Monday, December 30, 2013

Diabel (1972)

Communist Poland in the 1970’s wasn’t exactly the most welcoming place for artist who’s work tended to be on the more “provocative” side of things so its really no surprise that of out of the 12 feature films directed by Andrzej Zulawski, only 4 were shot in his homeland with Zulawski opting to work in France for the majority of his cinematic career. For the most part, the political allegories present in Zulawski’s debut feature The Third Part of the Night (1971) passed by the censors but he wouldn’t be so lucky with subsequent films. At this point the unfortunate fate of The Silver Globe (1977/87) should be common knowledge, with the films production being shut down and various materials destroyed resulting in Zulawski leaving Poland for France again, although he would eventually finish the film 10 years later. By the time Zulawski returned to Poland with Szamanka (1996), the country was no longer under Communist rule but nonetheless the reaction to the film was nothing short of scandalous. Then there’s 1972’s Diabel. Diabel was Zulawski’s second feature and in a lot of way its the film where Zulawski really “became” Zulawski if that makes any sense. Within minutes of viewing the film its clear that this was a man with something to say, and say it loudly and as a result Diabel stands as one of Zulawski’s most intense and confrontational films.

During the invasion of Poland by the Prussian army in 1793, a mysterious, nameless stranger rescues Jacob, a political prisoner sentenced for an assassination attempt on the King from a convent turned jail. The stranger pleads with Jacob to return home, and sends him on his way along with a nun for company, however when Jacob arrives back home he discovers, much to his horror, that everything he had known prior to his arrest has drastically changed, with the discovery of his previous fiancés pregnancy and marriage to his former best friend as well as the death of his father during his imprisonment. Unable to come to terms with the chaos his life has descended into, Jacob’s sanity slowing begins to deteriorate while all the while being sporadically visited by the stranger who released him.

The best possible way to try and describe the experience of watching a film like Diabel (The Devil) would be that it could be viewed from the most comfortable and warmest setting imaginable yet for the films 2 hour duration no warmth and comfort would be found, which would be the appropriate feeling as the world represented by Zulawski in Diabel is one where all familiarity, comfort and humanity have been forcibly removed and replaced with confusion and lunacy, and a spastic and energetic lunacy at that. This may have only been Zulawski’s second feature but already several of his signatures are established, the most obvious being the manic performances but also Zulawski’s frantic, oftentimes handheld camerawork which results in the viewer becoming as disoriented as Jacob, and the aforementioned cold feeling of the film is amplified by the films taking place during the bitter Polish winter. At this point its well known that while the storyline of the film may have been dealing with 18th century politics, in actuality Zulawski was making a fierce modern (“modern” for 1972 anyway) political statement, venting his rage at the Communist secret police in Poland at the time taking advantage of the impressionable Polish youth. Zulawski would later explore similar themes in films such as La Femme Publique (1984) and L’amour Braque (1985) but Diabel remains his most vicious condemnation of such groups and the extreme tone of the film is not unlike the fear and confusion felt by many during times of intense political unrest.      
Polart DVD

Despite the fact that Zulawski made the film, as he put it, “into the style of 18th-century costume and masks”, ultimately the Polish authorities saw thought it and the film was instantly banned and it wasn’t until 16 years later in 1988 when the film finally saw a release. Mondo Vision, the company responsible for brilliant DVD releases of Zulawski’s L’important C’est D’aimer (1975), La Femme Publique, L’amour Braque and Szamanka have Diabel listed as a future release on their website along with several other Zulawski films such as The Third Part of the Night, The Silver Globe, Possession (1981), Boris Godunov (1989) and La Note Bleue (1992). Until that release sees the light of day the easiest way to see the film would be to pick up the Polart DVD under the film’s English title The Devil. Polart also released a disc of The Silver Globe. Like the majority of Zulawski’s films, Diabel is obviously not for everyone. Its a film that has the potential to scare away just as many, if not more viewers that will end up appreciating Zulawski’s twisted vision yet at the same time its an absolutely essential film to recommend to those interested in Zulawski as virtually all of the man’s calling cards are on display. Diabel remains one of Zulawski’s most potent cinematic statements as well as being unlike anything else in 70’s European transgressive cinema.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Szamanka (1996)

In March 2012 the Brooklyn Academy of Music ran a complete retrospective showcasing  the films of Andrzej Zulawski under the banner of “Hysterical Excess”, something which the man himself took issue with. When asked about the title in an interview Zulawski’s response was “This is the exact reason I am here in Warsaw and not in New York. I hated it so profoundly, it sounded so base… On the other hand, I understand that these nice good people want to have something catchy. But I’m totally, totally aghast. I’m against this, and this is the reason I never came.” For the longest time “Hysterical” has been the go to term for many when attempting to describe Zulawski’s work and while its understandable to a point, perhaps “emotional” would be a more appropriate term, as the majority, if not all of Zulawski’s films are intensely emotional experiences, films such as Diabel (1972), Possession (1981) and La Femme Publique (1984) amongst many others feature characters experiencing basically every conceivable human emotion possible, oftentimes several at once. “Hysteria” is simply one out of many on display. 1996’s Szamanka, to date Zulawski’s second to last film and his 4th overall Polish film is a prime example of Zulawski’s emotional filmmaking. Almost instantly notorious in Poland upon it’s release, Szamanka is certainly a stand out film and although some purists may disagree, one of Zulawski’s best films.

Immediately after his priest brother hastily vacates his apartment, Michal (Boguslaw Linda), an anthropology professor is approached by an overly enthusiastic engineering student known only as “The Italian” (Iwona Petry) about renting the place. While showing her around the apartment Michal rapes her, although it eventually becomes consensual and the two begin a fierce sexual relationship. Michal and his anthropology team have just unearthed the preserved body of a 2,000 year old shaman, and Michal is determined to discover the cause of the shaman’s death. The deeper Michal goes into his research, the more and more intense his relationship with The Italian becomes and his world quickly becomes dominated by two obsessions, the mystery of the shaman and the equally mysterious Italian.

It would be very difficult to confuse Szamanka (“She-Shaman”) with the work of any other filmmaker as Szamanka is very much a 100% Zulawski experience, so much so it has led some to label the film as a self parody complete with manic performances and themes dealing with the spiritual and sexual, oftentimes combining the two. Like the majority of Zulawki’s films Szamanka refuses to be pigeonholed into one genre or another, running the gamut from demented psychosexual drama to surreal esoteric elements, so to speak, later on in the film that could be described at best as transgressive horror, and there are also moments in the film which are quite comedic in their absurdity. To those unfamiliar with Zulawski’s work the film will probably come across as incoherent madness but as any Zulawski fan will attest to, there is something much more going on, something profound, which goes back to Zulawski being an emotional filmmaker. Despite the odd behavior of his characters, Zulawski has an odd way of never alienating the audiences (the select audience Zulawski’s films “work” for that is) in fact the opposite is true which is especially the case with Szamanka. The further forward the film moves and the more bizarre Michal and The Italian become the more engaging they become. Of course along with the relationship between Michal and The Italian is relationship between Michal and the dead shaman and the way Zulawski effectively blends the two is brilliant especially as the film moves further into hallucinogenic territory.
Andrzej Korzynski's amazing soundtrack which is included in
Mondo Vision's box set of the film.

Even with the long list of previous eccentric Zulawski heroines that came before her, Iwona Petry in the role of The Italian is still one of the most unhinged and perplexing characters in Zulawski’s filmography. The most obvious comparison would be Isabelle Adjani’s Anna from Possession but the case could be made that The Italian also shares some similarities with Valerie Kaprisky’s Ethel from La Femme Publique. Petry was the perfect choice to play The Italian particularly because she was an unknown at the time, something which only fueled the already enigmatic Italian so wonderfully written by the films screenwriter Manuela Gretkowska. The Italian also happens to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the Zulawski canon and as the relationship between her and Michal progresses, her way of conducting herself actually becomes justified in a strange way. Of course the performance of  Boguslaw Linda cannot be understated and he is equally brilliant in the role of Michal but ultimately this is really Petry’s show. Perhaps Michal and The Italian’s relationship is best expressed not by the actors themselves but by the films two reoccurring musical motives courtesy of longtime Zulawski collaborator Andrzej Korzynski, pounding, tribal-esque drums mixed with electric guitars for the sex scenes and tender strings reserved for the scenes involving the dead shaman. Its important to note that originally Zulawski had intended to use the strings for the sex scenes and the drums for the shaman until deciding it would have been inappropriate and the results speak for themselves.

