Monday, February 6, 2017

L'éternité pour nous (1963)

AKA Sin on the Beach and Le Cri de la Chair (The Cry of the Flesh)

One of the most fascinating things regarding the career of José Bénazéraf was his relationship with the French New Wave. It might seem a bit perplexing that the man responsible for direct to video hardcore titles like Lusty Widow (1985) and Olinka, Grand Priestess of Love (1985) would have been mentioned in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma along with the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette and Chabrol, yet Bénazéraf began making films the same time as many of the aforementioned nouvelle vague directors and several of Bénazéraf’s early films feature the innovative stylistic tendencies that would go on to define the French New Wave. In fact, Bénazéraf even made a cameo in Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) as an unlucky man about to have his car stolen (his actual car was the one used in the film). Many of the techniques utilized by the New Wave filmmakers were considered radical at the time, a description that was invented for the likes of Bénazéraf and his early 60’s films certainty had an experimental bend to them with their long stretches of silence and free-form, stream of consciousness narratives. Following a stint as a producer, Bénazéraf made his directorial debut with L'éternité pour nous, a film which not only fits in comfortably with other “outsider” films of the time but also would play a major part in the development of European erotic cinema.

Pianist Jean-Marc (Michel Lemoine) and his singer/dancer girlfriend Brigitte (Sylvia Sorrente) arrive at an island resort to provide the entertainment for the summer. Almost immediately after arriving tensions soon arise due to the obvious attraction shared between Jean-Marc and Maria, the owner of the resort. The mood at the resort is also tense on account of Maria’s ailing husband and when Maria’s husband dies, accusations of murder begin to fly. Maria invites Jean-Marc and Brigitte to stay at the resort during the off-season so Jean-Marc can concentrate on composing, a decision that will dramatically impact the lives of all three.

Although it does predict the improvised style that Bénazéraf would employ in future films such as Sexus (1965) and Joë Caligula (1966), L'éternité pour nous (Eternity for Us) is a classic case of an artist finding themselves. Unlike the films that would follow, there is more of an emphasis on script here making the film more conventionally minded. More classical than jazz so to speak. Still, even with the story more at the forefront than in other Bénazéraf films, there are many instances of the quirks that Bénazéraf would stamp on subsequent works. Bénazéraf’s wandering eye quickly becomes apparent and there are countless moments in the film where the camera saunters off to focus on the resorts island surroundings or extended takes of the actors simply walking around said surroundings. Such moments are crucial to another Bénazéraf signature that the film features in abundance, that being mood. What’s unique about the mood of L'éternité pour nous is the prevailing sense of melancholy that would factor in select future Bénazéraf titles. These are bored and alienated characters and the constant showcasing of the empty beaches (save for the three main players) during the cold off-season at the resort further emphasize the void in their lives. There is also an air of pessimism to the film with Lemoine’s non-stop existential musings and Bénazéraf presenting a cynical view on the idea of relationships. Even the title “Eternity for Us” is left open to interpretation as to whether or not such a thing is good or bad.

Bénazéraf recalled the humorously simple way the film came about during the episode of the 1999 Channel 4 documentary series Erotika! entitled “A Life in Four Chapters”, claiming he was lounging on the beach reading a book and suddenly got a glimpse of Sylvia Sorrente rising out the water. Bénazéraf walked up to her, asked if she wanted to be an actress and fifteen days later the film commenced shooting. Even though Bénazéraf began directing films to prove he could make a better film than the ones he had produced, he was surprised by how far the film traveled outside of France, even to Japan and America where it was regrettably butchered and dubbed under the title of Sin on the Beach. The film also set in motion the collaborative relationship between Bénazéraf and Michel Lemoine who would also appear in Bénazéraf’s follow up to L'éternité pour nous, Le concerto de la peur (1963) and would also go on to co-write the script to Bénazéraf’s masterpiece Frustration (1971). Lemoine even credits working with Bénazéraf as the spark that gave him the drive to eventually make his own films. Despite being aggravatingly unavailable on DVD outside of France which is par for the course when it comes to Bénazéraf’s output, L'éternité pour nous is a crucial film that announced the arrival of a maverick filmmaker and really changed the landscape of erotically charged films.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Blackout (1997)

