Sunday 27 February 2022

The Vampire Lovers (1970), Blu-Ray review

The Vampire Lovers was Hammer’s first serious attempt at a truly erotic gothic horror film. It’s based on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla (also filmed in 1960 by Roger Vadim as Blood and Roses and in 1972 by Vicente Aranda as The Blood Spattered Bride). Carmilla is regarded as a kind of foundation text for the lesbian vampire sub-genre. It should have been the perfect choice to take Hammer into the 1970s.

If you wanted to make a sexy vampire movie you could hardly go wrong with Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith as the two female leads.

The structure of Le Fanu’s tale (with the second half of the story being an extended flashback) works perfectly well as a novella but might have been a little confusing in a movie. The screenwriters have transposed the second half of the novella to the beginning of the movie. This has the advantage of letting us know straight away that we’re dealing with vampires and it has the added benefit of allowing Peter Cushing to be introduced at the beginning rather than the halfway stage of the story. At this time Ingrid Pitt was an unknown (that would change once the movie was released) but Cushing was an established star. Cushing was the obvious box-office draw so Hammer obviously wanted him there from the start.

The movie begins with a ball hosted by General Spielsdorf (Cushing). A mysterious countess asks a favour of him. Could he possibly put her daughter up for a while? The General gallantly agrees. The Countess’s daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pit) will be company for his own daughter Laura. Laura begins to be troubled by nightmares about huge cats. She also becomes ill, although the reasons for her illness are inexplicable. Laura and Marcilla have become quite close. Marcilla is perhaps excessively affectionate towards Laura, and in particular she is perhaps excessively physically affectionate. No-one thinks anything of this. Affectionate friendships between women were not considered odd in the 19th century.

Laura dies, leaving both her father and her young man Carl (Jon Finch) devastated.

A short time later a coaching accident occurs near the home of Roger Morton (George Cole). The passengers, a mother and her daughter, are unhurt but the daughter is considerably shaken. The daughter, Carmilla, is in no state to resume the journey but the mother insists that her journey is urgent. Morton solves the problem by suggesting that Carmilla should stay at his home until the mother returns from her journey in a few months. Morton’s daughter Emma (Madeine Smith) is delighted at the idea of having a female companion since Morton’s home is rather isolated.

Emma and Carmilla get along well, although Emma seems a bit confused by Carmilla’s caresses. Then Emma starts to become ill and weak.

When La Fanu wrote Carmilla vampire lore had not yet hardened into dogma. As a result Le Fanu’s version of the vampire seems refreshingly unconventional by later standards. His vampires are not at all troubled by daylight. There is none of the silly nonsense about garlic. There are no crucifixes or holy water used as weapons against vampires. Unfortunately Hammer lost their collective nerve and decided to make the vampires in The Vampire Lovers drearily conventional. They dislike daylight, they are repelled by garlic. Carmilla exercises her vampiric mind control powers over Emma’s governess, who becomes a kind of female Renfield. There’s even the crucifix stuff. It’s all too depressingly like their Dracula movies, and by 1970 these were boring tired clichés. None of this stuff is in Le Fanu’s story.

There was a realisation on Hammer’s part that they needed to start doing something fresh but they seemed to be afraid to do so. When you compare this movie to European vampire movies made in the same year such as Jean Rollin’s The Nude Vampire or Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos then The Vampire Lovers seems very dated and conventional.

It doesn’t help that this movie looks exactly like Hammer’s other gothic horror movies and it has the same central European setting. It was time to update the vampire movie but Hammer were unwilling to take the risk.

The screenwriter of The Vampire Lovers, Tudor Gates, felt that Hammer’s gothic horror movies were becoming stale and conventional but oddly enough he wrote a screenplay that is incredibly stale and conventional. His one innovation was to add nudity and lesbianism. He apparently thought that would be enough to make the movie up-to-date for the 70s, but in fact it just serves to emphasise how stale and conventional his script is. It’s the same old formula, but with nudity and lesbians.

The good news is that at least it wasn’t another Dracula movie. They made four Dracula movies between 1966 and 1970 and the formula was wearing very thin.

While it has its problems The Vampire Lovers has one major strength and that is the erotically charged performance of Ingrid Pitt. There were problem with Pitt’s work permit and Hammer had trouble convincing the relevant government authorities to allow her to make the film. Hammer argued that no British actress could have played this part. And they were quite correct. Only a European actress could have brought the necessary uninhibited and sophisticated sexuality to the role.

She also quite effectively captures the ambiguous nature of Carmilla’s feelings towards her victims, and in fact she makes Carmilla’s feelings more complex and more ambiguous than they are in Le Fanu’s tale. Carmilla really does seem at times to be in love with Emma. She certainly seems to be sexually obsessed by her. But she still intends to kill Emma. Her whole approach to Emma is in the nature of a seduction, but it’s a seduction that will end in death. Does she really have any feelings at all for her victims? Miss Pitt leaves us wondering. It’s a wonderful performance. Ingrid Pitt is the one thing in this movie that doesn’t seem horribly dated and staid.

