Tuesday 31 December 2013

cult movie viewing highlights of 2013

These are the movies that have been the highlights of my cult movie viewing in 2013.

The Black Room (1935)

The Invisible Ray (1936)

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Black Moon (1934)

Erik the Conqueror (1961)

Laura's Toys (1975)

The Cobweb (1955)

The Black Castle (1952)

ffolkes (North Sea Hijack, 1979)

Master of the World (1961)

Saturday 28 December 2013

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960)

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (released in the US as Never Take Candy from a Stranger) is one of Hammer’s most unusual films. It was also possibly their most controversial movie.

To make a movie about a child molester in 1960 took a certain amount of courage. Such subject matter was going to have to be handled very carefully (although it would probably be even more difficult to make this movie today). Hammer very wisely chose to approach the movie in a deliberately non-sensational manner.

Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) has just arrived in a small Canadian town to take up a position as principal of the local high school. He and his wife Sally (Gwen Watford) and their nine-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye) have been settling in fairly well, until Jean tells her parents about a rather disturbing experience she’s had. In fact Jean doesn’t find the experience disturbing until she notices her parents’ shocked reactions. Jean and her friend  Lucille had gone into a house where Lucille assured Jean they were guaranteed to get sweets. All they had to do to get the sweets was to dance naked for an old man.

The old man is Clarence Olderberry Sr (Felix Aylmer). The Olderberrys more or less run the town. Clarence Sr effectively built the town when he established a sawmill there many years earlier and Clarence Jr (Bill Nagy) now runs most of the town’s businesses and dominates the town council.

When the Carters make a complaint to the police they find they have disturbed a hornet’s nest. Clarence Olderberry Jr is outraged that his poor old father should have such an accusation made against him. He knows, and everybody in the town knows, that the old man is rather peculiar and that his fondness for children is a little excessive and possibly even a little unhealthy. But the prevailing view is that despite his peculiarities the old man is basically harmless. As the story unfolds it’s important to remember that Clarence Jr genuinely believes his father is harmless.

In the face of considerable opposition the Carters decide to press charges. The ensuing court case is very unpleasant and the results are not entirely satisfactory but the story is far from over.

This movie lacks the star power of most Hammer movies of its era but it has a strong cast and the performances are subtle and nicely judged. Felix Aylmer’s performance is very disturbing, particularly since this superb character actor usually played sympathetic roles or played pillars of respectability. Patrick Allen avoids the temptation of making his performance too overtly emotional. Bill Nagy is set up as the chief villain by virtue of his obstructiveness although as noted earlier he truly does not believe that his father is dangerous. Young Janina Faye’s role was a formidably challenging one for such a young actress. To a large extent the film’s success or failure hinges on her performance and she does a superb job.

Director Cyril Frankel takes his material very seriously and approaches it with sensitivity. Freddie Francis was responsible for the cinematography. There are some very fine visual set-pieces. The scenes on the lake are ominous and moody and genuinely suspenseful, and scary. The chase through the woods is equally effective. This subject matter could have lent itself to a social problem approach and there are elements of that, but done more subtly than is usual with that approach.

The plot is somewhat predictable but the execution is skillful and the lack of sensationalism gives the film a much greater punch. The story is moving and involving but it also works extremely well as a suspense film.

The movie’s one weakness is that it succumbs to the temptation to become a city vs country film with the country people quite unfairly coming off (as they always do in such cases) as small-minded and bigoted compared to the more sophisticated and intelligent city folk. This is an approach that I always found offensive and it weakens the movie somewhat.

This movie forms part of the Hammer Films: Icons of Suspense DVD boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent. There are no extras.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a tense and effective suspense thriller that deals with uncomfortable subject matter with unexpected finesse. Recommended.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Cabiria (1914)

Whether Cabiria was actually the first ever feature film may be debatable, but it was certainly the first cinematic epic. Originally released in mid-1914, before the First World  War, it can fairly claim to be one of the most influential motion pictures ever made. Its other claim to fame is that it introduced the character of Maciste. This strongman hero would go on to appear in countless Italian movies right up to the 1960s and would become the major hero of the peplum (Italian sword-and-sandal) genre. Cabiria is in fact the ancestor of that entire genre.

Director Giovanni Pastrone had been making movies as far back as 1908 but Cabiria was something new entirely. Even by the standards of movie epics Cabiria is astonishingly ambitious, both in terms of visual grandeur and in the complexity of the story it tells. Pastrone was also an important technical innovator, being the first film-maker to attempt tracking shots. Many of the innovations usually credited to D. W. Griffith were actually pioneered by Pastrone. Griffith would use them more boldly but Pastrone in many cases got there first.

Gabriele d’Annunzio, one of the key figures in late 19th an early 20th century Italian literature, wrote the title cards and much of the story (in collaboration with Pastrone). The influence of Gustave Flaubert’s brilliant 1862 novel Salammbô is obvious although the story also draws on a novel by Emilio Salgari. The primary source though was Livy’s history of Rome.

The movie was made by Pastrone’s own production company, Itala Films, and when released was an international sensation.

The movie is set against the background of the Second Punic War in the early 2nd century BC, with Rome fighting for survival against the Carthaginian armies led by Hannibal.

The movie starts in a town on the slopes of Mt Etna. The volcano erupts and Cabiria, the eight-year-old daughter of a wealthy merchant, is believed to have perished in the disaster. Cabiria is not in fact dead but by a series of mischances in the confusion she ends up in the hands of pirates, and this is merely the beginning of her troubles. She is about to be sacrificed to the Carthaginian god Moloch when she is rescued, at least temporarily, by a brave and kindly Roman named Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato) and his faithful black slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano). Fulvius, Maciste and Cabiria will all find themselves pawns in the complex machinations of the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Mazzini).

If this movie has a major flaw it is that the plot is just too complex and tries to deal with too many major political and military events. It all becomes a little bewildering, and there is insufficient focus on Cabiria’s own story. What has to be borne in mind is that the feature film virtually didn’t exist before this movie was made. Pastrone had to make up the rules as he went along. That he made a few mistakes and occasional lost control of his material is hardly surprising; what is more surprising is that it works as well as it does.

