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.

Sunday 24 November 2013

The Mummy (1932) on Blu-Ray

The Mummy has always been one of my favourites among Universal’s 1930s horror movies. My DVD copy being a very poor one it was not difficult to convince myself that the Blu-Ray release would be a worthwhile purchase.

I’ve always thought that The Mummy can be best appreciated by being seen as both a horror movie and a tragic love story. It was slightly unusual among Universal’s early horror offerings in not being based on a classic of gothic literature, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories Lot 249 and The Ring of Thoth were certainly influences. Interest in ancient Egypt was already high when the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen by a British archaeological expedition in 1922 ignited a full-blown craze. Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original screenplay was drastically rewritten by John L. Balderston. The movie was originally going to be about Cagliostro but it eventually evolved into a story much more closely focused on ancient Egypt.

The movie opens with a superbly mounted suspense set-piece as an assistant to Sir Joseph Whemple’s 1921 dig unwittingly restores to life the mummy of the high priest Imhotep. The mummy then disappears. A decade later a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) leads another expedition to an extraordinary find, the tomb of the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. The audience already knows that Ardeth Bey is in fact Imhotep.

As the story unfolds we learn of the tragic love of Imhotep and Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep believes that a young half-American half-Egyptian woman named Helen Grosvener (Zita  Johann) is Ankh-es-en-amon reincarnated and he is determined that this time their love will endure.

While Imhotep/Ardeth Bey is certainly ruthless and is certainly a danger to anyone who gets in his way he is never a true monster. He has no interest in killing random strangers or in destroying civilisation or in ushering in a reign of evil. All he wants is to have Ankh-es-en-amon restored to him and for the two lovers to be united forever. He is thus, even by comparison with some of the rather sympathetic Universal monsters, a very sympathetic monster indeed. Karloff doesn’t just make him sympathetic; he gives the character a great deal of weight and dignity. If it’s not Karloff’s greatest performance it’s certainly among his very best.

It remains a mystery why anyone ever thought David Manners, who plays Sir Joseph Whemple’s son Frank, was worth pushing as a potential star. He had the matinee idol looks certainly but he was always much too bland. Fortunately there’s a fine supporting cast here with Edward Van Sloan being particularly good as Doctor Muller, who is Helen’s doctor as well as Sir Joseph Whemple’s close friend and also happens to be the expert in the occult that such a movie has to have.

This movie also benefits from having one of the best female leads of any of the Universal horror pictures. Zita Johann was known mostly as a stage actor and although her performance is a little stagey that actually suits both the movie and her role perfectly. Most importantly she looks convincingly exotic without coming across as a femme fatale.

This was Karl Freund’s first movie as a director and he not only brought the film in on time and on budget, he also added the kind of visual flair and sophistication you would expect from a man who was one of the greatest of all cinematographers. Despite the potentially lurid subject matter Freund avoids sensationalism. He clearly wants to entertain but he also wants us to take the love story seriously, and he succeeds on both counts. And the movie delivers the chills that a horror movie requires.

Universal had not been making horror movies for very long when this one was made but they were already very very good at the technical side. Jack Pierce’s makeup for Karloff is perfect, striking the right balance. It is creepy but it still gives Karloff’s character the dignity that the story requires. The sets are wonderful and in general this is one of the handsomest horror films ever made.

The Blu-Ray boasts a superb transfer. It is loaded with extras although personally I found them to be rather disappointing. The commentary track is unfocused, partly because there are just too many people involved, but more seriously they simply have not done their homework (their most egregious error being to credit H. G. Wells as the author of the two short stories that inspired the movie even though a minimal amount of research would have told them that the stories were in fact from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). There’s a documentary as well but it’s rather superficial.

What matters though is that The Mummy is one of the greatest of all horror movies and it looks magnificent on Blu-Ray.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Magnetic Monster (1953)

The Magnetic Monster is something of an anomaly, being a sci-fi monster movie without an actual monster. This low-budget 1953 release ends up working more successfully than you might have expected.