Hammer did understand that they needed to sex things up a bit. There’s a small amount of nudity (including brief frontal nudity) but not enough to achieve that aim. Luckily Ingrid Pitt is a mass of seething sexuality whether she’s clothed or unclothed and she is enough to make it Hammer’s sexiest movie up to this time. In fact she’s enough to make it Hammer’s sexiest movie ever. Hammer were treading very cautiously which, given the incredible rigidity and stupidity of British film censorship, was understandable. But while the censor might have vetoed any additional nudity they could not prevent Ingrid Pitt from being sizzlingly sexy.

If you want a good example of why censorship is such a terrible idea you only have to consider the reaction of the British censor to the famous scene in this movie with Ingrid Pitt in the bath and then romping nude with Madeline Smith. The censor described it as sick and unnecessary. In reality of course it’s one of the most crucial scenes in the entire movie. It’s the scene that establishes the erotic nature of Carmilla’s vampiric seduction of Emma. If the censor had had his way and the scene had been removed the whole film would have been totally pointless. Without that scene it would have been just another tired retread of the Hammer formula.

Like all Hammer gothic horror films it takes a drearily straightforward good vs evil stance and as in all Hammer gothic horror films this is undermined by the dullness and unattractiveness of the good guys, and by the fact that they seem so vengeful and vindictive. This was a problem even with the Dracula movies but when you have a villain who is an exciting sexy female it’s impossible not to hope that maybe this time the forces of good will lose. It’s also another Hammer film in which we can’t help feeling that there’s an extreme hostility to any woman who experiences sexual feelings. In fact in this movie we get the feeling that a major motivation for the good guys is to prevent Emma from becoming sexually awakened. By the end (particularly in view of a late plot twist which I won’t reveal) all my sympathies are with Carmilla.

Peter Cushing’s greatest achievements as an actor were in my opinion in Hammer’s Frankenstein movies where he got to play a villain, but a complex villain. He did an absolutely superb job. Unfortunately in his appearances in their vampire movies he always ended up playing incredibly simplistic and incredibly unpleasant heroes who came across as vindictive sadists.

The question that then arises is, was there some intention here to subvert the traditional good vs evil gothic horror movie that had been Hammer’s speciality for so long? Are we meant to be on Carmilla’s side? Sadly, I doubt that Hammer had any such intention. What makes the movie interesting is, paradoxically, the contrast between Ingrid Pitt’s exciting and perverse sexuality and complex and ambiguous characterisation on the one hand and the grinding conventionality of everything else in the movie on the other.

Without Ingrid Pitt this would have been a very tired second-rate Hammer movie, little more than a succession of creaky vampire movie clichés. Her performance is almost enough to make this movie what it should have been, the movie that would really have revitalised the Hammer gothic horror movie.

The Vampire Lovers is an odd mix of boldness (the open treatment of the sexual nature of vampirism, the fact that this vampire has emotions) and timidity (everything else in the movie). It looks forward to the 70s and it looks back to the 50s. Recommended, but mainly for Ingrid Pitt.

Thursday 24 February 2022

The Slave (Scacco alla regina, 1969)

Having been enormously impressed by Pasquale Festa Campanile’s clever, witty, sophisticated and good-natured sex comedy The Libertine I’m now frantically looking for more of Campanile’s movies to watch. And it just so happens that Check to the Queen (Scacco alla regina) has been released by Mondo Macabro under the alternative title The Slave (which was the title of the book on which it was based). This movie had originally been released in 1969. Radley Metzger had picked up The Libertine for American distribution and it’s surprising he didn’t pick this one up as well.

For convenience I’ll refer to the movie as The Slave (which is certainly an appropriate title).

Sylvia (played by the gorgeous Haydée Politoff) is at a loose end. Her husband is off to Paris on an extended business trip but Sylvia hates all great cities so she’s staying. She assures her husband that she will find something to amuse her. Sylvia is very young, very pretty and she’s bored so she takes a job as a kind of lady’s companion to fabulously rich movie star Margaret Mevin (Rosanna Schiaffino). Margaret explains her duties to her. Sylvia is to be a good obedient girl and obey any and all instructions without question. She is to address Margaret as Mistress. Perhaps those dominatrix boots Margaret was wearing should have given Sylvia some hints as to what is in store.

But Sylvia doesn’t seem to mind. Which is not surprising since we already know that she has lurid sadomasochistic sexual fantasies.

Sylvia moves into Margaret’s house.

