Sunday 27 September 2020

Schoolgirl Report 2 - What Keeps Parents Awake at Night (1971)

The 1970s was a rough decade for film industries everywhere. Television had been eating into cinema audiences for years and things were getting tougher. It was difficult enough for Hollywood,  even with its resources. It was especially nightmarish for film industries in other countries. What kept them going, to a large extent, was sex. That was one area in which television simply could not compete. In Germany the film industry was at least partially kept afloat by the Schoolgirl Report movies. The first was released in 1970 and by 1980 the series had run to thirteen movies.

The Schoolgirl Report movies were a minor pop culture phenomenon and they made a truckload of money throughout the world. The formula was undeniably clever. They were ostensibly documentaries on changing sexual behaviour among the young. Each movie was a collection of supposed case studies, interspersed with interviews with people in the streets and with panels of experts pontificating, with lots of wise head-nodding. In fact of course these films were simply an excuse to show a lot of young ladies without their clothes on getting up to various sexual escapades. And while the tone was mock-serious the films were clearly meant to be vastly amusing. They really had more in common with the sex comedies of the ’70s than with any kind of actual documentaries.

Now don’t be alarmed by the title. These girls all look to be at least twenty-three and most are probably pushing thirty.

The second instalment in the series was Schulmädchen-Report 2. Teil - Was Eltern den Schlaf raubt (Schoolgirl Report 2 - What Keeps Parents Awake at Night).

The first segment (which is perhaps the best) deals with a hapless science teacher who is set up for blackmail by his female students. If they can get photos of him having sex with one of them he’ll be sure to give them all a passing grade. It’s all quite amusing with some groan-inducing dialogue and more sexual innuendo than a Carry On movie and then there’s a sting in the tail. Which is one of the things that makes this movie so intriguingly odd - the tone is all over the place.

Then there are teenagers discovering sex in a barn. Teenage runaways who want freedom but find it’s not much fun when you have no money and you get hungry and then suddenly going home seems like a really good idea. There’s a guy who think he’s about to lose his virginity to a girl in the woods but he just loses his dignity instead. Then there’s the girl who gets date-raped. There’s a very light-hearted segment about a couple of girls who take up nude modelling to keep themselves in wigs. Yes, wigs. Everybody knows that a girl will do anything for a wig.

Then there’s Elke, the only girl in her class who’s still a virgin. She tells the other girls wild stories of her imaginary sexual adventures and they call her bluff by setting her up with the town stud. With unexpected results. This is the one segment in which there’s a hint that maybe girls enjoy sex more when they like the boy.

Then there are the four girls who are really bored one night. What they really need are some men. One of them gets a brilliant idea. She rings for a cab. When the cabbie arrives she explains that they’re budding artists and they really need a male model. A nude male model. Right now. Would he like to earn some money? He would, but he discovers that these girls want to do more with his body than just look at it. And there are four of them and he’s just one man. This segment is good-natured fun. Then the tone changes to deadly seriousness in the next segment. A girl who has is getting plenty of sex has a problem. No orgasms. Then her parents take in a lodger who is going to help her with her math homework. She thinks it might be different wth this man but events spin wildly and tragically out of control.

Some of the segments are pretty much pure comedy. Some are sleazy. Some are depressing. Some are tragic. Some segments are funny and sleazy and depressing and tragic. Some are terribly earnest warnings about the dangers of immorality and some of them are celebrations of sexual freedom. It was a weird decade so it produced weird movies.

While the moral stance varies it has to be said that on the whole this movie comes down very heavily on the side of sexual freedom, to an extent that might upset modern sensibilities. You have to remember that the ’70s were a lot less strait-laced than today’s world.

