Monday, April 22, 2013

Black Candles (1982)

AKA Los Ritos Sexuales del Diablo (The Sexual Rites of the Devil), Hot Fantasies and Naked Dreams

It was inevitable. Just as when I covered Mario Bava’s masterpiece The Whip and the Body (1963) late last year I’ve once again run into the conundrum of not having the slightest idea how to introduce this, and instead of waiting for something to come to me and failing miserably I’m admitting defeat just as I did back then. There’s no sense in stalling any longer, so let’s get right down too it. While Vampyres (1974) may be the most well known film of José Ramón Larraz, Black Candles is easily his most notorious,  and although it may seem like an odd choice to purists, Black Candles also happens to be my favorite Larraz film.

Following the sudden death of her brother, Carol and her boyfriend Robert travel to England to spend some time at her sister in law Fiona’s (Helga Liné) country home. Almost immediately after arriving however Carol begins to feel some very strange vibes from Fiona, the house and Fiona’s group of friends whom she’s been introduced too. Her suspicious are not without warrant, as Fiona and her friends happen to belong to a Satanic cult who are not only responsible for the death of Carol’s brother, but have managed to seduce Robert into their ways, and they’ve got their sights set on Carol.

Unquestionably the sleaziest film in not only Larraz’s repertoire but also within the spectrum of Euro trash/sleaze cinema of that era, there’s absolutely no pretense to a film such as Black Candles. Incest? Check. Girl on goat? Check. Sword sodomy? Check. There’s not many perversities this film leaves unchecked. Make no mistake, Black Candles is European Satanic sexploitation at it’s finest. You really have to hand it to not only Larraz, as this film is audacious even for this type of film from that time period, but also the cast. It’s safe to say that Larraz really found one of the most uninhibited group of exhibitionists imaginable for this film. While it’s true that some of them obviously aren’t the most experienced of thespians (although it’s difficult to really tell thanks in part to the at times awkward dubbing), you have to applaud their willingness to just go for it, no matter what the scene calls for. The highlight of the cast is of course Helga Liné who fit the role of Fiona the sinister sister in law to a T. She not only looked the part, possessing a plethora of presence, but also a mysterious aura about her appearance and simply owned every scene she was in. Believe it or not there actually is a story here. Granted, it’s thin and isn’t the same level of engaging as say Whirlpool (1970) or Scream and Die (1973) but it’s there so the film isn’t as one dimensional as it sounds.

Black Candles is a classic example of Larraz getting the most out of his locations. Obviously operating under a low budget, Larraz manages to sidestep most of the shortcomings normally associated with such things the way he’s always done throughout this career by smothering the entire film in atmosphere, which, with a story like this comes naturally. Once again he returns to the device of the creepy house in the English countryside to great effect, not just the house but all it’s surroundings as well. Scenes such Carol simply visiting her brothers grave in broad daylight have an eerie feeling to them only enhanced by the scenery of the graveyard not to mention the shots of Fiona staring intensely at Carol while she mourns. Naturally the black magic element of the  storyline gives Larraz license to craft some pretty delirious moments, Carol’s unforgettable dream early on in the film being a highlight as well as the her constant hallucinatory “is this really happening” episodes. Even a scene Carol being introduced to Fiona’s odd group of friends, or said group of friends managing to give Carol the creeps by just lounging around Fiona’s living room take on a sort of surreal quality when taking into consideration the black magic/occult aspects of the story. The set design is quite nice as well, especially the basement of Fiona’s house where the black masses are staged, complete with red curtains and of course, black candles. Simple, yes, but it sets the mood perfectly.

