Monday 30 October 2017

The Black Raven (1943)

The Black Raven is an Old Dark House movie, a genre notable for movies of widely varying quality and entertainment value. This is definitely one of the better examples.

This is a PRC picture and you know what that means. A pitifully small budget, rock-bottom production values and very few sets. It does however have George Zucco and that makes up for a lot.

Zucco plays Amos Bradford, also known as the Raven. He runs a small hotel called the Black Raven near the Canadian border. He obviously had a shady past and now it might be about to catch up to him. A small-time hoodlum who believes Bradford double-crossed him has broken out of prison and now he’s arrived at the hotel determined to even the score. Bradford is however not the easiest guy to rub out. He’s been around and he knows a trick or two.

Naturally there’s a severe storm that has washed away all the roads and bridges so the handful of guests at the Black Raven are cut off from the outside world, just as they should be in any self-respecting Old Dark House movie.

The guests are naturally a motley and slightly disreputable lot.

There’s gangster Mike Bardoni who is hoping to slip over the Canadian border. There’s a weedy little middle-aged guy named Horace Weatherby who clutches a briefcase very nervously and won’t let anyone touch it. There’s a young couple who are eloping and, rather inconveniently, there’s also the girl’s father. Her father is crooked politician and gangster Tim Winfield, which is even more awkward for the young couple. There is also of course the escaped convict mentioned earlier. To round off the cast there’s Bradford’s servant Andy (yes there’s an Amos and an Andy).

None of these people could be described as being entirely a law-abiding citizen and none could be described as trustworthy. So when the first murder takes place just about every one of them could be a suspect.

There’s also an incredibly dumb sheriff who clearly could not be trusted to investigate a case of an overdue library book.

There will be much creeping about in dark cellars, people will get slugged from behind and pushed down stairways, everyone will suspect everyone else, there will be more murders and it all takes place with lots of thunder and lightning in the background. In other words it has all the ingredients that this genre requires except that there are no hints of the supernatural.

It seems like a stock-standard plot for this genre but it does have a bit of a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. I was sure I knew the identity of the murderer but I was wrong.

George Zucco as Bradford is a slightly ambiguous character. He could be a villain or he could be a hero. Zucco is as watchable as always. The other cast members are adequate. Glenn Strange as Andy provides the comic relief which luckily is kept within reasonable bounds.

Sam Newfield directed countless B-pictures including quite a few that were pretty good movies of their type. He really goes to town with the shadows in this film. One could almost say that he overdoes it, but this is an Old Dark House movie and you just can’t have too many sinister lurking shadows in such a movie. On the whole his approach works and the movie’s pacing can’t be faulted. For a PRC movie it’s surprisingly well made.

This is a public domain title so while there are quite a few DVD releases around most are obviously going to be of fairly poor quality. The Grapevine Video edition offers a transfer that is at least reasonably watchable although some scenes are very murky indeed and most of the movie has a somewhat washed out look. They have paired this film with another Zucco flick, Dead Man Walk, on one disc. If you’re a George Zucco fan and you can pick it up cheaply enough it’s probably worth grabbing.

The Black Raven is an unassuming but vastly enjoyable little movie. It only runs for an hour but it’s non-stop fun. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Career Bed (1969)

Career Bed is a movie about a mother and daughter. It has some claims to being the ultimate Mother From Hell movie. This is a sleazy little 1969 sexploitation flick written and directed by Joel M. Reed.

Mrs Potter and her daughter Susan have over from their small rural town to New York to further Susan’s acting career. Susan doesn’t actually want to be an actress. She wants to marry Bob, a nice young farmer from back home. Mrs Potter is however determined that Susan is going to be a star where she likes it or not. In fact Mrs Potter is prepared to take drastic steps to make sure Susan doesn’t marry Bob. There’s an easy way to do that. All she has to do is to seduce Bob herself. This proves to be even easier than she’d expected. Once Susan gets home and finds Mother and Bob naked in bed together she not surprisingly loses all interest in the idea of marrying her down home farmer boy.

Launching Susan’s career is now the priority. Mrs Potter knows that in Hollywood talent doesn’t count. Susan’s body is the currency that will finance her glittering career, but that currency is not going to be dispersed casually. Susan’s most crucial asset is her virginity. Mrs Potter knows that this is an asset that ought to be worth an important contract. No-one is going to get their hands on Susan’s body without cutting a deal with her other. Of course in the meantime it might be necessary to offer some kind of downpayment. Mrs Potter’s body (and it’s a pretty impressive body) will be the downpayment.