Margaret isn’t into whippings or anything like that. She just likes to dominate people psychologically and emotionally. To dominate them and humiliate them.

People such as Dina, her secretary. Dina is the one who got Sylvia the job. And people such as Spartaco. He’s her chauffeur but his duties also including pleasuring the Mistress sexually. Just to make sure he’s properly humiliated Margaret insists on paying him for servicing her. He gets 10,000 lira a time, which Margaret has ascertained is the going rate for a second-class call girl.

Sylvia is told she’ll have to be Margaret’s stand-in in her new movie. There are several scenes in which Margaret gets slapped, and Margaret has no intention of being slapped herself. Sylvia agrees to do it. She will get paid for it. Paying people for doing things such as this is Margaret’s favourite way of humiliating them. It makes them feel like whores.

Margaret has another job for Sylvia. She is planning a party and Sylvia will be the centre-piece. She will be covered in plaster to act as a living statue. It’s very uncomfortable and a bit of frightening, which of course is why Margaret wants her to do it.

As is the case with all Italian movies of this era the set design is rather spectacular. Flavio Mogherini did the production design for both this film and Campanile’s The Libertine. There are some excellent surreal fantasy sequences, with Margaret as a kind of debauched Roman empress.

There’s also Margaret’s mechanical horse, a very nice touch. Either Campanile had an erotic fascination with horses or he assumed that women have such a fetish. The heroine of The Libertine has a very strange horse-related sexual kink.

Sylvia becomes Margaret’s slave. Now you know where this relationship is headed, or you think you know, but you’re wrong. They have a sadomasochistic relationship of sorts but it’s not a sexual relationship. It’s a relationship that is certainly erotic, but it not’s actually sexual. They don’t have sex. It’s not a lesbian relationship although it has some of the features of lesbian relationships.

And the sadomasochism doesn’t quite head in the direction you’d expect. There’s some very mild bondage and one whipping scene, but they don’t play out at all the way such scenes invariably play out in movies of this era.

The power relationship between Margaret and Sylvia is not what it seems to be either.

Margaret’s motivations are extremely complex, as are Sylvia’s.

We really don’t know how all these complications are going to be resolved so the ending is, like everything else in the movie, a bit of a surprise although it feels right.

Everything depends on the two female leads and both Rosanna Schiaffino and Haydée Politoff give superbly subtle performances.

Mondo Macabro’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo release offers a fine anamorphic transfer plus interviews with several of the people involved in the film.

The Slave is stylish erotica with the emphasis on the atmosphere of unconventional erotic desires rather than on sex. It has some very amusing moments but it’s essentially a psycho-sexual melodrama. It keeps the viewer constantly in a state of tension - just as we think we understand Margaret’s motivations we realise we didn’t understand her at all and the same goes for Sylvia. It’s not the characters behave inconsistently, it’s just that it’s a movie that is obsessive about avoiding the obvious and the crass. There’s quite a bit of nudity but no frontal nudity and no actual sex scenes.

It’s a visually stunning offbeat movie and I recommend it very highly.

Monday 21 February 2022

Spasmo (1974)

Spasmo is a 1974 giallo from Umberto Lenzi and it’s an odd one.

We start with a young couple making out in the woods. In an old house they find a girl’s body dangling from the rafters. Then we cut to Christian (Robert Hoffman) who has taken his girlfriend to a spot by the sea, a spot that meant a lot to him in childhood. They find a dead girl on the beach.

But in both cases things are not at all what they seem.

We keep seeing dolls. Life-size life-like female dolls. By now we’re starting to get an uncomfortable uncanny valley feel from this movie.

Christian meets Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and chats her up. He has a very smooth line in chat-up patter. He tells her she’s a sweet sweet whore. Girls just love it when you call them whores. Barbara tells him she’s not a whore but she’ll sleep with him if he shaves his beard off. Christian can’t get to the razor quickly enough. Then the guy with the gun appears. There’s a scuffle and soon it’s a dead guy with a gun. Because this is a movie Barbara and Christian don’t go to the police and explain that it was self-defence. No, they decide to go on the run.

Barbara’s boy friend shows up and he is definitely up to something.

Barbara suggests that they hide out in a house belonging to a Brazilian lady painter friend who is in Rio at the moment. Nobody will know that they’re there. But somebody does know, and is watching them.

There’s a sinister guy who keeps popping up, and a couple of other guys as well, all of whom seem to be very interested in Barbara and Christian. There’s a growing sense of danger, but we don’t know if it’s Christian or Barbara who are in danger. Or both of them.

We don’t really know who any of these people are. We suspect they’re not the people they say they are.

People get killed but we’re still not sure who they were or what they were up to.

Are we dealing with a conspiracy or a lone crazed killer or something else. Those dolls keep turning up. Naked or semi-naked female dolls, some with knives stuck through them, some hanging by noses. That obviously suggests a psycho killer, or it could suggest that someone wants it to appear that there’s a psycho abroad.