Sophonisba is the character who more or less dominates the movie and this is no bad thing. She is by a long way the most interesting character and Italia Almirante-Mazzini is by far the strongest member of the cast. Sophonisba can almost be seen as the first screen femme fatale or at least as a kind of proto-vamp. Almost, but not quite, since she never entirely loses our sympathy. At times she is ruthless and she is always scheming but then it has to be said that she is struggling to survive in a very perilous world and she is caught between two mighty (and very dangerous) empires, Rome and Carthage. She is courageous and determined so she is both vamp and heroine.

Pastrone’s visual style is best described as painterly. While he does at times move the camera he mostly relies on his sense of composition, making each shot seem like an historical painting come to life. It works because his compositions are so brilliant. His cutting is also, for 1914, rather bold and this saves the movie from the static quality that afflicts other very early feature films. It’s true that Griffith would surpass him in the field of editing but again Pastrone was the pioneer.

The pacing is rather leisurely although the movie’s slowness is due mainly to its excessively complicated plot.

The visuals are unquestionably stunning, not just by the standards of 1914 but by any standards. The sets are immense and overwhelming. The temple of Moloch in this film has inspired countless set designers. There are some spectacular stunts and they are clearly dangerous and clearly done for real. Other highlights are a volcanic eruption, the destruction of a Roman fleet, Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (complete with elephants) and various battles. This movie has enough spectacular visual set-pieces for half a dozen movies.

Kino’s DVD release is bitterly disappointing. The movie is heavily cut, although apparently a more or less uncut print survives. Picture quality ranges from good to awful. There are no extras.

Cabiria has immense historical importance, to both movie lovers in general and to cult movie fans. Despite some flaws it is more than just an historical curiosity. Its visual splendour carries it through some slow moments. Recommended.

Friday 20 December 2013

Zimmer 13 (1964)

Zimmer 13 (Room 13) was one of the popular series of Edgar Wallace thrillers (known in Germany as krimis) made by German studio Rialto during the 1960s. Released in 1964, Zimmer 13 is one of the more conventional entries in this series, a factor that counts against it. In general the best of these krimis are the ones that are the most outrageous.

Sir Robert Marney (Walter Rilla) is a respectable English member of parliament but he wasn’t always quite so respectable. His past catches up to him when Joe Legge (Richard Häussler) appears on the scene. Twenty years before Marney and Legge were obviously involved in undertakings that were less than strictly legal. Marney has reformed but Legge has not. Now Legge wants to involve Marney in a spectacular train robbery he is planning.

Marney calls on the assistance of private detective Johnny Gray (Joachim Fuchsberger). Scotland Yard will also become involved, in the person of Dr Higgins (Eddi Arent), who seems to double as both detective and forensic scientist.

There is also a murder sub-plot that has very little, if anything, to do with the main plot. A series of grisly murders has been spreading terror throughout London. The victims are women and the murder weapon is a straight razor.

Joachim Fuchsberger was a fixture in the Rialto krimis and could always be relied upon to make a likeable hero. Siegfried Schürenberg, another equally reliable fixture in these movies, plays Scotland Yard chief Sir John. Eddi Arent usually provided the comic relief but he gets a more substantial role this time. Arent’s comedy style is an acquired taste but it has to be said that his performances can be appreciated a great deal more in the subtitled German versions rather than the more familiar poorly dubbed English dubbed versions. Arent has fun in this movie as Dr Higgins’ scientific experiments invariably end in explosions, often threatening the survival of Higgins’ great love, a store dummy named Emily. I’m gradually becoming something of an Eddi Arent fan.

Karin Dor also has more to do than usual, in the key role of Marney’s beloved daughter Denise.

The heist sequences are quite well done. There are touches of the outrageousness that makes so many of the krimis firm cult favourites. In general though this movie plays it a little too straight. As always it’s amusing to see the British police armed to the teeth, even toting submachine guns!

The London settings are of course quite unconvincing but this is one of the charms of the krimis, with obviously German locations standing in for English settings. The castle that supposedly belongs to Sir Robert Marney is a nice touch, it being naturally assumed that all prominent Englishmen live in castles.

Harald Reinl was a competent director who always handled this sort of material fairly well.

There’s a hint of sleaze and there’s even a touch of gore, an unusual feature for a krimi. 

The German DVD release from Tobis Home entertainment includes both the English dubbed version and the original German-language version with English subtitles. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is flawless.

Zimmer 13 is reasonable entertainment. If you’re new to the krimi genre there are better places to start than this one. Recommended if you’re a fan of the genre.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Adam Adamant Lives!

If there’s one thing that’s almost as much fun as the cult movies of the 1960s and 1970s it’s the cult television of the same era. This will be the first of an occasional series of posts on this subject.

One of the less known British adventure series of the 1960s was the BBC’s Adam Adamant Lives! which ran for two seasons in 1966 and 1967. Most of season 1 survives but unfortunately almost all of season 2 is lost.

The premise was a clever one that offered the opportunity for some satirical observations on the social mores of the past and present. Fortunately the fun adventure elements predominate. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper) was an Edwardian adventurer and secret agent who disappeared in 1902. In fact he was deep-frozen by a dastardly enemy. In 1966 he is revived and resumes his career as crime-fighter, adventurer and secret agent.

Adam finds the world of Swinging London in the 1960s rather perplexing and he finds much of which he disapproves. His old-fashioned attitudes and sense of honour might seem to be a disadvantage in the world of the 1960s but they actually turn out to be more of an asset than a hindrance. Adam is both courageous and determined and wrong-doers find him to be a surprisingly formidable enemy. Adam prefers to use his sword-cane rather than firearms, a habit that causes amusement to his foes until they discover just how dangerous and skillful he is with such a weapon.