The fact that Susan’s agent Miss Reynolds is already enjoying Susan’s body is no problem. The agent is a lesbian, so Susan’s precious cherry is still safe.

Idealistic playwright Jack Landive (John Cardoza) wants to save Susan from her mother but Mrs Potter knows every trick of emotional manipulation in the book. In fact she’s added some new chapters of her own to that book. She knows how to keep Susan under control.

There’s a very unsavoury photographer with his own plans for Susan. He hopes to sell her virginity to big-time producer Ross Miller, and he hopes to enjoy a few romps in the hay with the aspiring starlet himself. The photographer, who likes to be known as the King, is the type of guy who thrives in Tinsel Town - he’ll do anything at all, absolutely anything, if there’s something in it for him.

There’s a rather pleasing symmetry to the plot (yes there is a plot) and the ending is rather neat and rather satisfying.

There’s quite a bit of T&A but no frontal nudity and the sex scenes manage to be sleazy without showing very much. The emphasis is on moral depravity and this movie has that quality in abundance.

Of course there has to be a lesbian sex scene. The one in this film is unusual in that it’s important in plot terms, and it’s effectively perverse, as Susan is seduced by her predatory lesbian agent. This is Hollywood after all, where the women are just as ambitious and ruthless as the men, and often a good deal more vicious.

There’s some rather juicy hard-boiled dialogue, absolutely dripping with venom, which the stars deliver with enthusiasm (Holly Hunter in particular has fun with some deliciously nasty lines).

Jennifer Welles went on to be one of the more well-known actresses in hardcore films in the mid-70s. She also starred in some of Joe Sarno’s best-known 70s productions including the excellent Abigail Lesley Is Back In Town. She was 35 when she made this film, a trifle old one might think to be playing a teenage ingenue, but she gets away with it. She looks terrific and she gets to do some real acting (and does it quite well).

Honey Hunter plays Mrs Potter. This seems to be her only film credit, which is nothing short of a tragedy. This is a performance of extraordinary malice and calculation.

Future hardcore porn icon Georgina Spelvin is impressively amoral as the lesbian Miss Reynolds.

When it comes to cinematic quality American sexploitation movies of the 60s range from crude and embarrassingly amateurish efforts to surprisingly professional and sophisticated productions. Career Bed is one of the very well made examples. Reed’s directing is lively and imaginative. He’s extremely fond of hand held shots and uses them effectively.

The soundtrack is pretty good too, in a very late 60s way.

Career Bed was released on DVD by Something Weird as part of double-header but that disc is now not so easy to find. Fortunately there’s a Dutch DVD release from ClickDVD in their American Grindhouse series which offers a good transfer (it’s in English with removable Dutch subtitles). The extras include some wonderful trailers, all with the Something Weird watermark on them which suggests that this Dutch DVD might well be the Something Weird release split onto two DVDs sold separately.

This is one gloriously cynical little movie. Since it deals with Hollywood the cynicism is undoubtedly justified. There have been plenty of film exposes of the sleazy underside of Tinsel Town and there have been a couple of other good examples within the sexploitation genre (such as Hollywood Babylon). Career Bed might well be the nastiest of the lot, as well as being one of the finest examples of the evil bitch mother film. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein is the celebrated 1935 sequel to Universal’s 1931 hit Frankenstein. Both movies were directed by James Whale, a man with an extraordinary and to my mind slightly mystifying reputation as a great director of horror movies.

We start with a rather unnecessary prologue featuring England’s most degenerate poets, Byron and Shelley, listening to Shelley’s wife Mary continuing her story where the novel left off. And the movie then takes up the story at the exact point at which the 1931 Frankenstein ended, with the monster incinerated in the burning barn and the body of the hapless Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being returned to his castle and to his grieving fiancée Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson).

Henry Frankenstein is however not quite dead. He recovers and is determined to forget all about his terrible experiments. The arrival of his old teacher, Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), changes all this. Pretorius has been working (in a particularly bizarre way) on the creation of artificial life as well, and he wants Frankenstein’s help. He intends to get that help, even if he has to resort to extreme methods to persuade Frankenstein.

