Saturday 24 March 2018

Yambaó - Cry of the Bewitched (1957)

Yambaó (also known as Cry of the Bewitched) is a 1957 Cuban/Mexican voodoo horror musical, which has to be one of the rarest of all cult movie sub-genres!

Jorge (Ramón Gay) and his wife Béatriz (Rosa Elena Durgel) live on a sugar plantation in Cuba. They’re slave owners but Jorge is an enlightened master and life is generally peaceful. Or at least it was peaceful, until Yambaó came back. Yambaó (Ninón Sevilla) is the grand-daughter of the witch Caridad. Caridad had been killed (or was presumed to have been killed) by Jorge’s overseer Damián a few years earlier. Yambaó disappeared at that time but now she has returned and things are going to get very complicated.

Yambaó has always been in love with Jorge and although she realises there isn’t much hope for such a love it hasn’t stopped her and hasn’t diminished her passions in any way. Jorge also certainly has more than a passing interest in Yambaó. Damián’s son Lázaro is also in love with Yambaó. Lázaro, like his father Damián, is a slave so he’s a much more realistic target for her affections. But she still loves Jorge.

It’s worth pointing out that Yambaó is not a slave. She was born a slave but the old master, Jorge’s father, freed her. Which adds to the difficulties, since Jorge therefore has no control over her.

To make Jorge’s life even more complicated plague breaks out. And the plague makes no distinction between master and slave.

The superstitions that had always been simmering away beneath the surface of life on the plantation now blossom in potentially very threatening ways.

Meanwhile Yambaó plots. Perhaps she does not have her grandmother’s powers but she certainly has powers of her own, both supernatural and feminine. Whether the spells she casts on men are mainly witchcraft or mainly the result of her earthy eroticism is hard to say but either way their efficacy cannot be denied.

Jorge and Béatriz are awaiting the birth of their first child and that can only add fuel to the fires of Yambaó’s jealousy.

This movie is perhaps more melodrama than anything else (which is no problem for me since I happen to enjoy a good overheated melodrama) but there’s enough of the witchcraft angle to keep horror fans reasonably satisfied.

The musical angle should be put into perspective. This is not at all a Hollywood musical. The musical interludes all serve a purpose. Most are connected with various rituals and do a great deal to build the atmosphere of malevolence and foreboding. And most of them feature Ninón Sevilla’s dancing, and her dancing is a sight to behold. As well as being a successful actress Cuban-born Ninón Sevilla was an extremely famous dancer, known for doing her own choreography and for the extreme eroticism of her performances. And there’s plenty of that eroticism here. It’s easy to see why she was a sensation as a professional dancer.

The music itself was obviously intended to capture an Afro-Caribbean-Cuban feel and it does so pretty successfully.

Ramón Gay gives a fine performance as the tortured Jorge but the film belongs to Ninón Sevilla. She might not have been a great actress in a conventional sense but she has an extraordinary smouldering presence.

There’s no gore but there are some creepy moments. Somewhat surprisingly (this is a 1957 movie after all) there’s some brief nudity.

There’s some surprising subtlety here. Jorge is hardly a paragon of virtue but he’s no villain. Yambaó is dangerous but is she evil? Or is she herself being used by an evil force?

Yambaó was shot in Cuba and visually it’s very impressive. In fact it’s a very well made movie. The script, by Julio Albo and Julio Alejandro, is also surprisingly intelligent and provocative. Director Alfredo B. Crevenna (responsible for many of the more interesting Mexican genre films) does a fine job.

This movie is paired with Mermaids of Tiburon in the Kit Parker Films/VCI Entertainment Psychotronica Volume 3 DVD release and is also included in their Psychotronica Collectors’ Set. The transfer is acceptable if not dazzling.

Yambaó is an oddity but it’s an interesting and very entertaining oddity.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Drum (1976)

Drum was a kind of sequel to Mandingo, which in 1975 had (for a short time) put the slavesploitation genre on the map. Mandingo actually took itself more seriously than you might expect, trying to be more than just trash. It was trash, but trash with some pretensions. Drum appeared in the following year and it is pure trash. Pure trash, but deliriously entertaining trash.

Drum is the name of a slave. We start with a brief prologue about his birth and upbringing. He is the offspring of a white woman, Marianna (Isela Vega) and a black slave. Marianna’s slave Rachel raised the boy as her own to avoid a scandal.

