Sunday 27 December 2020

The Lonely Sex (1959)

The Lonely Sex is a low-budget (as in very low-budget indeed) gritty 1959 crime feature written and directed by Richard Hilliard. Hilliard made half a dozen films but perhaps his biggest claim to fame is that he wrote the screenplay for the deliriously entertaining The Horror of Party Beach.

The Lonely Sex is a nasty grimy little sleazefest. I should explain first up that I have no idea what most of the characters’ names are, apart from a girl named Annabelle. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this movie and Hilliard isn’t too strong on introducing his characters to us.

There’s this young guy who obviously has a huge problem with women. He tells a bored barmaid all about it. When he was a teenager he tried to join a gang but the initiation involved having sex with a hooker and he couldn’t manage to do the deed so he couldn’t joining the gang. His Dad found out about it and laughed at him.

He’s really interested in women but he has no idea how to approach them and they keep laughing at him and he just gets more obsessed.

At the beginning of the movie he sees a young couple in the woods. They’re not making out, just being romantic. This upsets our young protagonist. He goes back to his little shack and listens to a preacher on the radio but that upsets him more.

Meanwhile Annabelle has a problem. There’s this creepy middle-aged guy (we eventually find out his name is Matt) in the boarding house where she lives. He’s a friend of her father’s. We saw the guy right at the beginning of the film, spying on a girl getting undressed. This guy is obviously trying to hit on Annabelle. He tells her how much he likes seeing her in a bathing suit. And he keeps accidentally walking into her room while she’s undressing. He says he keeps forgetting which room is his even though he’s lived there for a couple of years.

Our main protagonist, the young guy with the problem, encounters a young woman in the woods. In a surprisingly effective scene (with music being used very effectively to misleads us as to his intentions) he tries to approach her but as usual he messes up and he gets really mad, with unfortunate consequences. He really needs help. Maybe everything he does is a cry for help? Or maybe he’s just a psycho?

Later he meets Annabelle in the woods. She falls over and knocks herself unconscious, he picks her up and takes her back to his shack. When he tries to talk to her we can see why he never has any success with women. He decides to keep her. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with her, he just wants to keep her.

He consults a doctor, who happens to be Annabelle’s father. Annabelle’s father believes that psychos just need help and understanding. His friend Matt (the peeping tom) gets really angry with him for that. Matt believes that such people should be shot down like dogs.

It all seems likely to end very badly.

The unnamed protagonist is played by an actor named Karl Light. Nobody in this film can act but Light at least manages to appear convincingly deranged.

The movie does have a point to it. Whether you’re a psychotic weirdo or a respectable member of society depends on outward appearances. Is the protagonist a villain or a victim? Is it a crime to be creepy and inept? The points it’s trying to make may not be exactly profound but it does make them.

It’s all a bit amateurish but also at times surprisingly effective.

There’s some mild nudity (in two scenes that bookend the film and do so neatly enough). The violence levels are mild.

The print I saw wasn’t too hot but it was quite watchable. I’m told that the Vinegar Syndrome DVD release is better but I haven’t seen it.

In its own scuzzy way The Lonely Sex works. Recommended.

Friday 25 December 2020

Happy Christmas

 Hope you'll all having a good Christmas.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (Perversion Story, 1969)

Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (AKA Perversion Story) is a 1969 psycho-sexual thriller that perhaps doesn’t have enough blood and violence to qualify as a true giallo. It doesn’t have the suggestions of horror that we usually associate with that genre. It does however have some definite giallo stylistic touches.

Those who think of blood-drenched gore when they hear the name Lucio Fulci will be in for some surprises. There’s none of that here. It’s just not that type of movie.

I have never considered myself to be a Fulci fan but after this movie I may have to revise my opinions. One on Top of the Other is well-crafted and very stylish.

It’s also very decadent. The San Francisco setting is another of the surprises (it’s not just set there but filmed there). The film has (naturally) a very European feel and at first you might think that Rome would have been a more appropriate setting. As you get into it you realise that perhaps Fulci was right after all. If decadence is what you wanted then California in 1969 had plenty of it. It’s a different kind of decadence, a very non-European kind, so the movie is an odd mix of cultural influences.

Dr George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel) runs an expensive private clinic in San Francisco, a clinic that tends to eat up money very quickly. His marriage to Susan (Marisa Mell) is well and truly on the rocks. His life is made more complicated by the fact that Susan is extremely ill, she refuses to give a divorce and he’s under pressure from his mistress Jane (Elsa Martinelli).

Then Susan dies, and to his surprise he discovers that he’s the beneficiary of a huge insurance policy she had taken out, enough to solve all his problems. But given that his wife hated him why has she done this?

In a topless bar he meets a girl named Monica Weston. She’s a stripper and part-time prostitute, she’s very beautiful and she reminds him of Susan. She reminds him of Susan to an uncanny degree.

Of course he sleeps with Monica. Maybe he’s just trying to convince himself that she’s not Susan, or maybe he’s trying to convince himself that she is Susan.

There’s a very obvious Hitchcock influence here. There are some definite shades of Vertigo, reinforced by the San Francisco setting.

It has to be admitted that if you stop and think about Fulci’s script for even a second, it makes no sense at all. It’s just too ludicrously improbable and implausible. It also has to be admitted that the ending, although undeniably tense, takes too long to get where it’s going.

