Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In short: War Dog (1986/7)

aka Wardogs

Charles Stewart's (Timothy Earle) brother Rick (Bill Redvers) went missing when both brothers were fighting in the Vietnam War. Charles never could believe his brother actually died then, and he's even less convinced when the Army suddenly sends a letter to his mother telling the family Rick is dead.

Charles scepticism is very correct, too, for Rick has been pressed into the super soldier program of the brothers' old superior Spacek (Bengt Fridh), where he has been turned into a drugged, mind-controlled killer. And one prophetic of modern US military tactics one to boot: in a little real world training exercise, Rick and his super soldier friends not only kill their target, but also a bunch of innocent bystanders (look forward to the bloody death of some kids, blood spatter friends). I'm only surprised the soldiers didn't wait for ambulances to kill the medics too.

It is this horrible mess that brings Charles on the track of the whole program via a camera man who filmed it, a journalist who got the tape, and Spacek's tendency to let his men run around killing people left and right.

Charles's goal is clear: find the location where the soldiers are kept, free his brother, kill Spacek, and don't bother to get Rick psychiatric help and then be surprised when the abused man slits the throat of the rather too friendly neighbour.

I would be more than a little surprised if Roland Emmerich (or one or more of his scriptwriters) had not seen this Swedish ultra low budget production before making their Universal Soldier, though, say what you will about Emmerich, the resulting Hollywood movie is admittedly quite a bit more competently made and not just a rip-off of War Dog.

Of course, Emmerich and co did have the advantage of things like a professional crew and a minor Hollywood budget where War Dog (which I like to imagine as the prequel to War Horse or the third part of the War Bus series, or both) is held together by spit, shoestrings and pure enthusiasm.

Given that fact (and the plot synopsis above), it will come as no surprise to anyone to hear that War Dog is a cheese fest of the first degree full of all the things that make low budget action movies like this - depending on one's tastes - either brilliant entertainment or totally unwatchable. If you're in the market for horrible yet frequently funny dialogue, the slightly chubby guy from next door as an action hero, explosions (alas, no grass or bamboo huts), slow motion, and slow motion explosions, improbable gun sounds, the Swedish countryside standing in for the mid-western USA, a random/awesome/generic synthesizer soundtrack, and all the government conspiracy crap you could ever want, all not really connected by sloppy yet surprisingly creative direction, then you're in for a treat. If not, I don't think you should be reading about a film called War Dog, and even less watch one.

 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

99 River Street (1953)

After having lost a fight for the Heavyweight Boxing Championship very badly, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) has had to stop with the only thing he's ever been good at, or risk going blind. Ernie's a cab driver now, and even though he's clearly unhappy with his new place in life and carries a frightful amount of pent-up rage inside, it's just as clear that he might well learn to cope with life as a normal working stiff in the long run.

His wife Pauline (Peggie Castle) is a bit of a different story, though. She feels betrayed by Ernie's failure, resenting him as much as her work in a flower shop. Unbeknownst to her husband, Pauline has begun an affair with the gangster Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), who has promised to take her away ride after he has finished a very lucrative job.

Exactly on the day the couple's flight is supposed to happen, things begin to fall apart. First Ernie realizes that his wife has been cheating on him for some time (and can obviously barely keep himself from going after Victor and Pauline with his fists), then the people Rawlins wanted to sell the jewels he stole on his big job to back off from the deal.

Through the expected complicated and slightly surreal plot contortions, Ernie soon becomes implicated as Victor's accomplice, hunted by the police, used by the people Victor was dealing with, and suspected of the murder of his wife (a murder he did not commit, but clearly would have liked to). Fortunately, and quite unlike many film noir heroes, Ernie has friends willing to help him clear his name, like the up-and-coming actress Linda (Evelyn Keyes) to whom our hero owes some of his problems.

I often have a hard time seeing 50s noir movies like Phil Karlson's 99 River Street as part of the same genre as their brethren from the 40s. Too large are the differences in aesthetics (the stark contrasts between shadow and light in the older movie have turned into the flat and often bright lighting in the newer ones, just as an example) and in philosophy (the older films being again much starker, more pessimistic and nihilistic in their world view, with happy ends that seem especially implausible, while the newer ones are on the surface more brutal, but also much cleaner in their morals and ideas). I rather wish the 50s movies (I am generalizing here, of course) had their own genre name, like "hard-boiled crime movie".

99 River Street's director Phil Karlson's is known as one of the better directors of the 50s style of noir, but the film at hand seems to stand directly on the line dividing both ways of noir. On the aesthetic level, Karlson sure isn't the type of director doing complicated or showy things with lighting or blocking, but the seeming bluntness and flatness of his style often hide some intelligent directing decisions. Karlson (at least in my experience) is a director whose films thrive on very controlled editing rhythms and camera movement that is much less sparse than it seems at first glance. The director also has a lot of trust in the abilities of his actors, using the close-up less as a rather trite dramatic device but to show as much of his actors' emotions as possible. Payne and Evelyn Keyes give Karlson the performances he deserves, based on the strange fluctuation between theatricality and naturalism that is so typical of acting in the 50s, yet still intense and believable in the larger than life way close-ups always suggest.

Karlson's direction and the acting combine to give the film a feeling of hardly constrained tension. For most of the film's running time, Payne is close to an explosion. His character shows a propensity for violence that makes him a somewhat uncomfortable protagonist, even in a film whose happy end pretends he's much more clean-cut hero than he actually is; it's not a stretch to imagine him actually killing his wife, which (I suspect) would have been the 40s noir way to go about this plot.

It's not as if 99 River Street's plot were very clear or simple, though. Like the old style noirs did, Karlson's film uses chance, and random, cruel twists of fate as if to demonstrate a universe that's not just indifferent to Ernie's plight but actively malevolent, giving him one bad, and sometimes more than just slightly surreal (especially in the scene - coming out of nowhere - where Linda convinces Ernie to help her get rid of a dead body, only to end in the reveal she's been playing him as part of an audition), roll of the dice after the next, with  some improbably trustworthy friends and his ability to fight through his problems the only things that are on Ernie's side - characteristically for the ideology of the 50s, all things Ernie's worked hard for.

 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious (1975)

Original title: Peccati di gioventu

When rich girl Angela (Gloria Guida) returns from college, her father (Silvano Tranquilli) uses the opportunity to finally tell her that he has a new girlfriend, Irene (Dagmar Lassander). Angela is less than happy with that, because she doesn't "want a stranger to interfere with my life" and so sets in motion a plan to get rid off her rival for Daddy's heart. I'm sure all Freudians in the audience approve. Angela sics her no-good lover Sandro (Fred Robsahm), who has a much older and richer girlfriend of his own to perform tricks for for money and so really shouldn't have the time for games like these, on Irene.

Somehow (I suspect it may have to do with taste) Irene manages to resist all of Sandro's advances. Confused, Angela investigates Irene's past. Angela finds out that Irene was once tangled up in (and I quote) "an unnatural love affair" with one of her female teachers that ended with the teacher's suicide and convinced Irene that taking on a cold and aloof personality and pretending she's interested in men would be the only way for her to get through life. Angela's revised plan is clear. She is going to seduce Irene herself, convince Sandro to make incriminating photos and use these photos to make Irene go away.

Angela's plan of first bringing Irene back to emotional honesty again and then destroying her works out better than the girl expects. Only too late does the young woman realize what she's doing to Irene.