Now let’s face it you’re not going to watch a movie like this today for the titillation. So why would you watch it? Well obviously it has exceptional camp value. It is definitely amusing at times. There’s the time capsule element - 1970s fashions and hair-dos, and 1970s free-wheeling sexual attitudes. There’s the WTF aspect. You really have no idea when each segment begins whether it’s going to be funny or tragic or desperately sad or just plain weird. There is also of course the fact that the naked women look like actual naked women, not like the results of vast amounts of cosmetic surgery. And of course they all have pubic hair. There’s lots and lots of female pubic hair in this movie.

Is it a movie that would hold any appeal at all to a female viewer? I’d say that a woman with a taste for ’70s retro style might well enjoy it, and get some laughs.

Impulse’s DVD is barebones but the transfer is OK. The soundtrack is in German with English subtitles and the hilarious translation add further fun. “Do me. Do me several times.” They just don’t write dialogue like that any more.

It’s a fascinating look at an era that now seems incredibly remote, almost a different universe.

The sex scenes are decidedly odd and not especially erotic but there’s an astonishing amount of naked female flesh on display. If you’re fascinated by the ’70s, if you’re interested in changing attitudes towards sex, or if you just like weird movies that will amuse you and make your head spin then you probably need to see at least one Schoolgirl Report movie. So on that basis, it’s recommended.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

The Enchanting Ghost (1970)

The Enchanting Ghost (Gui wu li ren), directed by Hsu-Chiang Chou, was one of Shaw Brothers Studio’s first forays into supernatural horror. It was released in 1970.

It was based on one of the stories, The Bookworm, in a celebrated collection of supernatural tales called Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, written by Pu Songling (1640-1715).

Lang Yu Zhu is a young scholar who has just been evicted from the family’s properties because of debts incurred by his late father. In fact he’s been the victim of crooked officials, and his even more crooked uncle. 

I should add that, rather confusing, young Master Lang is played by a woman (Li-Hua Yang). I have no idea why. She certainly doesn’t look remotely male. She actually looks like a rather feminine young woman.

Yu Zhu has nowhere to live so he decides to move into the old semi-derelict Xiaolin house even though it’s reputed to be haunted.

Master Lang soon discovers that he’s not alone in the house. There’s a young woman there, named Ruyu (Mei-Yao Chang). Her mother was killed by robbers.

At this point things are looking up for Yu Zhu. Living in a haunted house could be depressing but sharing a haunted house with Ruyu might not be so bad. She’s quite a babe and she obviously likes him.

Yu Zhu is a thoroughly decent, kind and generous young man but he has devoted his life to books and he understands little of the real world. He thinks that books provide the answer to all of life’s problems and it’s his disconnectedness from the sordidness of the real world that is one of the film’s themes. He is a man who needs to find an escape fr0m reality. And perhaps he does.

His excessive bookishness might be an immediate problem. He and Ruyu have fallen in love but he can’t even support himself much less support a wife.

The villagers are soon convinced that Yu Zhu has fallen under the spell of a female ghost, presumably some kind of succubus. They feel they should do something about this but they’re really scared of ghosts and of the Xiaolin house. 

Ruyu likes to make herself up as a ghost and this comes in handy when Yu Zhu’s uncle decides to try to kill him (he’s afraid that Yu Zhu is going to take legal steps to regain possession of his stolen property).

If you’re expecting full-blooded horror you might be disappointed. For most if its running time it’s a light-hearted romance with just a few hints of the supernatural. In fact my impression is that we’re not supposed to take this movie too seriously. It’s more of a nice-guy hopeless geek meets cute babe romance with definite comic overtones. I suspect that the casting of a woman as the male hero is part of a joke, which might be clearer if you’ve read the story the film is based on. It’s also quite possible that Yu Zhu’s scholarly obsessions have demasculinised him.

The movie does eventually change gears and takes on a more tragic tone, and the supernatural elements start to kick in.

Early on the ghostly hints are handled in a somewhat jokey manner, with lots of thunder and lightning and ominous creakings and hidden rooms and the full panoply of traditional ghost stories.

