Saturday 29 July 2023

Savage Messiah (1972)

Savage Messiah is a 1972 Ken Russell movie which gets slightly overshadowed by his more well-known (and more notorious) 1970s movies.

Ken Russell made his initial reputation in television in the 60s with a series of wonderful TV films. At this stage it was obvious that Russell was obsessed by the idea of exploring the psychology of creative individuals (mainly composers but sometimes writers and painters as well), and by the idea of doing this in an interesting, unconventional and visually inventive way. These Ken Russell TV-films bore no resemblance to the usual run of dry dreary documentaries. They were fresh, exciting and challenging.

It was a subject to which Russell would return over and over again throughout his career. In 1972, after making a couple of features on other subjects, he was ready to explore this matter once again. Savage Messiah is the story of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Russell was fascinated by genius. He made films about men like Mahler, Debussy, Liszt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tchaikovsky. Men who achieved immense success and are universally considered to be among the greats. Russell was also interested in the effect that success had on these people, an effect that that was perhaps not always positive.

In Savage Messiah he has chosen to make a movie about a sculptor, Henri Gaudier, who is not a great deal more than a footnote in art history. And Gaudier never had to worry about the effect that success might have on him. He never enjoyed any. While the other creative artists about whom Russell made movies lived in luxury and elegance Henri and Sophie live in squalor. It’s not just their surroundings that are squalid. Their lives are squalid.

The movie focuses a good deal on Henri’s relationship with Sophie Brzeska, a writer who achieved even less success than Henri.

Gaudier was a modernist, and I’m afraid my prejudice against modernism made me less than sympathetic to him, and to the art he created which to me seems extraordinarily ugly and uninteresting.

Since Russell was fascinated by genius we have at assume that he thought Gaudier was a genius, and to appreciate the movie you have to accept that assessment. But unlike his other similar movies this is a movie about genius unrecognised and thwarted.

The nature of the relationship between Henri Gaudier and Sophie remains obscure. It seems to have been passionate but mostly (or more probably entirely) sexless. In the movie, as in reality, Henri consoles himself with prostitutes, paid for by Sophie.

The movie opens with Henri’s meeting with Sophie. Henri is young, irrepressible, arrogant, hyper-confident and hyper-active. Sophie is twice his age, her ambitions to write have been frustrated. Sophie is drawn to Henri’s energy and enthusiasm. Sophie thinks about suicide a lot.

They move to London. Gaudier meets eccentric art dealer Angus Corky (Lindsay Kemp) and his equally strange friends who see themselves as the artistic avant-garde. They’re the counterculture of the Edwardian era (and remember this movie was made in 1972 so it’s fair to assume that the parallels with the 1960/70s counterculture are deliberate). They’re a gallery of grotesques.

Gaudier tries to make a success of his art and never doubts for one moment that he will succeed.

He then meets Gosh Boyle (yes her name is Gosh and she’s played by Helen Mirren). Gosh seems more than willing to offer him the physical side of love that Sophie has always denied.

It’s a film (like all of Russell’s movies about geniuses) about the madness of genius but in this case there is a greater madness on the horizon as war fever sweeps England. The madness of genius is a positive madness but there is nothing positive about the madness of war. But an obsession with death is common to the genius heroes of many of Russell’s movies (notably The Music Lovers and Mahler).

It’s hard to judge the acting since all the characters are mad and hyper-active and the performances reflect this. Scott Antony (whose career proved to be astonishingly brief) is weirdly compelling as Gaudier. Dorothy Tutin is even weirder as Sophie, and Helen Mirren chews the scenery with abandon as Gosh. Lindsay Kemp is bizarrely likeable as Angus Corky, Gaudier’s crazy agent. It’s fun to see wonderful actors like Peter Vaughan, Robert Lang and Michael Gough in the supporting cast.

There’s no shortage of Ken Russell excess in this production. If you hate his movies you’ll hate this one. If you love his movies you’ll love this one.

Savage Messiah is on DVD in the Warner Archive series. It’s still obtainable but not that easy to find.

Tuesday 25 July 2023

Earthquake (1974)

What kept Hollywood afloat in the early 70s was not the movies of the New American Cinema that critics doted on. It was the disaster movie that got people into movie theatres. Earthquake is one of the classics of the genre.

You cannot judge a 70s disaster movie as if it’s Citizen Kane or an Ingmar Bergman film. The disaster movie genre had its own conventions. Whether it’s a good disaster movie or a bad one depends on how well it conforms to those conventions.

A disaster movie has to have a big cast, with as many real stars as the studio could afford. Stars who were just a little past their use-by date but who were still familiar to audiences were always useful in filling out the cast.

The first 40 minutes or so of Earthquake focuses on introducing those characters. They don’t have to be complex or subtle characters but we have to get to know them well enough to care about their fates. The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 had established another convention of the genre - not all the stars will survive the movie (and not all the stars survive Earthquake). Which makes it even more important that we care about them. 70s disaster movies differed from earlier similar movies (such as the aviation disaster movies in which tragedy was usually averted at the last moment) in that the disaster is going to happen no matter how hard the characters try to avert it, and 70s disaster movies faced the fact that when disaster strikes then real people, people whom we like, get killed.

