Saturday, 21 May 2022

Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967)

Belle de Jour (1967) is Luis Buñuel's most famous movie and his biggest commercial hit. It's a fascinating exercise in surrealism and eroticism and it's a movie that is perplexing and challenging, but in a good way. You think you have it all figured out then you watch it a second time and you change your mind completely. An art film that is also utterly entralling.

Catherine Deneuve gives her career-best performance.

You can find my full review here.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The Sister of Ursula (1978)

The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula) is a 1978 giallo which has all necessary ingredients (including a black-gloved killer) but of course having the right ingredients isn’t always enough. It was written and directed by Enzo Milioni.

The movie establishes its exploitation credentials pretty quickly, with entirely gratuitous female frontal nudity within the first few minutes. There’ll be lots more of that as the movie progresses. The fact that the murder weapon is a dildo tells you that this is essentially a sleazefest.

Ursula and Dagmar Beyne are two Austrian sisters who have travelled to Italy to look for their mother. It’s something to do with their late father’s inheritance. They’re staying at a nice luxury hotel but Ursula just wants to leave and she wants to leave now.

Ursula (Barbara Magnolfi) is a highly strung girl who has nightmares and she thinks her nightmares might be visions (possibly of the past or possibly of the future). Perhaps she has paranormal abilities. Dagmar (Stefania D'Amario) just thinks that Ursula hasn’t recovered from their father’s death.

The last thing Ursula needs is to find herself in the middle of a brutal murder case but that’s what happens when a hooker is murdered in a rather grisly manner which suggests that this is some kind of sex crime.

Maybe visiting the really creepy old tower near the hotel isn’t a good idea but the two girls visit it anyway. Ursula gets rather freaked out. Visiting the tower turns out to be an even worse idea for a couple of teenage runaways. They were turned way from the hotel and were desperately looking for somewhere to make love.

There are a number of people at the hotel would could be plausible suspects. The choice of murder weapon might suggest that the killer is a man but in a giallo it pays to keep an open mind about that sort of thing. The hotel manager Roberto and his wife Vanessa (who actually owns the hotel) have an open marriage that seems to be heading for the rocks. Open marriages require a bit of discretion if they’re going to work. Vanessa has a lesbian lover, Jenny, and that’s causing some tensions with Roberto.

Filippo is a good-looking young man who has loser written all over him and his obsession with the hotel’s star attraction, singer Stella Shining (Yvonne Harlow), is not exactly being encouraged by the lady.

The discovery of the naked bodies of the young couple doesn’t do much for Ursula’s mental stability.

The final resolution is satisfying in the sense that it’s plausible and it’s definitely been sign-posted. This is a mystery movie that plays fair with the viewer. The problem is that you probably won’t be overly surprised by the reveal at the end. It’s pretty much the only logical explanation for the preceding events.

Apart from the fact that the killer’s identity isn’t quite enough of a surprise the film has a few weaknesses. This is, it has to be admitted, a second-tier giallo from a first-time director who enjoyed more success as a writer. It doesn’t have the spectacular set-pieces and visual extravagance that top-rank giallos offer. There are some good visual touches (the scene with the eyeless statue in the crypt is very creepy) but overall it’s not a movie that is overflowing with style.

On the plus side the locations are used very effectively. And there’s an astonishing amount of female frontal nudity (with some remarkably attractive young ladies) and there are a couple of pretty strong sex scenes. As far as sex and nudity are concerned this movie is fairly strong stuff.

Enzo Milioni’s career as a director was very brief. It’s not that he does a spectacularly terrible job here but in Italy in the 70s there were just so many directors who did this sort of thing with more style and energy.

Shameless in the UK released this movie on DVD and it’s still in print (and it’s very inexpensive). The anamorphic transfer is very good. The only significant extra is an extended interview with the director who comes across as a pretty charming guy.

Summing up, The Sister of Ursula is a competent and reasonably entertaining second-rank giallo with wall-to-wall naked ladies. It’s worth a look if you don’t set your expectations too high.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Gwendoline (1984), Blu-Ray review

Just Jaeckin’s Gwendoline is a kinky sexy adventure romp, inspired by the fetish comic strips of John Willie. The movie has a comic book feel. It was destined to be a cult movie from the start. Only a cult audience could appreciate such quirkiness.

Jaeckin had made Emmanuelle and The Story of O in the 70s, two of the best-known erotic movies of all time. When he directed Emmanuelle Jaeckin was already a very very successful photographer. He had never directed a movie and was chosen as director largely because he knew how to photograph women. His directing career was sporadic. He simply didn’t need to direct movies so he was able to confine himself to film projects that appealed to him.

Gwendoline, released in 1984, was a change of pace. It’s not an erotic movie as such. It is, as stated earlier, an adventure romp. It’s a sexy adventure romp.

Gwendoline (Tawny Kitaen) arrives in a seaport somewhere in Asia, packed inside a wooden crate. Neither she nor her faithful maid Beth have passports. They also don’t have any money. She is immediately kidnapped by gangsters. They want something from her but they don’t speak English so she has no idea what it is they want. Then Willard (Brent Huff) smashes through the window and takes care of the gangsters. He could rescue Gwendoline but rescuing females in not in his line. It doesn’t pay.

Willard is your typical American square-jawed hero that you’d find in comic books, pup magazines and movie serials. Except that he isn’t. He’s completely mercenary and completely selfish. The typical hero of that type should be not just ruggedly handsome and capable of out-fighting anyone he encounters, he should be pure of heart. There’s nothing pure about Willard. He’s a ruthless adventurer who loves as casually as he kills, with no thought for anyone but himself.

Gwendoline needs Willard’s help to complete her quest. Willard has no intention of doing so. But he’s never met two young ladies quite as determined as Gwendoline and Beth. They manage to con him into helping them. Willard is even more appalled when he discovers what Gwendoline’s quest is. Her father ventured into the land of the Yik-Yaks to find a rare butterfly. He collects butterflies. Very few people have entered the land of the Yik-Yaks. None have come out alive. The quest for that butterfly cost Gwendoline’s father his life. Now Gwendoline wants to find the butterfly. It’s the least she can do for poor old Dad’s memory. It’s an insane idea which seems certain to get them all killed but there’s no reasoning with Gwendoline and there’s no resisting her. And Beth is totally devoted to her mistress, and she can be just as scheming and persuasive.