Special mention should be made of Fu-Ling Wang’s score - it’s deliciously spooky and over-the-top and reinforces the impression of the film-makers’ lighthearted intentions.

On the surface this movie is an oddly discordant mixture of farce, romance and horror. It’s usually dismissed as very much a lesser Shaw Brothers horror film and as a very lightweight ghost story.

There may however be more to it than the very simple plot would suggest. There are some questions to ponder. Ruyu is not a ghost. Or is she? The house is not really haunted. Or is it? It’s possible that there are no supernatural elements at all. Yu Zhu is after all a young man who lives in a world entirely remote from the real world. It’s possible that all the events take place in his mind. It might be a dream. It’s equally possible that almost everything has a supernatural explanation. Or perhaps Yu Zhu really has been seduced by a ghost. There may be no actual ghosts in the story at all, or lots of ghosts. You might want to take note of when and where the ghosts appear. Does Yu Zhu remain forever in his lofty world of scholarship, cut off from life, almost a living ghost himself, or does he eventually confront the real world? Maybe we should take what we see at face value, and maybe not. And what does the ending mean?

The Blu-Ray release from 88 Films provides an extremely good anamorphic transfer (the film was of course shot in ShawScope).

Maybe this movie is just a curio, an attempt at a ghost story that misfired, or maybe it’s a lot more subtle. Either way it’s worth a look.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty (1984)

 Shaw Brothers, the most famous of all the Hong Kong film studios, is of course best known for its martial arts/swordplay historical epics. Which, it has to be said, they did very well indeed. In the 70s and 80s they also dabbled in erotic cinema. An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty, made in 1984, being one of the more celebrated examples.

The result is a movie with lots of swordplay action and lots of nudity and sex. You’d think that would be a winning formula, and you’d be absolutely correct.

What Shaw Brothers did here however was not merely to take their standard historical swordplay formula and add copious amounts of nudity and sex. This is very much a woman-centric movie, and the emphasis is on her emotional and sexual life (and for the heroine the two are one and the same thing). The sex is what the movie is all about.

The movie is set, obviously, during the Tang Dynasty (which lasted from 618 to 907AD). This was Imperial China at the peak of its greatness, both politically and culturally. Yu Yuan-gi (Pat Ha) is a young woman who has decided to become a Taoist priestess. You might think that this means that she’s a very spiritual woman. You would be wrong. She is a young lady obsessed with two things, writing poetry and having sex. For her the Taoist nunnery is merely a convenient place to rest and recuperate after exhausting bouts of poetry-writing and love-making.

Of course the disadvantage of a nunnery is that there are no men. That’s not a problem for our heroine. She likes sex with girls as well. She’s very adaptable. Nunneries also have lots of rules but this one seems to be very forgiving of those who stray from the path of spiritual enlightenment.

After a while she leaves the nunnery and lives a life of frivolous pleasure. She is having a swim when a guy plunges his sword into the water next to her. This gets her pretty excited. The sword belongs to hunky wandering swordsman, Tsui Po-Hau (Alex Man), with whom she hooks up. They have lots of hot sex, then he goes off and has some sword fights, then he comes back and they have more hot sex. Then one time he leaves and doesn’t come back so she goes back to the nunnery, repents of her wickedness, and proceeds to seduce her maid Lu Chiao.

Yu Yuan-gi is jealous of Tsui Po-Hau because men have it so good. It’s easy to understand why she’s jealous. The poor girl has a wretched time, living a life of ease and pleasure and spending most of her time writing poetry and having sex. It’s a tough life for a woman.

Yu Yuan-gi and Lu Chiao finally get expelled from the nunnery (apparently having lesbian sex on the premises is a bit too much even if you do offer to repent) so they move into a whorehouse. This makes no discernible difference to Yu Yuan-gi’s lifestyle. But trouble is on the horizon and Tsui Po-Hau will make his reappearance.

