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.

Sunday 27 March 2022

The Playbirds (1978)

Mary Millington was a minor pop culture phenomenon of the 1970s (and in Britain perhaps not so minor). She made a series of incredibly successful softcore sex films and became one of Britain’s best-known nude models. She committed suicide in 1979, hounded to death by police harassment.

The Playbirds (1978) was one of her major hits. I had expected this movie to be a sex comedy but while there are some comic moments it’s essentially a crime thriller. With some nudity. OK, with lots and lots of nudity.

A crazed killer is strangling nude models, all of whom have posed for Playbirds magazine. That’s one link between the killings, but there’s another. The victims all seemed to have some connection with horses. Since the owner of Playbirds magazine, a man named Dougan, is a keen racing enthusiast and racehorse owner Chief Superintendent Holbourne (Glynn Edwards) devotes some attention to Dougan. Holbourne also wonders about the witchcraft angle, since the magazine recently featured a series of photoshoots involving witchcraft.

The police fear that the next victim might be Playbirds’ latest centrefold, a rather charming cute blonde named Lena. Inspector Harry Morgan (Gavin Campbell) is assigned to keep an eye on her. Since she’s a very pretty and very personable young woman it’s a rather pleasant duty.

The Assistant Police Commissioner (played by comedy legend Windsor Davies) feels that the investigation is going nowhere. The new plan is to have a policewoman go undercover as a nude model for Playbirds magazine. That assignment will go to Woman Police Constable Lucy Sheridan (Mary Millington).

The highlight of the movie is the selection process for the policewoman who is going to go undercover. Chief Superintendent Holbourne and Inspector Morgan sit at a desk in an office while various policewomen troop in and take all their clothes off. Sometimes being a cop ain’t so bad. The great thing about this scene is that we see luscious naked women (these are the prettiest policewomen you have ever seen) but it’s not gratuitous nudity. It’s integral to the plot!

The story is mostly played fairly straight. While stylistically it bears no resemblance to the Italian giallo genre the content does appear to indicate a major giallo influence. A series of sex murders, a black-gloved killer, an atmosphere of sleazy glamour, some decadence.

Setting a sex movie in the world of girlie magazines had been a favoured technique in 1960s American sexploitation movies. It always offers an excuse for lots of nudity and doesn’t require expensive sets, and it provides a suitable atmosphere.

The movie is certainly not lacking in nude women. We get our first glimpse of female frontal nudity about fifteen seconds into the movie. There’s lots more to follow. Oddly enough while Mary Millington is in the movie right from the start we have to wait a very long time for her to take her clothes off. This means that she has to do some actual acting. As an actress she’s perfectly competent. Most of the cast are quite OK, they’re obviously just coasting and waiting to pick up their pay cheques but they’re competent actors.

There is a bit of social comment in this film. It’s certainly not directly political but the movie does take a few swipes at the self-appointed moral watchdogs of society and the police are not exactly portrayed as either competent or particularly pleasant.

This was the 70s so the movie comes down very much on the side of sexual freedom, which in today’s climate is quite refreshing. The nude models are really nice girls. There’s nothing negative about the way they’re portrayed. WPC Lucy Sheridan has no qualms at all about having lots of sexual encounters in the line of duty. She’s portrayed as one of the more competent among the cops. If the job requires her to drop her panties and jump into bed with someone she’s OK with that. Hey, it’s more fun than typing arrest reports. But she still comes across as a dedicated cop. She just happens to see it as quite natural for a woman to want to have sex. The movie doesn’t suggest that this makes her a bad person, nor does it suggest that shedding their clothes for a magazine makes the nude models bad people.

This movie could be compared to Play Motel, an erotic giallo made at about the same time. Taking the basic giallo or erotic thriller formula and adding lots of extra nudity was an obvious enough idea.

The Playbirds
doesn’t look dirt cheap and it’s technically well made. There are even a few reasonably effective visual suspense moments.

The ending is quite unexpected.

Screenbound’s DVD offers a good uncut transfer. The extras include Mary Millington’s World Striptease Extravaganza which doesn’t actually feature Miss Millington (it was shot in 1981). If you can put up with the awful comic acting as the host then it provides a fascinating glimpse of the art of striptease in 1981. It’s quite lengthy and it features an astonishing array of very naked young women. There’s also one of the shorts that Mary Millington did earlier in her career and I have to say that considering it was shot on 8mm it looks remarkably good. If you enjoy lesbian sex scenes you’ll like it. There’s a stills gallery which includes some of Millington’s photoshoots for 70s girly magazines, plus there are trailers. Overall a pretty impressive DVD presentation. The Playbirds is also included in the recent Mary Millington Blu-Ray boxed set.