The movie was produced by Ivan Tors who would go on to earn his greatest fame with the wildly successful 1960s TV series Flipper . Tors shares the screenwriting credit with Curt Siodmak, a name associated with a variety of science fiction movies most of which are at the very least interesting. Siodmak also gets the directing credit here.

The movie adopts a pseudo-documentary style with star Richard Carlson acting as narrator. We learn of the A-Men (or Atom Men), scientists working for a US government agency tasked with investigating anything odd and/or threatening that might have a scientific basis. In this instance the case seems initially to fall into the odd rather than threatening category. Strange magnetic phenomena have been reported. Dr Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson) and his A-Man colleague Dr Dan Forbes (King Donovan) are called to a hardware store where every metal object has suddenly become magnetised. Dr Stewart is mildly concerned that they may be dealing with a uni-polar magnetic field, which is apparently one of the things that worries men like Dr Stewart. The high radiation levels in the store also worry out two intrepid scientist-investigators. Searching for the source of the magnetic field they discover a corpse - dead of radiation sickness.

Now comes my favourite part of the movie. Dr Stewart calls in the local police and orders them to shoot to kill! Of course at this stage they have identified no villain and have not even identified the source of the strange magnetic field. One has to wonder exactly whom he expects the police to shoot to kill?

The A-Men press on and the trail leads to an elderly and rather kindly physicist whose experiment had gotten slightly out of control, with slightly out of control being very definitely an understatement. He had been bombarding a particle of an unknown element with alpha-rays. This had changed the particle’s nature in a very surprising, an very frightening, way. The particle started to grow, absorbing energy and converting it into mass. And in the words of the elderly physicist, now it’s hungry. Very hungry.

Dr Stewart now realises they are dealing with a threat that could well mean The End Of Civilisation As We Know it. In fact it may mean the End Of Everything.

The fundamental weakness of this movie is that we still have no actual monster, merely a microscopic particle with menacing potential. While this is unquestionably a weakness the movie does manage to turn it into a strength as well. Such an abstract threat can be more terrifying is the subject is deal with skillfully, and this does deal with it fairly skillfully. After all any monster can be killed if you have enough firepower but how do you kill a non-living particle?

Of course there’s also the advantage that an unseen menace saves lots of money on social effects! Given the very low-budget nature of this movie one suspects that may have been the main attraction. There are some very cheap special effects representing the particle viewed through a special gizmo and while they’re less than spectacular they do create the right kind of gee-whizz science feel.

The movie’s other strategy for dealing with the no-monster problem is to introduce a race against time element, always a plus in a movie of this type. Unfortunately, while the idea of using stock footage of jet fighters that are supposed to be transporting the killer particle to a secret underground laboratory in Canada might have seemed like a good idea, it is a pity that the fighter on the ground is about as dissimilar in appearance from the same fighter supposedly in the air that rather than adding excitement it just adds a jarring moment.

Richard Carlson is solid enough as the top A-Man scientist who would really rather be home with his wife than being a hero but hero is the role he gets forced into. The supporting cast is about what you expect in a low-budget movie not made by a major studio - barely passable but at least not actively irritating.

If you’re a diehard 50s sci-fi fan what you want is lots of outrageous technobabble, and this movie delivers the goods on that count. It’s the sort of screenplay you’d expect to be written by someone who has read an article on Einstein’s theories in a popular magazine but has (quite correctly) decided that to do any serious research on the subject would just spoil the fun.

The movie relies a bit too heavily on stock footage and poorly integrated element from older movies but since the producers clearly had very little money to spend there’s probably no real way they could have avoided this.

MGM put this one out in their DVD-made-on-demand Limited Edition Collection. The transfer is adequate but with no extras at all the price is perhaps a little on the high side.

The Magnetic Monster, despite its cheapness and its potential weaknesses, actually works quite well. It manages to generate a fair degree of excitement and urgency and it takes itself just seriously enough. Definitely worth a rental.

