Sunday, November 27, 2011

Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)

When it comes to the exploitation and grindhouse movies that horror filmmakers are trying to emulate currently, Italy really was the world leader. Sure, there are some amazing exploitation movies from Indonesia and the US and I'm just now discovering Canadian exploitation, but goddamn did the Italians do it sleazier, bloodier, and nudier than anyone else.

Take, for example, Strip Nude for Your Killer, a movie that ups the gore and nudity way over the usual giallo level. The story begins with a botched abortion leaving a pretty young woman dead and the doctor and an accomplice leaving her body in her home to make it look like an accident. This is followed, after the credits, with said doctor getting stabbed to death by a killer in black leather and a motorcycle helmet, and the black riding gloves that no giallo killer would be without.

Next we’re in a luxury hotel where Carlo, the world’s most obnoxious fashion photographer, played by Castel Nuovo, picks up the gorgeous Lucia (Femi Benussi) from the pool by following her around, taking pictures of her ass, and telling her he can get her in Vogue before screwing her in the sauna. Soon this charmer of a man pulls her into the dreamy, soft-lit 70s world of the Milan fashion industry, where everyone seems to be sleeping together or stabbing each other in the back. Also, there’s a killer in a black motorcycle suit stabbing everyone to death. It's not the old home on the farm to be sure.

Much of the film plays as a soap opera. The editor Giselle (Amanda) is a bitchy lesbian who wants Lucia all to herself. Her husband Maurizio is a fat virgin who tries to seduce the models because she won't sleep with him. The lovely Edwige Fenech plays Madga, a photographer who wants to break into modeling and, improbably, has been unsuccessful so far. The model Patricia, , seems to be in her own world. Someone is trying to blackmail Giselle, Carlo is sleeping with Magda in spite of being ridiculously chauvinistic, even for an Italian flick, and again there's that killer. So high drama here.

Strip Nude for Your Killer is both sleazier than the average giallo and a lot more fun than normal. Whenever the plot starts to drag, a character takes her clothes off; whenever you get tired of the female flesh, someone gets killed in gruesome red tempera paint F/X. The mystery isn't that hard to solve and Fenech pretty much saves the film by being more likable than anyone else, and the horror scenes don't induce much fear. But, the film delivers enough skin, sleaze, and splatter to satisfy.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Burrowers (2008)

Basically The Searchers with monsters, The Burrowers brings horror to the old West. Set in the Dakotas, 1879, the film begins with a Terrence Mallick style flashback and then an effective sequence in which a frontier family being assailed by something from the outside hides, unsuccessfully, in the root cellar. The next morning, Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), who has been courting the daughter with plans to marry, arrives to discover his girl missing with half the family gone and the other half halved. So, the prairie folk form a posse to track down the Indians they reckon are doing terrible things to their Christian womenfolk. But, they soon find that what they’re tracking is a lot worse than Indians and most likely tracking them as well.

Setting off with a Confederate army regiment, Fergus befriends a freed slave named Walnut (Sean Patrick Thomas) who he can relate to on some level we’re to understand, as an Irish immigrant. The two break off with William (William Mapother), Dobie (Galen Hutchison), and John Clay (Clancy Brown) after the General tortures an Indian, making this subplot a bit desultory, but adding a sense of the evils that men can do to one another before we get to the evils that monsters do. It all pays off with a sardonic, bitter ending.

The monsters themselves, called “burrowers”, are pretty great. Living underground and coming out at night to feed, they inject their victims with a tranquilizing poison, bury them, and come back to dine on them later. As created by Robert Hall, they look a bit like crabwalking mole people. Horror fans will really appreciate how much of this is done with girls in rubber suits instead of cartoony CGI. These monsters have weight and solidity to them and seem like they could fuck you up.

J.T. Petty has done an excellent job of creating something genre fans haven’t seen before and pulling off a tense third act. The photography by Phil Parmet should be given special notice for making a low budget film look gorgeous, although obviously the New Mexico locations helped. If there’s any weakness in the movie, it’s the dialogue, which veers frequently towards the cliché (“He took everything this country could throw at him”) and seldom sounds historically accurate. That’s the only problem I had with the thing though. Horror fans are recommended to dig this one up. (Get it?! Wow, that's a good one!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sexy Nights of the Living Dead (1980)

It’s probably not a big surprise that Joe D’Amato eventually went into hardcore porn. We all saw it coming and, yes, it's a bit weird to see a movie that combines hardcore fucking with zombies and splatter, but it's not like a bad weird, just a weird weird.

Okay, our story (what there is of it) begins in a psychiatric hospital where a patient played by Italian stalwart George Eastman stares blankly into space, but apparently not so blankly as to discourage a hot young nurse from tearing open her gown and impaling herself on his schlong. This scene is shot soft core, but it’s pretty vigorous and totally irrelevant to the plot. For those of you who were wondering, Eastman doesn't do hardcore in the film. He was in Anthropophagus; he doesn't have to.

Anyway, we flash back to the nutbar Larry’s previous life, taking rich men fishing on his boat and fooling around with their hot young wives. Into the picture strides John Wilson (), a land developer who has come into an island to purchase cheap. Something’s fishy though as the government official who’s signed the lease has a voodoo idol on his desk (cue scary synthesizer music here)! Also, he feels that people are following him and spying on him, so he's a bit uncomfortable.

Not so uncomfortable as to avoid fucking. Shannon was apparently willing to do the porno sex scenes that Eastman was not, and there’s a pointless interlude in which he screws two girls that he met at the hotel, or something. Wilson’s wart encrusted balls were a fairly disgusting non-FX touch. This is intercut with a scene in which a local’s voodoo ritual brings out a hooded zombie who bites out his throat. It possibly says something about me that I found the gore scene more interesting than the sex.

Unfortunately, the hotel sluts won’t come with Wilson to Cat Island, but Wilson hooks up with a hot, spoiled slut played by Dirce Funari, who is more than willing to come along and cocktease Larry, who naturally charters the ship. Trouble is clearly afoot- after screwing another local girl, a zombie tries to climb aboard the ship, so Larry brains it in the head with the anchor before actually checking to make sure it was a zombie. Clearing up any confusion, the zombie gets up and bites the neck of the doctor doing the autopsy.

Things go on like this until they get to the island, which has some sort of supernatural force protecting it. Larry's a capitalist prick who wants to plow over the local cemetery, get the old man and his daughter living there forced out, and put up a Planet Hollywood or some such shit. The daughter is played by Laura Gemser, who also doesn't do hardcore, but gets naked a lot, fools around with the three interlopers, and then disappears regularly. There's also an evil cat wandering around yowling.

And, thank fucking goodness, there are some goddamn zombies in the last reel. The scenes of zombies wandering around the beach in shrouds are right out of Zombi and the suspense is not that suspenseful. I do think it's possible to do a scary horror film with sex in it, but not this one. This one is only really suited for zombie completists or warty ball completists.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Emanuelle on Taboo Island (1976)

At this point, does it come as any surprise to hear that this movie has nothing to do with the Italian Emanuelle character, but just happens to star Laura Gemser? I suspect if Laura Gemser had appeared in Star Wars, the exploitation distributors would have called it "Emanuelle in Space". The alternative title for this one was "A Beach Called Desire", which is pretty bland, but has the advantage of not being false advertising. After all, this is just a Blue Lagoon rip off, not an Emanuelle rip off.

Okay, here's our story: Daniel (Paolo Giusti) is a member of a heroin addicted biker gang who gets freaked out when he sees his comrade screwing a strung out (maybe dead) girl on the beach and takes off in a motorboat (a motorboat called desire, no doubt), promptly knocking himself out while swerving to miss a large ship and waking up lost at sea after his boat has run out of gas. Luckily, he comes upon a seemingly deserted island with plenty of sun, surf, and food supplies, but sadly no heroin. You can't win 'em all.

When someone screws up Daniel's S.O.S. sign for the small planes that fly overhead regularly, he realizes that the deserted island is not so deserted after all, and soon he discovers a hut with a brother and sister, Juan (Nicola Paguone) and Heydee (Laura Gemser) living there. They’re the children of Antonio (Arthur Kennedy), who escaped from a prison years ago, apparently by swimming like a motherfucker, since he made it to this island. Even though “they say this island is damned, here I found salvation”. Antonio’s kind of a jerk and the brother and sister are having sex, which makes perfect sense, given that she’s played by Laura Gemser and walks around frequently wearing nothing but a loincloth.