The biggest star in this movie is Charlton Heston and his character, engineer Stewart Graff, has at least some complexity. He is married to Remy (Ava Gardner) and the marriage has not been a success. Remy’s dad Sam Royce (Lorne Greene) owns the company for which Stewart works. Stewart has been drifting into an affair with pretty young widow and aspiring actress Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold).

The other major character is cop Lou Slade (George Kennedy), a decent man but hot-headed and now under suspension for slugging another cop.

There’s also daredevil motorcycle stunt rider Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), his manager and his manager’s sister Rosa (Victoria Principal). Rosa is supposed to be Quade’s pretty female assistant but she’s being rebellious. There’s a crazy gung-ho National Guardsmen, a dedicated doctor played by Lloyd Nolan, assorted scientists at the Seismological Institute and a bunch of dam inspectors worried that a dam could collapse.

While we’re getting to know these people we get a slow build-up of suspense as scientists start to worry that a major quake might be impending. This is also one of the conventions of the genre - the disaster starts to loom in the background.

The quake itself is a triumph of 1970s special effects. Thankfully this was long before the dark days of CGI so it’s all done with miniatures, matte paintings and other traditional techniques, all of which look better than CGI. It’s a movie that aims to wow us with spectacle and it succeeds.

The second half of the movie focuses on the desperate rescue efforts.

This is a rather merciless movie. Just as it seems that the danger is over the aftershock hits and it’s just as devastating. So just as we’re feeling relieved that our favourite characters survived the main quake we have to start worrying about them all over again.

This is a movie that is not interested in assigning blame for the disaster but there’s quite a bit of 70s cynicism. Some people turn out to be heroes and some turn out to be cowards. Even the brave rescue crews are not always brave.

The one group of people who really come out of this movie badly are the military. The National Guard guys do nothing apart from hampering the rescue efforts and shooting people without any real justification. Some of them turn out to be dangerous murderous killers in uniform. The military was not popular in 1974.

Mark Robson does a pretty solid job as director. Its a two-hour movie but it’s paced well and he builds some real tension during the rescue sequences with some clever race-against-time elements.

The acting is appropriate for this type of movie. The cast members understood what was expected of them. There’s plenty of enjoyable overacting.

Earthquake is pure entertainment and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. And that’s what audiences wanted - it was a huge hit.

Earthquake is easy to find on home video and it’s had a Blu-Ray release. My copy comes from Universal’s Ultimate Disaster Pack DVD set which also includes The Hindenburg (which I watched a week ago), Airport (a movie I have always loved) and Rollercoaster (which I’ve never seen and which I’m looking forward to). The DVD transfer is 16:9 enhanced and looks fine. It’s a great budget DVD set.

I loved Earthquake when I first saw it aeons ago and I still love it. It has everything you want in a disaster movie. Highly recommended.

Sunday 23 July 2023

The Man with the Glass Eye (1969)

The Man with the Glass Eye (Der Mann mit dem Glasauge) is a late entry in the West German Edgar Wallace krimi cycle made by Rialto Film. The krimis had been in tune with the zeitgeist of the early 60s and had enjoyed immense success. By 1969 they were struggling to hold on to their audience and in this film you can see desperate attempts to get in touch with the late 60s zeitgeist.

It has in its favour the fact that it was directed by Alfred Vohrer, probably the best of the krimi directors.

By this stage the connection between the krimis and the works of Edgar Wallace was becoming very tenuous indeed. The krimi cycle would eventually end in 1972 with a couple of Italian-German co-productions, the Massimo Dallanano-directed What Have You Done to Solange? and the Umberto Lenzi-directed Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. What Have You Done to Solange? is a superb movie and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is quite good but they are clearly gialli rather than krimis.

Which is not entirely inappropriate given that the giallo was a kind of offspring of the krimi. At the very least the krimi was a major influence on the giallo.

The movie opens with a man named Jefferson checking into a London hotel with cute blonde showgirl Leila. While they’re making love a man bursts into the room and knifes Jefferson to death.

Leila is one of the Las Vegas Girls who performs at a night club. That club seems to have been one of Jefferson’s many business interests. The police discover that Jefferson was a very shady character, suspected of white slavery.

Shortly afterwards Leila becomes the second victim.

The police have a few clues - a glass eye and billiard cues.

Other Las Vegas Girls are kidnapped and we get hints that whoever is behind the white slavery racket dabbles in drug smuggling as well.

Showgirl Yvonne Duvall (played by Karin Hübner who is essentially the female lead in this film) has run into an old flame, young Lord Bruce Sheringham (Fritz Wepper). Bruce had wanted to marry Yvonne three years earlier but she disappeared out of his life. He still wants to marry her. This romance subplot will later connect to the main plot, and Yvonne’s disappearance will become significant.

We know the identity of the main players in the white slavery racket but we don’t know if the guy who seems to be in charge really is the kingpin. And we don’t know the identity of the murderer - it may be a member of the gang or it may be somebody else entirely. The killer seems to want to kill the bad guys.

Many of the iconic krimi stars had departed by this time. Rialto tried to find suitable replacements but it isn’t easy to replace a Klaus Kinski. One of their biggest problems was finding a substitute for Eddi Arent. Arent had provided the comic relief in most of the krimis up to 1966. If you’ve only ever seen English-dubbed versions of krimis you might conclude that Arent’s deprture wold be no great less but when you watch the movies in German with English subtitles you realise that Arent was a fine comic actor and a major asset to the series.

