Sunday, June 26, 2011

House on the Edge of the Park (1980)

Poor David Hess- it's got be hard for an actor to get typecast as a rapist. That's pretty much what happened to Hess after he appeared in the sleeper hit Last House on the Left. He's a compelling actor and accomplished musician, but for years the only roles Hess could get were variations on his thug character from Last House. This film is an Italian Last House ripoff that even rips of the name, making its lineage even more evident. It's a better made film than Last House, although that's not exactly saying much.

Hess plays Alex (probably a Clockwork Orange reference), a young disco-hopping hooligan whose problems with the opposite sex are pretty clearly established in the opening sequence, in which he drives a young woman he saw in a discoteque earlier off the road and britally rapes and strangles her in a scene that is even more disturbing due to its light disco ballad score. It's also sort of amazing that nobody saw this assault since the film is set in New York City. But, whatever- the very next scene shows Alex working at the garage with his hooligan friend Ricky (played by Giovanni Radice of Cannibals in the Streets, The Beyond, and numerous other Italian exploitation flicks in his first role) and they're looking to hit the late 70s streets and boogie.

Into the garage comes a rich, sophisticated couple with minor car problems who, in a pretty unbelievable twist, invite the two thugs to a little soiree of five rich assholes with the intention of making fun of them. The class dynamnics are pretty sharp in these early scenes, with the beautiful rich girl (played by the gorgeous Annie Belle of Laure) Lisa aroused by Alex but unwilling to have sex with him, and the snotty young men getting Ricky drunk in order to make a fool of him. Soon the little party is getting the dim thug to strip for them and ripping him off in a rigged card game.

Before you know it, though, the tables are turned and Hess is holding the kids hostage with a straight razor. Let's consider that again: he is holding five strangers hostage in their own home with nothing but a straight razor, and for most of the movie nobody gets the idea to just throw a chair at him! He throws one dude in the swimming pool and pisses on him, smashes another's face in on the pool table, rapes Annie Bell (although she eventually gets on top- classy), and finally slices up a young friend who comes to the door on the couch with the razor, and nobody stops him. That last bit, incidentally, is excruciatingly cruel and misogynist: Cindy (Brigitte Petronio) is a virgin, so Hess strips her naked and takes at least a dozen slashes out of her on the couch. It's scenes like this that have given the film a notorious reputation.

Again, though, the framework of the story is so stupid and unbelievable that you start to tune out until the last ten minutes in which there's a twist that is supposed to explain everything, but which is even stupider than the original storyline! So, for about an hour and half The House on the Edge of the Park is drawn out thuggery with serious logical problems. Annie Belle is hot as usual and David Hess is lots of fun to watch, and Ruggero Deodato's direction is fairly competent, but the film will lower your IQ by 20 points.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Foxy Brown (1974)

One of the things that sets Jack Hill apart from his exploitation bretheren is his ability to both go way over the top with the melodrama and maintain a wry sense of humor. He doesn't make comedies exactly, but he doesn't play the material as seriously as a heart attack either. Above all, his films are entertaining as hell. And this is probably why Foxy Brown has become such a cult classic: it has a playful sense of humor. It also has a strong female character at its center played by the great Pam Grier who is, indeed, "one hell of a woman".

Foxy Brown was originally intended to be a sequel to Coffy, which was a successful film but for some reason the studio opted against making a sequel. Nowadays studios plan to make sequels before the movie comes out and then make a bunch even if nobody saw the original! But this explains why we never know what Foxy Brown's job is: she was supposed to be a nurse. Now her brother (played by the great Antonio Fargas) is a drug using motherfucker, which is more important to the story. Fargas might not be the greatest actor and Grier was not yet the actress she would later become, but they were both already interesting to watch. This is something else I learned about low budget exploitation filmmaking directly from Jack Hill: Your actors don't have to be good if they are really interesting to watch. Sometimes that's even better. A perfect example of this is Robbie Lee in Switchblade Sisters: she's not so much acting as gritting her teeth and yelling, but damned if you can take your eyes off of her.

Pam Grier, meanwhile, was an actress who just needed time to learn her craft, but again had the charisma to carry a film. Here, she's Foxy Brown, a woman whose boyfriend is an undercover narc who has undergone radical plastic surgery to change his face and avoid the drug dealers who want to ice him. The problem is Link, Foxy's brother, who is in trouble with the dealers and looking for a way to rectify that situation. You can imagine what happens, although it's still a pretty shocking betrayal in the film. Link is clearly in the grip of drug addiction and the film is pretty heavily anti-drugs (or at least hard drugs) with the message that drugs are a new means to enslave the black community. It's a pretty heavy message for an exploitation film, but totally legitimate.

