Monday, December 31, 2012

The Whip and the Body (1963)

AKA The Whip and the Flesh and What

Normally I like to start off these damned things with an intro of some sort, preferring to not jump right into a plot synopsis. It just seems more, I don’t know, “proper”, I suppose to me (I guess you could say that’s one good thing I took away from high school English class). Normally, I’ve been pretty lucky in this department but for the life of me I could not think of an intro of any kind for this film. I’ve even put off writing this on a few occasions in the hopes that something would come to me but alas, nothing. I know it’s just for a dumb blog and I’m probably over thinking something that I’m sure most would view as trivial but I’m weird like that. It is what it is. Therefore, in this instance, I’m admitting defeat (I can probably see this happening in the future as well). Consider this rambling a cop out for the lack of a proper intro. I think I’ve stalled long enough, so let’s get into it, my all time favorite Mario Bava film, The Whip and the Body!

After being banished for causing the suicide of a servant he seduced and subsequently abandoned, Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) returns to his family’s seaside castle upong hearing the news that Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), the woman that was once promised to him is now married to his brother Christian (Tony Kendall). It isn’t long after Kurt’s return that he and Nevenka find themselves revisiting their favorite pastime, with Nevenka being on the receiving end of Kurt’s whip, although later that night Kurt is mysteriously murdered in his room. Soon after Kurt’s funeral however, Nevenka beings to see Kurt appear to her in her room at night, and the whippings being again, and although nobody believes Nevenka and her ghost stories at first, soon Kurt’s presence begins to be felt throughout the entire castle.

A ghost story/murder mystery complete with major psychological and sadomasochistic overtones, The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo) is certainly made up of an odd collection of ingredients seemingly on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but it works, and works well. One of the major keys to the success of the film is how well balanced it is, in the sense that neither one of the aforementioned elements override one or the other, they’re all working hand in hand to create a truly unique film experience, I doubt you’ll see anything else even remotely like it. The mystery element is pretty standard at first, following most of the classic whodunit motifs (it’s been said that portions of it could be considered proto giallo) IE who was where and with who when such and such happened, but as the film progresses it becomes something else entirely when taking the ghost story elements into consideration. Far from your average spirit haunting a castle story, the ghost story is unquestionably one of the most enticing devices of the film, as it’s simpatico with the psychological and S&M aspects. The character of Nevenka is a fascinating one, and Bava uses Kurt’s spirit as a primer of sorts to explore Nevenka’s complex range emotions regarding her relationship with Kurt and her masochistic personality, as well as the fear that, even in death, Kurt still seems to strike in those in the castle. On top of all that, Bava even manages to take the film into romantic and tragic territories at times, which both fit right in with all attributes of the story. One dimensional this film isn’t.

Do forgive me for using the tired saying the film looking like a painting come to life, but when taking into consideration the barrage of beautiful, beautiful colors which Bava showcases mere seconds after the opening credits, plus the lighting and cinematography, I’ll be damned if that saying wasn’t specifically invented for a film like this. Throughout the film Bava particularly shows an affinity for red, blue and green (amongst many others of course) using said colors to create some incredibly striking images, some of the most memorable in his entire filmography in fact, such as Kurt’s green ghost hand lurching towards the screen out of the darkness, or in one sequence choosing to present the face of Kurt as a sharp, ghastly yet gorgeous shade of crimson. There’s plenty of substance to go along with all the style as Bava took full advantage of the fact that when the events of the story take a turn for the delirious it gave the visuals and the sound design license to do so as well, such as Nevenka constantly hearing sounds resembling lashes of a whip, pretty much any scene taking place within Kurt’s tomb, and my personal favorite, the shot of a vine apparently “whipping” in the wind. The castle setting, complete with secret passages is not only prime for the whodunit subplot, but the gothic atmosphere that naturally comes with such a place couldn’t have been more fitting for the ghost story. Bava also threw in some nice beach shots for added beauty, the same beach by the way that he would later return to for the underappreciated Five Dolls For an August Moon (1970).

Along with the mystery going on in the story, there’s a few other things regarding the film that I’ve always found to be somewhat mysterious. First, why Christopher Lee’s lines were dubbed over post production, when it’s obvious they were done in English. To be perfectly honest, the dubbed voice doesn’t really sound all that different than Lee’s natural voice and it never affects the film or Lee’s performance in a negative way, but it just seems so unnecessary. Secondly, why the film was released in the U.S. under the alternate title What. Why? There’s been some strange alternate titles given to a lot of films over the years, but What sure as hell takes the cake for the most bizarre. Finally, just how badly the film was butchered by the censors when it was first released. Watching the fully uncut version today you’ll probably be left scratching your head wondering what was considered so offensive, but take offense people did, and certain scenes that were absolutely essential to the story were cut. What’s even more surprising is how lenient and more liberal Europe is considered to be when it comes to things of that nature, but I guess for 1963 the film went too far. As I stated above, The Whip and the Body is my favorite Bava film, as to me, every single one of Bava’s strength’s as a filmmaker are on display here. Couple that with the original storyline, one of Christopher Lee’s most imposing performances and Daliah Lavi’s dumbfounding beauty, you’ve got a masterpiece. It’s considered by many to be Bava’s best work, and while a statement like that is bound to cause debate, I share that mindset.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Castle Freak (1995)

As quick as a lot of people are to dump on the 90’s referring to it as a “down” time for horror, I’m always as quick to jump to said decades defense. On one hand, I can somewhat understand the discouragement if we’re talking post-Scream (1996) when it literally did seem like every genre film being released was a copycat featuring the hottest teen stars of the day. On the other hand, prior to Scream there were basically no bandwagons to be hopped on and the early to mid 90’s had more than it’s fair share of gems. The thing was though, looking back a lot of these films didn’t fare so well in theaters and therefore had to wait until they hit home video to really find their audience, or they went direct to video, a market which was in fill swing by the mid 90’s. That was one of the coolest things about going to video stores, finding these aforementioned gems that you might have missed in the theater (most likely due to poor distribution, a number of films that were actually lucky enough to have a theatrical run may as well have just gone DTV) or stumbling upon a DTV flick out of the blue. Enter Castle Freak, one such discovery. Directed by Stuart Gordon and staring cohorts Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton, Castle Freak went DTV courtesy of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment, (who had the DTV market cornered and were really at the forefront of it), and it would subsequently become not only my favorite stand alone Full Moon film, but also my personal favorite of the Gordon, Combs and Crampton collaborations.

John Reilly (Combs), his wife Susan (Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) travel to Italy after receiving the news that John has inherited a castle which he was an heir too from the Duchess who had previously lived in the castle. Although arriving as a family, relations between John and Susan are tense, with Susan holding a deep resentment towards John as some months prior John, a recovering alcoholic, was involved in a drunk driving accident which not only resulted in the blinding of their daughter but the death of their son JJ. Not long after arriving, the Reilly’s realize their not alone in the castle when Giorgio (Jonathan Fuller), the hideously deformed son of the late Duchess has broken free from the castle’s basement dungeon where the Duchess kept him chained and whipped him on a daily basis for 40 years, and begins making his presence known, bringing to light a dark family secret in the process.

I love it when a film not only exceeds expectations but takes whatever preconceived notions you may have had about it and throws them right out the window. I’m fairly certain that most would assume a film entitled “Castle Freak” released by Full Moon to be B movie schlock, but it’s the kind of film that just might have you asking yourself “just where the hell did that come from?!” by the time the end credits roll. Castle Freak is as well rounded as they come, serving up it’s horror with a surprising side order of drama and tragedy, and the one thing that always stands out every time I watch it is just how strong the dramatic elements are, never once coming across as ham handed or spilling over into overly melodramatic territory, which is quite the feat considering some of the subject matter. John’s alcoholism, the death of JJ, the blinding of Rebecca and John’s guilt over everything, the domestic issues between John and Susan and the way it effects Rebecca, not to mention the titular freaks tragic back story and the way it intertwines with John’s emotional pain and memories of his son. It’s pretty heavy stuff, and in the wrong hands could have easily been fucked up royally, but this is Combs and Crampton we’re talking about here. Combs in particular puts on a clinic, really showing what he’s made of delivering not only a heartfelt but dare I say complex performance. The same could be said about Crampton in the sense that while you’ll legitimately feel for John, yet all the while understand where Susan is coming from, never forgetting just why she harbors such  harsh feelings. Together, the two are the definition of chemistry, coming off like a legitimate dysfunctional married couple, and it’s performances like theirs that help put Castle Freak on another level.