Christian overheats a conversation that makes him even more convinced that he’s in danger. He’s not sure if he can trust Malcolm and Clorinda. They just turned up at the house and claim that they’re renting it. They seem to be a couple although Malcolm is decades older than Clorinda. Christian can’t shake the feeling that some of the people he’s encountering are people he’s seen before.

Maybe he should ask his brother Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) for help. Fritz has always helped him in the past.

The atmosphere of paranoia is gradually ramped up. Those mutilated female dolls keep showing up. Things get weirder.

We know there’s either a madman or a clever criminal at work but it could be any one of three of the major characters and we have no idea what the person’s motivations are. We get mystery as well as suspense. We definitely get plenty of suspense but it’s a kind of diffused suspense because we don’t know which of the characters we should be fearing for.

Umberto Lenzi was one of the pioneers of the giallo but by 1974 he was convinced that giallos had become too formulaic. Spasmo is his attempt to try something new. It has plenty of giallo trademarks - it’s stylish with an edge of strangeness and it has action and suspense but there are no black-gloved killers and the weirdness level is much higher than in typical giallos. It’s actually a very successful attempt to vary the giallo formula.

There’s very little nudity (just a couple of brief topless scenes) and no gore at all. This was also a deliberate choice on Lenzi’s part. He wanted to focus tightly on the psychological thriller aspect.

The acting is good, with Suzy Kendall being very good and Robert Hoffman being very good indeed in a nicely underplayed performance.

The house belonging to the painter provides a cool setting - it’s isolated, on the sea and it looks like a fortress.

Shriek Show’s DVD release offers an excellent transfer plus a very good interview with Umberto Lenzi.

Spasmo is really a great offbeat semi-giallo and it’s highly recommended.

Thursday 17 February 2022

Cover Girl Models (1975)

Cover Girl Models is another Roger Corman-produced flick shot mostly in the Philippines and directed by the gloriously inept Cirio H. Santiago. It’s part of the Lethal Ladies 2 collection from Shout! Factory, along with the Pam Grier vehicle The Arena and the kung fu stewardess movie Fly Me.

Cover Girl Models follows the usual Corman formula, following the misadventures of three beautiful girls. This time they’re not nurses or stewardesses but models and they’re off to South East Asia for a fashion shoot.

Mark (John Kramer) is a photographer for a magazine that is aimed at liberated women but all Mark wants to know from editor Diane is how much cleavage is required in his photos.

He already has three models lined up but decides he can’t work with one of them. He finds a replacement when his assistant Mandy (Tara Strohmeier) falls into a swimming pool and he notices what’s beneath her wet T-shirt. Along with Claire (Lindsay Bloom) and Barbara (played by Pat Anderson who also appeared in Fly Me) they set off for Hong Kong.

Barbara inadvertently gets mixed up with international spies when microfilm is hidden in the lining of one of her dresses. The spies try to kidnap her but she gets rescued by a Chinese kung fu-fighting travel agent (yes, this is a kung fu cover girl models movie). We tend to suspect that whatever he is he’s probably not a travel agent.

Claire is trying to sweet talk a movie producer to further her film career. She doesn’t actually have a film career but she really wants one.

Mark decides he kinda likes Mandy and he’s going to make her a big-time model, but then she runs into a photographer from a leading Asian fashion magazine who has the same idea. It’s quite possible that Mark is really more interested in getting Mandy into bed than in her potential as a model. He’s that kind of guy.

At some stage just about every female in the movie becomes a target of kidnappers. That seems to be the one big idea that scriptwriter Howard R. Cohen had so whenever he’s not sure what should happen next he throws in a kidnapping attempt.

This is standard Corman fare. There’s some nudity, some humour and an action/mystery sub-plot.

Cirio H. Santiago obviously believed that the art of film directing consisted in getting the camera in focus, which he manages to do most of the time. Well, a lot of the time anyway. Pacing is a concept to which he had apparently never given any thought. The script is thin and not terribly coherent and tends to wander about in circles.

There are spies from at least three different countries and there’s a revolutionary army in there somewhere as else.

At the end we get an extended action sequence which is actually quite decent, with gunplay taking the place of kung fu. The three girls are caught in the middle. They’re no action heroines but they do have a highly developed sense of self-preservation. The plot doesn’t exactly resolve but hey if you have enough shooting the viewer isn’t going to care if all the plot strands are not neatly tied up.

Do the girls find true love? Do their dreams come true? Well, not exactly, but it was a learning experience for them. Who knew that modelling could be so dangerous?

As with Fly Me the movie’s biggest asset is Pat Anderson. She’s gorgeous and likeable and as an actress she’s perfectly adequate for this type of movie.

