Wednesday 29 March 2023

Dimension 5 (1966)

Dimension 5, directed by Franklin Adreon and released in 1966, tries to combine espionage and science fiction in an ambitious way but the very very low budget stifled those ambitions somewhat. 

Having said that, considering the tiny budget it’s a lot better than one might have feared. In fact it’s rather enjoyable.

Justin Power (Jeffrey Hunter) works for a private spy outfit called Espionage Inc, run by an eccentric billionaire. That sounds sinister but apparently they’re the good guys. The bad guys are the Dragons, and they’re Evil Commies. This being 1966 and the height of China hysteria they’re naturally Red Chinese Evil Commies.

The movie starts in an interesting way. Justin Powers and a woman are fleeing from the military police in some unnamed European country. He reaches over to kiss the woman, she reaches for a gun in her handbag and he knocks her out cold.

And then we get the first science fictional element. Power suddenly disappears, just as the bad guys are about to gun him down.

Espionage Inc have equipped their agents with a super-secret disappearing device. It’s not an invisibility ray. Audiences in 1966 would have scoffed at such a hackneyed idea, so this movie comes up with something that is both much cooler and much sillier. We get some technobabble explaining that it’s all about the space-time continuum and the fifth dimension. The gizmo allows Power to travel instantaneously in space, and in time. But he can only jump forward or backwards in time for at most couple of weeks.

He’ll need this gizmo for his latest mission. The Dragons are planning to blow up Los Angeles with a H-bomb. To help him foil this plan Power has been provided with an assistant, a beautiful Chinese agent named Ki Ti Tsu (it’s pronounced Kitty Sue which is much cuter). She’s a good Chinese, not a bad Chinese. At least Power thinks she’s on the side of the good guys, but he’s not quite sure. She’s played by half-French half-Vietnamese actress France Nuyen.

Power and Kitty have to find the leader of the Dragons in Los Angeles, a man known only as the Big Buddha. Power has some allies but soon discovers that they might be unreliable. They might even be trying to kill him.

It’s basically a spy thriller plot spiced up with some science fiction gadgetry. The gadgetry is much more science fictional than anything in the Bond movies but the problem was that all the science fiction stuff had to be doable with a special effects budget of about twenty-five dollars. Mostly that’s managed quite well. There’s a mind-reading device which is basically a hair dryer from a beauty salon. There’s a high-tech dart gun which looks like it cost fifty cents at a toy store.

The sci-fi stuff is used sparingly, which is a good thing. The time travel device is only used when it can be used in an interesting way.

Jeffrey Hunter’s career was in precipitous decline at the time. He’s OK but a bit colourless. France Nuyen is much better. In fact she makes a pretty good beautiful but dangerous lady spy.

The Big Buddha is played by Harold Sakata, best known as Odd Job in Goldfinger. He makes the Big Buddha more of a hoodlum than a Bond villain type but he’s fairly menacing.

Franklin Adreon directed a few cheap B-movies and serials (such as Panther Girl of the Congo) in the early 50s. He spent the next decade in television before making two very low-budget sci-fi movies (Dimension 5 and Cyborg 2087) and a couple of TV movies in the mid 60s. He does a competent if not overly inspired job on Dimension 5. His main qualification for the job was presumably his ability to shoot quickly and stay within budget.

Kino Lorber have as usual provided a pretty decent anamorphic transfer. They’ve released this movie on both DVD and Blu-Ray. They’ve also continued their policy of providing their releases with completely worthless audio commentaries done by people who have absolutely nothing of value to say about the film.

I hadn’t heard of this movie until very recently but the fairly favourable review at Michael's Moviepalace convinced me to give it a go.

Dimension 5 is enjoyable in a fun lightweight way if you don’t set your expectations unrealistically high. Recommended.

Sunday 26 March 2023

Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987)

Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) was Andy Sidaris’s follow-up to the very successful Malibu Express and he obviously has the formula humming away perfectly by now. We get girls, we get boobs, we get guns, we get stunts, we get action. We get a totally insane over-complicated plot containing lots of elements that make no sense. It’s movie magic.

A couple of Hawaiian cops are about to bust a marijuana plantation. It’s routine. It’s a small scale operation and the cops don’t care about it. Those growing the weed will get hit with a small fine and the cops will get a small pay-off. It’s no big deal. Nobody’s going to get hurt. Except that the cops find they’ve stumbled into a much larger operation, and they get blown away by shotguns.

Meanwhile glamorous blondes Donna (Dona Speir) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton) are about to take off in their Cessna, bound for Molokai. They’re taking a honeymooning couple to a secluded romantic spot and they’re delivering a live snake to a wildlife park.

Donna and Taryn supposedly work for a tiny air cargo company. Donna is actually an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Taryn has been placed in Hawaii as part of the witness protection program. There’s a contract out on her. I have no idea why she’s been placed with a DEA agent. I’d have thought that would be a good way for her to attract attention which is not exactly the aim of a witness protection program. While Taryn is a civilian she seems to consider herself to be a kind of honorary DEA agent. And she has martial arts training.

Donna and Taryn spot something very curious. It’s a toy plane. Only it’s not a toy, it’s a very expensive very sophisticated remote-controlled model helicopter. And it’s carrying a cargo. Two goons show up to collect the cargo but the girls fight them off. And now the girls have the cargo.

The cargo comprises two very small crates of diamonds.

Donna decides she needs to do some serious thinking about it so she does what any woman would do in such a situation. She takes off her clothes and jumps into the jacuzzi with Taryn. Donna explains that she does her best thinking in a jacuzzi. Did I mention that Donna is a blonde?

That live snake is also going to be a problem. It’s the wrong snake. The snake the girls delivered to Molokai has been contaminated with toxins. It’s certain death if it bites you. And the snake has escaped from its crate.