Make no mistake though, even with the dramatics Castle Freak is first and foremost a horror film, a grim and at times quite nasty one at that. While the film as a whole isn’t a wall to wall bloodletting, when the violence does hit, it stings, including the unfortunate fate of a cat and the now infamous encounter between the freak and a prostitute which I’m sure will temp a few viewers to look in a different direction. The full body freak make up is absolutely phenomenal, still one of the best make up jobs I’ve ever seen on film. To paraphrase Combs from the making of Videozone segment on the film, if you’ve ever wondered what someone who was chained in a basement and routinely beaten for 40 years would look like, this film gives you pretty good idea. Gordon was wise to wait until exactly the right moment to showcase the freak in full, opting to obscure portions of his frame using shadows,  projecting his figure as a silhouette on the walls or just having him covered by a sheet, gradually building anticipation, and man does it pay off big time when we finally get a good look at Giorgio. Even when the freak is fully exposed Gordon still cleverly plays around with the lighting, even staging the finale during a thunderstorm complete with heavy rain, a masterstroke as the freak manages to look even more incredible in the blue light which is so prevalent during the sequence along with the rain and flashing lightning. Nothing but respect is deserved for Jonathan Fuller, the man behind the make up who not only spent around 6 hours in the make up chair, but who’s mannerisms as the freak will make you ache just watching, and despite having no lines of dialogue, his vocalizations and agonizing moans are more than enough to give you shivers.

Another thing to point out about the film is that the humor that Gordon is known to inject into his film is virtually absent here (aside from one instance where the freak pretends to disguise himself as a piece of furniture), and understandably so. Honestly I’ve always felt that had Gordon tried to sprinkle on some comic relief it would have came across as distracting and would have felt out of place considering the films overall bleak tone. As much as I love the film, I do have to admit that there’s always been one small aspect of the film that I think I’ll forever take issue with, and it’s a perfect example of just how crucial the soundtrack is to a film. Late in the film there is a segment where the music in question is way to upbeat, almost playful sounding for it’s own good and doesn’t mesh with the intensity happening on the screen at all. It should have been way more ominous sounding. Aside from that bit of nitpicking I’d say Castle Freak is a damn near flawless film, bringing so much more to the table than most “creature features” in terms of performances, directing, make up and effects not to mention dealing with certain thematic elements that most films of it’s ilk don’t even attempt to touch. All things considered, Castle Freak is unquestionably a cut above the rest. Not just one of the best direct to video horror films, not just one of (if not THE) best Full Moon films, not just one of the best horror films of the 90’s, but one of the best horror films in general that any genre fan should seek out if you’ve yet to see it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

5 Dolls For an August Moon (1970)

AKA Island of Terror

Could it be that I’ve been operating this damn site for the better part of a year and have yet to discuss a Mario Bava film? It would appear so. Not that there’s any particular reason for that but lets be honest, you really don’t need me to tell you that Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963), and Blood and Black Lace (1964) amongst many others are brilliant. Hundreds of others have already done so and have said it ten times better than I ever could. Having said that, I still don’t think a site like this would be “complete” with out at least one Bava flick in the archives, and even still I didn’t want it to be an obvious one either. While nowhere near as obscure as it was once considered to be thanks to DVD, 5 Dolls For an August Moon does seem to be an oddity in Bava’s filmography. Bava himself hated the film as he wasn’t fond of the script at all and the film was rushed into production so fast he literally had no prep time. Fans seem to be torn every which way when it comes to this film. There are those who love it, those who share Bava’s point of view and hate it, then there are those who are totally bewildered by it and aren’t sure what to think. Of all the stances one could take on this film, the third one is probably the most understandable as 5 Dolls is quite the head scratcher. Personally, I find myself in the first and third categories. Despite having revisited it several times after first watching it, there are still some things about it I still don’t fully comprehend, yet the film possesses an undeniable oddball charm, one that immediately drew me in and continues to warrant repeated viewings.

Millionaire industrialist George Stark has invited several of his fellow wealthy friends along with their wives and mistresses (one of which happens to be Euro goddess Edwige Fenech) to his island home for the weekend. The guest of honor is Professor Gerry Farrell, a scientist who has just discovered a revolutionary new formula for an industrial synthetic resin. Still in mourning over the loss of his partner who died during the development of the formula, Professor Ferrell isn’t interested in selling, although George and his fellow businessmen all want the formula and are making huge offers. Tensions soon grow as each man outbids and out offers the other. When George’s houseboy suddenly turns up dead and the boats which are the only means of leaving the island disappear out of the blue everybody is quick to point fingers, although the group quickly becomes smaller in numbers as more and more bodies begin to end up hanging in the freezer.

French poster and VHS under the Island of Terror (L'ile de l'epouvante)

With a title like “5 Dolls For an August Moon” (5 bambole per la luna d'agosto) you’d probably expect this film to be pure giallo, and while it does contain certain giallo elements, it wouldn’t be fair to classify it a such. It also wouldn’t be fair to call it a straightforward murder mystery either because to be honest this film isn’t really a straightforward anything. It’s as much a black comedy as it is a mystery/thriller, and “straightforward” is the last way you’d describe the way the film goes about it‘s business. With a storyline like this, there’s bound to be at least some intrigue, and indeed there is once we get to know these characters and all their eccentricities, so there is the feeling that it really could be anyone in the group, as most are pretty shady characters. The film does a good job at keeping you totally in the dark when it comes to the killers identity as the majority of the murders happen off screen, and along the way we’re thrown a real curveball making things even more confusing, and the sense that there could even possibly be more than one killer will possibly spring to mind. As I said above it’s the films overt quirkiness that kept me interested, and as the film gets weirder and weirder as it goes along the more you’ll wonder just where the hell it’s all going to end up, although once you get there there’s a chance you’ll be even more dumbfounded than you were while watching the film. Of course there’s also the darkly comedic elements, stemming from the nonchalant “another dead body, in the freezer you go” reaction the group has whenever finding one of their fallen friends, and it is chuckle inducing hearing the same piece of music played whenever the contents of the freezer are presented.

Even if Bava wasn’t entirely behind the story it’s apparent that he cared enough to make the film look as good as possible. Right after the opening credits Bava begins the film on a strange note with an extended party scene featuring the cast of characters basically behaving like jackasses, giving us a pretty good idea at the type of people we’ll be spending the next hour and a half with, complete with delirious close up’s, zooms and Edwige doing a much welcomed enticing dance all the while Piero Umiliani’s sexy  psych-lounge plays overtop everything. Bava makes excellent use of the island and beach locations, not just in the sense that they’re naturally amazing looking, which they are, but the way Bava uses them as a backdrop for little things he added on the fly to make the film more visually appealing (more appealing than he probably thought it deserved to be) like for instance, a creatively displayed body, and Bava’s brilliant use of color (for this film the focus is on blue) shines through during the nighttime exterior shots. Bava also benefited from having already stylish looking interiors to shoot in. The design of Stark’s villa is quite the sight, very “chic” and “modern“, if you will, for the time I suppose. There’s also the way Bava chose to hang the dead bodies in the meat freezer, making them look like a collection of prime cuts wrapped in plastic. The film may have been made in 1970 but there is an obvious aura of leftover psychedelia from the previous decade lingering throughout the film, aided by Umiliani’s aforementioned score, which as any fan will tell you is along with Bava’s direction, a main selling point of the film.

When 5 Dolls was initially released in Europe in 1970 the reaction was pretty apathetic and it wasn’t until 31 years later when Image released the film on DVD as part of their Mario Bava collection did the film finally see an American release. Hey, I say a mixed reaction 31 years later is better than no reaction at all. Also this is a totally random tidbit of information (which seems appropriate when considering the film) but the legendary doom metal band Cathedral cleverly referenced the film (“Five dolls for an August moon, on this island I await my doom”) along with several other films featuring Edwige Fenech in their tribute tune to the queen of giallo movies “Edwige’s Eyes” on their 2010 album The Guessing Game. Have a listen here. There are those who will tell you 5 Dolls For an August Moon is for Bava completists only. I say that’s a bunch of hooey. Granted it might be one of his most difficult to get into 100% in full during just one viewing, but it’s far from his worst film as he often considered it to be, and just a good example as any of Bava’s mastery behind the camera. Even if you end up not liking the film as a whole, there is a good possibility that something about it that will stick with you, and you might just find that something compelling enough to revisit the film again and again, finding even more things to like each time you come back. Plus the fact that it’s a film directed by Mario Bava that features Edwige Fenech should be enough to make you want to check it out.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Rampage (1987)

I confess that I’ve always been one of “those” weird people who’s always had a morbid interest and curiosity when it comes to serial killers. I’ve done my fair share of reading over the years on most of the “big” ones (you know, Ed Gein, Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Zodiac, Dennis Raider (BTK), and Gary Ridgway (the Green River killer) just to name a few) not to mention having watched countless interviews, documentaries and TV specials detailing their cases, trials and the frenzy that usually comes with them. Can’t help it, there will always be something fascinating to me about what makes these people tick, and I’m obviously not the only one when you consider the extensive and more often than not sensationalistic media coverage these types of cases normally get. William Friedkin’s criminally (pun intended) under seen Rampage was loosely based on the real life case of Richard Chase AKA “The Vampire of Sacramento”. I knew next to nothing about Chase and his crimes, but that didn’t matter one bit in regards to me wanting, wait, scratch that, needing to see this film. As if a film about a blood drinking serial killer directed by Friedkin wasn’t enough, add the fact that Ennio Morricone did the score and you’ve got material that needs to be seen much sooner than later. Friedkin fan’s have been all about Rampage for years, although as most fans will tell you, much like the majority of Friedkin’s post-Exorcist (1973) output, Rampage is a film that still needs to be seen much sooner than later by a greater number of people.