Now, twenty years later, Marianna runs the most celebrated whorehouse in New Orleans. Drum enjoys a comfortable enough life as a house slave. Then fate takes a hand.

The sinister degenerate Bernard DeMarigny (John Colicos) has organised a fight between two slaves to serve as entertainment for his friends but one of the slaves has been withdrawn from the fight by his master. Rather than be embarrassed in front of his friends DeMarigny coerces Marianna into allowing Drum to fight. DeMarigny’s slave Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) is a formidable opponent. After half-killing Blaise Drum decides he wants to be his friend. It will be an uneasy friendship.

DeMarigny offers Drum anything he wants as a reward for winning the fight and Drum decides he wants a woman. He gets Calinda (Brenda Sykes). As a bonus he also gets Blaise. Things turn very awkward however when DeMarigny tries to seduce Drum and not only gets rejected but gets clobbered as well. DeMarigny vows to get his revenge.

To get Drum out of the situation Marianna sells him to Hammond Maxwell (Warren Beatty). Maxwell’s plantation, Falconhurst, is devoted entirely to the breeding of slaves.

To set up a nicely explosive situation two more elements are added. Maxwell wants Marianna to find him a nice whore to help him raise his very troublesome daughter Sophie (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith) but Augusta (Fiona Lewis) turns out to be a lady rather than a whore and being a lady she is determined to change things at Falconhurst.

Even more explosive is Sophie herself, whose chief hobby seems to be trying to seduce the male slaves. When set sets her sights on Blaise things are clearly going to get messy. If the master finds out he’ll have Blaise killed, if Blaise is lucky.

The stage is set for the standard slavesploitation ending - a revolt with lots and lots of violence.

The plot offers obvious opportunities for copious amounts of sex and violence. The sex includes every deviation you can think of. There’s a great deal of nudity. Most of it is entirely gratuitous but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, which at least is refreshingly honest.

This was not an exploitation B-movie. It was a genuine big-budget A-picture. It was originally a Paramount project but ended up being released by United Artists. The switch to UA entailed major reshuffles with Steve Carver replacing Burt Kennedy as director, major cast changes and a complete rewrite of the script. It also meant a cut in the budget but the budget was still insanely high by exploitation movie standards. Not many exploitation movies have a crew of 150. And when they needed a mansion they built one, at a cost of one million dollars (and that’s one million dollars in 1976 money). They then burnt it to the ground.

With lots of money spent on it and an extremely generous 63-day shooting schedule you’d expect Drum to look sensational, and it does. The sets are superb. And they’re big! Having multiple Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard onboard also doesn’t hurt.

The movie’s biggest asset is Warren Oates. He gives a performance that very cleverly combines campiness and subtlety. He gets plenty of laughs but he makes Hammond Maxwell surprisingly complex. Maxwell might be a slave-owner but in his own bizarre way he’s a kindly man with his own individual but rigid moral code. He is definitely no melodrama villain. He’s the most interesting and in some ways the most sympathetic character in the movie.

Ken Norton can’t act at all but he looks the part. Yaphet Kotto can act, and does so to good effect. Fiona Lewis is a delight as Augusta, combining primness with spirit and managing to be scheming but in a good way. Pam Grier gets very little to do as Maxwell’s bed wench Regine (unfortunately most of her scenes were among the many that the MPAA insisted be cut). Rainbeaux Smith is great fun as the terrifyingly slutty Sophie.

While it tries to be a bit more serious at the beginning and at the end the middle part of Drum is outrageous and often very funny.

Drum is the kind of movie that no-one would dare to make today. While it ticks all the right political boxes and takes all the correct political stances (it is certainly very much an anti-slavery film) it still manages to be outrageously politically incorrect. There’s nothing pious or preachy here - despite the big budget this is unequivocally an exploitation movie and it delivers the exploitation elements with enthusiasm. Steve Carver was a graduate of the Roger Corman school of film-making and the end result is exactly like a Roger Corman movie made on an enormous budget.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that if this film seems a little disjointed at times that’s because it was cut to ribbons by the MPAA.

Kino Lorber’s Region 1 DVD includes an audio commentary by the director. The transfer is anamorphic and it’s excellent.