If Silvio Amadio's (probably best known to cult movie friends for the giallo Amuck) So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious is mentioned at all, it is usually called a giallo (or even a comedy, which it is even less), but I disagree with that choice of genre, for I recognize an exploitation melodrama when I see one.

As these things go, So Young surely is one of the better examples of that sub-genre. There's a copious amount of attractive people (and Fred Robsahm, but what does male hetero me know about male attractiveness?) frequently walking around in the nude, a lot of only teased sex, the usual hints at somewhat kinky character motivations, and the sort of sexual complications exploitation filmmakers love to pretend the rich and beautiful go through on a regular basis, even though we all know they're in truth spending their time drinking the blood of the innocent, and implanting alien reptiles in the heads of presidents. Or something of that sort.

The sexual content of So Young is not quite as sleazy as in other Italian movies I could mention, for director Amadio seems honestly interested in his characters, or rather in Irene and Angela, and so spends as much time on turning them into somewhat complex characters as he does on letting them strut their stuff (though he of course prefers to do both things at once). As is traditional in melodramas the male characters don't matter as much as the female ones and therefore get a more superficial characterisation, but that's not a problem.

While it's generally normal for Italian exploitation films to show off the more or less decadent exploits of their characters with a cynical sneer and without showing much compassion, making melodramas of this type often unpleasantly conservative in their philosophical outlook, So Young does things a little differently in that its sympathies clearly lie with Irene. Even though the ending is of the standard type where the older Lesbian dies and the younger girl cries, it's clear that the tragedy of the story is supposed to lie in Irene locking away her identity (sexual and otherwise), only to come back to life again through a girl who is only playing with her feelings, and not in her being different. Irene's feeling of not being allowed by society (or the morals of society she internalized) to live as she wants and not her loving women is the problem that kills her, which really isn't typical at all for Italian cinema of this sort.

So believe it or not, there's some actual humanism - let's call it a heart - hidden away behind the all-important nudity and bada-bada-da soundtrack of this one. Wonders never cease.

 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: Prepare yourself for the HORROR of PSYCHO! The TERROR of EXORCIST!

War of the Arrows aka Arrow, The Ultimate Weapon (2011): I was all pumped to enjoy this South Korean historical action blockbuster thing, hoping for some hot archery action. And, as long as the film spends its time with scenes of people hitting each other with sharp and pointy objects and (even better) shooting each other with other sharp and pointy objects, all is well. Alas, writer/director Kim Han-min also feels the need to make very, very clear how cardboard cartoon villain evil the Mongol enemies of his hero are, so about half of the film consists of one scene of Mongols behaving demonstratively shitty after the other. So, as if one early scene of rape and throwing a baby into a well weren't more than enough to make that point clear, there's a never-ending - and after the second time or so, actually pretty boring on a narrative level - series of "OMG! Mongols are bad!" moments. Clearly, the Mongols weren't nice, civilized people, but it's one thing knowing and showing that, and quite another being as much of a racist prick about it as the director of War of the Arrows is. And while we're talking of being evil, what about the way women and the lower classes were treated in Korea during the Joseon era, Mister Kim?

I Wake Up Screaming (1941): This murder mystery is often cited as an important step on the way to the genre later interpreted as film noir, and yes, I can clearly see why that's the case. Many of the tropes of the non-genre are already here, as well as the narrative techniques that would dominate it. Unfortunately, I Wake Up Screaming is not yet willing to actually delve into the darkness the true noir would make its home in, and is made more frustrating to watch by it than a movie that didn't show all the enticing elements would have been. Despite its awesome title, I Wake Up Screaming just isn't ready to hit its audience where it would truly hurt or excite.

Un Flic (1972): Being outwardly exciting isn't anything you'd accuse the late period movies of Jean-Pierre Melville of, either, but where I Wake Up Screaming pretends not to know about inner abysses, Melville's characters know them so well they have internalized them, and been outwardly frozen in the process, leaving them as the living dead going through motions that could be interpreted as "cool" if trying to be cool weren't too outwardly emotional. In the wrong mood, one could surely argue that Melville overstretches this aspect of his worldview in Un Flic to the point where it could be read as self parody, but in the right mood it's just as possible to see the whole project of Melville's late films, and of Un Flic especially, as a way to make a state of mind people who have suffered from depression know just too well visible and relatable through the lens of an abstract crime film.

As a bonus, Un Flic, which happens to be Melville's last movie, is also the one where the latent homosexual undercurrents in the director's body of work get so close to the surface one would have to be blind not to see them; not surprisingly, the film already delivers its own backlash by making its main character (Alain Delon, of course) the sort of homophobe who really protests too much.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kill List (2011)

Warning: structural spoilers ahoy.

Eight months after a job went wrong and left professional killer Jay (Neil Maskell) a depressed wreck (though it's not hard to suspect he already was a total mess before that event), money has finally run out. The marriage to his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) - with whom he also has a child (Harry Simpson) - is going down the drain too, for Shel can't cope with Jay's breakdown nor the lack of money, nor Jay's pretending nothing at all to be wrong too well. So it comes as something of a relief to her when Jay's old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) come to dinner and Gal offers Jay to partner up for a lucrative job.

It's a job in the UK, which won't keep Jay too long away from home, there's only a kill list of three and pretty big money in it, so the offer looks like a nice step back into the working life, such as it is.

Once the pair of killers gets the job started, their usual routine is broken by weird little occurrences that hint at something more complex, and much more terrible, than just bad people killing even worse ones. Why, for example, do the victims thank Jay? Sooner or later, the killers and the audience will find out. Not surprisingly, not everyone will like what he finds.

Despite having read some very positive reviews, I went into Ben Wheatley's Kill List with a certain degree of trepidation. Films built on a third act twist often tend to annoy me, and a third act twist whose existence I already know about is generally even less effective. However, Kill List isn't at all constructed like one of those twist-based films I expected. In fact, the characters' final doom is preordained nearly from the first shot, with clear moments of foreshadowing only the least attentive (like the IMDB commenters who seem to think the film "changes genres" about two thirds in) won't recognize as such. For my eyes, Kill List is constructed with a viewer who does by and large understand what's going on in mind. Wheatley's film tries and (at least in my case) very much succeeds at building a feeling of dread based on its audience's expectation of its story's outcome for its characters, building a mood of an inevitable doom that is disquieting and unnerving, and just a little bit cruel.

Speaking of cruelty, it is as surprising as it is impressive how nasty the film actually dares to get without feeling the need to be impressed by its own naughtiness, which is the thing (well, that and the horrible scripts) that, for example, ruined the Human Centipede films for me. There's nothing that makes a film less disturbing than when it shouts "Look how disturbing I am!" at you, so I'm glad Wheatley's film doesn't step into that trap.

Stylistically, Kill List is a clear successor of the UK's "social realism" school of filmmaking, with a love for mumbled dialogue (in part improvised, going by the credits) and shots that look much less artlessly constructed than they actually are. Usually, this style isn't my cup of tea at all, but in Kill List's case, the friction between the type of story a film shot in this style is normally allowed to tell and the story it actually is telling is just one element more that makes the film so brilliant at achieving its unnerving effect.