Pat Ha was just nineteen when she made this movie. She’s stunningly beautiful and looks equally good with or without clothes (not that she keeps her clothes on for very long). She’s also a pretty decent actress.

Alex Man’s performance is nothing if not energetic. Tsui Po-Hau is totally nuts but he’s nuts in a way that gets Yu Yuan-gi really hot - the two things he likes doing are lopping people’s heads off and having sex with her. What’s for a girl not to love? And she obviously loves bad boys.

The supporting cast includes an amazing number of extremely beautiful young women. There’s certainly no shortage of feminine pulchritude here. They don’t all take their clothes off, but most of them do.

If it’s a Shaw Brothers historical movie one thing you can be sure of is that it will look gorgeous. And that’s the case here. They may not have had Hollywood budgets but every cent spent on their movies ended up on the screen. It looks like a very expensive movie. The costumes are lavish, the sets are sumptuous.

Eddie Ling-Ching Fong directs in a suitably lively manner, showing some imagination but never succumbing to the temptation to go overboard with cinematic tricks. Ardy Lam’s colour cinematography is magnificent. The colours are overwhelming.

Compared to a much earlier (1972) attempt at a Shaw Brothers erotic film, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, this one has fewer fight scenes and more sex.

This is a strictly softcore movie but the sex scenes are quite explicit by softcore standards and they’re very erotically charged.

There are some problems with this film. The tone is all over the place and the heroine’s motivations are confusing and enigmatic to say the least. Apparently the original cut of the film was about an hour longer so this ruthless editing, although undoubtedly necessary, has left the movie making no real sense.

As to claims that Yu Yuan-gi is a feminist heroine - she is a mad, evil, manipulative and narcissistic monster who brings misery to everyone unlucky enough to cross her path. The film is based on the life story of an actual notorious poetess and courtesan of the Tang Dynasty who was apparently a pretty nasty piece of work.

One amusing thing about the movie is that Yu Yuan-gi makes a great song and dance about not accepting money from one of her admirers and claims to be proudly independent, even though it’s clear that her considerable wealth derives from her career as a courtesan. It’s typical of her essential dishonesty.

The Region 4 DVD (it’s available in Region 1 as well) offers an excellent 16:9 enhanced transfer.

All things considered An Amorous Woman of Tang Dynasty can best be described as an interesting, gorgeous, sexy mess of a film. It’s well made and the eroticism is powerful but it’s still pretty unsatisfactory.

Saturday 12 September 2020

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

The Fall of the House of Usher (sometimes referred to simply as The House of Usher), released by American International Pictures in 1960, is not just a very good horror movie it’s a very important one. It launched Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, one of the most significant horror movie cycles of all time. It also established Vincent Price as one of the great horror icons.

Although this film has some obvious affinities to a haunted house movie it’s actually something quite different. The Usher house is not haunted by ghosts or malevolent spirits but by the tragedy of the Ushers themselves.

Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the oppressively gloomy Usher mansion to see his fiancée Madeline Usher. He is at first refused admittance to the house. He is told that Madeline is too ill to see anyone. Madeline’s brother Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) explains matters to Philip. He cannot marry Madeline. The Usher blood is tainted.

Roderick Usher suffers from a morbid derangement, a distressing over-acuteness, of the senses. He can eat only the blandest food. He is over-sensitive not just to light but to all visual impressions. His hearing is excessively acute and even the slightest sound almost drives him mad. The only sounds he can endure are his own musical compositions, and very strange melodies they are. He is oppressed by odours of all kinds. He tells Philip that Madeline suffers from the same condition. For members of the Usher family there is no escape from this fate which inevitably leads to madness and death.

Roderick Usher is most certainly not a monster. He may be insane, or may have been driven insane by his fate, but he is essentially a kind, sensitive, intelligent and deeply cultured man. Which of course makes his suffering all the more poignant. He feels too much.