After encountering countless perils our three adventurers reach the land of the Yik-Yak. It’s an amazon society ruled over by an evil insane queen. The only man there is an ageing scientist, hopelessly in thrall to the queen. He has discovered the secret of the mountain in which the Yik-Yak live. It involves a volcano and a lot of diamonds.

While John Willie’s Sweet Gwendoline comic strips were bondage/fetish oriented Jaeckin wanted to do a comedy adventure romance, but with enough kinkiness to keep things interesting.

The highlights of the movie are the sets and the costumes, and the wonderfully bizarre visual set-pieces. The chariots pulled by girls are a lovely touch.

The problem many people have with this movie is that it really is a lighthearted adventure comedy movie but it has a lot more nudity than the audience of that sort of movie is going to be prepared for. The number of bare breasts defies counting. On the other hand it’s nowhere near explicit enough to satisfy the audience for sex films. You just have to accept that it’s a unique hybrid, a kinky erotic adventure romp.

The casting works perfectly. Jaeckin needed a heroine who was beautiful and striking and sexy but Gwendoline also has to be sweet and innocent and amusing and a bit crazy (but in a nice way). Tawny Kitaen manages to do all that. Brent Huff does the cynical hardbitten adventurer thing to perfection. Zabou Breitman makes Beth more than just a side-kick, and she’s delightful. The three leads combine perfectly.

There’s plenty of kinkiness here but it’s all done in a fun way and in a fantastic way. This is not reality. There’s not a single mention of a real country or a real city and no indication of the time period in which the story is set. It takes place in a totally imaginary world, a kind of dream world, and everything about that world is pure fantasy, so scenes which might have been a little disturbing become witty and amusingly outré rather than disturbing. And it’s basically a good-natured movie.

Jaeckin is a director that critics at the time liked to sneer at. He was dismissed as little more than a pornographer. To a large extent this critical disdain resulted from the fact that Emmanuelle was the most commercially successful French movie of all time. A movie that aims for popular success and achieves it always enrages a certain kind of film critic. Gwendoline was a major hit as well, which made those critics dislike Jaeckin even more. In fact Jaeckin’s movies were successful because Jaeckin knew how to make visually lush movies that look incredibly expensive and work perfectly within the confines of what he was trying to achieve. And he could make ambitious movies and bring them in on time and on budget. His filmography is small but includes three movies (Emmanuelle, The Story of O, Gwendoline) that are the best movies of their type ever made.

Severin have really excelled themselves with the extras on their Blu-Ray release. There are two commentary tracks (one of them featuring Just Jaeckin), there are two interviews with the director, an interview with the producer, an interview with production designer Françoise De Leu and another with Claude Renard and François Schuiten who were responsible for the overall visual concept.

Gwendoline is in my view Jaeckin’s best movie. It’s a rollicking adventure yarn, a love story, an exercise in classy low-key erotica and an orgy of visual extravagance. The budget was enormous for an 80s French movie but paltry by Hollywood standards but visually it puts Hollywood movies of that era to shame. It’s total fun. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Barbarella, the comic books

Barbarella is one of the great pop culture icons. Every cult movie fan has of course seen the movie but if you haven't checked out the comics you're missing out on a treat.

Barbarella was created by Jean-Claude Forest and the first Barbarella comic appeared in 1962. The comics are witty, clever, stylish and good-natured. And very sexy.

And at least the first two are available in English translations. My review can be found here.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

The Kyoto Connection (1973)

The Kyoto Connection (also known as Journey to Japan) is one of a couple of movies that Christina Lindberg made in Japan. The Japanese just loved her, which shows that the Japanese have good taste.

She couldn’t speak Japanese but this movie makes a virtue out of a necessity. She’s playing a Swedish girl who can’t speak Japanese and therefore doesn’t understand what is happening to her. Crucially at the beginning of the film she would never have landed herself in such a bizarre situation had she had even a basic command of Japanese. She speaks her lines in Swedish, with Japanese subtitles, and it works.

Ingrid Jacobsen (Lindberg) arrives in Japan by air. There will be a car waiting for her at the airport. The driver will recognise her by the pink rose she’s carrying. Unfortunately she gets into the wrong car by mistake. She gets into the car belonging to a geeky student (played by Ichirô Araki). I don’t think his name is mentioned so we’ll call him Araki. He daydreams about being a revolutionary and makes very ineffective bombs in his spare time. And he daydreams about women. He is a virgin and he is absolutely hopeless with women. He gets so nervous he can’t speak.

He has no idea what to do when this gorgeous Swedish chick jumps into his car. Eventually he decides to take her back to his apartment. He’s still not sure what to do but he figures that raping her would be a good start. She is a bit troublesome about this so he decides it would be a good idea to chain her up.

Since he can’t get a girlfriend in the ordinary way and he now has a stunning Swedish beauty chained up in his apartment he decides to keep her.

This is where the movie’s cleverness comes in, and where it gets disturbing in a clever way. Because she can’t talk to him she has no idea what he intends to do with her. She can’t ask him if he intends to keep her for a week, or a month, or a year. She can’t negotiate with him. She can’t even promise not to struggle if he promises not to hurt her.

She obviously knows he’s crazy but she doesn’t know what kind of craziness it is. Does he understand what he’s doing? Does he hate women? Or has he, in his own bizarre misguided abnormal way, fallen in love with her? How much danger is she in?

He keeps raping her but she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. And if he’s going to rape her anyway he’d prefer for her to enjoy it. So he buys himself a book on female sexual response and starts exploring these things women have called erogenous zones. She starts to respond. She starts to respond in a big way. Now she seems to really enjoy the sex.

They still can’t communicate so he can’t know if she really enjoys the sex or not. Maybe she likes the sex but hates him.