The Playbirds works OK as an erotic crime thriller with a fairly serviceable plot (I guessed the killer’s identity but I turned out to be wrong) but of course the point of the movie was to display enormous amounts of bare female flesh. As a softcore erotic movie it’s pretty good. Overall The Playbirds is kinda fun. I’m recommending this one.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

Danger: Diabolik (1968), Blu-Ray review

Danger: Diabolik (the original Italian title was Diabolik), released in 1968, is Mario Bava’s spectacular big-budget comic-book action adventure thriller, except that he didn’t have a big budget. The movie was made on what was, by the standards of Hollywood action adventure thrillers, a very modest budget. He didn’t care. He just made do with the money he had and came up with one of the finest movies of its type ever made.

It’s one of quite a few European movies of its era to be influenced by European comics, especially Italian fumetti. These European comics are very very different in flavour to American comics. They’re aimed at adults and they’re sexy and witty and exciting and they provide perfect material for movies. Diabolik was one of the most successful comics in the Italian fumetti neri genre, adult-oriented comics focusing on crime, sex and violence. The Diabolik comic was created in 1962 by two sisters, Angela and Luciana Giussani. By the mid-60s the comic had become a pop culture phenomenon in Italy and the time was right for a movie version.

Bava’s movie has no sex and the violence is fairly restrained and it has a fairly lighthearted tone (it’s much less violent than the Diabolik comic). It does however retain the comic book flavour and the comic book aesthetic. The movie has zero interest in realism. There are incidents which could have been silly (such as Diabolik disrupting an official press conference with laughing gas) but if you accept that this is the world of comics then these incidents just add to the comic book feel. We don’t mind the amazing and indeed impossible escapes from danger.

This is not a spoof and it does not have the high camp sensibility of the Batman TV series. That’s something that needs to be emphasised. It’s a fun movie and it’s very amusing at times but you cannot appreciate this movie properly if you treat is as a spoof or an exercise in camp. Bava is having fun but the movie takes the fumetti genre seriously. There’s a respect for the source material and for the conventions of the genre.

Danger: Diabolik
starts with a ten million dollar heist. Elaborate precautions have been taken to ensure the money’s safety. The authorities know that such a large amount of money will be a temptation that the notorious Diabolik will be unable to resist. But Diabolik has been one step ahead of them all the way.

Diabolik makes it back to his huge underground headquarters after the heist, with his girlfriend Eva. And we start to get a sense of what motivates Diabolik. He’s a thief and he likes money but there’s more to it than that. Being a super-criminal is fun and it excites him, and it excites Eva. They already have money but it’s the challenge of planning and executing a heist rather than the money that really excites them. And it’s a chance to thumb their noses at authority figures. There’s a definite anti-authority tone to the movie (which was very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the late 60s). Diabolik and Eva are the villains but they’re a whole lot more likeable than those authority figures. They have chosen an outlaw lifestyle.

Diabolik’s next coup will be the theft of a fabulously valuable emerald necklace. Because the idea of possessing that necklace thrills Eva, and Diabolik will give Eva anything she wants. And Eva knows he will enjoy stealing it for her. They’re madly in love with each other, and they’re madly in love with the idea of being outlaws.

Then there’s the gold heist, and this is a heist that is purely an anti-authoriatrian gesture.

Inspector Ginko isn’t a particularly nasty cop as cops go but he represents the law and we want Diabolik to win. The Minister for Home Affairs (a terrific comic performance by Terry-Thomas) is an absurd figure because he represents the government. If it’s a duel between a bungling pompous government and two glamorous sexy outlaws whose side are you going to be on?

John Philip Law was not the world’s most expressive actor but he is perfectly cast as Diabolik. He looks like a cool handsome sexy super-criminal and Mario Bava was always primarily interested in the visuals. And Law gives the right performance - he’s super-cool and always in control.

The gorgeous Marisa Mell is also perfect as his girlfriend Eva. She looks like the kind of super-model who would be dating a super-criminal. Interestingly enough Catherine Deneuve was originally cast in this role but was fired by Bava because she thought some scenes were too sexy. Deneuve was a major star and a great actress but she would have been totally wrong. Marisa Mell wasn’t a star but she was the right choice.

Which brings us to the eroticism of the movie. There are no graphic sex scenes, not even moderately graphic ones. There’s no actual nudity. But it’s still a very very sexy movie. There are scenes that go tantalisingly close to nudity and Marisa Mell wears some extraordinarily revealing outfits but Bava is teasing us, and it makes the movie more erotic rather than less so.

Apparently the budget was around $3 million but Bava had no idea what to do with all that money and ended up making the movie for $400,000.

The sets are spectacular, particularly Diabolik’s underground headquarters, but they aren’t sets. They’re Bava’s visual magic tricks. The scenes cost almost nothing to shoot, much to the amusement of producer Dino De Laurentiis who joked that he was going to tell Paramount the set cost a million dollars. And they’d have believed him. What they wouldn’t have believed was that Bava could do stuff like that for a few hundred dollars. And Bava preferred doing it the cheap way because then he had perfect control.