Roderick tells Philip that he and his sister are dying although Philip assumes that is is just a morbid fancy on the part of Roderick. What does seem certain that the house itself is slowly dying, slowly crumbling.

This is not a horror movie that relies on overt terror. It relies instead on a mood of gloom, despair and decay. It might not have many scares but it has creepiness and dread in abundance. Philip wishes to take Madeline away, believing that he can thereby save her, but he is told that this is impossible. It seems that the Ushers cannot escape their fate.

There are those who see Price’s performance as hammy, but it isn’t. He could be hammy when that was what was required but he was perfectly capable of being subtle. His performance here is exactly what the film needs. It’s certainly bizarre and outrageous, but Roderick Usher is one of the more bizarre characters in fiction. He has to be permanently on the verge of an hysterical breakdown, but never quiet going over the edge. Price knows precisely what he is doing. Usher is also not a monster. He is a deeply tragic doomed figure and we have to feel sympathetic towards him.

There are only three other cast members. Mark Damon as Philip, Myrna Fahey as Madeline and Harry Ellerbe as the aged family retainer Bristol are all pretty good.

This was a fairly low budget movie but compared to the minuscule budgets Corman was used to he had an almost unimaginably vast amount of money at his disposal and if there was one thing at which Corman excelled it was making a limited budget go a very long way.

He also had the advantage of having an extraordinary array of talent available to him on this film - screenwriter Richard Matheson (and horror screenwriters don’t come much better than Matheson), cinematographer Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller (who went on to direct the very underrated Lovecraftian horror flick The Dunwich Horror). And of course he had Vincent Price as his star. With people of that calibre involved it’s a lot easier to make good movies.

This is not a movie that will satisfy those who demand gore with their horror. This movie is the ultimate in atmospheric horror. It is also a masterpiece of decadence (fittingly, since Poe was a master of both the gothic and the decadent).

Extra interest is added by the fact that the story of the Usher evil comes from Roderick - how much of his story is real and how much is due to his disturbance of mind? Does the evil come from the Ushers, or the house, or from some outside influence. The dream sequences (very effectively done) add to the ambiguity.

Matheson made a few changes to Poe’s story. In Poe’s tale the Philip Winthrop character (he is actually an unnamed narrator) is not Madeline’s fiancé. He and Roderick Usher were school friends many years earlier and Roderick has begged Winthrop to visit him in an attempt to dispel his mood of impending doom.

The old Region 4 DVD which I have is letterboxed but it’s a very nice transfer. There has been a Blu-Ray release from Arrow in the UK, if you can find it.

This movie may not offer geysers of blood but it is an effectively chilling film. It was a major hit for Corman. This and his subsequent Poe films established him as a master of gothic horror. This movie offers more subtle delights than the roughly contemporaneous Hammer gothic horrors. That’s not to say that it’s superior to Hammer’s efforts, merely that Corman had his own distinctive approach.

The Fall of the House of Usher is in its own way quite superb. Very highly recommended.

Monday 7 September 2020

Immoral Tales (1973)

The 1970s was the golden age of cinematic art porn. Today, given the ocean of incredibly crass porn in which we swim, that concept might seem absurd. In fact of course it isn’t inherently absurd. If art and literature can get away with dealing with erotic subject matter (and most people would probably concede that there can be such things as erotic art and erotic literature) there is no logical reason why erotic art movies should not be equally possible. And back in the ’70s there were plenty of people who seriously and sincerely believed that such a concept was possible. 

While many of the ’70s art porn movies are European it’s worth pointing out that the most successful exponent of this genre was an American, Radley Metzger. Metzger’s Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet really are entirely successful blends of softcore porn and art. Metzger also has the distinction of being the only director ever to achieve something that really did seem impossible when he made a successful hardcore porn art movie (The Opening of Misty Beethoven).