During the Christmas season of 1986 in the community of Stockton, California, Charles Reece (Alex McArthur), the seemingly normal all American boy next door type, snaps and goes on a murderous rampage, killing four people. As a result of suffering from paranoid delusions, Reece drinks his victim’s blood, mutilates the bodies and harvests the internal organs. He is subsequently captured and brought to trial. The defense is claiming insanity, although the prosecuting attorney Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn) isn’t buying it, fearing that if Reece is found not guilty by reason of insanity there is a risk of him eventually being falsely declared “cured” by psychiatrists and re-released back into society. When faced with the brutality of Reece’s crimes and after meeting with the husband and son of one of the victims, Fraser vows to never let that happen and decides to seek the death penalty, going against his liberal beliefs, all the while coping with a personal tragedy of his own that has resurfaced as a result of the case.

Morricone's soundtrack
Part psycho-thriller, part courtroom drama, Rampage packs one hell of a punch. It’s a very balanced film in the sense that it gives us not only the visual horror of Reece’s crimes and their after effects, but the emotional horrors inflicted upon the victims (the time between Fraser and the husband of one of the victims is well spent) plus the moral tug of war we see Fraser go through by having his legal beliefs turned upside down. Fraser’s personal tragedy angle is played just right, giving us just the right amount of need to know information without interfering with the main storyline. For a film dealing with topics as heavy as the death penalty and the insanity plea, the film never comes across as preachy to me. Rather than being pro or anti, Freidkin treats the viewer as if they were a juror in the case, giving you the facts and having you form your own opinions regarding such issues. Friedkin presents everything with an in your face realism that’s quite raw and at times can downright nasty, mixed with moments of high style giving us a glimpse at Reece’s hallucinations where we briefly see though his eyes, and an expertly photographed scene taking place inside a church which makes particularly memorable use of the color red (the whole film makes particularly memorable usage out of that color as you can probably guess). Never once during the courtroom scenes did it feel like I was watching a movie. One scene always sticks out is when the defense attorney is grilling a psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution asking him if it’s true his nickname is “Dr. Death”. It may sound like a very cinematic and scripted line but I can totally see some hotshot lawyer making a statement like that hoping to get a sound byte or be quoted on the evening news. Morricone’s surprisingly subtle yet somber and unnerving  score works hand in hand with Friedkin’s visuals, amplifying the grim feelings of loss and grief felt throughout the entire film.

Something tells me Alex McArthur studied interview footage of real serial killers because everything from his mannerisms to his delivery is spot on. There’s almost a childlike quality to Reece which only fuels the question of his sanity in the legal sense of the word,  but then there’s also the way he calmly states, assembly knowing full well just what he’s saying, how he loves to cut people with a knife and watch their faces turn white, all the while with a smile on his own face. What’s even more striking is the resemblance he bears to the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez (who was captured two years before the film was shot) in the beginning parts of the film, what with the long hair and aviator sunglasses. Damn eerie. One of the greatest, most unheralded serial killer portrayals that’s for sure. Michael Biehn really gets to show off what he’s made of here, and I’d go so far as to call his performance in Rampage his finest hour. You’ll not only buy into the inner debate his character is going through, but feel it, particularly when his past comes into the picture. He especially shines during the trial sequences, always passionate, yet never once does he spill over into melodramatic territory. Totally pro. One of the coolest things about Rampage is it’s supporting cast which is made up of some pretty familiar faces such as legendary character actor Billy Green Bush who plays the judge overseeing the trial. To me though, he’s always be Jay Brown from the original Critters (1986). Twin Peaks fans will no doubt geek out over the presence of Grace Zabriskie, who plays Reece’s loopy prescription drug addled mother, and of course the son of one of Reece’s victims is played by Whit Hertford, probably best known to genre fans as Jacob, the titular “Dream Child” from A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (1989).

Rampage had quite the release history. The film was shot in 1987 but before the film could make it to American theatres it’s distribution company De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt which caused the film to be shelved. It wasn’t until 5 years later in 1992 that the film actually saw a theatrical release and even then it seemed to fly quietly under the radar. Before the film made it to cinemas, Friedkin went back and re-shot parts of the film and changed the ending. Having seen both versions, I can say that I much prefer the later version, as I felt the original ending was somewhat out of place and didn’t really mesh with the rest of the film and it’s harsh realism. Of course the film isn’t officially available on DVD in North America, only in Poland and I have no clue what version of the film is used. Normally I’m a pessimist when it comes to things like this, but there was a time when fans thought the chances of Friedkin’s infamous Cruising (1980) making it to disc were slim to none, but that finally received a worthy DVD release a few years back, so I’m a glass (of blood) half full guy when it comes to Rampage hopefully receiving the digital treatment one day, and I know I’m not alone in thinking that it’s long overdue. Rampage is a real kick in the balls, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s rare to see a film tackle such subject matter the way this film does, and closely mirror reality in the process. Maybe even closer than some would rather admit. It isn’t always pretty, presenting you with things that I’ll wager a good number of people would rather not even think about, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Friedkin.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Iron Rose (1973)

AKA The Crystal Rose and Night of the Cemetery

As I sit down to type this, the Fall/Halloween season (the most wonderful time of the year) is officially in full swing. Over here at Hell Broke Luce, the tried and true statement of “everyday is Halloween” defiantly isn’t without merit, but the month of October will always be special. The constant sight of pumpkins, falling brown, orange, yellow and red leaves (not to mention the smell of said leaves!) and seasonal decorations everywhere will never fail to liven the spirits. Naturally, the best part of all, it’s the time of year where seemingly everybody celebrates all things horror, what with haunted houses and other attractions of that nature, the plethora of genre related programming on TV all month long, and of course, horror movie marathons. While it’s true that I watch these types of films pretty much on the daily, I’m sure other hardcore genre fanatics will agree with me when I say that there are certain films that fit the aura of the season so well they demand an October viewing. Jean Rollin’s 1973 masterpiece The Iron Rose is one of those films. Considered by Rollin himself to be his strangest film, it certainty does seem to be an anomaly in his filmography, most notably due to the fact that there are no vampires to be found. It’s been called by many to be Rollin’s most “personal” film, a labor of love for the filmmaker that has the tendency to polarize many viewers, and even some Rollin fans. Then there are others like myself whom hold the film near and dear, ranking it as one of Rollin’s very best, as it not only showcased that Rollin didn’t need vampires to fall back on, it’s a shining example of his uncanny ability as a filmmaker to take an incredibly simplistic concept and create something truly original. 

After meeting at a wedding reception, a young and girl and boy (Françoise Pascal and Huges Quester (billed as Pierre Dupont) referred to simply as “The Girl” and “The Boy”) make plans to spend the following day together. After meeting at the train station as planed, the two go on a bike ride through the town, eventually ending up outside the gates of a massive cemetery. Although The Girl is hesitant at first, the two decide to take a walk through the grounds. When the two come to one of the many crypts they decide to venture down into the tomb for a little rendezvous, although when they reemerge they realize night has now fallen and they’re unable to find their way out of the cemetery. The more they try to find an exit and the more they fail, the more their imaginations begin to get the better of them as The Boy becomes overtaken by fear under the guise of anger while The Girl’s emotions regarding the situation cause her behavior to become increasingly erratic.            