Naturally a hero has to have a sidekick and Adam’s sidekick is Georgina Jones (Juliet Harmer), a Swinging 60s chick whose modern attitudes are often disturbing to our hero. In spite of often disapproving of her he can’t help also being rather fond of her. Georgina is brave to the point of foolhardiness and is always getting herself into scrapes but if there’s one thing Adam admires it is courage. Although Adam is a gentleman of the Edwardian era and Georgina is a free-spirited modern girl a considerable mutual respect develops between the two characters. The interplay between Adam Adamant and Georgina Jones is always a delight.

Adam Adamant Lives! is an excellent example of a program that has a very English feel to it, but in a very good way. It has not only the Swinging London of the 60s vibe but also a London of the 1890s vibe as well. And the very English flavour is in this case very definitely an asset.

It is also, for a BBC production, extraordinarily good fun in a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek way. It’s one of the few BBC series that captures the same kind of witty, sexy and good-natured feel that made series like The Avengers so successful. The scripts weren’t always up to the standards of The Avengers but it benefits from a truly wonderful cast with all three recurring characters being just right.

Despite the BBC’s legendary reluctance to spend real money on mere light entertainment such as this the production values are reasonable, a tribute to the ability of BBC producers  to make a very small amount of money stretch surprisingly well.

The stories are fairly typical of 1960s secret agent/crime-fighter series but the unusual nature of the hero gives the series an original and very engaging feel.

The surviving episodes have been released on DVD. Adam Adamant Lives! is immense fun and is highly recommended.

Monday 16 December 2013

The Wild Geese (1978)

The Wild Geese, released in 1978, is a full-blooded action adventure movie. The Wild Geese is also a movie about mercenaries in Africa. This subject matter made it highly controversial at the time although needless to say most of those who objected to the movie hadn’t bothered to see it. If they had they would have discovered that the movie’s message was the complete opposite of what they had assumed.

Mercenary leader Colonel Alan Faulkner (Richard Burton) is hired by wealthy industrialist and merchant banker Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to snatch a deposed African leader named Limbani (Winston Ntshona) from his prison cell. Matherson is trying to negotiate a copper concession with the man who deposed Limbani. The new president wants Limbani dead but Matherson’s plan is to double-cross him and get Limbani out of the country.

Faulkner knows the men he wants for the mission but getting some of them could be difficult. Lieutenant Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore) has a Mafia contract on his head, but Matherson assures him he can get the contract lifted. Captain Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) has given up the mercenary business to concentrate on raising his young son Emil. Janders is a different kind of mercenary from Faulkner. Faulkner has always been happy to work for anyone who will pay him, but Janders is an idealist who will only work for the good guys.

These difficulties are overcome and then the rest of the team is assembled. They will need a fourth officer and ex-South African security policeman Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Krüger) knows the bush as well as anyone and is an obvious choice. Faulkner will also need a sergeant-major to get the men into shape and R.S.M. Sandy Young (Jack Watson) is as tough as they come.

Four sergeants and a medic as well as forty other ranks will also be needed. Witty (Kenneth Griffith), an alcoholic homosexual but under his effeminate exterior he’s not only a good medic but a very tough soldier and he seems an ideal choice as the medic.

Rafer Janders will plan the mission. Planning is his speciality and Faulkner has complete confidence in him.

The mission goes like clockwork but then the mercenaries strike a small snag. An aircraft was supposed to extract them after they had completed their mission but it takes off without them and they realise they have been double-crossed. Now they will have to fight their way out, fifty men against a whole army.

Euan Lloyd was an independent producer but he had a knack for raising the money for big-budget movies like this. With a generous budget to work with director Andrew V. McLaglen delivers plenty of thrilling action scenes. Action was something that director McLaglen was particularly good at. Jack Hildyard was one of Britain’s best cinematographers while editor and second unit director John Glen would go on to helm several Bond movies. The movie looks as impressive as you’d expect with personnel like this involved. To ensure accuracy the most famous mercenary of them all, Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare, was brought in as technical and military advisor.

The cast is equally strong. If ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare was impressed by Richard Burton’s performance as the mercenary leader who am I to argue with him? Richard Harris is careful not to make his character, the mercenary with a conscience, irritating. Roger Moore plays a rather more ruthless character than usual and does it splendidly. The supporting cast is a veritable galaxy of great British character actors all of whom excel. The cast also includes quite a few real mercenaries like Ian Yule as Sergeant ‘Tosh’ Donaldson (who does a fine job).

Reginald Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Daniel Carney. It’s a fine screenplay. Its one minor weakness is the political angle, with ex-President Limbani doing a bit too much speechifying (and Winston Ntshona’s excessively earnest performance doesn’t help). The political subtext feels a bit like it was tacked on to placate those who might have objected to a movie about mercenaries filmed in South Africa. Fortunately this proves to be only a temporary distraction from the movie’s main focus which is on the mercenaries themselves, their varying motivations, their military ethos and their response to the very nasty situation they find themselves in. This is (apart from the action scenes) the movie’s strength and the fine performances and the subtle characterisations carry it through.

By 1978 standards the violence in this movie was considered to be rather graphic. By today’s depraved standards it seems to strike the right balance, being graphic enough to be convincing without going overboard. As you might expect from a movie made in 1978 it has some rather politically incorrect moments as well, making it a refreshing change from the mealy-mouthed conformism of today.

Severin’s Blu-Ray release boasts a superb anamorphic transfer and a host of extras. These extras include a commentary track featuring producer Euan Lloyd, editor and second unit director John Glen and star Sir Roger Moore, a making-of featurette, a documentary on Euan Lloyd’s career and another on director Andrew V. McLaglen and an interview with ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare himself (Hoare has particularly fond memories of working with Richard Burton).

The Wild Geese is a boys’ own adventure in the best possible sense. Immensely entertaining and highly recommended.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Brian de Palma’s Murder à la Mod (1968)

Made in 1967, Murder à la Mod was not Brian de Palma’s first film but it was his first feature film to get a theatrical release (albeit on a very limited scale). This movie then more or less disappeared from view until the folks at Something Weird Video resurrected it on a double-feature DVD. It’s not a very good movie by any means but de Palma fans will find it to be of some interest.