Soon, Juan is teaching Daniel how to spearfish and he’s teaching Haydee how to screw someone other than her brother. Understandably, he falls in love with her and she develops feelings for him, but can this dope addict and this brotherfucker find happiness together? Clearly, the island idyll has been disrupted by this outsider who Antonio considers a, “prisoner! Of dope! Money! Cars! Wars! The whole rotten mess!” He’s clearly the king of the kingdom and wants Daniel out of the picture. He’s hoping Daniel will leave with some fishermen who stop by the island regularly in spite of the supposed curse- this plus the planes going overhead regularly suggests that Antonio is really shitty at picking hideouts. Juan, meanwhile, wants to screw Heide, who doesn’t want him now that she has love. And Daniel is turning his life around and screwing Laura Gemser, so he’d really rather stay. Since this is an Italian sexploitation flick, you sort of figure it’s going to end violently- with these movies, you come for the sex and stay for the violence.

Basically, this is an Italian sexploitation rip off of the Blue Lagoon. The direction is workmanlike, but never particularly imaginative. There’s minimal plot and a boring low-speed chase at the end; and Laura Gemser is topless a lot. There’s an attempt at seriousness about the noble savage and the corrupting influence of civilization. But, mainly, it’s about the tits. Since Gemser is naked in a number of movies that are better (sort of), this one’s worth skipping.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dead Genesis (2010)

I wonder if George Romero watches very many of the dozens of zombie movies that are coming out these days. It's got to be hard to keep up with all of them- I can't do it- and you know he gets sent plenty of DVDs. At some point, you start to get zombie burnout. It's even less likely that he'll be reading this, but if so, hey George- this one's pretty decent!

Dead Genesis starts after the zombie apocalypse that these movies take for granted we know all about: the dead are rising with no explanation to eat the living and can only be killed by a shot to the brain. They probably could have given some explanation for all of this, but a montage of news reports is meant to suffice, and we pretty much know the drill. Besides, the movie actually begins with a brutal five minute sequence in which a character kills his zombie wife after she eats their son. It's definitely an attention-grabber. One of the old saws of screenplay writing is to capture your audience with an exciting first ten minutes and they seem to have followed that rule.

The actual story is about a documentary filmmaker (Emily Atalo) who's documenting a group of zombie hunters in the field. The group is a sort of renegade militia waging the "War on Dead" for the folks back home. It's a pretty interesting set up because it could be easily transposed to a story of a reporter embedded with a group of marines in Iraq, but the filmmakers don't exactly hit us over the head with the metaphor. Granted, there are plenty of satirical elements, such as an anti-war on the dead group and some pointed lines about the zombie hunters in the field protecting our freedom, but if you choose to view it as a straightforward zombie story, it certainly works that way too. Clearly, they're taking a cue here from Romero, whose best films work both as metaphors or as straightforward genre pics.

The reporter soon finds that the militia, pushed to the breaking point in the field, is able to dish out as much inhumanity as the zombies and her pro-war film turns troubled and ambiguous. S0me characters are revealed to be decent and just; others turn out to be scumbags, and most are in some gray area in the middle. In the end, the film comes closer than most recent horror movies to dealing directly with the current war, which is strange considering that it's been one of the longest in American history. Why aren't more horror filmmakers trying to comment on the war or terrorism, instead of trying to ape the 70s? And this one is very much a movie about America- really satirizing America- in spite of having been filmed by Canadians in Canada.

Problems? Well, it's a microbudget horror movie, which means we get plenty of scenes of characters in the woods behind someone's house in order to conserve resources. Some of the characters are pretty stock: it was guaranteed that the militia would have one tough-as-nails female, one guy who is playing cowboy, and a world-weary introspective guy with the soul of a poet. It's also guaranteed there will be at least one scene where a likable character will be bitten by a zombie and their comrades will have to kill them. And, yes, a few people will definitely get surprised while resting momentarily by zombie attacks. Finally, because it's microbudget, expect that some of the actors will be bad. It comes with the territory. One last beef: the shaky-cam in this movie is stomach-turning. I know that directors feel that using a handheld camera gives the "you are there" effect, but it really doesn't, unless you happen to be there and have Parkinson's. It's probably okay on a television set, but when projected on a big screen it was nauseating.

Serious note to aspiring low budget filmmakers: You can make a functional DIY steadicam for about thirty bucks. Do that. Please.

But, if you like zombie flicks, you'll probably enjoy Dead Genesis. It has some gruesome gore effects and is one of the precious few that effectively uses its supernatural storyline to really explore contemporary real world themes. That and its depth of characterization give the story real resonance after the final credits.

Friday, October 28, 2011

I Saw the Devil (2010)

After showing up Hollywood action flicks with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Ji-woon basically showed up Quentin Tarantino by making a frenetic, stylish, over-the-top, and grisly revenge epic that has something Tarantino's last three revenge epics lacked altogether: a sense of moral seriousness. In a lot of ways, a movie like I Saw the Devil shouldn't work as well as it does- it's tone shifts wildly from somber tragedy to cartoonish violence in a way that should alienate us. But it does work, largely because it never loses sight of the underlying sense of loss and sorrow. Its protagonist is a recognizable human falling apart under the weight of his loss. By contrast, Beatrix Kiddo is a pop archetype and already feels dated and hackneyed. This is the real story.

Revenge is, of course, a story as old as the Athenian tragedians. A dish served best cold it might be, but it makes server and eater sick alike. No good deed of vengeance goes unpunished in the Greek tragedies and Ji-woon is as cruel and penetrating as they were in showing how the desire to get revenge for a horrible misdeed can make the victim as horrible as the perpetrator. Ji-woon has called the film an Oriental Western and it reminds me of a Western like the Searchers and just how Greek the Westerns were. So, a Hellenic-Oriental Western!

When her car breaks down, a young woman is abducted, tortured and beheaded by Kyung-chul (Choi min-sik) a middle aged serial killer in a truly horrifying opening sequence. Her fiance Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hyun), who talked with her on the phone right before the killing, is haunted by the killing and takes time off from his position as a federal agent to track down the killer and pay him back for the killing. Planting a GPS tracker on him, Soo-hyun plays a game of hunter and prey, letting him go repeatedly to track him down again and torture him some more.

But, the serial killer has plans of his own and doesn't like being screwed with. Choi min-sik (from Oldboy) plays the killer as a sort of irritated, tired, asshole who thinks he has the right to do as he pleases to others. A scene in which he torments a poor secretary builds a great deal of tension, beginning with the mere sense that he just doesn't care about social niceties.

Gradually, Soo-hyun follows suit, moving farther and farther outside of the law in his attempt to transfer some of his crushing pain to Kyung-chul. He is warned that "revenge is just for movies", but can't seem to change the direction he's headed. When Kyung-chul finally tries to turn himself into the police, Soo-hyun won't let him! An attempted telephone intervention scene in the third act gives the story a surprising gravity. But the action is as frenetic as anything in The Good, the Bad, the Weird- a stabbing scene in a moving car is absolutely eye-popping. It is clear why Kim Ji-woon has become a cult favorite director.

Aside from being a tad long, I can hardly recommend this movie enough. It's shocking, brutal, strangely funny, action-packed, and surprisingly moving. More importantly, it has something that Tarantino's revenge epics lack altogether: it has a perspective.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Vampire Happening (1971)

If you remember the sex comedies of the 60s and early 70s, you'll remember that they all hinged on a very basic hypothesis: men are frequently flustered by sexy women with hilarious results. The comedy level increases as we get to more important and stuffy men, so a laborer who is distracted by a passing woman's boobs and drops wet concrete on a coworker's head is funny (provided he's not killed instantly), but a vicar who keeps inserting "breast" and "boobies" into his Sunday sermon because the same busty woman is in the front row is absolutely hysterical. For some reason, breasts tend to be highlighted over all other female body parts in these movies, which is fitting as they're the funniest.

The Vampire Happening operates largely along these lines with a Hollywood starlet arriving in Transylvania to claim an inherited family castle and finding out that her Baroness ancestor is in a coffin in the basement along with lots of torture devices and in pretty good condition considering she's been dead for over a hundred years. Both of them are played by the gorgeous Pia Degermark and the director Freddie Francis takes every possible opportunity to feature her body prominently in the film.