In March 2015, Abel Ferrara issued a cease and desist letter to IFC Films, the American distributor for his Dominique Strauss-Kahn inspired Welcome to New York (2014) and Wild Bunch, the films global distributor on account of both IFC and Wild Bunch releasing the film to theatres and VOD outlets in an edited form, enraging Ferrara. An unfortunate situation yet hardly anything new for Ferrara who is no stranger to distribution issues. When the indie boom of the 90’s began to cool off, Ferrara began finding it increasingly difficult to secure legitimate distribution deals without being ripped off and the majority of his output since The Funeral (1996) has found itself is one form of distribution hell or another with films like Mary (2005) and Go-Go Tales (2007) playing the festival circuit only to disappear after the fact, or in the case of a film like ’R Xmas (2001), only be booked in three theatres in the US with no advertising by a distributor that one has one print. Ferrara also experienced mistreatment by the Hollywood studio system when Warner Bros. sidelined Body Snatchers (1993) by sneaking the film into a minuscule amount of theaters. The Blackout is yet another one of Ferrara’s films to be swept aside by distributors and with this film its especially tragic seeing as its one of Ferrara’s most fascinating and stylishly grim journeys into the human psyche.

After proposing to his pregnant girlfriend Annie in Miami, hotshot movie star and addict Mattie (Matthew Modine) is shocked to lean that Annie had an abortion to prevent her child from growing up with an alcoholic and drug addicted father. Distraught, Mattie goes out partying with his eccentric director friend Mickey (Dennis Hopper) which leads to a blackout. Fast forward 18 months later and Mattie is clean and sober, now living in New York and in a stable relationship with a new girlfriend. Mattie’s past however continues to haunt him. Desperately seeking closure for how things ended with Annie, Mattie returns to Miami to finally clear his conscience although it isn’t long before he slips back into his old ways and in the process discovers the dark truth about what happened the night of his blackout.

There have been many films that have tried to recreate drug induced experiences and more often that not the results have a tendency to be rather corny. With The Blackout however, Ferrara succeeds in crafting a legitimately disorienting experience which literally does feel like stepping into the cloudy headspace of an individual on a two day bender, believably portrayed by Modine. Ferrara not only achieves this visually with hallucinatory Lynchian editing and at times changing stock going from film to video which recalls Ferrara’s earlier Dangerous Game (1993), but also in the way Ferrara has the story play out. The film is intentionally incoherent, staggering from one random scenario to another seemingly without purpose much like an actual drunken evening, the consequences of which allow Ferrara to really delve deep into the ideas of overwhelming regret and guilt later on the film (another area where Modine really shines) which again places the film side by side with Dangerous Game. Ferrara also toys around with the concept of the doppelganger and chasing the ghosts of the past ala Hitchcock and Vertigo (1958) by introducing a second Annie in the middle of the film and certain scenes between her and Mattie further blur the memories of both Mattie and the audience and steer the film into almost Robbe-Grillet territory. There is also a debauched feeling of unreality to many of the scenes featuring Dennis Hopper with Mickey’s actions not making much logical sense yet still making enough sense within the overall context of the film.

The Blackout played at the Cannes Film Festival where according to critic Dave Kehr, the film “caused a stampede” and the film played other festivals throughout 1998. Afterwards the film began to suffer the distribution woes that Ferrara has become all too familiar with, and it wasn’t until 2001 when the film finally saw a home video release. Speaking to the AV Club in 2002, Ferrara spoke candidly about the films distribution issues stating  “The story with The Blackout is unbelievable… We made a deal with Destination Films that set up a distribution system. They bought two or three films, including The Blackout, raised $100 million, and never distributed anything. Five years later, they're trying to go bankrupt, saying all that's left is $35,000 out of $100 million, even though they never distributed one film… I'm just one of a ton of people this company screwed over. Can you imagine these pricks? They're basically trying to steal $100 million. It's a fucking robbery.” Even now The Blackout still seems to be a relatively obscure title to more casual viewers even after getting its belated DVD release. While its become one of Ferrara’s most divisive films to those who’ve seen it, its yet another example of Ferrara’s knack of dealing with heavy subject matter in a manner that is both slick and gritty. A brilliant, challenging film that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Dangerous Game (1993)