An arty avant-garde movie-maker named Chris (Jared Martin) has been manipulated into making sexploitation movies. Since he’s a Serious Young Film-Maker he finds this to be terribly degrading. He needs $10,000 to get out of his contract but he has no money at all. His girlfriend Karen (Margo Norton) is willing to appear in his movie in order to help him out.

Also involved in the movie is a strange guy named Otto (William Finley, who would go on to appear in many of de Palma’s later movies), and a sleazy producer.

There’s a murder and there’s also a sub-plot involving Karen’s rich friend Tracy (Andra Akers).

This is in many ways classic de Palma stuff with endless homages to other directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock. The homages are so blatant that if anybody else did them they’d be considered outright thefts but somehow de Palma could always get way with such things.

This is very much film student stuff with de Palma using every avant-garde trick in the book - non-linear narrative, jump cuts, handheld camera shots, you name it.  Despite this it could have been great fun but in true film student style it’s outrageously overdone. The biggest problem though is the excessively jokey tone. Making a murder thriller that is also a comedy requires great lightness of touch but at this stage of his career de Palma lack the experience to carry it off.

It’s also much too 1960s, and not in a good way. It has a kind of acid trip psychedelic vibe. Combining silly hippie psychedelic claptrap with murder could have been amusing but the comedy here has all the subtlety of a train wreck.

That’s not to say it’s a complete loss. The graveyard scene is a very impressive visual set-piece that gets the surreal tone right, something the director was obviously striving for in the rest of the movie. In fact there are quite a few excellent visual moments.

The voiceovers could have been effective but they’re done in too relentlessly comic style so that they fail to be disturbing, and they need to be disturbing for the movie to work.

The acting is film student standard, in other words excruciatingly bad.

The movie was filmed in black-and-white and the location shooting in New York has a nice time capsule feel.

The most frustrating thing about the movie is that it almost works. The comedy didn’t need to be eliminated. The director was aiming for a surreal comedy thriller and if that’s what he wanted to do it’s a perfectly valid choice. The comedy did need to be toned down a little.

For all its faults it’s clearly a Brian de Palma movie. Nobody else in 1967 would have made a movie quite like this. The cinematic self-reflexiveness, the disturbingly perverse quality of the erotic element, the combination of models and ice-picks, the touches of black comedy, the voyeurism, all these things are distinctively de Palma and they’re done in distinctively de Palma style.

Something Weird have managed to find a surprisingly good print of this cinematic obscurity. It actually looks quite superb. Murder à la Mod is paired with an even more obscure 1963 thriller called The Moving Finger (which I haven’t yet had a chance to watch) on the two-movie DVD.

Murder à la Mod tries too hard, throws too many ideas into the mix and is too undisciplined but it’s an interesting glimpse of de Palma’s style and technique in embryonic form. If you’re a fan of his work you’ll certainly want to see this one.

Monday 9 December 2013

The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974)

The first question raised by a review of The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann is the obvious one. Is it worth actually trying to review a hardcore porn movie? The second question is, if you are going to review such a movie can you review it the way you’d review any other movie, judging it in terms of the quality of the acting, the intelligence of the screenplay, the richness of the cinematography, the skill of the director?

The answer to the first question is that this is a movie by Radley Metzger, and Metzger’s work from the 1960s and 1970s is now very highly regarded. He is considered to be perhaps the most stylish maker of erotic movies of his era, or any other era. And he is the man who made what is almost universally judged to be the best hardcore sex movie ever made, The Opening of Misty Beethoven (a movie that lives up to its high reputation). Anything made by Radley Metzger is worth consideration, and if you’ve ever seen any of his earlier films you would have to agree that his movies can only be judged by the criteria that would be applied to any other movie.

By 1974 Metzger was in the same situation as everyone else in the business of making erotic movies. The arrival of Deep Throat in 1972 had changed all the rules. The traditional markets for softcore erotica pretty much dried up. Distributors wanted hardcore films. Metzger had just made a superb, sophisticated, witty sex comedy called Score, a movie that should have cleaned up at the box office. But Score arrived a couple of years too late and it flopped. This was a particular problem for Metzger. His company, Audubon Films, had complete control of the production and distribution of its movies, so a box office flop was a serious financial disaster. To compound the problem, Score had been made the way Metzger had made all his previous movies - with high production values, imaginative sets and a great deal of care. All of which cost money. Metzger had always worked with at least moderately generous budgets. Score’s commercial failure cost Audubon Films real money.

Apart from leaving the industry altogether there was only one possible course of action left open. Metzger would have to go down the hardcore road. Not only that, he would have to make his next movie on a much more modest scale. That was difficult enough, but being a man who took film-making seriously he also intended his next movie to be, despite an unavoidably low budget, an intelligent and stylish movie. That was the only way he knew how to make movies. The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann reflects the extreme difficulty of carrying off such a venture successfully. That it does not entirely succeed is not surprising. That it succeeds at all is much more surprising.

In those innocent days of the mid-70s even hardcore porn movies were expected to have actual plots and actual characters, and actors who could act. The demands of exhibitors for as much graphic sex as possible were always going to make it difficult to combine plotting and character with the required quantity of sex, a difficulty that would ultimately sound the death knell for porn movies made as actual movies.

Metzger had always been attracted by the idea of combining stylish erotica with sophisticated comedy and this was the formula he used for the five hardcore movies he made under the name Henry Paris in the mid to late-70s. Frank (Eric Edwards) is a private eye employed by the husband of Pamela Mann (Barbara Bourbon) to find out what she was getting up to during her afternoons while he was at the office. He suspects she may be fooling around, and Frank’s job is to find out whether this suspicion is correct. The bulk of the movie comprises Frank’s investigations, and the film he secretly takes of her afternoon activities. This might sound like the kind of threadbare plot that is merely an excuse for lots of explicit sex but Metzger’s screenplay is rather more complex than it seems. The situation is not at all what it appears to be on the surface and Frank is getting involved in events that he seriously fails to understand. Metzger had already used the idea of a film-within-a-film in his superb 1970 erotic psychological thriller The Lickerish Quartet and the motif of reality being not as it appears to be had also appeared in that film. This time these ideas are used for comic purposes but the faintly disturbing edge remains.