The transfer is pretty decent if unspectacular. There are no extras.

Cover Girl Models has plenty of flaws. It would be difficult to describe this as a well-made movie but Corman knew his market and made sure that all his movies contained the ingredients that the market demanded. It’s no cinematic masterpiece but if you set your expectations fairly low it’s an acceptable time-waster and the girls are very pretty and if you’re in the mood it’s kinda fun. Worth a look if you’re going to buy the Lethal Ladies 2 collection anyway (The Arena being almost certainly the reason you will buy it).

Sunday 13 February 2022

House of Cruel Dolls (1974)

House of Cruel Dolls is a very sleazy but engagingly weird slice of European sexploitation cinema.

M. Gaston arrives at the infamous whorehouse the House of Lost Dolls, which seems to be located in some unnamed exotic country. As usual Gaston chooses his favourite prostitute, Yvette (Magda Mundari). He’s a somewhat romantic middle-aged man and he’s fallen in love with Yvette. She’s fallen for him as well, since he always treats her well. He asks her the obvious question, what such a nice girl is doing in such a terrible place. She informs him that she was kidnapped by white slavers. All the girls working at the House of Lost Dolls are prisoners.

Gaston is outraged and decides that he is going to rescue the poor girl.

The story of how Yvette came to the infamous brothel is told in flashback. She was innocently hitch-hiking. She was kidnapped, raped, drugged, raped again and transported somewhere on a ship. She was then raped again and taken to the House of Lost Dolls.

Gaston and Yvette go to the police. The police are sympathetic but they need evidence. That’s where secret agent Sigma (Jack Taylor) enters the picture. And the movie suddenly switches from an exploitation sleazefest to an action thriller.

If it sounds like a movie with a split personality that’s apparently because many of the action scenes were lifted from a 1967 spy thriller starring Jack Taylor. The result should be a disjointed mess but really it just adds to the fun. And the 1967 footage is matched in pretty well with the later 1974 footage. Well, let’s put it this way - I’ve never it done much more badly than this.

Secret agent Sigma leaves a trail of mayhem behind him. What he really needs is evidence from one of the girls and he thinks he may be able to get it, if the goons working for the madam of the brothel don’t get to her first.

Meanwhile Yvette tries to play amateur detective and gets into predictable trouble (and yes, she gets raped again).

This is very low-budget stuff and obviously there was no money for really elaborate action se-pieces The movie compensates for that by having lots and lots of fight scenes. And the fight scenes are done reasonably well. Yvette even gets a couple of fright scenes, and even wins one of her fights. Both Sigma and Yvette get captured by the bad guys and escape and get captured again. It’s a bit like a 1940s movie serial.

The movie doesn’t look quite as cheap or shoddy as you might fear. It’s competently made, if lacking in any real inspiration. Pierre Chevalier was not the world’s greatest director. You’d probably notice that there aren’t too many sets, that is you’d notice if you weren’t distracted by the endless fight scenes and the wall-to-wall naked women. But that’s what exploitation movie-making is all about.

There’s an enormous amount of female frontal nudity. It’s all strictly softcore. What makes the rape scenes shocking is not their explicitness (they’re not explicit at all) but their casualness and relentlessness. The moment the madam leaves them alone with the girls for five minutes the goons just start raping them. And the girls don’t struggle much because they realise there’s no point. They just accept that they’re going to be raped over and over again. It’s the resigned despair of the girls that makes those scenes harrowing, and the fact that the goons rape the girls with no more thought or passion than they’d put into pouring themselves a beer.

The acting is less than outstanding. I know Jack Taylor is a bit of a cult movie icon due to his appearance in several Jess Franco films but as an actor it has to be said that acting was not his forte. Magda Mundari can’t really act either (presumably she was cast because she was gorgeous and willing to take her clothes off) but she does have a high likeability factor. We want this girl to get out of the jam she’s in. The chief villain is the madam of the brothel - she’s beautiful, glamorous and coldly evil, a fine villainess.

Full Moon’s DVD release (there’s a Blu-Ray as well) offers a good anamorphic transfer with no extras. It offers only the English dubbed version. The dubbing is pretty horrendous but it does add an extra layer of outrageousness. The print is uncut.

I’m not going to try to persuade you that House of Cruel Dolls is a neglected cinematic masterpiece. It’s cheap, trashy and sleazy. It’s not quite as sleazy as some of the more extreme European women-in-prison movies of that era but it’s still plenty sleazy. But if you’re in the mood for cheap, trashy and sleazy it delivers the goods.

Wednesday 9 February 2022

Total Recall (1990)

Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 science fiction film Total Recall is based on a short story (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) by Philip K. Dick with a screenplay by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon. And of course it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, a big box office draw at the time.