She escapes but she escapes into something much worse. She ends up at a club where she meets some nice young Japanese people who offer to help her. Then she gets brutally gang raped by them. Araki raped her plenty of times but he was never brutal and never really hurt her. Now she’s really mess up. She’s in a foreign country, she doesn’t speak the language, she has no money, she’s traumatised by the violent gang rape. What can she do? There is no-one to whom she can turn.

But actually there is one person to whom she can turn. Araki. In his weird twisted way he seemed to want to be kind to her.

So the movie becomes a very unconventional love story, of sorts. Ingrid has no-one else. Araki has no-one else.

This is very much a 1970s movie, willing to explore subject matter which is, in our modern repressive age, now totally of limits. It explores this subject matter with intelligence and subtlety. In a weird kind of way Araki is sympathetic. He doesn’t understand women but he is willing to try to do so. He tries to figure out what drives Ingrid emotionally. He wants to reach her. His way of going about it is clumsy and wrong but in a way it’s sincere. Ingrid doesn’t understand Araki but she finds that maybe she needs him so she’ll have to to figure out what makes him tick. He’s done terrible things to her but she starts to see that he is still a human being and is capable of suffering.

This movie has some slight thematic similarities to William Wyler’s 1965 The Collector, also about a weird young man who kidnaps a girl. The protagonist in that film is just as crazy, but also has a kind of love for his victim.

And there are other plot twists to come, as we discover why Ingrid came to Japan.

The language issue is the core of the film. He wants to tell her how he feels but can only do so in Japanese and she doesn’t understand a word. She wants to communicate her feelings to him but can only do so in Swedish and he doesn’t understand a word. It adds a real poignancy to an offbeat love story.

Christina Lindberg became a very famous nude model around the beginning of the 70s. She was Penthouse Pet of the Month in June 1970. Interestingly enough in the early 70s she was briefly the girlfriend of the King of Sweden. She broke into movies and of all the nude models who made the jump into movies she arguably had the most impressive career, making a number of movies that are extremely good and at least two that were superb (Thriller: A Cruel Picture and Sex and Fury). She wasn’t a great actress but in the right part she could be quite effective and at her best she had an extraordinary intensity.

She’s excellent in The Kyoto Connection. I don’t need to tell you that she’s also stunningly beautiful. There’s a fair bit of nudity. The sex scenes are quite tame. The rape scenes are not graphic - their shock value comes from the emotional impact they have on Ingrid rather than from being graphic.

Ichirô Araki is extremely good as well, managing to make us care about a character against our will.

Miss Lindberg has had mixed fortunes as far as home video is concerned. Most of her movies are available on DVD but they’re mostly from the early days of the format and the transfers are pretty iffy. Thriller: A Cruel Picture seems to be the only one that has had a Blu-Ray release. This is a pity because several of her movies are much better than you might expect, and more than just softcore porn. Sex and Fury and Exposed (Exponerad) are both excellent. And while Anita: Swedish Nymphet is nothing more than softcore erotica it’s very good if that’s the sort of thing you like.

Cheezy Flicks is a company that doesn’t have much of a reputation and it’s easy to see why. This is far from being an impressive transfer. It’s perfectly watchable but the image quality is of the standard that we happily accepted at the beginning of the DVD era but which most viewers will not accept today. It is at least a 16:9 enhanced transfer. For some reason Miss Lindberg’s movies are not making it to Blu-Ray so for the moment this is the best you’re going to get and it’s an interesting obscure movie and I think the DVD is worth buying anyway. The transfer might not be pristine but it’s OK.

The Kyoto Connection is odd and unconventional. There are occasional moments of offbeat humour. It’s obviously erotic. Any movie in which Cristina Lindberg gets naked this often is going to succeed as erotica but it has plenty of engaging weirdness and a love story that is strangely moving. It’s a very very good movie which really deserves a Blu-Ray release and it’s highly recommended.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Mata Hari (1985)

The 1985 Mata Hari starring Sylvia Kristel is a movie that critics find it difficult to discuss without a certain sneering tone. It is after all a Cannon Group film and that in itself is generally held to be synonymous with cinematic schlock. And Sylvia Kristel was after all just a softcore porno star wasn’t she?

And the fact that this is a sexy spy movie with quite a bit of nudity seems to confirm that the sneers were justified.

But in actual fact the idea of making an erotic spy movie based on Mata Hari is perfectly sound. Mata Hari was after all a real-life spy who used sex as her primary tool of the trade. And Sylvia Kristel is appropriately cast - like the real Mata Hari she is Dutch and like the real Mata Hari she has a beauty that seems slightly exotic.

The problem with making a movie about Mata Hari is that everyone knows how the story ends. Everyone knows that Mata Hari was shot as a spy by the French. That doesn’t make her story any less interesting but it does mean that the audience knows from the start that the heroine is doomed.

The real Mata Hari was in fact an extremely interesting woman. She achieved great fame as a dancer in the pre-war period. She was one of the pioneers of modern dance. And she was notable for performances which combined art and eroticism. She posed for nude photographs. As her career as a dancer started to falter she established an extremely successful second career as a courtesan. She was a notorious woman who flaunted her sexual promiscuity and was unembarrassed and unapologetic about being a whore.

What she wasn’t was a super spy. She was manipulated by both the French and German intelligence services but her espionage activities were trivial. She was executed mainly for daring to defy conventional morality. At a time of patriotic hysteria and national security paranoia the French authorities were only too happy to make a scapegoat of Mata Hari.

Fräulein Doktor, whose name was actually Elsbeth Schragmüller, was another real-life lady spy although unlike Mata Hari the Fräulein Doktor was a trained professional agent. The Fräulein Doktor’s career has also been widely fictionalised and sensationalised. She makes an appearance in this movie, as a somewhat sinister psychiatrist who acts as advisor to German military intelligence. Fräulein Doktor is a Freudian and tends to see sex as being the main motivating force for humans.

In the movie Mata Hari (Sylvia Kristel) is clearly more interested in sexual and romantic adventures than in being a spy but the German intelligence service has convinced itself that she can be made use of. The Fräulein Doktor is also keen to introduce Mata Hari to the joys of sapphic loving.