Budgetary constraints had persuaded Metzger to shoot in Super 16mm rather than 35mm for the first time. In theory Super 16mm (unlike regular 16mm film) can be blown up to 35mm without any significant loss of quality. Unfortunately however in this case Metzger had to use more basic lighting setups than he was accustomed to and this combined with the use of Super 16mm results in images that lack the kind of atmosphere and visual extravagance you expect in a Radley Metzger movie. Overall the production values are noticeably lower than in his previous movies, and for a movie-maker whose genius was essentially visual this is a serious problem.

A bigger problem is the nature of hardcore porn itself. Hardcore is always essentially mechanical. It is sex reduced to a matter of body parts. Softcore porn cannot rely on explicitness to achieve erotic intensity. It has to rely on emotional intensity and imagination. As a result softcore, if done reasonably proficiently, will always be far more erotic than even very well-made hardcore. Once the focus shifts to body parts it’s almost impossible to keep the focus on sex as something that happens between people rather than between body parts. It’s also exceptionally difficult to combine hardcore sex with comedy. Hardcore sex is by its very nature impersonal and humourless.

The biggest problem of all is that in a hardcore film the story essentially stops whenever the sex starts. Erotic movies are rather like musicals. For a musical to work really successfully the musical numbers have to be seamlessly integrated with the story. The classic RKO Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals work so well because the dance routines don’t interrupt the story - they actually tell us more about the story and about the characters than the non-dancing parts of these movies. The excellent softcore porn movies made by people like Joe Sarno in the 70s work the same way. When characters have sex we know why they’re having sex and the sex scenes tell us how they really feel about each other. Doing that in a hardcore movie is almost impossible.

To his credit, by the time he made The Opening of Misty Beethoven in 1976 he had solved these problems. The sex scenes in that movie are integrated into the story, and most importantly by that time Metzger had figured out how to do the impossible - how to make hardcore sex scenes enhance the comedy rather than interrupt it.

These were the days when pornstars were expected to be able to act, and Eric Edwards was a more than competent actor. He plays Frank with the right kind of likeable wide-eyed innocence. When people start playing sexual games there are likely to be winners and losers, and in this situation Frank is set up as the patsy. Barbara Bourbon is adequate as Pamela Mann. It’s unfortunate that Jamie Gillis doesn’t get the chance to demonstrate his considerable gifts as a comic actor although it has to be admitted that cast here in a surprisingly dark role he’s quite effective. Georgina Spelvin as the whore who is a little too wrapped up in her work successfully avoids the obvious trap of trying to make her character the archetypal whore with a heart of gold.

The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann doesn’t quite achieve what it set out to achieve but having said that it must be added that it’s light years ahead of what passes for erotica these days. It has a genuinely clever screenplay and in typical Metzger style the humour has an edge to it. It’s played as comedy but we are never allowed to forget that sexual games can have consequences. Despite the low budget this is a movie that does display some genuine visual flair. The movie was a bold attempt to make a stylish and classy hardcore erotic movie. It’s ultimately defeated by the limitations of the hardcore genre itself but it is at least an interesting failure, and it comes closer to succeeding than could reasonably be expected.

Video X Pix have given this movie the Criterion treatment. We get a good if not flawless anamorphic transfer plus a host of extras. These extras include a commentary track featuring Radley Metzger himself that is in itself sufficient reason to buy the DVD. There’s also a lengthy interview with Eric Edwards plus a 44-page booklet of liner notes!

If you’re not put off by the idea of hardcore sex The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann is worth a look as a glimpse into a bygone age when erotic movies were made with style and care.

Friday 6 December 2013

Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956)

American-born Cy Roth wrote, directed and produced Fire Maidens of Outer Space, a 1956 British sci-fi movie which has some serious claims to being the worst sci-fi movie ever made. Cy Roth was certainly technically more competent than Ed Wood but this feature lacks the bizarre charm that makes Wood’s movies so much fun. Having said that, Fire Maidens of Outer Space does have some camp value and if you’re in the right mood it can be almost entertaining.

An Anglo-American space mission is about to blast off, its destination the newly discovered 13th moon of Jupiter, believed to be the only place in the solar system capable of supporting life as we know it. The mission is led by American scientist Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter) and British scientist Dr Higgins (Sydney Tafler).

After surviving the inevitable meteor storm the spacecraft reaches the 13th moon. There is obviously life here since our astronauts are given landing instructions. Luckily the inhabitants of this distant satellite speak perfect English. Even more luckily this moon turn out to have an atmosphere identical to Earth’s. It is also covered in vegetation that is indistinguishable from that found in the part of England where the outdoor scenes were shot, thus saving the producers from having to spend any money at all on special effects.

After landing the astronauts save an attractive young woman (we learn later that her name is Hestia) from the attentions of a fearsome monster. This monster has been terrorising the inhabitants of the planet.

But who are the inhabitants of the 13th moon of Jupiter? It transpires that they are the last survivors of Atlantis. When it became obvious that Atlantis was about to sink beneath the waves the Atlanteans did the obvious thing and hopped aboard their spaceship (which they just happened to have) and headed for Jupiter.

There aren’t very many of them. There is one old man named Prasus (Owen Berry) and about a dozen young women. Prasus refers to them as his daughters but this is true only in a figurative sense. As the father of his country he regards all Atlanteans as his children.

Since there are only a dozen or so women on the moon, and only one elderly man, it’s not surprising that the women become completely man-crazy when they meet our astronauts. The Earth astronauts will have to fend off the advances of the man-hungry Atlantean girls while finding a way to deal with the monster, not to mention the rather deranged Prasus.

Naturally there is a romance sub-plot as Luther Blair and Hestia fall for each other, only to attract the jealous spite of Duessa who feel that as the oldest of the girls she should have first pick of any available men. Her jealousy may cause poor Hestia to be sacrificed to the gods.