The Man with the Glass Eye offers the audience two comic relief characters. There’s Stefan Behrens as Sergeant Pepper and there’s Scotland Yard chief Sir Arthur’s secretary (and mistress) Miss Finley. They both try too hard but Miss Finley is at times amusing.

Hubert von Meyerinck is not especially likeable as Sir Arthur. On the other hand this movie’s main detective, Inspector Perkins, is played by Horst Tappert and he’s quite good. Karin Hübner is good as well.

The murders, especially the second one, are quite imaginative. Not as bloody as movie murders would become in the 70s but there’s a bit more blood than you’d see in the early krimis.

Maybe the plot is a bit incoherent but I don’t mind that in a krimi (or a giallo) as long it’s fairly outrageous.

Vohrer keeps the action moving along briskly and he treats us to a rather epic fight scene in a billiard club.

There are plenty of nice visual touches. I liked the little mobile glass compartment which delivers the kidnapped girls to the home of Mr Donovan, whose intentions may not be honourable.

There are odd slightly surreal touches, such as the weird ventriloquist’s doll.

The Man with the Glass Eye might not be the equal of the classic early krimis but it’s rather enjoyable.

The German Tobis Blu-Ray release looks terrific and offers both the English dub and the German soundtrack with English subtitles.

Claude Chabrol’s Blue Panther (1965)

Claude Chabrol’s Blue Panther (the original French title is Marie-Chantal contre Dr Kha) is a lighthearted 1965 eurospy romp, or at least that’s what you might assume you're going to get. That assumption would be entirely incorrect.

What you're actually going to get is a French New Wave deconstruction of the spy movie. And it gets very meta and very postmodern. If that sort of thing appeals to you then you'll enjoy this movie. If you were hoping for a fun eurospy move you'll be very disappointed.

My full review can be found at Classic Movie Ramblings.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Zeta One (1969)

Zeta One (released in the US as The Love Factor) is a 1969 science fiction/spy spoof/sex comedy from Tigon British Film Productions. This was around the time when there were finally signs that the draconian British film censorship might start loosening up a little. That was indeed about to happen but Zeta One came maybe a year too early and it was cut pieces by the puritanical British censors.

Happily the cuts have since been restored for both the US Jezebel Blu-Ray release and the British Blu-Ray release (as part of the Saucy 70s boxed set) by 88 Films.

We’re introduced to British spy James Word (Robin Hawdon). He doesn’t seem to be the most competent of spies. HIs false moustache keeps falling off. He has arrived home to find Ann Olsen (Yutte Stensgaard) in his flat. She is W’s secretary, W being the head of the intelligence service for which James works. Ann persuades James to tell her about his latest case. What James doesn’t know is that Ann is an Angvian agent.

James would prefer to do other things. Ann suggests a game of strip poker, with the winner having the right to choose what the two of them will do next. The strip poker game is just an excuse to have Yutte Stensgaard take her clothes off, but since this is Yutte Stensgaard (best known for Hammer’s infamous 1971 Lust for a Vampire) we’re talking about I don’t think any viewers are likely to complain.

It all started with suspicions that Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice) and his assistant Swyne (Charles Hawtrey) might be up to something. They are indeed, but it’s not just plain ordinary espionage. It has to do with the women of Angvia. James isn’t sure where Angvia is. It might be in space, it might be on a distant planet, it might be on Earth but in another dimension. The women of Angvia don’t have any men.

Major Bourdon seems to have some plan to take over Angvia. His plans are not all that clear but what is clear is that he’s a diabolical criminal mastermind of some sort. James Word’s mission is to thwart Bourdon’s plans and also to find out what those Angvian women are planning.

What is known is that the Angvians are kidnapping young beautiful women from Earth. Their latest target is stripper Edwina 'Ted' Strain (Wendy Lingham).

Edwina ends up in the hands of Major Bourdon. The major is not averse to using torture to persuade young ladies to coöperate. He wants her help in order to infiltrate the Angvians.

There’s plenty of action as various Angvian women are captured and attempt to escape. It culminates with a surreal comic-book style battle scene between Bourdon’s men and the women warriors of Angvia. And then there’s a postscript. James Word now knows far too much about Angvia. He cannot be allowed to reveal this information to anyone. The Angvians have no intention of killing him. They have other plans for him.

The violence is all very much comic-book style stuff. Even the torture scenes have that feel and as a result they’re not the least bit horrifying, nor are they meant to be. This movie is a good-natured romp.

The BBFC apparently cut most of the nudity and that would have been quite a problem. If you cut all the nude scenes from this movie you’re going to end up with a very short movie that is not going to make a lick of sense.

Perhaps Tigon were being a bit ambitious for 1969. There is a great deal of nudity and there’s even some frontal nudity. Perhaps they should have realised that they just weren’t going to get away with that in 1969.

The main problem with this movie is that when director Michael Cort finished it it had a running time of just over 60 minutes, mainly because the script really only provides enough of a story for an hour-long movie. Tigon therefore hired Vernon Sewell to shoot additional footage, which results in a movie with definite pacing problems. Although it would have been unreleasable at 60 minutes that original shorter version was probably a better film. The original material shot by Michael Cort is much more interesting.