The two girls are going to need some help on this case. Luckily fellow DEA agent Rowdy Abilene (Ronn Moss) is at hand, with his buddy Jade (Harold Diamond). I assume Rowdy Abilene is supposed to be the brother of the hero of Sidaris’s earlier Malibu Express, Cody Abilene. Cody and Rowdy are both legendarily lousy shots. It must run in the family.

Rowdy knows he’s a lousy shot. That’s why he doesn’t rely on a handgun. His weapon of choice is a four-barrelled rocket launcher. With a rocket you don’t have to hit the bad guy right between the eyes.

The bad guys, led by the sinister killer Seth Romero (Rodrigo Obregon), make numerous attempts to kidnap the girls to find out what happened to those diamonds. Taryn is the only one who knows where they are. The girls fall into the hands of a sadistic lady bodybuilder.

While this is happening the mutant killer snake goes on a bit of a rampage.

There’s also a sumo wrestling scene, for no reason whatsoever.

This movie is mostly just pure entertainment but it does offer an important warning about an important social problem - frisbee-throwing. Frisbee-throwing isn’t a harmless pastime. Frisbees can be deadly weapons in the wrong hands.

Andy Sidaris understood perfectly how to make movies like this. You find some nice locations that you can use, preferably for free. Things like fancy restaurants, high-class golf clubs. That makes a cheap movie look expensive. If you can get the use of a plane or a helicopter at a bargain price you use it. You save every penny you can. You keep the action going at a relentless pace. You make sure the actresses are topless as frequently as possible. The plot doesn’t have to make sense as long as it keeps the action moving along. Watching an Andy Sidaris movie is like a masterclass in low-budget exploitation film-making.

The acting is both terrible and absolutely perfect. All the cast members know what is expected of them. It doesn’t matter if the acting is bad as long as it isn’t boring. When casting an actress the most important question to be asked is - has she been a centrefold? If the answer is yes, you cast her.

The stunts are done extremely well. Sidaris knows how to shoot an action scene. The special effects (the mutant killer snake) are incredibly cheesy but in a good way.

Hard Ticket to Hawaii is totally silly, very exciting and wildly entertaining. Highly recommended.

My copy comes from the Mill Creek 12-movie Andy Sidaris DVD boxed set, Girls, Guns and G-Strings. The transfers are excellent and there are plenty of extras including audio commentaries by Andy Sidaris and his wife Arlene (who produced most of his movies). Sidaris comes cross a totally crazy totally charming guy. This DVD set is so good that I can see no reason whatever why I would want to upgrade to any of the more recent Blu-Ray releases.

Thursday 23 March 2023

The Devil’s Honey (1986)

The Devil’s Honey is a 1986 psycho-sexual thriller directed by Lucio Fulci.

The fact that it’s a thriller doesn’t become obvious for quite a while. In fact it seems to be more of a sexual/romantic melodrama. In this early part of the movie there are two separate plot strands which don’t seem to have any connection. There is a connection of course. Or at least there will be. What the two plot strands do have in common is that both deal with what might be called the darker side of sexual desire.

Cecilia (Blanca Marsillach) is in love with saxophone player Gaetano (Stefano Madia). She is clearly the submissive partner in a sado-masochistic relationship. It’s clear that she enjoys it as much as he does but she has problems admitting it. He has no problems at all admitting that he likes having her as his slave. She is however completely obsessed with him.

Meanwhile the marriage of prominent surgeon Guido (Brett Halsey) to his wife Carole (Corinne Cléry) has struck a rough patch. A very rough patch. Carole is both love-starved and sex-starved. Wendell isn’t interested in having sex with her but he’s very interested in having sex with prostitutes. Sex with a kinky edge. There’s certainly a hint that his tastes also run just a little in the direction of sado-masochism. He seems to like the idea of having his prostitutes play the submissive rôle.

Then the two plot strands collide, in the operating theatre.

Guido is trying to save his marriage. He is trying desperately to persuade himself that he wants to have sex with his wife. It’s obvious that he doesn’t want her to leave him and that in his own way he needs her but she’s not going to be convinced of that unless he can perform in the bedroom.

His efforts to revive his marriage are hampered by the fact that a girl is now stalking him. She considers him to be no better than a murderer. He doesn’t know if she is going to be content with harassing him or if her intentions are more drastic.

He finds out that her intentions are very drastic indeed although neither Guido nor the viewer can be sure exactly what those intentions are.

By the way, the character’s names in the English and Italian language versions are quite different. The English names are not just Anglicised versions of the Italian names. Guido becomes Wendell, Gaetano becomes Johnny, Cecilia becomes Jessica. The only name that doesn’t change dramatically is Carole. She just becomes Carol.

This movie answers several questions you may at some time have asked yourself. Such as, can you use a saxophone as a sex aid? Can you perform sexual acts on the the back of a motorcycle while said motorcycle is travelling at high speed? It turns out that the answer to both questions is yes.

This is an erotic thriller with the emphasis on the erotic. The eroticism is decidedly kinky. What’s more interesting is that it’s not just sexually kinky but emotionally kinky. It’s a movie about dominance-submission games. It addresses yet another interesting question - what happens when dominant-submissive rôles get reversed, when a masochist becomes a sadist? And in a sado-masochistic relationship which partner is truly dominant?

It’s also obviously a movie about madness. Cecilia becomes more and more unhinged. Guido’s behaviour becomes much stranger. This is sexual and emotional obsession leading to madness.

There’s a lot of complexity to the key relationships in this movie - the Guido-Carole relationship, the Gaetano-Cecilia and Cecilia-Guido relationships. There’s love and hate mixed up. There are power games being played out. The relationships are all obsessive and all driven by out-of-control sexual passion. Sometimes one partner seems to be getting more out of the relationship than the other. It’s not always certain to what extent both partners are willing. There’s a sense that maybe all of these characters are to some extent out of control. The sexual and the emotional are not always in sync. In some of these relationships one character (or sometimes both) is not sure at all sure of his or her own feelings.

