Wednesday 19 February 2020

The Nude Vampire (1970)

The Nude Vampire (La vampire nue) was Jean Rollin’s second feature film, and the second in his vampire cycle. It was released in 1970. If you’re not familiar with Rollin’s work you may go into this movie expecting a straightforward erotic horror movie. If so you’re going to become very disoriented very quickly. Rollin was a surrealist. By that I don’t mean that he used surrealist images and techniques to add some atmosphere. This movie is surrealism all the way through.

All of Rollin’s horror movies are surrealist but that’s particularly true of his vampire films. The later vampire films, like the superb Fascination, are slightly more subtle but they’re still surrealist. The early movies are about as surrealist as any movies can get, and I’m not just talking about horror films. Very few directors ever attempted to push surrealism as far as Rollin did, and very few succeeded in making it work as well as Rollin did.

Trying to disentangle the plot of The Nude Vampire is like trying to make sense of a dream. You can gain some glimmerings of understanding, you can even get some real insights into dream states, but if you insist on logic you’re lost. It’s not that there isn’t a plot, it’s just that logic won’t help you.

A young man is rather concerned that his very wealthy father M. Radamante has kidnapped a young woman. The young man, Pierre Radamante, thinks his dad may be doing something relatively harmless like hosting occult sex parties for the decadent rich. In fact his dad is up to something much weirder.

There’s plenty of decadence here. There are for instance bored rich people playing Russian roulette. But it’s not what it seems - they’re a kind of cult. They worship the kidnapped girl. Who may not have been kidnapped. The girl is a vampire, or perhaps M. Radamante is right that she simply has a rare blood disease. She cannot tolerate sunlight. Any wounds she suffer heal almost instantly. She drinks blood. Perhaps this is really a science fiction film.

M. Radamante has his vampire and he intends to discover her secrets. But can he hang on to her? And will he realise that the situation is not at all what it seems to be and that he really has no idea what he is dealing with.

This movie is all about the images and the mood and these were always Rollin’s strengths. The images are disturbing, not in the sense of offering gore or overt terrors, but simply in conveying a sense that we’ve entered a world in which the rules are different.

There are characteristic Rollin touches. There are clocks. There are two young ladies who appear to be twins. No clowns, but he does manage to include a scene on his beloved beach at Dieppe, the beach that features in so many of his films.

There are some wonderful shots. Solange eavesdropping on the twins for instance, a beautifully composed scene.

Rollin had little in common with other practitioners of the erotic horror genre who were active at the time. He had his own style and seemed indifferent to the preoccupations of his contemporaries. The obvious movie with which to compare The Nude Vampire is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1983 exercise in surreal eroticism, La Belle Captive.

And why did Rollin make so many vampire movies, and all of them concerning female vampires? Not because he had any interest in vampire folklore but for the very simple practical reason that compared to other types of horror films they are more aesthetically pleasing. You can cast pretty women in them. And the opportunities for combining horror and eroticism are so much greater. That’s Rollin’s explanation and there’s no reason to doubt it.

There’s no sex and not as much nudity as you might expect. The girls do get to wear some wild costumes though. And there are the masks.

Some of his later vampire films work better as horror films although I think it’s fair to say that Rollin never did make anything resembling a conventional horror movie. The Nude Vampire is a truly bizarre movie but the imagery is extraordinary. If you’re new to Rollin, start with Lips of Blood or Fascination but if you’re a Rollin fan this one is essential viewing. On that basis The Nude Vampire is highly recommended.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

From Hell It Came (1957)

From Hell It Came may not be the silliest of 1950s monster movies but it certainly has to rank in the top five. This is the infamous killer tree trunk movie.

It opens on a small Pacific island, a US colony, with the execution of a native prince named Kimo. He’s the victim of a plot by a rival and an evil witch doctor to usurp power. Kimo was accused of helping the Americans to poison the previous chief. Kimo vows to come back from the dead and take his revenge.