None of this matters for two reasons - the visuals, and Marisa Mell. Mell is best remembered for Danger: Diabolik but her rôle in One on Top of the Other is possibly the best of her career and she makes the most of it. The Austrian beauty is of course gorgeous. That goes without saying. She looks fabulous in this movie (her striptease scene is memorable to say the least) but it’s her acting that really impresses in a rather challenging rôle. If she’d made one false step the whole movie would have collapsed, but she handles things to perfection.

As for the visuals, Fulci pretty much won me over with the first sex scene in the movie. It’s very cleverly shot, very classy and very arty, almost Radley Metzger-ish although also slightly disturbing. You get the feeling that George is trapped in a web of sex. Fulci manages quite a few other fine set-pieces. The scenes in the Roaring Twenties club are terrific, with an amazing number of almost-naked young ladies and a general ambience of expensive sleaze (which suits the mood of the film).

Jean Sorel is OK as George Dumurrier. Elsa Martinelli is rather distant as Jane.

Mondo Macabro’s Blu-Ray offers both the English and Italian versions. Since Italian movie were always post-dubbed which one you choose is up to you. It should be noted that there was a different cut of this film for just about every market and trying to figure out which is the definitive or even the preferred version isn’t easy. The earlier DVD release from Severin offered the much truncated French cut. The recent Blu-Ray release from Mondo Macabro offers a much longer cut and is obviously the one to buy. Extras on the Blu-Ray include interviews with Jean Sorel, Elsa Martinelli and a very informative overview by Stephen Thrower.

The excellent visuals and Marisa Mell are more than enough reason to to watch One on Top of the Other. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975)

Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary follows the adventures in Mexico of an American girl named Mary Gilmore. As this 1975 film opens her van has broken down in a storm, she takes sheltered in a big abandoned house and meets Ben (David Young). We assume they’re both drifters of some kind. Then we get a flashback that tells us a bit more about Mary. She’s a successful painter. And oh yes, she’s just killed a guy and then she drank his blood.

She’s obviously a vampire. Of sorts. She doesn’t have fangs. She drugs her victim, has sex with him and then cuts his throat. So we figure she’s either a vampire or a crazy chick who thinks she’s a vampire.

So what is she going to do with Ben? Is she going to kill him and drain his blood? Fall in love with him? Keep him as her toy boy? Is she going to tell him that usually she kills her boyfriends?

Cristina Ferrare’s slightly detached performance as Mary helps here. It’s hard to get a handle on how she feels about Ben (or how she feels about being a vampire lady for that matter). She seems to like the guy, but then she seemed to like the first guy she killed. She doesn’t go into crazed psycho killer mode when she kills. She just approaches it as something that she has to do.

The movie effectively keeps us uncertain as to exactly what Mary is. She behaves like your regular vampire and she seems to be driven by blood hunger but the fact that she uses a little knife (hidden in her hair comb) might suggest that she’s not a real vampire. The uncertainty is maintained.

She certainly isn’t finished with killing. She seems to kill pretty regularly. But there’s also the person in the mask. It could be a man or a woman and the connection with the murders is unclear.

Lots of murders follow. Lieutenant Pons of the Mexican police and Inspector Cosgrove of the FBI are sure the murders were all committed by the same person. The pattern is always the same.

Or are they? The viewer is not entirely sure.

The police suspect Ben. They don’t have any evidence but he was in the right places at the right time.

Mary’s victims are usually men. But not always. Her lovers are also not always men. There’s also art dealer Greta (Helena Rojo). Mary doesn’t like killing people she knows. Nice girls don’t do that and she’s basically a nice girl, apart from the killing people and drinking their blood thing. She does have some Daddy issues. She doesn’t really remember her father although she has a picture of him that she painted. He thinks that’s what he looked like.

Mexican director Juan López Moctezuma only made a handful of movies. That handful included the wondrously bizarre Alucarda (1977) which I highly recommend.

Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary
is a Mexican movie but was shot in English and obviously aimed at the American market.

I like Cristina Ferrare in this film. She plays Mary as a sweet vulnerable girl, easily frightened, craving love and who just happens to kill lots and lots of people. Somehow Ferrare makes this convincing. We like Mary. We want things to work out for her. We worry about her. We’d just like her to stop killing people. Her performance is odd but kind of chilling. Ferrare’s biggest claim to fame is having been married to John DeLorean.

John Carradine also puts in an appearance. Which is appropriate for a vampire move since he played Dracula in a couple of the 1940s Universal horror flicks. And he always adds a touch of creepiness.

The scenes in which Mary is chased through a graveyard by a figure in a Carnival mask are pretty effective. Compared to Alucarda the weirdness here is much more low-key but the weirdness is still there.

There’s some nudity and some gore but it’s all very tame by 1970s standards. It’s the movie’s subtly offbeat qualities and odd atmosphere that will draw you in.

The German Blu-Ray from CMV includes both German and English soundtracks. The transfer is anamorphic and it’s OK but there is some print damage. To be honest this transfer is only DVD quality. Sound quality is reasonable but not fantastic.

This seems like Moctezuma’s attempt to do a commercial horror film while Alucarda is much more self-consciously arty. Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary actually maintains a good balance - it’s slightly weird and arty but still entertaining in a drive-in movie sort of way. Recommended.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Heathers (1989)

Heathers, the somewhat notorious 1989 black comedy, is a movie I’ve avoided up until now, which just shows how stupid I can be sometimes. I thought it sounded like just another mean girls movie, a genre that does not appeal to me at all. From what I’d heard of it I just didn’t think it could possibly be any good. And really it had no right to work. But it does work. It works superbly.

This is a movie set in a world that is for some people the Best Years of Their Lives but for most is an absolute nightmare world. Yes, it’s a high school movie.