Philip K. Dick also wrote the novel on which Blade Runner was based. Dick’s science fiction was noted for its disturbing and disorienting blurring of the boundaries between reality and illusion.

Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger) works on a building site. He’s been having very troubling dreams about Mars. He’s never been to Mars but he’s become obsessed with the idea of moving to the Martian colony. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) is determined to talk him out of the idea.

Then he finds what seems like a good compromise. He sees a TV commercial for Rekall, a company that offers what are in effect virtual vacations. You go to their office and they implant incredibly realistic memories of a fun-filled exciting vacation which never really happened. But the memories are so real that (so they claim) it’s just as good as a real vacation. 

In fact it’s better. They offer the perfect vacation. A vacation with none of the irritations of real vacations (such as the spaceline losing your luggage). And during this perfect location you get to have a steamy sexy holiday romance with a gorgeous member of the opposite sex. And as they point out to Doug, she will be absolutely his perfect fantasy woman.

You can also choose to spend your vacation playing a fantasy role. Doug chooses the secret agent option. You get to kill the bad guys, bed a gorgeous lady spy and return a hero.

Doug can’t wait. But it all goes horribly wrong. There’s something about Doug that Rekall didn’t know about. Something about Doug’s actual memories.

This is the point at which the movie starts to get really interesting. Doug isn’t sure where his dreams end and reality begins. The audience isn’t sure either. There’s the possibility of dreams within dreams. Doug’s dreams might be more real than his reality. His memories might be real or they might be faked, or he might be dreaming that his memories have been faked. At various points in the movie these questions are answered for us, or are they? Is Doug being presented with reality or more faked reality? Doug can’t be sure and nor can we. Everything is open to question.

This is also the point at which the action kicks in and from now on the movie will be almost non-stop hyper-violent action. With plenty of humour as well.

So this is a very cerebral piece of high concept science fiction and it’s a big dumb action adventure movie. It’s not that it switches between these two poles. Both strands of the movie are interwoven. It’s an adrenaline-charged roller coaster ride that keeps challenging our perceptions.

Paul Verhoeven makes this strange mixture work.

At various points in the movie we get revelations which suddenly make things clearer, and then we discover that they haven’t actually made things clearer at call. The revelations have just raised new questions and new doubts. It’s not that the movie is working on two levels, dream and reality. It’s working on multiple levels of dream and reality. The dreams might be real. The reality might be fake. It’s possible to interpret the movie in several different ways, depending on the point at which you think the movie has cut through the final level of falsehood and reached truth and reality. And depending on whether you think it ever reaches that point at all. All the possible interpretations of the movie work. You choose your interpretation and then you watch the movie again and you’ll decide on a different interpretation.

I like Schwarzenegger a lot in this movie. He could be very charming and very likeable with an engaging ordinariness about him. Quaid is a nice guy but he’s a hyper-violent nice guy and he’s confused and he’s emotionally torn. He has a beautiful blonde loving wife and a beautiful brunette girlfriend and he loves them both but they’re in different realities, or different dreams. This was probably the most challenging and complex rôle Schwarzenegger had played up to this point and he carries it off surprisingly successfully.

The brunette is Melinda (Rachel Ticotin), who was Quaid’s girlfriend only he wasn’t Quaid then.

Ronny Cox as Cohaagen, the virtual dictator of Mars, is nicely chilling. Michael Ironside is great fun as his chief henchman, the obsessed Richter.

Sharon Stone has to switch back and forth between two personalities, or two personas, and she does a superb job. It was this performance that convinced Verhoeven that she could handle her rôle in Basic Instinct.

Digital effects were very much in their infancy at the time. There are a few here but most of the special effects are done the old-fashioned way. And they look great. The Martian colony looks terrific - kind of high-tech but run-down and squalid at the same time, and very sleazy. There’s some amazing puppeteering and makeup work and miniatures work. Much of the movie was shot in Mexico City where Verhoeven found some wonderful New Brutalist architecture for his location shooting.

Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven share an entertaining and informative audio commentary. I get the feeling that Schwarzenegger is very proud of this movie, and with good reason. Verhoeven makes it clear that there’s no definitive interpretation of the events of the movie.

Total Recall had a very interesting production history. The idea of filming Dick’s short story had been kicking around for years. Schwarzenegger had wanted to do the movie for years. Dino De Laurentiis ended up owning the rights and he was adamant that he didn’t want Schwarzenegger. At various times at least half a dozen directors were in line to make the movie. Production had actually started in Australia, with Bruce Beresford as director, when De Laurentiis’s production company went bankrupt. Schwarzenegger heard about it, got on the phone to the guys at Carolco and within hours a deal was made. It was now to be a Carolco production with Schwarzenegger as star. Schwarzenegger had no doubts at all as to who the director was going to be. He desperately wanted to work with Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven was keen. Within another day or so Rachel Ticotin and Sharon Stone had been cast. The movie was now to be shot in Mexico.