AKA Snake Eyes

1993 was a strange year for Abel Ferrara with the maverick New Yorker helming two very worthwhile films that were unceremoniously thrown under the bus upon their respective releases. Coming off of the grimy and fiercely independent Bad Lieutenant (1992), Ferrara did something interesting and unexpected by taking on the most ambitious project of his career, Body Snatchers (1993), the third adaptation of Jack Finney’s book. Body Snatchers was a huge undertaking with the largest budget Ferrara ever had and according to Ferrara, the shoot was a nightmare plagued by studio interference and the technical challenges inherent in such large scale productions. Nevertheless, Ferrara soldiered on and delivered a fantastic sci-fi/horror film. Unfortunately the film would get buried by its own studio. After years of hype in various genre magazines and millions of dollars spent, the film essentially went direct to video after only being released in a handful of theaters. With Dangerous Game, his second film that year, Ferrara went in the complete opposite direction. Despite starring one of the biggest pop stars in the world in Madonna, Dangerous Game is one of Ferrara’s most uncommercial films, a deeply personal look into the world of filmmaking that seemed to bewilder a good number of critics upon its initial release. The Ferrara faithful however know better and over the years have rightfully championed Dangerous Game for what it truly is, a misunderstood masterpiece.

New York based director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel) arrives in Hollywood to begin production on his latest film entitled “Mother of Mirrors” which centers around the dissolution of a marriage between a hard partying husband and a remorseful wife who recently found religion and changed her ways. Almost immediately, the films leads Sarah Jennings (Madonna) and Frank Burns (James Russo) begin an affair and it isn’t long until Sarah finds her way into Eddie’s bed as well. The shoot quickly turns sour however with Jennings and Burns unable to get along and Eddie constantly pushing both to their emotional limits for the best performances. The more tensions on the set increase along with Eddie’s own personal transgressions gradually eating away at his conscience, the more the plot of “Mother of Mirrors” begins to mirror reality and vice-versa.

Snake Eyes”, the films alternate title couldn’t have been more apt as Dangerous Game is a venomous film featuring Ferrara’s typically downbeat outlook as well as some of screenwriter Nicholas St. John’s most vicious dialogue. In some ways the film is comparable to another film within a film, Andrzej Zulawski’s La femme publique (1984) as its been suggested that Francis Huster’s character of director Lucas Kessling was meant to be a stand in for Zulawski the same way that Keitel’s Eddie Israel could represent Ferrara himself. Again, “personal” is the adjective that could be used to define the film and at times almost uncomfortably so. There are times when the film feels confessional, particularly when Eddie confesses his infidelities to his wife, played by Nancy Ferrara, Abel’s wife at the time. Ferrara’s approach to the film within a film devise is interesting both from a narrative standpoint as well as stylistically in that its almost always obvious when a scene from “Mother of Mirrors” is being shot, however given the attitudes of the characters towards each other, what’s taking place in the film could easily be going on behind the scenes as well. The same could be said for Keitel’s pressuring of the actors which could also echo Ferrara’s own techniques which, if indeed is the case, they work as the performances are astounding. While Madonna is rightfully praised for her performance, the unsung hero of the film is James Russo who gives an unbelievably raw and fierce performance, downright visceral at times.

Dangerous Game was the first film produced by Madonna’s own Maverick Pictures and ironically it was the leading lady that led the charge against the film. In a 2002 interview with the AV Club, Ferrara remarked “It was just another one of our films that never came out. But on that one, the audience didn't really like the film. Madonna killed it. The first impression people get on a movie is the one that never gets out of their mind. So after Madonna got so trashed for doing Body of Evidence (1993), she thought she was going to beat the critics to the punch and badmouth the film. And she actually got good reviews. She never got a good review from the Voice or The New York Times in her life, but she got good reviews for this movie, which she came out and trashed. I'll never forgive her for it.” Ferrara went on to say “…I never had an actor badmouth a movie. It's just something that isn't done. But she's not a film-business person” and “ It's being paranoid and scared, and that's the reason she can't act, because she hasn't got confidence.” Whatever she or some critic may or may not think of the film at this point doesn’t matter, what does is the fact that Dangerous Game is one of Ferrara’s most confrontational, introspective, cathartic and ultimately brilliant films.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lulu (1980)