When Szamanka was released in Poland the response was less than welcoming especially from the Catholic church. During the interview on Mondo Vision’s must have DVD release of the film Zulawski recalls a humorous instance of a priest in one Polish village standing outside a theatre and trying to physically stop people from seeing the film and in certain parts of the country the film could only be shown during late night screenings. The film also faced some hostile criticism for its treatment of anthropology, something which is taken very seriously in Poland. Then of course there was the controversy surrounding lead actress Iwona Petry with rumors quickly spreading about Zulawski’s alleged mistreatment of her on the set, of her needing to be committed to an asylum, things of that nature. According to Petry herself, the majority of those rumors were just that, tabloid fodder, although she didn’t deny that the shoot was an intense experience. After Szamanka she basically did a disappearing act, traveling abroad and going to school until making a brief public re-appearance in 2004 with the publication of Gabinet żółcieni, a book of short stories which Zulawski actually helped out with. Szamanka remains her only appearance in a feature film which is a shame as its an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary, absolutely essential Zulawski film featuring all the trademarks from one of cinema’s most original and confrontational auteurs.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Paradine Case (1947)

On one hand its kind of incredible to think that one of the biggest partnerships in cinematic history, that of producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock only produced three films, Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945) and 1947’s The Paradine Case. Notorious (1946) began life as a Selznick production but Selznick later lost interest and eventually sold the film to RKO Pictures but in typical Selznick fashion took a percentage of the profits and still tried to change the script to his liking. On the other hand, knowing the history between Hitchcock and Selznick its easy to see why they only made three films together. The relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick was quite a complicated one. Many experts have said over the years that while Hitchcock respected Selznick, he found his constant meddling and interference, something which Selznick was infamous for, insufferable and the production of The Paradine Case which would become the very last Hitchcock film produced by Selznick was no different with Selznick re-writing the entire script, the first draft of which was written by Hitchcock himself along with his wife Alma Reville. Considering the legacy of Hitchcock and Selznick, its rather puzzling that the last film to come out of the seven year contract between the two is one of Hitchcock’s lesser known, almost forgotten films and its really a shame as The Paradine Case is a real hidden gem.

Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, billed here simply as “Valli”), the wealthy foreign wife of a retired Colonel is arrested on chargers of poisoning her elderly blind husband to death. Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), a highly successful barrister is hired as her defense attorney, although the case becomes complicated rather quickly as the happily married Keane begins to fall hopelessly in love with Mrs. Paradine, endangering not only his professional reputation but his marriage of 11 years to his wife Gay (Ann Todd) and as the case moves closer to trial Keane’s professional attitude towards the case gradually becomes overshadowed by his personal feelings for Mrs. Paradine.

Unquestionably the most low key of not just Hitchcock’s Selznick produced films but all the films of his Hollywood era, The Paradine Case might appear somewhat atypical at first to more casual fans who may only be aware of the bigger names in Hitchcock’s filmography but several of Hitchcock’s trademarks are quickly revealed. The go to term to describe the film seems to be “courtroom drama”, not an inaccurate classification yet to label the film simply as a courtroom drama would be selling the film short. The majority of the film plays out like a study of a key Hitchcock motif, obsession. While Hitchcock might not take the idea into territories he would in a film like Vertigo (1958), The Paradine Case is nonetheless one of Hitchcock’s darkest films on that front the way it presents Keane’s growing infatuation with Mrs. Paradine to the point where both his professional and personal reputations are put on the line. Of course the mystery surrounding the murder of Mrs. Paradine’s husband and whether or not she is guilty is always hovering over the films psychological proceedings always balancing each other out nicely and the two finally come to a head when the film finally does enter the courtroom. What Hitchcock does so brilliantly during the courtroom scenes is allow the mystery angle to come to the forefront which in turn allows Keane’s fixation on Mrs. Paradine to boil over and the results are unbearably tense, edge of the seat material that only Hitchcock could have crafted.

Detractors of the film claim that Gregory Peck was miscast, that Peck was just too likable and that because of that the film doesn’t work as it isn’t at all plausible that the successful lawyer with a loving wife would fall for a woman such as Mrs. Paradine. Really an odd criticism as its exactly why the film does work! Keane IS a likable man and Hitchcock was wise to include scenes of him and Ann Todd early on as the seemingly perfect happy go lucky married couple as they make Kean‘s attraction to Mrs. Paradine more impactful. There are times when Peck’s performance is downright uncomfortable, namely the sequence of Keane entering Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom while exploring the Paradine’s country home seeking out evidence for the case. Alida Valli, perhaps best known to genre fans for her role as the imposing dance instructor Mrs. Tanner in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) was a wise choice for the role of Mrs. Paradine. Valli possesses a presence that is striking as it is mysteriously alluring, made even more so the way Hitchcock photographs her. There is an undeniable femme fatale quality to her, yet there is also a certain ambiguity which was crucial to the part. Stealing the show however is Louis Jordan who enters in the second half of the film and who’s character adds an whole new dynamic to the story. Jordan absolutely owns the courtroom scenes, his back and forth’s with Peck make those moments in the film all the more intense.

The Paradine Case also sticks out on account of being one of Hitchcock’s most expensive films for a variety of reasons. The biggest being the sets for the trial sequences had to be custom built in order to not only accurately replicate the look of an English courtroom but also so Hitchcock could shoot a certain way. From a technical standpoint the scenes in the courtroom could be seen as somewhat of a precursor to Hitchcock’s follow up to The Paradine Case, Rope (1948) due to the constant long takes and Hitchcock would also later masterfully create highly dramatic suspense via a courtroom in I Confess (1953), another one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated films. Naturally Selznick’s trademark interference didn’t do the films budget any favors with his insistence on multiple re-shoots. Another interesting and rather humorous tidbit about the film was Selznick’s inability to settle on a title for the film having several titles, many absurd in mind before finally settling on “The Paradine Case” (the same name of the book on which the film is based by the way) literally at the 11th hour right before the film was sent out to its world premier. The Paradine Case might not have the same status as Rebecca or Spellbound, the previous two films Hitchcock/Selznick films, but it is ultimately an important film and is a film that’s more than worthy of a rediscovery.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bully (2001)

Larry Clark isn’t exactly known for his subtlety. If there’s any artist that defines the word “polarizing” its Clark, going all the way back to the raw documentation of teenage drug use and sexuality in his 1971 photography book Tulsa and it follow up Teenage Lust in 1983. Clark’s uncompromising style translated over to film with Kids (1995), a film that left not only America but many around the world feeling completely blindsided and its a film that’s still as dividing as it was when it was first released. In dealing with such difficult subject matter, Clark has earned a loyal following of supporters who readily praise his fearlessness is exposing certain elements of society that some would rather deny the existence of, yet it has also earned him an army of detractors who find his provocative material, to put it mildly, very problematic. Clark may have followed up Kids with the cool James Woods led Another Day In Paradise (1998) but in spirit, 2001’s Bully was the true follow up to Kids. Based on the real life 1993 murder of Florida teenager Bobby Kent, an event which inspirited the 1998 true crime bestseller Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze, Bully saw Clark continuing his favorite theme of wasted youth in an even darker fashion resulting in one of the most full on revenge flicks in recent memory.

Hollywood, Florida teens Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl) have been best friends for years although ever since the beginning of their friendship Marty has been the target of constant verbal and physical abuse from Bobby which has only gotten worse throughout the years with Bobby even turning his attention to Marty’s new girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner), even sexually assaulting her. Fed up with Bobby’s behavior, Lisa convinces Marty that enough is enough and together along with friends Ali (Bijou Phillips), whom Bobby also raped, Donny (Michael Pitt), Heather (Kelli Garner), Lisa’s cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese) and a local criminal rumored to be a hitman (Leo Fitzpatrick), the group hatches a plan to finally put an end to Bobby’s torments.

