Wednesday 24 June 2020

review - Jungle Siren (1942)

Jungle Siren is a low-budget but reasonably entertaining jungle adventure movie released by PRC in 1942. It stars Buster Crabbe and glamorous strip-tease legend Ann Corio.

This one is definitely worth a look if you like jungle girl movies, and who doesn't? And there are evil Nazis as well.

Here's the link to my full review over at Cult Movie Reviews.

Saturday 20 June 2020

Space Thing (1968)

Space Thing is a 1968 sexploitation flick from legendary producer David F. Friedman and if you're familiar with his work then you know what to expect. Friedman knew the business and he knew what his audiences wanted. It ain’t gonna be art. But it probably will be sexy fun.

James Granilla is obsessed by science fiction. Totally obsessed. It’s all he thinks about. It’s got to the point where he’d rather read his science fiction magazines than have sex with his wife Marge. This does not please Marge at all. She does finally manage to persuade him to make love to her but as soon as it’s over he starts fantasising about the life he’d really like to lead. He’d like to command a starship, on a dangerous mission to intercept an enemy space fleet. He’d much rather be doing that than having sex with his wife.

So now the film becomes James Granilla’s daydream of his life as a bold spacefaring hero.

He is a Planetarian space colonel and he manages to infiltrate himself aboard a spaceship of the enemy Terranean star fleet. His first encounter, with a female crew member named Portia, confuses him. When she throws herself at him he thinks she’s attacking him but he later realises it must be part of the strange Terranean love rituals he’s heard about. He realises that in order to blend in he’s going to have to learn all about these love rituals. Fortunately being a Planetarian he can make himself invisible which will allow him to observe Terranean mating behaviour at close quarters. And even more fortunately the crew members of this ship seem to spend a lot of time engaged in these love rituals. In fact they don’t seem to do much else. This might not be good for efficiency but it’s certainly good for morale.

Colonel Granilla does not seem to approve of female crew members or female captains, or sex, or women in general. But he accepts that it is his unpleasant duty to learn all he can about the sex lives of the Terraneans. At some stage, purely for the sake of completing his vital mission, he may even have to engage in some Terranean mating behaviour himself.  And Colonel Granilla is not a man to shirk his duty.

He does become very confused when the ship’s female commander, Captain Mother (yes really), engages in mating behaviour with one of the other females, Portia. Even odder, this love ritual involves stripping Portia naked and giving her a good flogging. Apparently this is necessary in order to convince Portia that she needs to remain Captain Mother’s little girl. Portia promises that in future she’ll be a good girl.

So we can see that in typical David F. Friedman style this movie is going to cover all the standard sexploitation bases - copious female nudity, male/female sex, lesbian sex and some S&M. Enough to keep any reasonable person happy.

The opening credits sequence is pretty cute, with the credits painted onto a naked girl’s body. There’s certainly more of an incentive to read the credits when they’re emblazoned on a very attractive young lady’s bare bottom and bare breasts.

This was 1968. 2001: A Space Odyssey had been released a few months before, and the Apollo program to reach the Moon was about to hit top gear, so a science fiction sex movie must have seemed like an obviously good idea. At the time everybody was nuts about spaceships and naked women tend to be enduringly popular.

The special effects are of course ludicrously cheap. We’re talking toy spaceships that look like toy spaceships. But then this movie was made on about one one-thousandth of the budget of 2001: A Space Odyssey (in fact 2001: A Space Odyssey cost around 12 million dollars to make while Space Thing cost $18,000). The toy spaceships in Space Thing probably cost just add to the fun. The special effects budget was probably about twenty bucks. The uniforms of the lady crew members are cute, leaving not a lot to the imagination. Most importantly the uniforms can in an emergency be removed at a moment’s notice. There seem to be a lot of emergencies aboard this ship that call for the women crew members to remove their uniforms. And they have no hesitation in doing so.

The sets obviously cost a lot more than twenty bucks. I’m guessing at least $50. Well, maybe not that much. But they’re fun as well. This is truly a movie in which the cheapness, and the fact that no attempt is made to hide the cheapness, adds to the charm.