Westerburg High School is ruled by a vicious tyranny - the Heathers. Three girls who all happen to be named Heather. And there’s a fourth member of their clique, Veronica (Winona Ryder). The Heathers are the popular girls. They’re rich and they’re beautiful. They get to date the hottest guys and they get to wear expensive clothes but there’s one thing they enjoy even more than shopping - making life miserable for anyone who isn’t popular. They are total bitches.

Except for Veronica. Veronica doesn’t quite fit in. She doesn’t enjoy cruelty (which makes her an object of suspicion to the Heathers). She doesn’t really like the Heathers at all. On the other hand she’s a realist. It’s better to be part of their clique than to be outside it. It’s better to be a winner than a loser. Veronica is however not entirely happy with her situation. Sometimes she wishes Heather 1 (Heather Chandler, the leader of the clique) was dead.

Then Veronica meets J.D. (Christian Slater). He seems like just the sort of guy she’s been looking for - a good-looking sexy rebel who shares her jaundiced view of high school life. He agrees with her that it would be better for everyone if Heather Chandler died. Of course every high school student thinks this way at times about some fellow student they dislike but that doesn’t mean they would actually kill that person. But J.D. is different. He really would kill Heather Chandler. And he does. Or rather, he and Veronica kill her. Veronica thought they were just paying Heather back by playing a mean trick on her (which she thoroughly deserved) but she’s only just starting to figure out that J.D. isn’t just a rebel he’s a psycho.

Murder becomes a habit. There are other students who deserve to die, and they do. Getting away with murder is surprisingly easy. You just make it look like suicide.

This has unexpected results. Suicide becomes fashionable. Even the geeky kids have a go at it. The teen suicide craze at Westerburg High becomes a media event and an opportunity for a hippie-dippie school counsellor to indulge in emotional grandstanding. The movie is of course a satire and this is the point where the satire really hits top gear. Making a wickedly funny satire about teen suicide is a risky undertaking but Heathers carries it off effortlessly. It’s satire that is quite merciless and very very edgy but somehow it still manages to be delightfully funny. It not only hits the target, it hits the right targets. As edgy as it is it’s not exploitative. The fact that there are plenty of people prepared to exploit teen suicide and that it’s sick to do so is the whole point of the movie.

The murder spree by Veronica and J.D has other unexpected results. If you kill one Heather another one just pops up to take her place. J.D. thinks more drastic measures are required but by this time Veronica has decided that things are getting out of hand.

The fact that the movie works so well is partly due to the daring but very witty and intelligent script by Daniel Waters but the performances also have a lot to do with it. Winona Ryder is superb. She, very wisely, doesn’t overplay things. Veronica is in fact a completely normal girl. She’s smart but she’s not a misfit and she never intended to become a serial killer. It just sort of happened. But she remains essentially normal. She’s really a nice girl and very likeable.

J.D. is not normal at all but Christian Slater’s performance is also very controlled. He has to appear to be the kind of guy that a normal girl would fall for. He has to appear to be just dangerous enough to be sexy and we have to believe that even when she realises he’s crazy Veronica is still attracted to him.

Kim Walker is particularly good (and particularly funny) as the vicious Heather Chandler and Shannen Doherty is also excellent as Heather Duke, the successor to Heather Chandler’s crown as leader of the Heathers. You can understand why the three Heathers would tempt any reasonable person to murder - their bitchiness is awe-inspiring.

This was the first attempt at a feature by both writer Waters and director Michael Lehmann and they demonstrate enormous self-assurance in pulling off such a risky movie. The subject matter would render this movie quite impossible to make today. It’s also very politically incorrect.

Heathers is wickedly effective satire and delicious fun. Highly recommended.

Monday 7 December 2020

Russ Meyer’s Lorna (1964) revisited

Russ Meyer’s career falls into a number of well-defined phases, with each apparent change of approach actually bringing him ever closer to his mature style. Meyer had invented the nudie-cutie with The Immoral Mr Teas in 1959 but he soon grew bored, and he also felt that audiences would grow bored. So he abandoned colour for black-and-white and plunged into his redneck gothic/southern gothic phase with Lorna in 1964. Lorna has affinities with the roughies that were becoming increasingly dominant in American sexploitation movies but it would be a mistake to class it as a straightforward roughie. Like all of Meyer’s films, it belongs to a particular and distinctive sub-genre of Meyer’s own invention.

Lorna (played by the gorgeous and awesomely well-endowed Lorna Maitland) is married to Jim. Jim is a real nice guy and Lorna was madly in love with him when they got married but he’s just not very exciting in the bedroom. Not exciting enough to give Lorna the sexual pleasure she craves. Poor Jim doesn’t know anything about what turns women on and he doesn’t even know there’s a problem. He innocently assumes that since he enjoys the sex Lorna must enjoy it as well.

Meyer’s films certainly linked sex and violence and most included at lest one rape scene. That might lead one to think that Meyer was some kind of misogynist, but that’s a conclusion that could only be reached by someone who hasn’t actually watched (or at least understood) his movies. Meyer was always interested in and sympathetic to the female point of view. If only Jim had understood a bit more about women, if only he had understood that Lorna’s perfectly natural needs were not being satisfied, if only just once he had asked her what was wrong, all the subsequent disasters could have been avoided.

Because there are going to be subsequent disasters. 