It makes complete sense that Walerian Borowczyk would adapt Frank Wedekind's “Lulu” plays for the screen. The plays, Earth Spirit, first performed in 1895 and Pandora’s Box in 1904, attracted a considerable amount of controversy upon their premiers due to their treatment of topics considered at the time to be taboo, namely female sexuality, not unlike the controversy that would later surround Borowczyk and several of his films, for instance Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975). The plays have been adapted a few times, with the most famous being G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film version of Pandora’s Box (starting screen legend Louise Brooks in the role of Lulu) which was first brought to the screen in 1921 by Arzén von Cserépy whereas Earth Spirit was made into a film by Leopold Jessner in 1923. The plays were also turned into an opera via Alban Berg in 1937 and severed as the inspiration for the 2011 album Lulu, the notorious and fiercely divisive collaborative effort between Lou Reed and Metallica. Borowczyk’s version is somewhat of a hidden gem in his filmograpgy. Easily Borowczyk’s most neglected film, Lulu may lack the scandalous reputation of some of Borowczyk’s more well known films and the source material may be Wedekind’s, however said material was prime for a Boro treatment and the resulting film is unmistakably Borowczyk and one of his most interesting films from a stylistic standpoint.

For Lulu, Borowczyk combined both Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, detailing the downfall of the titular Lulu (Anne Bennent), a young dancer married to the much older Dr. Goll, who drops dead of a heart attack after discovering Lulu cavorting with Schwarz, a painter whom Lulu was modeling for. Lulu and Schwarz soon marry, although that too ends in tragedy and Lulu soon finds herself married to the affluent Dr. Schoen (Heniz Bennent). Lulu’s luck takes a turn for the worse however when she finds herself implicit in Schoen’s death which sends her and her lover Alwa, Schoen’s son, onto the streets where Lulu is forced into prostitution and makes the fateful decision of taking on Jack the Ripper (Udo Kier) as a client.

If Lulu is remembered for anything its for “featuring Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper!” and while its true that Kier is amazingly wild-eyed and menacing in the role, ultimately it’s a very brief appearance and Lulu has much more going for it than one scene. What makes Lulu a fascinating film is Borowczyk’s approach and handling of the Lulu character. There have been many interpretations of the character over the years, with some claiming that Lulu was a misogynist creation, that her fall from grace was a punishment resulting from her promiscuity while others see Lulu as a positive example of liberated female sexuality. The later is most certainly more akin to Borowczyk’s tastes, with the celebrating of uninhibited females a constant in his work and Lulu is no different. Borowczyk presents Lulu as an archetypal “free spirit” who refuses to be tied down and is eventually brought down not by her lack of inhibitions, but rather the selfish and domineering men that surround her and wish to control her all for themselves. Lulu’s frivolous nature is perfectly captured by Ann Bennent who always has a whimsical nature to her even during the later portion of the film when Lulu is living in squalor which makes the outcome of the film all the more unfortunate. Being based on a play, Borowczyk directs in an appropriate fashion, having the film play out over the course of five confined and meticulously composed scenes, or “acts”, complete with precise staging and Borowczyk’s typically voyeuristic idiosyncrasies.

German actor Heinz Bennent who plays Lulu’s third husband Dr. Schoen was in fact lead actress Anne Bennent’s father. The following year Bennent would go on to work with another Polish master, playing the role of the wonderfully eccentric and hilariously zen Heinrich in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981). Udo Kier would of course work with Borowczyk again the following year playing Dr. Henry Jekyll in Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborune (1981). While being interviewed for DVD release of Dr. Jekyll, Kier described working with Borowczyk as amazing due to his aesthetic mindedness and specifically singled out his scene in Lulu as Jack the Ripper, stating that Borowczyk took an unusual amount of time in getting the position of the hat Kier was wearing in the scene just right. Interestingly, Kier also reminisces about Borowczyk wanting him to play the role of the infamous French child murderer and compadre of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais in a film centering around his trial although the film never came to fruition. Just one of several projects Borowczyk was unable to find support for in the 80’s. Lulu however did get made and again, the film may be one of Borowczyk’s most ignored but the films visual design along with Borowczyk’s approach to Wedekind’s plays and the instances of Boro’s odd humor make Lulu well worth the time for Borowczyk fans.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Killer Barbys (1996)