Byron Mabe directed a number of sexploitation features for David F. Friedman including the outrageously entertaining A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine.

In 1968 American sexploitation movies were starting to become just slightly more daring. There’s plenty of female frontal nudity in this film but while the girls are fully naked during the sex scenes the guys have to keep their undies on. The sex scenes are in fact nothing more than a bit of naked cuddling. Apart from the frontal nudity this is a classic nudie film in the tradition of the early 60s nudie-cuties, with the engaging innocence of that genre, rather than the kind of softcore porn movie that would soon start to dominate the exploitation market.

The girls are very pretty indeed, they look adorable in their silly uniforms and they don’t keep those uniforms on for very long.

Something Weird’s DVD release offers a reasonable transfer. The colours look pretty good (yes this one was shot in colour) and includes as extras a couple of shorts and an audio commentary by David F. Friedman. Friedman’s commentaries are usually every bit as much fun as the movies themselves and this is no exception.

Space Thing is of course by any objective standards an extremely bad movie. Even by the standards of sexploitation the plot is virtually non-existent. It is however delightfully goofy. Space Thing is all good clean fun. Well, good dirty fun anyway. It has gags and it has nude space babes. Does any movie really need to have anything more than that? And it’s good-natured and it’s engagingly silly. For what it is it’s highly recommended.

If you just can’t get enough of nude space babes you might want to check out my reviews of the goofy 1974 West German 2069: A Sex Odyssey and of course Doris Wishman’s classic nudie-cutie Nude on the Moon.

Sunday 14 June 2020

Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

Trans-Europ-Express was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s second feature film as director, following L’Immortelle, although he was already famous in the film world as the screenwriter of Last Year at Marienbad. Trans-Europ-Express was released in 1966 and since it’s a Robbe-Grillet film you can be assured that it will be playing games with reality and narrative and with our perceptions and our expectations of both. While it may seem like an art film, and indeed it is an art film, it’s also very playful and tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps surprisingly for such an intellectually ambitious film it’s a lot of fun and it was a major box-office hit.

Three people have boarded the Trans-Europ-Express in Brussels. They are movie people (a producer, a screenwriter-director and a script girl)  and they start working on ideas for their next project. It will be a film called Trans-Europ-Express. It will be a thriller and will of course it will be set on the train. When they notice famous movie star Jean-Louis Trintignant on the train they decide that he will play the lead rôle, of the drug smuggler Elias. Right away we’re put in a position where reality and make-believe intersect. Is it actor Jean-Louis Trintignant we’re seeing on the train or Elias the drug-runner?

Of the three movie people the producer is played by one of the actual producers of the movie, the screenwriter-director is played by Alain Robbe-Grillet himself and the script girl by his wife Catherine Robbe-Grillet. So this is a movie by Alain Robbe-Grillet called Trans-Europ-Express about a writer-director played by Alain Robbe-Grillet who is planning a movie called Trans-Europ-Express. Yes, it’s all very postmodern.

We watch as the story being developed by the three film people unfolds. At times they decide that a particular scene doesn’t work so the scene we’ve just watched is in fact a discarded scene. Scenes also get revised. The story changes as we watch it.

That’s an interesting idea it itself but perhaps not entirely original. Fortunately however Robbe-Grillet adds some further touches and some further levels of unreality and artifice and it becomes much more unclear what we’re really seeing. Much more unclear, but more and more interesting. There are a number of games being played and there’s no certainty who’s doing the playing and who’s being played.

Elias has to buy an empty suitcase and then exchange it for another, containing the drugs. But it doesn't contain the drugs. The gang he is working for is playing games as well, testing him. He is provided with a gun but told he cannot use it. He is given a series of cryptic instructions which have him running all over the city. Various suitcases appear and disappear. Mysterious passwords are exchanged.

One suitcase contains his personal belongings, the things he ways takes with him when he travels. Things like a toothbrush, a razor, his pyjamas and of course a rope and a chain. Elias always carries a rope and a chain with him when he travels. Because you never know when you’re going to meet a girl and if you do you’ll need the rope and the chain.