Cecilia is sexually excited by Gaetano but is horrified by the things he persuades her to do. But she does these things anyway. Perhaps she does them because she thinks he loves her. Perhaps he does, Cecilia can’t be sure, and nor can we.

There is some violence but (despite Fulci’s reputation as a director of gore films) there’s no gore at all.

There is definitely a lot of sex. There’s a lot of frontal nudity. There are pretty strong sex scenes (although definitely softcore). It’s a sleazy kinky movie, but it’s sleazy and kinky in an intelligent and provocative way. It’s a movie about sex and sexual obsession and it confronts those subjects in the kind of direct way that very very few American movie have ever done.

Brett Halsey and Corinne Cléry are very good. Corinne Cléry is of course best-known for The Story of O (1975), coincidentally another movie dealing with sado-masochism in a fairly complex way. Stefano Madia is extremely good as the charming, sinister, disturbing but oddly innocent Gaetano.

It is however nineteen-year-old Blanca Marsillach who gets the juiciest rôle, as Cecilia. She gives a powerhouse performance. She’s frightening and vulnerable and angry and sad and crazy and sympathetic at at the same time.

I made my first attempt to get into Lucio Fulci’s films quite a few years back and was rather disappointed by a couple of his most admired films. After that I kind of give up on him. Then a couple of years ago I saw his 1969 proto-giallo One on Top of the Other (AKA Perversion Story, 1969). I was surprised to discover that it was a very stylish well-crafted film and I was even more surprised to find myself loving it. So suddenly Fulci was very much back on my radar.

The 88 Films Blu-Ray offers a nice transfer. The image is just a tiny bit grainy at times although it’s possible the graininess may have been intentional. On the whole though it’s a superb transfer. With a host of extras - several interviews, an audio commentary by Sam Deighan (she manages to be both perceptive and enthusiastic) and two short pieces on the film by Stephen Thrower.

I reviewed Fulci’s excellent One on Top of the Other (Perversion Story, 1969) a while back.

The Devil’s Honey is a terrific movie. Very highly recommended.

Saturday 18 March 2023

Age of Consent (1969)

In 1960 one of Britain’s most distinguished and admired film directors, Michael Powell, turned himself into an outcast with a movie called Peeping Tom. It’s now recognised as a masterpiece but at the time British critics could not accept the level of violence and the perverse sexuality and they could neither understand nor accept what Powell was trying to do. Powell ended up in a kind of exile in Australia, where he contributed enormously to the rebirth of the Australian film industry. His 1966 comedy They’re a Weird Mob was a huge hit in Australia. If you’ve never seen this movie I urge you in the strongest possible terms not to. It’s embarrassing and hopelessly dated and completely unfunny and generally very annoying. But it was a success and proved that Australians would pay money to see Australian movies.

Three years later Powell bounced back with another Australian movie, a movie calculated to make him even more of a pariah in the eyes of British critics than Peeping Tom had done. The movie was Age of Consent, based on a scandalous novel by the notorious Australian artist Norman Lindsay (on whom the 1994 movie Sirens was based). It was controversial at the time and was savagely cut by censors in various countries, due to what was by the standards of 1969 a quite considerable amount of nudity. Surprisingly it was apparently released uncut in Australia. It also ran into major problems with Columbia Pictures who insisted on commissioning a new score. They were also unamused by the opening credits sequence featuring a painting of a nude Helen Mirren as the Columbia lady with the torch.

Bradley Morahan (James Mason) is an internationally successful Australian artist living in New York. He makes plenty of money, but he feels that he’s lost touch with the reasons he became a painter in the first place. He exiles himself to a remote island of the Great Barrier Reef in north Queensland, in the hope that he will be able to rediscover his muse. Which he does, in the form of an almost feral girl named Cora (Helen Mirren).

Morahan has become an outsider as he has grown more disillusioned with his life and with his art, while Cora has always been an outsider due to her incredibly restricted and rather nightmarish existence with her vicious alcoholic grandmother. She is trying to save money to escape to Brisbane, earning the money by selling shellfish and by petty theft. There is an immediate sympathy between Morahan and Cora.

Martin Scorcese contributes a brief but very insightful introduction, pointing out that Powell spent years hoping to get a movie adaptation of The Tempest off the ground and that Age of Consent was in some ways a kind of dress rehearsal for that film, a film that he was destined never to make. And in fact if you see the island as being a little like the island in The Tempest, a place not quite of this world, and if you see Morahan as Prospero, them the movie makes a lot more sense. Although he is not a magician, he is an artist, which is perhaps the closest equivalent we have in our world. And I think Scorcese is right to see the film a having a slight suggestion of the magical about it.

I think it’s certainly true that Brad Morahan sees his island retreat from the modern world as an island of enchantment, very much like Prospero’s island in The Tempest. You could even at a stretch see Cora as being a bit like Miranda. You could perhaps even see Cora’s grandmother as an analogue of Caliban.

Scorcese’s interpretation even helps to explain the various comic relief sub-plots. Although they are annoying and do break the mood, they do also add a touch of the grotesque and a feeling of unreality to proceedings, and add a theatrical touch, which may have been the intention.

Apart from a brief but memorable and typically outrageous appearance by the great Australian character actor Frank Thring early on the supporting actors are not terribly impressive. Fortunately the two leads, James Mason and Helen Mirren, more than make up for this deficiency (even if James Mason’s Australian accent is deplorable). Mason resists the temptation to make Morahan a stereotypical irascible and eccentric artist, or to overdo the misanthropy and the loneliness. He makes Morahan likeable and good-natured, in fact a man whose biggest problem perhaps has been that he’s always been too good-natured and unwilling to disappoint others. The sympathetic portrayal makes it easier to understand why Cora is attracted to him. He’s the first person who’s ever shown her respect and kindness. It’s an unsentimental respect and kindness, but it’s more than she’s ever had before.

Mirren is extraordinary. Not only was this her first feature film, she had not even done any TV work, and yet she’s in complete command. It’s one of the most impressive film debuts you’ll ever see.