What’s interesting is that while it might seem like a kind of sex comedy this movie bears no resemblance whatsoever to 1970s British sex comedies such as the Adventures of movies and the Confessions movies. In fact it doesn’t really feel particularly British. It has much more of a European vibe. It seems more influenced by European comics for adults and European movies based on those comics. Imagine a cross between Barbarella and Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik but with a lot more nudity and you’re getting closer to describing the feel of this movie. It also has a bit of a John Willie fetish vibe. Some of the costumes would not have been out place in Just Jaeckin’s Gwendoline, based on Willie’s comic.

It’s silly and goofy but it’s also surreal and crazy. There are also moments which are clearly influenced by the psychedelic freak-out movies that were in vogue in the 60s. Visually it’s pleasingly oddball. Zeta One has some major flaws but the fact that it’s so totally unlike other British movies of its era, and that it has such an odd feel to it, make it worth watching. It’s possibly the most successful British attempt to achieve a comic-book feel. The plot incoherence adds to its charm. Highly recommended.

Monday 17 July 2023

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972)

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a 1972 crime thriller directed by Umberto Lenzi. It’s usually considered to be a giallo but it’s a bit more complicated than that. This was a West German-Italian co-production and the German company involved was Rialto Film. Rialto of course were responsible for the wonderful Edgar Wallace krimi cycle of the 60s and early 70s. That krimi cycle was a definite influence on the evolution of the giallo.

The two genres have a number of things in common, the most important being that both emphasised style over content. The plots tended to be fairly outrageous and plot coherence was not a major consideration in either genre. Seven Blood-Stained Orchids belongs to an intriguing group of early 70s movies that were in fact marketed in Germany as krimis, or krimi-giallo hybrids. It is however a genuine giallo.

The main source material for this movie was Cornell Woolrich’s novel Rendezvous in Black. For the German release the claim was made that it was also based partly on an Edgar Wallace story, but this was simply an attempt to boost the movie’s chances at the German box office. The closing opening sequence used in the Rialto krimis was also added to give the impression that this really was a krimi. Lenzi wasn’t pleased by this but it worked and the movie did very well in Germany.

A psycho killer is stalking women (a black-gloved killer naturally) . A half-moon amulet is left by the body of each victim so the psycho becomes known as the Half Moon Maniac. One of his victims, Giulia Torresi (Uschi Glas), has a lucky escape. She is married to fashion designer Mario Gerosa (Antonio Sabato).

There seems to be no obvious connection between the victims until it is discovered that a couple of years earlier they all stayed at the same hotel, the hotel owned at that time by Giulia’s family.

Inspector Vismara (Pier Paolo Capponi) has assigned plain-clothes officers to protect the other likely victims but the police just don’t seem to be able to get their act together and women get killed under their very noses.

Mario (fairly reasonably) comes to the conclusion that he can’t rely on the police so he decides to play private detective. As the killer accumulates more victims both Mario and the police always seem to be one step behind. Mario does go tantalisingly close to saving one victim, a woman confined in a mental hospital.

There is one promising clue, an American who used to eat regularly at the Torresi family’s hotel. And Mario comes across another clue - seven orchids all stained blood-red. But that clue seems to lead nowhere.

In desperation a trap is set for the killer, with slightly unexpected results.

There’s a very high body count and the murders are done in typical baroque giallo style (and several of them are quite impressive visual set-pieces).

There are false leads and plenty of deception. In two cases where the victim survives the police lead the murderer to think that those victims are dead. It was hardly an original idea to have the lead character decide to play private detective but in this film it makes sense. The police really do make a mess of things.

Lenzi considered this movie to be fairly clued and to some extent he was right. There are certainly clues that should awaken an alert viewer’s suspicions.

Antonio Sabato is not the most colourful or endearing of heroes. Marisa Mell has a small part which doesn’t give her any real opportunities. The supporting players are generally extremely good. The standout performance however is given by Uschi Glas. She has real screen presence and she makes Giulia a lively, likeable intelligent heroine.

The plot stretches credibility but if you’re watching a giallo and looking for plot coherence then you’ve picked the wrong genre. A giallo plot is not required to make sense or hang together and the more outrageous the plot the better.

Lenzi used to be better known for some of his notorious later movies (such as his cannibal movies) but his earlier giallos have since grown in reputation and it’s those giallos on which Lenzi should be judged as a director. And he was a fine giallo director. He made better giallos than this one (the wonderfully offbeat Spasmo is his masterpiece) but Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is still a very solid very entertaining effort. Highly recommended.

The 88 Films Blu-Ray release offers a lovely transfer, and offers both the Italian and English dubbed version. All Italian movies of this era post-dubbed so whether you watch the Italian or English version really doesn’t matter. There’s an audio commentary plus a couple of interview, the interview with Lenzi being a very worthwhile extra.

Saturday 15 July 2023

Sirens (1994)

Sirens is a 1994 Anglo-Australian production written and directed by John Duigan dealing with Australian artist and writer Norman Lindsay. I personally consider Lindsay to be the only great painter Australia has ever produced, and also the greatest erotic painter of the 20th century. So any movie about him is going to pique my interest. I did in fact see this movie some years ago but I’m now getting the chance to see it on Blu-Ray.

While it deals with a real person the story is entirely fiction.