As depicted in this movie Mata Hari is cynically manipulated by spy agencies and by men. It’s not that she’s a stupid woman. Any ordinary person caught in the kind of web that intelligence agencies are capable of spinning would be bewildered by the multiple layers of deceit and betrayal that are the stock-in-trade of professional spies. What really gets Mata Hari in trouble is her complicated romantic entanglements with French spy Ladoux (Oliver Tobias) and German spy Karl (Christopher Cazenove). They’re both dashing and handsome and Mata Hari falls under the sexual spell of both men, and falls in love with both men. She is a woman who has no interest in the rules of conventional morality. She sees no problem in loving two men at the same time.

Mata Hari really doesn’t want to be a spy at all. She is not merely manipulated into being a spy, she is given virtually no choice.

Some movies are just never going to get a break from critics. This movie is a case in point. Its director, Curtis Harrington, has never received the critical respect that he deserved. The movie comes from the Cannon Group so that’s a black mark against it for most critics. And it’s a spy movie that features frequent nudity and sex scenes. Mixing genres still upsets a lot of people. And Sylvia Kristel was too willing to take her clothes off ever to have a chance of being taken seriously as an actresses.

The fact is that this is a spy movie and it’s an erotic movie. It’s an erotic spy movie. Deal with it. It’s a movie for grownups.

There is nothing gratuitous about the nudity or the sex. Mata Hari’s fate had little to do with her trivial spying and everything to do with the fact that she was an unashamed sexual outlaw. She believed in giving in to her sexual urges. The entire plot of the movie hinges on the consequences of Mata Hari’s sexuality. It is absolutely crucial to show that she is swept away by her lust for two men. Had she given the matter careful thought she might well have concluded that it would be healthier to have nothing to do with either man but she’s not capable of rational thought when her appetites take over.

And her dances have to be erotic because Mata Hari’s dances were erotic and she would never have attracted the attention of the spooks had it not been for the eroticism of her performances.

The nudity and the sex are really the core of the story and it’s all done quite tastefully and I really have no idea why some critics adopt a sniggering tone when talking about this film.

In fact when I see so many reviewers who simply dismiss this movie as rubbish I find myself wondering if they saw the same movie I saw. The movie I saw was not just fairly OK, it was extremely good. Seriously, this is a good movie. It was shot in Hungary to keep costs down and whatever money was spent on this movie is up there on the screen. It looks exquisite. It has a slightly hazy soft focus look which is clearly deliberate and I think it works.

The costumes are absolutely gorgeous.

Oliver Tobias and Christopher Cazenove as Mata Hari’s lovers both give fine nuanced performances. Gaye Brown as the Fräulein Doktor is chilling, as she should be.

Sylvia Kristel’s performance works. Mata Hari is supposed to be confused and out of her depth, she’s not supposed to be an ice-cold professional and she’s certainly not supposed to be a kickass action heroine.

Joel Siskin’s script plays fast and loose with the historical details but it has some interesting twists and we’re never quite sure which of Mata Hari’s lovers will betray her, and to Mata Hari that means more than life itself.

I can’t see anything wrong with the way Curtis Harrington directs this film. He appears to me to have known exactly what he was doing. He manages some decent suspense, there are a few action scenes, the sex scenes are sexy, the pacing is fine.

There’s a definite atmosphere of decadence which I really liked. Too many movies with wartime settings get all carried away with the jingoism and the heroic stuff so the decadence of wartime Berlin and Paris in this movie is refreshing.

And did I mention the topless female sword-fighting scene? Mata Hari and another courtesan fight a duel, topless. The scene is actually quite well done. It’s not an epic swordfight because these are not expert swordsman battling it out, they’re prostitutes, but they’re clearly trying to hurt each other.

Despite the topless duel there’s nothing camp about this movie. It’s a serious movie about sex and espionage and betrayal and the price women pay for sexual freedom but it never lectures the viewer. It is a movie for grownups who don’t need to be spoon-fed a message.

Mata Hari combines intrigue, decadence, eroticism and romance in an entertaining package. And yes, I am seriously going to highly recommended this movie.

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)

Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht is very much his homage to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Which was of course an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Herzog was however not interested in remaking Murnau’s film. It merely serves as a kind of point of departure. The tone of Herzog’s movie is very different. Much more melancholy and tragic. And Herzog departs from both Murnau’s and Stoker’s stories in major ways.

There’s presumably no need to rehash the plot of Dracula so I’ll simply mention the ways in which the movie’s plot differs from the novel. In Herzog’s movie it is Renfield (already a servant of Dracula) who sends Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) to Translyvania to arrange for the lease of a house. Jonathan’s wife is Lucy (Isabelle Adjani). Joanathan falls victim to Dracula and returns home a broken man, driven only by his awareness of the danger to Lucy. By the time he reaches home his mind has gone and he no longer recognises her.

His home (which is Dracula’s destination) is in a northern European city, not London.

Dr Van Helsing is the town physician but he’s doddering and ineffectual.

Dracula’s arrival brings plague with it, with the plague clearly being engineered by Dracula (or perhaps plague simply follows vampires). It is the plague that is mostly responsible for spreading fear and despair and social collapse, not Dracula. The plague claims a lot more victims than Dracula and the townspeople are not even aware that there is a vampire in their midst.

The landscape through which Jonathan travels on his way to Dracula’s castle has very much the feel of a Caspar David Friedrich painting and Herzog’s compositions enhance that feel. Man alone in the wilderness, with nature menacing in its remorseless savage beauty.

The landscapes are romantic, in the sense of having the bleakness and cruel beauty that appealed to the Romantic Movement. Wild mountain seascapes, mist-shrouded seascapes in which the sea is more grey than blue, desolate beaches. Although it should be borne in mind that Herzog claims to have no interest in the Romantics and feels more in tune with the late Middle Ages. The landscapes in this movie are glowering and oppressive. The interiors are claustrophobic and stifling.