And unnerving Kill List truly turned out to be for me. Obviously, I'm someone who watches a lot of horror movies, but I'm generally only really disturbed or emotionally bothered by a handful of films per year. Kill List clearly belongs to this special group of films, the sort of movie that lingers in my mind, not exactly as something I'm afraid of, but as something I know I will carry with me for quite some time. In truth, I'm not quite sure I'll sleep all that well tonight - a (perhaps dubious) compliment for Wheatley's film. Clearly, this doesn't mean the film will have that kind of effect on everyone, for we all have different things bound to disturb our dreams; it is, however, not an achievement that should ever go unmentioned.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Big Muscle Tussle: Las Vampiras (1969)

aka The Vampire Girls

(This write-up is based on the original Mexican, Spanish language version of the film, which - as far as I've been told - differs considerably from the English language one.)

Throughout February, the members of M.O.S.S. have decided to bring some meat onto their exoskeletons by taking a look at film's most beefcake-y heroines and heroes. After the agents of M.O.S.S. have - among others - already descended into bloody pits of horror, examined the abs and pecs of Italian versions of Greek and biblical demi-gods, and put Dara Singh under a microscope, what better next point of investigation is there than a film featuring the most stylish Mexican luchador, the incredible Mil Mascaras?

Mil Mascaras (Mil Mascaras!), wrestler, pilot of small airplanes and masked fighter for good, makes, as is his habit when not fighting mummies, accidental contact with the world of the Weird. First, he nearly crashes into a driving car that lacks a driver, unless it was driven by the bats that fly from its window when Mil investigates. Then, a bit later, the African wrestling champion - subtly dubbed Black Man - Mil was supposed to fight disappears from his locked dressing room without his clothes, with a few bats fleeing the scene of the crime once Mil has broken down that pesky locked door.

While his manager/assistant/boyfriend (I dare you to watch the scene where Mil and the guy are driving around looking at each other with corny lovebird eyes and not think "boyfriend") and a frightfully incompetent cop (Dagoberto Rodriguez) mock and laugh even when the plot-relevant news show the cop insists on watching while sitting in Mil's living room shows a report about a downed plane from Transylvania that was left by a bunch of bats instead of a pilot and passengers, our hero knows what's up: the vampire threat has returned to Mexico, and if the police won't do anything, a luchador will.

Mil Mascaras is all too right with his analysis too. There are in fact vampires at large, or, to be more precise, vampire women dressed in leotards lead by Aura (Marta Romero) who are out to take revenge on humanity for all the killed male vampires, which, I have to say, is pretty good motivation. If they can get new male blood in the process - preferred is the blood of athletes, it seems - it's just icing on the cake.

The only male vampire left is Branus (John Carradine), a doddering old fart Aura keeps in a golden cage in her throne room, so it's understandable the vampirettes are seeking more pleasant male company.

After the audience has learned a bit about vampire politics, it's back to Mil, who - after some research that costs his secretary Alicia her life, but teaches us that vampires need a specific sort of blood and a fitting climate to survive, has found a graveyard once suspected of vampiric activity (it's one for atheists and evil-doers, you see, so there are no crosses there). There he meets roving reporter and wearer of felt hats Carlos Mayer (Pedro Armendariz Jr, for no good reason given higher placement in the credits than Mil). Carlos has come to the same conclusions as our hero, so they decide to unite their vampire-fighting powers. Their partnership doesn't start off too well, though, for the first thing they do is accidentally (well, kinda, for what did they expect would happen when they break down a wall with bat noises coming from behind?) freeing Veria (Maria Duval) the widow of Count Dracula himself from imprisonment.

Veria soon finds her way to the other vampires and starts a subplot about her and Aura fighting about control over vampiredom. Their big political difference: Veria wants to reinstate Branus (who, as will later be revealed, only fakes part of his dementia) as king of the vampires, while Aura really prefers to find someone a bit more attractive and less pompous. Someone, like, say, a certain masked wrestler, perhaps? He is a perfect specimen after all.

Among the multitude of Mexican masked wrestlers who have had screen adventures of varying quality and insanity, Mil Mascaras has always been my favourite, for he unites the (maybe dubious) charisma of his peers with a quite peerless dress sense. As the connoisseur of lucha cinema knows well, Mil takes his "thousand masks" moniker very seriously, and not only changes his mask regularly and to great effect (my personal favourite in the film at hand being the mask with a circle pattern - only a real hero can get away with literally painting a target on his face) but also has some incredible fashion to go with his masks. Mil's preference for things like torero jackets, glitter and blindingly intense colours either make him the dandy or the glam rocker of the lucha set; both are roles deserving admiration, and if I were in the habit of throwing underwear at beefcake-y guys, Mil would be the one I'd try to hit. Damn you, heterosexuality.

In other words, if one ever had any doubt that part of the appeal of musclemen like the heroes of our theme month is purely and simply sex, one Mil Mascaras movie will make things clear; if one ever had any doubt that muscleman can be stylish and cool, one Mil Mascaras movie will get rid of that, too.

For people less in love with lucha cinema and Mil Mascaras (barbarians, I call them), the big selling point of Las Vampiras will be the appearance of John Carradine, already right in the middle of his embarrassing phase. It's difficult to say much positive about anything the man did at that point of his career, but in Las Vampiras case, I can at least admit that he's putting so much misguided enthusiasm and scenery-chewing self-irony in, it's difficult not to approve. Carradine's interpretation (one might suspect self portrait) of the classic cape-wearing vampire as someone wavering between unruly senile wreck and dirty old man - with a whiff of the alcoholic, of course - has a somewhat disturbing effect. At times, it's brilliantly funny and fun, but in other moments, when the playing of being a senile wreck and Carradine actually being down and out become hard to distinguish, it turns into something I found difficult to watch without cringing, and that did disturb the sense of silly fun I got from the rest of the movie. In a very different film, I would assume Carradine's performance, and the whole gender set-up of the film to be consciously subversive of traditional gender roles as seen in horror movies, but really, who am I kidding here?

For this sort of consideration cannot stand up to the fact that this is first and foremost a classic lucha monster mash, just one where the producers could afford what was left of a former horror star to mug a bit for the camera.

Fortunately and of course, there's nothing at all wrong with Las Vampiras being what it is, especially since it's not just a lucha movie, but a lucha movie made by Filmica Vergara, a Mexican genre production house whose films always had especially low production values, but which also more often than not used these production values to achieve a mood of the bizarre, creating (probably accidentally) a form of cardboard surrealism that holds all of the promises the bare concept of something like lucha cinema makes, yet the genre itself not always fulfils.

So this just isn't a film where Mil Mascaras and some reporter guy have a big fight against beefy vampire slaves, but one where said vampire slaves are dressed up in (literally) red shirts and berets - for no discernible reason, yet to my great delight; a film where a big ritual to find out which of the two main vampire women are going to lead vampiredom from now on consists of a prolonged jazz dance number with a lot of wing-like arm-waving, followed by a torch duel; a film where half of the vampire women like to stand on pedestals, staring into the void, just waving their arms slowly up and down, up and down, whenever something exciting happens (now that I think about it, they are a lot like Harinam Singh's vampire women without the chairs they "fly" on); a film where the vampire king's coffin (all the coffins here look particularly comfy inside) can be recognized by the big fat golden (cardboard or wooden) bat sitting on it; a film where a masked wrestler shoots silver bullets at the fakest of fake bats. In short, a work of deep, ridiculous beauty.