You can enjoy Total Recall as an action extravaganza and as an arty philosophical science fiction movie and you do both at the same time. Very highly recommended.

Saturday 5 February 2022

Doriana Grey (1976), Blu-Ray review

Jess Franco’s outrageous 1976 sleazefest Doriana Grey was also released as The 1000 Shades Of Doriana Gray and Doriana Gray and Die Marquise Von Sade. Doriana Grey is the most appropriate title since the movie is to some extent a twisted adaptation of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. There are however plenty of other influences including (as in so many 70s Franco films) de Sade.

The first thing that needs to be made clear about this movie is its explicitness. In the 70s it was fairly standard practice in low-budget European film-making to release several different cuts of a movie. Censorship varied from country to country so some cuts would be raunchier than others. It was also common for hardcore scenes to be added. These were sometimes shot without the knowledge of the director and with different crews and actors. In the case of Doriana Grey there’s not the slightest doubt that the movie was originally shot hardcore and that the stars of the movie did the hardcore scenes themselves. If you have a problem with hardcore sex scenes you won’t want to watch this movie.

What also needs to be said is that this is not a mere hardcore porn movie. There’s a lot more to it than that. What also needs to be said is that once you accept that this is a movie about eroticism then the sex scenes and the very explicit nudity don’t seem gratuitous. They’re the core of the movie. You cannot understand the motivations of the characters without the sex scenes.

There was a softcore version, Das Bildnis der Doriana Gray, with extra scenes (almost certainly not shot by Franco) added to replace the hardcore scenes. So this is an odd example of a 70s European exploitation movie in which the hardcore version is unquestionably the film that the director wanted to make. And in this case the hardcore scenes are necessary in order to convey the extremeness and intensity of the sexual frenzy that drives the plot.

On to the movie. Lady Doriana Gray (Lina Romay) is very rich and very decadent. She lives in a luxurious château. She has everything anyone could want. But she is bored and unhappy.

She has a twin sister (also played by Lina Romay). This twin sister is confined to a lunatic asylum. It seems that they may have been siamese twins. While the twin sister is hopelessly insane it’s obvious that Lady Doriana is also deeply disturbed. The problem is that the two sisters are both incomplete. Lady Doriana is obsessed by sex but she cannot achieve full sexual pleasure. When she should be achieving full sexual pleasure it’s her mad sister who experiences the sexual ecstasy and the orgasm. The twin sister is too child-like to understand what is happening. It frightens her and it has sent her mad.

Lady Doriana’s inability to experience sexual pleasure has had equally devastating consequences. She cannot experience love fully because sexual pleasure is part of love. That’s why she is lonely and unhappy.

Lady Doriana is all mind. Her twin is all body.

In Wilde’s novel Dorian experiences all the pleasures of the flesh but it’s his portrait that reflects the prices of those pleasures. Dorian and his portrait are doubles, or mirrors. In this movie it is the twin sister who is the double. She experiences not the costs of sensual pleasures but the bliss, but the consequences are equally damaging.

Lady Doriana is also a vampire, of sorts. This is vampirism shorn of all the usual vampiric trappings. This is one of several movies in which Franco explored the sexual dynamics of vampirism and the idea of the sex vampire. Which was a perfectly legitimate thing to do since right from the beginning, right back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1979 poem Christabel, vampire fiction was all about sex. Vampirism was always a metaphor for sex. Franco just decided to be totally up-front about it and explore the idea in detail, in movies like the excellent Female Vampire (also with Lina Romay). Doriana Grey is a logical development of the ideas Franco was exploring in other movies at this time.

Lina Romay was interesting because she was at best a competent actress fully clothed but once she took her clothes off she became a great actress. Being naked unleashed something in her. If you wanted an actress to depict the effects of sexual obsession, sexual frenzy or sexual madness then Lina Romay was the actress to do it. She didn’t just express sexuality on camera. She became sex, in all its terrifying and wondrous intensity and delirium.

She really is quite scary in the lesbian rape scene. And yes, it’s quite definitely rape.

This movie is very much a one-woman show. The two rôles played by Lina Romay are the only characters that count. Romay has to carry the entire film on her own. Which she does, without any problems. Franco was amazingly lucky that the two most notable actresses with whom he worked, Romay and Soledad Miranda, both had so much screen presence that they could totally dominate a movie to the extent that the other cast members were not much more than props and could create female characters who were sufficiently mesmerising to engage our attention fully.

The movie was shot partly at the Villa Kerylos in the south of France and partly in Portugal. Once again Franco finds the perfect locations for the sorts of movies he was making.

If you want to see this movie you have a choice between the German DVD release and the German Blu-Ray release. Both are English-friendly. The Blu-Ray offers a very fine transfer.