Drum is totally disreputable but it doesn’t care. It sets out to entertain and it succeeds. Highly recommended.

Saturday 3 March 2018

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II is, quite obviously, a sequel to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece. Now personally I think that making a sequel to a Hitchcock movie is a seriously bad idea (just as remaking a Hitchcock movie is a seriously bad idea). The chances of falling flat on your face are just so overwhelmingly high. Nonetheless someone at Universal decided that a Psycho sequel would be a fine idea and Australian director Richard Franklin was given the assignment of directing it. It was originally intended as a TV movie but ended up getting a theatrical release (and doing well enough to lead to the making of Psycho III).

Franklin certainly nails his colours to the mast straight from the start. Psycho II not only opens with a clip from Hitchcock’s original, it opens with the famous shower scene in its entirety. Which means Franklin is really setting himself up to look foolish if he can’t deliver the goods. He certainly can’t be accused of trying to make things too easy for himself.

Psycho II takes up the story just over twenty years after the events of the first movie. Norman Bates (again played by Anthony Perkins) has been pronounced cured and released from the mental hospital in which he had been confined. Perhaps a little unwisely he’s decided to return to the Bates Motel. Even more unwisely his psychiatrist Dr Raymond (Robert Loggia) doesn’t seem to think this will be a problem.

The motel is being managed by the sleazy Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Norman has got himself a job in a local diner where he befriends waitress Mary (Meg Tilly). Norman isn’t exactly relaxed around women and given his incredible twitchiness plus the fact that Mary knows he’s been in a mental hospital it’s a little surprising that Mary moves into the Bates House after breaking up with her boyfriend.

Norman is pretty obviously becoming obsessed with Mary and he’s also started getting messages from his dead mother. Adding to Norman’s rapidly increasing anxiety levels is the vendetta that Warren Toomey launches against him after Norman fires him.

It’s not exactly a shock when the murders start happening. The local sheriff is however not convinced that Norman has gone back to his old habits. He’s not prepared to take any action without hard evidence and such evidence as he has is a long way from being conclusive.

Of course the murders haven’t stopped yet although the final body count is not particularly high by the standards of 80s slasher movies.

The problem for Norman is that he has no way of knowing if he’s responsible for these murders. He never did remember carrying out his original series of murders.

This movie begins very conventionally and with the kind of obviousness you expect in a TV movie. After it’s drifted along in this vein for a while Franklin clearly decides he’d better start doing something clever. If you’re going to attempt a Hitchcock sequel you’re going to have to pull off at least a couple of impressive visual set-pieces. The first murder is rather disappointing. The second though is extremely well done, and it’s in keeping with the tone of the original movie as well. On the whole Franklin does a fine job with some nice use of odd camera angles and lots of atmosphere.

Screenwriter Tom Holland faced a real problem. Anybody who had seen the first movie would already know the whole setup with Norman and his mother. A mere rerun of the same events would have been too obvious and entirely lacking in suspense. He had to find a way to keep within the framework established by the first movie whilst somehow convincing us that maybe this time events would follow a different course and that the final explanation might not be quite the same. He had to make us consider the possibility that maybe this time Norman wasn’t the killer, or then again maybe he was. This was certainly a challenge.

He meets that challenge reasonably well. The story keeps to the spirit of the original but with some completely new and startling twists. What’s perhaps most unexpected is that this movie plays fair with the viewer. The big surprise twist will surprise you but it shouldn’t since there have been numerous clues pointing in that direction. But then there’s some nice misdirection as well.

Tony Perkins is even twitchier this time around. He really goes all out with the crazy person stuff. It works because he does manage to make us feel sympathy for Norman as a man who thinks he has conquered his insanity but is now put under extreme stress - the twitchiness really is only to be expected.

Meg Tilly is pretty good. She manages to make Mary seem like the sort of girl who might well make a habit of befriending recovering serial killers. She has a certain innocence combined with an odd protectiveness towards Norman. The Norman-Mary relationship is certainly a bit strange but it’s weirdly touching and against the odds Perkins and Tilly make it seem convincing.

Obviously this film is not in the same league as Hitchcock’s film. Having said that it stands up as a fairly interesting variation on the slasher movie theme with less gore but more intelligence than most movies of that type. Overall it’s one of the better 80s horror movies. Recommended.