There have been countless movies and TV series based on comic books but the only director who has ever done it properly was Mario Bava. Bava understood what made comics work, he understood the structure and the grammar and the vocabulary of comics and the dynamic of the comic book medium. Danger: Diabolik remains the only comic book movie ever made that captures the authentic flavour of comics.

Bava also understood the tone of the fumetti neri. He understood that comics have their own logic. Things that would seem ridiculous in a novel or a straightforward movie make sense in the comic book world. The fumetti neri were intentionally outrageous and frenetic and supercharged. If you try to adapt a comic and you adopt a mocking or ironic tone or if you aim for camp you will fail. Diabolik is not a figure of fun. He’s a particular kind of super-villain, a comic book super-villain, but he has to be played straight. Eva is a comic book super-villainess and she has to be played straight. There can be no tongue-in-cheek aspects to the performances.

Mention must be made of Ennio Morricone’s score. It’s not just brilliant. It captures the comic book feel to perfection.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-Ray includes two audio commentaries (both worth listening to) and a very good documentary on the links between the movie and the fumetti neri.

It should be added that one of the inspirations for the Diabolik comic was the Fantomas novels, and the 1964 Fantomas movie undoubtedly had some influence on Bava's movie.

Danger: Diabolik is just so much fun, and so stylish and fast-paced. Very highly recommended.

Friday 18 March 2022

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), Blu-Ray review

Very few of Hammer’s movies have been reviled as much as Dracula A.D. 1972, Christopher Lee’s second last outing in a Hammer Dracula movie. It’s easy to see why. Diehard old school Hammer fans violently disapproved of the idea of transplanting Dracula in Swinging London in the early 70s. Mainstream critics who didn’t much like Hammer movies anyway saw this as an opportunity for cheap mockery. The attempt to depict early 70s youth culture, fashions and music made the film look very dated within a few short years. It’s really easy to take pot shots at this movie.

Nonetheless Dracula A.D. 1972 has its defenders and I’m one of them.

The movie opens in 1872, with poor old Dracula once again being vanquished and destroyed in the kind of clever and original style that had become a trademark of Hammer’s Dracula movies. A mysterious young man fills a vial with some of the Count’s ashes and takes his ring. We then get a very good transition as the camera pans up from a late 19th century graveyard to a passing jet airliner. Suddenly we are in 1972.

There’s a groovy party going on. It was supposed to be a very staid respectable party but Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) and his way-out friends crashed it and turned it into a wild orgy. And I do mean wild. Nobody actually takes their clothes off but there are couples kissing and girls go-go dancing. Some of these young people are clearly having fun. Total depravity.

Johnny Alucard and his clique are starting to get bored. They need new highs. New kicks. Johnny decides to give them something that will really shock them out of their boredom - a Black Mass.

Not all his followers think this is a good idea. Young Jessica (Stephanie Beacham) has her doubts. She’s pretty sure her grandfather wold disapprove. Her grandfather knows about the dangers of such things. Her grandfather’s name is Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing. He’s played by Peter Cushing.

Johnny convinces his friends that it will be a good laugh. And he’s found a deconsecrated church that will provide the perfect setting.

Johnny gets rather carried away. He wants Jessica to participate in the ritual. She’s too frightened to do so but Laura (Caroline Munro) thinks it’s a great idea. We already know that Laura is a bit of a bad girl. She likes dancing.

The summoning scene that follows is extremely well executed, with all the gothic trappings and an atmosphere that manages to be genuinely creepy and over-the-top. The first appearance of Count Dracula is wonderfully evocative.

Of course now that he’s managed to revive Count Dracula Johnny Alucard will have to provide him with some blood. That’s where Laura comes in. Laura is hysterical but there’s not much she can do about it. A nice touch is the look on Carline Munro’s face as Dracula bites her - it it horror or bliss?

As I said earlier it’s a movie that was always going to look dated within a few years. Seeing it now, half a century later, that’s very much a part of its charm. What makes it even better is that Hammer (like Hollywood when it tried to cash in on youth culture) got the 1972 youth culture totally wrong. So now it’s like a bizarre time capsule of a 1972 youth scene that only ever existed in the minds of the middle-aged men running Hammer Films at the time. It makes the movie great fun.

As for the idea of dropping Dracula into the world of 1970s sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, it was really a pretty reasonable idea. Vampire movies in 19th century settings were becoming a pretty tired idea. Hammer were struggling and they had to do something. The only other options would have been to ramp up the gore very significantly or to ramp up the sex and nudity way beyond the levels with which Hammer felt comfortable. There were lots of vampire movies around that time in contemporary settings (Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos, Jose Larraz’s Vampyres, Count Yorga Vampire, etc). Vampires in contemporary settings were very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the 70s. Hammer decided to put their own distinctive twist on the idea by putting their vampire among the crazy with-out groovy kids of the time.