On the surface, The Iron Rose (La rose de Fer) is as minimal as a film can get, yet leave it to Rollin to take an idea as simple as “two people lost in a cemetery” and have it go places you’d never have imagined it to go, gradually taking a turn for the bizarre, and in pure Rollin fashion there’s a lot more going on thematically than one might expect by  simply taking the film at face value. With a film like this, in order to become fully invested in the characters and their situation the performances have to be strong, otherwise we’d be left with a great looking, but ultimately uninteresting film. Thankfully, Rollin struck gold with Quester and especially Pascal. Quester’s increasing fear about the dilemma the two are in masked by machismo and anger provides an interesting role reversal as it was originally The Girl who was fearful and he who was the calm and collected one, and the anger was authentic as apparently he was quite the difficult young man on the set, but it’s Pascal who easily steals the show, and to think, Rollin originally didn’t want her for the part! The more the film progresses it’s her performance that makes it so fascinating, as her character becomes overwhelmed by the cemetery, and she begins to feel a strange “connection” to it and it’s underground inhabitants. The odder her behavior gets, she carries the task of getting across the majority of the films themes, delivering numerous poetic monologues, musing on various topics such as love, life and death, or more specifically, metaphorically questioning who is really “dead” or “alive”, stemming from the feeling of alienation by way of societal pressures and standards. These speeches would make it appear that accidentally being trapped in the cemetery has “liberated” her in a way, culminating in mesmerizing dance through the cemetery and the films unforgettable final frame along with Pascal’s equally unforgettable delivery of the films final line of dialogue.

No offence to Pascal and Quester, but I think even they would agree that the real star of the film is the cemetery itself. With a setting like that, atmosphere comes with ease, and Rollin uses every aspect of the cemetery to his utmost advantage. The majority of the cemetery seems to be all but abandoned as it’s obviously very old, with the gravestones, gates, crypts and statues being covered by weeds, vines and other assortments of dead plants, which only piles onto the already morbid vibe the place gives off, but it’s also an interestingly laid out cemetery with a number of sections featuring beautiful gothic architecture and stonework juxtaposed with a series of graves consisting of nothing but crudely built wooded crosses that are hardly stuck in the ground. The way the film is lit makes every little surrounding seem imposing, especially the shots which give off an idea of the sheer size of the cemetery. Rollin’s taste for the surreal is on display as well with a sequence of a clown putting flowers on a grave which is unsettling in it’s oddness and the now famous shot of Pascal slowing raising a skull up to her face, as well as his knack for romantic imagery steeped in the macabre in the form of Pascal and Quester embracing on a pile of bones in an open grave, and of course there’s the shots of Pascal on Rollin’s favorite beach near Dieppe, France. Sound design is also essential in effectiveness of the film, with the focus being on the natural sounds of the environment such as the scuffing of feet against stone and gravel, the breaking of a headstone, and the sound of an old creaking and decrepit fence or the opening of a door to a crypt with some occasional goose bump inducing vocalizations popping up for good measure. Actual music is used sparingly, but when it is, it‘s with great effect. The films beautiful piano theme will haunt you for days. 

The Iron Rose
finally got the visual DVD treatment it deserves this past January via Redemption as part of it’s Rollin remaster series. The remastered print is phenomenal (the previous ones were ok but talk about an upgrade!) and it’s great to see and hear the film looking and sounding as good as it does. Along with the new transfer we also get a short introduction from Rollin himself (filmed in 1998 I believe), and interviews with  Françoise Pascal and Rollin collaborator Natalie Perrey who also has a brief cameo in the film. The Pascal interview is a real treat as she not only tells some cool stories about the making of the film (including anecdotes about Huges Quester’s bad attitude) but recalls a phone conversation between herself and Rollin before he passed where she told him, much to his excitement about the fan base The Iron Rose had acquired throughout the years as he apparently had no idea. She seems like a real cool chick. While brief, the Perrey interview is a welcome addition and an informative watch for fans. Perrey echo’s the feeling of many that the script for The Iron Rose was Rollin at his “purest”, the “real” Jean Rollin as she puts it. Not a bad package for a film that was a massive critical and financial failure upon it’s initial release. Not that Rollin was a critical darling beforehand but the reception to this film was exceptionally harsh. As is the case with so many great films it took some time for people to truly realize what a gem it truly is. Rollin in general is an acquired taste, and this film perhaps more so than any other in his catalogue, which is understandable. It’s true that there’s a good chance your patience will be tested, but if you stick with it I believe you will find it to be a very unique and rewarding experience. Like the majority of Rollin’s films, there’s really nothing else out there quite like it, and I can safely say that out of all of his works, The Iron Rose is my personal favorite. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

As important as Wes Craven’s contributions to the horror genre have been, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the man’s had his fair share of misfires along the way. It will always puzzle me a bit that the man behind such savage classics like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) as well as the sheer brilliance of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and New Nightmare (1994) also be responsible for films like Vampire In Brooklyn (1995) and My Soul To Take (2010). Yikes. Still, despite the inconsistencies, I remain a fan and always will. I’d also like to add that I’ve always been quite fond of Swamp Thing (1982) as well, and no matter what your opinion happens to be on Scream (1996), it’s not exactly Craven’s fault that for the remainder of the 90’s the majority of genre fare coming from the major studio’s blatantly ripped it off, and when you break it all down, the man created Freddy Krueger, the character responsible for my discovery and subsequent love of the genre, and I have a hunch that life would be pretty damn boring had I not discovered Freddy when I did. When Craven’s on, he’s ON, capable of some of the most unique and creative horror out there, a fact that was ever apparent when he tried his hand at a little voodoo in 1988 with The Serpent and the Rainbow, as the results were anything but a misfire. Talk about flying under the radar, this film seems to be yet another “those who know, KNOW” type of situation. While I wouldn’t call this film completely anonymous as it does have it’s share of fans, it boggles my mind just how criminally under seen and underappreciated it still seems to be, and if it weren’t for the original Elm Street and New Nightmare, it would easily be my favorite Craven film. It’s that good.       

Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) is sent to Haiti by a pharmaceutical company to investigate reports of actual “zombies”, people who were pronounced clinically dead, yet are seen walking around showing full signs of consciousness. Upon arriving in Haiti Dr. Alan teams up with Dr. Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson) who has first hand experience with the so called zombies. After meeting face to face with one such zombie, Dr. Alan and Marielle discover the cause is a poisonous powder used by Bokors, black magic voodoo priests. Once the powder is administered, it mimics all the symptoms of death, leaving the victim completely paralyzed for a time, yet fully conscious, eventually becoming the Bokor’s slave. The more Dr. Alan and Marielle learn about the powder and it’s uses, the more they attract the attention of Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), the head of Haiti’s secret police, and himself a powerful Bokor who uses the powder to his advantage. Eventually forced out of Haiti by Peytraud, Dr. Alan returns to America but Peytraud’s voodoo is now fully embedded into his psyche causing horrific hallucinations. Fearing for Marielle’s safety, Dr. Alan makes an ill-advised return to Haiti, in an attempt to protect Marielle and ultimately his own soul from Peytraud’s black magic. 

The Serpent and the Rainbow
sees Craven firing on all cylinders, thematically and visually. One of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker has always been the way he uses common societal fears as a catalyst for the happenings in his films, and with Serpent he makes great use out of what I would assume to be one suffered by a good number of folks, that of being out of your comfortable element, in a culture that seems completely alien. Not simply just the culture, but getting in way over your head in a certain aspect of it, just as Dr. Alan does the deeper he goes into the world of voodoo. This also allows for some Haitian superstitions (or are they?) to be played upon, as one character cryptically tells Dr. Alan "Beware, my friend, in Haiti, there are secrets we keep even from ourselves.” More than anything though, the ideas explored in the film are downright creepy. Voodoo in itself will always be ominously mysterious, and the general idea of being helplessly buried alive while having full knowledge of what’s happing to you, with the end result being becoming a zombie slave will I’m sure make a fair amount of folks skin crawl. Craven was also smart to set the story against a backdrop of political unrest, a Haiti with revolution in the air, as there is always a feeling of lingering danger coming from more than just the voodoo throughout the entire film what with the secret police (the “Tonton Macoute”) cracking down one anyone presumed to be a threat to the government. Couple that with the main villain being the head of said secret police doubling as a powerful voodoo Bokor and you’ve got one hell of a recipe, and what a villain he is. While both Pullman and Tyson do excellent work here, Zakes Mokae easily delivers the best performance in the film as well as one of the most convincing villainous portrayals that I’ve seen in any horror film as the (legitimately) evil Dargent Peytraud. The scene wherein Pullman’s character is “interrogated” is a testament to this, when he tells Dr. Alan “I want to hear you scream”, he means it, and we know it as he is obviously getting great enjoyment out of making it happen.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say The Serpent and the Rainbow is the overall best looking of Craven’s film. For starters it was actually filmed on location in Haiti (plus I believe the opening segments were shot in the Dominican Republic) which gives the film an extra feeling of authenticity. There’s a particularly gorgeous looking segment where Dr. Alan and Marielle follow hundreds of others on a religious pilgrimage through ancient ruins and the Haitian mountains which naturally is phenomenal looking but the film isn’t one sided in it’s presentation of Haiti, Craven gives us a good glimpse into some of the more improvised areas as well. The films real treat for the eyes is, of course, Pullman’s surreal nightmares and hallucinations. The visuals on display in this film are a shining example of what Craven is capable of when he really lets his imagination run wild. Very early on we see a shot of a seemingly dead man in a casket shed a tear, a sight that instantly gives off a feeling of unease, a feeling that never lets up for the remainder of the film. Most, if not all of the visuals in this film are some of the most memorable and unsettling that Craven’s ever came up with, some that may even make the most jaded of horror fans wince including (but not limited too) a serpent spewing literal corpse bride, decrepit hands coming out of a bowl of soup, Pullman being dragged underground, and my personal favorite, Pullman’s bungalow being transformed into a coffin filling up with blood. Even little things such as a photograph of a dazed looking “zombie” or Peytraud’s right hand man wearing skull-like face paint during voodoo ceremonies are eerily effective, and of course Pullman stumbling around the streets pleading “Don’t let them bury me, I’m not dead!” with whomever he comes in contact with leaves quite the lasting impression. Admittedly the film does go a tad bit over the top towards the end (ever see a man decapitate himself via his own hands?) and the light effects may seem dated but it’s not a hindrance to the film in any way.  