Now, Foxy has to get revenge on the white motherfuckers who killed her man. At the top of the heap is Miss Katherine, who runs a brothel among other things. She's played by Kathryn Loder, who definitely embodies the Hill type of villian- again, it's not great acting so much as being able to chew the scenery like it was Juicy Fruit. In order to get her vengeance, Foxy goes undercover as a hooker in the mob's brothel, dive bombs a drug shack with an ultralight plane, gets help from the always great Sid Haig, and there's a lesbian bar fight for no good reason aside from general awesomeness. It's pretty clear why Foxy Brown is such a cult classic- it's just a hell of a lot of fun. It's also, incidentally, a movie about the sort of smart, strong, badass woman that they still don't make many films about.

The Night God Screamed (1971)

Aside from their clothes, music, and general level of hygiene, there's nothing particularly frightening about hippies. Or, at least, there wasn't until the Manson family did their creepy crawl and justified Establishment paranoia about the love generation. After that, donations to panhandling hippies rose 500% and dreams of an eternal love-in died hard. Not surprisingly, exploitation filmmakers rushed into the void as well. One such exploitation filmmaker, who is sadly overlooked today, was Lee Madden, who turned out this highly entertaining horror rarity about a hippie cult stalking an Establishment matron after killing her preacher husband.

The cult in question is lead by the Mansonesque Billy Joe Harlan, played by Michael Sugich, whose performance is a highlight here. The film begins with Harlan delivering a great sermon at a river about the evils that the Man is trying to bring down on these hippies. "I made them see that using dope was the way to turn on to you!... They don't like us practicing our thing!... They put us down because we ain't one of those establishment churches with one of those fake money-making preachers!" 'Aint it the truth? They never like you practicing your thing.

Unfortunately, there's possibly a traitor in the midst and the robed cult enforcer drags her out for some testifying. After declaring, "God is going to decide if this chick is a Judas!" Sugich "re-baptizes" her, or drowns her if you're some kind of establishment type.

There's great piano music over the opening credits as we watch Fanny Pierce (played by classic studio actress Jeanne Crain) walking through the dirty city streets and hear her thinking, "Everything is ugly and old." Yeah, well, come visit Hamilton sometime! Anyway, she's a preacher's wife in a skid row mission who is depressed about the low quality of bums in the church soup kitchen! Luckily, her hubby (Alex Nicol) has planned a rural revival to drum up the bucks and they're off.

You might guess what happens next: at a rural gas station, the money-grubbing preacher Pierce runs into the gang of hippies who don't like preaching for profit. One of the hippies, in fact, tries to pick up Fanny with the great line, "That man over there your husband?... It make any difference?" Apparently so (she's old-fashioned no doubt) and the preacher stupidly mentions his revival, which the pseudo-Manson family crashes afterwards and nails him to a cross! It's probably the goriest thing in the movie but pretty unforgettable.

In an interesting twist, the maniacal preacher is then tried, convicted, and soon goes to jail, effectively taking him out of the film. There's a nicely creepy scene in which the hippies surround Crain outside of the courthouse chanting "Die... die..." and the second half of the movie is about them stalking her in revenge for putting their cult leader in the hoosegow.

The movie takes a somewhat silly turn in the last act as the judge (Stewart Bradley) lets Crain shack up with his four teenage kids in his big mansion and babysit them while he goes off and does something or other, all the while knowing that cultists are stalking her! The teenagers, who look to be in their early thirties are pissed off about missing their social engagements and basically act like obnoxious shits until some strangers show up and start terrorizing them. There seems to be a real bias towards the older generation in the film: all of the young people are either murderous hippies or really horrible rich kids!

The terrorizing, though, is pretty effective, if not particularly gory. The film goes through most of the house-under-siege tropes fairly well and the cloaked stranger is genuinely creepy. There is a twist ending too that is both completely ridiculous and followed by a nice E.C. Comics twist that puts a cap on the whole business. Admittedly, this is all drive-in shocker stuff and not remotely a serious exploration of the Manson killings. And, perhaps the movie would be on DVD by now if it had much in the way of gore or any nudity to speak of.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for the pleasures of low budget 70s drive-in fare and effective scares, there's plenty to find here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Penitentiary (1980)

Much respect to Jamaa Fanaka. This, his third film, shows a continuous progression from his first two, both of which are pretty good. Oh, and again, he made all three feature-length films as student projects at UCLA. Penitentiary was shot with friends and volunteers at a decommissioned California prison as a graduate student film, although you'd swear to God it was a studio project. Man, it's great to discover a cool filmmaker out of the blue! This is why I still watch no-budget exploitation movies- to hear an original voice speaking.

Penitentiary stars Leon Isaac Kennedy as a young wanderer, Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone who gets picked up by a call girl en route to a diner rendevouz (and listening to the love theme from Welcome Home, Brother Charles on her radio!) that ends up going badly. Two bikers at the diner jump them and a fight ensues and, next thing you know, Too Sweet is in in prison, surrounded by several memorable miscreants with their own personality ticks. The filmmaking here is sharp: the characters are unique and even a bit cartoony, while still being believable. The basic story is a bit more generic than Welcome Home, Brother Charles, but it's the touches of color that bring out the characterizations.