The story becomes a sort of dueling harlot farce. The actress is sexed up and has fun flashing the local priests and seducing everyone in the vicinity with a wang. Meanwhile, her lookalike vampire ancestor is seducing the same men but trying to suck their blood (there is a joke about the one differing because she sucks the men, yes). Then you have an older butler trying to stake the vampire and two slutty Catholic schoolgirls next door trying to get it on with some monks-in-training. In the meantime, priests, vicars, and various others get hilariously distracted by women's breasts. At a certain point, I was reminded of the joke Rick Sullivan used to make in the Gore Gazette about movies having more bared tits than a twenty acre dairy farm.

Freddie Fancis was better known as a cinematographer on films like Glory and Scorsese's Cape Fear, so the film looks beautiful and the castle is an awesome set. Degermark looks beautiful too, of course. The problem is the movie's never actually, you know, funny. Nor is it scary, of course. Unless you find Benny Hill sidesplitting but a bit too highbrow, you might want to skip this one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)

One of Lucio Fulci's most enjoyable movies, Lizard in a Woman's Skin tells the sordid tale of Carol (Florinda Bolkan), a wealthy barrister's daughter and respectable society woman with a disturbing problem: she keeps having wet dreams about screwing the hot bohemian chick (Anita Strindberg) in the flat next door during wildly surrealistic orgies. Admittedly, most of us wouldn't consider that much of a problem, but it becomes more so after Carol makes what her analyst considers a breakthrough by dreaming about killing the neighboring harlot, who then actually turns up dead. Damned Freudian psychology always makes shit worse!

Carol has other problems, including the fact that her husband Frank is screwing his secretary. Then she spots two hippies from her dream walking around London, chases them down, and finds they have no recollection of the killing. The police focus their investigation on her and she gets locked up, but soon there are hippies showing up to snuff her. Is there an evil conspiracy trying to ruin her life? Or is this a story about the psychological damage inflicted upon a woman by sexual repression and upper class hypocrisy? Maybe a little bit of both!

Lizard in a Woman's Skin is sort of Fulci's psychedelic mod mystery flick and two things help him here: the Swinging London setting, which allows for him to slip in his usual surrealistic weirdness, and the mystery plot, which forces him to stick to a coherent narrative. The Ennio Morricone score is great too, of course. I don't know that I'd consider most of Fulci's movies to be giallos, although this one definitely is; and I'm not actually a fan of most of his movies. Granted, City of the Living Dead holds a special place in my heart as the first horror movie my parents let me watch (at age 8! Thanks Mom and Dad!), but Fulci has an irritating tendency to shoot gore scenes with extremely long closeups that start to resemble the boring snatch shots in porn flicks. The problem with filming someone getting killed in slow, long closeups is you start wondering Why the hell are they just sitting there getting killed? Here, the gore is minimal and therefore more effective. There was a scene with some mutilated (fake) dogs that was a bit barf-inducing, but otherwise it's more like a real movie.

Even better, the LSD shenanigans allow Fulci to cram in lots of wacko style and filmmaking bravura. At one point, he pays homage to Francis Bacon's famous portrait of Pope Innocent X. At another, a trip through a crowded train becomes a crowded orgy! The hippie LSD party is a particular highlight. And you also have plenty of female flesh on display. What else could you want? (Maybe a bit less talking and police procedural stuff, but otherwise it's fun.)

The Shrine (2010)

Carmen (Cindy Sampson) is a journalist whose work is consuming her life and driving away her boyfriend Marcus (Aaron Ashmore). To make matters worse, her editor keeps giving her fluff pieces to work on instead of the hot lead she'd rather investigate: a backpacker who went missing in rural Poland. Luckily we saw him get crucified by some weirdo cultists in the opening scenes, so we know he's come to no good. Anyway, Carmen's ambitious and drags Marcus off to Poland to investigate with her and a younger gumshoe (Meghan Heffern), without telling anyone where they're going.

Before long, our cute 20-something Americans (in reality, Canadians with Canada standing in for America and Poland- we're the chameleon of countries!) are traipsing around hickski-ville Poland and having run ins with bizarreski Poles in a small town where the priests are menacing, the hickskis are more menacing, and there's a creepy plume of black smoke billowing in the distance. As they wander to investigate, they discover it's more like a wall of fog enveloping everything- a nice creepy effect. Inside the fog, they come across a big Pazuzu-style demon statue that bleeds motor oil out of its eyes and seems to have a strange power over the girls. Here, things start to pick up.

The Shrine is a solid little horror movie that's more of a "slow burn" than a "wild ride". It's got plenty of nice touches, like leaving the voluminous Polish spoken unsubtitled so we don't know what's going on, or using primarily practical effects, which have more weight and solidity than the digital sort. When it gets gory, it does so with vigor. Shit gets all fucked up.

In general, the movie starts out in Hostel territory (minus the commentary on globalization), passes through Children of the Corn/ Black Sunday land, and spends the third act in Evil Dead-ville with a big stop in Exorcist Town. It's not to say that the thing's unoriginal- there's enough unique touches that you don't feel like you're watching a rip off- but it's a genre film and, as such, is more concerned with hitting its beats than making deeper points about religion, culture clashes, or anything else. It's written at about the level of a comic book. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I just don't understand why we can't get relatively solid genre pictures like this into actual theaters instead of sending them right to DVD? Isn't it more fun to watch them with friends in a theater after a few beers?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blackula (1972)

Okay, so Blackula (the black Dracula) is not as scary as Dracula, but is probably better than Chackula (the Chinese Dracula) and Spackula (the Spanish Dracula), neither of which actually exist. There was a Blackenstein, however, and a Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, and at some point I'm going to film a Blummy: the Black Mummy. His bandages are black because he doesn't wash them. In the early 70s, enterprising exploitation chiselers decided to cash in on the overwhelming demand in the black community for more rip offs of the classic horror characters, but black. This film was one of those films.

In Blackula, we learn that Dracula (Charles McCauley) was a bit of a racist along with being a vampire. He screws over an African prince Mamuwalde (played by the suave William Marshall) visiting Transylvania to get Europe to abandon the slave trade (which Transylvania had fuck all to do with) and meeting with the Count, who apparently wants to screw his cute African bride (Vonetta McGee). When Mamuwalde balks at this, the Count bites his neck and locks him in a coffin to suffer for eternity without blood.

Jump to the early seventies when a couple of interior decorators buy the coffin for their home and Blackula pops out to suck their blood before heading out into the L.A. streets to bite a sassy taxi driver and fall in love with a hot young girl Tina who looks just like his late bride. By an amazing coincidence, the investigator trying to solve the crimes, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is Tina's brother, although he's getting no help at all from the Man. Soon, Tina and Blackula are in love, but they can't be together.

Of course, if you remember, pretty much all those old Universal monster movies were about thwarted love- Dracula, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and finally Frankenstein were made horrible by not being able to have a go with their desired mates. Here, it's society that's trying, as usual, to stick it to the black (vampire) man. The race aspect actually gives the society's monster theme an unusual level of resonance. Mamuwalde was a prince in Africa who had everything stripped from him by a white devil, was shipped to America in a boat, and is now hounded and oppressed by the authorities over his understandable rage. Fuck if there's not resonance there.

Blackula is not a particularly gory film- its PG rating is about right. And you might have noticed that it's more than a little illogical. It's more like a kid's movie or something you'd see uncut on TV. But, here at least, the combination of a classic monster and a blacksploitation flick works pretty well.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

After I moved to Canada, I learned a whole other way to look at movies: are they openly Canadian or secretly Canadian?

A ton of movies are shot up north, either by American or Canadian production companies, and the difference seems to be between ones like Juno or Meatballs that don't acknowledge their Canadian parentage, and those like The Fly that don't exactly hide it, which stirs the pride of Canadian genre fans. My Bloody Valentine is an example of the latter: on more than one occasion, I've heard it described as the "Canadian slasher movie". Now, having first watched the movie in America, I never noticed that it isn't set in an American town. It always looked that way to me. But, for Canadians, it's obviously set in Canada. Basically, the accent that Americans can't quite place is from the maritime provinces instead of New England, and it actually is meaningful that everyone drinks Moosehead in the film- very meaningful. This is what Canucks see as most characteristically and unmistakably Canadian- the beer!