You have to consider the historical context of this movie. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s the British gutter press enjoyed whipping up moral panics about the occults, with articles in the Sunday papers about witches in suburbia and that sort of thing.

This was also a time when Dennis Wheatley’s black magic occult thrillers were huge bestsellers and at the beginning of each book there was a warning to the reader from Wheatley - a warning not to dabble in the occult, otherwise really really bad things would happen.

This was also a time of regular moral panics about the “permissive society” - there was a real fear that young people were learning to enjoy themselves and that was something that needed to be stopped. The movie takes the same kind of pompous moralising line but that ends up adding to the fun.

So overall 1972 must have seemed like a very good time for Hammer to make a movie like Dracula A.D. 1972.

One interesting thing about Hammer’s Dracula movies is that although on the surface they take a very conservative moralistic stance Dracula always wins. He gets destroyed at the end of each movie but you know he’ll be back for the next one, fully revived and as lively as ever. It’s also noticeable that the vampire hunters in the Hammer movies are not overly sympathetic. Father Sandor in Dracula Prince of Darkness is pretty horrifying. Van Helsing in Dracula A.D. 1972 is a grim, humourless dusty old killjoy. Dracula by contrast is sexy, dangerous and exciting. It’s hard to imagine the target audience for this movie rooting for Van Helsing.

Having the police conducting a conventional murder investigation while Van Helsing knows it’s vampires they’re dealing with is a nice touch.

One criticism that has been made of the film is that Dracula never leaves the deconsecrated church. I think that was actually a wise idea. Dracula roaming around 1970s London would have looked silly, but having lurking in the church, like a spider in his web, increases the sense of menace.

This is a very visually impressive movie with some nice sets and some great cinematography.

One minor weakness of this movie is that the vampires are much too vulnerable. It seems like just about everything kills vampires. Even against an old man like van Helsing they just haven’t got a chance.

The Warner British Blu-Ray release is barebones but looks pretty good.

Dracula A.D. 1972 has its flaws and perhaps it doesn’t work in the way Hammer intended, but it works in its own way and it’s an entertaining slightly offbeat 70s vampire movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 15 March 2022

Pervertissima (1972)

Writer-director Jean-Louis van Belle’s Pervertissima was released in 1972. If you’ve seen the other Jean-Louis van Belle movie (The Lady Kills) included in Mondo Macabro’s two-movie Jean-Louis van Belle Blu-Ray release then you’ll be confidently looking forward to a fair amount of weirdness and perversity. Which you do get, in a way, but it’s a very very different movie from The Lady Kills. Pervertissima is a kind of kinky mondo movie, but with some science fiction elements as well.

Françoise (Maelle Pertuzo) is a pretty twenty-three-year old who has applied for a position as an investigative journalist. This is of course a skilled and specialised occupation so her prospective employer has to be sure that she is properly qualified for the job. He asks her to take her clothes off. Having seen her naked he feels reassured that she is indeed very highly qualified.

Her first assignment is to do a feature on Love in Paris. Her employer is certain she’s right for this assignment since she is a virgin.

What she has to do is to seek out the strange and unusual in the sexual world of Paris. Her first step is an orgy, which she observes through a peep-hole while hidden in a cupboard. Then she gets a job as a stripper at the cabaret Le Sexy. The strip-tease sequence is very strange but very cleverly shot. It’s very disorienting and you don’t get to see any nudity in this scene but it certainly sets an atmosphere of outrageousness.

Then she finds work as a street walker. Her one and only client has odd tastes. He wants her to dress in a bridal gown and then rape him. She does her best (journalists are dedicated).

Then she tries being a call girl, with similarly kinky results.

Things then get stranger, with Françoise infiltrating a bizarre erotico-mystico-psycho-physique poetry and sex cult.

She visits a lesbian indoor bathing club, and barely escapes with her virtue intact.

And then the movie changes gear in a rather startling way.

We’re now in mad scientist territory, with the mad scientist in question, Dr Vilard, working towards turning people into robots and then getting them to mate.

While the first half of the movie has a seedy glamour the second half gets much more grungy and with some grotesquerie.

There’s plenty of nudity, including some frontal nudity, but not much sex (the orgy scene is fairly tame although not as tame as the orgy scenes frequently encountered in 1960s American sexploitation flicks.

Even in an era which allowed cinematic mavericks and eccentrics to thrive Jean-Louis van Belle stands out for his intriguingly offbeat approach to film.

