Thursday 26 November 2020

Bloodlust! (1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloodlust! is pretty decent entertainment. Recommended.

Friday 20 November 2020

Showgirls (1995), Blu-Ray review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 15 November 2020

The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962) revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 14 November 2020

recent posts on my other blogs

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

On Classic Movie Ramblings:

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

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

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

On Vintage Pop Fictions:

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

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

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

On Cult TV Lounge:

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

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

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

Monday 9 November 2020

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 2 November 2020

Bibi (1974)

One of the exasperating things about exploitation movies of the 60s and 70s is that so many of them were released under so many different titles. Joe Sarno’s Bibi, the subject of this review, has also been released as Confessions of a Sex Kitten, Confessions of Sweet Sixteen, Vild på sex and on DVD as Girl Meets Girl. They’re all the same movie. And, as was more or less standard for such films, there were different cuts of the movie for different markets.

After making some extremely interesting sexploitation features in new York in the 60s Sarno started making movies in Europe. This allowed for much higher production values and also allowed him to shoot in colour. His first European movie, Inga, had been a major hit and Sarno enjoyed working in Europe. Around 1973 Sarno discovered a young Swedish actress named Marie Forså and cast her in his first (and only) horror film, Vampire Ecstacy (AKA The Devil’s Plaything AKA Veil of Blood). His next and very obvious movie was to put her in something a lot raunchier and the result was Bibi. A year later he starred her in the even raunchier Butterflies (AKA Butterfly, AKA Broken Butterfly).

Bibi (Marie Forså) is an innocent young girl who goes to stay with her aunt Toni. Only Bibi isn’t as innocent as she looks. She proceeds to seduce absolutely everyone in town, male and female. Along the way she builds up her trophy collection. Bibi looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth but she’s quite the sexual predator.

This sounds like it’s just an excuse for an endless series of sexual encounters. And we are in fact treated to an extraordinary array of sex scenes. This is however a Joe Sarno film. Sexual liberation is a fine thing but if you go around having sex with everyone you meet there are going to be emotional complications. There is no such thing as consequence-free sex in the world of Joe Sarno. And love always has consequences, which can be good or bad. Sarno was no moralist. He wasn’t saying that sex is bad, he was merely pointing out that it isn’t free.

There are plenty of consequences for Bibi’s sexual partners. The setup here is a little bit similar to that in his superb Abigail Lesley Is Back in Town. There are some complicated and unconventional relationships (such as a foursome all living under the same roof) but they’re relatively stable. At least they’re stable until a new player (in this case Bibi) is thrown into the game. Then these emotional houses of cards start to topple. And, as in Abigail Lesley Is Back in Town, the effects of Bibi’s arrival are indirect as well as direct.

Bibi was shot in and around Munich, and on 35mm, and there’s plenty of location shooting (in other words there’s plenty of sex outdoors with pretty scenery in the background as well as indoors). With his European movies Sarno was aiming for a classier and much less seedy look compared to his early American films. While personally I love the seedy quality of 60s sexploitation there’s no doubt that in this case Sarno’s commercial instincts were correct, and mostly he succeeds.

Despite being made entirely in Europe Bibi was shot in English (Sarno and producer Chris Nebe being well aware of American audiences’ intense dislike of dubbed or subtitled movies). The European accents do however help to give it that European Sex Film vibe which probably also helped at the box office (where Bibi did pretty well).

It was shot almost entirely in the house of a friend of producer Nebe and the setting conveys a feeling of upper middle class elegance, and upper middle class decadence.

Marie Forså is perfect, managing to seamlessly combine innocence and licentiousness. She was apparently verry enthusiastic when it came to filming the sex scenes.

This movie is softcore, or at least it was edited as softcore, although it seems possible (according to Chris Nebe’s recollections) that at least some of the sex is non-simulated. Certainly in Butterflies the sex is not simulated.

There’s an astonishing number of lesbian sex scenes but plenty of heterosexual scenes as well. There’s a touch of S&M which actually works because the character involved really does seem like a woman who would be into something like that. And there’s at least one seriously kinky scene involving the same lady.

There are even a couple of humorous touches which you don’t expect in a Sarno movie. The lecherous birdwatcher not only adds a few laughs it also adds yet another sexual kink, voyeurism.

Retro Seduction Cinema have done a fine job with the DVD release. The transfer is generally very good with strong vibrant colours. There’s an interview with Sarno and producer Chris Nebe and Nebe is also featured in a very informative audio commentary.

Bibi is a good example of mid-70s Joe Sarno, pushing the edge of the envelope as far as softcore is concerned but with Sarno’s trademark touches - it has some emotional depth and some melodrama it’s sexy without feeling sleazy. Highly recommended.