Both Morahan and Cora are on a voyage of discovery. For Morahan it’s a rediscovery of a zest for life and art; for Cora it’s an awakening to the world and to the possibilities of life as well as an awakening of sexuality. The fact that Mason was 60 at the time the film was made, while Mirren was 24 (and her character is clearly intended to be somewhat younger still) means there was the potential for a certain amount of tackiness, but they bring a kind of innocence to their characterisation which avoids this pitfall.

That the movie, despite some weaknesses, actually works is due in large part to their performances. The gorgeous cinematography and the breath-taking locations also help. It really is visually magnificent, and since it’s a film about an artist it’s not just visual splendour for the sake of it. It is after all a movie about an artist’s love affair with beauty and light and colour.

The problem most people are going to have with this movie is the comedy. It’s not vulgar but it’s very broad. Powell had injected some comedy into Peeping Tom as well and I suspect this is one of the things British critics disliked about his later work. He was dealing in both Peeping Tom and Age of Consent with the all-consuming devouring nature of artistic obsession but he refused to be grim and miserable about it.

It’s worth pointing out that virtually all the comedy in the movie is lifted straight from the novel.

While it’s a coming-of-age movie I also see this movie, along with The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, as part of Powell’s Artistic Obsession trilogy.

James Mason co-produced Age of Consent with Michael Powell and apparently Mason had quite a bit of creative input. Mason apparently pushed for changes to the ending and he was right to do so. The ending that was finally used is in fact pretty much identical to that of the novel.

Age of Consent
was Powell’s last feature film although at the time he had no way of knowing that. He would spend the remaining twenty years of his life desperately trying to get financing for another film. And of course Powell only made two features after Peeping Tom. So the theme of Age of Consent, of an artist trying to recapture his artistic vision, was a very personal one for Powell.

Age of Consent was a huge hit in Australia but didn’t do so well elsewhere. Certainly it didn’t do well enough to restore Powell’s reputation as a bankable director.

This is a movie that for many years seemed lost in obscurity, but in 2009 it was given a terrific DVD release packed with extras. It’s also uncut and it restores the original opening credits and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s original score which was heavily influence by Balinese music and which works very well. That’s the version reviewed here. It was paired, in a two-movie two-disc set, with the celebrated Powell-Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death. For my money Age of Consent is by far the more successful and more interesting film. There’s been a more recent Blu-Ray release.

This is an odd quirky little movie, but if you give it a chance (and if you can accept the comic sub-plots) it may well work its charms on you. A fascinating movie by a great film-maker. Very highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Norman Lindsay’s Age of Consent, the 1938 source novel. The movie follows the novel very closely indeed.

Thursday 16 March 2023

Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)

Transylvania 6-5000 is a 1985 horror comedy that tries so very hard. It really pulls out all the stops in an effort to get laughs, with mostly disappointing results. It’s a movie I tried really hard to like. I’ve grown to like 80s comedy. It sounded like a worthwhile idea - a comedy set in Translvania in the present day with just about every Universal monster putting in an appearance. I like Jeff Goldblum a lot. I like Geena Davis a lot. But no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t really warm to this movie.

I suspect that writer-director Rudy De Luca, having written movies for Mel Brooks, thought he was some kind of genius and that Transylvania 6-5000 was therefore going to be hilarious madcap fun. But the Mel Brooks movies he wrote were the less funny Mel Brooks movies. And when it comes to directing, well let’s just say that he doesn’t have Brooks’ comic instincts.

Jack Harrison (Jeff Goldblum) and Gil Turner (Ed Begley Jr.) are reporters for one of those National Enquirer-style trash tabloids. Their editor sends them to Transylvania with orders to come up with a story about monsters. The story will go to press under the headline Frankenstein Lives.

Jack hates his job. He wanted to be a real journalist, not a trash tabloid reporter. He spends most of his time tying to chat up pretty American single mother Elizabeth Ellison (Teresa Ganzel). Gil is keen to get the story. Especially when a beautiful mysterious vampire lady (played by Geena Davis) suddenly appears in his bedroom. That convinces him that he’s on to something.

The mayor and all the townspeople steadfastly deny that there are any monsters in their town but Jack and Gil soon discover that there most definitely are monsters there, and that the monsters have something to do with mad scientist Dr Malavaqua (Joseph Bologna).

Jack and Gil have to figure out what’s really going on in this town, and that’s pretty much it for the plot. Which is fine. With a movie such as this you don’t want to get too bogged down with plot.

There are good things in the movie. Jeff Goldblum and Ed Begley Jr makes a reasonably good comic team. When they’re together they’re amusing. It’s when the other cast members enter the picture that the movie starts to drag.

The first half of the movie is painful to watch. Things do improve in the second half, but it’s a movie which consistently fails to be as funny as it thinks it is.

So what went wrong? The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary with writer-director Rudy De Luca which provides some clues. It appears that he just set up the camera and let the cast members improvise. The problem with that is that most comics think they’re geniuses when it comes to improvisation, but they aren’t. The worst offender is Michael Richards (later to find fame as Kramer on Seinfeld). He apparently improvised constantly and the results are excruciatingly unfunny.

Some of the cast members do have comic ability but they needed a director who would keep them on the rails and tell them when their efforts at improvisation were falling flat. That obviously didn’t happen.

A major problem is that Geena Davis is given hardly anything to do, which is a pity since she really is a talented comic actress, in fact she’s much better at comedy than most of the other cast members. Why have Geena Davis in the cast if you’re not going to make full use of her talents? She isn’t given a single really funny line. She does however make an incredibly sexy lady vampire and her costume is revealing to say the least. She’s at least very pleasant to watch. It's almost worth watching just for that reason.

The monster makeup isn’t overly impressive. Of course it’s a comedy so there’s no need for the monster makeup to be terrifying.

The movie was shot in Yugoslavia but it doesn’t make particularly good use of the locations. They found a castle but didn’t seem to know what to do with it. There’s also not much in the way of spooky atmosphere. Even a horror comedy needs a bit more spookiness.