A major problem with gothic horror movies in the late 60s and 70s is that both actors and actresses looked like actors and actresses in period costumes. The men in particular looked wrong with their 60s/70s hair cuts. The women tended to look like models dressed for a fashion shoot. And young actors and actresses were unable to completely inhabit 19th century characters. They seemed out of period. That’s much less of a problem with this film. The cast members do behave in a convincingly 19th century manner, slightly stiff and very formal.

Isabelle Adjani looks very 19th century. Her hairstyles look like hairstyles from paintings and photographs of the period. With her pale skin, dark hair, and with her dark but subtle eye makeup, she looks at times like a 19th century goth girl. But she is very clearly a 19th century goth girl, straight out of the pages of a 19th century gothic novel.

A major challenge with a vampire movie is to persuade the viewer to identify with the vampire hunters rather than the vampire. Since Christopher Lee’s first appearance as Dracula vampires had seemed sexy and glamorous. Of course that’s partly an inherent feature of the vampire. The vampire became a popular figure in western culture at the same time as the Byronic hero. That’s no coincidence. Both were creations of the Romanic Movement. The Byronic hero was a sexual outlaw, as was the vampire (the erotic overtones were present in vampire fiction at least as early as 1797 when Coleridge wrote his poem Christabel. Vampires and Byronic heroes were outsiders, defying the rules of conventional society. Vampire hunters by contrast have always seemed to be humourless enforcers of the social rules.

Herzog avoids this problem (as Murnau had avoided it in 1922) by making his vampire truly monstrous but in an ugly repulsive way. A female viewer might have been quite willing to have Christopher Lee bite her but she was hardly likely to fantasise about being ravished by Klaus Kinski’s Dracula.

And Herzog drains all the eroticism out of the story (and there is eroticism in Stoker’s novel although it’s handled obliquely). Herzog was making a horror movie, not a supernatural love story. Except for one crucial moment, which is disturbingly erotic.

The problem of unsympathetic vampire hunters is solved by having Lucy the chief vampire hunter. But if you think that means that this is a feminist girlpower movie think again. What gives Lucy her power is her faith, her purity and her love for her husband. Lucy is a woman of the 19th century. Her ambition in life is to be a good wife. She becomes Dracula’s chief opponent because there is no-one else to do the job, and because she has studied up on vampires and she knows that a pure-hearted woman is a dangerous opponent for a vampire. The men are incapable of combating Dracula effectively not because they are weak or stupid but because they lack a woman’s simple faith.

A major theme of the novel is the clash between the decadent aristocracy (Dracula) and the rising middle class. Another major theme is the clash between science and superstition, with Stoker obviously on the side of science. Van Helsing uses religious symbols to combat Dracula but he uses science and technology as well. In Herzog’s movie science (as represented by Dr Van Helsing) is ineffectual. The only hope of defeating the vampire is Lucy’s simple faith.

Kinski’s Dracula is sympathetic in the sense of being a tragic figure. He knows he is cut off from everything that a human being takes for granted, including both death and love. He is tragic, but he is not a figure with whom an audience is going to identify. We want to see him destroyed, as much for his sake as for everyone else’s. It is one of the very rare vampire movies in which we actually buy the idea that the destruction of the vampire will be a blessing for him.

What’s immediately apparent is that his movie bears no similarity in theme, style or one to any other 1970s vampire movie. This is not the cozy central Europe of Hammer horror. There’s virtually no trace of the eroticism of 1970s vampire movies. There’s no comic relief. There’s no glamour. It’s interesting that Herzog has never seen the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. In fact he seems to have seen very few vampire movies which is probably why his film seems so dazzlingly original.

Herzog’s movie has a strange air of unreality. The movie does not take place in our world. It takes place in a kind of dream world, or nightmare world.

The Shout! Factory Blu-Ray offers a nice transfer. There are two audio commentaries featuring Herzog, one in English and one in German with subtitles. Both are worthwhile.

Vey highly recommended.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

My Dear Killer (1972)

My Dear Killer (Mio caro assassino) is a 1972 giallo directed by Tonino Valerii. It’s his only entry in this genre and as always with movies described as giallos there’s the question as to whether it really belongs in that genre.

It certainly opens with a scene that will appeal to giallo fans who tend to like spectacular murders. In this case it’s an ingenious decapitation. The most likely suspect is soon murdered as well. This killing was made to look like a suicide but it fools Inspector Luca Peretti (George Hilton) for about thirty seconds.

The man who was decapitated was an insurance adjustor named Paradisi. A year earlier he had investigated the Moroni case, the kidnapping of a little girl which ended with two murders.

Inspector Peretti follows up some obvious leads, which involves talking to some obvious witnesses, but makes the mistake of not realising that those leads and the identities of those witnesses would be just as obvious to the killer. And this is a ruthless killer who might well decide to try to eliminate those witnesses.

The body count mounts quickly.

The Moroni kidnapping case seems to be the key. The mother of the kidnapped girl cannot offer any useful information. She has retreated into a world of madness and fantasy. The Moroni household had included not just the girl and her parents but a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law, a somewhat eccentric artist and three servants. It seems that the atmosphere in he Moroni household had been rather tense even before the kidnapping.

A child’s drawing provides a vital clue.

Inspector Peretti is under stress. His relationship with his girlfriend Dr Anna Borghese (Marilù Tolo) is rocky and he blames himself for making mistakes in the investigation.

It becomes apparent that this really is going to be a full-blown giallo. There’s a black-gloved killer, there are extravagant killings, there’s a convoluted plot, there are sexual tensions and hints of perversity. And there’s some effective suspense as the killer stalks his victims. And there are lots of good suspense sequences.

There’s a particularly chilling murder sequence shot entirely from the killer’s point of view.

The plot works quite well. I was pretty sure I knew the identity of the killer, but I was wrong.

The plot makes use of a trope that was quite popular back in the golden age of detective fiction but I won’t tell you what it is for fear of giving away a spoiler. The device is executed fairly well.

George Hilton gives a low-key performance but it’s effective. Inspector Peretti deals with stress by turning it inward on himself and Hilton conveys this successfully. The other cast members are all fine.