The Serpent and the Rainbow
was loosely based on the 1985 book of the same name by anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis about the authors real life experiences in Haiti. To put it mildly, Davis didn’t like the film. I haven’t read the book so I’m not exactly sure just how many liberties Craven took with the material but I will say that it does make one scratch their head a bit to find out that Davis was surprised that a film based on his book about VOODOO and ZOMBIES directed by a GENRE filmmaker would focus on the more fantastic and supernatural elements of the book. People are funny that way. This film turns 25 next year, now I know there is a perfectly fine DVD readily available for a reasonable price but if a special edition were to ever the light of day, I personally wouldn’t hesitate to part with some cash for it. I’d love to hear a Craven commentary track for the film plus a documentary detailing the making of the film as from what I understand some complications arose as a result of filming in Haiti. Not that I’m holding my breath for such a release, although stranger things have happened. I know I’m repeating myself here, but there’s really no reason for this film to be as underrated as it is. As far as films dealing with “real” zombies go, this is one of, if not the best of the bunch, and that goes for films in the voodoo subgenre as well. The Serpent and the Rainbow is the work of a master at the very top of his game, complete with imaginative ideas and incredibly jarring, lasting visuals. No jokey one liners, no bullshit. Not to end with a cliché phrase for a film that is basically entirely devoid of clichés, but for lack of better words, this is how it’s done.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Night Porter (1974)

Call me jaded if you must, but more often than not whenever I hear about how “shocking” or “controversial” a film is these days I usually take it with a grain of salt, as more often than not all the hype ends up being just that, hype and nothing more. I’m sure most would agree with me when I say that if the strength of your film relies solely on how “shocking” it is, chances are it’s severely lacking in other areas. Yet, there’s a reason why some of the most notorious films also happen to be some of the most memorable. Films such as Pasolini’s Salò (1975), Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) immediately spring to mind. All are unquestionably provocative, but also offer so much more than just lurid subject matter making their impressions all the more lasting,  and as a result all are still being discussed, debated and still provoking polarized reactions to this day. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 classic The Night Porter defiantly fits into this category. With a film like this, it’s not hard to understand why some would take issue with it. The Holocaust can be a pretty touchy subject, and adding sex to the mixture is taking it to another level of transgression, and I’ll wager a mere glancing of the synopsis would be enough to make any boring member of polite society run as far away from the film as possible. The fact that it was directed by a woman probably turned a fair share of heads as well. I first became aware of The Night Porter about 10 or 11 years ago. It wasn’t long after Criterion put the DVD out as I discovered it while browsing through their website. The first thing to immediately catch my attention was naturally, the enticing cover art. The more I read about the film, the more I became intrigued and got the DVD soon after. I’ll fully admit to not nearly “getting” the entire film after my first viewing,  but the more I watched it over the years and the older and wiser (fell free to roll your eyes) I got, the psychology of the film and the brilliance of the performances from it’s two leads became more and more apparent, and The Night Porter now stands as one of my favorite films, regardless of genre.

13 years after World War II, Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former SS officer, is now living a quiet life working as a night porter in a fancy hotel in Vienna, Austria. Max is soon set to stand trial in an attempt to clear his name of past actions. All of Max’s former Nazi comrades have gone through the process, and plan on helping Max achieve the same outcome by burning all documents and “filing away” as they put it, any potential witnesses. Max is thrown for a loop when one of the guests at the hotel happens to be Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), a concentration camp survivor who was involved in an ambiguous sadomasochistic relationship with Max during the war, with Max acting as her dominant tormentor yet also as a protector of sorts, and it isn’t long before the two sre back to their old habits. Max’s friends view Lucia as a serious liability, although Max vehemently refuses to give her up. Fearing the potential harm that could come to Lucia and himself, the two lock themselves away in Max’s apartment with limited resources, essentially shutting themselves off from the outside world, all the while being closely observed by Max’s former SS cohorts.

The Night Porter may feature Nazi sex and scenes of S&M involving chains, broken glass and even some good old fashion wound licking, but if you’re expecting something along the lines of an Ilsa film you’re liable to be disappointed. At it’s core, The Night Porter is a love story. Granted it’s probably the most demented love story ever brought to the screen, but a love story nonetheless. Admittedly, the film is a bit of a slow burn, but if you’re willing to fully invest in these characters the film becomes more fascinating as it goes along. Through flashbacks we witness the development of Max and Lucia’s relationship with Cavani only letting us in just a bit, always leaving the full evolution of the relationship a bit vague. Lucia remains a complete mystery throughout the entire film. It’s never really revealed how she came to be this masochistic, not only accepting, but craving this type of treatment from Max, which I always thought was wise on Cavani’s part, as I feel an explanation would have cheapened the film. She is that way because she is, and I think that’s a major aspect of the film that a lot of people found hard to take. One of the most interesting things about the film is how the argument could be made that the dominant/submissive roles have been reversed, at least mentally. For Max, it’s no longer about getting off on the power he holds over Lucia as it was during the war. He may still be the psychically dominant one, but he’s now legitimately, hopelessly in love with Lucia, as he admits to her and to others. The feeling is obviously reciprocated, as Lucia fully goes along, no questions asked with the extreme measures taken by Max in order to protect themselves from his friends, right down to being chained in his apartment. He even tells her she can be free of all the isolation whenever she pleases, yet she stays. Watching these two lock themselves away and starve is disturbingly touching in a way. Say what you will about how their relationship started or how “unhealthy” it may be, their committed to each other, no matter the cost.

There’s a few different ways to look at the whole former Nazi group of friends subplot. It’s true that it’s a bit far fetched (although you could say the exact same thing about the main plotline as well) but I’ve always seen it as a vehicle to look deeper into Max’s character and how he truly feels about his past. Pay close attention to Max’s demeanor  whenever his friends (who by the way are more than proud of their SS credentials) are present and when his upcoming trial and the war are discussed. Max may be the one to initiate a group sieg heil in one particular scene, but one gets the strongest impression that it’s all for show. Max claims to be content living like a “church mouse” as he puts, it, but when Lucia re-enters his life he becomes determined to stay that way, for his sake and hers. But even before he is reunited with Lucia it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable with the thought of going through the trial, yet is it because he’s nervous about the outcome or is he truly ashamed of his Nazi past (the obvious exception being Lucia) and wants to avoid it at all costs? It’s this ambiguity that makes The Night Porter so much more than meets the eye. It’s also what makes Bogarde’s performance so brilliant as the second you start to feel sympathy for this man you can never forget his actions of the past, no matter how he may feel about them in the present. It’s important to point out that there during the majority of the time Bogarde and Rampling are on screen together there is hardly and dialogue, and honestly there didn’t need to be any. The looks on their faces when they recreate their favorite “games” of the past says it all. What’s even more incredible is the way the two instantly switch moods with ease, going from desperation due to their self imposed isolation to passionate love making in the span of seconds. In all honesty Rampling could have never spoke a word and still would have knocked it out of the park. This lack of dialogue works wonders during the flashback sequences as Rampling really gets to show what she‘s made of, conveying what appears to be Lucia’s fear and confusion while all the while retaining her characters aura of mystery.  