Maelle Pertuzo’s film career was very brief. She’s certainly lovely and she does give the impression of being an odd girl who actually enjoys her strange assignment and regards the world of kinky sex with amused detachment. She also has the right look - she looks great in the fashions of the time. She can wear thigh-high boots and a mini-skirt with confidence. She also takes her clothes off quite a lot and looks just as good naked as clothed. Maelle Pertuzo has to carry the film and has to make us care what this odd girl will get into next. Which she does. She might not have been much of an actress but she was right for this film. The other cast members don’t get a lot to do but there are some bizarre bit players.

Apart from the brief scene in Le Sexy this movie is not all that startling visually, and it features the lamest mad scientist laboratory in cinema history. It’s a set that belongs in an Ed Wood Jr movie. The mad scientist laboratory does feature naked girls though, so I guess that’s something.

There’s really no plot at all, just a succession of weird stuff happening.

Mondo Macabro’s Blu-Ray offers a good anamorphic transfer and it’s a two movies on one disc release, the other movie being another Jean-Louis van Belle feature, The Lady Kills (1971). There are some reasonably worthwhile extras as well (as there always are in a Mondo Macabro release). It’s the sort of release that makes Mondo Macabro so essential to cult film fans - two movies that nobody else would have even thought of releasing bizarre but they’re fascinatingly bizarre.

Pervertissima defies categorisation, although mondo film probably fits the bill most accurately. It’s not as good as The Lady Kills, but it is weirder.

Friday 11 March 2022

The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (2003)

Mitsuru Meike’s The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, released in 2003, may be the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen some pretty strange movies.

The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai is a pink film (pinku eiga) which is the Japanese term for a softcore erotic movie. While the softcore sex film was by this time out of fashion in most countries and was becoming a very rare bird the genre was still thriving in Japan in 2003. This particular movie was originally released in Japan as Horny Home Tutor: Teacher's Love Juice. Surprisingly it made the crossover to the art-house circuit in the US and Europe and became a minor sensation.

It is among other things a political satire (about George W. Bush) but don’t be put off by that. Political satire becomes very dated and very embarrassing very quickly but in this case it doesn’t matter. The satire is so silly and so bizarre that it’s morbidly fascinating whether you agree with the movie’s politics or not. And there’s so much other craziness here that you can just enjoy wallowing in the weirdness. The weirdness is not so much in the content as in the tone and the style.

And you can enjoy the special effects. The special effects budget must have been around fifty bucks. You have never seen such cheap special effects. Ed Wood’s movies have more elaborate special effects.

The movie begins with a pretty private tutor named Sachiko Hanai (Emi Kuroda) giving her pupil some lessons in American geography. He learns more about the geography of the female anatomy than that of the United States. We quickly figure out that this is an imekura sex club, a kind of brothel where customers can play out their sex fantasies, and that Sachiko is a prostitute.

Sachiko then heads off to a coffee shop where an exchange is taking place between some Middle Eastern gentlemen and a North Korean spy/assassin. An item of great value is changing hands. In the course of the exchange Sachiko is shot through the head. Now for most girls a bullet hole in the centre of the forehead would be the end of the line but for Sachiko it’s just the beginning. She has now gained the power of precognition as well as vast insights into mathematics and philosophy.

And she has that valuable item in her possession.

What is the item? It’s George W. Bush’s finger. Or rather, it’s a clone of George W. Bush’s finger. And it has immense power and significance.

Sachiko soon learns that if you’re of the female persuasion it has other interesting possibilities. It can not only offer deep penetrating insights into various subjects, it can have other deep penetrating properties as well. Which she realises when it forces itself on her and brings her to a shattering orgasm. It should be added that it’s not just a cloned finger, it’s a flying cloned finger.

Meanwhile that North Korean spy/assassin has her apartment staked out. While he’s waiting he eats all her food and finds some naughty pictures of her. He has a very nice time with the pictures and then he finds a real treasure - a pair of her panties. Which she has worn but hasn’t yet had time to wash. He naturally confiscates them.

Sachiko has been busy as well. She has hooked up with Professor Saeki. They discuss philosophy and have sex. Discussing philosophy gets them both really hot. He goes crazy when she talks about Noam Chomsky.

The professor persuades his wife that it would be a great idea to move Sachiko into their house. She could act as tutor to their teenage son Mamoru. Sachiko is an excellent tutor. She knows how to motivate a boy. She sets him some difficult mathematical problems. When he gets the answer right she takes off an item of her clothing. When he gets the final question right her panties come off. It’s strip tutoring, which seems to me to have considerable educational potential. Once the panties come off she offers him some tutoring in subjects more interesting to a boy than mathematics.

Eventually Sachiko and the spy assassin hook up. He is surprised by some of her little quirks. Whenever she starts to grapple with an esoteric philosophical question she has to frantically masturbate.