It’s all rather less interesting than it sounds. There’s enough plot for a half-hour film so the 73-minute running time is padded out with a lot of aimless running about and some extended sequences in which the fire maidens (we never find out why they are supposed to be fire maidens) dance interminably.

The acting is as Z-grade as everything else. Susan Shaw’s performance as Hestia is do extraordinarily blank that it provides much of the movie’s unintended humour.

We are told that the monster is a kind of Neanderthal. Which leads us to wonder why, if he is so primitive, he is wearing clothes. The answer is of course obvious. The producers were not willing to spend the money (in fact they probably didn’t have the money) on a rubber monster suit. So they made do with some less than impressive facial makeup. Whenever the monster appears on camera our view of him is obscured as much as possible, an understandable enough ploy since this is not a monster that will stand close scrutiny.

This is clearly a movie made on the proverbial shoestring budget and one can’t help admiring Cy Roth’s gall and the shameless way in which he cuts every possible corner. Such special effects as this movie boasts look like they involved the expenditure of a few shillings at the nearest Woolworths. The only real expense would seem to have been providing the Atlantean girls with their rather short tunics. Roth doesn’t even bother offering a pseudoscientific explanation for the fact that the spacecraft has gravity when it shouldn’t. One suspects he just didn’t care.

The basic idea of astronauts reaching another planet only to find it inhabited by man-hungry women inspired many sc-fi films in the 50s, some of them rather entertaining (the gloriously camp Queen of Outer Space being the best). Fire Maidens of Outer Space is the most feeble of them all.

Olive Films have decided that this movie is so significant that they have not only released it on DVD but on Blu-Ray as well. The DVD, which is the version reviewed here, is entirely bereft of extras. The transfer is passable.

Fire Maidens of Outer Space may provide some enjoyment in a so-bad-it’s-good way but I would strongly urge prospective purchasers to rent it first before risking their money. The movie’s limited camp appeal is its only asset and there are plenty of other similar movies that do this sort of thing in an infinitely more enjoyable way.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Mystery and Imagination - Curse of the Mummy

Mystery and Imagination was a gothic horror anthology series broadcast on British television between 1966 and 1970. Each episode was based on one of the classic works of gothic fiction. The first three seasons were made by ABC Television. After ABC’s merger with Rediffusion to form Thames television a further six episodes were made. Only two episodes from the ABC era are still in existence but all six Thames episodes survive. The last of the Thames productions, in 1970, was Curse of the Mummy, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars.

This underrated Stoker novel would be adapted by Hammer Films the following year as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb.

A prominent Egyptologist named Trelawny (Graham Crowden) is found in his house in a state of collapse. He appears to be clinging to life by the slenderest of threads. Curiously enough he has left strict and detailed instructions to be followed in the event of just such an attack.

Dr Malcolm Ross (Patrick Mower) and Sergeant Daw (Murray Hayne) are persuaded by Trelawny’s daughter Margaret (Isobel Black), somewhat against their better judgments, to comply with  Trelawny’s instructions.

Trelawny has an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummy which he believes to be that of the notorious Egyptian Queen Tera, a queen with a reputation for practising black magic. Margaret Trelawny bears a striking resemblance to the dead queen.

It transpires that Trelawny has hopes of restoring Queen Tera to life, a plan that may have consequences that the Egyptologist has not foreseen.

Thames obviously could not spend anywhere near as much as Hammer would spend on their feature film version but they did a reasonably good job. It does have a very studio-bound feel but that in some ways works in its favour, creating a sense of claustrophobic menace. The episode was shot in colour and looks quite handsome.

John Russell Taylor’s script sticks fairly close to the novel. The episode benefits from some fine acting. Isobel Black looks suitably exotic and does very well in her dual role (events from Queen Tera’s life being told in flashback). The underrated Patrick Mower is effective as the courageous doctor who finds himself falling under Margaret Trelawny’s spell. Or is he falling under Queen Tera’s spell? Graham Crowden overacts, as he always did, and does so to fine effect.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb was one of Hammer’s best gothic horror movies. While Curse of the Mummy isn’t in the same league it still stands up quite well and is most certainly worth a look. Recommended.

Sunday 1 December 2013

The Black Castle (1952)

Universal’s The Black Castle was released in 1952. This is a swashbuckling adventure movie rather than a horror movie but it’s also very much a gothic movie and the horror elements are certainly there, and they’re prominent enough to ensure that horror fans are unlikely to be disappointed.

Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) is an 18th century British adventurer. In Africa he had foiled the plans of the power-mad Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Now two of Burton’s friends who had been with him in Africa have disappeared. They were last seen in the vicinity of the Count’s castle in Germany and Burton suspects the Count has imprisoned or (more likely) murdered them in revenge. Burton sets off for von Bruno’s castle to discover the fate of his friends.

He soon makes the acquaintance of some of von Bruno’s friends. And a vicious and unsavoury lot they are, particularly the smooth but sinister Count Ernst von Melcher (Michael Pate). On reaching the castle he initially finds no evidence of his friends but his suspicions grow even stronger. The wife of von Bruno, Countess Elga von Bruno (Rita Corday), is obviously a very unhappy woman and Burton finds himself drawn to her, a fact that rather unfortunately soon becomes known to the Count. Burton will eventually discover more from the rather disreputable Dr Meissen (Boris Karloff). But can he trust the doctor?

Burton’s major problem is that while he is finding out more about von Bruno’s sinister activities the Count is finding out more about him. If the Count makes the connection between his unhappy experiences in Africa and Burton then the Englishman’s life is going to be in serious jeopardy, to say the least. Burton is brave and resourceful but his only real allies are Countess Elga (who is likely to land him in a great deal of trouble since he is most probably going to have to do something to save her) and Dr Meissen, whose motivations are highly ambiguous.

The Black Castle is never in danger of getting bogged down. The story moves along briskly and is liberally peppered with action, narrow escapes, thrills, and some genuine chills as well.