Even if you’ve never seen The Night Porter chances are you’ve seen the now iconic poster art featuring that still of Rampling from the legendary flashback scene in the film wherein she dances seductively for Max and his fellow officers (and is rewarded with a severed head for her troubles). Hell even if you’ve never seen the poster you’ve probably seen an image inspired buy it in one way or another, it’s a look that’s been copied countless times by innumerable fetish models since the release of the film. More than just an excuse for a catchy looking poster, the scene in question sees Cavani flexing her artistic muscle, as it always appeared to me as a sort of surrealist paining come to life, what with the musicians playing, the strange masks a number of people in the scene are wearing and the overall hazy nature of it. It also carries over the dank, cold grayness the other flashbacks have. While we’re still on the subject of the flashbacks, there’s one that still sticks out for me as it remains a part of the film I could never comprehend. One of Max’s Nazi friends is a ballet dancer, and when he dances in private for Max the film cuts back to war time and he is seen doing a dance for his entire Nazi troupe. I really have no idea what purpose those scenes serve. If anybody reads this maybe they could shed some light. I know I’ve used this phrase on here before (like I’m so above repeating myself) but with a film like The Night Porter, there really doesn’t seem to be a grey area as far as I can tell. People either love it or despise it. As you can tell, I happen to belong to the former. It’s a lot of things to different people, tasteless, depraved, brave, ultimately incredibly sad, but one things for certain, this is filmmaking at it’s most audacious and regardless of your opinion on the film you have to applaud Liliana Cavani for taking on such, if you’ll allow me to say so, ballsy material that, along with pushing thematic boundaries, is filled with psychological complexity and striking, haunting imagery. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969)

*Not to be confused with the similarly titled Marquis de Sade adaptations Eugenie de Sade (1970) and  Eugenie (Historia de una perversión) (1980), also directed by Jess Franco.

1969 was quite the year for Jess Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers. Without question Towers defiantly seemed to “get” Franco and the type of films he made, even helming the scripts for most of the films (oftentimes under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck) and 1969 saw the two get on one hell of a role. Any Francophile will tell you that this period saw Franco direct some of his most memorable and highly regarded films, such as 99 Women, which many feel to be the quintessential women in prison flick, and the jazz influenced psychedelic mindfuck Venus In Furs, widely considered to be his finest hour. 1969 was also the year Franco brought the Marquis de Sade’s notorious novel Justine to the screen. As I said in my write up of that film, the material couldn’t have been more suitable for Franco, as he was an admitted reader of Sade since his teenage years. He would return to Sade for inspiration many times during his career, and while I feel that his other Sade adaptations are great films, for my money, he never approached the material of the infamous Marquis with more success than when he made Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, his highly unique take on Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom. It was actually part of the first batch of Franco films I ever watched, and I was hooked. It was inevitable that I’d write about the film at some point as I fell in love with it instantly and it’s tide alongside the brilliantly bonkers Lorna The Exorcist (1974) as my absolute favorite Franco film, and if I were ever to make my definitive “top 10 favorite films” list, it would defiantly have a secure spot on it.

Much to her excitement, young Eugenie (Marie Liljedahl), a typical bored, innocent teenager craving excitement is invited to spend the weekend at the private island estate of Madame Saint Ange (Maria Rohm) after Saint Ange “persuades” Eugenie’s father in her own unique way to allow the invitation. Upon arriving, Eugenie is introduced to Mirvel (Jack Taylor), Saint Ange’s stepbrother/lover, who is obsessed with Eugenie. Unbeknownst to Eugenie, Saint Ange and Mirvel are perverted libertines, belonging to a group of cult like sadists who take the work of the Marquis de Sade literally, gaining inspiration from his writings and using them as a guide to their practices. Under the direction of the menacing Dolmance (Christopher Lee), the leader of the group of Sade disciples, Eugenie was invited to the island as merely a plaything for Saint Ange and Mirvel, who plan on corrupting her innocence for their own amusement, introducing her to their world of sex, sadomasochism and murder.

Much like his previous Sade adaptation of Justine, Eugenie, for obvious content reasons couldn’t be a 100% faithful screen translation of Philosophy in the Bedroom, yet it stands as one of the most original and creative interpretations of Sade’s infamous book, by updating the story to contemporary times (well, “contemporary” for 1969) and actually having the characters acknowledge Sade, mentioning him several times throughout the film. “No modern home is complete without the works of the Marquis.” opines Mirvel to Eugenie. As evidenced in Justine, Eugenie also proves that even while taking some liberties with certain elements of the story, thematically Franco probably understood Sade better than any other director that brought his writing to the cinema (the obvious other being Pasolini). By having Saint Ange and Mirvel belonging to a group of Sade devotes was a brilliant move as it allows for the main characters and overall ideas of the book to remain in tact while Franco puts his own unique spin on things. In Sade’s original writing, Eugenie embrases the world of libertinage almost instantly after her “teachings”, yet in the film it’s a tad more ambiguous. Not long after arriving on the island Eugenie exclaims to Saint Ange she’s “ready to learn” as long as Saint Ange is the teacher, and she is rather quick to jump into acts of lesbianism with Saint Ange, so it’s implied that she’s had some “curious” thoughts for some time, and she at least had some idea as to what her purpose was in going to the island, while still being incredibly naïve when it comes to her “true” purpose. Dolmance praises Eugenie’s “aptitude to learn” during one of his ominous voiceovers, but again this “aptitude” isn’t so clear cut given the nature of the scene in which the voice over is heard. The Sade cult, along with Mirvel’s obsession with Eugenie were two great vehicles for Franco to take the story into directions you’d never expect a film like this to go, leading up to a climax that some have complained jumped the gun regarding Eugenie’s character, but I’ve always been of the mindset that given the context of the events, it’s completely plausible. Not to mention that fact that how the events unfold is pure Sade through and through.

For Eugenie, Franco assembled one of the best ensemble casts of his career. Marie Liljedahl fit the part of Eugenie to T. Along with being a natural stunner, she’s quite well rounded in the role, perfectly conveying Eugenie’s youthful innocence (I believe she was 19 when the film was shot) as well as her more hidden, tempted side that Saint Ange and Mirvel are dying to bring out in her. She’s at her best when she’s letting her character’s naiveties show, although I’ll always defend her evolution as Eugenie, as it’s something that a lot of people have singled out, calling it unconvincing, but like I said above about the climax, when you put it all in perspective and consider how the events unfolded, she handles the material just fine. Maria Rohm was always one of the most dependable actresses to have worked with Franco and I personally consider her performance as Madame Saint Ange in Eugenie to be her best, along with her portrayal of the deadly seductress Wanda in Venus In Furs. Rohm possesses an undeniable seductive quality and it’s not hard to understand why it was so easy for Saint Ange to convince Eugenie’s father to allow her invitation to the island, or coax Eugenie into making out with her. With this role, Rohm really gets to show off her range, by playing the friendly mentor role with Eugenie, and the perverted libertine driven by lust with Mirvel. Despite the nature of her character, you can’t help but be drawn to her, she‘s probably my favorite character in the film, along with Dolmance of course. Jack Taylor, another frequent Franco collaborator, has some of the most piercing, expressive eyes ever to be photographed. His frame may be slender, but he has a presence about him that is uniquely his own. There’s always a sort of awkward tension whenever he’s on screen, as we know just how he feels about Eugenie, and his stalker-eqsue glances and mannerisms couldn’t make those feelings, or his intentions anymore obvious. Legitimately creepy. Then of course, the man, Christopher Lee. His screen time may be brief, but his sheer presence more than makes up for it, as he radiates authority, looking absolutely threatening in that red smoking jacket. Lee also puts his great voice to use acting as the films narrator, and those sinister sounding voice overs of him reciting Sade leave quite the impression.

Original vinyl (left) and CD (right) versions of the soundtack
Eugenie looks, feels and sounds like a psychedelic dream. Right from the murderous ritual that opens the film, Franco hits us with pure style. The film is visually stunning, from the look of the estate and it’s island surroundings to the shots of the ocean and the exquisite use of color, all of Franco’s directorial strengths are on display here. Now there are a lot of out of focus shots in the film, some say that Franco went a bit overboard with them here, but they do serve an important purpose of giving off that classic Franco hallucinogenic, hazy dream state, and some are used quite ingeniously. Franco uses other techniques such as bathing entire scenes in red light, creating an otherworldly feeling of surreal eroticism that is entirely his own. The sequence of Dolmance and his gang of libertines entering the estate while Saint Ange, Mirvel and a drugged Eugenie go at each other, and what immediately follows is a shining example of Franco’s ability to come up with incredibly bizarre yet compelling visuals, as the libertines, with the exception of Lee, all dress in traditional 17th century clothing as a tribute to Sade (“In tribute we wear the costume of his time”, as Dolmance explains). It’s really an unforgettable sight, brilliantly staged, filmed and edited, being one of the aforementioned moments where the out of focus shots are put to great use. The feeling of the film would have been drastically different without Bruno Nicolai’s phenomenal score, one of the main selling points of the film, which I consider to be his best work, and the best score for any Franco film. Sometimes poppy, often trippy, always sexy. A good portion of the music has a very eastern flavor, as Nicolai makes heavy use of the sitar, which does wonders in putting off a vibe working hand in hand with Franco’s stunning images. The Franco/Nicolai team is one of the most unheralded cinematic director/composer collaborations, and the soundtrack is more than worth picking up if you’re able to find it for a reasonable price.