Elias this he’s being followed but the men tailing him could be from the gang or from a rival gang or from the police.

He meets a beautiful young whore named Eva (played by Marie-France Pisier). She invites him back to her place. He tells her he’s not interested in sex, he’s only interested in rape. She assures him that will be no problem, but it will cost extra. It’s lucky he brought that rope and chain with him.

He really doesn’t know whether any of the people he meets can be trusted or for whom they’re working The viewer also doesn’t know that. And of course the three film people creating the story don’t know either, since they’re writing the story as they go. A character might be a gang member but they might later decide he’s actually a policeman.

The acting isn’t quite conventional and it’s not supposed to be. The performances are either deliberately theatrical or rather flat or they’re exaggerated because after all the writer hasn’t decided on the characters’ personalities yet. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays his part like a puppet, which of course is what he is. So when judging the performances you have to keep this in mind - they’re giving the performances that Robbe-Grillet wanted. Jean-Louis Trintignant is playing Jean-Louis Trintignant playing Elias in a script that is only partially written.

Marie-France Pisier as Eva handles this well. Playing kinky sex games with Elias she is an actress playing the part of an actress playing the part of a prostitute and of course a successful prostitute has to be an actress anyway. She seems amused and seems to be enjoying herself although at moments there’s a flash of fear in her eyes, but naturally in such a situation a whore would want to seem a little bit frightened to please her client.

She assures Elias that she’s not really a whore but at the same time she makes it quite clear to him that that is what she is. She’s a good prostitute and she knows that some clients want the girl to be a whore and some want her to be a nice girl. She’s happy to act either part. The customer is always right. It’s obvious that having one of the two lead characters be an actor playing a part and having the other be a prostitute who can be whatever you want her to be was a carefully considered choice on Robbe-Grillet’s part.

It’s obvious that the film that the three film people are planning is not going to be an art film. It’s going to be a potboiler. It’s intended to be very much in the style of the Lemmy Caution potboilers (such as Poison Ivy) that were so popular in Europe in the 50s and early 60s. In fact I suspect that the audience would immediately say to themselves that this is just like a Lemmy Caution movie and that that is probably what Robbe-Grillet would expect them to think. Robbe-Grillet might be playing complex intellectual games with his viewers but in this film he seems to be having a lot of fun as well, and he seems to want the audience to have fun as well.

The Trans-Europ-Express itself is a vital part of the movie (which was shot in part on the actual train). It’s a wonderful trains with its huge glass windows. Robbe-Grillet claims that his original inspiration for the movie came from the train and from seeing the whores displaying themselves in shop windows in Hamburg (as they do, or at least did, in a number of European cities). Whores in shop windows feature in the film. Is one of the whores Eva? Are they all Eva? She claims that she doesn’t do the shop window thing, but like everything else in the movie we can’t be sure.

Like most of Robbe-Grillet’s movies it contains a generous helping of kinkiness. There is some nudity and there’s some bondage, both of which probably helped it a good deal at the box office (and managed to get it banned in the UK). The scene of the nude dancer on the revolving stage (shot at the legendary Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris) is particularly striking and unsettling, and by 1966 standards it has to be said that she reveals an extraordinary amount of naked flesh. S&M elements are found in all of Robbe-Grillet’s films and reflect his own tastes and that of his wife (Catherine Robbe-Grillet was the author of one of the most famous of all S&M novels). It’s something that made his films controversial but in this case it works, adding an extra touch of strangeness and surrealism. And the sexual fetishism reflects the way the movie fetishes the technique of film itself. It also adds a hint of voyeurism, appropriate in a movie about the voyeurist nature of movies. This is a movie in which all of Robbe-Grillet’s obsessions come together with complete success.