The general feel of this movie is very close that of The Strange Door, made a year earlier by Universal. That’s not surprising since both movies were scripted (and very competently scripted) by Jerry Sackheim and photographed by Irving Glassberg. One thing that this movies makes very clear is that Universal had not lost their touch when it came to creating gothic atmosphere on celluloid. Glassberg’s black-and-white cinematography is superb. The costumes are as lush as you’d expect in a picture (even a low-budget picture) from a major studio picture and the sets pile on the gothic atmosphere even thicker. In one or two scenes the sets look slightly familiar, suggesting they were left over and reworked from The Strange Door.

Nathan Juran’s success as a B-movie director was based on his ability to get the job done on time and on budget but he manages to do it with a certain flair here.

Horror fans will be disappointed to find that Boris Karloff is relegated to a supporting role. The good news is that when he finally gets a chance to do something he does it well. Lon Chaney Jr’s career followed the same sort of trajectory as Bela Lugosi’s a decade earlier - stardom coming suddenly and spectacularly followed by a precipitous and never-ending decline. Chaney has little to do here but look menacing, which he does well enough.

There’s no subtlety to Stephen McNally’s performance as the villain. Nor should there be. This is pure adventure and McNally quite rightly goes all out to make von Bruno a classic and rather scary and formidable and totally diabolical villain. Evil sadistic henchman roles were meat and drink to Australian character actor Michael Pate and this time he’s landed a substantial part and he’s in great form, even managing to match Stephen McNally in the maniacal laughter department.

It’s Richard Greene who is the star here. English-born Greene’s film career never amounted to much although he was destined for major fame (and riches) on television back in Britain as Robin Hood. Swashbuckling roles were what he did best and he makes a fine hero in this outing.

Rita Corday (billed here as Paula Corday) is the heroine and turns in a solid performance.

Both this movie and The Strange Door are actually rather better than most of Universal’s 1940s horror/thriller movies. It may not have been a big production but it’s obvious that everyone involved put as much as they could into it. Every actor is perfectly cast and there are no weak links. In fact there are really no weaknesses at all to this movie - it all comes together in a very satisfactory and entertaining manner. And to make things even better there’s no tedious comic relief!

Despite Karloff’s relegation to a supporting role Universal decided to include this movie in their excellent Boris Karloff Collection DVD set. It was not only a shrewd move by Universal, it’s also one for which they are to be commended. If the Karloff name was the selling point they needed to justify releasing this movie on DVD then I have no problems with that - this is a terrific movie that thoroughly deserves to be available on DVD. The transfer is superb as well.

The Black Castle is a stylish, extremely well-made and exceptionally enjoyable  gothic adventure movie laced with some genuine horror moments and I have no hesitation in recommending it very highly indeed.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Inga (1968)

Joe Sarno’s Inga (Jag - en oskuld) was the director’s biggest ever hit and became one of the iconic erotic movies of the 1960s. It’s also something of an oddity, being an American sexploitation movie shot in Sweden with a mixed American-Swedish crew. The result is a surprisingly successful blending of the European art-house movie with Sarno’s distinctive style of very American sexploitation.

By the mid-60s it was becoming obvious that the Hollywood Production Code was no longer viable and it was replaced by a ratings system. As an afterthought the Motion Picture Association of America added an additional rating, the “X” rating. For various reasons (possibly to do with their reluctance to be seen as active censors) the “X” rating was unofficial and left to the discretion of distributors.

At the same time it was becoming obvious that sooner or later sex was going to break out into mainstream movies. Plenty of movies had dealt with sex obliquely or peripherally but eventually it was going to be dealt with directly. Sex is too interesting a part of the human experience to be shunted off to one side indefinitely.

Although it was most certainly not their intention, in retrospect it is clear that the MPAA’s “X” rating had finally opened the door. In 1968 two American sexploitation movies would begin the process of kicking that door wide open - Russ Meyer’s Vixen and Joe Sarno’s Inga.

Something that wasn’t clear at the time was that if a film-maker was going to tackle sex directly and intelligently that film-maker was more likely to come from the shadowy world of the grindhouses rather than from the mainstream. In general mainstream movie-makers, both then and now, had the unfortunate tendency to take sex much too seriously and try to make it much too arty. They also were never going to be able to realise that if you want to make a movie about sex it has to be genuinely erotic. A movie about sex that lacks an erotic charge is like a movie about romance that isn’t romantic, or a suspense movie that isn’t suspenseful. Inga in fact provides the basic template for all future serious movies about sex - it has a strong narrative structure (a feature that always distinguished Sarno’s exploitation movies), it’s very character-driven, the emphasis is on sex as an emotional experience and it’s sexy without being tacky. And, not surprisingly, it made a great deal of money.

The setup is typically Sarno. We have an emotional/sexual situation that seems stable but is in reality a ticking bomb, and then someone comes along and lights the fuse.

Greta (Monica Strömmerstedt) is a 33-year-old widow who has been having a somewhat one-sided relationship with a much younger man named Karl (Casten Lassen). Karl is an aspiring writer. He is selfish, self-centred and shallow but he is also young and very good-looking. Greta is hopelessly in love with him. Karl is very fond of Greta’s money. Unfortunately Greta is nowhere near as wealthy as she would like Karl to think. In fact she is partly dependent financially on her late husband’s friends Einar Nilsson (Thomas Ungewitter) and Einar’s sister Sigrid (Sissi Kaiser). Karl is a very expensive boy-toy to maintain and Greta is starting to feel the strain. She is also keenly and painfully aware that although she is still a beautiful woman she is in her mid-thirties and the clock is ticking.

Sigrid has a problem as well. The problem of what to do about her brother Einar. Einar is a wealthy, successful and highly respected editor who is very much at home in the very cultured and rather artistic circles in which he and Sigrid move. He is in early middle age but is still a rather handsome man. But Einar has a taste for young girlfriends. Very young girlfriends. Not young enough to cause any legal problems or scandals but young enough to cause plenty of other headaches. Teenage girls soon become bored with middle-aged lovers and Einar always gets hurt. And humiliated. And made to look a fool. Even worse he has very poor judgment in the girls he chooses and their behaviour causes constant embarrassment and anxiety to Sigrid.