AKA Vampire Killer Barbys

Along with Lina Romay and the cinema, music, and particularly jazz, was the other great love of Jess Franco’s life with a good number of his films defined by their soundtracks. Franco’s fruitful collaborations with Bruno Nicolai immediately spring to mind, from the lush classical compositions of Justine (1968) to the exotic Velvet Underground inspired soundscapes of Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969). Venus in Furs (1969) has often been described as a jazz influenced film, complete with a soundtrack courtesy of Manfred Mann of all artists! Female Vampire (1973) wouldn’t have been the same without Daniel While’s melancholic main theme, just one example of White and Franco‘s various collaborations. Franco’s experimental video project Paula-Paula (2010) was constructed around pieces recorded by the legendary Friedrich Gulda, who’s brilliant soundtrack to Franco’s Succubus (1967) helped make that film the mystifying masterpiece that it is. Then there’s of course the Vampyros Lesbos (1971) soundtrack, which has gone on to become as famous as the film itself. Given the types of music Franco was known to have an affinity for, it shouldn’t be a stretch to say that horror inspired punk rock isn’t the first thing to associate with Franco. Nevertheless, the two would become acquainted with Killer Barbys, somewhat of a comeback film for Franco after a few years of inactivity as well as the last film Franco would shoot on 35mm.

Following a concert, punk rockers the Killer Barbies set out to their next gig although they are soon in a dilemma after getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere late at night. A strange old man, Arkan, approaches and invites the band to stay the night at a nearby castle, home of the Countess Von Fledermaus, whom Arkan is of service too, until morning when a mechanic can be contacted. The band agrees, however they soon realize the mistake they’ve made upon discovering the Countess’ lust for the blood of the young in order to retain her beauty, and the Killer Barbies find that they fit the criteria perfectly.

Killer Barbys saw Franco returning to the realm of gothic horror which is where his story in the genre began, although admittedly Killer Barbys is a far more frivolous endeavor than the likes of The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962). While first and foremost a horror film, Killer Barbys is yet another example of Franco’s tendency to hop between genres at any given moment as the film also has a good number of comedic moments. So while the film may be all over the place tonally, going from horrific to hilarious and at times both at once, ultimately it all ends up working as the film succeeds in both spectrums. As a horror film it works for a few reasons. The biggest one being the incredible atmosphere Franco was able to conjure up despite the films relatively small budget. The film has the look and feel of the classic British gothic horror films from the 60’s, complete with liberal use of a fog machine, heavy blue tones and naturally, an imposing castle with a dark past. The film is also a pretty interesting twist on the Bathory legend and surprisingly the rock songs that make up most of the soundtrack don’t deter from the gothic ambiance. The Killer Barbies themselves are the reason the films lighter moments work as the entire band handle the comedic parts well and are clearly having a blast, lead singer Silvia Superstar especially who is a natural in front of the camera.

The Killer Barbies are an actual Spanish pop/punk band and the bands name is spelled in the correct way although it was altered for the title of the film as a precautionary measure in order to avoid a lawsuit from Mattel. Franco and the Barbies would team up again during Franco’s digital years for the supremely ridiculous Killer Barbys vs. Dracula (2002). Interestingly, the band had nothing to do with the original script, it wasn’t until Franco became involved with the project did the idea for the band to star in the film came into play. Convenient timing seeing as their second album Only for Freaks was released around the same time. By all accounts the shoot was a blast and hilariously, band leader Silvia Superstar wanted so badly to be covered in blood for the film but Franco refused. Its also interesting to note that Caroline Munro was originally in talks to play the Countess but things fell through. Even more interesting is that one of the band members is in fact the grandson of Charlie Chaplin. Small world. Obviously Killer Barbys isn’t an intensely personal work from Franco, but as a somewhat silly and at times fairly gory gothic horror romp it does its job very well and more importantly, it restarted Franco’s fire and led to him becoming prolific again, shooting several films a year again up until his passing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Waves of Lust (1975)