As the film opens (presumably some time in the 1930s) church leaders are in a panic about a new exhibition of Australian painting. Given that is the country’s most celebrated painter Norman Lindsay (played in the film by Sam Neill) could hardly be excluded but the paintings the artist has chosen to represent his work are giving churchmen and society’s moral watchdogs heart failure. The paintings are highly erotic and possibly even blasphemous. Somehow Lindsay has to be persuaded to substitute more respectable paintings for these shocking canvases. Which may be a challenge, since Lindsay doesn’t paint respectable paintings.

The Bishop of Sydney feels that it would be futile for any local churchman to try to persuade Lindsay. But possibly the Reverend Anthony Campion (Hugh Grant) might be able to do it. Tony Campion is a young English churchman with a reputation as a progressive, and as luck would have it he will be passing very close to Lindsay’s home in the Blue Mountains on his way to a new parish.

The artist offers to put Tony and his wife Estella (Tara Fitzgerald) up for the night. Lindsay is highly amused by the whole business.

Their stay in Lindsay’s eccentric household turns out to be rather longer than expected. Tony makes very little progress. Lindsay has dealt with puritans before. They don’t impress him.

The Lindsay household consists of Lindsay, his wife Rose (Pamela Rabe), their two children and three models - Sheela (Elle Macpherson), Pru (Kate Fischer) and Giddy (Portia de Rossi) although Giddy is not actually a professional artist’s model. There is also odd-job man Devlin (Mark Gerber) but he doesn’t live in the house. Devlin is almost blind.

Estella Campion feels very uncomfortable in this household. She’s rather straitlaced and respectable and she is deeply shocked by Sheela, Pru and Giddy. She thinks that Sheela and Pru are not respectable young women at all. And the erotically charged atmosphere in the household disturbs her a great deal. It awakens things in her the existence of which she had never suspected. Wicked erotic longings. Especially when she catches sight of Devin naked in the woods.

Tony is a little unsettled as well. Everywhere he goes there seem to be naked women.

Not everyone likes this movie. The mixed reaction to it may have something to do with he fact that it came out in 1994. At that time the Sexual Revolution seemed to have been won and the puritans appeared to have been routed. Society seemed to be becoming steadily more civilised, more sophisticated, more open-minded and more grown-up about sex. A movie that indulged in puritan-baiting seemed a bit gratuitous and unnecessary. A bit like putting the boot into an enemy who was already down and out. Today of course we know that the puritans were far from defeated and they’re on the offensive again, so the movie now has a bit more bite to it than it had in 1994.

And Duigan wisely did not fall for the temptation to make the clergyman a stereotypical fire-and-brimstone preacher obsessed with sin and guilt. Tony Campion is just a little bit of a prude but he tries very hard not to be, he really is fairly open-minded and he’s an easy-going very likeable young chap. Hugh Grant was rather inspired choice to play the young churchman and he does an excellent job.

In fact the two antagonists are both equally sympathetic. Sam Neill plays Lindsay as a strong-willed man who will not compromise on his beliefs but also as a loveable rogue and an eccentric with a certain rough charm.

These are two men who violently disagree, but neither would ever stoop to vindictiveness. There’s little doubt that the movie is on Lindsay’s side but it doesn’t try to bludgeon us into agreement.

Tara Fitzgerald is very good as Estella, a troubled woman trying to cope with newly awakened passions. The actresses playing the three models all do quite well. Elle Macpherson is fun as the uncouth free-spirited Sheela.

There is of course a fair bit of nudity. You could hardly make a movie about Norman Lindsay without naked women. That would be a betrayal of the artistic freedom in which he believed. And seeing Elle Macpherson nude isn’t exactly an ordeal.

While Sirens deals with some serious themes about artistic freedom, and deals with some serious emotional and sexual dramas, the overall tone is very lighthearted and there’s a great deal of comedy. Which is actually quite appropriate. If you read Norman Lindsay’s wonderful 1938 novel Age of Consent you’ll find a very similar mixture. It’s a story of an artist grappling with his art, desperately trying to find his artistic voice. There’s emotional and sexual drama. There’s a great deal of comedy, and a generally lighthearted tone. So Sirens does in many ways capture the spirit of Lindsay’s fiction.

The Australian Blu-Ray release from Umbrella provides an excellent transfer, there’s an audio commentary by the movie’s writer-director and the movie’s producer and a number of other extras.

Sirens is executed with a light and skilful touch and it works. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992

It might be an unconventional view but I consider Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula to be his best and most interesting movie. It was originally titled simply Dracula but apparently legal reasons compelled the title change to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Coppola was obviously well aware that there had been countless previous Dracula adaptations, including some of the most iconic horror movies of all time. And those adaptations had taken varying approaches. Coppola was determined to make his Dracula movie something quite different. And he certainly succeeded.

This movie adds a few things to the story but mostly it takes things that are implied or hinted at in Stoker’s novel and gives them much greater emphasis.

The movie starts with an origin story. Origin stories have since become a tedious cliché but in 1992 that was not yet the case.

That Stoker was partly inspired by accounts of the 15th century Wallachian ruler Vlad Tepes has usually been assumed. Coppola’s movie makes it explicit and makes it the basis of that origin story.

Vlad, known as Dracula (the son of the dragon), has just won a great victory over the Turks but his triumph is about to turn to ashes. He returns to his castle to find that his beloved wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), having been falsely informed of his death, has killed herself. The priests assure him that because she was a suicide her soul is damned for all eternity. Dracula, enraged, curses God and vows to return from the dead to have his revenge.