I could now begin to complain about the problematic construction of the film's plot (like the way it wastes Maura Monti in a few scenes as Armendariz' girlfriend, whose only reason to exist is so that Carradine has somebody to kidnap and Armendariz somebody to kiss after the film's climax), the static direction of Federico Curiel (whose films often are shot this way, unless he had one of this creative weeks, which did happen from time to time), or the sometimes clever, sometimes jumpy and rough editing, but the film's technical flaws do nothing at all to ruin the sense of pure joy I get from Las Vampiras, so I won't.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

In short: So Sweet, So Dead (1972)

Original title: Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile

A provincial town in Italy is hit by a series of murders. All victims are women from the upper rungs of the bourgeoisie, all of them were married and all are found surrounded by photos showing them having sex with men who clearly aren't their husbands. Because he's polite and something of an overachiever, the killer scratches the men's faces off the photos, which makes the life of the investigating cop, Inspector Capuana (Farley Granger, in a subtle and complex performance mostly based on looks instead of facial impressions) that decisive bit more difficult by helping potential witnesses who have reasons of their own not to want to talk to him avoid answering unpleasant questions.

Capuana's investigation is difficult enough as it is, for the town's upper class may be great at committing adultery, but most of its members do not like to talk about their hobbies to the police, and sure are influential enough to get special treatment from the police. Given the miserable state of evidence in the cases, it'll take a long line of victims (Femi Benussi, Krista Nell, Susan Scott - it's half of Italy's giallo actresses for the price of one) until Capuana will be able to get his man. And even then, he might just learn something about his own wife (Sylva Koscina) that'll make him act in a manner morally much worse than adultery could ever be.

So Sweet, So Dead is one of the small group of movies that try to cross the Italian style "ripped from the headlines" police procedural with the giallo; unlike many other films making that attempt, Roberto Bianchi Montero's is actually successful at doing what it sets out to achieve. Many films with the same idea as So Sweet (and isn't it interesting how the film's Italian title emphasises the film's identity as a police procedural while the English language one identifies it as a giallo?) suffer from the peculiar choices their director make when deciding what element from which genre to take, often leading to movies combining the least interesting and the most annoying elements of both genres. Sadly, this has resulted in more than one movie about bored looking men sitting in drab rooms talking police procedural stuff while crawling through a plot that is confusing but equally drab.

Montero goes about his business a bit more intelligently, making the murder and sex scenes, as well as identity and motivation of the killer, stylistically and in their content part of the giallo genre, while the social commentary, the central cop character and the cynical ending are coming right from the police procedural. One could argue that Montero uses the copious scenes of nudity of a minor who is who of Italian genre actresses and the sexy, sleazy violence to make his semi-realist observations about the life of the upper classes more interesting to a rather jaded audience. The director succeeds in this project rather well, especially because he seems to be stylistically at home in both genres (which does not come as too big a surprise seeing as Montero worked in any film genre you might care to name), making the giallo parts suspenseful, their violence disquietingly enticing, and the police procedural parts' observations about the mental state of provincial Italy 1972 believable and human.

There is, alas, a real possibility that the director agrees with the killer about the adulterous women being "whores" who deserve to die, although there's an equally large possibility that position is part of the bourgeois hypocrisy he is trying to criticize. In good exploitation film tradition, you can base an argument for both positions on So Sweet, So Dead.

 

Friday, February 17, 2012

On WTF: No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948)

Once maligned for its violent and sexual content, this peculiar British production now recommends itself through its wrong-headed attempts at pretending to be American by any means necessary, even if it means hiring Jack La Rue playing not-Humphrey Bogart.

If you're interested to know how that turned out for No Orchids For Miss Blandish just click on through to this week's column at WTF-Film.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Stars are wrong

so there will be no new posts from me until Friday, when normal service resumes with my column at WTF-Film, and R'lyeh rising from the bottom of the ocean again.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Big Muscle Tussle: Goliath Against the Giants (1961)

Original title: Goliath contro i giganti

Throughout February, the members of M.O.S.S. have decided to bring some meat onto their exoskeletons by taking a look at film's most beefcake-y heroines and heroes. And what better example of a male slab of meat is there than that guy from the bible?

The intensely heroic Goliath (Brad Harris) leads an army of his hometown Beirath (shouldn't that be Gath?) to free and/or conquer a town that may or may not be Sparta from the evils of tyranny. Or something.

While the notorious do-gooder is away slaughtering people, the evil yet dumb Bokan (Fernando Rey, providing his bad guy with all the menace of a petulant child), usurps the throne of Beirath, killing the old king and his wife in the process. Somehow - and we unfortunately never learn how exactly he manages that trick - Bokan convinces the old king's daughter Elea (Gloria Milland) that Goliath is responsible for her father's death; which really would be quite something even for the highly competent mass murderer Goliath, seeing as he was at the other side of the world at the time. Let's not even talk about the fact that Bokan's acting like a sadistic jerk, letting his men throw people down a cliff, and later even ruining gladiatorial combat through his dickishness, which does make him look about as trustworthy as the real-world dictator of your choice.

Once Goliath is victorious, Bokan at once sends assassins to get rid of him. Obviously, these assassins don't succeed and only manage to convince Goliath that he's really needed back home. So home Goliath tries to go. Alas, travel in ancient times was not particularly safe. Consequently, our hero has to fight sea lizards, amazons, and bad weather and will lose most of his friends before he can return home and have a talk with the usurper. On his way, the muscled hero also picks up Elea, whom Bokan somehow managed to transport onto an island where every ship sailing to Beirath lands to take on drinking water before Goliath can arrive there. Initially, Elea's job is to kill Goliath, but soon enough, his mighty pectoral muscles, his kind heart and possibly his body count win her over to the beefy one's side.

Things don't look good for Bokan (or his wife, who is supposedly the brains in the operation but only compared to her hubby's utter idiocy), even though he still has more than one plan for getting rid of Goliath; too bad for him none of his plans are ever any good.

After the quite atypical for its genre Vengeance of Hercules I couldn't help myself and just had to watch another, altogether more typical, peplum for M.O.S.S.'s Big Muscle Tussle.

In one of the more surprising turns of events when it comes to the naming - or rather renaming - of peplum heroes outside of Italy, Goliath actually is Goliath in the film's Italian version, too. I suspect the producers of the US version were confident that their presumably bible-thumping countrymen would recognize the name of Goliath from their favourite book. But don't worry, gentle atheist friends, there's nothing Christian, and not much biblical about the film at all. Consequently, the only country where this particular film's hero isn't called Goliath is my native Germany. Around here, the film is known as Die Irrfahrten des Hercules which brilliantly translates to "The Odyssey of Hercules", because if Odysseus can have one, Herc can, too. At least, it's not all that less fitting a title than the original one - after all, Goliath fights the titular giants for about one minute, if in fact the cavemen he is fighting right at the end are supposed to be those giants.

Anyhow, compared to Vengeance of Hercules, Goliath is a film much more unified in tone, which is somewhat ironic in a film that's as episodic as this one. However, all the film's episodes at least seem to belong to the same genre and the same film. Plus, director Guido Malatesta (there are stories by writer and production designer Gianfranco Parolini about how Malatesta was fired from the movie and he finished it, but these stories are also full of Parolini telling us how awesome he himself is supposed to be, and how everyone else is an utter moron, so it's a bit difficult for me to see them as true) has decided to concentrate on his hero Goliath and not waste time on horrible emo sons or other horrors, and only leaves his hero's perspective to demonstrate how evil Bokan is.