Friday 15 November 2013

The Raven (1935)

The Raven is one of the lesser known Universal horror movies of the 30s and it’s a bit of a neglected gem. This 1935 production was one of the several occasions on which Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were paired and it gives both actors a chance to shine, although it’s Lugosi who dominates and effortlessly walks off with the acting honours.

Supposed adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s works generally have little actual Poe in them and this movie is no exception. Poe is however a influence on one of the major characters so I guess Universal felt they were entitled to claim it as a Poe adaptation.

Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is gravely injured in an automobile accident. The doctors fear that little can be done to save her. Her one chance would be if Dr Vollin could somehow be persuaded to take on her case.

Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is a great surgeon now retired from practice and devoting himself to his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. With great difficulty Judge Thatcher, Jean’s father, persuades Vollin to save his daughter. Jean is soon fully recovered. She is seeing quite a bit of Dr Vollin. He’s a rather fascinating man and he did save her life and it doesn’t occur to Jean that seeing so much of him might not be entirely appropriate. Her motives seem innocent enough. She is intrigued by his devotion to Poe and even choreographs a dance routine inspired by Poe (she is a professional dancer). Her dance routine is actually a key scene (and is quite effective), marking the point at which Vollin’s fantasies take over from reality in his mind.

While Jean may think her friendship with Vollin is harmless her father does not share her views. He fears that she will become infatuated with the doctor. In fact, as he discovers when he broaches the subject with Vollin, it is the doctor who has become infatuated with the young woman.

Vollin seems to relate Poe’s obsession with the lost Lenore in his poems to some event in his own life. In any case he has clearly started to see Jean as some kind of embodiment of Poe’s Lenore. Vollin has no intention of giving her up and then fate offers him a means of overcoming her father’s objections, in a permanent and fatal way. As we will discover Dr Vollin likes permanent and fatal solutions, especially if they’re slow and painful. An escaped killer, Edward Bateman (Boris Karloff), shows up on his doorstep. He believes that his life of violence and crime is a result of his ugliness. He has been told that Dr Vollin has the skill to alter a person’s face, to make an ugly person attractive. This is what he wishes Vollin to do for him. But Vollin has his own plans for Bateman.

This is one Karloff-Lugosi pairing in which Lugosi gets a role just as meaty, and in fact in this case much more so, as Karloff’s. Dr Vollin is of course a dangerous madman but he’s a cultured and sophisticated madman as well. This is the kind of part Lugosi relished and he makes the most of it. Karloff got top billing and was paid twice as much as Lugosi for this film. While this shameful treatment by Universal must have rankled at least this time Lugosi could console himself with the knowledge that he’d landed the plum role, and the biggest role as well.

Karloff is overshadowed but he is not entirely left out in the cold. Bateman is as mad and as dangerous as Vollin but he’s a somewhat tragic figure. Tragic monsters were meat and drink to Karloff and as always he extracts just the right amount of pathos without veering into excessive sentimentality or self-parody. The problem is that Karloff never could play American mobsters convincingly. Initially he seems ill at ease and seriously miscast but once Vollin transforms Bateman into a monster the problem becomes relatively unimportant. Karloff couldn’t play American mobsters but he could certainly play monsters.

This movie is also a joy to fans of the two great horror icons because not only are they both present, they have plenty of scenes together. The manipulative and grotesque relationship between these two very different madmen is the key to the film and it plays out quite effectively.

Irene Ware gets to do a great deal of screaming. She’s perfectly adequate in her role. A weekend house party hosted by Dr Vollin, a party that will end as the kind of party Poe would have imagined in his nightmares, gives an array of character actors the opportunity to practise their over-acting skills. They’re there to provide the totally unnecessary and inappropriate comic relief. Fortunately screenplay David Boehm and director Lew Landers (billed under his original name Louis Friedlander) keep the focus on Lugosi and Karloff as much as possible.