With its endless barrage of teens behaving badly, indulging in drugs, sex and featuring a particularly vicious murder scene it would be easy to classify Bully as pure exploitation but doing so would be a serious misreading of the film. While its true that the film is unflinching in its presentation (and in all honestly there are some shots in the film that are rather exploitive) its important to note that these very “sensationalistic” aspects are crucial to point the film was trying to make. The film may center around a murder, true, but the film is about so much more than just a murder, its equally about the lives of all those involved. What’s interesting about Bully is that unlike in Kids where only one parent was present, here Clark introduces the parents and families and exposes the home and lives of the central characters, something he would do again in a much more disturbing fashion in his follow up film Ken Park (2002). Another important thing worth pointing out is that although certain points of the actual case that the film was based on were dramatized for the purposes of film, even if the film had been a work of total fiction it still would have felt as authentic as possible simply for the fact that things like happen virtually on a daily basis and people like the ones portrayed in the film actually do exist, and naturally Clark’s presentation, aside from a few dizzying camera maneuvers and edits, is no-frills.

The late Brad Renfro turns in a brilliant performance as the tortured Marty. This is a kid who’s always on defense, only letting his guard down when not in the presence of Bobby. There is a sense of hesitation to everything he does and when the years of bottled up emotions finally explodes the results are gut-wrenching, particularly in a stand out sequence involving him and Miner when they decide something drastic has to be done about Bobby. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Nick Stahl who (appropriately) approached the role of Bobby with such a sickening arrogance his character becomes detestable within the first five minutes of the film. The contrast between him and Renfro couldn’t have been more perfect making every minute of screen time they share together instantly uncomfortable. The film is all around flawlessly cast with Rachel Miner, Bijou Phillips, Daniel Franzese and Leo Fitzpatrick all putting on clinics but perhaps the most telling performances come from Michael Pitt and Kelli Garner, the later who’s turn in the film isn’t celebrated nearly as much as it should be. What makes the eternally stoned characters of Donny and Heather stand out so much is the fact that when their introduced they’ve already reached the point that the rest of these kids would have probably ended up had the murder not drastically altered their lives, virtually brain fried, and commendably both Pitt and Garner never once go overboard or venture into “try too hard” territory in their portrayals.    

This past July marked the 20th anniversary of the actual murder of Bobby Kent and funnily enough one of the members of the so called “Broward Seven”, Alice Willis found herself back in the news a few months prior on charges of parole violation for allegedly providing police with a false address. She was first released from prison in 2001. Along with Willis, Lisa Connelly, Derek Dzvirko and Heather Swallers have all been released from prison for their roles in the crime, Connelly in 2004, Dzvirko in 1998 and Swallers in 1999. Marty Puccio is currently severing a life sentence which was originally a death sentence until it was overturned in 1997 along with Donald Semenec and Derek Kaufman the supposed “hitman”. The case was also featured in a 2001 episode of A&E’s true crime documentary series American Justice. Its really a fascinating story and again, although various elements of the case were dramatized in the film in the grand scheme of things it really is chillingly accurate for the most part, and considering the cast of characters involved Clark was the perfect director for this type of story, and as is the case with all of Clark‘s films whether that’s a good or bad thing is bound to cause an interesting debate. Bully might not be for everyone, true, but its unquestionably a profound statement from one of cinema’s most audacious provocateurs.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Nightmares Come at Night (1970)

Its interesting to look at the career of the late Jess Franco in stages, from his early documentary work in the late 1950’s which eventually led to his entrance in the horror genre with gothic masterpieces such as The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962) and The Diabolical Dr. Z (1965). Then there’s of course the Harry Alan Tower’s era where Franco certainly benefited from some of the largest budgets he ever had for his films. This particular era is where many feel Franco made some of his very best films for instance 99 Women (1969), Venus In Furs (1969), Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969) and The Bloody Judge (1970) amongst many others. As any Francophile will attest too, as the 60’s progressed Franco’s films became more and more mind-bendingly surreal and would only become even more so entering the 70’s beginning with the now legendary Vampyros Lesbos (1971) staring Soledad Miranda. Nightmares Come at Night holds an interesting place within Franco’s body of work as it was one of the first films Franco helmed during his post-Towers era. It also happened to be one of Franco’s first films to feature Soledad and its very much a transitional film, one that is a clear stylistic sign of things to come from Franco as he would enter yet anther stage in his exhaustingly prolific directorial career.

Anna (Diana Lorys), a beautiful exotic dancer living with fellow dancer and lover Cynthia is being plagued by nightmares wherein she is committing a murder. The dreams always end the same, with Anna waking up to find her hands covered in blood and Anna plagued with feelings of guilt and fear. Both Cynthia and Anna’s psychologist Dr. Lucas (Paul Muller) reassure Anna that her dreams are just that, dreams and she has nothing to worry about. Still, the nightmares continue and soon Anna’s sanity begins to slowly deteriorate as the lines between reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred.

Nightmares Comes at Night (Les cauchemars naissent la nuit, and yes that title is rather redundant) is certainly a curious entry in Franco’s extensive body of work. Obviously this wasn’t Franco’s first head-trip into subconscious delirium as this film could be seen as somewhat similar to Succubus (1967) in the way Franco transitions from sequences supposedly taking place within reality into otherworldly realms and back again until eventually trying to distinguish one from another becomes tricky. While its true that this film is nowhere near as ambiguous as Succubus in that department, at least early on as Anna’s dreams are fairly distinguishable from what’s really happening to her, there are points in the film where Franco makes it unclear especially during one long segment presented via flashback, and the more the film moves forward the more esoteric it becomes particularly in the visual department, although a good portion of the film possesses a certain hazy ambiance. There’s even a classic prolonged nightclub striptease. Another unique thing about this film is the added crime subplot Franco included (where Miranda’s character factors in) which takes the film in some pretty unpredictable directions making it seem far less “plotless” than it might have originally came across especially in terms of the evolution of certain characters. Also alongside Paul Muller keep an eye out for Jack Taylor making an appearance as a literal man of Anna’s dreams during one of the films most memorable sequences, and of course the mesmerizing score from the always reliable Bruno Nicolai.

Again, Nightmares Come at Night was one of the first films of Franco’s featuring Soledad Miranda although it wasn’t the very first as she had a small cameo in Franco’s 1960 comedy Queen of the Tabarin Club. When the film first hit DVD in 2004 the DVD cover (shown above) was a classic case of false advertising featuring Soledad on the cover as well as giving her second billing which was a stretch to say the least. While she is indeed in the film her role is really a bit part, the film is truly Lorys’ show. Redemption recently re-released the film in August along with The Awful Dr. Orlof and A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) as part of their Franco remaster series with a more accurate cover although Soledad still received second billing. Despite her small role in the film its one that led to her more famous turns in Count Dracula (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), She Killed In Ecstasy (1971), The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) and Eugenie de Sade (1974) which is why this film is of particular importance in Franco’s filmography. Whether or not Nightmares Come at Night should be considered essential Franco or minor Franco in the grand scheme of things is debatable but for those among the Franco faithful who’ve yet to see it, Nightmares Come at Night is a worthy addition to any collection.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Cosmopolis (2012)

Despite the fact that David Cronenberg has gradually moved away from the body horror and sci-fi genres where he got his start the man remains one of the most original and interesting filmmakers working today. Whatever project he chooses is bound to be miles ahead of whatever anyone else is doing in terms of ideas and plus, in the grand scheme of things, a good portion of his most recent work makes complete sense when viewed alongside his earlier films. Thematically speaking a film such as Spider (2002) or A History of Violence (2005) fits right in with the likes of Dead Ringers (1988) and/or eXistenZ (1999). When Cosmopolis was initially announced it certainly turned more than a few heads, perhaps the most obvious reason being Cronenberg’s surprising choice of megastar Robert Pattinson as the films leading man. But also because the film was based off of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel of the same name, a novel considered by many for the longest time to be “unfilmable”, the same way William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash were once considered “unfilmable”, both of which Cronenberg brilliantly adapted for the screen in 1991 and 1996 respectably. As was the case for those two novels, Cosmopolis was material that no other director besides Cronenberg could pull off and the end result turned out to be one of Cronenberg’s most challenging and polarizing films.