Where the Hercules movie - possibly helped by its position early in the peplum wave - has ambitions on being something more complicated than your average peplum, Malatesta's film only ever wants to be an adventure movie about a buff and violent but also nice and not too dumb guy throwing people at other people (as a rule of thumb, if there's no scene of the hero throwing a bad guy - dead or alive - at other bad guys, the movie at hand clearly is not a true peplum), wrestling monstrous water lizards, the mandatory guy in a mangy ape suit (nope, I don't know why that one's caged in Bokan's dungeon either), lions that turn into adorable large lion dolls at the drop of a bodybuilder, monstrous land lizards, and rather large cavemen who may or may not be giants. I'm somewhat disappointed there's no scene of Goliath wrestling amazons, but at least his best friend and boring sidekick Blandy McBland (actual character name may differ) acquires a cute girlfriend (Barbara Carroll) there, who then proceeds to do nothing at all, robbing me of the opportunity of declaring this part of The Big Muscle Tussle as the one where muscle-carrying women finally get their moment in the spotlight. Okay, Barbara Carroll isn't muscular at all, but it would still have been a plan better than any of those Bokan cooks up.

Where was I before I was so pleasantly distracted by the thought of violent women? Right, as I was saying, Malatesta's film is a very standard peplum that treats its material like you would an equally standard adventure movie - just with a hero who really, really likes to show off his muscles - shot in a decent and straight style that's entertaining enough to watch but never even strives for the dream-like mood some of the better films of the peplum genre feature. If you're like me, always on the look out for the homoerotic as well as the sado-masochistic elements in these films, this one isn't particular fruitful, either, apart from a scene where Blandy McBland is tortured by what I hereby dub the Wheel With Blades. It's the kind of device that needs half a dozen slaves doing the Conan to work, and effortlessly wins the prize of least probable torture device of the week.

That scene, as well as the complete randomness with which the monsters appear (well, possibly the complete randomness of everything in the script), is of course very silly if one is the kind of viewer who takes herself very seriously, but then again, what business has somebody of those tastes watching a movie called Goliath Against the Giants? I, for one, welcome our half-naked muscular overlords, as long as they wrestle monsters.

 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Three Films Make A Post: in her eyes...DESIRE! in her veins...the blood of a MONSTER!

Gantz - Perfect Answer (2011): In the second Gantz movie (that in truth is the second half of one very long movie) Director Shinsuke Sato still ignores the fanservice part of the manga he is adapting, and concentrates on the characters and a lot of melodrama that's from time to time broken up by pretty fantastic fight scenes, as well as by a handful of pleasantly weird flourishes. The general tenor in reviews of the film seems to be that there just aren't enough of the fight scenes, but I really prefer the two tour-de-force set-pieces the film does have to the "more blood, more tits" approach; you know, there's nothing wrong with trying to stay classy. The problem the film has in my eyes is one of pacing - it takes a bit too much time to get going (and a bit too much time to actually end once the plot is over and done with), and then hasn't quite enough time left to develop the huge swathes of manga it has decided to adapt. I still enjoy the two Gantz films quite a bit more than most films of the blockbuster league, though.

The Black Sleep (1956): In theory, it must have sounded like a good idea to make a Gothic horror movie about the usual mad science stuff featuring Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr, John Carradine and a heartbreakingly ill looking Bela Lugosi. In practice, it's one of those films where most of the old stars are just carted out for a few minutes to remind the audience of better films, and the only one of them with a substantial role - Rathbone as the mad scientist - has the difficult job to not upstage Herbert Rudley too much while still acting like the prototype of Cushing's Baron Frankenstein.

The film's main problem is that there really isn't anything remarkable about it except for Rathbone's performance - the script is tame and lacking in imagination, Reginald Le Borg's direction is characteristically bland, and little happens that could not have happened in a film twenty years earlier in exactly the same way. "Pure retro" was an approach to art with as little power in 1956 as it has today.

Investigation Into The Invisible World (2002): I know, it's an incongruous position for someone like me, who always praises Werner Herzog's documentaries for their respect for even the strangest people and ideas, to take, but I find the same approach taken by Jean-Michel Roux talking to a bunch of eso crackpots and schizophrenics in Iceland pretty offensive. It might have something to do with Roux's visual style too, or rather the way he tries to turn Iceland into the cover of an Enya record (though at least the film's score by Biosphere and Hector Zazou is much above the Enya-level) using post-production effects so aggressively manipulative I was at first thinking something was wrong with my DVD player. To me, the whole project feels like kitsch with pretentions to be art, which is always the worst kind of kitsch as well as the worst kind of art.

 

Friday, February 10, 2012

On WTF: The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

One of the great pleasures of this movie reviewing lark is to stumble upon fantastic films by mere chance. Case in point is The Imperial Swordsman, directed by a director (Lam Fook-Dei) I never heard of before, featuring actors from the Shaw stable I've seldom seen in anything I could remember, and with a beginning that does barely begin to promise what the film's second half then goes on to deliver.

If you even have the slightest interest in wuxia films, or even just in action films that are very beautiful to look at (more in motion than in screenshots, I have to say), you could do worse than to head over to my write-up of the film on WTF-Film.

 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

In short: Punished (2011)

Law Wing-Cheong's thriller drama about a gangster-ish businessman's (Anthony Wong in a pleasantly subtle mood) vengeance on the kidnappers and killers of his daughter by the hand of his ex-triad member bodyguard (Richie Jen, The Artist Formerly Known As Richie Ren) is one of those films I wish I'd have enjoyed more than I actually did.

There's nothing particularly wrong with the movie. In fact, Law's direction is slick and rather tight in its minimalist commercial way (and does prefer the blue contemporary movie standard palette to the piss-coloured one, which may be ugly and very unoriginal but at least isn't an attack on my eyes), Wong's and Ren's performances are pretty great, and I do respect what Law is trying to do inside the parameters of the vengeance movie: namely putting the redemption of the vengeance-seeking anti-hero at a point in the narrative where he actually hasn't killed all of his enemies but does in fact need to show empathy instead of the more typical self-pity after the fact. Alas, it's also at that point and the narrative beats surrounding it where my main problem with Punished lies. The violence that comes before doesn't pack enough of a punch to actually make the viewer feel much about it at all, neither loathing nor excitement nor the typical-for-the-genre combination of both, making it difficult to share the emotional development of Wong's character. Wong's physical distance to the actual acts of violence perpetrated in his name - with the exception of the first one, which isn't a planned murder - doesn't help much here; even though he is factually more than a bystander, Wong never feels like an actual participant in the acts that are supposed to change him. It's well and good to give Ren his own character arc concerning the reasons for letting himself do what he does for Wong, but in the end, his character only ever does what he's told, never making his own decisions about his acts.

It does not improve this aspect of the movie that the redemptive ending is way too pat. Obviously, the two men with a history with problems with their own children will have to decide if they can execute a mother in front of her child or not, making redemption a pretty damn easy thing to achieve for them. I know, it's probably supposed to be karma, etc., and so on, and so forth, but mostly, it feels like rather lazy writing that tries to have things the easy way.

It's a bit of a shame really, because the acting performances would have deserved a stronger, more daring, script.

 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In short: Black Rainbow (1989)

Is there an official explanation for what happened with Mike Hodges at the beginning of the 80s? Sure, we can explain Flash Gordon with the kicking powers of the Horrible Boot of Camp (a creature I can only imagine being drawn by Jack Kirby), but why is the rest of Hodges (small) output of that decade equally messy and confused, and - alas - not equally entertaining? I don't dare to take a guess.

