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.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Macumba Sexual (1981)

The early 1980’s were an interesting and important time for Jess Franco as they marked the maverick director’s return to his home country of Spain. Despite being a native Spaniard, Franco had mostly been working abroad in counties such as England, France, Germany, Italy amongst many others during the 60’s and 70’s producing many of his best films. Very few of Franco’s films during that time period aside from a few well known obvious exceptions were Spanish productions. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (no relation) censorship in Spain was rather harsh, and Franco’s films were a causality as a result, something Jess couldn’t stand so for the sake of directorial freedom he left the country. As he humorously recounted the story of him leaving Spain for the second time “I went to see the head censor and I told him “You know I am leaving this country because you are here. You are an asshole. You piss me off. I’m leaving”. Then I left and took my plane.” After the death of General Franco, Jess received an offer to return to Spain under the promise that he would be able to make films his own way, full artistic freedom, and with the change in the counties political climate he jumped at the chance, and one such film to come out of that decision was Macumba Sexual, one of his most dizzying experiences.

Alice Brooks (Lina Romay, billed here under her pseudonym “Candy Coaster”) is constantly being plagued by the same reoccurring nightmare involving a mysterious woman named Tara (Ajita Wilson). While vacationing with her husband, Alice, a real estate agent gets a call from her boss saying that one Princes Obongo is interested in purchasing a property from the agency Alice works for. After making the trek to the Princesses nearby island retreat Alice discovers, much to her shock that Princes Obongo is in fact Tara, the woman from her dreams in the flesh and it soon becomes apparent that her reasoning’s for summoning Alice have nothing to do with real estate as Alice’s existence  becomes increasingly hallucinatory as Princess Obongo beings to initiate Alice into her delirious world of sexual voodoo.  

Macumba Sexual sees Franco take themes initially developed in films such as Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and to a certain extent Female Vampire (1973) and Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and take them to the next level, the idea of an otherworldly female who’s allure is all consuming with the ability to completely possess whomever they intend to, overtaking both mind and body. Much like Soledad Miranda’s Countess Carody in Vampyros Lesbos, Wilson’s Tara/Princess Obongo first appears in the protagonist’s dreams as a figment of their subconscious, but here Franco plays around with the dream concept a bit more, constantly jerking us in and out of reality and fantasy until eventually everything becomes a blur and we’re fully transported into Princess Obongo’s tropical, sexual nightmare realm, which is really the way the film was meant to play out. Narrative does take a bit of a backseat the more the film moves forward but for good measure Franco adds a bit of voodoo-esque mythology to Obongo’s character which provides some nice insight into her intentions while allowing her mysterious aura to remain in tact. As for Wilson herself in the role of Obongo, the part was tailor made for her. Franco described her best when he said “She wasn’t an actress. She was a presence. As they say in France, a force of nature.” A force of nature, that essentially is what Wilson is in this film. That presence Franco speaks of is equally psychical and imposing as it is enticing. Truly her finest hour.

Being back in Spain Franco certainly had a plethora of gorgeous locations to chose from, something he took full advantage of by choosing to shoot the film on the Canary Islands, Grand Canaria to be more specific. Aside from Grand Canaria’s obvious photographic attributes, Franco picked the island due to its unique atmosphere, with its local legends and superstitions playing a big part in the films more supernatural elements. From a directorial standpoint Macumba Sexual is one of Franco’s most accomplished loaded from start to finish with expertly framed shots, and Franco really outdid himself here when it comes to the way he staged many of the shots. The film opens with a striking image of a mostly silhouetted Wilson bathed in sunlight raising her arms to sky which follows with an equally lasting image of Wilson leading 2 human slaves on leashes. Alice’s journey to Princes Obongo’s home is an odyssey in itself, purposely prolonged, taking place on camelback of all things while somewhat Arabic sounding music and chanting plays overtop everything, its really a spellbinding sight and a perfect example of Franco’s ability to take something as simple as people riding camels and make it trance inducing. For added visual flair which also ties in with the voodoo aspect of the story Franco focuses the camera on the many ominous looking wood statues that surround Obongo’s abode, and there’s one reoccurring visual motif featuring a symbolic object of particular importance strategically placed on Wilson’s person that’s pure Franco.

During the “Voodoo Jess” interview segment featuring both Jess and Lina on Severin’s excellent DVD release of the film Jess states that the original title of the film was simply “Macumba” but was later changed to Macumba Sexual when the film was released. Jess and Lina also humorously opine on star Ajita Wilson’s (alleged) transexuality with Jess saying “I don’t know if she was an operated man but if she was an operated man she was a very well operated man. Bravo for the doctors because it didn’t show at all like a man.” Lina on the other hand saw it a bit differently stating “Take my word for it. She was completely transsexual.” If anybody would know it would have to be Lina having gotten very up close and personal with Wilson several times throughout the film. Of course none of that mattered to Jess as he put it because she helped the film. That same segment also features Jess and Lina discussing how they first met and how their relationship developed into what it eventually became. Its really a touching segment although watching it now is a bit bittersweet seeing as how both are gone. Macumba Sexual is an important film, not only marking Franco’s return to Spain but it sees him bringing fresh ideas to the table while tackling familiar subject matter making it an essential addition to any Franco collection.