She has other quirks. She only tastes food ten minutes after eating it. And she seems to be losing feeling in a sensitive part of her anatomy.

Surprisingly there is a plot. Sort of. A spy plot, involving that finger and the fate of civilisation as we know it.

The finger is linked to a top-secret high-tech device. Part of the device is a rubber ducky on wheels. Yes, it’s that sort of movie.

There’s a crazed action finale in a cave, which of course involves both sex and guns and dream sequences which might be precognition, and lots more craziness.

Emi Kuroda does quite well in the lead role, conveying Sachiko’s strangeness very effectively.

Director Mitsuru Meike apparently started losing his grip in the later stages of the production and there were doubts as to his ability to finish it.

A word about Japanese softcore might be in order. Back in the 70s Japanese erotic movies could feature very graphic simulated sex but were absolutely forbidden to show even a glimpse of pubic hair. By 2003 things had changed and The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai does feature female frontal nudity. And while there are no shots of penetration there are several shots of ejaculation. So softcore doesn’t mean quite the same in Japan as it does elsewhere.

The Palm DVD release includes the original Horny Home Tutor: Teacher's Love Juice plus the extended director’s cut of The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, plus an episode of a Japanese TV show featuring Emi Kuroda. It’s even crazier than the movie.

The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai offers lots of sex, lots of Emi Kuroda naked and lots of lunacy. Whether it’s inspired lunacy or not is a matter of opinion but this movie is certainly unique and for that reason it’s recommended.

Monday 7 March 2022

The Living Dead Girl (1982)

The Living Dead Girl (La morte vivante) is the third and final film in what could be described as Jean Rollin’s zombie trilogy. Yes I know that technically he made four zombie movies but I don’t count Zombie Lake. He was merely a hired gun on that picture, it was not one of his personal films and his interest in the project didn’t extend much further than a desire for a badly needed pay cheque. I think it’s therefore fair to speak of his zombie trilogy - The Grapes of Death (1978), The Night of the Hunted (1980) and The Living Dead Girl (1982).

What these three movies have in common is an unconventional approach to the zombie movie sub-genre. They’re unconventional both thematically, emotionally and stylistically. The most radical thing about them is that they add an emotional dimension to the zombie movie.

The opening of The Living Dead Girl makes it plain that Rollin is treating zombies as a science fictional phenomenon rather than a supernatural one. Chemical waste is what turns the zombies into zombies. Which is interesting because Rollin had also treated vampirism as a science fictional phenomenon in some of his vampire films (especially The Nude Vampire).

What’s also interesting is that in The Living Dead Girl he makes no attempt to convince us that his science fictional explanation is plausible. We’re not going to have a scientist offering us huge amounts of techno-babble about how zombies are created. Rollin doesn’t care. All we need to know is that these zombies are not supernatural. What really interests Rollin is the consequences, and where his zombie movies become very unconventional is is his interest in the emotional consequences for the zombies. Having the zombies played by beautiful young women was obviously a sound commercial move but it also makes us instinctively sympathetic. We want to sympathise with beautiful young women.

The Living Dead Girl
is as close as Rollin ever got (among his personal films) to making an out-and-out horror movie. It’s the only Rollin movie to feature significant amounts of gore gore (and it is a bit of a gore-fest at times). Rollin’s vampire movies are horror movies of a sort but mostly they’re exercises in surrealism and dream imagery. The Living Dead Girl is unequivocally a horror movie, although it's also much more than that.

Despite this it’s still recognisably a Rollin movie. A young woman in a long flowing white dress wandering through an empty chateau is very Rollin.

A spill of chemical waste in a crypt has an unexpected effect. It brings the corpse of Catherine Valmont back to life. Well, back to life in a way. She is re-animated as a zombie. She seems to have no identity and no awareness. She begins to kill, but instinctively and without any thought or emotion.

Her childhood friend Hélène discovers Catherine. She realises that Catherine has been on a killing spree but as children they made a vow to each other. Whatever Catherine has done Hélène will stand by her.

An American photographer, Barbara, also discovers Catherine’s existence.

The tantalising and tragic thing is that Catherine is not a mere zombie. She remembers a few things. A very few things, but she does remember things from the time when she was alive. She kills everyone she encounters, but not Hélène. She remembers Hélène. She remembers their friendship. She remembers the music box Hélène gave her as a gift. And, tragically, she begins to remember more and more. It’s tragic because she begins to understand that she is dead, that she is a living dead girl. And she begins to understand that she must kill to survive.

While Elysabeth in The Night of the Hunted is slowly losing her human-ness and her identity Catherine is slowly regaining hers. But that’s just as bad because Catherine knows she can never be human again, she can never really be alive again.

The relationship between the two girls slowly changes, in an extremely interesting and emotionally compelling way, but I can’t say any more because this is really the heart and soul of the movie and I’m not going to spoil it.