28 year old New York City billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his state of the art stretch limo with the intent of getting a haircut. It won’t be an easy ride as traffic is backed up considerably due to the President being in town, anarchist protesters all over the city as well as the funeral for a Sufi rapper taking place in the streets. Along the way Packer is informed that due to a risky bet against the Chinese Yuan the company of which he is the CEO is losing its fortunes by the minute and that there has been a very  credible threat made against his life. Despite the bad news Packer seems to care very little and as the day moves forward his trek to the barber becomes more and more unusual and  Packer’s carefully ordered life slowly begins to crumble all around him.

A bizarre experience even by Cronenberg standards, Cosmopolis is a film that, much like Crash, almost dares its audience to enjoy it. Confined to the inside of a limousine for the majority of the film and featuring some of the most clinical dialogue in cinematic history, Cosmopolis is perhaps Cronenberg’s most cerebral film yet, and it also happens to be one of his most fascinating in the way he presents the character of Packer and his (d)evolution. The film is comparable to Crash in the sense that like the characters of James and Catherine Ballard, Packer has become so bored and alienated by his existence that his fall from grace is the exact thing he needed to feel “alive” again so to speak. This is reflected by Pattinson’s performance, still and (purposefully) robotic while in the limo during the first half of the film and becoming increasingly more animated the more the film moves forward and the action leaves the car. The utter randomness of Packer’s encounters and interactions with other characters is another one of its strengths as it gives the film a feeling of unpredictability making it all the more compelling wondering just where its all going to end up. While Cronenberg is quick to point out that the film takes place in the “real world”, the film does share some qualities with eXistenZ in that Packer has essentially created his own artificial reality except he doesn’t need to insert a game pod into his spine, his limo is his escape.

The main criticism of the film seems to be, and understandably so, the dialogue, however without it the film wouldn’t have worked at all (although detractors would claim its precisely why the film doesn‘t work!). According to Cronenberg, the majority of the dialogue was lifted from the book 99.9% verbatim which was a masterstroke as these characters needed to speak in such dense, clinical and precise terms, it suits their nature, having them speak in any other way would have taken away the aura of the film which was already hypnotic enough in an almost Naked Lunch sort of way when considering the aforementioned random nature of the proceedings. The words may have been DeLillo’s, not to mention quite timely, its been suggested that the novel predicted the financial crisis as well as the occupy Wall Street movement and indeed the film could be interpreted as metaphorical considering recent economic events, but conceptually they’re pure Cronenberg. Pay extra close attention to the comments made during the final moments of conversation between Packer and his Chief of Theory played by Samantha Morton. These are concepts Cronenberg has been exploring going all the way back to Videodrome (1983). Speaking of Morton, she’s one part of a phenomenal supporting cast alongside Pattinson including Juliette Binoche, who’s introduction in the film is rather memorable, Kevin Durand, Sarah Gadon, who’s glacial performance of Packer’s distant wife Elise is reminiscent of Deborah Kara Unger’s equally icy turn in Crash, and a brief but show stealing appearance from Paul Giamatti.

Again, in the short time since its release Cosmopolis has proven to be Cronenberg’s most dividing film since Crash with the majority of negative reviews throwing around the notorious “P” word, pretentious with reckless abandon. Not that the reaction is all that surprising as the film is the antithesis of “mass appeal” (even with Pattinson as the lead the films theatrical run in America was ridiculously limited) although some of the reviews have been quite comical in the sense that it would appear that the film had somehow personally offended the viewer in some way. Granted some of those could have come from those unfamiliar with Cronenberg’s past work only watching the film because of Pattinson, who by the way, deserves a plethora of kudos for taking on a role such as this, those who are hesitant to watch the film because him would be wise to set aside such prejudices. The fact that Cronenberg is still making the type of visionary and radical films that can invoke such extreme reactions well over 35 years into his career is a testament to his uncompromising artistry, an artistry that Cronenberg fans have long been familiar with, making Cosmopolis an essential film for the Cronenberg faithful to check out as it sees him continue to explore new territories while at the same time revisiting familiar obsessions in a way that never feels rehashed or recycled.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

It might seem a bit strange to tackle not only a sequel but the third film in a series without giving coverage to the first two films but there is a very good reason for doing just that. For starters the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) is an undisputed classic who’s iconic status was certified a long time ago. The last thing the internet needs is yet another review highlighting the films fun blend of horror and humor, the fact that it was the first zombie film to employ the device of zombies specifically eating brains which has become a pop culture staple or its amazing soundtrack and Linnea Quigley’s equally amazing naked graveyard dance. Ad nauseam. Nor is it really necessary to go into great detail on how the significantly more comical 1988 sequel alienated a good number of fans of the original film with its reliance on, pun defiantly intended, brain-dead humor. In all actuality, aside from a few plot points 1993’s Return of the Living Dead 3 is a stand alone film, setting aside the comedic elements of the first two films and going in a radically different direction resulting in not just one of the most original sequels of any franchise but also one of the most unique films in the zombie subgenre, and a film that just may be the finest in the entire Return series.      

Looking for excitement, young lovers Curt and Julie (Melinda Clarke, billed here as Mindy) sneak into the military base where Curt’s father is in charge of a project designed to turn corpses into weapons of war using the Trioxin chemical which caused the zombie outbreak in the first two films. Later that evening the two are involved in a motorcycle crash which kills Julie instantly. Remembering what he saw at the base, in an act of desperation Curt sneaks back in and exposes Julie’s corpse to the Trioxin, successfully bringing her back to life. At first Julie seems normal, although it isn’t long until she discovers her uncontrollable hunger for human flesh which is only quelled by inflicting harm on herself, and whomever she bites becomes infected. With the military and a gang of Latin thugs on their tail, the pair retreat to the sewers, both struggling to come to terms with Julie’s affliction.  

Its always refreshing when a film, let alone a sequel in a particular subgenre deviates from the typical formula and does something different and Return of the Living Dead 3 does just that. The mixture of all out bloody zombie mayhem, a love story and some Barker esque S&M/body horror elements is certainly a strange concoction yet director Brian Yuzna pulls it off with ease. Again the comedic elements from the first two entries in the series is all but gone here and for the better. For what the first film was it worked wonders but the second film sort of drove the final nail in that coffin. That’s not to say this film is entirely devoid of humor as there are some chuckle worthy bits, and yes, Clarke does utter “Brains!” in an ecstatic fashion, but their brief and any attempt to inject more comedy in the film would have come across as awkward. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is just how strong the love story is. All too often in genre films these sort of things feel so out of place and tacked on but in the case of ROTLD 3 that couldn’t be further from the truth. The romance between Curt and Julie is the backbone of the film and more than anything believable as the film is so incredibly well written which results in many moments that are legitimately sweet and never once does it come off as corny which, all things considered, is quite the feat.

Of course the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does without the performance of one Melinda Clarke who for all intensive purposes IS the film. Not only does Clarke possess unlimited amounts of presence in both her living and undead forums, along with it comes range. She effortlessly handles every aspect of her character and she especially knocks it out of the park when it comes to the films more tender moments which up the films dramatic ante considerably. Her characters masochistic tendencies only make her more sympathetic, yet in an instant she’s able to do a complete about face and rip off a mans chin with her teeth with the same amount of conviction. The look of Julie’s character in her full on, almost Cenobiteish bondage zombie form is an unforgettable sight to say the least, tipping its hat somewhat to the punk rock aesthetic of the first film. The revelation of Julie in this state is perhaps the films finest visual moment, given more impact when coupled by the montage of Julie sticking various sharp objects into her skin shown beforehand. Its a key sequence in the film and a standout example of Yuzna’s skill behind the camera. For the most part Yuzna was able to sidestep any shortcomings the films limited budget could have presented especially in the gore department as the film is an absolute bloodletting, and the finale is definite highlight featuring some really creatively designed zombies causing all sorts of mayhem. Traditional this isn’t.