So, I'm going to take their word for it. My Bloody Valentine is a slasher film set in a working class Canadian town (obviously!) defined by its coal mine. Years ago, there was an explosion in the mines that made one the one surviving miner eat his dead colleagues and go crazy (and one thing is for sure about slashers: they just can't let shit go!), and so he put on the scary miner outfit and started a killing. He killed the foreman who left the mine early for the Valentine's Dance and killed the dude on Valentine's Day and he has a thing against the Valentine's Dance (another thing about slashers- they pick a holiday and really watch their calendars!). Now it's the 1980s present day and they're thinking of holding another Valentine's Dance. Those damned fools!

On top of this, you have a love triangle going on. T.J. left the shit hole town for California (no mention is made that he went to another country. Just saying) to make it big as a professional flautist (just kidding) and now he's back with hat in hand to work in his dad's mine. Lisa, his old girlfriend has since shacked up with his old buddy Axel, and now she can't decide which dick she wants. So the two friends are fighting over her throughout the movie, pussy being scarce in Nova Scotia, and meanwhile the Mayor and Sheriff are trying to handle the series of killings that just keep happening and trying to find out if that crazy miner is still in the mental institution or not.

A lot of people say that My Bloody Valentine is their favorite slasher film and I can see the appeal- you've got a good small town romantic drama set in a working class milieu, a clever psycho on the loose story, and lots of nifty gore effects by Thomas Berman and his crew. The effects, incidentally, were only recently released via Lion's Gate DVD; the original film was hacked to bits by the ever-cowardly Paramount Pictures in order to appease the MPAA. There's also a great folk song about the killer over the end credits. And, frankly, after all the dumb suburban brats getting killed in slasher movies, it's fun to see blue collar kids with blue collar problems for once.

The problem, for me, is that the killer looks cool, but he's yet another faceless psycho for the most part, and the main characters, while not as insipid as the usual slasher victims, aren't that interesting. I don't really care which dick Sarah chooses, although we all know she's going to pick her first love in the end. Ultimately, slasher films are hard for me to get into because they're so formulaic that I know exactly what's going to happen next for 90% of the running time. I'll agree though that My Bloody Valentine is much better than average (unless your average is Halloween). Way to go, Canadians!

Savage Intruder (1970)

The Savage Intruder starts with a great credit sequence of the decrepit and rotting Hollywood sign panning down to a severed head and hands lying in the dirt below. It's a nice visual commentary on a Hollywood studio system that knows where to bury its bodies. Also, it introduces us to a serial killer who is slashing up older women in the Hollywood Hills, which makes sense because the young ones run away a lot faster in the usual slasher flick. It's a wonder nobody thought of this before. He's played by David Garfield, son of screen legend John Garfield, and we see him follow an old lady home from a bad and cut her up in her bathroom early in the film so there's no mystery about that. The opening scenes, though, are both pretty grim and gruesome, setting up a tone that the movie doesn't really maintain.

Instead, the film shifts into Hollywood Boulevard/Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? mode as the young punk slasher, Vic, turns his attentions to aged former movie star Katherine Parker, played by real life elderly ex-movie star Miriam Hopkins (from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde among others). Her glory days solidly behind her, now she spends her days in a vast and creepy mansion drinking heavily and imagining she's at the gala balls that have since ended. Introducing himself as Laurel N. Hardy, the hippie slasher gets a job as a personal assistant for the old biddy, which we know won't go well.

The movie plays up the arrogance of the 60s generation against the decrepit glamour of 1930s Hollywood. Vic gets under the skin of the house matron played by Gale Sondergaard and into the panties of the Asian maid Greta who he calls "my little fortune cookie". He also shoots up and hallucinates about running down a cool endless day-glo checkerboard hallway to a room where his mother is having a sexual rendezvous with five guys before the child Vic chops her hand off with a hatchet. Mamma was a whore and a lush and now Vic kills older matronly women- Freud would get it. Throwing a spanner in the works, Katherine jumps his bones and falls in love with the young punk. Cue the acid rock!

So psycho Vic's plan is to turn the old bat into a sugar mamma and he's willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. Instead of being a "savage intruder", he's really more of an opportunist with a psycho streak and a genuinely creepy character. Katherine, meanwhile, is a delusional alcoholic in the Gloria Swanson mode. She was always big; it was the killer hippies that got small! Things get sufficiently gory in spots and really weird in others. In one great sequence, Vic takes Katherine to a hippie drug party where she encounters a drug pushing midget, black and gay stereotypes, crazy wallpaper, and the cast of Laugh-In basically. In another, she gets drunk at the late night Christmas parade and bitches to a television reporter about the "queers" on Hollywood Boulevard.

For about the first hour, this contrast between the psychedelic generation and the older lonely booze hound works pretty well. Like The Night God Screamed, the older set's fears about the hippie creeps are totally justified here! The gore effects are surprisingly good, considering it was filmed in 1969. Eventually, though, it starts to run out of steam, right about the point Vic starts holding Katherine hostage. The last half hour really repeats itself. One also the unmistakable feeling of having seen all of this before in some classic movies. Also the last half hour really repeats itself. (Ba-dum-tish!) Anyway, it's still worth a rental if you've ever wanted to see a gorier drug era version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Actually, it's not on DVD, so you'd have to find a place that rents VHS, or rents movies at all anymore. God, now I feel like an old timer!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jungle Warriors (1984)

Jungle Warriors begins with overhead shots of a jungle, appropriately enough, and a rock song about needing "your heat" that is notable mainly because the singer, Marina Arcangeli, could kill small animals solely with the power of her horrific singing. Soon we're watching a gang of guerrilla rebels blast up a jungle camp at the bidding of drug lord Cesar Santiago (played by Paul Smith, Bluto himself) who tortures a dude, promises to protect his family and then snaps his neck very unconvincingly. As if Smith isn't a great enough villain, he has a femme fatale sister Angel, played by 80s B-movie queen Sybil Danning, who's apparently sharing bodily fluids with him.

Into this domestic drama tromps a bunch of 80s fashion models with big hair heading into the jungles of South America to do a hot photo shoot that looks to be in la mode de Sears. Their annoying manager, meanwhile, tries to pick up South American chicks with 80s pickup lines like, "I got Quaaludes, I got cocaine... any game you can name, any amount you can count." As if this wasn't enough brilliance for three movies, John Vernon shows up as a Chicago mobster looking to do business with Santiago and chew a lot of scenery.

You can see where this is going: the models' little plane is shot down by Santiago's men, they make their way through the jungle for a while, get taken prisoner, and some rapes and tortures ensue at the hands of bisexual femme fatale Angel and a bunch of big guerrillas, including one dude in an E.T. tee shirt! The gang rape scene is also unique for being considerably more exciting than anything that happens in the first hour or so of the movie. Things pick up towards the end, when the models fight their way to freedom and lots of shit gets blowed up real good.

So, this is basically a sexploitation actioner with an all-star cast of overactors. Paul Smith looking pissed! Sybil Danning looking naked! John Vernon laughing hysterically at every occasion! Woody Strode smiling! Dennis Hopper cut out of the movie for drug problems! By comparison, the heroines are colorless. And, weirdly enough, for a movie with such bad acting firepower, the whole thing is sort of boring. The sex and violence come fairly late and it takes forever to get there. You feel like you're in the jungle and getting nowhere fast.

Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of the great filmmakers in the history of cinema and his best known film, The Trial of Joan of Arc, is arguably also a horror film about the terrors a society can inflict upon its scourges. It's also remembered for its destabilizing and intense close-ups of faces seemingly lost in space. Renee Maria Falconetti's performance in that silent film is legendary in fact. In Vampyr, his actual horror film, there are less close ups, but one close up in particular, of actress Sybille Schmitz as Léone a young woman enthralled by a vampire and dwindling away in her sick bed, is chill inducing. I often prefer horror movies made by non-horror directors because they bring in influences outside of the genre while quite often going for broke and trying to scare the daylights out of us.