One of the great strengths of Universal’s horror movies of this era was the studio’s ability to provide such movies with exactly the right kind of sets and to make them convincing and interesting. The Raven doesn’t boast the glorious visual excesses of The Black Cat or even Son of Frankenstein but it still looks great and Dr Vollin’s Poe-inspired chamber of tortures should be enough to keep fans happy. The Pit and the Pendulum device is a particular highlight.

Lew Landers was a competent journeyman director. His most valuable contribution to this film is that he keeps things moving along at a very brisk pace.

This movie had popped up on DVD before but the transfer on the disc included in their Bela Lugosi Collection is a significant improvement. There’s some grain but if anything it adds to the atmosphere. More importantly the contrast is excellent. Sound is very good as well and overall Universal have done a fine job. The set itself (comprising five movies on a doubled-sided DVD) is an absolute must-have for any self-respecting fan of these two great horror actors or of the Universal horror movies in general.

This movie’s biggest problem has always been that it was a Poe adaptation that appeared a year after an earlier Universal Poe movie, The Black Cat, a movie that was in every way bigger, more ambitious, more spectacular and more successful (and was a box-office smash hit). In fact The Black Cat is one of the all-time great horror movies. The Raven can’t compete with that. What you need to do is to to forget the comparisons. The Raven is a much more modest effort but it’s great fun and it features one of Lugosi’s most enjoyably outrageous performances. Highly recommended.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Laura's Toys (1975)

Laura's Toys, released in 1975,  is fairly typical of Joe Sarno’s mid-1970s softcore sex films. Anyone familiar with Sarno’s work knows that this means they’re in for something that is a good deal more than just softcore porn. Sarno’s perennial preoccupations with the emotional consequences of sex are on full display, there is real acting, an intelligent script and sensitively drawn characters.

Sarno started his career in American sexploitation movies in the 60s and right from the beginning his movies were unusual in their emotional sophistication. For those unfamiliar with the genre American sexploitation movies combined extremely mild erotic content (many would easily qualify for a PG rating today) with an extraordinary amount of quirkiness and often downright weirdness. As long as they contained at least a moderate amount of the required content of nudity and sex the film-makers working in this field were more or less free to do anything they wanted to do. The result was a fascinating output of movies that displayed the unconventional visions of some interesting low-budget film-makers.

When these movies started being taken seriously (at least by some movie fans and even scholars) a couple of decades ago Sarno was one of the two singled out as the directors most worthy of respect (the other being Radley Metzger). Sarno’s specialty was the psychological sexploitation movie. Some have gone so far as to see him as a sort of low-budget American Bergman. While it might be going too far to describe Sarno as a great movie-maker he was undeniably intriguing, distinctive, intelligent and often provocative. At the very least he was an important minor, but very genuine, talent.

By the end of the 1960s sexploitation was essentially dead as a genre, having been replaced by softcore porn movies. The main difference, apart from the considerable increase in the amount and explicitness of the sex, was that these softcore features generally lacked the appealing campy oddness of the earlier sexploitation genre. Metzger and Sarno however continued to pursue their personal obsessions and their movies of the early to mid 70s are as interesting and as worthwhile as their earlier films. Sadly the softcore erotic movie proved to have a very short lifespan. By the end of the 70s hardcore porn and video had killed the softcore erotic feature.

1970s softcore porn feature films were also notable for their surprisingly high production values and visual quality. Being intended for theatrical release they were shot on film, and often on 35mm, and were made with considerable care and attention. Directors like Sarno and Metzger would invest a quantity of time and effort on getting the lighting right that would be imaginable in a porn movie a few years later. And these movies had scripts. The actors were real actors. Almost all were trained actors. They needed to be since they had actual dialogue. In a Sarno movie, a great deal of dialogue.