Pretorius wants to create a female monster, a mate for Frankenstein’s original monster. The monster, like its creator, survived the fiery furnace and now is now roaming the countryside causing mayhem and trying to make friends, which in turn creates more mayhem. The monster’s wanderings will eventually bring him to Frankenstein’s castle where Pretorius will use him to force Frankenstein’s hand.

Finally, after an hour of mostly irrelevant sub-plots and maudlin interludes, the movie kicks into high gear as Frankenstein and Pretorius bring the monster’s mate (played by Elsa Lanchester) to life with unexpected and catastrophic results.

James Whale clearly had no genuine interest in horror films and no real respect for the genre. As in most of his horror efforts he insists on playing far too many scenes as comedy and unfortunately comedy was something for which he had little flair. The entire movie seems to be intended as a mockery of the horror genre, and of Mary Shelley’s original story and quite probably mockery of the audience as well. To make sure that the movie’s impact as a horror film is blunted as much as possible Whale agains calls on the services of Una O’Connor who had almost single-handedly wrecked The Invisible Man. She throws herself into her task of wrecking The Bride of Frankenstein with great enthusiasm.

Many many writers worked on this film so perhaps it’s not surprising that the final script is a little disjointed and unfocused.

The acting is extremely uneven. Apart from the appalling Una O’Connor we get more unfunny comic relief from E.E. Clive as the burgomaster. Colin Clive is dull, as he was in Frankenstein. Ernest Thesiger is mannered and arch and while he tries hard to be the personification of evil and vice at times he becomes just irritating.

On the credit side Elsa Lanchester is memorably bizarre in her dual roles as Mary Shelley and as the monster’s bride but gets little screen time and little time to do any actual acting. Karloff is good, as always, although he strongly disagreed with the decision to make the monster speak. Dwight Frye as the sinister Karl is another bright spot.

The scenes involving Dr Pretorius’s miniature people are technically impressive but they’re silly and pointless and they greatly weaken the film.

While the script, direction and acting are uneven the superb visuals do much to compensate for the movie’s other weaknesses. The bringing to life of the monster’s bride is a spectacular visual tour-de-force. Whale seems suddenly to come to life, throwing one stunning image after another at us. There’s some superlative editing also in these scenes. The movie is well worth seeing just for these absolutely superb sequences.

Whatever its weaknesses this is technically an exceptionally well made motion picture. The sets are excellent. The Bride’s makeup effects are terrific. John J. Mescall’s cinematography (he described the lighting approach he used as Rembrandt lighting) is magnificent. James Whale had worked as a set designer and apparently had quite a bit of input into the impressive art direction of the film.

Universal’s Blu-Ray presentation looks great and there are plenty of extras, including an embarrassingly worshipful audio commentary.

Bride of Frankenstein is certainly a vast improvement on Whale’s The Invisible Man. It has some very very good moments. The changes of tone are somewhat disconcerting. For most of the earlier part of the film it just doesn’t quite work, perhaps mostly because it’s obvious that James Whale never really wanted to do the film in the first place. The last twenty-five minutes though are as good as anything that has ever been achieved in a horror movie. Despite the reservations I have about it Bride of Frankenstein still has to be recommended.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

She Came on the Bus (1969)

She Came on the Bus is a fairly late entry in the sexploitation roughie sub-genre and it manages to be both surprisingly tame and still oddly depraved.

A gang of juvenile delinquents, four guys and a girl, embark of a rampage of rape, petty theft and more rape. In the course of their adventures they steal a bus which becomes a sort of mobile headquarters. They begin by breaking into a house and raping a young housewife, then turn their attentions to a door-to-door saleslady. When this gets boring they head off in the housewife’s car and then get the bright idea that hijacking a bus would provide lots of thrills.

They pick up a couple of young female passengers who end up getting the sort of bus ride they hadn’t expected. One of them decides she really likes being ravished by juvenile delinquents; the other doesn’t like it one little bit. After a while the bus ride gets boring so they go back to the housewife’s house, then that gets boring so they get back on the bus. The bus will be their life in future.

Not much of a plot, although with enough energy and style it could have been enough. Sadly the energy and style aren’t quite there.

Writer-director Curt Ledger clearly belongs to the school of film-making where you roll the cameras for a while and see what happens. That kind of cinema verité approach can be effective but here it (mostly) doesn’t work.