I saw this movie years ago in a hideous grey-market pan-and-scan version. Happily the transfer provided by the BFI in their Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films boxed set (which is available in both DVD and Blu-Ray editions) is widescreen anamorphic and it’s superb. The extras include an interview with Robbe-Grillet and one with his Catherine Robbe-Grillet plus an excellent audio commentary by Tim Lucas. An interesting point made by Lucas is that Trans-Europ-Express was a major influence on Jess Franco’s 1968 movie Necronomicon. This is a movie that you appreciate a lot more when you watch it the second time with the commentary.

While Trans-Europ-Express shares quite a bit thematically with his earlier L’Immortelle it also marked a change of direction where tone is concerned- it’s much more playful and exuberant. Robbe-Grillet is thoroughly enjoying himself and wants the viewer to enjoy the proceedings as well. A great movie. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

How To Seduce A Virgin (1974)

Jess Franco’s Plaisir à trois (which had a controversial theatrical release in Britain as How To Seduce A Virgin) has pretty much what you expect from a 1974 Franco film - acres of naked female flesh, inspired weirdness, an atmosphere of decadence and depravity and all of his visual trademarks. It’s another of his heavily de Sade-influenced films.

The setting is a contemporary one. Countess Martine de Bressac (Alice Arno) has just been released from a mental hospital to which she’d been confined after slicing off a lover’s manhood. The psychiatrist in charge of her case is now confident that she’s cured. The poor innocent fool has no idea what he’s dealing with.

The Countess has an enthusiasm for art. She enjoys painting female nudes but her real pride and joy is her museum, filled with female mannequins, all naked and all captured in moments of extreme terror. Or are they mannequins? Are they real people? Or were they real people?

Her husband Count Charles de Bressac (Robert Woods) shares her tastes for debauching female innocence. This unsettling household is completed by the countess’s mute servant girl Adèle (Lina Romay).

The count has come up with a new project that he thinks will cheer his wife up after her unfortunate but mercifully brief incarceration. He has discovered a charming young woman named Cécile (Tania Busselier), 21 years old, the daughter of a diplomat.  The young woman is a virgin. This is important, because debauching virgins gives the count and countess particular pleasure. For they are indeed going to debauch her. If not worse.

Before beginning the process of corrupting Cécile the de Bressacs watch her. They have taken up a position from which they can, with the aid of binoculars, observe her bedroom. What they see excites them a good deal. It seems that Martine and Charles are as excited by voyeurism as much as by actual sex, and that perhaps it’s the idea of seducing an innocent rather than the seduction itself that is the attraction. And of course the audience is also in the position of voyeur rather than participant. The voyeurism element is one of the ways in which this film, usually thought of as being a very Sadeian Franco film,  departs from de Sade.

The ending is also somewhat un-Sadeian. While de Sade dismissed moral judgments as irrelevant the film, surprisingly, does suggest that perhaps indulgence in such libertinism can come at a price. It raises the question of whether Franco really swallowed de Sade’s puerile philosophies as completely as is generally assumed. And while this is for the most part a pure exercise in style and eroticism the chilling ending is worthy of a horror film.

A major preoccupation of Franco’s was the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality. This preoccupation makes its presence felt here most obviously in the countess’s museum. Apparently the original script contained overt suggestions of the supernatural. Those elements were largely removed at the insistence of the producer and that may have strengthened the film since the nature of the countess’s museum exhibits is so ambiguous. We assume that the figures are wax dummies or something similar, then we find ourselves thinking they’re people but they’re dead but then we get the very uncomfortable suspicion that maybe they’re not dead.

Of course the depraved world that the de Bressacs have created for themselves is in a sense an artificial world. They are trying to live out their most extreme fantasies. Do they know that they now inhabit a kind of self-created fantasy world, a kind of insane dream? Are they in any sense sane? And since we see everything from their point of view we might even be tempted to ask whether any of it is in fact real. The countess does start the film in a mental hospital. Perhaps everything we see in the film is a dream, or maybe a dream that has somehow intersected with the real world? If we see these events through her eyes is she in a sense an unreliable narrator?