Ruggero Deodato has had a particularly interesting directorial career, especially when compared to careers of some of his fellow Italian genre masters. While it isn’t uncommon for directors to hone their craft in a multitude of styles before cementing their legacy in a particular genre, (this is especially true of say, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi) Deodato’s career path is nonetheless more curious than most. For starters, Deodato’s friendship with Renzo Rossellini, son of the legendary Roberto, led to Deodato learning from the master while doing second unit on some of Rossellini’s films. Deodato also made a comfortable living for himself shooting commercials, and eventually made his feature film debut, albeit uncreditied, with Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964). From then on he helmed a variety of films in different genres ranging from musical comedies to adventure/superhero films before taking a break from features in 1969 to concentrate on television work. It wasn’t until his return to features in the mid-70’s did Deodato enter the Italian genre market that was booming at the time and even still, Deodato’s work differed from the likes of Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino just to name a famous few. Rather than throw his hat in the giallo ring, Deodato’s first thriller, 1975’s Waves of Lust was a sun baked Polanski-esque potboiler that really set in motion the types confrontational and pessimistic films Deodato would eventually become notorious for.

Vacationing couple Irem (Al Cliver) and Barbara (Silvia Dionisio) spot playboy George (John Steiner) and his girlfriend Silvia (Elizabeth Turner) water-skiing from a distance and are immediately intrigued by George’s demeanor and carefree attitude towards Silvia’s safety. Later in the day, Barbara encounters George and after a bit of flirting the two make plans for dinner later that night. Unbeknownst to George however it’s a ruse and all four find themselves together. Despite barely knowing each other, George invites Irem and Barbara to accompany him and Silvia on his yacht and the group set sail the next day. Almost immediately, George reveals himself to be a verbally and physically abusive tyrant, with Silvia essentially his slave. There is also an obvious attraction between Irem and Silvia as well between George and Barbara. Despite agreeing to lose all inhibitions, George’s attitude and increasingly erratic behavior become too much and it isn’t long until tension and jealousy erupt into violence.

Although nowhere near the savagery of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), Waves of Lust (Ondata di piacere) is still a nasty piece of business with Deodato’s nihilistic worldview in plain sight. It would be easy to describe Waves of Lust as simply “horrible people doing horrible things to equally horrible people”, although as is the case with Deodato nothing is ever that black and white and the shades of grey quickly become more defined. For a film that is so blunt in terms of eroticism, its also rather ambiguous when it comes to character motivations. Almost immediately its made clear that George is an insufferable bastard and his relationship with Silvia is dominant/submissive, what’s not so clear is Silvia’s true feelings on the matter. It would certainly appear that she is unhappy with the situations yet its also hinted at that she sticks around solely due to George’s wealth. What’s also left out in the open is Irem’s true feelings regarding the relationship that develops between him and Silvia. Does he truly care for her well-being or is it purely sexual? Even Irem and Barbara’s love  comes into question at times with it being hinted that, despite being together, it wouldn’t be a shock if one betrayed the other. Deodato brilliantly juxtaposes the misanthropic story with the films tropical locations and nautical theme song with the claustrophobic confines of the yacht and isolation of the open sea only adding to the already uncomfortably tense mood.

At the time the film was made, Deodato and lead actress Silvia Dionisio were married. When Deodato told her he was going to direct an erotic film with plentiful nudity Dionisio objected, that was unless she had a role in the film which is essentially how she got the part despite the fact that the role of Barbara was already cast. It might seem strange to think Deodato would be uncomfortable filming anything, yet Deodato admitted that he was incredibly nervous shooting the nude scenes and actually wasn’t all that interested in making an erotic film at all but rather wanting to make a straight-forward thriller. So even if it may have been accidental, the end result wound up being a mash-up of both. Deodato also expressed some reservations about the finished film, wanting to have shot more outside of the yacht but bad weather prevented it which actually worked in the films favor as again, the confines of the yacht made for many a tense moment. Its also worth pointing out that the film was the first screenwriting credit for Lamberto Bava. Waves of Lust is a film that any Deodato fan owes it to themselves to see as it establishes the attitude Deodato would adopt for his future films and really proves that (fans of the film with immediately understand) even when viewed upside down, the world looks just as sick.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The House of Witchcraft (1989)