For some reason the fully uncut version of the film containing all the gore effects remains available only on VHS in America. What’s even more frustrating about the DVD containing only the R rated cut is it features commentaries from both Yuzna and Clarke which would both be interesting to listen to. Why Yuzna would agree to do a commentary for a butchered cut of his film is a mystery unto itself. Regardless, the unrated VHS should be fairly easy to find for a decent price for those unequipped with a multi-region DVD player and obviously fully uncut is the way to go. With some minor tweaking Return of the Living Dead 3 could have easily been its own thing and essentially it is, although in the grand scheme of things with it being the third film to bear the Return of the Living Dead moniker its perhaps destined to be a bit underrated by purists and always judged by how well it stands alongside the first film, although the character of Julie has gone on to become iconic to many and rightfully so. Despite the fact that the film turns 20 years old this year when considering the zombie trend of today, it still feels like the breath of fresh air that it was when it was first released in 1993. Unquestionably one of the best American genre offerings from the 90’s.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Snakewoman (2005)

As polarizing as the films of Jess Franco tend to be, perhaps no series of films he made have been as dividing as the films he made later in his career with One Shot Productions, with even the most defiant Francophiles having a hard time defending some of them for a variety of reasons. Jess teamed up with One Shot in the late 90’s and in keeping with the times even made the switch over to shooting with digital video. This was also an obvious economic decision as well seeing as the budgets for these films were even lower than what Franco was used to working with, which was something that had a tendency to become very apparent when considering the digital look of the films. These films were also considerably looser and even more free form from a narrative standpoint even by Franco standards (“indulgent” is a common criticism thrown their way). Despite the fact that Franco began to work at a slightly slower pace as the 80’s drew to a close, he never once took an extended break from filmmaking so it wouldn’t be fair to call 2005’s Snakewoman, a One Shot film a “comeback”, although a return to “classic” form would be more than fitting seeing as Snakewoman turned out to be not only the best of his later digital films but also one of his best films in general.

Carla, a publicists’ agent is sent by her boss to the estate of Oriana Balasz, a notorious actress who’s 1920’s heyday was quite scandalous in an attempt to purchase the rights to her life story. Upon arriving Cara discovers the inhabitants of the estate living an uninhibited, hedonistic lifestyle and is taken aback when encountering a woman claiming to be Oriana Balasz (Carmen Montes) who should be in her eighties yet has the appearance of a women in her 20’s complete with a massive snake tattoo wrapped around her entire body. Despite her best efforts, Carla’s financial offers are turned down and she is asked the leave, although she quickly finds herself drawn to this mysterious world and becomes unable to shake the allure of Oriana.

Yet another in the long line of Franco’s variation on a theme types of films, Snakewoman found Jess revisiting various motifs he first began exploring in Vampryos Lesbos (1971) and continued returning to in subsequent films such as Female Vampire (1973), Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and Macumba Sexual (1981) and indeed the character of Oriana Balasz seems to be made up of traits previously seen in Soledad Miranda’s Countess Nadine Carody, Lina Romay’s Countess Irina Karlstein (Lina also has a small role in this film), Pamela Stanford’s Lorna Green and Ajita Wilson’s Princess Tara Obongo. In the role of the titular Snakewoman Carmen Montes possesses a magnetic aura of mystery ala Soledad as well as the uninhibitedness of Lina making her a perfect muse for Franco. Watching this film, its clear he was grooming her to follow in those ladies footsteps and her presence in Snakewoman proves that she was more than capable. Even with all the similarities to Franco’s past work Snakewoman still occupies its own unique place within Franco’s body of work and never once does it feel like Franco was spinning his wheels. Much like the previously mentioned films it doesn’t take long for Franco to turn the proceedings into a hypnotic fever dream of psychosexual delirium and while narrative does tend to get set aside numerous times the film isn’t at all incoherent coming full circle nicely in the end and in a fairly surprising way when compared to Franco’s films of a similar nature that came before it.

Even with the confines of the digital video medium Franco managed to make Snakewoman quite the spellbinding affair, and although celluloid purists are bound to disagree vehemently, the digital look has a certain charm to it and in the case of Snakewoman, actually aids the films otherworldly quality in several instances. The first being a segment featuring the character of Agra, a woman driven mad under the lustful spell of Oriana (Franco regular Antonio Mayans plays her caregiver) in the tradition of Vampyros Lesbos’ Alpha and the “mad women” of Lorna the Exorcist, wandering aimlessly through a field of large sunflowers. The digital look often works hand in hand with the lighting, something which detractors of the film often signal out as being weak but Franco made excellent use of natural lighting in the film especially in many of the daytime interiors when the light just beams through the windows which again give the film an ethereal feel. There’s quite a bit of red in the film too which is boon for some of the darker scenes. One of Franco’s favorite visual devices, the use of mirrors is featured prominently in the film as well providing some very nifty looking shots, perhaps most memorably during an unforgettable encounter with Oriana and Agra. Franco also does something really interesting with black and white footage near the end of the film with the way he deliriously transitions from one scene to the next, a moment that coupled with the soundtrack is pure Franco in execution.

The original DVD release of Snakewoman from Sub Rosa Studios which came with a second film, Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell (1999) as a bonus is now out of print and commands a ridiculously high price tag these days. Thankfully however, Sub Rosa, the distributor for all of Franco’s One Shot films re-released the film twice, first as a double feature under the banner “Erotic Rites of a Virgin” along with Franco’s Red Silk (1999) and again in a multi-film set labeled “Stripped Dead” with three other later period Franco films,  Incubus (2002), Vampire Blues (1999) and Broken Dolls (1999). Both sets are fairly easy to find and are reasonably priced so its really just a matter of preference as well as a certain tolerance for shot on digital video Franco. Regardless, Snakewoman is an essential film that should be in any Franco fanatic’s collection and would be the best place to start for fans who’ve yet to delve into his later work and are curious as its one of Franco’s finest meditations on his favorite obsessions and is more than worthy of standing alongside the films from Franco’s past that influenced it but it also features possibly the most memorable performance of Carmen Montes in the titular role. Easily the best of Franco’s One Shot films and proof that even at the age of 75 Jess had plenty left in the tank.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Stage Fright (1950)

The series of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock between the years of 1925 (although Hitchcock began work on 2 films in 1922 and 1923 both are unfinished) to 1939, classics  such as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) amongst many others are normally referred to simply as his British films, films produced in Britain with a mostly British cast funded by British money, before making the move to America in 1939 to begin his “Hollywood” career after being signed by producer David O. Selznick. Of course Hitchcock’s penultimate masterpiece Frenzy (1972) was also one such “British” film. For 1950’s Stage Fright, Hitchcock opted to return to England for the production of the film, setting the film in London and utilizing a primarily British cast, the obvious exceptions being the film’s two leading ladies Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman (German and American respectively). Although Stage Fright isn’t considered one of Hitchcock’s “British” films in the sense of the term normally applied to his early films as it was produced by an American company, Warner Brothers, it is ultimately a very “British” film and once again a case of a film widely considered to be “lesser” or “minor” Hitchcock deserving way more recognition than it gets.

Accused of murdering the husband of famous stage actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), actor Jonathan Cooper goes on the run making a desperate plea of innocence to his friend Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), an aspiring actress. Eve believes him and along with the help of her father aids Jonathan into going into hiding. Eve and her father both believe Jonathan was framed, the most obvious suspect being Charlotte Inwood. Eve’s belief in her friend’s innocence is so strong that she decides to put her acting talents to work, posing as a maid/personal assistant of sorts in order to get close enough to Charlotte to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder and to clear Jonathan’s name.

