Friday 24 July 2020

La Belle Captive (1983), Blu-Ray review

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1983 film La Belle Captive (The Beautiful Prisoner) was inspired by the works of the great surrealist painter René Magritte, and particularly by his famous 1931 painting La Belle Captive. From the very first moments of the film we know we’re in surrealist territory. There’s a shot of a girl riding a motorcycle which is very deliberately staged to make it clear that we’re seeing something shot on a sound stage. Later on we will see the hero driving his sports car and again it’s made ostentatiously obvious that it was filmed on a sound stage. It makes sense to ensure that the viewer is very much aware of watching a movie since Magritte’s painting is a painting of a painting.

Everything about the movie is consciously artificial. Which leads us to wonder if any of it is real, or perhaps we’re expected to wonder what reality even means.

Walter Raim (Daniel Mesguich) works for something called the Organisation but we don’t know what this outfit does. We do know that it’s something secret, or at least secretive. Walter receives an order from his boss Sara Zeitgeist (love the name) to deliver a letter to a French senator, Henri de Corinthe. On the way he finds a young woman lying on the road. There’s some blood on her but she appears to be mostly in shock rather than injured. The odd thing is that she is handcuffed.

He'd met the girl earlier at a night club but she’d told him she didn’t know what her name was (he will later, much later, find out the her name is Marie-Ange).

Walter arrives at a mansion, the Villa Seconde, hoping to find a telephone to call a doctor. There’s a kind of gathering in progress. There are lots of men and they are clearly rich powerful men. They ignore Walter’s pleas and instead start speculating on the price he is going to ask for the girl. Clearly they would all like to buy her and clearly money is no object.

It’s not that they’re overtly excited. They’re too rich, too powerful, too decadent, to betray excitement. I’m assuming that Stanley Kubrick must have seen this film and must have been influenced by this scene to some extent (even possibly to a very large extent) when he made Eyes Wide Shut sixteen years later. La Belle Captive certainly anticipates the decadent eroticism of Kubrick’s film.

Of course you’d expect, if you turned up at someone’s house with a very pretty handcuffed girl, that the immediate response would be to enquire as to why she’s restrained in the matter and to take steps to release her from her bondage. But these guys just think it was clever of Walter to bring her to them handcuffed. Actually they’re not handcuffs - her wrists are bounds with a golden chain. So obviously it could not have been the police who bound her.

The girl behaves oddly as well, meekly bending her head to drink from a glass of something that is offered to her.

Walter is not sure what happens later that night, or why he has a wound on his throat. He thinks he may have slept with the girl.

When he tries to deliver the letter to de Corinthe things get stranger. There are things he needs to find out, so he finds himself acting as a private eye in an old Hollywood movie (complete with trench-coat and fedora). Inspector Francis offers no help but does give him a postcard - off Magritte’s paining La Belle Captive. He returns to the Villa Seconde to find that it’s nothing but a ruin. He tries to talk to the neighbours but all he finds next door is a mad girl. He does find out some things at the night club but those things make everything much more puzzling and bizarre.

He finds one of the girl’s shoes. Later he finds the other shoe. And later still he finds the third shoe of the pair.

If you’ve seen any of Robbe-Grillet’s other films you won’t be surprised by the surrealism and deliberate artificiality or by the sense that what we’re seeing may not be what it appears to be, and may not be real, or may be real but not in the way we usually think of reality. La Belle Captive has obvious affinities to his much earlier Trans-Europ-Express which was a blending of art-house and pulp crime thriller/spy thriller elements. In this film there’s also a hint of the classic private eye thriller. Walter might be playing the rôle of Philip Marlowe, or perhaps Lemmy Caution.

Daniel Mesguich is excellent, playing Walter as a man who is both over-confident and hopelessly confused. Gabrielle Lazure brings the right mix of disturbing sexuality and mystery to the rôle of Marie-Ange. Cyrielle Clair is suitably enigmatic as Sara Zeitgeist. Is she a conspirator, an innocent bystander or a victim? Sara does like her motorcycles. She keeps two of them in her bedroom.

If you’re familiar with Robbe-Grillet’s work you also won’t be surprised by the kinky eroticism. If there are no hints of sado-masochism it just isn’t a proper Robbe-Grillet film.

The Villa Seconde set is all creepy decadence. There are a lot of beach scenes, appropriate given the subject matter of Magritte’s painting but fans of French surrealist cinema will also be reminded of the many beach scenes in Jean Rollin’s films.

This movie does have some very Rollin-esque touches. Rollin and Robbe-Grillet were, in my view, the two masters of French cinematic surrealism - a distinctively subtle sort of erotically charged surrealism.