Four hundred years later, in 1897, young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent to Transylvania to finalise the purchase of a property in England by Count Dracula (Gary Oldman). Poor Jonathan finds himself a prisoner, at the mercy of the Count. And his is also a plaything for Dracula’s women, three hot sex-crazed vampire babes.

Jonathan’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder again) is worried sick about him but at least she has her friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) to keep her company. Lucy has three suitors for her hand, young psychiatrist Dr Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), Texan Quincey P. Morris (Bill Campbell) and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes).

The way Lucy strings her three suitors along shocks Mina. Mina is also shocked by Lucy’s very overt sexuality.

Strange things start happening to Lucy, she becomes ill and Jack Seward calls in his old teacher and mentor Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). Van Helsing realises he’s dealing with a vampire.

Dracula how now arrived in London and he’s met Mina. Jonathan Harker had already shown him Mina’s photograph. Dracula is convinced that Mina is his beloved wife Elisabeta come back to life. He does not intend to lose her a second time.

The movie’s plot follows that of the novel reasonably closely, but with major changes in emphasis. The movie is a love story, the story of a love that spans the centuries.

Dracula is no longer simply the villain, the monster. He is to a large extent the hero. He has been humanised. He has emotions. He can love. He can feel emotional pain. He has motivations that make sense, and that are in some ways admirable.

The movie’s tagline was Love Never Dies and that sums up its wildly romantic approach. We are on Dracula’s side because he is on the side of love. We want love to triumph. If anything it’s Van Helsing who is the villain. He even goes close to admitting this at the end when he describes himself and his band of vampire hunters as God’s madmen.

The movie ramps up the eroticism a great deal. The erotic dimension to vampirism is already there in the novel. It’s implied, but it’s obvious enough. It’s also very obvious in the book that Dracula’s pursuit of Lucy and Mina is more in the nature of a seduction than a hunt for prey, and that the two girls are not entirely unwilling. The movie makes these erotic aspects absolutely central.

The idea that for a woman being transformed into a vampire is a kind of sexual awakening had been explored in previous movies, most notably (perhaps surprisingly) in Hammer’s 1966 Dracula Prince of Darkness. It’s an idea that is given plenty of prominence in Coppola’s film.

Gary Oldman is odd but very effective and most importantly he’s like no other screen Dracula. Winona Ryder is surprisingly good and handles the transformation in Mina very adeptly. Anthony Hopkins was a very obvious choice to play Van Helsing and he’s in fine form. He plays Van Helsing as an obsessive, and obsessives are always frightening. Tom Waits makes a suitably creepy Renfield. The other players in the movie are quite OK but they’re relegated to the background and don’t make much impact. Sadie Frost is quite good as Lucy, especially when she gets to overact as the transformed Lucy.

Which brings us to the movie’s potential weak link, Keanu Reeves. I was a bit concerned that he’d transform the movie into Drac and Jonathan’s Excellent Adventure. In fact he’s reasonably adequate. Not that it matters. The movie is all about Dracula and Mina, it’s the performances of Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder that count, and they deliver the goods.

I love the fact that this movie is so aggressively unrealistic. In fact it’s anti-realist. Coppola emphasises the artificiality of everything. He wanted surrealism, not realism. He also wanted a visual style radically different from previous horror movies. The costumes, the makeup, the sets, everything had to have a fresh and different style. Of course it’s not enough to have a different visual style. It has to be a style that works, that suits the material and fits the mood of the film. In this case all that is achieved beautifully.

I also love that this movie was made in 1992. There’s no CGI. The special effects are all old school special effects, achieved with makeup, miniatures, glass shots and with many of the effects done in camera rather than in post-production. In fact the effects were achieved in ways that were deliberately old-fashioned in 1992. This movie looks nothing like the movies of the CGI era and that’s a good thing. Coppola made the decision to shoot the entire movie on a sound stage, a very sound idea which allowed him to have complete control over the look of the film.

The Blu-Ray includes various extras the most important being an extremely good audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s very revealing. This was not originally Coppola’s project. It was Winona Ryder’s and she brought Coppola on board to direct it. And the idea of turning Dracula into a love story was in James V. Hart’s original screenplay which was written before Coppola became involved. Coppola of course deserves the credit for executing the project with so much style and originality.

A bold and fascinating Dracula adaptation. Very highly recommended.

Saturday 8 July 2023

The Teacher (1974)

The Teacher is another Crown International release included in the wonderful Mill Creek Drive-In Classics 32-movie pack. This one dates from 1974.

Diane Marshal (Angel Tompkins) is a high school teacher. She’s pushing thirty, she’s married but separated and she has normal female urges which can be a bit of a temptation when your pupils are cute horny teenage boys. Diana looks to go out in her cabin cruiser and sunbathe topless. Two of her pupils, Sean Roberts (Jay North) and his best buddy Lou Gordon (Rudy Herrera Jr) have discovered that they can get a very good view of Diane’s sunbathing routine from an old warehouse. Being teenage boys they naturally take advantage of the opportunity. It’s pretty harmless stuff.

Lou’s older brother Ralph (Anthony James) also watches Diane from the warehouse. Ralph might be a harmless crazy Vietnam vet or he might be a dangerous crazy Vietnam vet. He seems to be seriously obsessed by Diane. He’s pretty much stalking her.