Jim works at the salt mine with Luther and Jonah. Luther is foul-mouthed and dirty-minded and obsessed with sex. He likes to give the impression that he can get as many women as he wants but it’s perfectly obvious that that is true only in his daydreams. At the opening of the film, he tries it on with a girl named Ruthie. Ruthie is very drunk, but she’s not drunk enough to want to sleep with Luther. Luther reacts with rage and beats her up. This is the first appearance in film of a standard Meyer trope - sexually inadequate men who turn to violence against women. Taken on the whole the men in Meyer’s movies are not a very admirable bunch.

Luther is obsessed with Lorna. In his daydreams Lorna would prefer to be with him than be with Jim. In reality Lorna is hardly even aware of Luther’s existence. 

Then an escaped convict enters the picture. He rapes Lorna and she finally experiences the sexual bliss she craves. Lorna thinks she’s found happiness at last. When she takes him home with her it’s reasonable to assume that events are moving towards a climax that is likely to be unpleasant for all concerned.

This movie marked a major departure for Meyer. His nudie-cuties were essentially plotless collections of humour and/or sexy vignettes. Lorna has a very definite plot. It’s a simple plot, but it’s the execution that is interesting. Lorna is structured like a morality play but the fire-and-brimstone preacher who delivers stinging denunciations of immorality at various points is a sure sign that we’re not supposed to take the morality play aspect at face value. The film is more an attack on moralism than on immorality, although in true exploitation movie style it tries to have it both ways. The preacher introduces another Meyer touch - a character playing the rôle of the Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the film.

While Meyer was a quintessentially American film-maker Lorna owes quite a lot to the European art films of the period (especially Italian neorealism). But this is a European art film made in an entirely American way with an entirely American flavour.

Meyer had not yet evolved his full-blown signature style with the machine-gun editing but Lorna is still very much a Meyer film. It’s superbly shot. Meyer was a bit of a technical perfectionist. The idea that in a low-budget movie it doesn’t matter if the occasional shot is out of focus would have appalled Russ Meyer. He liked his movies to look great, and they invariably do look great. He worked quickly but his compositions are well thought out. I don’t think Meyer would have been capable of filming a poorly composed shot.

For the title rôle Meyer cast an actress named Maria Andre but he was not happy with the choice and at the last minute his wife Eve suggested a girl named Barbara Popejoy. Meyer renamed her Lorna Maitland and she’s one of the main reasons for the movie’s success. Apart from her extraordinary breasts (this is a Russ Meyer film so the subject of breasts cannot be avoided) she is perfect in every way, portraying Lorna as a mix of naïvete and seething sexual desire. 

For reasons connected wth the disposition of his estate Meyer’s films have not yet received the treatment they deserve on home video. Much lesser films have had special editions with audio commentaries and various extras and even Blu-Ray releases. For Meyer’s films we still have to rely on fairly basic DVD releases. The Region 2 release pairs Lorna with the equally interesting follow-up movie, Mudhoney, the second of Meyer’s redneck gothic films. Lorna gets a pretty good transfer.

Lorna is a nasty squalid little movie and it revels in its nastiness and squalor. It’s also stylish and absurdly entertaining. It made truckloads of money (Meyer celebrated by buying himself a brand-new Porsche). It’s one of the landmark sexploitation movies of the 60s and it’s highly recommended.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Milano Calibro 9 (1972)

Fernando De Leo’s much admired Milano Calibro 9 is a 1972 Italian crime film that belongs to the poliziotteschi genre rather than the giallo genre. It was based on a noir pulp crime story by Giorgio Scerbanenco.

It begins with a series of exchanges of parcels. Clearly the parcels contain something illegal since those involved look very obviously like hoodlums. In fact the parcels contain money. This is a currency export racket. When all the exchanges are complete and the final parcel is opened it contains, much to the horror of the bad guys, stacks of blank paper. These criminals have been swindled. And they’re not happy. If you can’t trust criminals then whom can you trust? They take a terrible and blood-drenched revenge on everyone who might conceivably have stolen their money.

Three years later Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) is released from prison. The rumour in the underworld is that he was the one who stole the money, a rumour he vehemently denies. His problem is that the boss of the crime syndicate he was working for, a man known as the Americano, is convinced that Ugo took his money. And it’s not healthy for a man to have the Americano suspecting him of disloyalty.

Ugo gets beaten up. Not because he’s likely to admit his guilt, but because in this situation that’s what happens. You get beaten up. The Milan underworld is a very violent world. If this movie is to be believed Milan in the early 70s was like Chicago in the 20s only more so.

The Americano, having had Ugo beaten up again, gives him his old job back. Ugo has his own reasons for accepting - it will give him the opportunity to clear his name.

Ugo meets up with his old girlfriend, dancer Nelly Borden (Barbara Buchet) and they rekindle their affair.

Chino (Philippe Leroy) gets mixed up in Ugo’s troubles. Chino and Ugo are old buddies. Chino is a hitman but he’s an honest hitman! Chino looks after Don Vincenzo, who used to be the local godfather. Don Vincenzo is now old and blind and spends his time lamenting the fact that the Mafia just isn’t what it used to be.

What follows is a succession of incredibly violent episodes. Lots of beatings, lots of shootings. Then we get a series of twists at the end.

It sounds promising that there are problems. For starters the characters are loathsome. I just wanted them all to die. Lots of them do die but unfortunately it takes 100 minutes to accomplish this. There’s not a single character we can possibly care about. The police are equally repellant. The Commissario (Frank Wolff) is a tedious blistering buffoon. His second-in-command, Mercuri (Luigi Pistilli), treats us to a serious of excruciatingly heavy-handed political diatribes on the evils of capitalism. Then he gets transferred but he comes back to deliver yet another series of political lectures. The police shouldn’t be chasing criminals - they should be out on the streets protesting with the students and workers.