Is she a zombie or a vampire? There are certainly hints of vampirism. The truth is that she’s both and neither. She’s a one-off, the result of the bizarre effects of the chemical wastes to which her corpse was exposed. In some of Rollin’s vampire movies (especially Two Orphan Vampires and The Nude Vampire and in his novel Little Orphan Vampires) there is also considerable ambiguity - are they actually vampires?

Rollin’s zombie movies are, paradoxically, his most emotionally engaged movies. The zombie idea is used to explore identity, and what it is that makes us human, and the terror of losing our human-ness. In The Night of the Hunted the heroine is slowly losing her humanity and her identity. In The Living Dead Girl the heroine has already lost these things, but not completely. There’s still a shred of the woman she once was. In both movies there’s an overwhelming sense of loss. In both cases there’s the horror of existence without identity.

Françoise Blanchard is extraordinary as Catherine. She has very little dialogue, and none at all for most of the film. She has to convey her strange emotional states mostly wordlessly, and she does so. Marina Pierro is equally good as Hélène.

Rollin was famously obsessed with female doubles. Most of his movies feature two girls. They may be twins, they may be lesbians (but not always). There is always a mysterious and intense bond between the two girls. In this movie the bond is one of simple friendship, but it’s the kind of intense friendship that develops between girls of a certain age. As children Catherine and Hélène made a vow of eternal friendship, a perfectly normal thing. What’s abnormal is that for Hélène that vow of friendship is still as real as it was all those years ago. Her horror at Catherine’s killings cannot shake that bond.

It’s odd that despite all the gore this is Rollin’s most psychologically complex film, with characters who are not only complicated but they change in interesting and convincing ways.

The Living Dead Girl is vintage Rollin. Very highly recommended.

Friday 4 March 2022

Camille 2000 (1969)

In 1967 Radley Metzger had a major success with Carmen, Baby, his sexy and decadent updating of the classic tale of romance. In 1969 he did the same thing with another 19th century romantic classic, La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils (filmed several times as Camille). The result, Camille 2000, is one of Metzger’s most satisfying movies.

Radley Metzger is an interesting case study. He was one of the pioneers of American erotic film-making in the 60s. He started out distributing European erotic films until he decided he could make better films himself. He was right. Metzger is sometimes described as the finest American director of softcore porn movies and in the mid-70s he made a number of hardcore movies. All this is true but it’s misleading. Metzger had little interest in pornography. He wanted to make erotica. The difference might be subtle but it is important. Metzger also wanted to make art films. He saw no reason why it would not be possible to make art movies that were also erotic movies, and that would also be extremely entertaining. Describing Metzger as a maker of art films can be just as misleading as describing him as a maker of porn movies. Metzger thought that movies should be arty and they should be well-made and they should be stylish but they should also be entertaining. And Metzger’s movies are incredibly entertaining. They are witty and amusing.

It’s also worth pointing out that his hardcore movies are best considered as erotic films rather than porn. They are unlike any other hardcore porn movies ever made. The Opening of Misty Beethoven is not just the best hardcore movie ever made, it is a very good movie judged by any standards. It’s stylish, intelligent, emotionally involving, witty, clever and very funny. In the 1970s quite a few film-makers believed that a movie could combine art and porn. Quite a few of them attempted to make such movies. Metzger was the only one who truly succeeded.

Metzger also had, for an American, a very European sensibility and a very European attitude towards sex. In many American and British erotic movies you could the feeling that we’re supposed to find the sex exciting because sex is dirty and wrong and wicked. That’s why it’s exciting. You don’t get that feeling in a Metzger film. Sex is just part of life. It’s fun and exciting but the excitement doesn’t come from a feeing of doing something nasty and forbidden.

Camille 2000
however belongs to his softcore period. And it belongs to his early softcore period. There’s plenty of nudity and sex but it’s very tame by later standards, and it’s very tame compared to his 1974 hit Score.

Radley Metzger was both lucky and unlucky as far as the home video market was concerned. He was lucky in the sense that most of his important movies were released on DVD in the early days of the DVD era. That meant that within his own lifetime (he passed away in 2017) he started to gain the recognition he deserved as one of the most interesting film-makers of the 60s and 70s. He was quickly recognised as possibly the best director of erotic films of his era.

He was unlucky in the sense that his movies made it to DVD so early that most of the DVD releases were of rather poor quality. Given that Metzger was one of cinema’s great visual stylists that meant that his movies could only be judged on the basis of some very unsatisfactory DVD releases. Happily at least some of his movies have now received Blu-Ray releases and we can appreciate their true visual brilliance.