These three peepers get into an argument and Lou falls to his death.

Ralph was already a bit crazy but now he’s really crazy. He blames Sean for Lou’s death. Maybe he blames Diane as well. Ralph drives a hearse and in that old warehouse he has a coffin in which he keeps his treasures - his binoculars, his gun, his scuba gear and other stuff.

Diane is intent on playing Mrs Robinson to young Sean. Sean is naïve and he’s a virgin but Diane soon takes care of his virginity. Romance as well as lust blossoms for Diane and Sean.

And now Ralph is stalking them. His intentions aren’t clear and it’s likely that he’s so crazy he doesn’t know himself what he intends to do.

Diane and Sean are too wrapped up in bedroom fun to appreciate just how dangerous Ralph has become. Even when they’re canoodling on her boat and Ralph’s face suddenly appears at the cabin window (he’s snorkelled out to the boat) they don’t realise that they may be dealing with a potential killer.

This is a move that isn’t quite sure what its focus is going to be. Is it going to be a serious coming-of-age movie or a twisted erotic/psychological thriller? It tries to be both. Surprisingly enough, it succeeds to a certain degree.

Jay North was famous as the child star of Dennis the Menace. This was his attempt to break into grown-up roles. After this movie he more or less abandoned that attempt. He’s not good here but he’s not terrible. Sean is supposed to be goofy and gormless - he’s a hormone-crazed teenage boy.

Anthony James does some serious scenery-chewing as Ralph and he manages to get across the point that Ralph’s craziness is growing steadily worse. He does overdo things a bit and Ralph does come across as a cartoonish monster at times. But he’s fun.

The movie’s biggest asset is Angel Tompkins. She gives a subtle finely judged performance. The danger was that Diane would come across as a bit of a predator but Tompkins convinces us that Diane isn’t really a manipulative schemer. She’s lonely and she genuinely likes Sean. She’s the one who does the seducing but she’s well aware that Sean wants to be seduced, and it’s not as if he’s under-age. Tompkins also convinces us that Diane is not entirely sure of her own emotions. She was intending the affair to be a lighthearted adventure for herself and for Sean but she finds herself getting seriously emotionally involved.

There’s a bit of nudity and a bit of simulated sex but it’s pretty restrained. The violence isn’t graphic either.

The climatic warehouse scenes are executed quite well (and it is a great setting).

Iraq-born writer-director Howard Avedis (credited here as Hikmet Avedis) loses control just a little. The movie is too long and has a few pacing issues. The dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle. He does manage to give the movie some creepy moments and he redeems himself with the excellent ending.

This is a very very 70s movie. And I mean that in a good way. It has that 70s loopiness and weirdness. There are no rules, man. We’re just making a movie. Just let it happen.

The anamorphic transfer is quite acceptable.

The Teacher might not obey the rules of classical Hollywood movie-making but it has plenty of entertainment value. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984)

By the 80s Italian popular cinema was on the ropes. The new wave of Hollywood blockbusters was completing the work of destruction begun by television. Budgets for Italian genre movies were getting tighter and tighter, that’s assuming you could get any kind of financing at all. There was desperation in the air, and a frantic search for new genres to tempt audiences back to movie theatres.

The post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller seemed like a good bet. In the wake of the success of the first two Mad Max movies and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York it seemed like a very commercial proposition. So it’s not surprising to find Lucio Fulci making such a movie in 1984.

Warriors of the Year 2072 ( AKA Rome 2033 - The Fighter Centurions, Italian title I guerrieri dell'anno 2072) more or less fits into this genre. There’s no mention of an actual apocalypse but clearly there’s been extreme social disintegration leading to a totalitarian society that maintains order through bread and circuses. Mostly circuses.

The circuses are ultra-violent TV shows. Like so much science fiction of that era it fails to predict the internet but it does predict the popularity of reality TV based on cruelty.

Drake (Jared Martin) is the current TV superstar. He’s the main attraction of a killbiker show, killbiking being guys on motorcycles trying to kill each other.

Sam (who owns a rival network, World Broadcasting System or WBS) has a plan for a new series that will be even more violent - gladiators fighting in a recreated Colosseum in Rome.

The gladiators will be criminals condemned to death. The one who survives gets his freedom. These guys are not just murderers. They’re psycho killers.

The trick will be to persuade Drake to participate. That’s easy enough - just frame him for the murder of his fiancée.

Drake is inclined to be less than coöperative right from the start. The gladiators are subjected to conditioning to make them even more violent and hate-crazed but Drake is not only determined to resist, he hopes to lead a rebellion. So as well as all the other movies that have obviously influenced this one you can add Spartacus.

Of course it all leads up to mayhem in the arena, and it’s mayhem on motorcycles. And motorcycles used as chariots.

There’s going to be a major double-cross and just about everybody is going to be betrayed. Drake and his newly acquired girlfriend Sarah (Eleonora Brigliadori), who works for WBS but he thinks he can trust her, will have to figure out a way to avoid a disaster on a huge scale.

The similarities to a movie like Rollerball are obvious but this film is also at times reminiscent of Westworld. The world of Warriors of the Year 2072 is run by super-computers and WBS has its own AI, known as Junior. Whether he’s a benevolent AI or an evil one remains to be seen.