Then we get lots more violence, culminating in the most ludicrous shootout in cinema history.

I like Barbara Bouchet but she might as well have not bothered making this film. OK, she looks great dancing in that very revealing beaded bikini but apart from that she contributes nothing. Her part is appallingly underwritten.

Gastone Moschin is good at looking stolid. That’s all he does throughout the film. He does not change his facial expression once. OK, that type of minimalist acting can work in a crime thriller if you’re Alain Delon or Steve McQueen. You can come across as ultra-cool and icily obsessive. Unfortunately in this film Gastone Moschin just looks stolid. In fact he looks like he might well have been unconscious for most of the filming.

Mario Adorf as the Americano’s chief henchman Rocco makes up for this, giving a performance that ranges from mild hysteria to off-the-scale hysteria. Lionel Stander as the Americano is too hammy to be genuinely menacing.

Oddly enough for a movie with so much action and so much violence the results are a bit on the boring side. Some of the better giallo directors could get away with lots of hyper-violence by at least filming it in interesting ways but De Leo proves himself to be rather uninspired as a director. The violence just becomes wearying.

I’ll admit that the ending does provide a satisfying series of twists. And of course it provides more extreme violence. And I’ll admit that the opening parcel-exchange sequences are very well done.

Arrow’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo release is what we’ve come to expect from this company - a very good transfer with lots of extras. We get no less than three documentaries, one on the film itself, one on Giorgio Scerbanenco who wrote the story on which it’s based and one on De Leo’s career. De Leo is featured in the documentaries and he’s a guy who certainly has an optimistic view of his own talents.

If you like your crime thrillers to be extremely violent and extremely brutal Milano Calibro 9 delivers the goods on that count. If you like your crime thrillers to be stylish you may be disappointed. It’s a competently made film but it doesn’t quite have the visual inspiration you expect from Italian movies of this era. If you like tight plotting it has its moments but it’s not going to dazzle you. If you want characters you can care about, forget it. I’d suggest renting rather than buying this one. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it, but that may just be a matter of personal taste.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Bloodlust! (1961)

Bloodlust! is a low-budget 1961 American horror thriller and it’s one of the countless adaptations of Richard Connell’s classic 1932 short story The Most Dangerous Game.

The idea behind the story is simple. A rich man owns his own island on which he indulges his passion for big game hunting. He has grown tired of hunting lions and other such creatures and now he prefers to hunt the most dangerous game of all - Man! Anyone unlucky enough to find himself on this private island will find himself hunted like a wild beast.

In this version four American teenagers, two boys and two girls, are on a boating trip when they decide it would be fun to land on what seems to be an uninhabited island. The skipper of the boat would have warned them not to, had he been sober enough at the time. This is the island of Dr Albert Balleau (Wilton Graff) and he is of course a madman.

The four teenagers (all of whom are naturally played by actors and actresses in their late twenties) quickly decide that Dr Balleau is just a little bit creepy and they’re just a tad concerned when he insists that they cannot possibly leave (they’d have to make their way through dangerous jungle to reach their dinghy) and simply must stay the night. They haven’t yet figured out that they’re not going to be permitted to leave at all.

Dr Balleau lives on the island with his wife Sandra and a drunk named Dean. It’s obvious that Sandra and Dean are having an affair and it’s obvious to the viewer (if not to the unlucky couple) that Dr Balleau is well aware of what’s going on. And that he intends to get some cruel amusement out of it.

It doesn’t take long for the elderly teenagers to realise that really bad things happen on this island and that those bad things are likely to happen to them. Dr Balleau has plans for the boys, plans that involve hunting them with a crossbow. He has other plans for the girls. He likes feminine company, if you know what I mean.

The acting is mostly pretty terrible although Wilton Graff as Dr Balleau is effectively sinister. His performance works because it’s controlled - he’s chilling rather than overtly maniacal.

Robert Reed was pushing 30 at the time and even more than the other cast members he looks absurdly old to be a hapless teenager. This was the year in which he got his break, landing a regular leading role in the TV series The Defenders (of course he became slightly better known for The Brady Bunch). His performance here is adequate. The other cast members are amusing inept.

This was a very low-budget movie but it has a few good visual touches. Dr Balleau’s cavern trophy room is nicely creepy (with its chamber-of-horrors exhibits), as is the human taxidermy room. There is, surprisingly, some gore.

The hunt sequences are obviously the heart of the movie and they’re not executed too badly. There’s some fairly effective suspense - the odds are stacked so heavily against the boys that it really is difficult to figure out how they can possibly escape.

Ralph Brooke wrote, produced and directed. This was his only feature film directing credit. Given the low budget he does an acceptable job.

This movie is included in Mill Creek’s Drive-In Cult Classics: 32 Movie Collection. The transfer is in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The movie is in black-and-white and the transfer is reasonably good (the quality of the transfers in this Mill Creek set is surprisingly very good on the whole). There are of course no extras.

Bloodlust! is a movie that is a lot better than its very poor reputation would suggest. It’s certainly not the best adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game that I’ve seen but it’s far from being the worst (one of the strangest and most interesting is Jess Franco’s Countess Perverse).

Bloodlust! is pretty decent entertainment. Recommended.

Friday 20 November 2020

Showgirls (1995), Blu-Ray review

Paul Verhoeven’s infamous 1995 film Showgirls may not be the most critically reviled movie of all time but it has to be right up there in the top five. That in itself makes it interesting. I’d already seen the movie twice but recently I gave in to temptation and bought it on Blu-Ray (I already own it on DVD). I guess that has to make me a serious Showgirls fan. And I’m not ashamed.