On the “Perversion Stores” short documentary chronicling the making of the film featured on Blue Underground’s great DVD of the film, Christopher Lee recounts the comical story of how he learned of the film’s erotic content. It’s well known at this point but still worth repeating. After Lee had completed his two days of work on the set, that’s when Franco filmed the more racier scenes. Lee had no knowledge of any of this until he got a call from a friend telling him they just saw his name on the marquee of an adult theatre where the film was playing. Harry Alan Towers agrees that Lee was duped a bit when he was asked to play the part of Dolmance. Lee goes on to joke that he really has appeared in every kind of film in one way or another, During the same interview he rightfully praises Franco, stating he’s underrated, and when given the right amount of time was capable of greatness. He couldn’t be more right. Lee stared in several other Franco films such as The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), The Bloody Judge (1970) and Count Dracula (1970), which (here’s another captain obvious moment for you) Lee has stated that his portrayal of the Count in that film was the closest to Bram Stoker’s original character. Though his performance in Eugenie may be short, of all the films he did with Franco it’s defiantly one of the most memorable. If you’ve never seen a Franco film and are curious about his work, Eugenie would be a perfect place to start as you’ll get a prime example of the type of aura that surrounds the very his best films. It stands as one of his best acted, looking and sounding films. A certifiable masterpiece.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

eXistenZ (1999)

While the majority of the films of David Cronenberg are very visual affairs, any fan will tell you that they’re equally as cerebral, as he’s able to not only blown your mind with radical images, but with ideas as well. Idea’s that will be lingering in you brain just as long as the amazing visuals. While the metaphors in his films are unquestionably extreme, the more the surface is scratched the more water the ideas hold, gaining even more potency throughout the years. Given his unique treatments on revolutionary   technologies in past films, it made perfect sense that Cronenberg would tackle the topic of video games with eXistenZ. Think of how far the world of gaming had come when this film was released in 1999 and compare it to today, with all the advancements made in terms of game play, graphics and characterizations, not to mention the massive popularity of online RPG’s (that’s “Role Playing Games” for you squares out there) and the communities that form as a result. The difference is night and day. When this film hit video stores I was still spending quality time with the classic consoles (countless hours were lost in the 90’s thanks to the NES, Super Nintendo and original Play Station, but that’s another story onto itself) and was already a confirmed Cronenberg fanatic, so it goes without saying that I was all over this film. I’ve always found it to be one of Cronenberg’s most underappreciated works, and after having recently revisited it twice in the last few months, I now find it be an even more important entry into his filmography, as it not only found him going “back to his roots” so to speak, but the case could be made that some of the more psychological elements of the film foreshadowed what was to come with his next few films.

During a demonstration for the new virtual reality video game “eXistenZ”, an assassination attempt is made on the life of the games designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The attempt fails and Geller is rushed to safety, wounded, by her assigned security guard, marketing trainee Ted Pikul (Jude Law). Geller’s game pod, which contained the only copy of “eXistenZ” was badly damaged during the attempt on her life, and the only way she can survey the damage is to play the game with someone trustworthy, Pikul. Despite Pikul’s initial hesitation, he and Geller finally play “eXistenZ”, and the further the two advance in the game, the more the game play beings to mimic their real life dangers, gradually confusing the two as to which world they’re actually inhabiting as the lines between virtual and actual reality become more blurred by the minute.

eXistenZ has been dismissed by some as a mere rehash of Cronenberg’s earlier masterwork Videodrome (1983) (I’ve even seen it referred to in some places as “Videogamedrome”), and while it’s true that the common themes of both films do mirror each other, even some of the slogans heard throughout the film are somewhat similar (“DEATH TO THE DEMONESS ALLEGRA GELLER!”) simply writing the film off as a rehash is an unfair assessment. A more accurate description of the film would be a compilation of expanded upon idea’s that Cronenberg has explored in the past using video games as the catalyst, such as the relationship between the human body and technology previously touched upon in Videodrome, The Fly (1986) and Crash (1996), the identity crises of Dead Ringers (1988) and there were even certain portions of the film where I was reminded of the surreal Interzone of Naked Lunch (1991). With eXistenZ, Cronenberg takes the concept of video games as escapism to it’s most extreme, by having players not just wanting to play the games, but to actually “live” them. It’s suggested at one point in the film that Geller would rather have no contact with the outside world at all, preferring to sit in a room all day designing games, in her own world (I can relate), the world that she created, and it’s a world that the majority of the people in this odd universe that Cronenberg has created would rather spend their time in. Another telling moment regarding the escapist mentality of the players of Gellar’s game comes when the character of Gas exclaims to Pikul that he’s a gas station attendant “only on the most pathetic level of reality”, and it’s interesting to observe the people attending the game demonstration at the beginning of the film, as a good number of them appear to be middle aged, and even some much older. This says less about the age of the people actually playing video games, as age obviously isn’t a factor when it comes to enjoying games, but rather it’s Cronenberg saying that there are people of all age groups wanting a way out of the mundane reality they live in. It’s this idea of having two separate “realties” where eXistenZ really shines, as once Geller and Pikul enter the game, the film becomes a twisted mindfuck.

Like any great video game, eXistenZ might start off relativity simple but the further along Geller and Pikul get in the game, it becomes increasingly more complex in terms of deciphering what’s real and what’s the game, as elements from both worlds begin to intertwine and Cronenberg yanks us out of one world into another and back again to the point where we’re just as perplexed as Geller and Pikul, and like the best video games, despite the level of difficulty, it‘s all to easy to get sucked in very quickly, and you’ll want to follow Geller and Pikul all the way to the film’s cryptic end. Unlike a lot of films that deal with this type of material, eXistenZ doesn’t rely on computerized images, which was wise on Cronenberg’s part, after all the purpose of Geller’s games is to present the player with a more exiting extension of their own existence, plus the “real world”-eqsue presentation of the game makes it all the more ambiguous as to which world the audience as well as Geller and Pikul are experiencing. Having game characters stand idly by until the right game dialogue is spoken to them was a nice touch as well, something gamers will no doubt pick up on instantly. The classic Cronenberg theme of technology fusing with the flesh, which was pushed to it’s logical, ultimate extremes in Crash (in a non “fantastic” way, IE no virtual reality or things of that nature) comes into play by having the game literally plug into the player’s body via an umbilical cord attached to the game pods, which themselves look like thick mounds of flesh (Geller even refers to her pod as her “baby”, even treating it like it was a newborn). This idea is taken even further by having the game run on the body’s central nervous system, and Cronenberg once again finds a secondary use for anatomical parts with the organic, human teeth shooting gun made from bones used in the attempt on Geller’s life. Although nowhere near as sexually transgressive as Crash, there does appear to be some of the tech fetish from that film carried over into eXistenZ, given Geller’s euphoric writhing while plugged into the game, not to mention some bio-port licking thrown in for good measure. This is a Cronenberg film after all.

Is it just me or did this film totally fly under the radar when it was released? I don’t recall ever seeing any TV spots or any other kind of promotion for this film during it’s theatrical run, only finding out about it when it became available for rental, probably due to a certain other film dealing with a similar topic having been released around the same time hogging all the spotlight. It got pretty good reviews all around but it’s still a shame it didn’t get more recognition back then as it’s got pretty much everything going for it. The word “chemistry” comes to mind when it comes to Leigh and Law, who are fantastic together, playing off each other perfectly. Along with being mind numbingly beautiful, Leigh brings just the right amount of reservation to her performance as the introverted Geller and Law’s awkward apprehension about everything leads to some light comedic moments, especially the moments with Dafoe. Speaking of, although his screen time is brief, any Dafoe is good Dafoe, especially when he’s playing such an odd part. Cronenberg regular Robert A. Silverman also makes a memorable appearance and naturally his character is just as weird as Hans from Naked Lunch, plus the aforementioned Ian Holm in a minor role as Geller‘s mentor. eXistenZ actually wouldn’t be a bad place to start for someone who’s new to Cronenberg. It’s an overall great representation of what to expect visually and psychologically from his films, complete with all the trademark bizarreness fans know and love intact. Whether or not you know anything about video games won’t hinder your enjoyment of the film, but if you have an interest in such topics, consider it a bonus as you’d be hard pressed to find a film with a more original and creative take on such things. eXistenZ” IS PAUSED!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Torn Curtain (1966)