I’ve already mentioned Mad Max, Escape from New York, Rollerball, Spartacus and Westworld among this movie’s influence. One could also add A Clockwork Orange. Italian genre movies were notorious for ripping off foreign big-budget movies but in this case there’s such a bewildering mishmash of influences that Fulci ends up making a movie with a certain flavour of its own.

Tight budgets are not usually a problem for people like Fulci who have actual talent, but it is a challenge to make a science fiction movie like this on a tiny budget. This is a movie that aims for, and needed, a bit of an epic feel. Having said that, on a visual level it mostly works. It has style and energy. For those who like gore there are a few decapitations and a fairly well executed face-melting scene. The motorcycle combat scenes are excellent crazy fun.

The plot gets a bit complicated but if you’re a fan of Italian genre movies you’re probably not overly worried about plot coherence. The plot does create the right atmosphere atmosphere of paranoia.

The performances are fine. They’re what the movie required. None of these people were expecting to win Oscars.

Warriors of the Year 2072 delivers action and excitement and interesting visuals and that’s enough to keep me happy. I liked it. Highly recommended.

Sunday 2 July 2023

Kommissar X – Three Golden Serpents (1969)

The seven West German Kommissar X eurospy movies made between 1965 and 1971 were based on the incredibly popular Kommissar X book series. Paul Alfred Mueller (1901-1970) wrote 620 Kommissar X books under the name Bert F. Island. Yes, you read that right. 620 books.

Drei goldene Schlangen (AKA Three Golden Serpents AKA Island of Lost Girls AKA Beautiful Lost Girls in Hell's Island) was the sixth of the Kommissar X movies and was released in 1969.

The Kommissar X films started out as standard erospy movies (albeit very good eurospy movies) but the later entries in the cycle have more to do with crime-fighting than espionage. At least in this one it’s an international crime syndicate so the feel is not too different from a eurospy film, it just lacks the gadgets and the slightly science fictional touches one associates with eurospy flicks. It seems quite likely that the switch to crime-fighting was the result of increasingly tight budgets.

The two lead actors are once again Tony Kendall (as Joe Walker) and Brad Harris (as Captain Tom Rowland). Rowland is on holiday in Bangkok when an American woman, a Mrs Leighton, asks him for help. She believes that her daughter Phyllis has been kidnapped. The mother doesn’t want the police involved. Rowland reluctantly agrees that maybe Joe Walker is the man who can help.

In these later movies Joe Walker is a private eye rather than a secret agent but he’s as cocky and cheerful and irresponsible as ever. Tom Rowland is still pretending to be horrified by the thought of having to work with Joe yet again. He disapproves of Joe’s irresponsibility but of course if you’ve watched the earlier movies you know that these two really are buddies. Tom just likes to complain. It makes him feel better.

Almost immediately there is an attempt on Joe’s life. Followed by numerous additional attempts. It’s obvious that he’s stumbled into something big and he’s up against people who are both murderous and persistent. Fortunately they’re not very competent.

Joe and Tom do have one important clue. Two of the would-be assassins have a tattoo showing three entwined snakes. It sounds like a religious cult or a crime gang.

Phyllis has indeed been kidnapped and her captors intend to sell her into prostitution. First they will break her spirit wth drugs and psychological torture. While being held captive she meets Petra. Petra appears to be working for the crime gang, but she promises to help Phyllis. We don’t know what to make of Petra. Is she planning to double-cross the crime gang or is she intending to betray Phyllis? Either way Petra is definitely one feisty gal. After escaping she steals a boat, and killing the three crew members is like child’s play for her.

Joe and Tom have heard rumours of an island which men can visit, but they have to agree to be drugged for the trip there so that they have no way of knowing where the island is. When they get there they will find an assortment of very pretty girls to entertain them.

The island may be owned by Madame Kim Soo, a very rich very respectable lady active in charity work. The police are sure she would never be involved in anything shady, and would certainly not be running an island brothel.

Joe decides he’d like to visit this island. He’ll pretend to be a Texan millionaire. He’s sure no-one will recognise him.

Nothing can go wrong because he has a radio transmitter in his sunglasses. Tom Rowland will be able to keep in touch with him and the police should be able to use the signal to locate the island (which they do using a groovy machine with a spinning globe on top of it). It’s a good plan. As long as nothing happens to those sunglasses.

Joe’s mission is not just to close down Madame Kim Soo’s sex island. His main task is to rescue Phyllis, presumably held prisoner on that island.

The action is pretty much non-stop and it’s done quite well. The violence isn’t graphic at all but the body count is high.

The Thai locations are used well. By this time the Kommissar X movies were being shot in colour and Three Golden Serpents looks impressive.

There are lots of beautiful women and lots of topless scenes.

The battle on the mud flats is a crazy but effectively weird touch.

Tony Kendall and Brad Harris were working together as a well-oiled machine by this stage. The supporting players are all perfectly competent.

Director Roberto Mauri worked in the usual array of genes and was also responsible for the delightfully goofy King of Kong Island (1968). His work on Three Golden Serpents might not be inspired but he keeps things moving.

Three Golden Serpents isn’t trying to be anything more than pure entertainment and as long as you accept this and don’t try to analyse the movie it works on that level. Perhaps not quite as good as the previous movie in the series, Three Blue Panthers, but still recommended.

The German DVD boxed set offers this movie in both German and English language versions. It gets a pleasing anamorphic transfer.