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 .