In many ways Stage Fright could be considered a cousin film of sorts to Murder! (1930) one of Hitchcock’s earlier films, his third talking picture in fact. Both films prominently feature a murder (obviously) with the theatre as a backdrop for the story and both cleverly feature actors with strong feelings about said murders putting their skills to use in some pretty unique ways. Although both films may share a few thematic similarities, rest assured Stage Fright is no mere retread. While its true that Stage Fright is one of Hitchcock’s more low key films, many of the masters trademarks are in place such as the ordinary person thrust into an extra ordinary situation although in this film that familiar Hitchcock troupe gets a bit of a reversal in the sense that Wyman’s character thrusts herself into the middle of the case. Its a fresh twist and Hitchcock would later take a similar approach to the device with Paul Newman’s character in the equally underrated Torn Curtain (1966). Its true that Stage Fright might not be as overtly suspenseful as may of Hitchcock’s other films although as it stands it certainly isn’t lacking any either especially when taking into consideration the manner in which Hitchcock chose to present the material. The moments leading up to the films finale in particular are an exercise in nail biting tension, pure Hitchcock it its execution and the backstage setting lends a major hand in one of Hitchcock’s most innovative ways of disposing of a character.

It should comes as no surprise to anyone that Marlene Dietrich owns the film, stealing every scene she’s in with ease with all her flamboyant glory, and said flamboyance was more than perfect for the films very British sense of humor. While not an all out comedy, Stage Fright is one of Hitchcock’s more overtly humorous films, Hitchcock’s cameo in the film is defiantly one of his most memorable not to mention perfectly timed with one of the films more hilarious moments featuring Wyman trying out a phony cockney accent. Going back to Dietrich, her role in the film wasn’t limited to just acting. On the contrary, she virtually directed herself taking control of the lighting and camera placements for all of her scenes, something which Hitchcock surprisingly didn’t object to and its no wonder considering the results on the screen as the lighting for all of the scenes involving Charlotte is for lack of a better term, impeccable. The scene where Wyman first meets Charlotte in particular stands out with Dietrich looking like the ultimate femme fatale (although this is basically the case for whenever she’s on screen) with the lighting perfectly complimenting her black funeral garb. The moments leading up to the films climax are yet another example of artistry with light, this time all Hitchcock as he chose to obscure the majority of the surroundings in complete darkness with the exception of the eyes of the two participating actors in the scene making the events even more unbearably tense.

For Stage Fright Hitchcock employed a device that audiences in 1950 simply were not ready for and felt blindsided. As a result the reaction to the film was less than favorable. Even Hitchcock himself later regretted using it even going so far as calling it the second biggest mistake he ever made, the first being the scene with on the bus in Sabotage (1936). In the years since Stage Fright its become pretty common place in films but back then it was considered quite radical, and it is somewhat puzzling that the film isn’t one of Hitchcock’s more well known when considering just how revolutionary his using of this particular device was. Some believe that the films reputation suffered over the years due to Hitchcock constantly stating his regret over his usage of that one trope while others would attribute the reason behind the status of the film as it simply became overshadowed by the films Hitchcock would follow it up with for Warner Brothers such as Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M For Murder (1954) and The Wrong Man (1956) not to mention the other certifiable masterpieces Hitchcock helmed during this period that weren’t distributed by Warner Brothers. Regardless of the reason, Stage Fright is more than worthy of standing alongside other Hitchcock classics and although it may not be the most thrilling of Hitchcock's films, its certainly one of his most entertaining.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

R.I.P. José Ramón Larraz (1929-2013)

As if this year hasn’t already been hard enough on Eurocult fans with the deaths of legends like Patty Shepard, Jess Franco, Francoise Blanchard and Michel Lemoine, earlier this week we were slapped with the news of the passing of the brilliant filmmaker and comic book artist extraordinaire José Ramón Larraz and if any of the following sounds like I’m repeating things I’ve said on the site before its because I am. When discussing Larraz there are certain things that need to be repeated and will always ring true.

On one hand it would be easy to call the late José Ramón Larraz one of the most underrated filmmakers of European genre cinema because lets face it, he is especially when taking into consideration the lack of attention that has been paid to his films in the DVD era. As a fan one of the things that stings the most about Larraz’s recent passing is that unlike fellow departed hero’s of cult cinema such as Jess Franco, Jean Rollin and even Walerian Borowczyk who all lived to see their films presented in an entirely new light on DVD, something which no doubt introduced their work to a new generation of fans, Larraz never got that aside from a few exceptions, the most obvious being the various releases of Vampyres (1974).

One the other hand, to say Larraz’s work went by completely unappreciated would be a slap in the face to the legion of devoted fans, myself on here on numerous occasions included, who have been extremely vocal, and rightfully so over the years about the lack of availability of Larraz’s films on DVD. Even still, we’ve made due with beat up time coded prints of his debut Whirlpool (1970), copies of Deviation (1971) sourced from old scratchy, washed out VHS tapes, or in the case of a film like La Murete Incierta (1973), prints that have turned completely red! Despite the not so pristine condition of the viewing materials, Larraz’s artistry was more than apparent and the atmospherics of his films were undeniable, and as any fan will attest to, when it came to atmosphere Larraz was untouchable.

Perhaps Larraz’s biggest directorial strength was his ability to get the most out of his locations as evidenced by the aforementioned Whirlpool and Deviation but most notably in key films Vampyres and his masterpiece Symptoms (1974). Even a film like the notorious Black Candles (1982) is smothered in moody ambiance. While its true that any filmmaker can set a film in a creepy isolated wooded area, in Larraz’s films his locations becomes characters in their own right, he gave them personality and when combined with the ominous ambiguity of his plots and mysterious, often hedonistic characters, he stamped his films with a vibe and identity that is entirely his own. Its a unique identity that carried over into his later work as well in films like the off the wall but incomparable to anything else Rest In Pieces (1987), his slasher mystery Edge of the Axe (1988), which I’m happy to see enjoying a bit of a rediscovery as of late and his penultimate feature the underappreciated  Deadly Manor (1990) wherein Larraz counters every familiar slasher film trope with something completely out of left field that a lesser director would never think of including in a film of that type.
Celia Novis' On Vampyres and Other
documentary on Larraz

Even though he had long been retired as a director when he passed, I can’t help but think that with Larraz gone there is void in the world of horror, and at least he went out knowing that his work mattered to a lot of people as evidenced by his more than deserving lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Sitges Film Festival and Celia Novis’ documentary On Vampyres and Other Symptoms (2011).  For those more casual fans who may only be aware of Larraz’s name thanks to Vampyres, I cannot recommend all the above mentioned films enough along with other fascinating films like Scream and Die (1973), The Coming of Sin (1978) and Stigma (1980) amongst others in his body of work. José Ramón Larraz the artist may be gone now but the films remain for those curious enough to seek out the work of a maverick auteur and a key figure in the history of cult cinema who’s films continue to stand out and just may change you’re entire outlook on film, hopefully for the better.

Descanse en paz, José .

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

Its always interesting to read the opinions of fans regarding the later period films of Dario Argento, more specifically the films from his post-Opera (1987) career beginning with Trauma (1993) as they have a tendency to be dividing. Then there’s of course his loopy 1998 version of The Phantom of the Opera, almost universally considered the be the black sheep of his entire filmography although that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its share of supporters, they’re out there. Sleepless (2001) was considered by many, and rightly so, to be a return to classic form with Argento going back to his preverbal giallo roots, however it also has its fair share of detractors that claim its a mere copy and paste job with Argento simply aping elements from his past work. Caught in the middle of all that ruckus is 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome. The Stendhal Syndrome was and still is an important film for Argento as it marked his return to Italy after spending some time in America (which he would later describe during an interview as a “waste of time”) for the filming of the aforementioned Trauma and his collaboration with George A. Romero Two Evil Eyes (1990). To this day The Stendhal Syndrome remains one of Argento’s most polarizing and ultimately one of his most misunderstood efforts which is unfortunate as its truly one of his more fascinating works.

After tracking rapist/murderer Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann) to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, young police detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) begins to experience the Stendhal syndrome which causes her to loose herself amongst all the great works of art in the gallery and faints, which Alfredo later uses to his advantage and soon Anna becomes one of his victims. Although she manages to escape and goes back on the job, the event has left her psyche in a fragile state, altering her reality into a distorted collage dominated by fine art and psychosis.