Of course this is a Jess Franco movie so even though there is a plot (and it’s a real plot which even includes an interesting red herring towards the end) it’s the style that matters. Apart from film and eroticism Franco had two other obsessions - jazz and architecture. What’s intriguing is the way he combines all these obsessions in his films. He doesn’t use jazz as a mere soundtrack. He structures his movies like jazz improvisations. And he had an uncanny ability to find superb locations which provided absolutely perfect settings for his films. The house used in this film was also used in Countess Perverse (which began shooting immediately after this one without a break and with the same cast and crew). It’s exactly the sort of bizarre almost surrealist house that a couple like the de Bressacs would live in. These two intimately paired films, Plaisir à trois and Countess Perverse, were among the many Franco made in the  Canary Islands.

Exploitation movies combining softcore erotica with thriller and/or horror elements were certainly not unusual in the 70s. It was also not unusual for such movies to feature a considerable amount of weirdness. There are a number of things that sets Franco’s films of this type apart. The weirdness is both interesting and genuinely disturbing. And they are erotic in a strange unsettling way. A woman having sex with a store mannequin might not be an original idea but when the woman is Lina Romay the effect is startling. She does it like she means it.

This was Romay’s first big rôle in a Franco film and she’s cast as an insane sex-obsessed woman who may be totally depraved or so disconnected from reality as to be totally innocent. To say that Romay makes an impact would be understating things.

Alice Arno is equally disturbing and equally impressive, as is Tania Busselier as Cécile.

This movie offers three actresses all of whom are certainly beautiful and all of whom give performances that are extremely erotically charged whilst making us feel rather uneasy about that eroticism. It might perhaps also be worth mentioning that all three actresses spend most of the film naked. If you want non-stop nudity and sex combined with visual flair and an atmosphere of overheated decadence plus some unsettling ideas and some arty touches then this is a movie for you.

Mondo Macabro’s DVD release is fullframe (which is how the film was shot), the transfer is excellent and there are a couple of worthwhile extras. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Solaris (1972)

Released in 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris has often been described as the Soviet Union’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And there are plenty of striking parallels between the two movies.

Both were attempts to make intelligent thoughtful high-concept science fiction films dealing with big philosophical issues. Both dealt with humanity’s encounter not just with alien intelligences but with alien intelligences beyond our understanding. Both were very expensive films (the Soviets knew they were going to have to spend real money on Solaris and they did). Both were visually stunning. Both films were made by visionary directors. In both cases the story was based on a work by one of the giants of literary science fiction - the script for 2001 by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke was based on Clarke’s classic story The Sentinel, Solaris was based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (who was a fairly big deal in the West and a very big deal indeed in Eastern Europe). Both were outrageously ambitious films. Both were slow-moving but hypnotic. Both were in their own ways masterpieces.

Tarkovsky’s movie begins with a strange and disturbing report from the planet Solaris. The planet had been discovered some years earlier and it has defied all attempts to understand it. An entire science (known as Solaristics) has grown up around theories to explain it. Is the entire planet a single intelligence? Is it hostile or benevolent? Or merely indifferent? Is it aware of us? What does it want? Is it even capable of wanting anything? A space station has been in orbit around the planet for decades, a base for scientists trying to make sense of it all.

The disturbing report is from a helicopter pilot named Burton who has been engaged in a search and rescue mission on Solaris. The report concerns what he saw in the garden, and it concerns the child. But there are no gardens on Solaris. The entire planet is a vast ocean. Or perhaps it’s a gaseous ocean on top of a liquid ocean. Either way there are no gardens and no possibility of gardens existing. And no children.

The problem is that Burton is a very credible witness. He’s a highly trained professional pilot - he wouldn’t have been sent to the Solaris Station otherwise. He’s not a man given to daydreams or fantasies. The enquiry decides that while absolutely no blame can be assigned to Burton what he saw must have been an optical illusion, probably exacerbated by fatigue. What he saw couldn’t be real because it couldn’t exist and what doesn’t exist can’t be real. Years pass but Burton still knows what he saw, and he tries to convince his psychologist friend Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis) that it was real. Maybe it didn’t exist but it was real.