But it was Europe where the concept was taken most seriously. Which brings us to Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (Contes immoraux), released in 1973. Borowczyk was a  Polish director who had enjoyed considerable success with animated films. He made the move into non-animated feature films in France and achieved both fame and notoriety with Immoral Tales. It was hugely controversial, went on to enjoy enormous commercial success and has divided critics ever since.

It was originally a five-part anthology film but Borowczyk was prevailed upon to excise the third segment which was deemed to be too confronting even in the 1970s (Borowczyk later expanded that excised segment into a full-length feature which was even more outrageous and controversial than Immoral Tales). Critics who like Immoral Tales tend to throw around words like subversive and transgressive and of course taboo-breaking. Critics love those terms.

The first segment is The Tide. André (Fabrice Luchini) is twenty years old but having frequently visited prostitutes he considers himself to be a man of the world. Today he’s off to the beach with his pretty sixteen-year-old cousin Julie (Lise Danvers). He’s intending to begin her education. He has an obsession with her mouth. He is reassured to find out that she has not yet kissed a boy with her mouth, for he has his own ideas about what he intends to do to her mouth, or rather what he intends her to do to him with it. He is going to teach her how to pleasure him orally, just like the whores do. But this is not about fun or anything trivial like that. This is going to be a kind of metaphysical experience.

His idea is that they will pick a spot just about the high tide mark. She will pleasure him with her mouth for half an hour and at the exact moment the tide reaches them events will reach their climax. It will be a fine education for Julie.

It’s clear that there is a dominance-submission thing going on between these two, with Julie being a slightly confused but willing submissive partner. She is keen to further her education.

The segment is beautifully shot and while there is female frontal nudity (with some close-ups of Julie’s crotch) the sexual encounter is not at all graphic. It certainly manages to look and feel arty, as well as kinky and erotic. Does it actually mean anything? Is it saying anything about dominance and submission? Julie is clearly very willing to play the submissive rôle and she’s also clearly not naïve enough to fail to understand what’s going on, indeed she seems to be enjoying herself. Perhaps that’s the point. And maybe she’s really the one who is in control. As the object of obsession she may really be the one calling the shots. She certainly throws herself into the project with plenty of enthusiasm. Or maybe Borowczyk just wanted to shoot an imaginative and original sex scene.

The second segment is Thérèse Philosophe. It is 1890 and Thérèse (Charlotte Alexandra), a very pious young lady, is in trouble and has been locked in her bedroom for three days. What on earth can a girl find to do to keep herself amused all on her own. Fortunately Thérèse is an imaginative girl and there are a number of household objects that look promising. Thérèse has a tendency to see phallic possibilities just about everywhere. She particularly enjoys stroking the organ pipes in the church. 

And there is a basket of common garden vegetables that would seem to fit the bill perfectly. It’s obvious that Thérèse has trouble distinguishing between spiritual yearnings and the yearnings of the flesh. Maybe she can’t find spiritual bliss but with a ready supply of zucchinis a girl can certainly find sexual bliss. This is the least successful of the stories, unless you really have a thing for chicks with zucchinis.

The third segment, Erzsébet Báthory, is based on the story of the real-life Hungarian countess of that name, generally considered to be the most prolific female serial killer of all time. Between 1590 and 1610 she may have tortured and murdered as many as 650 young girls. Attempts have been made to exonerate her but the evidence against her was overwhelming. According to later legends she bathed in the blood of young girls in an attempt to restore her youthful beauty. There were also legends of vampirism and cannibalism. She has been the subject of numerous films, the best-known being probably Hammer’s Countess Dracula.

Although this segment does show Báthory bathing in blood it doesn’t attempt any detailed examination of her motives (and the real-life countess’s motives are in fact unknown). She seems obsessed with possessing the beauty of the girls, in various ways. It’s certainly implied that her motives are in some sense sexual.