There are also touches of sly humour. Robbe-Grillet may be arty but he has a sense of fun which is easily overlooked.

I first saw this film twelve years ago, but that was the old and not very satisfactory non-anamorphic Koch Lorber DVD release. Seeing it again but in the Olive Films Blu-Ray release makes a huge difference. The Olive Films release is anamorphic and is superior in every way. Sadly there are no extras aside from a trailer. This is a movie that would have benefited enormously from an audio commentary. Anyone new to Robbe-Grillet’s work or unfamiliar with surrealism might be a little bewildered by it all. Robbe-Grillet has that effect on some people. Once you’ve seen a few of his movies they start to make a lot more sense.

You don’t have to make sense of La Belle Captive to enjoy it but if you like films that do make sense there is a plausible plot resolution at the end. There is an important clue midway through as to what’s really going on, or at least to the most likely explanation.

A fascinating visually arresting movie. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Blue Money (1972)

Blue Money, a low-budget 1972 release, is a movie about blue movies. Alain Patrick stars. He also directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay. It’s about a French-Canadian guy who makes hardcore porn films although of course he’d really prefer to be making serious movies. He has plenty of problems to deal with. The Vice Squad is on his trail and he keeps getting ripped off by sleazy distributors.

There have been quite a few movies about the adult film industry but I must confess that this is the first one I’ve actually seen. It takes itself pretty seriously.

Jim (Alain Patrick) makes blue movies for a living. His wife Lisa is OK with that because they’re going to use the money to fix up their boat and then they’re going to set sail for the South Seas. With their baby. They’re going to trade copra and stuff. And get high. High on nature and high on weed. They’re going to be free, man.

In other words they’re brain-dead hippies. So ten minutes into the movie I already find myself hoping that really really bad things happen to them. Which is a problem because the viewer is supposed to relate to them and their puerile 1970s ideas about freedom.

It’s interesting that this movie was released in 1972 which was the year that the hardcore floodgates opened (both Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were released that year). So by the time Blue Money hit the theatres the movies that the protagonist is shooting were starting to become more or less legal.

This becomes an important story point. The movie takes place at a time when the laws were being tested and whether you got busted or not was largely a matter of luck. So whether Jim and his partner Mike are going to have major problems with the cops or just get harassed a bit is something they can’t predict.

Jim has marriage problems as well. Lisa is getting weird about what he does for a living, even though she was all in favour of it at first and she likes the money he makes. She just thinks that since he’s been making sex movies there’s a kind of dead space (she’s a real hippie chick and she says stuff like that). Things are getting kind of tense between them.

And then there’s the Ingrid situation. Ingrid really needs some bread and she wants to appear in one of Jim’s movies. Jim isn’t happy about this. He doesn’t like the idea of a nice girl like Ingrid making his kinds of movies. On the other hand he really likes the idea of sleeping with a nice girl like Ingrid. Which he does. Jim is sure that Lisa won’t find out but maybe he’s a bit too confident about that. And he’s not a very good liar.

It seems like the police, aware that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to procure convictions for obscenity, are making one last-ditch effort to harass film-makers like Jim out of business. And they seem to be getting closer and closer to closing in on him.

Now if you go into this movie expecting an erotic thriller you’re going to be disappointed. There are no actual thriller elements at all. In fact there’s not much in the way of actual story. The script is threadbare to say the least. The whole thing has a bit of an amateur hour quality to it. It’s a bit like a movie with exploitation elements but with the aimlessness  of a ’60s underground movie. People talk a lot, Jim makes his movies, he and his wife quarrel, he has an affair, but nothing leads anywhere. Every time some dramatic tension builds up it just dissipates. Then people talk some more, Jim makes another movie, he and Lisa quarrel again. The only climaxes in this movie are the ones in Jim’s movies. If you’ll forgive the bad pun, it’s a story that never actually gets consummated.

This is a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. The sex scenes, especially on the set of Jim’s movies, are mostly shot in such a way that we see don’t see very much (except in one scene towards the end). There’s probably not quite enough skin in this movie for audiences hoping for lots of sex and nudity but maybe just a bit too much skin for it to be accepted as a serious piece of social commentary.

And social commentary seems to be what Blue Money is trying for. It wants to say something serious about the effects of pornography on the people who major it. But it’s also the kind of movie that was probably destined for the drive-in market so it has to be titillating as well.

It’s worth pointing out that the version I’m reviewing is the cut version. There’s a much raunchier X-rated version which I’ve not seen. I would imagine that the cut version in some ways would make the film’s problems worse since it would have made it even more difficult to sell the idea that it’s a serious film.