As a cinematic stylist Tonino Valerii is not in the Argento league but he’s more than competent and there are some quite good visual set-pieces.

Any doubts about whether this is a real giallo are soon laid to rest. It has a giallo plot and it has most of the necessary giallo ingredients. It has plenty of atmosphere. There are some sexual overtones to the plot but they’re handled subtly and we’re never sure if the killer’s motivations are sexual or not.

Amusingly the movie ends with a scene that would have warmed Hercule Poirot’s heart - Inspector Peretti gathers all the suspects in the library and then takes his own sweet time about naming the murderer.

There’s only a moderate amount of gore but there is some (there is after all a decapitation murder). There’s brief female topless nudity.

The Shameless Region 2 DVD offers the English dubbed version. The transfer is vey good.

My Dear Killer might not be in the very top rank of giallos but it’s likely to please most giallo fans. It’s rather a pity that this was Tonino Valerii’s only movie in the genre. Highly recommended.

Friday, 15 April 2022

The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle (1982)

The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle is one of the movies made by Jess Franco for Golden Films in the 80s and it’s a movie that has usually attracted sneering reviews, even from people who admire Franco’s earlier work. Like a lot of his 80s output it’s dismissed as mere softcore porn.

Which is a little unfair. The problem is that Franco in the 80s was not making the sorts of movies he’d made in the 70s. When Franco’s reputation started to revive, which happened when his movies started to become freely available on home video, that revival was based largely on the movies he made from around 1968 to the end of the 70s. Those movies became most people’s idea of what Franco’s film-making was all about. Movies like Necronomicon (Succubus), Paroxismus (Venus in Furs), Vampyros Lesbos, Female Vampire. His 1980s movies were made on even smaller budgets and the tone and the feel were slightly different. His 80s movies also tended to have even more sex. The assumption was that he’s fallen on hard times and was reduced to making ultra-cheap porno movies.

That’s not how Franco saw it. He loved making movies. For commercial reasons he found that in the 80s, if he wanted to get any money at all to make movies he had to include a lot of sex. At that time in Spain the censorship laws made it possible to make softcore erotic movies quite legally and they were very profitable. But Jess Franco, being Jess Franco, was going to throw his recurring thematic obsessions into the mix. He would make movies that seemed like straightforward softcore erotica but if you could get past all the sex and nudity you’d find him still worrying at those thematic obsessions and still finding ways to explore them.

And Franco was adaptable. He was happy to adapt his style. If he had to make a movie shot entirely in a hotel room he would do so, but he’d still make it a Jess Franco movie.

In the 80s he turned to his obsession with the Marquis de Sade again and again, in movies like The Sexual Story of O and Cries of Pleasure. He became increasingly obsessed with the alienation to which an obsession with pleasure can lead.

The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle
was of course a title the distributors liked since any movie with the name Emmanuelle in the title was saleable. The movie does take the original Emmanuelle story as a kind of very vague jumping-off point. There is a woman in the movie and she is married to a diplomat, who happens to be a scion of the nobility. But in the original script she was called Ann Marie, not Emmanuelle.

The movie is narrated by the Marquesa de Altuna (Tony to his friends), a young nobleman who strongly disapproves of the sexual licentiousness he sees around him. We get the feeling that he’s a young man who thinks Spain should return to traditional values. That doesn’t stop him from operating a very profitable strip club.

Tony tells us that Maxim (Muriel Montossé) and her husband Andreas (Antonio Mayans) live in a house not far from his own home. Maxim and Andreas are enjoying a sort of second honeymoon, Andreas having forgiven Maxim for her numerous sexual indiscretions. They are madly in love, like a couple of teenagers.

Trouble appears on the horizon when Emmanuelle and Andreas, in company with their older lesbian friend Pia (Carmen Carrión), head off to Tony’s nightclub.

A stripper named Maria (Ida Balin) is performing a very hot strip-tease routine at Tony’s nightclub. She asks if any man in the audience would like to join her onstage. Maxim, who is very drunk, encourages Andreas to do but he refuses. So Maxim goes in his place. Maxim and the stripper have a good time together having oral sex onstage. Andreas, humiliated, spits the dummy and storms out.

Maybe it wasn’t a great idea for Maxim to then go home with the lesbian Pia but she does so anyway.

The theme of the movie is sexual freedom, how much sexual freedom is worth and whether the price is worth paying. Emmanuelle likes her sexual freedom. If she wants to make love, with whomever it is that she wants to make love with at the time, then she does so. Andreas struggles with this. That’s a problem for Emmanuelle because she really does love him. She doesn’t want to hurt him. But she wants her freedom. She has to choose between being a traditional faithful wife and being free. Andreas will have to decide if he can accept the idea of allowing her to be free or not.

Tony has his struggles as well but they’re played mostly for comedy. Franco is having fun with Tony’s absurd aristocratic pretensions and his hypocritical belief in traditional values. He believes in the traditional virtues but he’s not only living with a stripper he also has sex with Emmanuelle. He needs to accept that Maria may be a stripper and she may sleep around but he’s in love with her. He cannot accept being in love with such a wanton woman. He tells us that he’s fond of her, almost as fond as he is of his dog. He’s more fond of his dog because his dog is a pedigree dog whereas Maria is just (in his mind) a slut of the streets. But Maria is his best chance of happiness.

There’s nothing terribly profound here. This is Franco in a fairly lighthearted mood. Some of the characters are absurd but they’re not evil. They’re just struggling to figure out how to live. This movie is closer in tone to a sex comedy than to Franco’s Sadeian movies. He’s being playful. Emmanuelle and Andreas have sex in a wax museum, with John Wayne in wax effigy looking on disapprovingly. Franco has once again demonstrated his uncanny ability to find bizarre but fascinating modernist locations in which to shoot. There’s an absolutely amazing crazy house.

Franco wasn’t trying to make a cinematic masterpiece here but it is a reasonably interesting look at the issue of sexual freedom, and an amusing and acerbic glimpse into the mindset of the traditional values crowd.