Which brings us to Laura's Toys. Sarno’s script (he acted as writer-director on all his movies) presents us with a fairly typical 70s Sarno setup, although love triangles are a little unusual in his work. We have a group of people, in this case a man and two women,  who inhabit what seems to be a stable situation but there are major tensions underneath. The arrival of an outside character sets up the sexual and emotional powderkeg. Eventually, as in so many Sarno movies, a new stable system comes into being but since the characters have been forced to do some growing up the new system is more stable than the original one.

The initial system in this film comprises three people - Walter (Eric Edwards), Laura (Rebecca Brooke) and Anna (Cathja Graff). Walter is an archaeologist searching for an ancient village site on a tiny island off the Swedish coast. He is married, apparently very happily, to Laura. The one minor problem in their marriage is that Laura has no interest in archaeology. Anna is Walter’s assistant, a fellow archaeologist. The tension comes from Anna’s infatuation with Walter, an infatuation that Walter is aware of and which flatters him.

Anna can offer Walter something that Laura cannot - a girlfriend who shares his passion for his work. Laura on the other hand is far more beautiful than Anna, far more sexual, and she is amusing and charming. Walter and Laura are deeply in love and the sexual chemistry between them is intense. Appearances would suggest that Laura has Anna fairly comprehensively outgunned and that her marriage is in little danger.

Then Hanni (Anita Ericsson) reappears in Laura’s life. Hanni and Laura had had an intense long-term lesbian relationship some years earlier. The two women had lived in an atmosphere of non-stop sex, not just with each other but with a succession of other women and men whom they drew into their little circle. For Hanni and Laura sex was a playground and other people were sex toys. Laura had tired of this. When she married Walter it was a serious step for her into the adult world. She intended to make her marriage work. It’s not that Laura grew tired of sex. Far from it. She simply became tired of sex that didn’t mean anything. 

The central focus of the plot is the three-way power struggle between Laura, Anna and Hanni. Walter is the stake but he’s not really a player in this game. All three women are much stronger characters and all three are determined to win.

Commercial demands in 1975 were such that a softcore erotic movie such as this had to include a very great deal of nudity and sex, and had to have the requisite quantities of straight sex, lesbian sex, threesomes and group sex. That had become the established formula and if you wanted financing you had to follow that formula. At the same time such movies had to have a plot. If you were a director motivated by a desire for a quick buck that was no problem. You simply constructed the flimsiest of plots and got on with shooting the sex scenes. But if you were a Joe Sarno and you wanted to make a movie that would be both a successful softcore porn movie and a proper movie you faced a major challenge. You had to find a way to include the required sex scenes whilst still telling a coherent story about real people, you had to integrate the sex scenes into the story so that each sexual encounter actually advances the plot, you had to make the sex scenes mean something to the characters. Sarno had no interest in simply stringing together random couplings.

In this respect Laura's Toys succeeds surprisingly well. Each sex scene does advance the plot and it does advance the charter development. When the characters in this movie have sex they do so for a reason, and the reason is not mere lust. As a result the sex has the extraordinary emotional intensity that the sex scenes in Sarno’s movies always have, and this emotional intensity is the ingredient that gives them their very considerable erotic charge.

Several of Sarno’s mid-70s softcore films were in fact edging close to the borderline of hardcore, featuring real rather than simulated sex. In effect they were shot as hardcore but edited as softcore. The sex in Laura's Toys was certainly real. Given that Sarno was more interested in the emotional impact of sex than in the mechanics and that he was always more interested in showing us the faces of people having sex rather than body parts this might seen an odd choice. In fact it works. The fact that the sex is real gives it the intensity Sarno wanted.

The sex scenes involving Hanni and her friends are particularly interesting. There’s something very cyclical and repetitive about them. Since Sarno was very good at filming sex scenes in an imaginative way this would appear to be a deliberate choice on the director’s part. It certainly has the effect of emphasising the futility of Hanni’s incessant pursuit of pleasure. Hanni is simply going around in circles on a non-stop sexual merry-go-round. As Laura tries to tell her, Hanni has become a sexual Peter Pan. She refuses to grow up and accept emotional responsibility. Laura is tired of playing Wendy to Hanni’s Peter Pan.