Vampyr was made on the dawn of sound films and shot in three different languages; as a result, Dreyer used very little spoken dialogue and constructed an image-heavy, nearly silent movie. It plays like a very bad dream. Drawing loosely from J. Sheridan Fanu's ghost stories, Vampyr shows us a young man, Allan, who we are told is obsessed with the supernatural, coming to an inn where an old man enters his room on the first night to give him a letter to be opened on the event of his death. Wandering outside, he follows a series of beckoning shadows leading him to an even stranger castle where he spies through a window as the lord of the castle is murdered. Staying for a rest, he discovers that the younger daughter is slipping away to a terminal illness- it turns out she's being drained of her blood by a mysterious figure late at night. When Allan opens the package, it turns out to be a book on vampires.

This, then is a classic 19th century style tale of the eerie and uncanny. It's very effective partly because of how the uncanny events follow dream logic and also because Dreyer has an eye for surreal imagery. His silhouette camera tricks are very clever and quite often he frames things in ways that aren't quite right although it's not immediately apparent where they're wrong. It's a strange and slow-moving movie, even for the era, and might not be immediately accessible for modern viewers. Some viewers complain about falling asleep while watching the movie, which is appropriate because it's already like a dream. It feels as if anything can happen and Dreyer will break any rule of filmmaking. It's also a fascinating film because you can't just watch it and follow along from the start. Instead, you have to learn the logic of the world depicted based on what Dreyer is showing you or not showing you. For that reason, it's still a thrilling movie, both from a technical standpoint and because it's so creepy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Headless Eyes (1971)

If you were a single lady and you woke up with a cat burglar robbing you, what would you do? Grab a spoon from the night stand and scoop out his eyeball, right? Well, that's exactly what happens to Arthur (Bo Brundin, who appeared the next year in Jerry Lewis's lost Holocaust epic The Day the Clown Cried) in the beginning of The Headless Eyes (there's a great band name for you), Kent Bateman's serial killer opus from 1971. The lady in question removes his eyeball, setting him off on an ill-fated obsession with getting people's eyes and saving them in his shit hole apartment that rivals the one in Eraserhead for sheer grubbiness. Some he keeps frozen in blocks of resin in the freezer. He's also an artist.
Arthur is unsuccessful as an artist, but surprisingly successful in killing, bludgeoning to death a married couple that let him into their house because they remembered him fondly from staring insanely at them on the street! The gore is darker and more realistic than the usual poster paint red used in horror movies from the era and the killing scene is fairly disturbing. Cementing the sense that New Yorkers in the 70s were dumb as a brick, Arthur is soon picked up by a hot blonde hooker in a miniskirt moved by the sight of a mumbling manic stranger covered in blood on the sidewalk and does what you'd expect. The new tourism slogan should be "New York: We make killing easy!"

His ex-wife comes back to save him from his self-imposed exile and "from whatever it is that's changed you". She doesn't even ask where his eye went. In response, he rants for quite a long time about the finer points of madness in a scene that perches right on the line between creepy and melodramatic. Much of the movie maintains a squalid, gritty tone helped a lot by the fact that it was clearly made for a few thousand bucks at most. Later, a young artist approaches him and seems to offer, briefly, the hope of a better life- one with less eye-gougings.

There are also some nice touches. Arthur hangs out in the crowd of neighbors being interviewed by a news reporter about the killings. There's a senile old lady who sits on the sidewalk mumbling, "I know who did it!" At one point, Arthur has a hallucination in which he's running around the streets dressed in white. Throughout, there is some fairly effective psychedelic jazz on the soundtrack. It's not a completely artless film, although it has its share of poorly composed, out-of-focus shots and meandering sequences.

The problem is that the story itself meanders way too much. Arthur kills a woman, does some stuff at home, kills another woman, does some other stuff, and so on and so on. What's wrong with Arthur is never really explained, although the police detective's explanation for the killings is great: "God knows. Some kind of pervert, demented, I don't know." The killer talks to himself a lot and offers the explanation, "I... am... twisted!" at one point. That's pretty evident, thanks. He seems to hate women, probably thanks to losing his eye, and kills plenty of them. But the somewhat mellow jazz and focus problems kill any tension and the film drags. Not a lot really happens. It was just weird and disturbing enough to watch once, but that's about it.

Stagefright (1987)

>Stagefright begins with a great sequence in which a hooker on a city street is strangled in an alleyway, bringing out the neighbours to investigate, before suddenly turning into a stylish dance number lead by a killer in an owl head mask. We’re in the rehearsals for a new musical play and the moody director Peter (David Brandon) is feuding with the money-conscious and actress-ass conscious financer (Piero Vida) and the cute lead actress Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) who is struggling to play a whore. There’s also Brett (let’s give it up for Italian horror stalwart Giovanni Lombardo Radice) the bitchy gay lead, Laurel (Mary Sellers) a slutty young actress, Sybil (Jo Ann Smith) a supporting player dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, and all of the ordinary madness that one deals with in the theatre.

To make matters worse, a notorious maniac escapes from the nearby mental institution and hitches a ride to the theatre from the actresses who’d stopped by for attention to a twisted ankle in a very implausible plot twist. Soon theatre folk start dropping like melodramatic flies and Peter the director, smelling a publicity windfall, starts rewriting the script to parallel the killer on the loose!

Argento protégé Michael Soavi directs this stylish giallo like a backstage soap opera with killings. Giallos were one of the sources for the slasher films of the 80s and they usually play like slasher films with prog rock and adults instead of dumb teens buying the farm. Soavi handles the set pieces with a decent level of panache and the theatrical angle is a cool twist- before long, the real killer is showing up on stage and stabbing an actress to death in full view of the cast and crew! The gore effects are clever and plentiful; in one great bit, an actress is pulled down through a rotten wooden floor and retrieved in half.

The film uses some of the usual dumb slasher tropes- does every social group have at least one prankster who can actually be assumed to be pulling pranks when there’s a killer on the loose? Couldn’t the police have assigned more than two fat and lazy cops to guard a theatre where it’s known a psychopathic killer is prowling? Why do these killers become suddenly much less effective at stalking and killing when they get to the last woman alive? But it also has a fair level of atmosphere and some good tense scenes and enough good gore effects to make up for the usual plot holes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Shock (1977)

A haunted house epic with a perverse domestic twist or two, Shock is perhaps middling Mario Bava, but it has some memorable images and maybe even a shock or two.

A couple and their son moves into a house that they probably should have avoided altogether. The wife Dora, played by Argento regular Daria Nicolodi, is understandably uneasy about moving back into the house, where her first husband, a junkie, killed himself, but her new husband Bruno, played by John Steiner also from all sorts of Italian flicks, insists on it- quite the sensitive husband there. (To round out the feeling that we're with the Italian exploitation repertory company, Ivan Rassimov shows up as a doctor.) Making matters worse for Dora, their son Marco is one of those little kids in movies who are easily amused by paranormal happenings in old houses, and he's at that difficult age where they're so susceptible to being possessed by their dead fathers.

What's fairly effective about the movie is that Bava keeps it unclear whether the kid is possessed, the father's ghost is haunting the joint, or they've just got a brat for a son. Marco resents his mother's relationship with Bruno and makes all sorts of difficulty, at one point telling his mother that he has to kill her. He may or may not have sent her flowers, allegedly from her dead husband. At one point, Marco pretends to hump her. Before long, things start moving around the house on their own and Dora is hallucinating rotting hands grabbing her. She starts slipping in her domestic duties, leading Bruno to remind her, "There's nothing worse for a marriage than sending a husband off without his coffee". Nothing? One would think being haunted by a vengeful junkie ghost would cause more problems.

The strength of these haunted house films is their atmosphere. Bava does a good job here with the sound design and striking visuals, such as a scene in which Nicolodi's hair goes every which way as she lies in bed and another in which Marco suddenly becomes the dead husband. Admittedly, as with most of these movies, there's only so many scenes you can take of people wandering around hallways and basements alone. Also, even after the plot reveals its dark secrets and explains why Bruno and Dora moved back into the house it doesn't really make sense. But, there are some good moments of fear and Bava and Nicolodi knew what they were doing by this point, so it all works out.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Red Heat (1985)

Poor little Linda Blair's acting career only went south after the Exorcist, which in the 80s meant she was appearing in skin mags and exploitation films. In the case of Red Heat, she's made a fairly convincing case that she actually believed she was making a serious dramatic story of one woman's survival in an East German prison under Communism, instead of another women-in-prison flick with all of the requisite soapy shower and steamy lesbian sex scenes. It's convincing because the movie quite often seems like a serious drama and only delivers the exploitation goods intermittently.