The island is suffering from an outbreak of plague. The new evil chief blames the Americans. Since the Americans did explode a hydrogen bomb on a nearby island and since the fallout from the explosion did drift on to the island and cause radiation sickness it’s not difficult to see how the  new chief persuaded his people that the Americans are the bad guys. In fact of course the Americans are only there to help and to bring the natives the advantages of modern science and medicine. Spearheading this philanthropic mission are Dr Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Professor Clark (John McNamara). They’ve both been on the island too long and they’re clearly going a bit stir-crazy. Luckily they have plenty of booze.

Complicating things for Dr Arnold is the presence of beautiful American lady scientist Dr Terry Mason (Tina Carver). He’s hopelessly in love with Dr Mason but she’s a career gal.

The American scientists have an uphill struggle to convince the natives to trust them but seem to be making progress when a strange tree trunk appears in the native cemetery. The locals are inclined to think it’s the spirit of Kimo that has come back in the form of the the monster Tabanga and he’s looking for vengeance. The American scientists are sceptical until they discover that the tree trunk has a human heartbeat!

The smart thing to do would be to hit the tree stump with a massive dose of herbicide but if they did that we’d be denied the excitement of seeing a rampaging tree stump creating mayhem.

And this is not just your regular homicidal shrub. Remember that hydrogen bomb I mentioned earlier. This is a radiation-enhanced homicidal shrub!

The evil witch doctor has his own plans for the Tabanga. If he can force it to do his bidding he will have an unstoppable weapon in his possession. He will be able to expel the hated Americans from the island and he will have supreme unchallenged power. No-one can stand against the Tabanga. Of course the Tabanga is just a tree with a bad attitude that moves incredibly slowly and doesn’t seem to have any superpowers but by the standards of the island it’s a super-weapon.

You might be wondering how a movie with a premise like this could possibly void descending into utter silliness. This movie doesn’t even try to avoid that fate - it dives head-first into the deepest pit of silliness it can find.

The three leads are unexciting if competent. The major annoyance is Linda Watkins as the predatory widow Mrs Kilgore. Her accent may well be the worst I’ve ever heard. I assumed she was trying for a cockney accent but then she mentions returning to Australia, so instead of being the worst cockney accent in cinema history it turns out that this is the worst Australian accent in cinema history. Added to which her acting is generally excruciating. You will find yourself praying that she will be one of Tabanga’s first victims.

The makeup effects are impressive in their own way. They wanted a walking tree trunk that looked just slightly human and that’s what they got. It looks really dumb but it does look like a slightly human tree trunk.

You have to admire the cast for being able to play their scenes in this move while keeping a straight face.

Apart from its silliness it’s a movie made with at least a moderate degree of competence. Dan Milner was no Ed Wood. It is excessively talky in the early stages and once the action starts it’s not all that exciting. But compared to some of the worst 50s sci-fi movies (like The Beast of Yucca Flats) it’s enjoyable in its goofiness.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a remarkably good anamorphic transfer. This might be a terrible movie but it looks great.

For all its many flaws From Hell It Came is oddly endearing. If you’re in the mood for a very silly monster movie it’s fun. Recommended.

Wednesday 5 February 2020

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972)

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a women-in-prison movie and if you’re familiar with that remarkably sleazy genre you probably think you know what to expect. But is is a Japanese women-in-prison movie and that’s a whole different thing. This is a female revenge movie of awesome intensity. It is also one of the classics of pinky violence.

At this stage I guess I should say something about the fascinating history of the pinky violence genre. It was an offshoot of the already well-established pink film (pinku eiga) genre which had appeared in the mid-60s. Pink films were Japanese movies dealing with sex and nudity. They were not exactly software porn films. They had more in common with the American sexploitation movies of the 60s, with film-makers being largely free to do what they wanted as long as there was enough nudity to keep audiences happy. By the beginning of the 70s the major Japanese studios were in serious financial trouble. Nikkatsu’s solution was to switch production entirely to its roman porno films (the name coming from the French name for an erotic novel), essentially much raunchier pink films. Toei’s solution was the pinky violence film. They figured that if they combined lots of startling violence, much of it sexual in nature, and lots of nudity they’d be on a winner. And they were right.