The Kino Lorber Blu-Ray provides a good transfer. The aforementioned audio commentary is the only extra.

This movie does have a few amusing moments. There just aren’t enough of them. There are lots of gags, but not enough of them are truly funny.

Comedy is of course a very individual thing. Some people might think that Michael Richards slipping on a banana skin is hysterically funny. Perhaps this is just not the sort of comedy that works for me.

Transylvania 6-5000 is, sadly, a misfire. Even Geena Davis looking smokin’ hot as a female vampire isn’t a good enough reason to watch this movie.

Tuesday 14 March 2023

Tortured Females (1965)

Tortured Females is a very obscure 1965 American sexploitation movie. It’s more or less a roughie, in concept at least.

The great thing about these 60s sexploitation movies is that all you needed was a fair helping of nudity and you’d get distribution. As to what kind of movie you made and how you made it, that was totally up to you. If you could raise a few thousand bucks, or even a few hundred bucks, you could just go ahead and make a movie. It could be in any genre from crime to science fiction to horror. It could be dark and grim, or lighthearted and goofy. And you didn’t have to worry that some suit from the studio front office would show up and tell you how to make your movie. We’re talking total artistic freedom, total artistic control.

Jean-Luc Godard once said that to make a movie all you need is a girl and a gun. To make a 60s sexploitation movie all you needed was a camera and a girl willing to take her clothes off. Sometimes the results were terrible but it’s amazing how many of these movies are pleasingly oddball and incredibly entertaining. Usually much more entertaining and interesting than the average serious art-house movie, and much more entertaining and interesting than the average indie movie of today.

Tortured Females opens with a square-up message assuring us that this is a serious and vitally important warning to innocent young maidens about the ever-present danger of white slavery. Which is certainly guaranteed to whet our appetites.

It takes a long time for the plot to kick in, although the square-up and the prologue have given us a fair idea of what’s coming. The first quarter of the movie is straight nudie-cutie stuff. Two girls get up in the morning and prepare to go out. This provides the opportunity for lots and lots of nudity.

Then Helen (Denine Dubois) heads off to visit a relative in the country (in her awesomely cool T-Bird). The car breaks down and she sets off on foot and she’s in the middle of nowhere and she is hopelessly lost. So what does she do? She takes all her clothes off. So we get lots more nudity.

I should add at this stage that Denine Dubois is very pretty and has a stunning body so being forced to see her naked so often isn’t exactly an ordeal.

Helen thinks her luck has changed when a guy named Chick offers her a lift in his truck. He’ll take her to the ranch house. But first he rapes her.

When she gets to the ranch house she realises she’s been kidnapped by white slavers. She gets beaten up by Carl (he’s the boss) and then thrown into a room where two naked women are chained. And then the monkey man arrives. Yes, the monkey man.

And Helen meets Marga. She’s the obligatory predatory lesbian but she’s seriously weird, with the craziest crazy person eyes you ever saw.

And then, for no reason whatsoever (apart from the fact that the script was almost non-existent and they had to find something to film) some of the girls put on a strip-tease show for Carl. And it’s a strip-tease show that is subtly but disturbingly odd.

The plot (what little there is of it) is a standard roughie plot. What’s fascinating is the execution. Every scene manages to be odder than you expect. Every scene is wrong somehow, but wrong in an interesting way.

At times the movie almost has a David Lynchian feel. It’s like we’ve entered a bizarre alternative universe where dream and reality are all mixed up together. What makes it fascinating is that there’s absolutely no suggestion that this is a dream. There’s no suggestion whatsoever that Helen is imagining all this. It’s just the way the scenes are staged that makes it feel like a drug dream or a mad person’s hallucinatory nightmare.

60s sexploitation movies often look like they were shot in somebody’s spare room, usually because they were shot in somebody’s spare room. That’s the case here but the room (or rooms) is just so stark and bare that it looks incredibly artificial. It’s like a stage set for a puppet show.

I doubt if the director (Arch Hudson) had any such intention but this movie ends up being quite surreal. And even if it’s unintentional surrealism it’s oddly effective subtly unsettling surrealism.

Denine Dubois’ acting is rather odd and disconnected. At times when she should be terrified she seems more like a little girl having an adventure. This is yet another aspect to the movie that gives it that slight surrealist feel.

The movie was shot without synchronised sound. We get a continuous voiceover narration from Helen.

Tortured Females was released on a Something Weird triple-header DVD, along with the slightly disappointing but quite interesting Mr Mari's Girls (1967) and Two Girls for a Madman. Tortured Females gets a quite reasonable transfer. It’s a miracle that some of these sexploitation movies survived at all so it would be churlish to complain that the transfer isn’t dazzling and pristine.

I wouldn’t say that Tortured Females is so bad it’s good. I’d say that it’s so subtly off-kilter that it’s good. If you like oddball movies with lots of nude girls it’s highly recommended.

Saturday 11 March 2023

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers, dating from 1997, has been (like most of Paul Verhoeven’s movies) widely misunderstood. There’s so much action and violence and noise and so many special effects that a lot of viewers (and unfortunately some reviewers) end up not noticing the satire.

At some point in the future humanity becomes involved in a war to the death with an alien species. The aliens are bugs. Gigantic very mean bugs. The war consumes millions of lives, of both people and bugs.

A bunch of high school kids in Buenos Aires decide that they want to join the military. They do so, but it turns out to be less fun than they’d anticipated. Contrary to expectations, defeating the bugs turns out to be awesomely difficult. Finally it penetrates even the military mind that the bugs are intelligent. Maybe not intelligent in a human way, but definitely intelligent. The bugs can not only out-fight us, they seem to have a distressing ability to out-think us.