For those who believed the critics and avoided this film the plot is straightforward. Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) arrives in Las Vegas with a dream. She wants to be a showgirl. She wants to be a superstar showgirl, like the famous Cristal Connors. She is aiming for the top, but she has to start at the bottom, working in a sleazy strip joint called Cheetah’s. She gradually works her way up. All she needs is one big break. If only by some amazing stroke of fortune she could take over Cristal Connors’ spot for one night then the world would recognise Nomi as a star. But will stardom be worth it? It’s pretty much 42nd Street but with lots and lots of nudity.

There are several ways to approach Showgirls. The easiest way is to just accept the almost universal opinion of critics at the time (and since) that it’s a spectacularly bad movie, one of the biggest turkeys of all time. The second approach is to see it as triumph of unintentional camp. Most fans of the movie (and it does have a genuine cult following) approach it this way. The third approach is to consider the possibility that the movie turned out exactly how Verhoeven wanted it to turn out, which means having to try to understand what he was actually trying to do.

I personally reject the first approach out of hand. If mainstream critics are united in reviling a particular film I immediately want to see that film. Sometimes it turns out that the critics were right but often such a film turns out to be something wondrously strange and delightful. Mainstream critics are generally incapable of understanding cult movies. Usually they ignore such movies, but Showgirls was a big-budget major-studio production so they couldn’t do that. So they savaged it.

The second approach has a lot to be said for it. Showgirls is about as camp as a movie can possibly be. Gloriously so. There are lots of moments when you ask yourself what on earth was Verhoeven thinking, or perhaps what was he smoking? Showgirls takes trashiness to places other movies never thought of going.

The third approach can be interesting. The first thing you have to do is to accept that some of the criticism levelled at Showgirls really do miss the point. For example it might be quite true that the world of superstar Las Vegas showgirls who are household names existed only in Verhoeven’s imagination. But while most people think of this movie as a Vegas movie it isn’t really. Verhoeven was not making a movie about Vegas. His target was the entire American media-entertainment world and in fact American consumerism, which (in his view) makes us all whores. I think it’s fair to say that he was also taking a swipe at celebrity worship. You might not agree with him, but those was his intentions. He could just as easily have set the movie in Hollywood but that had already been done many times and it might have been misunderstood as a movie purely about Hollywood. Las Vegas seemed better suited to his purpose. The actual Las Vegas would not have served the purpose so he invented an imaginary Vegas, in which showgirls are like movie stars.

Verhoeven was certainly aiming at satire. It’s not very subtle satire, but then Verhoeven isn’t a particularly subtle director. Verhoeven movies like RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct have many virtues but subtlety isn’t one of them. And even though his movies aren’t subtle they still manage to get misunderstood (Starship Troopers being an obvious example).

If you’re going to take the third approach you also need to look at Elizabeth Berkley’s performance in a new light. She gave exactly the performance Verhoeven wanted. It’s actually a very good performance but Nomi is very very unlikeable (and she is not supposed to be a sweet innocent corrupted by Vegas). It’s an extreme performance but Nomi is an extreme person. Every time she has a chance of having something good in her life she smashes it and then grinds it underfoot. That’s the sort of person she is. She’s like a feral cat that nobody is ever going to be able to tame. Berkley gave a great performance and it was the right performance but it was a performance that repelled and angered critics and her reward was to have her career destroyed.

You have to view all the performances in the light of Verhoeven’s intentions. Judged in conventional acting terms Kyle MacLachlan is stupendously awful as Cristal’s boyfriend (sort of boyfriend in a decidedly unhealthy way) Zack, but within the context of the movie he’s just right. Zack is, like everyone else in the film, a whore. He is whatever people want him to be. Gina Gershon is immense fun as Cristal, going wildly over-the-top at every opportunity. At least Cristal knows she’s a whore and she accepts it.

Molly (Gina Ravera) is Nomi’s only real friend and she’s the only character with any real integrity. Which makes her the least interesting character (it’s that sort of movie). Robert Davi provides amusement as Al, the sleazy manager of Cheetah’s, who exploits his girls but in his own weird depraved way actually cares about them.

If Verhoeven’s objective was to strip away every thread of glamour from the glitzy greedy grasping world of Las Vegas and to expose the utter corruption and emptiness of the dreams it offers (and the dreams that Hollywood and the entire entertainment industry offer) then you’d have to say he succeeds. Showgirls has been much criticised for its lack of genuine eroticism but really that’s the point. This is sex as business. If you want it you can get it but don’t expect it to make you feel good. Vegas will chew up all your dreams and spit them out and that’s what this movie does with breathtaking ruthlessness.

The film also wants to play around with the links between money, power and sex (which again made Vegas an obvious setting). Everybody is playing power games with everybody else and all the power games involve sex. Most obviously there’s the bizarre three-way dynamic between Nomi, Cristal and Zack. Everything that happens between these three is about power, made most explicit in the infamous lap dancing scene with Cristal pulling the strings but with Nomi making a bid to take control. The power struggles between Nomi and Cristal never stop. Nomi wants money and fame but mostly she wants control.

Verhoeven did however have other intentions as well. Like so many European intellectuals he seems to have had a love-hate relationship with America. While he’s mercilessly demolishing the American dream he’s clearly besotted with American pop culture and he sincerely wanted to make Showgirls as a big-budget musical. Not quite a traditional Hollywood musical, but a Hollywood musical nonetheless.