Sadly Larraz himself isn’t so fond of the film which is a shame. Unlike a lot of films in Larraz’s body of work, and I’m sure in part due to it’s sheer notoriety, Black Candles actually has been officially released on DVD as a double feature along with the 1975 film Evil Eye directed by Mario Siciliano. I’m assuming that released has since gone out of print as it commands a pretty high price these days, so unless you want to pay $30, I’d say the best way of going about attaining a copy of Black Candles is to go with the DVD-R courtesy of Mr. Fat-W Video, made on demand when ordered from Amazon. VHS quality, true, but it’s watchable and completely uncut and believe me, completely uncut is the only way to go with this one. If you’re not already a fan of this type of cinema Black Candles isn’t likely to change your mind. In fact it’s liable to cause you to run even farther away from it. If however you are a fan and you’ve yet to see Black Candles, run do not walk to this film. A quintessential sex ‘n Satan film more than worthy of its reputation.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Scream and Die (1973)

AKA The House That Vanished and Psycho Sex Fiend

Unlike other heroes of European cult cinema such as Jess Franco (R.I.P.), Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin and Sergio Martino just to name a few, José Ramón Larraz has really yet to have his day in the digital age. As far as I can tell, the only films of his to have gotten the DVD release they truly deserve in terms of transfer and image quality are Vampyres (1974), The Coming of Sin (1978) and Black Candles (1982), which was released as a double feature along with the film Evil Eye (1975) directed by Mario Siciliano, while films like his debut feature, the once considered lost Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971) and the brilliant Symptoms (1974) continue to sit on the shelf, only made available to fanatics via DVD-R. Take a gander around the internet and you’ll find a plethora of Larraz fans, all with the same mindset that the time is long overdue for the man and his films to get the respect and proper releases that they truly deserve. Prior to making Vampyres, easily his most well known film, Larraz helmed Scream and Die, which could be seen as the next logical thematic step following the aforementioned Whirlpool and Deviation, putting a twist on various motifs present in those two films, and the final result is not just one of the more unique films in Larraz’s filmography, but in Euro horror/cult cinema in general.

Gorgeous model Valerie (Andrea Allan) accompanies her petty thief boyfriend Terry to a seemingly abandoned country house deep in the woods presumably to loot it. Instead of finding valuables however, the two are witness to a murder after a man and a woman enter the house shortly after and the man proceeds to brutally stab his companion to death. Valerie manages to escape on foot, although Terry isn’t so lucky. After hitchhiking back to her London flat the next morning, Valerie notices Terry’s mud covered car parked outside her apartment building, and a photo of her missing from her portfolio. As Valerie tries to retrace her escape route in an attempt to find the house again, she finds herself being stalked by a psychopath that possesses all the need to know information about her.

Poster and VHS art
Scream and Die is a shining example of Larraz’s ability to blend various elements from different subgenres into something that is entirely his own. The film contains traces of Italian giallo (keep an eye out for the black leather gloves!), murder mystery elements that are dare I say quite Hitchcockian, scenes taking place in the English countryside smothered in atmosphere akin to classic gothic horror with just the right amount of sleaze thrown in for good measure. The giallo/mystery aspects of the story are defiantly some of the films strongest attributes, particularly because of how drawn out everything is. This is a slow burn, make no mistake, yet it works in the films favor as for the majority of the film Larraz keeps us completely in the dark. We’re just as perplexed as Valerie, trying to sort out any possible clues as it pertains to her situation at the same pace she is, so it goes without saying the film becomes more and more engrossing as it moves foreword, forcing us to do our own detective work with Larraz throwing us a curve ball or two along the way. Another big thing the film benefits from is Valerie’s likeability factor, which is high. She might not be the brightest, but she’s almost instantly sympathetic and it certainty doesn’t hurt that Andrea Allan is an unnecessarily beautiful woman complete with a adorable British accent to boot. As for the sleaze, without giving anything away, it defiantly makes for some nice what the fuck moments.
Nobody utilized the English countryside quite like Larraz and the atmosphere he manages to conjure up is not only one of the main selling points of Scream and Die but a definite sign of things to come in the sense of how he would use his locations to his utmost advantage in the films that would follow. Much like Franco, Larraz really knows how to get the most out of his scenery as evidenced early on in the film during Valerie and Terry’s initial early evening journey to the house. Larraz makes sure to give the audience the same feeling of unease as Valerie and pulls it off with even with standard shots of the road and the surrounding trees/wooded area from inside the car. There is an obvious aura about this scenery and Larraz knew it. Of course Larraz only amplifies the mood once the two arrive at the house and the nighttime exterior shots of the house surrounded by fog are classic examples of Larraz’s signature style. Larraz obviously had fun playing around with the lighting in this film, showing a particular affection for blue which is on display masterfully in a number of scenes, perhaps most notably in a phenomenal shot of Valerie ascending the staircase of the house while blue light shines through the windows while fog flows through the open front door. Even the scenes taking place during city in broad daylight have an ominous quality to them which makes sense taking the main storyline into consideration.