Anyhow, Black Rainbow is pretty much what you can expect from the director in that decade; in the spirit of the film's non-structure, let me describe it in a single, ridiculously long sentence with lots of parentheses, for that's exactly how it plays out. Black Rainbow is written with a lack of coherence that makes most giallos look logical (let me get that straight, a medium nobody in a position of authority believes foretells the identity of a murderer, so the bad guys send a professional killer after her, whose success will be the best way to ensure people will believe what she said?), sees Hodges frequently preach at the film's audience through the mouths of his characters (and hey, Mr Hodges, sir, you can't let your medium criticize her public's willingness to believe in a better afterlife and give her actually working prophetic powers and still make a sensible argument), contains the sort of scenery-chewing performance you get when you tell Jason Robards to put out all the stops (if that's a plus or a minus depends on your love for Robards; mine was tested), has an ending that is probably supposed to be ambiguous but just looks as if the writer didn't have a clue about how to actually end the convoluted mess, is overloaded with narrative elements that just don't fit together and sure as hell don't have a function (it's a Southern Gothic, so there must be a mad dead mother and implications of incest in Rosanna Arquette's background, plus what's up with Tom Hulce's marriage? Now that I think about it, why is his character even in here, seeing as he doesn't do anything a newspaper headline couldn't), and annoys me personally with a handful of scenes that suggest that Hodges might have made a fantastic piece of (tourist-y) Southern Gothic here, if he'd just had used the precision and ability to be clear even when backstories and characters are complicated his 70s films demonstrated again and again.

As it stands, Black Rainbow is a highly interesting mess.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Hand of Night (1968)

aka Beast of Morocco

After the death of his wife and children in a car accident that left him unscathed, architect Paul Carver (William Sylvester) has fallen into a deep depression. Carver now sees himself as someone "standing between life and death, light and darkness" and craves death, but doesn't seem ready to take the obvious step.

Instead, he travels to Morocco to distract himself. A rather mean-spirited destiny has other ideas for him, though. A dream of a Moroccan crypt, very Western coffins, a "bearded Arab" and Gunther (Edward Underdown), a German archaeologist sitting next to him on the plane into the country, is the first prophetic warning for the American that he will soon enough encounter actual darkness.

Once arrived in Morocco, Carver learns that the friend (colleague?) he was planning to stay with has suddenly died. For Carver, that's as good a reason for a drinking spree as any, but he still has a certain craving to be saved from himself, it seems, and decides to take an invitation of Gunther's to come visit him that very same night.

At Gunther's house, where a party is held, Paul meets Marisa (Aliza Gur), a mysterious beauty who likes disappearing at will, discussions about the nature of light and darkness and being a vampire. Paul is fascinated by the woman, even obsessed, just as if the part of him that craves death and the dark side of life had just waited for her to appear. From the moment of their meeting, Paul is stumbling between Marisa's world and ours. The situation is further complicated by Chantal (Diane Clare), Gunther's non-biological daughter who'd very much like to save Paul from himself.

The Hand of Night is one of those films that have some generally interesting ideas and some atmospheric scenes, but have to fight with the indifference of their execution. Somewhere inside Hand, there's a fantastic film about depression, a death wish and how to escape it, and a peculiar interpretation of the vampire myth, but neither writer Bruce Stewart nor director Frederic Goode seem to know how to make that film and instead like to hide the actually interesting elements behind melodramatic dialogue and drab direction.

Goode often even manages to waste the mood-enhancing powers of the actual Moroccan landscape this was filmed in, as if he were actively trying to let Morocco look as quotidian to the British eye as possible; the film's more effective scenes seem to exist despite Goode's efforts and not because of them, for sometimes, the dream-like strangeness of the desert is too strong for him to make boring, like the call of Marisa's "darkness" is for Paul. It is, as a matter of fact, quite ironic.

Where - after a cheap yet impressive dream sequence right at the film's beginning - director Goode is just not very good (sorry), writer Stewart isn't able to get a grip on a fantastic basic set-up. The film's beginning is an up and down of (sometimes clever) pseudo-philosophical discussions, symbolic psychology of the workable sort, dialogue written as if it were 1938 and not 1968 (and, by the way, spoken by actors acting like it's 1938 by using a cartload of bad fake accents, too), and a few choice moments where the "darkness" the characters talk so much about actually shows in subtle ways. That's nearly enough to satisfy me in a film so clearly trying to be profound instead of just going for the easiest thrills, however, in its final half hour The Hand of Night wastes all this potential on a particularly long-winded and boring finale, turning out like a Hammer Dracula movie made by people who have heard about drama, but don't know how to execute a dramatic finale.

It's a bit of a shame, really, for it's not every cheap little horror movie that shows as much ambition and willingness to build its own strange little mythology as The Hand does. As it stands, this is a film I find impossibly to actually recommend to anyone not highly interested in off-beat independent horror films, yet too interesting to rue having watched it.

 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Big Muscle Tussle: Vengeance of Hercules (1959)

This write-up is based on the Italian language cut of the film that does in fact feature Hercules as its hero. For some - probably mind-blowing reason - AIP decided to do the exact opposite of what all other US versions of peplums did, namely dubbing their hero as Hercules even when he was initially Aristotle, and turned Hercules into Goliath through the highly potent form of magic we know as dubbing. The AIP version is also re-cut and features an additional battle against a sad cardboard dragon head. 

Original title: La Vendetta Di Ercole

aka Goliath and the Dragon

aka Hercules' Revenge

This February, the members of M.O.S.S. have decided to bring some meat onto their exoskeletons by taking a look at film's most beefcake-y heroines and heroes. And who could be more muscular than the king of the Italian peplum himself, Hercules?

When Vengeance of Hercules begins, the demi-god (Mark Forest, one of the more charismatic and more human-looking bodybuilders/actors throwing around pillars and punching guys in monster suits in the nose) is just beginning to fulfil the last of his Twelve Tasks by punching his way into hades, from whence he is supposed to steal a magic jewel belonging to the god of vengeance. Personally, I do remember the mythology quite differently, but then I also don't remember Hades being inhabited by a human-size catbat (or batcat?) that flies about on clearly visible wires. I also imagined Cerberus to be larger and less mangy looking than the film's three-headed doggie, but then, what do I know? At least he is a fire-breathing, mangy looking three-headed doggie.

While Hercules is out and about depopulating Hades, his enemies are making plans to take the wayward hero's city of Thebes. King Eurito (Broderick Crawford acting like an Ancient Greek gangster boss from the Ancient Greek Bronx), usurper to the throne of Eccalia, is trying to talk the various kings of neighbouring cities into an attack on Thebes, for, or so he argues quite logically, people do not tend to came back from the realm of the dead, even when they are demi-gods.

Eurito's buddies are wavering, and are not becoming more confident in his plans when a messenger arrives in Eccalia to report Hercules's victorious return from Hades. Clearly, Eurito needs to make more subtle preparations to get rid of hated Hercules.

As luck will have it, Herc's improbably dumb emo son Illo (Sandro Moretti) might just be the tool (in both senses of the word) that can bring Hercules down. Illo, you see, has fallen for Thea (Federica Ranchi), the daughter of the true (and dead) king of Eccalia. Since Eurito has taken Thea on as an adoptive daughter with the option to marry her later on to legitimize his claim on the throne, Illo's father has never approved of his son's choice of potential partner. Of course, that doesn't hinder melodramatic (and yes, dumb) Illo from sneaking in and out of the town of his father's greatest enemy to spend some quality swooning time with Thea.