Paloma Picasso (yes that Paloma Picasso, daughter of the artist) plays Báthory. This segment is generally regarded as being the most successful of the stories in Immoral Tales. It features a truly staggering amount of female nudity. To a large extent this segment is an exercise in creating interesting compositions using naked female flesh as the raw material. And with a couple of dozen very pretty naked girls available there’s plenty of raw material. The combination of naked women with some excellent sets is certainly aesthetically pleasing.

At first the latest shipment of girls spend most of their time wandering about naked and giggling and generally enjoying themselves. Their enjoyment isn’t going to last. There is a twist at the end, which I won’t spoil.

The final segment, Lucrezia Borgia, deal with another notorious female historical figure. Lucrezia Borgia was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and sister of Cesare Borgia. Lucrezia has been accused of disposing of her enemies (and the enemies of Cesare) by poisoning, of incest and sundry other enormities. In Lucrezia Borgia’s case there is some doubt as to her guilt of any of these crimes. This episode has no actual plot at all. Lucrezia has sex with her father and brother while the moral reformist preacher Savonorola is being dragged off for execution. 

This is not exactly a movie that places great demand on the players’ acting abilities. Lise Danvers and Fabrice Luchini (in The Tide) are not bad. Charlotte Alexandra in Thérèse Philosophe is not required to do anything much other than appear to be disturbingly obsessed, which she manages. Paloma Picasso doesn’t act at all. It’s important to state that this is a film in which the characters and the plots don’t matter. This movie is purely an aesthetic exercise. The sets, the locations, the props and the women’s bodies are all used for their aesthetic interest. If any of the players had tried to do some serious acting it would have spoilt the effect. It would have been a distraction. It would have the same disastrous effects as the subject of a painting suddenly talking to the viewer.

With Immoral Tales we’re dealing with a film that really does take seriously both its artistic pretensions and its pornographic pretensions. There’s a lot of sex and an extraordinary amount of nudity including countless close-ups of the actresses’ pubic regions. There probably isn’t a movie from the ’70s that displays more female pubic hair than this one. If you want to approach it as art you have to be able to accept the vast quantity of sex and nudity. And if you want to approach it as softcore porn you have to accept those artistic pretensions. Which means it’s a movie that might end up satisfying aficionados of both art and porn, or it might satisfy neither. There’s also the attempt to link religious corruption with sex so if that’s likely to offend you you might want to avoid this one.

It’s still a fascinating and bold exercise and it’s highly recommended, with those caveats. You’ll either love it or hate it.

The version reviewed here is the old Nouveau Pictures Region 2 DVD, uncut and with a decent anamorphic transfer. Extras include a short doco on the film.

There has been a recent Blu-Ray release from Arrow which includes that excised third segment.

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966), Blu-Ray review

Hammer Films were always wary about becoming too dependent on the gothic horror genre and were keen to release movies in as many different genres as possible. In the 1960s they made science fiction, action adventure movies, prehistoric adventure movies and even a few pirate movies. And they made a few films that are not easy to classify. Among these was Rasputin, the Mad Monk, written by Anthony Hinds and directed by Don Sharp.

This 1966 production, a kind of mishmash of horror and historical adventure/drama, was one of their more interesting films and it features a gloriously overblown but enthralling performance by Christopher Lee in the title rôle. Rasputin, the Mad Monk had a pretty good DVD release a few years back from Anchor Bay. More recently it’s been released on Blu-Ray by Shout! Factory and that seemed to me to be a good excuse to revisit this one.

This is a movie that hits the ground running. In the first few minutes this crazy monk (who is of course Rasputin) wanders into a tavern, cures the landlord’s dying wife of a fever, then after four bottles of wine he beds the landlord’s daughter and gets into a brutal fight. For Rasputin it’s been a gloriously enjoyable evening so he’s happy then to return to his monastery. Rasputin believes that confession is good for the soul, and it’s even better if you can give God some really big sins to forgive.