The DVD includes as interview with Franco who is, as always, amusing and opinionated.

The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle is a deceptively simple rather witty look at sexual mores. Recommended, but as I’ve stated in the past I think it’s better to immerse yourself in 70s Franco before tackling his 80s output which has a slightly different feel.

Saturday, 9 April 2022

King of Kong Island (1968)

What you have to accept about King of Kong Island is that there’s no king, no Kong and no island. It started life with the title Eva, la Venere selvaggia (Eva, the Wild Venus). But don’t despair - it does contain lots of fine B-movie madness.

It starts off with a mercenary named Burt who apparently doesn’t like guns (there’s a prologue which kind of explains this) and he’s in Nairobi looking up some old cronies. They’re a disreputable lot. There’s a glamorous dame named Ursula with whom Burt has a history. She seems like a very disreputable and very dangerous dame.

There’s also a younger woman, Diana. She has a brother, Robert. Robert and Diana are planning a hunting expedition. They’re after the sacred monkeys.

Unfortunately the expedition goes wrong and Diana is kidnapped by a party of gorillas.

We already know something that they don’t know, that there is a mad scientist in the bush experimenting on the gorillas. Robert does at least realise that these are no ordinary gorillas. They seem to work according to a plan.

Diana’s dad wants to organise an expedition to find his daughter and he persuades a reluctant Burt to lead it.

Burt and Robert head off to find Diana. They discover the secret of the sacred monkey. The sacred monkey is a beautiful naked jungle girl. She’s more or less the queen of the jungle. The Africans believe that all the animals obey her.

The jungle babe sneaks into their camp while Burt is sleeping, and is apparently rather impressed by his manliness.

But there’s a double-cross going on. Burt thinks he’s the hunter but actually he’s the hunted.

Burt knows there’s something sinister going on when he encounters Turk. Turk is seriously nasty and seriously crazy. What he doesn’t know is that the guy he should be worrying about is Albert Muller. Muller is a full-on mad scientist. He’s figured out how put implants into gorillas to turn them into zombie-fied slaves.

And he thinks the technology could be used on humans. Which would mean world domination!

The acting is universally terrible, but in a good way if you know what I mean. The kind of bad acting that we cult movie fans just love.

Director Roberto Mauri had an undistinguished career, making the usual variety of spaghetti westerns, peplums and related genres.

There are plenty of scenes of women being dragged off into the jungle by gorillas. There’s not much doubt this is an exploitation movie.

Muller has his mad scientist laboratory hidden in the jungle. It’s a cheap set but quite effective. The screenplay was written in a way that makes complicated special effects unnecessary.

And there are lots of guys in gorilla suits!

Retromedia have released this movie on a double-header DVD, paired with the totally insane Italian sci-fi epic Star Pilot (AKA 2+5: Missione Hydra).

King of Kong Island gets an OK 16:9 enhanced transfer, dubbed in English. What matters is this is apparently a more or less uncut print. The nude scenes involving the jungle babe were censored in some versions.

King of Kong Island is totally nuts. Don’t try to make too much sense of the plot, just go with the craziness. This is classic popcorn movie stuff. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

2+5: Missione Hydra (Star Pilot, 1966)

Directed by Pietro Francisci 2+5: Missione Hydra is a crazy 1966 Italian science fiction movie, retitled (and re-edited) in English as Star Pilot.

A scientist in Sardinia has discovered something odd. It’s a large patch of ground which appears to be covering a hollow in the Earth, but it’s a hollow that definitely wasn’t there before. What the viewer knows but Professor Solmi doesn’t know is that an alien spacecraft crash-landed at this spot.

Professor Solmi and his team start to excavate and they come across the entrance to the spacecraft. At first they don’t believe it’s a spacecraft, they think it must be an old bomb shelter or something similar. Professor Solmi’s sexy high-spirited daughter Luisa (Leontine Snell) is amused by this. To her it’s perfectly obvious it’s a spaceship and she’s right.

The crew members of the spacecraft are very much alive. They have some high-tech gizmo that allows them to speak human languages. Their intentions towards the Earth are not at all clear.

Then the North Koreans show up. I think they’re North Koreans. They’re adamant that they’re not Chinese but they’re East Asians and they despise the decadent capitalist West so the logical assumption is that they’re North Koreans. They think Professor Solmi has invented a super-weapon and they’re not happy about it.

Both Professor Solmi’s team and the North Koreans end up being prisoners of the aliens.

The aliens want help to repair their spaceship. And they’re not going to take no for an answer. The humans are going to replace the alien crew members who were lost, and the alien robots that got destroyed in the crash landing. But what fate awaits these reluctant human crew members?

There’s a beautiful alien space babe, Kaena (Leonora Ruffo). Is she an evil alien space babe? We will have to wait to find out. There’s a beautiful human babe as well, Professor Solmi’s daughter Luisa, who flirts outrageously with the good-looking male alien. Actually Luisa flirts with anything in trousers. There’s a mismatched bunch of humans who don’t trust each other but maybe they’re going to have to learn to put aside their political differences and work together.

There are cheap special effects but this is an Italian movie so the cheap special effects look cheap but they’re fun. The sets and costumes are also cheap and they’re also fun. And the costumes are quite sexy. The Italians in the 1960s were the masters when it came to making cool looking science fiction movies on budgets of almost nothing.

They even find a way to handle weightlessness in a reasonably convincing way while spending no money on complicated effects. If you have talent and imagination you don’t need a big budget.

There’s some action, as the humans are inclined to rebel against their new alien masters.

There’s also some ambiguity. The aliens sometimes give the impression that they have evil plans in store for the humans but at other times we get the impression that maybe they’re sincere when they say they’ll let their human captives go.

And we get some action in outer space and on an unknown planet.

There’s also romance. And did I mention the battle with the space apes?

The ending is slightly unexpected.