Eurito must have known what's up with the couple for some time now, and decides - with the help of his rather evil aid Tindaro (Giancarlo Sbragia) and his sister Ismene (Gaby André) - that now is an excellent opportunity to imprison Illo. At first, it's planned as a demonstration of his lack of care for a potential return of Hercules from Hades, but once it's clear that the hero is indeed back, it is the beginning of a plan to convince Illo to poison his own father. A plan, I might add, that is made quite a bit more easy by Illo being the dumbest guy in ancient Greece.

It's all too bad, really, for upon his return from Hades, Hercules has decided to retire from the adventuring business and only wants to enjoy his retirement spending time with his wife and idiot son, and probably wrestling a bear or pulling a tree down from time to time.

Alas, the gods and Eurito have other plans. It's all enough to wrestle an elephant and bring down the walls of a city.

In its Italian cut, Vittorio Cottafavi's Vengeance of Hercules is a rather peculiar, and a very uneven movie. It starts out quite as you'd expect from a peplum, with our beefcake hero striding through a moody set full of multi-coloured fog and fighting atrociously realized, yet very cute, creatures that don't necessarily have much to do with Greek mythology. But, as soon as one has settled into the groove for this particular type of movie, Cottafavi turns all genre expectations on their head and goes from a suitmation fest to a movie of political intrigue (with some mild godly interventions).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with subverting genre clichés nor with broadening the borders of the genre one is working in (I did, after all, not complain when Maciste met Zorro), but if a director is going to do that, he should do it right. For example, if you make a movie about political plotting in mythological Greece, you should put actual care and thought into your villain's fiendish plots, instead of trying to get by letting it rest on one character - Illo - being so dumb it seems doubtful he can get into his clothing without help in the morning. A pouting romantic lead acting like a stupid teenager does not for exciting or dramatic political intrigue make, it turns out; and it sure does not help when the political intrigue is only uncovered by an actual deus ex machina. Sure, that's Ancient Greek alright, but it also makes the characters look even more like fools, and is just not very exciting.

Because the movie's intrigues are so lacking in actual tension, Vengeance's middle part becomes quite a drag. From time to time, that drag is broken up by Herc wrestling a guy in a mangy bear costume, and Herc hanging onto the leg of an elephant, ahem, I mean, wrestling an elephant, but even that isn't as fun as it should be, surrounded as it is by bottled boredom. Worse, the middle's tedium takes up space that would have been needed for the sexually loaded (and generally quite sado-masochist) aspects of every good peplum, namely scenes of the shirtless and impossibly buff hero getting whipped, scenes of the hero being seduced or mind-controlled by a dominant (and therefore Eeevil) woman, and anything else that brings the parts of sexual politics films usually just love to repress to the surface.

And then, when the tedium of watching non-characters and their melodramatic exclamations about their non-plans threatens to become too strong, the film takes a second drastic turn which - for once - makes the IMDB's writing credits for seven(!) people believable. Suddenly, Vengeance becomes a film actually rooted in Greece mythology, or rather, some of the basic philosophical tenets behind it. Suddenly, Hercules lives in a world where being a demi-god and having a destiny is a bad thing, where the gods just love to use mortals as their playthings, where making a wish at the wrong moment can lead to one's abduction by a centaur who is also a faun, and where Hercules is the kind of guy pulling down the pillars of his own house down when he's angry enough. Just as suddenly, Hercules also becomes a rebel against the gods and the concept of destiny, his wish to retire turning out to be one to be free of all metaphorical chains. If you ignore the (unfitting) happy end, the film's last act transformation into something more dark as well as something more thoughtful points out a direction the peplum as a genre could have taken but didn't - a movie genre based one more than the outward tropes of Greek mythology.

On the other hand, this imaginary genre (hard peplum?), would probably not have had quite as much time for showing people in monster suits lumbering around, nor for bodybuilders getting undressed and whipped, so I'm not sure if I should rail against destiny like Hercules or thank it.

 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In short: Back From The Dead (1957)

Kate Hazelton (Marsha Hunt), her brother-in-law Dick (Arthur Franz) and Kate's pregnant sister Mandy (Peggie Castle) have come to a small coastal town where Dick once lived for a nice, relaxing holiday. Alas, doom hangs over the holiday. Mandy has been hearing voices where there should be none to hear, and soon enough not only loses her child thanks to that particular state of mind, but also loses her identity. Very suddenly, Mandy takes on the personality of Dick's first wife Felicia. Suddenly, she doesn't recognize Kate anymore, violently dislikes the family dog, acts like an unpleasantly manipulative monster and - most horrible of all - calls her husband by the nickname of "Dicken". Clearly, it's a mental problem caused by the shock of losing the baby, the local doctor diagnoses! Yet how come Mandy even knows about Felicia, whom Dick (for semi-understandable reasons, we'll later on learn) never mentioned to her at all?

Things become even stranger once Mandy/Felicia has gotten it into her head to visit Felicia's parents. There, she not only convinces her mother of her identity as Felicia, but Kate and Dick, too, for she knows things about Felicia Mandy has no way of knowing.

Dick is convinced that the whole possession problem is the fault of Felicia's mother for the whole family has been dabbling in the occult, and we all know how these people get when their loved ones die.

Kate and Dick decide they're going to do everything in their powers to get Mandy back, which in practice means they (mostly Kate) are going to do a bit of investigating and will be threatened by supernaturally induced pains, Felicia's unnecessarily murderous nature and a cult leader with a French name and a German accent (Otto Reichow).

Stories about dead women possessing the bodies of their former husbands' new wives aren't exactly typical of US horror movies from the 50s (though not completely unheard of), so Charles Marquis Warren's Back from the Dead already has something going for it with its basic plot. Adding some occultism and quite a few hints at nasty psychological complexity is an even better idea, so I think reading scriptwriter Catherine Turney's novel "The Other One" this is based on lies in my near future, seeing how cheap used paperback copies of the book are. The whole set-up reminds me of something Val Lewton's RKO unit could have done during the 40s.

Unfortunately, the Lewton comparison ends there, because Back from the Dead's execution is by far not as successful and interesting as its script - or at least its script's basic ideas - may promise. Director Charles Marquis Warren isn't doing a horrible job, but he doesn't really seem to know how to produce the creepy mood his material calls for, nor does he do anything to emphasize the psychological (and other) ambiguities the script hints at (the sister rivalry, the sexual tensions, questions of identity etc., etc.). Warren is doing a straight point and shoot job, which is no job at all when it comes to psychologically oriented horror.

And it's not as if the script were perfect. Despite all its innate interest, there are some curious problems and omissions. To just take the obvious example, the film spends next to no time with Mandy as Mandy, making her change into Felicia seem premature and not as dramatic as the film pretends it is, sabotaging any possibility for Peggie Castle to play the two women using one body differently from each other, which would surely have packed more of an emotional punch for the audience.

Nonetheless, if you are able to adjust your expectations accordingly, Back from the Dead is a decent little film that may not fulfil what a promises, but at least tries something without failing completely.

 

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Beast With A Million Eyes (1955)

Allan Kelley (Paul Birch), his wife Carol (Lorna Thayer) and their college-aged-yet-acting-like-twelve-for-most-of-the-time daughter Sandra (Dona Cole) are living in the desert, running a date ranch (interesting question for a non-American: why isn't it a date farm?) without much success. Helping them out is a mute, mentally ill, and more than slightly creepy man the family only calls "Him" (Leonard Tarver), for they can't be bothered to find out his actual name.