This kind of behaviour inevitably gets him kicked out of the monastery. Rasputin is jus a peasant from Siberia but he figures if he can to St Petersburg there’ll be lots of opportunities for a man of his immense talents.

You’d think that a peasant and a disgraced monk would have little chance of ingratiating himself into a position of power and influence at the Tsar’s court but that’s just what he proceeds to do. He does this by using those talents. He can hypnotise women into doing pretty much anything so he is able to use sex and his very definite charisma to establish his position, combined with a good deal of cunning. And he really can cure people. It’s probably mostly a matter of hypnosis being effective in curing psychosomatic disorders and in the case of real illnesses his ability to make people believe they’re going to be cured but whatever the explanation he can point to some very important people he has been able to heal. He also has a kind of mystical belief in his own destiny - he never doubts that he is going to end up with almost unlimited power.

He acquires several allies in the persons of Dr Boris Zargo (an alcoholic who was struck off the medical register, played by Richard Pasco) and Sonia (Barbara Shelley), one of the Czarina’s ladies-in-waiting. He has no difficulty in seducing Sonia and her sexual obsession with the crazy monk makes her a very willing and very useful ally.

He also, inevitably, makes enemies. Sonia’s brother Ivan (Francis Matthews), her friend and fellow lady-in-waiting Vanessa (Suzan Farmer) and Vanessa’s brother Peter (Dinsdale Landen) all fall into this category. Eventually they will become very active enemies, determined to bring about his downfall. They believe that if he isn’t stopped he’ll destroy them all and Russia as well.

It has to be said that historical accuracy is not this movie strong point but that’s somewhat unavoidable in historical movies. Complex events have to be simplified and compressed in time and in this case the characters has to changed quite a bit since Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the actual plotters against Rasputin, was making a very comfortable living suing anybody who tried to make a movie about Rasputin.

Rasputin, the Mad Monk was shot back-to-back wth Dracula, Prince of Darkness, using the same sets and many of the same performers - Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer appeared in both movies. Christopher Lee wasn’t overly keen to do another Dracula movie but he was very very keen to play Rasputin so the two movies were more or less offered to him as a package deal.

Christopher Lee gives what I consider to be the performance of his career. His Rasputin is a man of terrifying power and will, utterly ruthless and insanely self-confident. It’s a bravura performance and it works magnificently. Lee had a bit of a personal obsession with Rasputin which probably goes a long way towards explaining the intensity of his performance.

Barbara Shelley is excellent as well. Her Sonia is quite complex. She’s Rasputin’s victim but to some extent she’s a willing victim. She’s your basic decadent aristocrat, very fond of drinking and hanging out in low dives. She’s just waiting for someone to corrupt her even further. Richard Pasco is impressive as Dr Zargo, a man who thinks he has abandoned all morality and finds out that he’s mistaken. Francis Matthews is also pretty  good, and gets one terrific scene which he plays magnificently.

What made Rasputin such suitable material for Hammer was the story’s mythic qualities, with Rasputin being a charismatic figure with almost superhuman mind control abilities. A bit like Dracula. What’s really interesting is that it now seems entirely possible that the popular legend of Rasputin was mostly a myth. I can’t say more without revealing spoilers for the movie.

Don Sharp was a very underrated director and he pulls off a couple of superb and very creepy horror moments. He also knew how to use Christopher Lee’s personal attributes - his height, his commanding presence and, particularly, his eyes. Sharp was convinced that Lee really could hypnotise people and Barbara Shelley was inclined to agree.

The Shout! Factory Blu-Ray looks terrific and it’s packed with extras - a making-of featurette, an intriguing featurette on novelisations of Hammer films, two audio commentaries (one of which features Sir Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley and other cast members) and two episodes from the World of Hammer TV show. 

Rasputin, the Mad Monk is a slightly unusual Hammer film but it succeeds rather well. It’s very well made, the acting is generally extremely good and then there’s Christopher Lee’s extraordinary performance. Highly recommended.