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) joins the military because Carmen joins up and he’s hopelessly in love with Carmen and he thinks he’ll lose her if he doesn’t enlist. Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) joins up because she’s hopelessly in love with Johnny and she wants to be near him. Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) joins up because he’s ambitious and super-intelligent and he knows he’s not going to end up in the infantry. He’ll have a nice safe job in military intelligence. Johnny is as dumb as a rock so he was always going to end up in the infantry.

They go to boot camp and their experiences there follow the pattern set in countless previous movies. Their drill sergeant is merciless but that’s because he has to weed out the losers.

Then the war starts and Johnny, Dizzy and Carmen are caught in the middle of it.

I hate getting into political discussions in connection with movies (I have no interest in political ideologies myself) but this is such a political movie, based on a very very political novel, that it’s unavoidable in this case.

What’s interesting is the way this future society is portrayed but first we have make a detour and consider the source material, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name. It’s regarded as one of the classics of the genre. It’s widely regarded as a fascist novel although Heinlein’s politics were in fact somewhat complicated. The key political point in the novel is that you can only become a full citizen in Heinlein’s imagined future society by undertaking military service. And only citizens have political rights. Only citizens can vote. If you want to be able to vote you have to join the military. It sounds like a recipe for a fascist military dictatorship but Heinlein thought it was a swell idea.

And in the movie military service is also necessary if you want political rights. It’s a society entirely run by ex-military types. It seems to be some sort of global government known as the Federation. As you can imagine Paul Verhoeven is much more sceptical about this idea than Heinlein was. In the movie the totalitarian nature of society is pretty obvious, with the population being fed an endless stream of propaganda by the military government, most of this propaganda being of course of a very gung-ho militarist nature.

There’s also a suggestion (it’s just mentioned briefly but it is there) that the bugs may not see themselves as the aggressors, that they may be acting defensively in response to human invasions of their sector of the galaxy.

Verhoeven’s movie is also much less admiring of the military. The war is an endless series of bungles caused by arrogance and a persistent tendency to assume that humans must be superior to bugs so therefore the bugs must be destined to lose. As a result of human military incompetence millions of lives are thrown away in ill-considered attempt to conquer the bugs’ home planet.

We only see one general, and he’s not only a blithering idiot he’s also a coward, hiding in a cupboard in terror of the bugs.

There are other aspects of the movie that are more complex. It’s hard to say exactly how Verhoeven expects us to react to a military ethos in which the highest expression of duty is blowing out a comrade’s brains rather than let him fall into the hands of the bugs. Sure, maybe it’s kinder in a way but it does capture the dehumanising nature of war.

One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to have noticed is that the Federation uniforms are vaguely reminiscent of Second World War Nazi uniforms. In fact there’s a lot of Nazi iconography associated with the Federation.

I don’t know how much more obvious Verhoeven could have made it that he was making an anti-fascist film but lots of mainstream critics at the time missed the point entirely and attacked it as a fascist movie. Mainstream critics really are pretty useless when confronted with a movie that takes an unconventional or non-mainstream approach. It’s also odd that so many people missed the fact that the movie is showing us that a society run by ex-military types will inevitably be a militaristic society engaged in endless wars.

The acting is less than dazzling but I suspect that the performances were exactly what Verhoeven wanted. These are people so heavily indoctrinated ands media-saturated that they’re incapable of independent thought. They’re content to be obedient cogs in the machine. Their emotions are also extremely shallow. They think and feel simplistically. They’ve been dehumanised.

A weakness is that the level of violence eventually desensitises the viewer. But than I guess that was also deliberate on Verhoeven’s part

The studio promoted the movie as another big dumb action movie blockbuster which it clearly isn’t so it’s not surprising that Starship Troopers did mediocre business at the box office. Its cult reputation has grown steadily since then.

Starship Troopers is an outlier among big-budget Hollywood science fiction epics. It really has more in common with Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) than with the average Hollywood sci-fi movie.

Starship Troopers is intelligent provocative science fiction. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed three other Verhoeven movies from the 90s, movies which also seemed to perplex critics - Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995).

Wednesday 8 March 2023

Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is perhaps most famous as the movie that wrecked Michael Powell’s career as a director. Powell was very much a part of the British film industry establishment, thoroughly respectable and the darling of the critics. When he made Peeping Tom British critics tore the movie to shreds and made Powell a pariah. Their reaction to this movie was one of seething rage. How could a man like Powell make what they considered to be such a nasty, sleazy, thoroughly reprehensible movie?

Peeping Tom was of course released in the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho. There are similarities between the two films. Both pushed the edge of the envelope as far as screen terror was concerned. Both dealt with serial killers and in both cases the killers were motivated by traumatic childhoods. Both were very much concerned with voyeurism. Both movies would be highly influential. Both would provide inspiration for the Italian giallo cycle of the late 60s ands 70s and for later American slasher movies.

Psycho was a massive hit and cemented Hitchcock’s position as the world’s top film director. Peeping Tom destroyed Michael Powell’s career.

The movie opens with a street scene which looks quite artificial. Given the nature of this movie as it unfolds, with its emphasis on art and artifice, and the fact that much of the action takes place in a film studio and a photographic studio, I suspect that Powell wanted to give us a clear signal at the outset that we’re watching a movie.

The opening scene leads to a murder. Our immediate assumption is that this is going to be a serial killer movie about a psycho sex killer. In fact that assumption is incorrect.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a photographer. He takes nudie pictures which are distributed through a newsagent in Soho. That’s his part-time job. His full-time job is as a focus puller in a film studio. He filmed his first murder. He films all his murders. Then he watches the films.

Mark owns a house which belonged to his father. He rents out rooms. He befriends one of his tenants, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey). Mark is painfully shy but there are indications of a blossoming romance. He shows Helen one of his films. Not a murder film, but a film from his childhood. This is Helen’s first inkling that Mark’s childhood was bizarre and that his interest in film might not be entirely healthy. He assures Helen that he will never film her.

There will be more murders. The film of the first murder wasn’t quite satisfactory. It has to be perfect.