Eric Edwards was a competent actor but was perhaps just a little too young and pretty to be an entirely convincing eminent archaeologist. He does however handle the extended and sensitive flirtation between his character and Anna extremely well. There are a couple of wonderfully subtle moments that capture the growing intimacy between Walter and Anna and the nervousness of both characters abut where this might be leading. There’s a particularly nice moment when he takes Anna’s glasses out of the breast pocket of her shirt. It’s an almost harmless action but it’s just a little too intimate to be appropriate between a man and an attractive young female assistant and it gives us the first faint hint of the sexual tension between them. Cathja Graff’s reaction is superbly subtle.

Cathja Graff is generally excellent. It’s also worth saying that her orgasm scenes (which everyone involved in the film confirms were most certainly not faked) are among the most erotic moments you’ll see in any sex movie.

Anita Ericsson has the trickiest rôle, Hanni being the least sympathetic major character. Ericsson manages to make her something more than a mere destructive manipulator.

It’s Rebecca Brooke (whose also acted her real name Mary Mendum) who dominates the movie. She was a talented actress who appeared in quite a few of Sarno’s movies and always gave him fine performances. Laura is the most grown-up and complex of the characters and she’s a woman determined not to slip back into her adolescent persona. She understands that while the pursuit of sex might bring a great deal of pleasure it’s emotional commitment that brings happiness. Brooke is superb and handles her character’s growing emotional maturity with consummate skill. It doesn’t hurt that she was also a remarkably beautiful woman with the ability to project an extraordinary sexual power.

Retro-Seduction Cinema have done their usual magnificent job with this DVD. The anamorphic transfer is superb. Picture quality is crisp, the colours are bright, contrast is good and print damage is very close to non-existent. The company also packed this DVD with some very worthwhile extras. There is a brief interview with Joe Sarno and his wife Peggy (who acted as assistant director on this film) and another interview with star Eric Edwards. There’s also a commentary track featuring Edwards and Sarno biographer Michael Bowen. The commentary track is a major plus. Eric Edwards proves to be a charming and amusing man and his insights into the adult film industry then and now are perceptive and provocative. This is the sort of DVD that reflects a genuine respect for both the movie and the DVD purchaser.

This is not a perfect Sarno movie, not quite in the same league as the superlative Abigail Lesley is Back in Town, but it’s still a Sarno movie and it’s a pretty good one. Its minor defects are more than outweighed by its strengths and Rebecca Brooke’s performance alone is enough reason to buy this one. Highly recommended.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)

Beyond the Time Barrier is one of Edgar G.Ulmer’s late science fiction films, made by a small independent production company. Like a number of his later movies it has not received an official DVD release although it can be obtained as a grey market release.

The United States Air Force is conducing research into space travel using the experimental X-80 aircraft. This uses a conventional turbojet engine to reach a very high altitude at supersonic speeds at which point a powerful rocket motor takes over to propel the aircraft to an altitude of 500,000 feet at a speed in excess of 5,000 miles per hour. This will enable a sub-orbital mission to be undertaken. The X-80 will in effect reach outer space. This research will pave the way for true orbital lights.

The X-80 actually looks exactly like a stock standard example of the US Air Force’s then current front-line interceptor fighter, the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, which enables the movie to use lots of stock footage. This is of course a very handy way to get plenty of good aerial shots of the X-80 without spending any money! Luckily the F-102 had a very high-tech look for its day. In one or two shots an F-106 Delta Dart is used instead but the two aircraft look so similar that only aviation geeks will notice.