The Stendhal Syndrome (La sindrome di Stendhal) has the distinction of not only being one of Argento’s most original films but its easily one of the most original psych thrillers out there. The actual Stendhal syndrome named after the 19th centaury French writer is quite the phenomenon in itself and the way Argento was able to craft a story around it is pretty damn unique. The film is certainly one of Argento’s more jolting experiences with its combination sexual violence and distorted psychology not to mention the fact that both the psychological and sexual elements are set against the backdrop of a syndrome that is most commonly associated with profound beauty is quite the unique dichotomy, and a jarring one at that. What’s also interesting is the way Argento essentially split the film into 2 distinct halves with the psychological aspects taking center stage during the second half. Its here where the film seems to draw the most criticism (well, along with the constant questioning of how Argento could have filmed his own daughter in such hideous situations). Perhaps the most common negative term thrown this films way is “predictable” which to some extent is true but at the same time the way Argento presents the events leading up to the films finale never become any less intriguing, especially when considering the performance of Asia Argento, who in her second leading role for her father delivers a complex and layered performance hitting all the right notes needed for Anna’s character to be believable.

A well used go to phrase that has been used by many over the years to describe Argento’s films is that they look like paintings come to life and in the case of The Stendhal Syndrome, that actually happens as we witness Anna physically (and mentally) enter paintings. The films opening segment taking place in Florence’s Uffizi gallery when Anna first experiences the titular syndrome are perhaps its most memorable and not just because of all the amazing works on the walls, but the way Argento puts the various masterpieces on display to use by essentially creating the symptoms of the syndrome,  cutting back and forth between the art at the gallery and Anna with dizzying effectiveness. Its not just high-end classic art that Argento puts to use either as evidenced by a particularly startling sequence of Anna experiencing the syndrome around grimy street graffiti in an equally gritty location. This film is also notable in its featuring of some pretty early computer generated imagery. Given the time period in which the film was made, some of it does look quite primitive, think of graphics from a 90’s PC game, such as following of the path of a bullet going through a cheek or the shot of a pill going down Anna’s esophagus, although Argento claims that these images weren’t intended to look 100% realistic and were meant to have a surreal quality to them and when viewed in context with the themes present in the film that makes a lot of sense.

Argento himself claimed to have experienced the syndrome as a child as he was climbing the steps of the Parthenon in Athens, and did some extensive research while writing the script, even getting assistance from Dr. Graziella Magherini, and Italian psychiatrist whose 1989 book which goes by the same name of the film was the first to not only refer to the condition as the “Stendhal syndrome” but to explore it within a psychosomatic context. Magherini is interviewed on Blue Underground’s must have 2 disc edition of the film during which she describes a few case histories of different individuals who have experienced the syndrome and the descriptions are beautifully vivid. She also praises Argento’s accuracy at the way he presented the syndrome in the film, particularly the scenes in the Uffizi. Its really a mesmerizing phenomenon and again it takes a real visionary like Argento to be able to think of using such a thing in a film but to actually be able to create a story (and a twisted one at that) around it takes a real imagination, and while The Stendhal Syndrome may lack the all out extravagance of a Suspiria (1977) or an Inferno (1980) in favor of a slightly more gritty approach, it more than makes up for it in ideas and stands as a real highlight for Argento and not just in terms of his later career.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Symptoms (1974)

AKA The Blood Virgin

Sometimes being a fan of these types of films can be frustrating. Not in the sense of some of them being obscure and at times a bit difficult to track down, that sort of thing comes with the territory as any fan will attest to, not to mention the DVD-R grey market making getting a hold of certain films on disc relatively easy. The frustrating part comes as a result of films that should have had an official DVD release a long time ago still lingering on the shelf. The fact that the majority of the films of José Ramón Larraz have yet to receive legitimate DVD releases is a subject that has been ranted about by fans ad nauseam online the world over and deservedly so. Take into consideration the amount garbage that actually gets top shelf digital treatment while the films of Larraz, the obvious exception being Vampyres (1974) and possibly Black Candles (1982) continue to dwell in obscurity should be considered a crime against cinema. Its true that all of Larraz’s films should have official releases but if one film had to be singled out from the rest, that film would have to be Symptoms. Symptoms stands out in an already unique body of work as not only being one of the career highlights for Larraz, but also for being one of the absolute greatest horror films of the 1970’s.

Anne, a young woman from London decides to get away for a while at her best friend Helen’s (Angela Pleasence, daughter of Donald) countryside estate. Not long after arriving however, Anne begins to feel some very strange vibes from the house, the nosey groundskeeper Brady, not to mention Helen’s ill will towards him and a mysterious picture of a woman named Cora whom Helen claims is a “friend”. Anne becomes even more suspicious that there’s something she’s being kept in the dark about after hearing odd noises on a nightly basis and Helen’s behavior becoming more and more erratic making it apparent to Anne that there is something very wrong with her friend.

In many ways Symptoms is the film that Larraz was working towards his entire career. All the ideas and themes Larraz had introduced in previous films like Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971) and Scream and Die (1973) such as the isolated countryside setting, foreboding gothic atmosphere and an ominous sense of mystery are used to perfection here. In the hands of a lesser director these devices would come off on the screen as stock and cliché, but Larraz crafts a masterpiece with his unique way of putting these elements to use. What may surprise some viewers only familiar with Larraz’s more lets say “tantalizing” work, is the absence of graphic sex and violence from Symptoms. Granted there is a bit of a sexual component to the story but Symptoms is far from the visceral barrage of skin and sanguine that is Vampyres, its pure psychological horror and at times legitimately unnerving and unsettling. Larraz’s slow storytelling techniques are again brilliantly utilized as the film gets more and more disturbing the further it moves forward with Larraz never once loosening the tension, always letting it be known even very early on in the film that something isn’t quite right with what’s happing while at the same time allowing the film to retain its ambiguity. Perhaps the biggest strength of Symptoms is presence of Angela Pleasence, tailor made for this role possessing a face with the ability to convey sympathy one moment and in an instant become disturbing and threatening, oftentimes both at once.

Larraz may have always had a knack for getting the most out of his locations but with Symptoms he really outdid himself. The house, the forest that surrounds it, the nearby lake, these are not just mere locations and surroundings, they’re characters in their own right, Larraz gives them personality. One scene that always comes to mind is when Helen and Anne go for a canoe ride in the lake, Larraz constantly cuts back and forth between the tress, the water and Pleasence’s face, which goes back to the commanding presence of Pleasence (excuse the lame play on words) and Larraz’s ability to capture a mood by just aiming the camera at her face. Larraz’s trademark feeling of isolation is ever present, the countryside where the house resides may be beautiful from a visual standpoint but with it also comes an aura of unease along with the estate, which Larraz takes full advantage of. The estate itself is where the gothic elements come into play. At times the film even begins to feel like a classic haunted house story the way Larraz chose to light the interior night shots. The set decoration of a particularly important attic room is a definite highlight and it certainly didn’t hurt that the weather seemed be feeling a bit moody during these scenes and several others. What’s amazing is that even a DVD-R recorded from a worn PAL VHS with some pretty washed out colors cannot take any of the overwhelming atmosphere of the film away.