This is not just low-budget film-making, this is at the very bottom of the heap. There’s no synchronised sound, no dialogue, just a voiceover narration that tries to be portentous and disapproving and some bizarre sound library choices. Given the lack of dialogue, and the lack of anything but the most basic storyline it’s impossible to say anything about the acting.

I use the term juvenile delinquents quite deliberately. These kids do almost seem like the kinds of juvenile delinquents you’d see in movies in the 50s. The jarring note is that while their demeanour is tame in a very 1950s way their actions are pretty perverted. It’s like a movie caught in some kind of constantly reversing time warp.

What makes this movie particularly odd is the tameness, rather surprising for 1969. There’s no frontal nudity at all and just one brief shot of a naked behind. There are plenty of topless scenes but for 1969 the nudity quotient is incredibly low. The sex scenes are also remarkably coy. You get a sex scene in which the guy leaves his trousers on and the girl keeps her panties on. I guess he is a juvenile delinquent so maybe he wasn’t paying attention in biology class when the topic of sex was covered and so the idea that it might be a good for the panties to come off just didn’t occur to him. Although it’s also quite possible that these girls have their panties actually welded on. Mostly the sex scenes are not much more than heavy petting.

On the other hand while the visual content is extremely mild the ideas are genuinely depraved. These are nasty vicious people but they’re doing nasty vicious things in an oddly innocuous sort of way. For the most part the rape scenes have no impact whatsoever since absolutely nothing is actually happening beyond a bit of clumsy and rather diffident groping.

There’s no sexual frisson to any of this, and no effective shock value either. The consensual sex scenes involving the girl juvenile delinquent are equally coy. This girl also has the kinds of panties that can only be removed with industrial cutting equipment.

A major problem here of course is the lack of dialogue. We get no sense whatever of the personalities of any of the participants, not even the briefest sketch, so we feel no emotional involvement. We don’t feel the terror of the women involved. We also find it hard to believe that these women are in any real danger. There’s no sense of menace. The victims don’t seem real enough and the perpetrators don’t seem actually scary.

There is one exception. There is one scene on the bus that does actually manage to be quite raunchy and to pack a real punch. It actually seems weirdly out of place. It’s at least mildly  shocking in a way that the rest of the movie isn’t.

Naturally there’s a go-go dancing scene which must qualify as the most gratuitous and out-of-place such scene in movie history.

Something Weird released this one as part of a triple-header that also includes Sin Syndicate and Sin Magazine. The transfer for She Came on the Bus is quite OK if hardly dazzling. This is of course a movie that probably never looked dazzling to begin with!

This is definitely one of the lesser roughies. If you want a roughie with a real impact and some subtlety The Defilers is infinitely superior. If you want full-blooded depravity it’s hard to go past The Touch of Her Flesh. And if you want roughies that deliver deliciously weird entertainment then mid-period Doris Wishman (such as Bad Girls Go to Hell and Another Day, Another Man) can be recommended. If you want genuine style, Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney is the real deal.

She Came on the Bus has the right ingredients but fails to deliver.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Daddy, Darling (1970)

Daddy, Darling is a 1970 softcore flick about incest so you know this is going to be a sleazy exploitative little film. Except that it’s a Joe Sarno film, and it’s one of his more artistically ambitious efforts (and Sarno could be pretty artistically ambitious). And it isn’t really sleazy or exploitative at all. Sarno approaches his subject matter seriously and with sensitivity, as he often did, and on this occasion it works surprisingly well.

Katja Holmquist (Helli Louise) is a 19-year-old girl whose father Eric (Ole Wisborg) has brought her up on his own since her mother’s death. Katja and her father are very close, which is natural enough. The trouble is that Katja is a teenager, her hormones are raging and she’s a virgin. She’s becoming a bit too attached to her dad. It’s perhaps unfortunate that her father has chosen this moment to remarry. He is going to marry Svea (Gio Petré), a woman for whom Katja has already conceived a certain dislike. It’s not especially unusual for a girl in this situation to be somewhat jealous now that she’s no longer going to be the sole focus of her father’s affections, and it’s not unusual for the girl to feel a little bit emotionally confused. Unfortunately Katja takes things a bit further. Her feelings for Eric have started to become sexual. In the normal course of events she’d probably grow out of this phase without any damage being done but now that there’s another woman staking a sexual claim on her father Katja’s feelings have taken on a new urgency. She’s determined to stake her own claim first and she starts making frankly sexual advances to him and he (perhaps naturally) either fails to get the message or deliberately chooses not to admit what is happening.