AKA Ghosthouse 4: Haus der Hexen (House of Witches)

Unlike Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci who all excelled when dealing with supernatural themes, Umberto Lenzi is one Italian genre specialist that didn’t dive into the mystic nearly as much. Much like Ruggero Deodato, Lenzi preferred his horror and thriller films to be rooted in reality somewhat, focusing on the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other as witnessed in his early erotic jet set thrillers starring Carroll Baker such as Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Lenzi also showed a knack for psychological puzzle films with the bizarre giallo Spasmo (1974) and Euro crime classics like Almost Human (1974) and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977) display the gritty nihilism that Lenzi brought to a good number of his films. Still, Lenzi did on occasion delve into some otherworldly territory and even if his more esoteric efforts aren’t held in the same regard as some of his more renowned titles, they are nonetheless interesting films when viewed in the greater context of Lenzi’s entire body of work. In 1989, both Lenzi and Lucio Fulci signed on to direct two made for TV films under the banner of “The House of Doom”. The House of Witchcraft, Lenzi’s second film for the series is somewhat of a hidden gem and perhaps Lenzi’s most successful attempt at mythical and magical material.

Every night, Luke Palmer is plagued by a reoccurring nightmare. The dream is always the same, with Luke running through the woods into a mysterious house, into the kitchen where he meets a witch who promptly disposes of his head in a boiling cauldron. Following a nervous breakdown, Luke’s wife Martha suggests some time away at an estate Martha rented will do Luke good. Much to Luke’s surprise, the estate happens to be the exact same house from his dreams and sure enough Luke beings seeing the witch around the estate. Feeling uneasy and untrusting of Martha, Luke invites his sister in law Elsa and her daughter to visit and it isn’t long until they too, along with Sharon, the niece of the estates owner, find themselves trapped in a waking nightmare.

For a relatively low-key made for television production, The House of Witchcraft (La casa del sortilegio) is a fairly ambitious and mature endeavor, one which puts a fresh spin on various horror tropes. Even by 1989 the blurring of dreams and reality probably seemed a bit old hat but with the witchcraft angle Lenzi effectively avoids cliché in creating a sort of ambiguous world which may resemble reality yet may also be suspended between the waking and dream world. The film is basically split into three stages with the first two acting as a slow set-up, exploring Luke’s dreams as well as his for all intensive purposes defunct marriage to Martha, a fascinating character who plays a major psychological role in relation to Luke’s constant unease. Lenzi also makes creative use of another well-worn horror device, that being the house with a dark secret which again thanks to the element of witchcraft is given new life. When more characters eventually enter the fray the film essentially becomes a body count movie while all the while retaining its slightly surreal essence. The film is one of Lenzi’s most visually accomplished with the house and its surroundings shrouded in atmosphere with Lenzi wasting none of its potential giving way to such striking imagery like bleeding flowers and a decrepit, dungeon-esque basement suddenly being filled with snow. The witch herself has an interesting look. Perhaps a bit goofy looking at first she gradually becomes more and more grotesque and even a bit unsettling with each appearance.

Italian horror fans should get a kick out of Lenzi’s homage’s to his fellow countrymen during the course of the film, the most obvious being the character of Andrew Mason, the owner of the house the film takes place in, a blind man with a companion German Sheppard, a clear reference to Cinzia Monreale’s character of Emily in Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Mason was played by the legendary Jess Franco's favorite Paul Muller who would go on to appear later the same year in Lenzi’s Hell Gate (1989). One of the most interesting, and potentially confusing things regarding The House of Witchcraft is its German re-branding as Ghosthouse 4. Although its common knowledge amongst Italian horror fanatics, Lenzi’s film Ghosthouse (1988) is technically part of a series of unrelated films re-titled for their Italian release, the “La casa” (The House) series. The first in that particular series being The Evil Dead (1981) which was released in Italy as La casa. Lenzi’s film was released as the third La casa film with the fourth film to get the La casa tag in Italy being Witchery (1988) staring Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, also known as Witchcraft, not to be confused with Lenzi’s film! The House of Witchcraft is a proper horror film, one that should be a treat for genre fans looking for something somewhat different, from both Lenzi and films dealing with witchcraft.