Indigenous Women. There are no Indigenous Men, because the overwhelming Political Correctness of this movie could not have coped with the conflict between the known facts that all Indigenous Peoples are Wise and Virtuous, but all men are Rapists and Wicked Patriarchal Oppressors.

The women spend most of the movie wandering about the bush naked celebrating their oneness with the landscape and their deep spiritual links with the land and with the Indigenous Women.

Ironically in view of the fact that this is the most Politically Correct movie ever made, its box-office success in Australia was based almost entirely on the almost non-stop nudity and the frequent lesbian rompings.

A tedious, angry and monumentally uninteresting movie.

Amazingly enough this dreck has been released on DVD. It doesn’t even have enough curiosity value to justify a purchase.

Monday 4 October 2010

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

Humanoids from the Deep (also released as Monster) is your basic monsters from the deep sci-fi horror movie, but with added sleaze. Lots of added sleaze.

It was produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and it has the kinds of exploitation ingredients you expect in a Corman-produced movie.

It follows the standard pattern - you have a sleepy seaside town that is suddenly menaced by mysterious monsters from beneath the sea. The town of Noyo depends on salmon fishing, and a big corporation is about to build a cannery there. This will be a huge boost to the town and everyone is happy, except for the local Indian tribe. And there’s even better news - the cannery company has a hotshot scientist with a plan to increase the numbers and the size of the salmon catch. Since this is a horror movie the scientist is a beautiful young female scientist, Dr Susan Drake.

Everything would be just hunky-dory except that people are starting to get butchered. Dr Drake, being a sceptical hard-headed believer in science, has no doubt what is going on. The town is being attacked by sea monsters! We later discover that there’s a reason that Dr Drake immediately suspects monsters - the cannery company has been experimenting with DNA-5 and a large mount has escaped into the environment. This has had the effect of accelerating the evolution process, so that a local species of fish has started evolving into humanoids!

The humanoids don’t just chomp people. This is where the sleaze factor comes in. These fishy humanoids have a powerful drive to accelerate their own evolution, and they do this by mating with the womenfolk of Noyo! As Corman puts it in an accompanying interview, they kill the men and rape the women.

Corman always had a sound instinct for what drive-in audiences wanted, and in 1980 he believed (quite correctly) that what they wanted was cheesy monsters, gore and naked women. And this movie delivers all three in copious quantities.

The original director was Barbara Peeters but the footage she filmed had insufficient sleaze so Corman got the second unit director to film lots more sleaze content.

The acting is fun B-movie acting, with Doug McClure being heroic, Vic Morrow being villainous and Ann Turkel being the dedicated but glamorous scientist. The cast know what’s expected of them and they deliver.

The special effects manage to be both reasonably impressive and very cheesy, a combination that characterises so many of the films Corman was associated with. The action is non-stop, and the editing is very tight. Despite the silliness of the premise the excitement is maintained.

The science is wonderfully goofy, which is always a plus.

This is a movie that concentrates on entertainment. If you want something deep and meaningful, or artistic, you’re not going to get it. What you will get is guys in monster suits, people getting chewed up by monsters, stuff getting blown up and naked women being chased by randy humanoid sea creatures. All done very proficiently, with a good deal of energy and a certain amount of style.

The Shout Factory DVD boasts a nice transfer and a series of reasonably informative interviews with various people involved in the movie.

Friday 1 October 2010

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966)

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters is a slice of classic 1960s drive-in movie cheesiness.

As so often in sci-fi/horror movies of that era the threat to humanity originates in the frozen wastes of either the Arctic or Antarctica. In this case it’s Antarctica. Plant samples from the frozen continent are being flown to a remote US Navy base at Gow Island but disaster strikes the aircraft and it has to make an emergency landing. There is only one survivor, the pilot, and he’s in no condition to tell anything of the odd events that caused the aerial mishap.

Before very long personnel at the base start to disappear and then turn up dead. Of course if you’re a horror movie fan then at this point you’ll be suspecting that those plant samples belonged to giant walking carnivorous plants. And you’d be spot on! It takes a while for the base’s resident scientists to catch on.

This particular base doesn’t seem to be especially well equipped - when the killer plants cut the wires to the generator the task of repairing the damage is quite beyond the capabilities of the personnel here. The officer in charge, Lt Charlie Brown (Anthony Eisley), eventually realises the full significance of the menace posed by these vicious plants. The only way of stopping them seems to be by using fire.

There’s the expected romantic sub-plot involving beautiful Navy nurse Nora Hall (Mamie van Doren), and there are the usual conflicts between the Navy people and the somewhat irritable civilian meteorologist.

It’s played to a large extent for laughs, and the comic elements are rather heavy going. But this is very much standard drive-in fodder so you expect that sort of thing. On the plus side there’s plenty of enjoyably goofy technobabble. And the monsters are as cheesy as one could possibly desire.

The acting is exactly what you expect in a low-budget drive-in movie. Oddly enough Mamie van Doren isn’t given to many opportunities to show off the spectacularly voluptuous figure that made her a B-movie queen. As an actress her abilities are strictly limited but they’re more than adequate for his role.

Of course you know that sooner or later someone will decide to all in an air strike by Navy bombers to pulverise those rampaging killer shrubs, or in this case to zap them with napalm. Half a dozen aircraft duly arrive, and in each shot they strangely metamorphose into entirely different types of aircraft. That sort of thing is one of the great joys of low-budget sci-fi movies.

It’s not overly scary but even at the time the picture was released it was essentially an exercise in campy silly fun and on that level it works admirably. I certainly enjoyed it.

The Region 1 DVD comes to us from an outfit called Cheezy Flicks. They don’t seem to have done a great deal in the way of restoration but these days we have to be grateful that such obscurities are being released on DVD at all.

If you’re in the mood for a popcorn movie you could do a lot worse.