Blair plays Christine Carlson, a nice American girl in East Germany to visit her Army boyfriend Mike at the same time that a lady scientist is trying to escape to the West with commie state secrets. Stumbling into the cliched wrong place at the wrong time, Christine gets hauled in with the turncoat scientist and taken to an East German prison where she's forced to confess to crimes she never committed and sentenced to thirty years. For the first half hour of the film, it really does play like a serious cold war drama. At least until Christine wanders into a four girl fuck fest on her first night in the clink.

The head lesbian tough girl, Sofia, is played by Sylvia Kristel, who certainly looks a bit rougher around the edges here compared to her breakout role in the original Emmanuelle. Naturally, Sofia's got a relationship with the super butch prison guard. Indeed, all of the cliches are accounted for: the beaten down old timers who have given up hope, the kindly older woman who befriends our new fish heroine, the bullying dykes, and the girl who is abused so long she gives up hope and kills herself to get away from the bullying dykes. One wonders how more PC viewers respond these days to the fact that the lesbians in these movies are nearly always the malicious villains, or if it gets in the way of their enjoyment of all the tits and pussy eating. One weird thing- everyone in Germany speaks English in this movie.

Then there's all the tortures and beatings. This one gets particularly ugly early on with a nasty violation scene. Admittedly, if you're watching a women-in-prison flick, you sort of have to expect that, at some point, something will be shoved up a vagina by someone. Sofia is a pretty decent bad girl; in an interesting twist, Kristel's character is openly dominating the head guard. Also interesting is the totalitarian East aspect of the story. In one particularly interesting scene, the women are made to watch a propaganda film about how Communism has liberated the working class.

But, if you've seen more than one of these films, you know where the storyline is going: Christine finds her inner strength and becomes an inspiration to those beaten down old timers, while Mike works round the clock to free her. Eventually, the yanks break her out, but there's not as much lesbo commupance as one might expect. In general, Red Heat suffers greatly from taking itself way too seriously to be a fun exploitation flick and being way too poorly made to be a serious prison drama.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

Holy fuck! This is the real deal shit- a movie that absolutely pulls no punches. Nine times out of ten when you see a trailer that makes a movie look uncompromising, you finally watch the movie and find it wimps out by about the second act. But The Spook that Sat by the Door is so uncompromising that United Artists actually had it pulled from theatres shortly after its release claiming it was too politically sensitive and it wasn't seen again for about thirty years. Rumor has it the FBI strongly suggested they pull the film, which was doing quite well, from release. For once, I believe the rumors.

I've said before that what's missing from neo-grindhouse movies is the political subtext of the 60s and 70s. Those old movies were made by people who were outside of and often pretty angry at the establishment- they were trying to say something- while fanboys are usually apolitical and uninterested in the world outside of film. This movie is a prime example of what I'm talking about- it became a cult classic largely because it's extremely, even frighteningly radical. You couldn't make a movie like this today, partly because of the production/distribution system, sure; but also because nobody today has the sort of consciousness required to think something like this up. Instead, we get something like Machete that isn't entirely sure what it's about.

One of the brilliant touches of the film is how it plays off of and subverts your expectations. We're introduced to Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a token black candidate for the CIA training program who, for at least the first third of the movie seems to be struggling earnestly to make it in a white man's world. There are some very sharp observations here about black assimilation and we find it very easy to wonder if Freeman hasn't deluded himself about the reality of racism in the CIA. He's clearly the token- the spook who's sat by the door to impress newcomers with the 'integration' going on- and the film leads us to believe that he'll struggle to prove himself in the institution. I've read reviews that say it's clear from the start that he's a 'black nationalist' but it wasn't to me.

In the next act, he returns to Chicago after a fruitless tenure in a meaningless government sinecure to help the inner city black community. The initial implication is that he's going to found a community center of some sort, but when he hears some young kids talking about black militancy in a pool hall, he offers to teach them real tactics of guerrilla warfare to use against the white authorities. Then he founds a militant group, the Black Freedom Fighters, and teaches them all of the dirty tricks and paramilitary maneuvers he learned from the CIA! In the third act, they wage war against the National Guard and the police, blow up the Mayor's office, dose a General with LSD, paint him in black face and assassinate him, and the film ends with a black terrorist revolution consuming the inner cities of America! There is no cop out to speak of.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door is clearly a reaction to the deep frustrations of the black community in the early 70s, when the most important black leaders were being killed. At the time, a revolution seemed imminent. Does its message of revolution resonate today? It's hard to say. Does the movie work as more than a political pamphlet? Not entirely. Freeman is more a cipher than a character. Is he angered by his time in the government bureaucracy, or does he begin with dreams of revolution? Is he flawed or heroic? The film doesn't give him many dimensions and, by comparison, gives most of the supporting characters even less. But it's still bracing and somewhat exhilarating to watch. So many action and exploitation movies promise to blow your mind. This one does.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)

A reasonable companion piece to Daughters of Darkness (Blue Underground apparently thinks so), The Blood Spattered Bride depicts a newly married couple in which the bride’s anxieties about sex connect well to a ghost who killed her own husband on their wedding night and who’d like our heroine to do the same. The struggle between the sexes reaches a fever pitch in this movie which was based on the same Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu story as Vertigo- there’s a lot more bloodshed in this one, however.

"Husband" (Simón Andreu) and Susan(Maribel Martín )have recently been married and already she’s having hallucinations about being raped (not five minutes into the movie!) when they decide to stay at the old family estate. He hopes this will calm her fears about losing her virginity and they do have sex; but she starts having vivid dreams about a beautiful woman, Cordelia, who wants her to kill her husband before he takes away her freedom. In one such dream, she stabs him repeatedly in the chest and finally in his exposed heart, finally being covered with blood.

It turns out, of course, that there was a beautiful woman who once stayed in the castle and, wouldn’t you know it, stabbed her hubby to death on their wedding night for asking her “to do shameful things”. As she is drawn into a relationship with the ghost, her contempt for her husband grows making it increasingly likely that he’ll have to put her down in the cold, cold ground, and increasingly unlikely that he’ll get any pussy.

Is it really possession by a ghost or is it her deep psychological fear of being sexually possessed by her husband that’s driving her to madness? The movie is great at keeping both possibilities in the air and even bringing in Carmilla in the flesh, found nude under the sand on a nearby beach, to cause more trouble for the unhappy couple. Like Daughters of Darkness, what makes this work so well is that it’s both strongly psychological and very visceral. The body/mind split between the “psychological thriller” and the “horror movie” doesn’t apply here- minds are twisted and bodies are torn apart.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Daughters of Darkness (1971)

The Europeans really know how to do vampire films, don’t they? America gave us Dracula, of course, but that was basically a European story about Eastern Europe. The best American vampire films, like Near Dark and 30 Days of Night, are basically Westerns with fangs. Lestat, meanwhile, was just dopey, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Gidget with fangs. The problem is that vampires are supposed to be hundreds of years old and nothing in America feels more than 50 years old.

Conversely, everything in Europe feels hundreds of years old. The exhausted, bloodless, decadent aesthetes depicted so well by Wilde or Huysmans were already basically vampires even if they had no fangs. The vampires in European fiction were symbols of the old Europe feeding off its youth while enervating them in the process. Vampires are the aristocracy that has become useless, taking everything from their social inferiors, contributing nothing, and bound only to their own rules but to no morality. Aristocrats and vampires alike are depicted in nineteenth century European fiction as manipulative, cabalistic, bisexual, and self-interested.

Daughters of Darkness plays off the legends about the original vampire aristocrat: the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who allegedly bathed in the blood of hundreds of female virgins killed for just that purpose. Here, she’s played by Delphine Seyrig as a soothingly evil version of Greta Garbo with a touch of the Duchesse du Guermontes. Sweeping into a beachside hotel in the off-season with her lithe female companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). just in time to seduce the only other people staying there, a pair of newlyweds, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet , Seyrig radiates the self-regard of a well-born lady who just expects to be adored.