Too Sweet is apparently pretty sweet-looking to his rapist cellmate Half Dead (Badja Dolja) who tries to make him his bitch before being beaten to a pulp by Too Sweet in a truly brutal fight scene that achieves a sort of violent kinesthetic beauty. Again, Fanaka scores the scene with avant garde jazz that adds to the intensity. He has said his inspiration here is Spartacus and you can see that in the scene, but it has to stand alone too as one of the best fight scenes in action filmmaking. It's a highlight of the film.

There's also a clear Spartacus parallel in that Too Sweet becomes an inspiration to his fellow prisoners who are "owned" by their larger rapist inmates. The slavery parallel is explicit in a scene in which Too Sweet tells fellow inmate Eugene that no man can own him. As you can imagine, Too Sweet soon becomes a prison boxer competing in matches set up for entertainment and betting by the warden. After this, the movie basically becomes Rocky in jail with Too Sweet overcoming his situation by boxing and through the mentor relationship with his trainer Seldom Seen (a great performance by Floyd Chatman). Chatman gets two of the best speeches in the film, however, wherein he explains his philosophy about being a lifer. I would hold up the first of these scenes to anything in Italian neo-realist cinema for the way they reveal hidden dimensions of a man that society holds to be marginal. These scenes and that initial fight scene are moments in which the movie transcends its exploitation origins.

In the end, there are still the usualy exploitation film problems. The dialogue is good but the acting is not always very good. There is a third act twist that's a bit unbelievable: Too Sweet didn't realize that he was jailed for murder, or the real killer did the deed in front of a diner full of people who didn't mention this fact during the trial? And there are a few boom mics that make their way into scenes.

But you watch these movies for those moments of weird transcendence that you can't get in mainstream films and not because they necessarily hold up as pure cinematic art. It's not suitable for the Criterion Collection, but Penitentiary has moments of true artistry and, to be honest, you can't say the same for any current Hollywood films.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Collapsed (2011)

Post-apocalyptic movies tend to focus on bands of unique individuals, usually outsiders who likely had a tough personal philosophy before the collapse of civilization, who are brought together by virtue of literally being the last people on earth, and now have to find ways to work together in spite of this being often a major pain in the ass. Here you can insert Sartre's line about hell being other people and it can be even worse when they're family members. The Collapsed takes a somewhat unique approach by putting a family in a post-apocalyptic survival scenario and dealing with it as a family drama. For the most part, it works pretty well.

There has been talk lately of a revival of "70s style" character-driven horror movies and The Collapsed aspires to fit this mold. It's hard for me to judge since I watch way more horror movies from the 70s than ones from today- probably a good indicator that I sympathise with their tastes. At any rate, this film plays very much as a character study with a family in trouble.

Something has caused society to collapse and we begin the film not knowing what it is. Actually, we end the film not entirely knowing what it was either (my guess is squirrels), but with a pretty gory sense of how it happened. However, this means that we're basically thrust into the middle of the action, with father Scott (John Fantasia), mother Emily (Lisa Moule) and their son Aaron (Steve Vieira) and daughter Rebecca (Anna Ross). As they pass through a city, we get indications that society has collapsed and they're soon trying to get through the woods to some town to see if their son is alive. Something is out there stalking them in the woods in Evil Dead style. We don't know what it is and, after a while, we're pretty sure it's not zombies. Thank god it's not zombies again! Whatever it is though, we soon get a very horrific indication that it's a mean motherfucker of a problem.

The film does a pretty good job of creating a palpable sense of dread and horror and isn't afraid to kill off characters that we've become invested in. It also pulls a nice trick by keeping the evil threat off camera for long enough that we're as bewildered as the characters. When we finally find out (some of) what's going on, I liked that the twist was both plausible and changed how we understood the rest of the story. It was also a fairly solid genre picture made for what was clearly a very low budget. The film is being releasing on DVD next year and the filmmakers have hopes of starting (another fucking) franchise. Mazel tov!

Anyway I have a few problems (like I always do!) with the main one being that that trick of keeping the threat off-screen can only be effective for so long. After about an hour of watching the characters walking around looking scared in the woods and not necessarily playing off anything and it starts to look like kids playing make believe in the backyard. Amazingly, the final twist actually justifies this problem, but it's easy to tune out before we get there. The other problem is that we're increasingly focusing on Dad along the way and Fantasia gives a fairly flat performance. In general, the acting isn't memorable and the dialogue is basically passable: a lot of "It's your turn for lookout" and "we'll sleep here for the night" kind of stuff. Finally, for what's basically a family drama, there sure could have been more in the way of psychological depth. There are some family secrets, but married people know that marriages are usually way more complex than this. At times, it's easy to forget that these people are supposed to be related.

Now that all that's off my chest, I'd still recommend The Collapsed to horror fans. It's not entirely scary but it does have a sense of tension and mounting horror and maintains that mood for most of the film. It's also nice to see filmmakers returning to character-driven pieces and atmosphere. So, I'm fairly sure that, if you're a horror-fan, you'll enjoy this one. If you're not a genre fan... you might not.