Alain Patrick is a pretty terrible actor. We know from his odd behaviour with Ingrid that Jim is not entirely comfortable with the way he earns his living but Patrick doesn’t manage to give us any real insight into how Jim actually feels about it, and we don’t really know exactly how Jim feels about his marriage. For an audience to take this movie as seriously as it wants to be taken it really needed a fairy decent actor in the rôle.

Barbara Mills as Lisa is marginally better even if I did dislike the character intensely. The supporting cast includes quite a few adult film stars of the era.

This film is included in Mill Creek's Drive-In Cult Classics 32 Movie Collection. The transfer is anamorphic and it’s pretty good. I believe there has now been a Blu-Ray release of Blue Money, which surprises me. The Blu-Ray is the uncut version. I’m not really convinced that I need to see the Blu-Ray. If you decide that you want to do so be careful since there are other unrelated movies with the same title also available on Blu-Ray.

Blue Money is a brave attempt to make a thought-provoking exploitation movie but it doesn’t quite come off. It’s intriguing as a look at the adult film business at a particular point in time but as a movie it doesn’t gel. If you’re going to buy the Mill Creek boxed set anyway (and you should) then maybe it’s worth giving this one a spin but be sure to set your expectations very low.

Monday 13 July 2020

Five Golden Dragons (1967)

Five Golden Dragons, released in 1967, was produced and written by low-budget movie legend Harry Alan Towers so you know it’s not going to be Citizen Kane but you can pretty confident it will be enjoyable. Plus Christopher Lee is in it.

A man is murdered by being tossed off a hotel balcony in Hong Kong, leaving behind a cryptic clue - a note on which is written Five Golden Dragons. The note is addressed to Bob Mitchell (Robert Cummings) so naturally the Hong Kong Police are now very interested in Bob Mitchell. Others have now become interested in Mitchell as well, including the sinister Gert (Klaus Kinski).

Mitchell is a harmless middle-aged American playboy whose main interest in life is skirt-chasing. He has no idea why suddenly people are trying to kill him. As a result of his skirt-chasing attempts he has become mixed up with two glamorous young women, Margret (Maria Perschy) and her sister Ingrid (Maria Rohm, the real-life wife of Harry Alan Towers).

Margret seems remarkably nervous about something. It turns out she has good reason to be.

When the dead bodies start to accumulate around him Bob Mitchell gets kind of nervous as well.

Commissioner Sanders (Rupert Davies) and Inspector Chiao (Roy Chiao) know about the Five Golden Dragons and something of their activities but the identities of the dragons are unknown. Even to each other. The dragons are planning to meet face-to-face for the first time so something big is going on. Anyone who has happened to find out too much about the dragons, or is suspected to know too much, is in danger. That includes Bob Mitchell and his two young lady friends.

Mitchell does a bit of sleuthing himself, with satisfies some of his curiosity but may involve some risks to his future health. He’s just a businessman with an eye for the ladies but he gets annoyed when people like Gert threaten women. He takes a dislike to the Five Golden Dragons but whether he’ll end up being a hindrance or a help to the place remains to be seen.

The cast is one of the film’s strengths. Robert Cummings does a fine job as the poor schmuck who is in way over his head but is too stubborn to admit it. He’s a likeable protagonist.

The cast includes some very lovely ladies, including Margaret Lee as night-club singer Magda who may or may not be mixed up with the Five Golden Dragons, and a charming Japanese pop singer, Yukari Itô. There’re a couple of musical interludes, always a good way to pad out a low-budget movie but the songs are not too bad. Maria Rohm makes a good damsel in distress, just the sort of girl to awaken Bob Mitchell’s latent chivalrous impulses.

And the supporting players include Christopher Lee, Dan Duryea and George Raft. Plus Klaus Kinski being sinister. For a cheap movie this one is almost overloaded with acting talent.

Of course with a budget which was a tiny fraction of the budget of a Bond movie you can’t expect spectacular action set-pieces but this movie proves that if you have a bit of imagination you can still do reasonably effective action scenes. And some of the action scenes might not be epic in scale but they do have a certain wit. I liked the slow-motion boat chase. And the rickshaw chase.

There’s some great location shooting in Hong Kong. The sets are pretty effective. There’s the Blue World night-club, with its maze of secret passageways. And the little golden pagoda is a nice touch.

Director Jeremy Summers enjoyed more success as a television rather than a film director but in 1967 and 1968 he directed four features for Harry Alan Towers, and even managed to get paid for them (Towers being notorious for owing people money). Towers wrote the script for Five Golden Dragons (under his usual nom-de-plume Peter Welbeck). Whatever one thinks of his business ethics Towers had a pretty good instinct for what worked in low-budget film-making.