La dame aux camélias
by Alexandre Dumas fils is the tale of Marguerite Gautier, based loosely on the story of Marie Duplessis, one of the most famous of all the mid-19th century Parisian courtesans (les grandes horizontales) who was Dumas’ mistress. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. Metzger’s movie stays surprisingly close to Dumas’ novel. Marguerite Gautier as portrayed by Danièle Gaubert in the movie is a woman who devotes herself to love and to pleasure and she is the mistress of a wealthy nobleman. She is in fact a kept woman. In the 19th century the dividing line between a mistress and a courtesan could be a fine one and in the world of the 1960s jet set the distinction could be even hazier. Whether the Marguerite of the film is technically a prostitute or not remains a trifle ambiguous but it is clear that in practice she sells her sexual favours for money, although she would never be crass enough to accept cash.

It is a tragic irony that the astonishingly beautiful Danièle Gaubert also died young.

Moving the setting from the mid-19th century Parisian demi-monde to the late 1960s jet set in Rome works remarkably well. In both cases we are dealing with fabulously wealthy people for whom life is nothing but play and amusement. In both cases amusement includes sexual pleasure without tedious emotional entanglements. And in both cases a woman can use her beauty and a casual attitude towards sex to live a life of immense luxury. The immense wealth and the frivolity are much the same, and both are worlds that could fairly be described as decadent.

Marguerite belongs to a middle-aged duke but she does not feel the need to be faithful to him. He expects her to be discreet about her extra-curricular sexual adventures.

Then she meets Armand Duval (Nino Castelnuovo). As in the book he is the son of an immensely wealthy man. He is captivated by Marguerite. He is warned that if he becomes involved with her he is likely to get hurt. Marguerite has left a long trail of male broken hearts behind her.

Armand and Marguerite fall for each other in a big way but there are complications. Marguerite believes her life will be a short one and she intends to enjoy it to the utmost. For her that requires money. Lots of money. Armand’s family has a great deal of money but Armand himself has very little. The idea of not living the life of luxury she is accustomed to terrifies Marguerite. And disentangling herself from her duke would be exceptionally difficult. Is love enough without money? Maybe it is but accepting that idea would be a huge step for her. For a girl like Marguerite it would mean becoming a different sort of girl entirely, which she may not be capable of doing.

There are misunderstandings, and there’s the hostility of Armand’s family. Added to which Marguerite is just not used to the idea of being faithful to one man. She has always enjoyed sex but monogamy is a concept she has never even considered. And realistically her only means of making a living is by selling herself.

As you may have gathered the movie sticks very closely to the original story. Not just in terms of plot but in terms of character and tone. Unlike the celebrated 1936 version with Garbo this movie makes it quite clear that Marguerite is not just a rich man’s mistress, she is a prostitute by profession. A very high-class very very expensive prostitute, but a prostitute nonetheless. The movie makes no judgment on her for this. She is the woman she is. She wants love and will sacrifice a great deal for love but she will not accept poverty as the price of love.

She has to make some decisions and her entire future hinges on making the right decisions.

Metzger always worked within limited budgets and his ability to achieve a sense of opulence is breathtaking. The production design is stunning. The costumes are superb. Everything reeks of money and decadence.

One of Metzger’s trademarks was his ability to come up with extraordinarily interesting ways to shoot sex scenes. In this case he not only makes use of some amazing sets and props (transparent plastic beds for example) but lots of mirrors and lots of shooting through transparent surfaces. The sex is only moderately graphic by the standards of 1969 but Metzger makes sex incredibly photogenic. There’s a moderate amount of nudity but mostly it’s partial nudity - women wearing costumes that reveal almost everything, but not quite everything. It’s much more erotic than most softcore films that feature much more graphic sex. This is sex as art and art as sex.

This is a movie that has an S&M-flavoured orgy scene that is actually both erotic and very decadent.

Metzger is also always aware that he is filming one of the great love stories. The movie is a visual feast and it’s very erotic but it’s also deliriously romantic.

Metzger shot this movie in Italy because a limited budget would go a lot further there and he could get much higher production values, and top quality actors. The two leads, Danièle Gaubert and Nino Castelnuovo, are excellent and the supporting cast is equally good. Metzger gives a lot of credit for the sumptuous look of the film to Enrico Sabbatini who designed the sets and costumes (and did a superb job).

I should note at this point that the screencaps used here are from the old Australian DVD release. Image quality on the Cult Epics Blu-Ray is vastly superior. The difference in quality is staggering. The Blu-Ray also offers us an extended cut which had previously not been available on home video. There are plenty of tempting extras as well, including an audio commentary with Radley Metzger. It’s pleasing to hear Metzger express his admiration for Roger Vadim, a director who doesn’t get the respect he deserves, and for The Libertine, a wonderful Italian movie I reviewed here recently.

Camille 2000 is one of the movies in which Metzger established a benchmark for cinematic erotica which has rarely been equalled and never surpassed. Very highly recommended.