Verhoeven was (or rather is) also a director obsessed with religious symbolism and it’s no coincidence that the show which Cristal headlines is called Goddess. The bizarre routines in the show are clearly meant to be a kind of pagan celebration of sexuality, and there’s Catholic symbolism as well.

There are times when Showgirls really does hit the target. James, the black dancer with whom Nomi becomes almost emotionally involved, wants her to give up stripping and join him in doing real dancing with serious artistic intentions but when we see his arty dance routine it’s absolutely no different from what Nomi does at Cheetah’s. James is just a whore as well but he can’t see it. And Cristal sneers that what Nomi does at Cheetah’s is not dancing but her own show at the Stardust is also no different from what Nomi does at the strip club, it’s just more expensively staged. They’re all doing the same thing. Cristal just gets paid more and James deludes himself that he’s doing art.

Joe Eszterhas’s script has been accused of misogyny, which is nonsense. This is a script which is equally brutal to all its characters, male and female. This is misanthropy, not misogyny.

Verhoeven was in fact very happy with the movie, and is still very fond of it. The reality is that nothing quite works as he intended it to, but in a way it still does work. Nothing is believable, the characters are not real people with real human emotions, but that just makes it more fascinatingly weird and hyper-real (or perhaps surreal would be more accurate). This is not reality but it’s a strange alternative kind of reality or unreality. Which perhaps is the point - Vegas is not the real world. Visually Showgirls is also of course wonderfully excessive, again to the point of hyper-reality.

At the end of the day I think the best way to enjoy Showgirls is a combination of the second and third approaches I outlined at the beginning. Verhoeven did succeed in his objective, it just happened to be an objective with which mainstream critics and audiences were violently out of sympathy and it happened to succeed in a very strange sort of way.

It can certainly be enjoyed as a weirdly mesmerising exercise in extreme camp or even out-and-out kitsch, but it’s more enjoyable if you also view it as a movie with serious intentions that often fails but in failing it succeeds on a whole different level of weirdness. Most bad movies are either just bad or they’re just bad movies that are so crazy that they’re entertaining. Showgirls is something else again. It’s bad in conventional terms but it achieves a kind of greatness all its own. They don’t make movies like this any more. In fact nobody ever made movies like this. Except Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas.

It’s essential to realise that the film’s trashiness and emotional emptiness and it’s unerotic eroticism are deliberate. These were not mistakes on the part of the director and the writer. They were conscious choices.

Showgirls flopped badly on its original release but has since made a ton of money.

Showgirls has had quite a few DVD and Blu-Ray releases (testifying to its enduring cult appeal). The UK Blu-Ray from Pathé offers a good transfer with a few extras. I reviewed the DVD release of Showgirls quite a few years back.

There is no other movie quite like Showgirls. It’s totally off-the-wall but it’s hypnotic and insanely entertaining once you allow yourself to become immersed in its bizarre alternate universe. It creates its own genre. Personally I just love this movie, almost to the point of obsession. Highly recommended.

Sunday 15 November 2020

The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962) revisited

The Sadistic Baron von Klaus is a very early Jess Franco horror film, shot in black-and-white in northern Spain, and it’s one of his most straighforward gothic horror movies. This 1962 release is the sort of movie that demonstrates that Franco was perfectly capable of making conventional tightly-constructed films, and making them extremely well, if he chose to do so.

It’s also, for various reasons, a key entry in Franco’s filmography.

A young girl has been murdered in the village of Holfen, and another has disappeared. There are rumours among the villagers that the Baron von Klaus has been up to his old tricks. But which Baron von Klaus? Is it the notorious 17th century baron, who tortured a killed a number of girls, or one of his currently living descendants? The original baron was cursed by the father of one of his victims and supposedly his spirit still haunts the district. There are those who claim to have seen him.

The von Klaus family lives, fittingly, in a gothic pile surrounded by swamp land. There’s the heir to the tile, Ludwig, and his financée. There’s his mother, who is dying. And there is his uncle, Max von Klaus (Howard Vernon). The mother wants her son to get away from Holfen before the curse catches up to him, one way or another.

Inspector Borowski (Georges Rollin) is on the case and he’s brimming with confidence. He doesn’t intend to pay any attention to nonsense like ghosts and curses. He doesn’t want any help but a reporter named Karl (from Maidens and Murderers magazine) is determined to help him anyway. He might also be able to get some help from a couple of wood-cutters who seem to know a lot about the von Klaus legend.

More murders follow. There are quite a few women who might be in line to be among the next victim. There’s Ludwig’s fiancée Karine (Paula Martel), there’s Max’s mistress Lida (Ana Castor), and there’s the sexy Margaret who works at the hotel that seems to have a link with the killings. So the audience has three women in danger to worry about. And the inspector has not ruled out the possibility that the murderer is a woman. He has ruled out the possibility that the murderer is a ghost, but whether his confidence on that point is justified remains to be seen.

While this is a conventionally made movie without the stylistic excesses of later Franco it is a bit unusual (for 1962) in its overt blending of horror and eroticism. It’s also in some ways a precursor of the giallo genre. It even features a sinister black-gloved figure who may be the killer! Whether this movie will turn out to be more gothic horror or more giallo is something you’ll have to watch it to find out.

Franco favourite Howard Vernon gives a fine performance as Max, a character who isn’t quite sinister but you get the feeling that maybe he could be. Ludwig von Klaus is just as ambiguous and Hugo Blanco does a fine job with the rôle. The acting in general is very decent.