Network’s DVD offers a beautiful 16:9 enhanced transfer with vibrant colours.

Five Golden Dragons is lightweight but enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Mondo Keyhole (1966)

Mondo Keyhole is a US exploitation movie from 1966 and it’s a very stylish example of the genre.

It’s also notable for having been made by two of the more interesting figures in the exploitation film scene, Jack Hill and John Lamb. Director Jack Hill has become something for a cult legend (partly due to Quentin Tarantino’s enthusiasm for his work). Hill’s Spider Baby is one of the weirdest movies ever made. He directed the two best blaxploitation movies of the 70s, Coffy and Foxy Brown. And he directed the incredibly interesting Switchblade Sisters, a sort of grand operatic Shakespearian girl juvenile delinquent epic.

Producer John Lamb’s two cinematic interests were underwater cinematography and nudie films, interests he combined in the quirky but rather appealing The Mermaids of Tiburon which he directed himself.

Mondo Keyhole is about a serial rapist so as you might expect it’s not exactly politically correct. Howard Thorne runs a mail order business dealing in nudie movies and BDSM movies. Rape is a kind of sideline for him. He’s married to sex-crazed blonde bombshell Vicky so lack of sex should not be his problem. His wife has other interests as well, such as drugs.

The explanation for Howard’s peculiar sexual trouble is simple. He can’t get it up. Not with Vicky, and not with any of the girls at the office (they’ve all tried their best). He can only get aroused by rape.

Which is why Vicky is a drug-addled neurotic mess. She needs some lovin’ and she needs it real bad. You can’t fault her for a lack of determination. She has tried everything to get Howard interested. But Howard is just not interested in any girl who actually wants him. Sadly Vicky never figures out that what she needs to do is to refuse to have sex with him. That would get him excited, he’d force himself on her and they’d both be happy.

It’s obvious that Howard is also excited by the danger of what he is doing, by the chance of being caught, and he’s as much excited by the pursuit of a woman as he is by actually catching her.

This film is like several of Hill’s other films, being trashy but also trying to be arty. Surprisingly it’s a combination that Hill was on occasion able to pull off with at least some success. In this case the producer was prepared, up to a point, to allow him to indulge these pretensions (and Lamb had demonstrated some mild arty pretensions of his own in The Mermaids of Tiburon).

Mondo Keyhole has some obvious Freudian influences although Jack Hill was personally pretty sceptical of Freud’s theories ( he was more fond of Jung and he does throw in the odd Jungian touch).

Hill was also much influenced by the early films of Radley Metzger who had demonstrated that erotic films really could have class and even genuine touches of artiness. Mondo Keyhole has more in common with Metzger’s films than with the average 60s sexploitation flick.

Interesting the guy playing the part of pornographer Howard Thorne was a real pornographer and quite a few scenes are shot on his actual business premises.

Most of the interiors were shot at John Lamb’s house. With John Lamb involved you'd expect some underwater sequences, and you get them (shot in Lamb’s own pool). And for those who like that sort of thing there’s some location shooting offering fascinating glimpses of LA in 1966.

This is a sexploitation roughie but with lots of dream imagery. We’re told at the beginning that some scenes depict reality and some depict fantasy and that’s pretty much the case. The characters in the movie are part of a social scene in which the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred by drugs, self-indulgence, craziness and an excess of decadence. The movie is an exercise in psychedelic decadence. The descent into Hell orgy scene manages to be both amusing and outrageous.

There’s also a great deal of nudity. This was 1966 so naturally it’s all strictly softcore. It has to be said that the movie features some remarkably attractive young ladies and as Jack Hill proudly points out, everything you see is real, not silicon.

There’s also of course a great deal of rape. To some extent the movie does make an attempt to unravel the psychology of rape. If Howard had been sexually functional then with a gorgeous wife like Vicky he would never have developed his peculiar and nasty taste. And he does have a certain desire to be punished. But this is an exploitation movie and in such movies sometimes a rape scene is just a rape scene. If you’re bothered by such scenes then don’t watch this movie.

The scenes in which Vicky desperately tries to seduce her husband are very erotic but also rather sad. The hurt she feels when he rejects her once again is palpable. There’s also a memorable scene of Vicky trying to seduce herself in a mirror. The movie also has karate lesbians.

This movie is part of VCI’s Psychotronica Collection which also includes a John Lamb-Jack Hill nudist film, The Raw Ones. Mondo Keyhole comes with an excellent audio commentary featuring Jack Hill. The transfer is non-anamorphic but it’s widescreen and image and sound quality are good. Mondo Keyhole is a mix of art, psychedelia and rape but it’s intriguing and stylish and it’s a must for Jack Hill fans and for sexploitation fans. Highly recommended.