One of the most successful of Toei’s many pinky violence cycles was the Female Prisoner #701 cycle, kicking off with Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion in 1972.

All pinky violence films had female protagonists. The Japanese are not stupid. Put a woman in extreme danger, give her a reason to seek revenge and then unleash her - it was a formula that couldn’t fail. Much more exciting than having a male protagonist plus lots more opportunities for nudity.

Pinky violence produced three great female stars - Reiko Ike, Miki Sugimoto and Meiko Kaji. I have a soft spot for Miki Sugimoto but I’d have to go along with the majority view that Meiko Kaji was the queen of pinky violence. And Meiko Kaji was the star of the first four Female Prisoner #701 movies.

Nami Matsushima (Kaji), nicknamed Matsu the Scorpion, is a prisoner in a top-security women’s prison. It’s a hell on earth. The warders are vicious and brutal. The prisoners are vicious and brutal as well. It’s a powder-keg waiting to blow. Matsu will light the fuse.

Matsu is in prison because her boyfriend Sugimi, a corrupt drug squad cop, set her up. Part of the setup was to put her in a position where the bad guys would gang-rape her, thus giving Sugimi leverage to blackmail them. Matsu is rather annoyed by this. Annoyed enough to try to slice Sugimi up with a knife, hence her prison sentence. That was a chaotic act of violence. Matsu is now much cleverer, and much angrier.

Like most pinky violence films this one is filled to the brim with prime exploitation fare. The opening credits sequence treats us to not just a few naked women but dozens of them. The violence is continuous and it is at times hair-raising. Is there a shower scene and a lesbian sex scene? Of course there is (although the lesbian sex scene very cleverly turns out to be not at all what it seemed to be). But also like most pinky violence films this one has style to burn. And it has some arty pretensions as well - the flashback sequence giving us Matsu’s backstory is stylised to an extreme and with some hints of surrealism. Even the rape scene is surreal (and manages to be horrifying rather than erotic).

It’s not the only touch of surrealism. Director Shun'ya Itô gives the movie a weird slightly other-worldly vibe. He continually draws attention to the fact that this is a story, a kind of bizarre ultra-violent fairy tale.

The Eureka DVD release offers a good transfer. The only extra is a set of remarkably foolish liner notes demonstrating the ability of a critic with a political axe to grind to entirely misinterpret a film. Matsu is not attacking an unjust patriarchal system. She is not attacking any system. She has no interest in doing any such thing. When she gets the chance to do so, when the prisoners rebel, she does not join them. She is entirely focused on personal revenge. She takes her revenge on the men who wronged her, and on the women who wronged her. At no stage does she raise a hand against anyone unless she has a personal grudge against them. She is not a crusader for women’s rights or social justice or any other kind of justice. She is a woman who has been wronged by certain individuals and she takes her entirely personal vengeance.

The women in the movie are for the most part every bit as vicious, corrupt, sadistic and amoral as the men. Matsu doesn’t care unless their behaviour personally affects her. The boyfriend who was responsible for her misfortunes was a cop, so she intends to kill him. She has no intention of declaring war against the police (or the criminal justice system or the prison system). Any attempt to read the film as a political statement is entirely undercut by the ending.

This is a visually extravagant fast-paced roller-coaster ride of exploitation themes but executed with much greater style and skill than your average women-in-prison flick. It’s all held together by Meiko Kaji’s mesmerising performance. She deliberately underplays. Nami is no super-woman, she simply endures because her hate keeps her going. Her endurance is what makes her frightening. Even early on it’s clear that people are afraid of her. They are afraid of her because she has the perseverance and the stoicism to survive and to wait very very patiently for the opportunity to strike back. When she does strike she does so with the swiftness of a cobra. She is not physically strong and she has no martial arts skills but her patience, endurance, sharp wits and her breathtakingly single-minded focus on revenge can be quite enough.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a finely crafted and very superior example of both the women-in-prison and the female revenge genres. Highly recommended.