By the halfway stage you might be thinking that this movie is incredibly restrained for a Franco movie but the director’s trademark interests in perverse sex with strong sadomasochistic overtones gradually become more apparent and in the later stages we get a couple of scenes including a dungeon sequence that must have really shocked audiences in 1962. And while there’s not much nudity by later Franco standards, there’s a lot by the standards of 1962. Even at this early stage of his career Franco was pushing the boundaries.

This movie was shot in black-and-white in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. If you associate the name Jess Franco with a technically slapdash approach you may be quite surprised by this one. It’s technically very proficient and very professional. And there are no zooms. There’s some nice moody location shooting.

The biggest problem with The Sadistic Baron von Klaus is that it’s a bit too slow and a bit too long. Once it gets going it does deliver the goods however. What’s most significant about it is that for the first time we see the overt influence of de Sade. It also features the first really full-blown Franco erotic visual set-piece. If you’re a serious Francophile that makes it essential viewing. Highly recommended.

Saturday 14 November 2020

recent posts on my other blogs

Some recent posts on my other blogs that might be of interest.

On Classic Movie Ramblings:

Captain Sindbad (1963), a terrific swashbuckler starring Guy Williams (John Robinson from Lost in Space).

Too Hot to Handle (1960). Jayne Mansfield and Christopher Lee is a grimy little thriller set in a Soho strip club.

The Girl in Black Stockings (1957). Mamie van Doren in a neat little slightly noirish mystery thriller.

On Vintage Pop Fictions:

Henry Slesar’s 1957 The Secret of Marracott Deep, a fun slice of science fiction pulp.

Robert Silverberg's 1959 Gang Girl, quality juvenile delinquent sleaze from the famous science fiction author.

Nictzin Dyalhis’s The Sapphire Goddess, a collection of his very odd but interesting short stories from Weird Tales.

On Cult TV Lounge:

Sheena Queen of the Jungle (1955), a fun 1950s jungle girl adventure series with the delectable Irish McCalla.

Star Trek Operation - Annihilate! (1967), not a bad episode at all.

Voyagers! (1982), a surprisingly enjoyable kids’ science fiction time travel series.

Monday 9 November 2020

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

1950s American science fiction cinema gave us giant killer ants, giant killer spiders and other assorted giant killer critters. The Monolith Monsters, released by Universal in 1957, is the killer rocks movie. Killer rocks from outer space, to be precise.

A meteor comes down in the desert. The area is littered with strange black rocks. They’re interesting rocks and several people pick them up and take them home. Those people die horribly - turned into stone! One of them is a geologist from the US Department of the Interior who takes one of the rocks back to his office in a sleepy little desert town. His buddy and fellow geologist Dave (Grant Williams) wants to find out the answer to the mystery and his girlfriend, schoolteacher Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright), has a personal interest. One of the little kids, Ginny, she teaches looks like being the next victim of the killer rocks.

Dave enlists the help of his old professor. They must race against time to unravel the secret of the rocks if they’re going to save little Ginny. In fact it’s not just a matter of saving one little girl - these rocks grow and multiply and they’re a threat to Civilisation As We Know It.

The rocks grow into gigantic monoliths capable of crushing anything that gets in their way.

In a movie of this type there naturally has to be some simple and yet unlikely answer to the problem of stopping the monsters. That aspect is handled well, with lots of frustrating setbacks while the time just keeps ticking away. And those rocks just keep growing and going. And advancing. It seems that the entire town will be destroyed and the rocks won’t stop there. If they get to the other side of the mountains they’ll destroy everything in their path.

Not only do Dave and the professor need to find something that will stop the small rocks from growing in a laboratory - they need to find a way to destroy mountainous rock monoliths. The answer has to be something that will work on a really really large scale, and work quickly.

And Dr Hendricks, the specialist in Los Angeles treating little Ginny, has to find a way to cure the people who have have already been affected by the rocks and have already started turning into stone.

The premise is of course rather goofy. Although perhaps not really all that much goofier than the average monster movie. The idea of a meteor strike is at least plausible. What matters is that however silly the idea might be it’s extremely well executed. This is actually a rather well-made little film. It’s as if the people making it decided to try to make it into a good movie, and because they made a bit of an effort they largely succeeded.

It also works partly because it’s so bizarre. These rocks grow and multiply. They do stuff that rocks are just not supposed to do. And when something acts totally contrary to its nature in a way that is baffling and seemingly impossible you have an inherently creepy idea. And the very impersonality of the threat makes it scary. If you’re faced with a spider the size of a house you can at least look him in the eyes and hurl defiance at him. That’s an enemy you can face. You can’t do that with a rock. You just feel powerless. You can’t negotiate with this type of inanimate enemy or threaten it.

And these are rocks. You can’t shoot them. You can’t even get the army to bomb them or blow them up. When the rock monoliths break up they just produce more and more monoliths.

The acting is quite competent. The special effects are good and the miniatures work is excellent. It certainly doesn’t look like a Z-grade movie. John Sherwood only directed a handful of films which is a pity. He manages to make The Monolith Monsters suspenseful and fairly exciting, and it’s briskly paced as well. There’s even a genuine sense of menace.

Universal's Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection offers five films on DVD including this one. The black-and-white transfer is excellent.

The Monolith Monsters could have been dull and silly but in practice it’s a considerably better film than it has any right to be. In fact it’s a rather good little movie. It’s a bit offbeat, in some ways more like a disaster movie than a monster movie. It’s also much more of an actual science fiction movie than the average 50s monster movie. Some thought has actually been put into creating an original and interesting threat from outer space. Highly recommended.