One of the more baffling aspects regarding the current status of Symptoms outside of Larraz fans and those with an interest in European cult cinema is the fact that not only did the film play at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it happened to be the official British entry. Granted a lot of films have played at Cannes and surely many have gotten lost in the shuffle throughout the years but for a director such as Larraz to have had a film play at such a prestigious, probably the most prestigious film festival there is only for the film to, for lack of better terminology make a disappearing act after one broadcast years later on British television in 1983 is quite puzzling. The British Film Institute has rightfully taken notice and when they released a list of their 75 most wanted films believed to be missing in 2010, Symptoms made the list. Today the film is again, only seen via old VHS tapes or DVD-R’s sourced from said VHS tapes, the original prints for the film are MIA. Despite that it is encouraging to know that an institute like the BFI believes the film to be important enough to warrant a place on their most wanted list, as it really is a brilliant film that deserves to be seen and not just by genre fans. Top shelf psychological horror and Larraz’s magnum opus.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Deviation (1971)

It shouldn’t seem like a stretch to think that when the name of José Ramón Larraz is brought up the film that immediately springs to the minds of most folks is Vampyres (1974), which is understandable seeing as how that film was pivotal for not only Larraz’s career but also for that era of European sleazy horror/exploitation filmmaking. What more casual fans might not be aware of however is the films Larraz made leading up to  Vampyres, for instance his debut Whirlpool (1970), Scream and Die (1973) and Symptoms (1974) plus several others that came after such as the notorious Black Candles (1982), Edge of the Axe (1988), which actually has seen a bit of a rediscovery over the last few years, a beautiful thing of course, and Deadly Manor (1990) are worthy of the same attention. On one hand, its easy to call Larraz one of most underappreciated genre directors because lets face it, he is when taking into consideration the lack of attention that has been paid to his films in terms of DVD releases. On the other hand, Larraz has a loyal following of passionate fans who readily sing the deserved praises of his films. Deviation was Larraz’s second film following Whirlpool, and it is indeed one such film that the majority of Larraz fanatics agree is one of his best efforts showcasing a unique artist taking the next step.    

While driving down a desolate country back road late at night Paul and his mistress Olivia crash their car after swerving to avoid hitting a man that jumped out in front of them. Nearby, local brother and sister Julian and Rebecca hear the crash and offer Paul and Rebecca shelter for the night. Despite accepting their invitation, Paul is slightly untrusting of the eccentric siblings and during the night decides to do some snooping around the house only to discover that his suspicions were warranted as he is murdered by Rebecca along with Julian and their group of demented hippy friends. Julian claims that Paul has gone back to work in London and that she can stay while the car is repaired. Under the influence of drugs Julian has secretly been feeding her, Olivia quickly becomes entwined in Julian and Rebecca’s deviant world of sex and drugs, completely oblivious to their murderous tendencies.

Deviation is the logical successor to Larraz’s debut Whirlpool. Watching the two back to back is interesting as Deviation sees Larraz continue developing his favorite thematic obsessions while at the same time expanding his palate a bit. While Whirlpool was fairly straightforward from a narrative standpoint, Deviation is a tad more ambitious with Larraz throwing in some odd subplots involving taxidermy and even a psychic aunt so needless to say things become a bit strange, especially when Julian and Rebecca’s friends, no doubt inspired by the Manson family show up. The added element of having Olivia constantly be under the influence was a nice touch, allowing a for a good amount of ambiguity concerning certain plot points. This film may be paced a bit faster than Whirlpool, but Larraz still successfully takes his time with the way he has the film play out, and there is never a dull moment, especially when considering the type of material Larraz is dealing with, not to mention the mysterious personalities of the characters,  Rebecca especially is particularly interesting and the spidery presence of actress Lisbet Lundquist makes her all the more fascinating. Deviation also finds Larraz becoming more stylish behind the camera, and its with this film that he really beings to show off his knack for getting the most out of his locations. The films opening credits sequence is a definite highlight featuring Lundquist running though a forest surrounded by brown foliage and the drug fueled orgies makes for some nice visual delirium.

Unlike Whirlpool, Deviation actually did eventually find its way to home video via a scratchy VHS courtesy of Marquis Video, a Canadian label complete with extremely misleading box art which, according to IMDb is a photo from Fred Olen Ray’s film Scalps (1983). Also according to IMDb, that film was also released around the same time on the same label although why exactly they company felt it necessary to feature a still from it on the box for Larraz’s film is anyone’s guess. To this day, Deviation, and this should come as no surprise to anybody, has yet to see an official DVD release so for now DVD-R is the way to go. Luckily there are those out there who believe that films like this need to be seen and there are several sites that sell copies of this film. Its fairly easy to find for generous prices so it really just comes down to the online retailer of preference. Again, Deviation is Larraz taking his next cinematic leap forward, both thematically but also visually, with Larraz showing off a bit more behind the camera letting his background in art start to shine through, something which would be become more and more evident the more films he made. More involving than the average so called “Euro sleaze” affair and in no short supply of intrigue, Deviation is ultimately one of Larraz’s most accomplished films.    

Monday, July 15, 2013

Whirlpool (1970)

AKA Perversion Flash

Years before he directed Euro horror classics such as Vampyres (1974) and Black Candles (1982) for which he is best known for, the still unheralded brilliant Spanish filmmaker José Ramón Larraz made a name for himself in the world of comic book art. This was during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, and much to Larraz’s annoyance the tyrannical censorship imposed by Franco’s government (which also led to fellow Spaniard, the late, very great Jess Franco leaving his home country to make films) was felt by all forms of art, including comics. In the 1999 Channel 4 documentary series Eurotika! episode dedicated to his films, “From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells”, Larraz recounts a particularly petty issue the censors had with an image he drew of a woman with her lips partly separated, which was considered way to sensual, therefore it had to be cut from the publication. After leaving Spain, Larraz told a friend how he’d been interested in making films for a while to which, according to Larraz, his response was a “romantic view of the film industry” consisting of just get a camera and actors and make the film you want to make, don’t worry about any studios. Sound advice, which Larraz followed when he came out of the gate swinging with his first film as a director, Whirlpool, a definite statement from a first time filmmaker of there ever was one.

Tulia, a young, beautiful yet extremely naïve model agrees to spend some time at the cabin home of Sara, an acquaintance of her photographer boss, and her shy nephew Theo, who also happens to be a photographer. Tulia and Theo quickly develop a bond, and not long after Tulia lets go of all her inhibitions and becomes a player in Sarah and Theo’s sexual games. The entire time however, Sarah and Theo are constantly speaking of Rhonda, their previous guest at the cabin whom Sarah was rather fond of. Tulia eventually becomes increasingly suspicious of what happened to this Rhonda, and when a stranger claiming to be Rhonda’s lover shows up inquiring about her whereabouts, her curiosity becomes even greater leading Tulia to try and seek out the truth about what really happened to Rhonda.    

Whirlpool is clearly a sign of things to come from Larraz with future films like Deviation (1971) and Scream and Die (1973) with its themes of voyeurism and incest, its jolting blend of sex and violence and its isolated countryside setting along with the sense of isolation that comes with it. Despite this being his first film, Larraz already had a pretty good handle on these devices and puts each to excellent use to add fuel to the mystery that’s central to the film. Whirlpool is a slow burn make no mistake, yet not one boring moment is to be found thanks to Larraz’s presentation of the story. Sure, clues are dropped thorough, but Larraz makes nothing obvious, waiting until the moment is crucial to reveal information pertaining to the mystery, the intrigue lasts until the films final moments. This was an amateur production with hardly a budget to be found which is something that shows in certain parts of the film and its not without its moments of questionable dialogue and clunky delivery of said dialogue but these moments are few and far between and in no way does it throw off the films consistency at all, in fact leading man Karl Lanchbury, who would become Larraz’s go to guy for the next few years, is quite impressive in the role of Theo. He has a very charming boy next door-ish quality about him, but he also has the ability to turn on a dime make things very awkward and uncomfortable.

For the longest time Whirlpool was thought to have been lost until a few years back a beat up time coded print was miraculously discovered and began making the grey market DVD-R circuit. As a whole, its not horrible looking, although the picture is very soft and certain portions of the film seem to look more murky and washed out than others. The sound can get a big muffled at times too, but that may also be a speaker issue and again there is a timer running across the top of the screen for the entire film. Of course nobody has attempted to clean it up and give it the proper release it deserves which sadly is par for the course when it comes to the majority of Larraz’s films, so until that day comes that’s the only way to see the film. A tagline such as “She died with her boots on… and not much else” certainly doesn’t leave much to the imagination, and while its true that thorough the course of Whirlpool Larraz does offer up a healthy amount of sleaze, the film offers a hell of a lot more than what those tantalizing words on the poster might lead one to believe. Part psychological thriller, part mystery, part sexploitation, Whirlpool is an important film that’s not to be missed by not only Larraz fans but fans of Eurocult cinema in general.