In a movie such as this with a murderer driven to murder by childhood trauma, made in 1960, you expect some Freudianism but you don’t get that in this movie. Mark’s problem is a learnt behaviour pattern, learnt from his father. His father used him as an experimental subject, his father being a scientist with an interest in the workings of the fear response. You get some symbolism, but not Freudian symbolism. In any other movie the murder weapon used by Mark would be an obvious phallic symbol but in this movie I don’t think that’s the case. It’s more a symbolic dissecting tool, but a tool to dissect the workings of the mind rather than the body. Mark’s camera also works as a symbolic dissecting tool.

Mark’s obsession isn’t really sexual. It’s more of a twisted scientific obsession, just like his father’s. For Mark it’s also a kind of artistic obsession. Mark is more voyeur than sadist, but it’s not really sexual voyeurism (just as the voyeurism of a film director or a viewer of a movie isn’t necessarily sexual).

Mark doesn’t appear to have any particular dislike of women. He also doesn’t choose his female victims because he considers them to be wicked or sexually sinful. He seems to choose his victims on the basis of convenience and accessibility, and because he thinks he’ll get a more satisfactory fear response from a woman.

It’s obviously very tempting to interpret this movie in Freudian terms but I think that might be a total misunderstanding of Powell’s intentions. Moira Shearer played the dancer in Powell’s The Red Shoes. Casting her in Peeping Tom as an actress, and giving her a dance scene, seems to me to be a very deliberate move on Powell’s part to draw our attention to the thematic similarity between The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom - the idea of art as something that can consume and destroy. In 1969 Powell would make a movie about an obsessive painter, Age of Consent. Can we consider The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom and Age of Consent as a kind of trilogy dealing with art as a consuming destroying force?

I suspect that critics hated Peeping Tom because they were so distracted by the scenes of terror and by the Soho girlie photography scenes that they entirely missed the point of the movie. They jumped to the conclusion that Peeping Tom was nasty, violent and sleazy and therefore beneath contempt.

One of the many reasons for the outrage and critical vituperation that greeted this movie is that Powell doesn’t take the sternly disapproving moralising attitude towards the subject matter that might have mollified British critics. For example Milly, the Soho model who poses for Mark, might be a little cynical but really she’s a pretty nice girl. The old duffer buying the dirty pictures at the newsagent’s is a nice harmless old chap. Nude models, prostitutes and their customers are not demonised but treated with good-humoured indulgence. It’s almost as if Powell is indicating that he thinks this sort of thing is perfectly harmless, which is not the attitude that strait-laced British critics expected. They would have been hoping for thundering denunciations of sexual sin and stern warnings of its consequences.

Peeping Tom
deals with some potentially sleazy subject matter in a jokey totally non-sleazy way. Powell would take an even more lighthearted approach to sexual matters in Age of Consent.

Carl Boehm was an interesting casting choice. He’s clearly playing an Englishman but doing so with his usual slight German accent. No explanation is ever given for his accent. It does have the effect of making him seem more of an outsider but what really matters is that Boehm’s performance is absolutely superb - he’s both chilling and terribly vulnerable.

My copy of Peeping Tom is the Region 2 DVD from Optimum which comes with plenty of extras. They’ve released it on Blu-Ray as well.

Peeping Tom deals with movies (both movie-making and movie viewing) as voyeurism and obsession in a complex and fascinating way. It’s one of Powell’s most interesting movies and in my view one of his most artistically successful. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 5 March 2023

Hard Bounty (1995)

Hard Bounty is a 1995 exploitation western directed by Jim Wynorski. I have recently watched three Jim Wynorski movies (Deathstalker II, Sorceress and Not of This Earth) and I’d been pleasantly surprised by all of them.

I’m not sure why I was surprised. Wynorski worked for Roger Corman (a man for who he still has enormous respect). He learnt the Corman approach to film-making. Throw in as many of the requisite exploitation elements as you can, stick rigidly to a limited budget and shooting schedule and make your movie as entertaining as possible. And if you want the formula to work then your movie has to be well-crafted. It has to look as slick and professional as possible within the limitations of a minuscule budget.

Wynorski learnt his lessons well. Deathstalker II, Sorceress and Not of This Earth are cheap but hugely entertaining.

Which brings us to Hard Bounty, which is not quite what I expected. In 1995 it looked like there was going to be something of a western revival. George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven did well commercially and it was generally expected that Sam Raimi’s upcoming The Quick and the Dead, with Sharon Stone’s star power behind it, would clean up at the box office. Making movies about lady gunfighters seemed like a obviously smart thing to do.

Alas The Quick and the Dead turned out to be dead on arrival at the box office and the western revival fizzled out very quickly.

Which brings us back to Hard Bounty. It seemed like a surefire winner. A western featuring whores-turned-gunfighters and lots of boobs - what’s not to love? The problem is that Hard Bounty doesn’t seem to be quite sure what it’s trying to do. At times it looks like it’s going to be the usual Jim Wynorski formula. It opens with a very good action gunfight sequence and then the scene shifts to the local whorehouse where we get some laughs, some glamorous ladies and some boobs. This is clearly going to be a Wynorski romp.

But it doesn’t turn out that way. The movie suddenly turns dark and serious. And it slows right down. We get some classic western themes - revenge, a crooked mining company trying to take over the town, a miscarriage of justice and a tortured bounty hunter. The bounty hunter is Kanning (Matt McCoy). He’s not a conscienceless killer but his conscience has never bothered him because he has absolute faith in the criminal justice system. If a man has had a price put on his head then he’s certainly guilty and in any case Kanning usually brings in his men alive. They’ll get a fair trial. No problem.

But suddenly being a bounty hunter becomes a major moral problem for Kanning when he discovers that sometimes the system is wrong and sometimes an innocent man can have a price on his head and sometimes a bounty hunter has to live with the knowledge that he’s been responsible for the death of an innocent man.