Kris Kelvin is sent to the Solaris Station in response to further odd reports. The Solaris project has been gradually wound down (and consideration is being given to shutting it down completely) and there are now only three scientists on the station. So it’s rather a surprise for Kris when upon arrival he finds that one of the scientists is dead. The surprise is that there should therefore be only two people left on the station but there are at least five.

There are mysteries here but Tarkovsky is content to reveal them slowly. The background is sketched in piece by piece. Since that was Tarkovsky’s intention I’m not going to reveal too much in this review. The movie works better if you discover things as Kris discovers them.

The movie raises a number of questions. Does space exploration involve humanity’s humanity’s attempt to understand the cosmos or to understand ourselves? Are we really looking inward or outward? Are the scientists on Solaris Station confronting the future or their own pasts? Is Solaris a window or a mirror?

I like Donatas Banionis’s performance. It’s understated but then Kris Kelvin is a man who has always kept himself very much under control. When he starts to unravel Banionis makes it convincing.

Natalya Bondarchuk is vulnerable but slightly frightening as Hari (to tell you too much about Hari would be to reveal too much too soon). All I’ll say is that Hari is a real person, but she’s not a real person. It’s a stunning performance.

While Kubrick in 2001 had zero interest in the emotional lives of his characters (HAL is a machine but he has more depth than the human characters). Tarkovsky is obsessively interested in his characters’ emotional lives, even when they’re not real, or maybe especially when they’re not real, but then how do we know if we’re real? Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

This was the first grungy science fiction movie. The Solaris space station has been in orbit around the planet for many years. It’s still fully functional but it’s starting to show definite signs of wear and tear. It’s grimy in places. It’s messy. In fact it looks like a space station in which a bunch of very untidy scientists have been living and working for years. It’s a far cry from the pristine sterile shiny world of the space station in 2001.

The sets are very impressive. Mostly the space station looks like you’d imagine a real space station would look but it has a library that looks like it belongs in a country house. This is inconsistent but it works. Reality is a bit uncertain in the vicinity of Solaris. The scenes prior to Kelvin’s departure from Earth take place in the countryside and everything is very earthy and very very organic. This we feel is reality. On the space station of course nothing is organic except the people, or some of them at least.

Kris Kelvin actually looks like he might be a psychologist working for a space agency. He’s not a bad-looking guy and he’s in reasonably good shape but he’s middle-aged and a bit dishevelled and a bit weary. In fact he’s the kind of guy you know will always look slightly dishevelled. He looks more like a working space scientist than a movie star.

There was a much later American remake which is best ignored. Suffice to say that the remake completely fails to capture either the atmosphere or the spirit or the thematic complexity of Tarkovsky’s original. Never try to remake a masterpiece. You’ll just make yourself look silly.

The Region B/2 Blu-Ray release from Artificial Eye offers a very good transfer and an entire disc’s worth of extras. Unfortunately the extras are disappointing to say the least, mostly consisting of someone named Mary Wild treating us to worthless blathering about psychoanalysis and postmodernism. The movie is easier to understand without this silliness.

Solaris is a movie about reality and life and death and love and how they all interconnect. If we don’t love are we alive? It’s a love story but first we have to decide what love is.

While Solaris is a complex film and it’s long and it requires patience it’s nowhere near as frustratingly obscure as 2001. Tarkovsky is not trying to mystify us for the sake of it. It’s an intelligent thought-provoking movie but Tarkovsky makes his points with admirable clarity. It’s then up to us to decide how we feel about those things. Very highly recommended. Certainly one of the ten best science fiction movies of all time.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

TV review - Hammer House of Horror (1980)

Hammer Films made a last desperate gamble at the beginning of the 1980s, turning to television production. Unfortunately it was not enough to save the company but Hammer House of Horror was actually an excellent horror anthology series and it's well worth seeing if you're a fan of Hammer horror movies. Peter Cushing even makes an appearance in one memorable episode.

Here's the link to my review of the second half of this series at Cult TV Lounge. I reviewed the first half of the series here last year.