This film has had a pretty interesting home video release history. Video Treasures released the film under both the Scream and Die and The House That Vanished titles, and the film was also released by Media under the later title. One thing that stands out about those VHS releases is all have a running time of 84-86 minutes, meaning they’re cut by around 13 minutes. I have a feeling as to what scenes were cut but at the same time it does leave one scratching they’re head as to why the film was butchered so badly for those releases, as it would be a bit of a stretch to label the film’s sex and violence content “graphic”. Scream and Die is actually officially available on DVD, fully uncut with a 99 minute run time, although it’s clearly from a VHS transfer. It’s defiantly not horrible looking, but a film with atmosphere like this should be presented in mint condition. With Scream and Die, Larraz hit all the right notes. There’s plenty of substance in terms of it’s captivating storyline to go along with all the atmospheric style on display. True, it may test your patience at times, but it’s such an easy film to get into you’ll be in it for the long haul. Even if you just have a remote interest in 70’s Euro horror, Scream and Die deserves to be in your collection.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

R.I.P. Jess Franco (1930-2013)

This morning began with the horrible news that the ultimate cinematic rebel, the legendry Jess Franco passed away after suffering a stroke last week. He was 82 years old, almost one month away from turning 83, and still going at it behind the camera, with his last film Al Pereira Vs. the Alligator Ladies (2013) having it’s Spanish premier 2 weeks ago, his first film to have a theatrical run in his home country of Spain in over 20 years. To be perfectly honest I’m still somewhat processing all of this but I simply cannot say nothing. I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Franco and his films on here having covered several ever since starting this site. To me, Franco was one of those filmmakers that completely changed the way I view films and what could be accomplished within the medium. His films are more than entertaining, they’re inspiring. Simply put, when I watch a Franco film, that’s what makes me want to make films.

Franco may have had his detractors but I defy all the naysayer’s to downplay the passion the man had for film, something that’s incredibly hard to do when you leave behind a body of work that includes well over 200 films. It wasn’t uncommon for Franco to juggle 2, sometimes even 3 productions at the same time, in 1973 alone he managed to complete 12 feature films, some of which have gone on to become some of his most memorable such as Female Vampire, Countess Perverse, The Other Side of the Mirror and Plaisir à Trois amongst others. Obviously when you work at that kind of a pace you’re bound to slip up every now and then and even the most hardcore Francophiles and even the man himself (he was his harshest critic) will admit that he has his fair share of misfires along the way. Even still, no matter the reasons certain films turned out the way they did, the one constant that remained in every single one of his films was his enthusiasm, which I think is safe to say was second to none.

A lots been said over the years about Franco's output, and his work is certainty not for everyone. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that even his more accessible films are too be considered acquired taste. If it’s not for you it’s totally understandable. If however, you’re lucky enough to have his films resonate with you even remotely the way they affected me, you’ll jump in and never look back, always wanting to add more and more to you’re Franco collection. I consider myself lucky to be alive during a time when Franco was still making films the only way he knew how, his way without compromise, and also for the fact that he knew there was a legion of devoted fans that were seeing his films in a whole new light thanks in part to companies like Blue Underground, Synapse, Mondo Macabro, Severin and Redemption giving his films more than deserving DVD treatments which have introduced a whole new generation of fans to Franco.

There is now a huge void in the world of cult and genre cinema never to be filled now that the maestro is gone, yet the devoted will never forget Jess and his films nor his one of a kind directorial style and the quirky rolls he often cast himself in for his films, not to mention the fact that the man was an incredibly talented jazz musician that, along with his wife and muse the late, very great Lina Romay who sadly passed last February, possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz music. You hear this all the time when someone passes but in this case the saying couldn’t more appropriate, there really will never be another Jess Franco. The man and his unique films will continue to be an inspiration and the dictionary definition of what truly original and visionary auteur filmmaking is all about.