The newlyweds, meanwhile, have their own problems. Stefan has a dark secret making it hard for him to tell “Mother” about his low-born wife and an emerging taste for sadism. And Valerie is being lured away from her new husband by the Countess in a plot with a very strong lesbian subtext, or just text. Probably the idea of a married woman having her mind controlled by a beautiful, sexually-predatory older woman wouldn’t quite fly in this more PC era, but by making her a vampire we can make blood-drinking interchangeable with all sorts of kinky sex. Well, or just show lots of kinky sex! It would be glib and facile to simply connect this wife-seducing plot to “fears about feminism”- the film is suggesting something deeper and more Freudian: that behind the sentimental marital façade there is a current of male sadism and desire to possess the wife and, conversely, a female hatred for the husband who wants to hurt and possess her. The Countess is successful at slicing the marriage in half because she knows truths about the happy couple that they can’t even admit to themselves. Having been in this experience before- another woman working hard to separate my wife from our marriage- I was sympathetic to its political incorrectness. If lesbians insist that “only a woman knows what feels good to another woman” (which boy do they ever) they can’t be too surprised that their rivalry with heterosexual men makes for interesting drama.

In true Eurofilm style, all of this subtext is out in the open. Before long, she is sleeping over with the Countess in her room, while Stefan is screwing Ilona, before accidentally killing her in the bathroom where she’s burned by the shower. I’d never heard that vampires are burned by “running water” anywhere else- makes you wonder how they stay clean. The three of them hide the body. But will he be able to save his young bride from the clutches of the Countess? I wouldn’t bet on it.

What’s great about these 60s Eurotrash horror movies is they take all of the mystery, atmosphere, and straight out weirdness of the Gothic stories and throw in plenty of blood, mod fashions, and kinky sex. The story unfolds mainly by burrowing deeper into the psychosexuality of the main characters. Compare this to modern horror films in which the heroes are deep as a paper cut and just keep reacting to events like comic book characters; you can’t help but think today’s horror auteurs all need to spend some time reading Freud. Recent horror films are plenty gory, but not sufficiently fucked up.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Today hailed as a “cult classic”, which is really just a nice way of saying, “a bad movie that’s also sort of weird”, Sleepaway Camp was originally just another Friday the 13th rip off- a movie that honestly doesn’t seem too original itself if you watch it directly after watching Halloween. However, what distinguished Sleepaway Camp from the horde of slasher flicks of the era is that although the movie has all sorts of flubs and problems, it’s just sort of weird, particularly in its bizarre ending and homosexual subtext. I think people remember it for years just because they’re still asking themselves, “What the fuck was that about?”

These movies usually begin with a series of tragic events that happened in the past. In this case, eight years ago some dumbass kids from the local camp were dicking around in a motorboat in the lake when they ran over some kids with thick New Yawk accents. Sample dialogue: “Peetuh stahted it!” “Did not, you lie-uh!” The father is killed and one of the kids dies and whoever survived something like that would probably be a homicidal maniac, right? Probably so.

Anyway, flash forward to eight years later and the survivor, Angela, played by Felicia Rose, is heading off to camp with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), chaperoned by his nutty mother (Desiree Gould) who behaves like Little Edie in Grey Gardens with another couple more screws loose. She’s somehow secured physicals for the two kids without taking them to a doctor and we soon realize that there’s something wrong with Angela. She doesn’t eat, hardly talks, stares a lot into the distance and seems more than a little disturbed. Felicia Rose was a new actress but already played creepy well. She’s pretty much the best part of the film.

When the kids get to camp, Ricky has to protect Angela from the abusive fellow campers, particularly the cuntish Judy (Karen Fields) and the bitchy counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi). There’s also a weird love subplot in which Angela can’t fool around with the one boy at camp who likes her because she once saw her dad and another dude getting it on. It’s sort of a shitty camp anyway: one of the cooks openly jokes about molesting the pubescent campers, the counselor abuses Angela, Mel (Mike Kellin), the owner, covers up the inevitable killings and beats up Ricky suspecting him. And, naturally, people start getting killed off one by one: the pervert cook gets boiled alive with a huge pot of water, one bully kid gets drowned, another bully gets a hornet’s nest dropped on him while he’s taking a “wicked dump”, and so forth. The effects, by Ed French, are pretty much Savini-level, which helps a lot.

There’s supposed to be a mystery to this, but for the most part, we know who’s doing it the whole time. The one twist is a shock ending that actually is shocking if you haven’t heard about it already. Otherwise, what distinguishes the movie are a bunch of weird touches: the gay dad flashbacks, a skinny dipping scene that amounts to a bunch of naked dudes and clothed girls, that weirdo Aunt, a cop with a painted-on moustache, and the child molesting cook that nobody worries much about. There’s a really weird subtext too- Angela, let’s face it, is basically a closet case. Is the film warning of the dangers of closeting? Because I got the feeling at points it was just warning us about homosexuals. What was the deal with that hallucination anyway?

In the end, it’s weird enough to puzzle over, but not a very good movie; only worth seeing once, and probably not even that many times.

Hitch-hike (1977)

Holy shit! David Hess actually appeared in a movie that’s enjoyable to watch. After the plodding misogyny of House on the Edge of the Park and the overrated crappiness of Last House on the Left, I was wondering if everyone’s favorite cinematic scumbag rapist ever acted in anything decent. Indeed he did- Autostop rosso Sangue, known in the US as Hitch-hike is good twisted fun. Is it any surprise that he plays a scumbag rapist kidnapper here?
Basically, Hitch-hike is a cat & mouse movie in which three different characters are trying to be the cat. A bickering husband and wife get abducted by a hitchhiker while traveling across the American west (or its Italian equivalent) and each of them vies for power over the other two while weird psychosexual charges are exchanged. It’s a bit like an exploitation flick version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”.

The husband, an alcoholic Italian writer (played to the hilt by Franco Nero, Django himself) with a rich wife, compensates for his feelings of personal failure by abusing his wife mercilessly. The dubbing, by Nero himself, is of the Whatsamattayoo? school of Italian English making his constant attempts to paw or insult her much more amusing than they should be. He’s easily the worst male chauvinist since Gabrielle Tinti in Velluto Nero and makes one wonder how bed gender relations really were in 1970s Italy. Seriously, the guy is a charmer!

The wife (played by Connie Clery of Moonraker), meanwhile, is way out of this schmuck’s league and clearly knows it. One of the major themes of the movie is that she has a sexy body and the camera takes it in as often as possible. Her dissatisfaction with her drunken lout of a husband explains why she picks up the sketchy looking hitchhiker (played by David Hess) to piss him off and why she seems to flirt with the idea of letting him have his way with her once he takes them hostage. Maybe she likes the attention and maybe she just likes hurting hubby.

Hess, meanwhile, plays a psycho bank robber who wants to get away with his money, humiliate the husband and screw the wife, and possibly get the lout to write a book about him and become famous! The writer manipulates his desire for fame, while also humiliating him for having escaped from a loony bin. And the wife seems to hate him, but maybe hates her husband more and maybe likes the sexual attention from this creep.

In a mainstream movie, these tensions would play just beneath the surface with little coming of them. Luckily, this is Italian exploitation so Hess ends up tying up the husband and fucking his eager wife right in front of him before she comes back naked with a shotgun to blow him away! There’s also a crazy truck and camper chase straight out of Duel, rivals from the bank robbery gang who want the money, and an ultra-violent twist ending. The movie works wonderfully at maintaining the tension and paying it off with sex and violence. It’s also a good example of how entertaining it is to watch completely amoral people trying to overpower each other.

Update: Here's the trailer with the great Ennio Morricone score as well as the sex scene with Djano crying. As if it's not hot to watch your wife fuck someone else. What??? Just saying.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Penitentiary 2 (1982)

The first Penitentiary made enough money that funding came through for a sequel and Jamaa Fanaka is a director who loves to work. Thus we have Penitentiary 2, basically a repeat of the first movie set outside of an actual penitentiary. Leon Isaac Kennedy returns as Martell 'Too Sweet' Gordone, trying to make a new life for himself after having boxed his way out of prison and trying to avoid being pulled into the world of professional boxing. As you might guess, he winds up pulled into the world of professional boxing. His opponent from the first movie, Jessie “the Bull” (Donovan Womack) is his opponent here, and his enemy Half Dead returns, this time having escaped from the law and played by Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame. His old trainer Seldom Seems (Malik Carter) returns as well, although with considerably less pep than in the first film, owing perhaps to Carter’s reputed drug problems.