Thursday 2 July 2020

Barbarian Queen (1985)

After seeing Conan the Barbarian Roger Corman decided that the sword & sorcery genre was just the sort of thing he was looking for. It could offer the right blend of action, exoticism, sleaze and bodacious babes. Barbarian Queen, released in 1985, is one of the results. And it has all the necessary ingredients.

Amethea (Lana Clarkson) is some kind of barbarian princess and it’s her wedding day but the wedding is not to be. The soldiers of the wicked king Arrakur (Armando Capo) raid her village, rape her kid sister Taramis (Dawn Dunlap) and kill or enslave everyone. Everyone except Amethea and two other young women, Estril (Katt Shea) and Tiniara (Susana Traverso). The girls decide they’re going to get their revenge. Now you might wonder how three young women could possibly hope to take on the might of the army of the evil king but these are warrior gals! Girlpower!

First they find a party of the raiders and wipe them out. At the raiders’ camp they find two more survivors from their village, Amethea’s sister Taramis and another girl who dies as a result of being raped and tortured.

Taramis has dealt with her nightmare experience by retreating into her own private world. She cannot admit that her village no longer exists and that all her friends are dead.

Amethea and her friends get into Arrakur’s city and make contact with the rebels (naturally there have to be rebels). The girls keep getting captured, and generally get raped as a result. But they’re resourceful and usually escape. Their plan now is for a coördinated rising with the city rebels and the gladiators. If they can just avoid being captured and raped again for a day or so they might have a chance.

One of the problems with girl hero movies is that they can be too obviously unrealistic. If the women too easily defeat men who are clearly bigger and stronger than they are it’s not going to be believable. This film avoids stretching credibility too far. The girls lose a lot of their fights. They do OK in one-on-one fights but if they’re outnumbered they always lose. When they win it’s often because they have the advantage of surprise. In their initial fight at the raiders’ camp the raiders are taken completely by surprise and the girls are smart enough to even up the odds by picking off most of the bad guys one by one. It’s not that Amethea and her friends are not good warriors. They are. But they are not super-women. This also has the advantage of making the movie more exciting - the audience really feels that these women have the odds stacked against them and wonders how they’re going to finally prevail.

The plot doesn’t have a great deal in the way of originality or complexity. It’s pretty much a standard western revenge plot with elements of the rape revenge genre. In fact the plot is mostly just an excuse for lots of sword fights and lots of scenes of half-naked young women. Which for a sword & sorcery movie is really all you need. Although in this case it’s  mostly swords and no actual sorcery. And no monsters. But plenty of T&A and a bit of  frontal nudity.

This movie was filmed in Argentina, with Argentinian director Héctor Olivera at the helm. It manages to look quite lavish with some fairy impressive sets although being a Roger Corman production you can bet the budget was actually very very tight indeed. But whatever it cost to make the money is all up there on the screen.

Lana Clarkson makes a pretty good warrior queen. Her performance might not qualify as great acting but it’s spirited and lively, she manages to look reasonably convincing in her many action scenes and she looks terrific. She’s also likeable, which helps. Amethea is fairly obviously one of the templates on which Xena: Warrior Princess was based (although Xena also owes a huge amount to the excellent 1993 Hong Kong action flick The Bride with White Hair).

The other cast members are quite adequate for a movie of this sort. Arrakur is suitable malevolent and there’s a crazy sex-crazed torturer. Argan (Frank Zagarino) is the closest thing the film has to a male hero but he’s dull and colourless. But most it’s the actresses who carry this movie. Fortunately Lana Clarkson and Katt Shea as the ditzy but formidable Estril are up to the job.

Lana Clarkson was of course tragically murdered by Phil Spector in 2003.

Shout! Factory’s DVD release offers an extremely good anamorphic transfer. Barbarian Queen was released along with The Warrior and the Sorceress as a two-movie pack and both movies are included in the Roger Corman Sword & Sorcery four-movie set (which represents great value for money if you love such movies). The only extras are some deleted scenes including a much more explicit version of one of the film’s many rape scenes.

And yes, there is a lot of rape in this movie. But then given the society that’s being depicted that’s almost certainly entirely accurate even if those scenes are obviously there to amp up the sleaze and exploitation factors.

Barbarian Queen ticks all the right boxes for its genre. It’s trashy but it’s energetic and very entertaining trash. In other words, it’s the Roger Corman formula that worked for him over and over again. If trashy exploitation is your thing then Barbarian Queen is highly recommended.