As things get more and more tense Katja develops a friendship with a female artist. The artist is your basic predatory lesbian (and where would sexploitation films be without predatory lesbians) but Katja is kind of naïve about such matters and has no idea of her friend’s tastes. Katja’s naïvete is of course part of her problem.

Sarno’s approach was always more successful when he had a decent cast and that is something that doesn’t happen very often when you’re making low-budget sex films. In this case he was pretty lucky.

Daddy, Darling was made during Sarno’s Swedish period. Making films in Sweden generally allowed him to find reasonably good acting talent not afraid to appear in movies about sex. Ole Wisborg as Eric and Gio Petré as Svea are certainly quite competent.

Helli Louise as Katja is another matter. She’s more than competent, she’s very very good. She clearly decided to approach the role as a real acting job and she proves she has the acting chops to do so. It’s a nicely nuanced performance. Katja is dangerous, but she’s dangerous because she’s confused, not because she’s evil or calculating. She’s not crazy and she’s not a scheming little minx.  She’s a teenager. She has the emotional and sexual desires of a woman but she has no clear idea what to do with those desires. She’s not malicious. She can be conniving, but she is conniving the way a child is conniving.

Helli Louise is very pretty and very sexy but she’s not an obvious sex kitten type, and that’s important because Katja is not a sex kitten.

All three main characters are really fairly ordinary people doing their best but sometimes not handling things as well as they should.

Sarno is being very ambitious in this film. He was often ambitious. The results didn’t always live up to the intentions. As a writer he could come up with decent story ideas but he had no great ear for dialogue. As a director he lacked the visual brilliance of a Radley Metzger. What Sarno had was a genuine fascination with the emotional dimensions of sex and his best films did have some emotional depth. And while he may not have had great stylistic flair he knew how to shoot a sex scene that combined eroticism with emotion.

Of course Sarno’s ideas on how to shoot sex scenes weren’t always quite what you expect in a softcore sex film. There’s a fine example in Daddy, Darling. Katja is staying for a few days at a female friend’s house. They have to share a bed. That becomes a slight problem when Katja’s friend decides she wants to share the bed with her boyfriend as well, and she and the boyfriend start having sex. This is an obvious opportunity for a hot sex scene with a hint of kinkiness. So what does Sarno show us? Almost nothing, as far as sex is concerned, just dim blurred shapes in the background. Instead the camera focuses entirely on Katja’s eyes as she lies in bed beside the love-making couple. It focuses on Katja’s eyes for the entire sex scene. The sex in the background is of no interest to Sarno. He is interested in Katja’s reaction. It’s a very effective scene but it’s going to be very disappointing for anyone hoping to see some hot sex. It’s a pretty bold approach to take in a softcore skinflick. We do however get some insight into Katja’s problems. When it comes to sex she’s really all at sea. She’s not afraid of sex but she’s rather bewildered by it.

In another very Sarno sex scene all we see is Katja’s panties around her ankles, and we see her face. That’s all. Perhaps not the sort of scene to please the distributors but artistically it’s devastatingly effective.

This is a movie that certainly deals with incestuous feelings but there’s no actual incest. There’s only one sex scene between Katja and her father and it’s a dream sequence. The subject is handled sensitively and with sympathy for the characters concerned and Sarno’s approach works.

Seduction Cinema released this film as part of their Retro Seduction Cinema line. The transfer has major strengths and major weaknesses, presumably reflecting the source material. There is a lot of print damage. On the other hand the image is reasonably crisp and the colours look pretty good. And there are a few extras including an interview with Joe and Peggy Sarno.

Of course much depends on what you are actually wanting out of this movie. As softcore porn it’s perhaps not a great success. There’s a fair bit of nudity and sex but it’s all very tasteful, possibly too tasteful for some. As an emotional/sexual melodrama it is however fairly successful. And Helli Louise’s performance is superb. This is a very Joe Sarno movie even by Joe Sarno standards and it’s one of his best efforts. Highly recommended.