Retromedia released this movie in a double-header DVD along with another low-budget schlockfest, King of Kong Island. The print used for Star Pilot was the American print which was an edited version but it looks very good. It’s dubbed in English. The transfer is 16x9 enhanced and in the correct widescreen aspect ratio. This is a movie that exists in many different versions and many different cuts. It was re-released in the 70s with added footage from another movie called The Doomsday Machine. The version that Retromedia have paired with King of Kong Island is probably fairly close to the way the movie was intended to be.

Most reviews will tell you that this is a horrible movie that makes no sense. I suspect that whether the movie makes sense depends on which cut you get to see. I think it’s the totally unnecessary extra footage that was added in the 70s that has given this film its poor reputation. The Retromedia widescreen release version does make sense. In fact the plot, while hardly original, isn’t that bad.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination a good movie. It’s low-budget schlock. It’s tacky and silly and at times goofy. But it’s consistently entertaining. It’s a beer and popcorn movie. It’s a reminder of the days when you could make a science fiction movie even if you had basically no money. All you needed was enthusiasm. It’s also a reminder of the days when audiences didn’t expect science fiction movies to be made on budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars.

I have to say that I simply adore schlocky 1960s Italian science fiction. This one is not as good as The Wild, Wild Planet (1966) but it compares favourably to other Italian sci-fi movies like The War of the Planets (1966) and Cosmos: War of the Planets (1977). It’s just a lot of fun and if you approach it the right way it’s enjoyable nonsense. It really is great 60s sci-fi silliness and despite its cheapness it has style. I’m going to go against the majority opinion here. I think this movie is a total blast and I’m going to highly recommend it.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

Requiem for a Vampire (1971), Blu-Ray review

Requiem for a Vampire was Jean Rollin’s fourth completed feature film and of all his films this was his personal favourite. It’s been released at various times under ten different titles, including (in the US) Caged Virgins!

This was the first Rollin movie I ever saw, many years ago, and it made me an immediate Rollin fan. I’m now the proud owner of a copy of the Redemption Blu-Ray release so it’s time to take another look at this movie.

It opens with one of the many extraordinary iconic images that Rollin offered us over the years (other that come to mind are Brigitte Lahaie with the scythe in Fascination, the vampires coming out of the clock in Shiver of the Vampires and numerous images in The Iron Rose). Two girls dressed as clowns are making their getaway in a car after an armed robbery. Their driver doesn’t make it and the girls set off on foot.

Why are the girls dressed as clowns? That’s simple. This is a Jean Rollin film and Rollin was first and foremost a surrealist. If you explain a surrealist image it loses its magic.

The girls are Marie (Marie-Pierre Castel) and Michelle (Mireille Dargent). They are lesbians. So far we have clowns, doubles and lesbians, and vampires are about to make their appearance, so you know this is definitely a Jean Rollin film.

The girls steal a motorcycle and end up at the château. The château is inhabited by vampires, or at least by one vampire and his followers. He is the last vampire, but his followers hope to become vampires. Erika (Dominique) has already grown fangs.

The girls are not held prisoner, except that they are in reality prisoners. They can leave the château but no matter which road they take it will always lead them back to the château.

The vampires have a kind of larder in the dungeon - a number of young women chained up who serve as a food supply. They also provide sexual entertainment for the vampires’s male followers. Whether these young women are innocent victims or willing participants in the perversity is left rather ambiguous.

Marie and Michelle are not to serve as vampire food. They are to be initiated which will begin their transformation into vampires. There is one slight problem, the vital question of whether or not the girls are virgins. They are in fact virgins but turning a virgin into a non-virgin is not a difficult task. In fact Marie approaches it with enthusiasm.

Michelle seems to like the idea of becoming a vampire. Marie isn’t so sure. The girls are supposed to lure victims back to the château but Marie decides that the man she’s trying to ensnare is kind of cute and rather nice. This will lead to trouble.

If I’ve given you the impression that this movie has a straightforward linear narrative then I apologise. Early Rollin vampire movies such as this one do not bother overmuch with conventional narrative. Rollin simply serves us up a succession of striking images, and the images are enough to make the film worthwhile. Louise (one of the vampire’s acolytes) playing the piano in the graveyard is one such image (and it was apparently the image that Rollin came up with first and from which he built the entire film).

One thing that is sometimes overlooked is that Rollin had a great fondness for movie serials, both the French serials of the early 20th century and even more especially for American movie serials of the 30s and 40s. These movie serials had a major influence on the way Rollin structured his narratives. Some of the outrageous elements in the plot of Requiem for a Vampire are inspired more by the delirious fun of movie serials than by artiness.

This movie is a good example of Rollin’s attempts at this stage of his career to combine the surrealist artiness which he loved with commercial exploitation elements. And there are enough exploitation elements to keep any exploitation fan happy - there’s copious female frontal nudity, bondage and plenty of sadomasochism. The scene with the presumably vampiric bat apparently feeding between a naked girl’s thighs is one of the more outré images in the film.

Which also explains why Rollin, despite the fact that he was a genuine master of surrealism, had so much trouble getting taken seriously in France.

Rollin tended to cast his actresses as much as anything for their visual suitability. That meant that they had to be pretty but with the kind of prettiness that would fit the visual tone of a particular movie. They needed to be competent but not necessarily especially accomplished actresses. Marie-Pierre Castel and Mireille Dargent are perfect for his purposes, as is Dominique as the sexy but predatory Erika - she really looks like a glamorous lady vampire, seductive and beautiful but in a weird otherworldly way.

Redemption’s Blu-Ray release looks very impressive and includes plenty of extras.

Requiem for a Vampire is certainly a vampire movie and it contains plenty of the elements you’d expect to find in a gothic horror movie, but it’s not really a horror movie. It’s a poetic melancholy movie about love, sex and death, and dreams that pass away, and about loss. It’s a world away from conventional vampire movies, and it has little in common with the lesbian vampire movies of that era such as Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers or Jose Larraz’s Vampyres. It doesn’t even have much in common with Jess Franco’s lesbian vampire movies like Vampyros Lesbos and Female Vampire. Rollin’s vampire movies formed their own unique genre.

Requiem for a Vampire is a strange surreal and entrancing mood piece. Very highly recommended.