The mid to late 60’s weren’t exactly the best of times for Alfred Hitchcock in terms of critical response and box office recipes. In all honestly, a part of me feels that after the success he had with Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), a lot of critics were just waiting to pounce on him for something, and they’d soon get their chance. From 1964 to 1969, Hitchcock would helm three films, Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), films that to this day seem to divide fans and always seem to spark up interesting debates. For whatever reason audiences and critics just didn’t seem to take to 1964’s psychosexual puzzle Marnie (which I consider to be a misunderstood masterpiece, although it seems time has been much kinder to that film than the others Hitchcock made during this period) so Hitchcock would again try something different with 1966’s Torn Curtain, a return to the espionage genre, a field in which he had found great successes in the past. Although Torn Curtain was a significantly more successful film than Marnie financially, his highest grossing film since Psycho in fact, critics still ravaged the film. The timing of the films release couldn’t have done it any favors with the press. At the time the market was flooded with spy films, what with the Cold War in full swing and the James Bond films being worldwide blockbusters, perhaps people thought that Torn Curtain was just one spy film to many, regardless of who the director was, which is interesting when you consider how many of the espionage films of that era blatantly ripped off elements from Hitchcock’s previous work. Whatever the case may be, I’ve always been under the impression that the film got the red headed step child treatment upon it’s initial release, and it still does. It’s a film that I’ll always consider one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated and unfairly tarnished works, and one that I’ve always be quick to defend ever since I first saw it.

While attending a scientific conference in Copenhagen, renowned American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) begins to act strangely after his assistant/fiancé  Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) receives a message that was meant for him. When she asks him about his suspicious behavior, he tells her that he must fly to Stockholm, and that she should return home. Although upset, she agrees, but upon making an inquiry about his flight to Stockholm, she discovers that he’s not flying to Sweden, but to East Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain. Unbeknownst to him (and much to his dismay when he finds out), she hops on his plane and follows him to Berlin, where he publicly announces his defection to the east, citing his disappointment in the American government after the cancellation of his missile research project. In reality, he isn’t defecting at all, it’s a ruse in order for him to obtain top secret scientific information from Germany’s leading scientist for the American government and plans are in order for his escape with the help of an underground network known as Pi. His plan, and the Pi network are put in serious jeopardy when he is found out after his government appointed shadow Hermann Gromek follows him to the home of a contact in Pi (The Farmer), resulting in Armstrong and the farmers wife murdering Gromek, and Armstrong’s loyalty being questioned later on due to Gromek’s mysterious “disappearance”. While meeting with a top German scientist, it’s announced via loud speaker that searches are being conducted for Armstrong and Sarah for questioning, forcing Armstrong to hastily memorize as much information as possible and make a daring and dangerous escape with Sarah, facing obstacles at every turn.

Of the three films Hitchcock made during his so called “down period” ( a term which I completely disagree with, by the way) Torn Curtain seems to be the one that gets the most mud slung it’s way (even more so than Topaz) and honestly, I just don’t get it. I know this writing will hardly change anyone’s opinion of the film, but I will say to it’s detractors that it deserves a serious reassessment. Judging from all the negative reviews I’ve read of the film over the years, the number one issue that the majority of the films opponents bring up is the casting, claming that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were miscast and didn’t fit their roles at all. I happen to disagree (shocking I know). The classic Hitchcock theme of someone getting involved over their head in a serious situation is applied in this film, and while I’ll grant you that Newman’s character isn’t exactly an “everyman” in the traditional sense like a lot of Hitchcock protagonists had been in previous films on account of being a well known scientist, the general idea remains the same. I bring up that motif because Newman has that everyman quality about him, although his likeability isn’t instant. His character of Armstrong comes off as a bit of a selfish jerk in the beginning, the way he goes about handling his situation, keeping Sarah in the dark about the whole thing, yet it quickly becomes apparent that he is a good man, he knows full well the dangers of what he’s doing yet he feels it’s the right thing to do, so he becomes easy to root for. As for Andrews, were people expecting her to break out into song or something? You’re watching the wrong film. She’s easily the most sympathetic and likable person in the film. We instantly feel for Sarah, as she has yet to find out what the audience already knows, and Andrew’s handles the emotional material quite well. I’ve also never agreed with the claims that Newman and Andrews have no chemistry together, especially when you consider that their scenes together in the early parts of the film are supposed to come off as a bit awkward, what with Sarah questioning him about his odd behavior and him dancing around the issue of why he really wants her to go back home, plus the tension between the two after she follows him to Berlin and him finally telling her the truth about what’s really going on. As is the case with most Hitchcock films, it doesn’t take that long to become fully invested in the characters, and as the film moves forward and the more threatened they become, the more you’ll care about them and fear for their safety, making the events in the later part of the film all the more engaging and nerve wracking.

If Torn Curtain is remembered for one thing, without question it’s the murder of Gromek. Even the films naysayer’s have to accept defeat when it comes to this particular scene and admit it’s brilliance. Hitchcock deliberately made the scene as long and drawn out as possible, wanting to prove to the audience that killing a man isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies, it takes a bit more work, and indeed we see Armstrong and the farmer’s wife’s struggle in completing the act, as a knife, a shovel, and finally a gas oven are put to use. The fact that there is no music during the scene makes it even more excruciating to watch. We hear nothing but the noises of Gromek and Armstrong wrestling about the room, the sound knife breaking off in Gromek’s chest after he’s been stabbed and of course the noise of the oven. Even with the visceral nature of the scene, Hitchcock still found a way to inject some humor into it, with Gromek making the sly remark “Tell the cookie she should put that down, she’s going to cut your fingers off” after noticing the farmer’s wife coming at him with a knife. Hands down it’s the best moment of the film, just a masterfully constructed sequence, one that’s more than deserving to stand alongside scenes such as the finale of Saboteur (1942) on the statue of liberty, the Mt. Rushmore scene from North By Northwest (1959) and the shower scene from Psycho, amongst other iconic Hitchcock moments. The brief exchange between Armstrong and Gromek before the murder is smothered in tension, and speaking of intense, the second half of the film couldn’t get anymore. With a film like this there is always a sense of danger hovering above every scene given the subject matter, as it’s always a possibility that Armstrong’s cover could be blown at any moment. This is especially the case when Sarah is being interrogated, and keep in mind this is before Michael has told her the truth, so there’s always that element to keep us on edge, but it’s when the two try to make their escape when Hitchcock really lets us have it. Almost immediately after getting out of one dangerous situation, they’re yanked right into another. From their almost unbaringly tense ride on the supposed “safe” bus run by Pi, where along with being followed by the military they face other hang up’s such as belligerent passengers and checkpoints, to the scene in the theatre, (which is pure Hitchcock through and through) and the finale involving a very creative use of prop crates of all things, we barley get any breathing room, Hitchcock is in full control. Like any good spy movie, there’s plenty of intrigue to go around in terms of the inner workings of the Pi network, can this or that person be fully trusted, who is this or that person really working for and other things of that nature, so the suspense certainly isn’t in short supply.

Torn Curtain seemed to get the short end of the stick even before the film went into production. Numerous re-writes had to be done to the script and even when filming began things didn’t get any easier. It’s been said that both Newman and Andrew’s high salaries ate into the films budget, plus it’s well known that Hitchcock and Newman didn’t get along all that great. Newman was a method actor which drove Hitchcock crazy, and the two had many disagreements over the script, as Newman would later put it “"I think Hitch and I could have really hit it off, but the script kept getting in the way”. Throwing another wrench into the proceedings was the fact that longtime Hitchcock collaborator   Bernard Herrmann, who’s score for the film was written before filming ceased, left the project when the music he composed for the film wasn’t upbeat or “pop” enough to Universal’s liking, and they’re were no opportunities for Julie Andrews to possibly sing in the film. (I realize that the studio heads were thinking economics here, wanting to make whatever aspect of the film as commercially appealing as possible, but come on. A “pop” score for an intense spy thriller? The genius of Hollywood at work folks). Hitchcock replaced Herrmann with John Addison who rewrote the score (I love the film’s main theme by the way). Even with all the hassles that went into getting the film made, I still say it deserves far more credit that it gets. Am I saying it’s one of Hitchcock’s all time greatest films? No, but it’s nowhere near what it’s reputation would have you believe. If anything it’s a prime example of Hitchcock’s persistence as a filmmaker. Even with all the elements seemingly working against him, he was still able to deliver an incredibly gripping film that’s more than worthy your time that holds up well on repeated viewings (dated politics aside, but that goes without saying), one that I’ll continue to stick up for.