Doriana Grey is the apotheosis of 70s Franco. The eroticism is combined with a dream-like atmosphere and a poetic and tragic mood. Doriana and her sister are victims of a whimsical but cruel fate. Lady Doriana is not really evil. She kills without quite knowing how or why, driven by an insatiable appetite not just for sexual fulfilment but for love and completeness. It may be Franco’s greatest film and Lina Romay’s performance may be the best of her career. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Take Me Naked (1966)

Michael and Roberta Findlay would become sexploitation legends with their infamous Flesh trilogy (beginning with The Touch of Her Flesh), which pushed the boundaries of good taste and good sense further than those things should ever be pushed. The Flesh films certainly have their own depraved charm. Take Me Naked, made in the previous year, can be seen as a kind of dry run for the Flesh films. Many of the Findlays’ trademarks are already apparent but they haven’t yet dived really deeply in the sleaze pool.

A New York City bum tries to add some meaning to his miserable existence by watching the woman in the apartment across the way. Elaine doesn’t have much of a life either. She spends most of her time drinking or masturbating. In a weird way Elaine and the bum are kindred souls. They’re both lonely and lost. They weren’t necessarily bad people but they’ve hopelessly lost their way. That, the voiceover narration informs us, is what modern cities do to people. The scenes of Elaine masturbating are shot in a way that is, for the Findlays, rather sensitive and compassionate. She isn’t just seeking sexual pleasure. She’s searching for a meaning to her life.

We (and the bum) soon discover that Elaine is a lesbian. Again the Findlays show an unexpected sensitive side. Having Elaine with her head between June Roberts’ thighs should be really hot but instead it’s almost unbearably sad, as Roberts gently strokes her hair.

Roberta Findlay takes a starring role as Elaine, with Michael playing the bum’s ill-fated friend and fellow bum. Roberta Findlay proves herself to be not that bad as an actress. Sexploitation legends Darlene Bennett and June Roberts both put in appearances.

The big surprise is that this is the Findlays not only being sensitive but poetic and arty as well. The voiceover narration includes copious quotations from the poetry of two of the greatest poets of the Decadent Movement of the 1890s, Pierre Louÿs and Arthur Symons. This is a movie that tries to be both scuzzy and arty. The early street scenes are incredibly bleak and desolate, in a grimy arty way.

The Findlays share the writing, directing and producing credits and did everything else as well from the editing to the cinematography to the music, with Michael using the name Julian Marsh and Roberta using the nom-de-plume Anna Riva.

There’s virtually no plot. That’s because Elaine and the bum don’t have actual lives. They live entirely in their own fantasy worlds. Elaine has read far too much of the lesbian erotica of Pierre Louÿs and thinks lesbianism is all feelings and poetry. In her fantasies lesbians never take their panties off because that would be too real for Elaine. They just hold each other and think poetic thoughts. The bum sees himself as the hero of a decadent novel, an over-sophisticated man of the world. In fact he’s terrified of women. Neither can handle reality and that of course will have unfortunate consequences.

Most of the movie is taken up by poetic dream sequences, to the point where you start to think this is not a roughie after all. The roughie elements do eventually kick in, and this happens in a remarkably abrupt way which may at first seem like a weakness in the film. But it does make a sort of sense - it’s the characters’ dream worlds suddenly shattering in an instant, which is what tends to happen to dream worlds.

In the 60s and 70s a lot of film-makers were fascinated by the idea of combining art and softcore porn. Both mainstream film-makers and exploitation film-makers made attempts to do this. The results were sometimes embarrassing but occasionally it worked. When mainstream film-makers tried it they invariably fell flat on their faces, party because they were so clearly uncomfortable with the erotic elements and partly because they thought it would be more arty to make the erotic elements as unappealing as possible. Exploitation film-makers like Radley Metzger, Joe Sarno, Jean Rollin and Jess Franco had more success.

It’s a surprise to see the Findlays trying it, and trying really hard to make it work. It doesn’t quite come off but it has a few moments that do work and it has a few striking and poetic visual images. Considering the minuscule budgets the Findlays worked with (a few thousand dollars) it was a brave effort.

This is part of a Something Weird double-header that includes another Findlay film, A Thousand Pleasures, plus Findlay-themed short subjects.

Extras include an excerpt from Mnasidika, a 1970 movie from the Findlays which demonstrates that the obsession with decadent poets and lesbians in classical Greece displayed in Take Me Naked was an ongoing thing. There’s also an excerpt from a 1970 Roberta Findlay feature, Janie, which seems to be the story of an extraordinarily violent young lady.

Take Me Naked isn’t quite a complete success but it’s an example of the cinematic oddities that make the world of 1960s sexploitation so much fun to explore. It’s worth a look.