The Kelleys are as troubled a family as you'll encounter in 50s SF horror. Allan feels emasculated over the lack of success of his business and tends to put his work before his family, Carol has been turned quite nasty thanks to being confined to the family ranch with no human contact at all (unlike Allan, she doesn't even get to see the neighbours), and Sandy clearly has her reasons to want to leave for College as soon as she can.

Fortunately, the titular creature (spoiler: that thing with the million eyes is a metaphor, as the alien explains before the plot starts) has landed in the desert close to the family's farm, destroying Carol's much-loved glass and porcelain wares in the process via a nasty high-pitched noise, and there's nothing better to get a family back together than an alien invasion.

At first, the alien turns the local wildlife aggressive, leading to an unconvincing bird attack, the most polite attack by family dog ever put to film, and one of the neighbours being nearly killed by his cow (ending his "comical" antics, so well done, cow). Eventually, the alien does turn its mental powers on the "weaker minded" humans around, putting the mind whammy on "Him" and trying its luck with Sandra, but Allan and Carol find a very hippie-esque way to deal with the problem.

The Beast With A Million Eyes is a very early Roger Corman production, with a belaboured and painful production history featuring unconvinced ("Where is the monster?" - "Why, it's invisible!" - "No way!" - "Oh, alright, have a hand puppet!") distributors and pissed off unions (turns out unions don't like it when you try to get around paying union rates - who knew!?). It's probable that the film's official director David Kramarsky didn't do any directing at all, and that Corman did the rush-job himself, making this the great man's second stint on the director's chair.

This early in his career, Corman wasn't quite as good at working around the problems of a miniscule budget as he would soon become, and so The Beast is plagued by a number of expected problems, like too many scenes of desperately unexciting filler scenes of people walking through the desert, acting that is all over the place (though sometimes - especially from Thayer and Birch - pretty good for a change), an inappropriate but free soundtrack of classical music, entirely unconvincing to ridiculous (cow attacks are never ever frightening) animal attacks, and a climax that is only exciting if you really like to watch people talk to a kettle-like contraption in the desert. Let's not even talk about the monster, except to mention that this is the first bit of work Paul Blaisdell did for Corman.

On the positive side, the film's script has more than just one good idea. The first twenty minutes, which are predominantly spent on the family's troubles, are excellent, showing a group of people whose love has faded thanks to the horrors of day to day life, and even allowing Thayer's Carol more complexity than just making her a bitch. In this context, I can't even fault the film for the woozy idea of people loving each other again being the solution to their alien problems. It might work out too pat, but putting the emphasis on the love instead of the duty in familial relations seems like a very un-50s and un-conservative thing to do. It's also pretty neat that one of the plot points setting up the film's happy end for the family is that Allan finally bothers to find out "Him"'s real name, giving him back the full humanity the family had denied the man until then (not that it helps the poor guy survive, but it's not as if modern movies would treat the mentally ill much better; after all, there's nobody shouting at producers and writers for the slightest transgression real or imagined or supposed towards them for them).

The film's ropy execution may generally overwhelm the script's intelligence and humanity, however, I do prefer a film that tries something and fails to one that doesn't try anything and still fails, so I can't help but like The Beast With A Million Eyes more than its actual quality deserves.

 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Some Thoughts on The Spiral Staircase (1945)

I hardly need to tell anyone that Robert Siodmak's thriller comes close to early perfection of the form (and is stylistically closer to my heart than Hitchcock's comparable films, but let's not go there), nor that the biggest hurdles it has overcome for a modern viewer are its alcoholism-based comic relief, its jerky romantic lead (who fortunately isn't important to the narrative at all and disappears from it early on - it's a film most interested in its female characters), and what can be read as its ableist tendencies. Siodmak overcomes most of these problems through the sheer beauty of his filmmaking, an eye for mood-building detail and a sense for filmic rhythm that just stops this viewer from thinking about possible flaws in the narrative. It's the sort of film that establishes its position as a period piece and the character of its lead by having her visit a silent movie.

With the high quality of filmmaking (Nicholas Musuraca's photography being another special point of beauty) a given, what I found most remarkable rewatching The Spiral Staircase was, how much of the film visually pre-shadows the giallo. There are shots and scenes that will later be quoted (by Bava and Argento, for example) and re-quoted (by directors unconsciously quoting Bava's quotes) in just about every Italian film of the genre you'd care to mention. No genre is, of course, without its predecessors, but I've seldom seen a whole genre (except for the sleaze and the colour) so close to coming into existence twenty years before the fact.

 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In short: Horny House of Horror (2010)

aka Fashion Hell

Original title: Fasshon heru

Little do the friends of freshly eloped - and virginal! - Nakatsu (Yuya Ishikawa) expect that dragging their unwilling (eloped plus virgin plus thinking paying women for sex is morally problematic does make a guy awkward in this kind of situation, it seems - who knew!?) buddy into a "massage" parlour to celebrate his leaving their amateur baseball team will lead to lost primary sexual organs, fountains of blood, and death.

For this very special parlour is owned by an unseen man who likes to watch everything going on there via hidden cameras and pays the three prostitutes working there - Nonoko (Asami), Kaori (Mint Suzuki), and Nagisa (Saori Hara) - not to have sex with men for money (we call that the traditional option), but to cut off their clients' penises and kill them (yup, in that order), so that he can then do whatever with those darling sexual organs.

Two out of three amateur baseball players are soon enough emasculated, but Nakatsu is lucky. His hesitation in betraying his fiancée and the fact that Nagisa isn't quite as happy with the penis-cutting business as her colleagues save his manhood. But will his semi-innocence be enough to save him, his friends and Nagisa?

If you're even only slightly acquainted with the ways of exploitation cinema, you will be not at all surprised that the bubble of Japanese film-makers surrounding saintly Noboru Iguchi not only have one foot in the regular pinku business, but also dabble in movies that fuse that genre's softcore sex with the merry gore and slight to outright craziness of their other films. Horny House (which actually is a better English title for the movie at hand than Fashion Hell, because the latter title is based on an untranslatable pun) was directed by Jun Tsugita, whose first real movie as a director (after a lot of writing work) it seems to be.

Despite my status as a self-declared admirer of this particular part of what's left of Japan's exploitation movie industry, I did not go into Horny House expecting much of it; there is after all a sad but long tradition of sex comedies being completely unfunny and of attempts to mix pinku (or any kind of softcore sex, really) and horror movies being generally without success in the sexiness or horror parts of the equation. Colour me confused when I frequently laughed about the (admittedly low-brow) humour, did not mind the (not actually made to be titillating) sex scenes and found myself looking forward to the next mutilation.

Most of the film's success for me lies in its more than decent script. While Tsugita doesn't seem to be anything special as a director (though he does nothing problematic in this role), he sure does know how to write a low budget movie taking place in about four rooms without having to bloat it up with half an hour of filler. For my tastes, Tsugita's sense of timing and escalation make much of the film, and turn what could be a drab experience into a pleasant seventy minutes. Pleasant, that is, if you like blood fountains, random Sonny Chiba karate movie jokes, and bitten off penises, and do agree with me that having a black censorship circle only on the tips of hacked off sexual organs is hilarious. Well, and the actors seem to have fun, too.

Plus, nekkid people.