Sigrid is the elder sibling and she is fiercely protective of her brother. She now comes up with a plan. Einar generally has no interest in women of Greta’s age but he has always had a bit of a thing for her, and she is still an extremely attractive woman. Most importantly Greta is the sort of woman who could move comfortably in Einar’s world. Greta is unimpressed by Sigrid’s idea until Sigrid lays her cards on the table. Greta needs the financial support she gets from Sigrid and that money could disappear if Greta refuses. On the other hand if Greta does agree to manoeuvre herself into being Einar’s concubine the financial support could become rather more lucrative.

Greta’s life is complicated enough but it’s going to get very much more complicated when she finds herself having to act as substitute mother for her 17-year-old niece Inga (Marie Liljedahl). Inga is not your average 17-year-old girl. She is a quiet, studious, serious-minded girl with a taste for the classics and a passion for opera. She is intelligent, well-educated and highly cultured. Her idea of a good time is to curl up with a volume of Strindberg’s plays. Greta was initially less than enthusiastic about having Inga come to live with her but now she’s starting to see a way in which Inga could solve her problems for her. The key to her plan is that Inga combines her serious nature and highbrow tastes with the body of a 17-year-old sexbomb. Wouldn’t that make her the ideal mistress for Einar? Sigrid would be delighted by Inga’s intelligence and civilised behaviour. This is a girl who would not cause any embarrassments at dinner parties. Einar would have himself a stunning little nymphet as a bed partner. Greta’s services as Einar’s official mistress would no longer be required so she could concentrate on her boy-toy. Everyone would be happy. And for creating such universal happiness surely Sigrid would be more than willing to pay Greta generously for her services as procuress. Sigrid sees the logic in Greta’s scheme and the deal is cut. There’s just one tiny detail Greta has overlooked. She hasn’t thought it necessary to consult Inga about her feelings in regard to this splendid plan. And a beautiful teenage girl just starting to discover her sexuality is just the very thing to light the fuse to explode that ticking bomb I mentioned earlier.

While the awakening of a teenage girl’s sexuality is clearly going to be potential commercial dynamite it’s subject matter liberally littered with extremely dangerous pitfalls if you happen to be a writer-director who wants to make a serious and intelligent movie that will be artistically successful without being sleazy. Sarno happened to be that kind of writer-director, and with this movie he was making a bold move to capture both the exploitation markets and the European art-house markets.

The chief danger of course is that if you veer too much one way you will end up with a movie that is tacky and exploitative while if you try too hard to be serious and tasteful you can end up diluting the erotic charge. And given that the central theme is the emotionally and sexually explosive effects of Inga’s awakening the erotic charge has to be there, otherwise there’s absolutely no point to the movie. In fact there was never any serious cause for concern. Sarno was always able to get that kind of balance right. And he was always able to ratchet up the eroticism without ever losing sight of his main preoccupation - that sex always has emotional consequences. Greta loses sight of that truth while Inga must learn it quickly.

There is also the very real danger of drifting into Lolita territory and if that happens shipwreck is almost inevitable. Inga navigates these waters quite safely, keeping well away from those dangerous reefs. Lolita was a child. Inga, for all her youth and innocence, is unquestionably a woman. That’s really the whole point. Greta’s miscalculation is based on her failure to appreciate that fact.

Sarno, as usual, manages to deal with serious issues without losing his lightness of touch. While serious European art-house directors were remarkably successful at making erotic movies that are mind-numbingly dull and miserable Sarno was unlikely ever to commit such an error. Sarno was unafraid of the darker sides and consequences of sexuality but he had a certain fundamental optimism. People make mistakes but sometimes they do learn from them. Sex is powerful because it’s both dangerous and joyous.

Sarno gets fine performances from a cast composed of a mixture of stage actors, film actors and complete newcomers. But then he always had the ability to get the emotional intensity he wanted from his casts. As in most of his movies the women get the more complex and demanding rôles. Monica Strömmerstedt is wonderfully edgy as Greta. She always seems on the verge of psychological disintegration, which of course she is. Despite the appallingly manipulative and destructive (and self-destructive) behaviours in which she indulges we can never quite bring ourselves to despise her. Sarno had little interest in straightforward heroes or villains. He wanted characters who made disastrous mistakes not because they were evil but because they succumbed to very human weaknesses. Strömmerstedt captures Greta’s desperation exceptionally well.

Marie Liljedahl is the crucial ingredient. She had to be both innocent enough and sexual enough to be convincing without crossing over into disturbing territory and she strikes the perfect balance.  

Visually the movie looks like what it is - a blending of European and American sensibilities. It was shot in black-and-white, always Sarno’s preferred medium. The danger was that the Swedish locations might have looked too bleak in black-and-white but the movie manages to be both stark and beautiful. The budget was considerably larger than usual for a Sarno film and the extra production values are apparent.

The sex scenes were shot the way Sarno always shot them, with the emphasis on emotions rather than body parts. While the actual sexual content is tame by later standards the intensity that Sarno always strived for makes this movie far more erotic than what passes for erotica these days. This being 1967 it goes without saying that the women look like women rather than pornstars. The nudity is far from explicit but Marie Liljedahl certainly sizzles.

Retro-Seduction Cinema have done their usual splendid job with the DVD, with an excellent transfer offering both the original Swedish version and the English dubbed version. The extras include a commentary track featuring both Joe Sarno and his wife and perennial collaborator Peggy. One of the more interesting, and startling, revelations on this commentary track is that the sex scenes were real rather than simulated. Even Marie Liljedahl’s solo performance was apparently quite real. This would have been quite unusual even in fully-fledged early 70s soft porn; for a film shot in 1967 it’s extraordinarily bold.

Inga tries to be both an art movie and a sex movie and in general the results are remarkably successful. Highly recommended.