Much of the continuing storyline is set up via an opening scrawl in the style of Star Wars, an obvious homage that suggests the influence of the Lucas film on Fanaka’s own filmmaking. He seems to be tipping his hat to the huge influence that the Star Wars films had on American cinema in general and this film seems more like a crowd pleaser, with music often signaling the audience’s emotions and the storyline simpler than before, more spelled out through the dialogue. It’s a bit dumbed down, just like the Lucas movies. The impact of the Star Wars trilogy on cinema is apparent, but it’s not exactly been good.

What’s frustrating about Penitentiary 2 is that it begins with a story focusing on the great theme in Jamaa Fanaka’s work: an average black man struggling to have a stable life in adverse conditions, only to abandon it. Too Sweet is struggling with the pain of having lost his parents in a car accident, doing jail time for a crime he didn’t commit, and trying to readjust to the outside world. He has reconciled with his old girlfriend Clarisse (Eugenia Wright) and is working a delivery job to meet the terms of his parole. But this is all derailed by the psychotic Half Dead (Ernie Hudson) who wants revenge on Too Sweet and gets it by raping and killing Clarisse before a long brawl that is only stopped by the police before Too Sweet can kill him- an obvious replay of the brutal fight the two characters had in the first movie, at almost exactly the same point in the story.

Luckily, Fanaka knows it would be absurd to send Too Sweet back to jail for defending his home. Instead, he uses the killing as the catalyst that sends Too Sweet back to the ring. There are two problems with this. First, he has Kennedy announce his intentions to box in a speech that again assumes the audience has to be told everything: “I’m going to box… I’m going to be somebody… I’m going to get respect. I’m going to talk to the kids about the insanity in this world. I’m going to make a difference in this dirty rotten world. I’m going to do it for Clarisse. I’m going to be champion of the world.” We could have probably figured this out without being told. Secondly, the murder of Clarisse doesn’t interfere in the story too much: a few scenes later, Too Sweet and Seldom Seems are picking up cute girls in a disco. It never seems like the rape and murder of his true love has much emotional impact on Too Sweet, which it probably should.

Too Sweet has to prove himself by fighting Jessie the Bull, with the match strangely taking place in the penitentiary. The boxing is shot well and Fanaka is much-improved as a director. As with the first film, there are plenty of colorful characters, from Half Dead's sidekicks Do Dirty and Simple to Too Sweet's new trainer, played by Mr. T in his first screen appearance. There are also great cameos by fighter Archie Moore and the great Rudy Ray Moore. And the conclusion is rousing.

But there's a rushed quality to the film that leaves some logical gaps: Half Dead never ends up fighting Too Sweet in the end and Jessie "the Bull" has almost no screen time outside of the bouts- it gives the impression that the true story hasn't happened. There's also the matter of the quickly forgotten dead Clarisse. At the end, I have mixed feelings about this movie. It's definitely a crowd pleaser and a rousing film. Jamaa Fanaka is a solid commercial director. But I wish someone would give him the money necessary to make a movie that's both exciting and as weird and radical as his earlier films. Otherwise, it's like Half Fanaka, and cinema needs the man giving us all his heart and soul.

Macon County Line (1974)

There’s something very appealing about the languid pace of these mid 70s drive-in movies. It’s as if nobody is in a particular hurry to get anywhere or do anything. “Free and easy” was how I remember them describing that mood in the 70s, which I barely remember at all. The teens in current movies seem very uptight by contrast- always rushing places and snarking at each other. Did they even have snark back in the 70s? I think part of the reason I watch these old movies is simply because they offer a reassuring picture of a world in which young people bum around and don’t worry terribly much about their ‘careers’ or consumer items. Well, until they get cut up with a chainsaw that is.

Here, we focus on two brothers, Chris & Wayne Dixon , played by real-life brothers Alan & Jessie Vint, who are “catting around” the South on one last fling before one of them enters the Army. It’s 1953 and the film is a bit of a nostalgia piece with great rock and gospel songs a la American Graffiti. The film starts with the brothers having sex with a woman in New Orleans before her husband arrives and chases them away in that classic sexual archetype. There’s also something reassuring about these old saws- we all know how they’re going to end. The laughs come easy.

After dining and dashing from the local diner and picking up a cute hitchhiker Jenny (Cheryl Waters), they run into some car troubles and have to stop in a sleepy little Southern town of the sort where everyone forgets what they were saying in the middle of a sentence and the local lawman seems like his name should be Jethro- in fact, he really seems this way as he’s played by Max Baer Jr., Jethro Clampett himself. Baer stars, produces, and co-wrote the script, and it seems likely that he’s trying to overcome his Jethro image here- his character Deputy Reed, is a hardnosed, racist, closed-minded hick with a badge: in other words, the worst nightmare of the teens that would have seen the movie in a drive-in back in 1974. He’s also a stereotype, of course, and we know that, eventually, he’s going to come after those free’n’easy teens and try to blow a few holes in them.

The catalyst for this is a pair of traveling criminals who invade his home and brutalize and murder his wife in a genuinely disturbing scene midway through. One interesting touch- she’s watching a television report about Senator McCarthy at the time, which might be pure nostalgia, but seems to say, “Hey, America, you’re worried about the Reds? Here’s the real threat to worry about breaking into your house as we speak!”

Meanwhile, Jenny and Chris are having sex in a nearby barn with the car broken down outside of the Sheriff’s house, while he’s driving around with his son (played by a young Leif Garret) teaching the kid to avoid black children! Soon Sheriff Jethro is stalking the kids in the woods turning their idyllic romp into a bloody nightmare. This, of course, happens in the last twenty minutes and the movie takes its sweet time getting down to business. No doubt drive-in audiences of 1974 weren’t terribly concerned about plot mechanics and liked seeing the lawman as the villain. The film ends with inevitable pretensions of really being about the wages of violence and intolerance, which might have been what made the film a smash hit in 1974. Or it was the naked girls and shotgun violence. Either way, it’s still a solidly-constructed time waster.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Exorcism's Daughter (1971)

The title is misleading: not only is this not an Exorcist rip off, but it was actually made before the Exorcist and only released in the US in 1974 in an attempt to cash in on William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. Its alternative title, “House of the Insane Women” is more accurate- it is about a nineteenth century Spanish mental asylum for insane women. The staff are worn out and mistreat the patients horribly, beating and insulting them and even pimping out some of the nutzo nymphs to a local bug-eyed pervert who enjoys the occasional loony bin orgy.

Into this dysfunctional family comes a new doctor Alba who is more in the Enlightenment mold and promises the prisoners that “the time of the straightjacket is over”, arousing their hopes to be treated, “like a human being” as they chant in a dreamlike celebration scene. The slow-mo sequence evokes the dream of liberty and its terror as well, justifying the film’s existence. There are other lovely sequences, including a madwoman lying in the rain and a paranoid in a church belfry mistaking a bell for a severed head in a direct echo of Vertigo’s bell-tower sequence. As in most of the Spanish exploitation films of this era, there are plenty of gorgeous stone castles lit by torches.

The story pits the Enlightened Doctor against the local Catholic establishment, who see his methods as being akin to witchcraft. He focuses his efforts on healing Tanya, a childlike paranoid with a dark secret in her past (psst: she’s the daughter of the exorcism subject, hence the title). Naturally, there are conflicts; the old guard bitches, “Everything’s prohibited! Ya can’t hit ‘em, dunk ‘em, nothing!” The townspeople, predictably, are convinced instead that he’s fucking the patients. The local heiress is trying to blackmail him into fucking her. And, what do ya know- he’s falling in love with Tanya! Before long, he’s siding with the lunatics against the sane society outside.

The movie is a solid Spanish shocker in the gothic mode; it reminds one a bit of The Devils. But it’s not quite as shocking as it needs to be and exploitation hounds might be disappointed by its lack of gore and sleaze. As with many of these Spanish gothics, there’s a fair amount of melodrama to wade through. But, its portrayal of the forces of order trying to keep down those who want freedom is fairly rich and it has some great lines, with my favorite being the drunken guard’s, “On my headstone, I want them to write, “He drank of life while they died.”