And eventually we know there’s going to be a showdown with Carver, a former lawman gone bad who works as enforcer for the crooked mining company.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. These are the ingredients for a potentially fine western. But these are pretty serious themes. Not exactly the stuff of a lighthearted sexy romp.

And Karen Kelly’s screenplay is rather on the slow side. There’s not quite enough action and not enough sexiness.

On the other hand the action scenes that are there are very well staged.

On the T&A side this movie is quite tame. The sex scenes are very very tame and there’s really not a huge amount of nudity. There’s no frontal nudity at all. Basically just some topless scenes.

The most amusing thing connected with this movie is the IMDb reviewer who criticised it on the grounds that women didn’t really dress like this in the Wild West. This is a Jim Wynorski film. It would be like complaining about a fantasy movie on the grounds that the dragons don’t look like real dragons. This is pure fantasy stuff and the fact that the girls look like they’re about to take part in a cowgirl-themed burlesque routine is clearly deliberate and it reminds us not to take this movie too seriously.

Stylistically it has a definite spaghetti western vibe, which is fine, and considering the low budget Wynorski gives us a fairly handsome film. There are some nicely atmospheric shots. Wynorski, like his mentor Corman, knew how to make a movie look good while spending next to nothing.

The acting is pretty good. Matt McCoy pushes the taciturn western anti-hero thing about as far as it will go. I don’t think he changes his expression once during the entire movie. And that’s exactly how the part needed to be played. John Terlesky as Carver is a fine merciless villain we can enjoy hating. The actresses who play the town’s four whores (later to become gunslingers) are all quite solid. Kelly LeBrock is an effective leading lady. She gets good support particularly from Wynorski regular Rochelle Swanson and from Kimberley Kelley.

Hard Bounty is an oddity, at times grittily realistic and at times wildly unrealistic. It’s enjoyable but the pacing is a definite problem. Worth a look.

The Region 1 DVD is acceptable if not great and presents the movie in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Lost in New York (1989)

Jean Rollin’s Lost in New York (Perdues dans New York) can be seen as a precursor to his excellent movie Two Orphan Vampires (1997).

With his health failing Rollin turned to novel-writing in the 90s, with some success. In 1993 he published Little Orphan Vampires, a kind of surreal fantasy/horror fairy tale about two blind vampire girls. He went on to write a series of further novels about the blind vampire girls. Rollin was a huge fan of the French movie serials of the early 20th century and also of the 19th century and early 20th century pulp fiction serial stories known as feullitons.

You can see him already exploring very similar themes in Lost in New York.

An old woman, Michelle, is remembering her past. She is remembering a time when was a young girl and she met another little girl, even younger, a girl named Marie. Yes, this is a Rollin film so we’re going to get two girls who are in some mystical way doubles. Marie has a magic talisman, an image of the moon goddess. She also has a collection of adventure books. Marie tells Michelle they can enter the world of these books.

The girls can enter the worlds of adventure and fantasy fiction and movies.

Rollin throws in references to movies which are presumably personal favourites. They’re certainly the sorts of movies one can imagine that Rollin would love, movies like Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet. Also, interestingly enough, he references Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It had never occurred to me before but Picnic at Hanging Rock really is a very Rollinesque movie - the obsession with time, a group of young girls, the subtle surrealism and the equally subtle eroticism, and the touches of horror and the hints of the supernatural or the paranormal or perhaps of other realities. And of course the notion of time as being less straightforward than most people suppose.

Rollin also gets self-referential, with lots of mentions of his earlier movies.

The talisman is sacred to the moon goddess.The girls decide that with the aid of the talisman the moon goddess can take them anywhere they want to go. It can also take them to other times. It could for example take them to New York. And it does. But is it the real New York? Whether it’s the real New York or a different New York the girls are there now but they cannot find each other.

We get introduced to the lady vampire who stalks the streets of New York.

Can the girls find each other? Is Michelle inside Marie’s dream or is Marie inside Michelle’s dream? Are they sharing the same dream? Is it a dream? Can we really say what is dream and what is not.

There is some doubt as to whether we’re dealing with an old woman dreaming of her childhood, or two children dreaming of old age. The past and the present may both exist at the same time.

And there’s Rollin’s famous beloved beach at Dieppe.

And there’s the nude black woman. The two little girls are magic girls. Maybe the black woman is magical as well.

Whether there is any real magic here or just imagination can be debated. And after all this is a movie and movies are not real, although maybe (like art and books) they’re more real than the real. And the two girls are just characters in a movie. Or maybe they’re characters in a story which takes place within a movie. This is to some extent a movie about movies and books, and about stories.

One might also suggest that this is a movie about the particular qualities of the female imagination. At the risk of sounding New Age-ish I might even suggest it’s about a particularly female kind of magic.

This is not a horror movie in any way, even with the inclusion of a vampire.

If you’ve seen Two Orphan Vampires or read Little Orphan Vampires (and if you haven't you should read it) the parallels with this movie will be striking. Rollin has created a mythology, a world in which reality and popular fiction and fantasy are equally real. Or equally unreal. The world of the imagination cannot be dismissed as unreal. Books and movies create their own reality which we can enter.

Apparently Lost in New York came about when Rollin accepted an assignment to shoot some footage in New York for a French TV movie. Being a good low-budget film-maker he wasn’t going to pass up such an opportunity so he shot some footage for himself. He had no idea at that stage what he was going to use the footage for but some some later he came up with the idea for Lost in New York.

Rollin never stood still as a film-maker. He returned to certain themes and images obsessively but he kept developing and refining those ideas. In his late work (from the mid-80s onwards) he’s not just rehashing his earlier films. He’s taking themes he’s used before but doing subtle different things with them. Late Rollin doesn’t get as much attention as early Rollin but it’s just as interesting.

Redemption have included this movie as an extra in their Blu-Ray release of Dracula's Fiancee (La fiancée de Dracula). The transfer is quite reasonable.

Lost in New York is an odd, haunting, poetic little movie. It’s very very Rollinesque and it’s highly recommended.