Test pilot Major William Allison (Robert Clarke) is to fly the first mission. All goes well until the X-80 suddenly disappears from the radar screens and radio contact is lost. Major Allison is not aware of any problems and lands successfully after completing his sub-orbital flight but what he finds on the ground is enough to make him question his sanity. The Air Force base from which he took off less than an hour earlier is now in ruins. Even more disturbingly, it looks like it has been in ruins for years. At first he can find no signs of life but eventually he is captured and taken to an underground citadel. No-one there will believe his story. His claims to have taken off a short while ago from the ands Air Force Base in the year 1960 are greeted with suspicion and even outright disbelief. He soon discovers why. He is indeed on Earth, but it is now the year 2024!

The explanation for his predicament will come later in a delightful piece of sci-fi technobabble. Travelling at close to the speed of light can cause all kinds of strange things to happen to time. Major Allison had only been travelling at a few thousand miles per hour but when you add the speed at which the Earth is rotating, the speed at which the planet is orbiting the sub and the speed at which our solar system is travelling through the Milky way then the few thousand miles of airspeed of the X-80 was enough to take Major Allison close to the speed of light! As a result he has not only broken the sound barrier, he has broken the time barrier!

The world of 2024 is not a happy place. A great plague had swept across our planet destroying civilisation as we know it. The movie avoids the expected clichéd explanation that this had been caused by a nuclear war but in typical 1950s apocalyptic sci-fi style it’s still all our fault. The plague was caused the destruction by nuclear testing of the Earth’s protective barrier against cosmic rays. The cosmic rays then caused devastating mutations. The people in the underground citadel appear normal buy they are in fact first-stage mutants. Most are sterile, and many have developed telepathic powers. This is a doomed civilisation, with no child having been born for twenty years.

There are a handful of people in the city who have escaped the plague. They also arrived in 2024 by breaking the time barrier. They are led by General Karl Kruse (Stephen Bekassy). There is immense hostility and mistrust between this handful of people and the doomed survivors of the plague. The survivors do have one hope left however. The young Princess Trirene appears to be fertile.

The plague survivors and the group led by Karl Kruse have their own plans for making use of Major Allison. Allison is uncertain if he can trust either group but the fact that the X-80 is still intact gives him hope that he may be able to return to 1960. He may also be able to save civilisation.

Despite the technobabble it’s a reasonably interesting idea. Doomed civilisations were a major obsession in American sci-fi movies from the 50s right through to the 70s. Arthur G. Pierce’s screenplay sets up some interesting conflicts and he provides an array of characters who are motivated by mixtures of selfishness, idealism, resentment and fear.

Naturally Major Allison and Princess Trirene fall in love, providing not only the obligatory romantic subplot but also creating conflicting loyalties.

It’s a moderately ambitious movie. Its ambitions are hampered by its low budget but as is the case with so much good 1950s cinematic sci-fi the film-makers are not dismayed by their budgetary constraints. Ulmer was never dismayed by a low budget. The movie looks reasonably good considering the incredibly limited resources Ulmer had to work with. There’s extensive use of matte paintings but that’s not something that has never bothered me; in fact it gives sci-fi movies of this era a nice other-worldly feel. The legendary Jack P. Pierce did the makeup effects.

The acting is adequate. Vladimir Sokoloff as the Supreme, the leader of the semi-mutant survivors, is a sympathetic character - he’s a good man faced by difficult choices. Boyd “Red” Morgan make a good villain, all the more effective in that he is not so much a villain as a ruthless man who believes his ruthlessness is necessary. Robert Clarke is a bit flat as Major Allison. Darlene Tompkins is reasonably good, giving Princess Trirene the necessary mysterious quality.

Sinister Cinema’s DVD-R provides a perfectly watchable fullframe image (which is quite correct since the movie was shot in black-and-white in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio) and given that this is an intriguing movie by an interesting director with a major cult following we can be grateful to them for at least making thus movie available, even in a slightly imperfect form.

Fans of 1950s will certainly want to give Beyond the Time Barrier a look and Sinister Cinema’s DVD-R is acceptable enough to make this a worthwhile purchase. Highly recommended.