Monday, December 29, 2014

Paula-Paula (2010)

Jess Franco’s name may be synonymous with many things to both fans and detractors alike but of the most crucial and defining aspects regarding Franco’s career was his adamant belief in artistic freedom. Not just simply freedom from censorship although that was certainly critical, but the freedom to film any idea without compromise or pandering to any group. Franco knew the importance of having final cut probably better than any other director after having his films meddled with by producers and distributors over the years and having multiple versions of his films exist. Regardless of the fact that Franco’s later period digital films are some of if not the most unpopular films he ever made, the advent of digital video technology not only made the process of filmmaking easier but Franco was finally given the complete creative control he always strived for and despite the fact that there were still certain cases of a film getting two different versions released, the films from this digital period represent Franco at his most pure with no filters. Perhaps no film of Franco’s better represents this freedom better than 2010’s Paula-Paula. Shot almost entirely in Franco and Lina Romay’s own apartment, Paula-Paula is easily Franco’s most experimental, inaccessible and alienating film and its also a film that would eventually mark the end of an era as it sadly features the final screen appearance of Lina Romay.

Paula (Carmen Montes), an exotic nightclub performer is arrested after the murder of her lover and fellow nightclub performer who also happens to be named Paula (Paula Davis). After being questioned by detective Alma Pereira (Lina), Paula is left on her own and begins to recount in her head the events that led her to where she is now, although in her delirious mental state Paula’s memory quickly grows increasingly surreal and twisted with the line between truth and fantasy becoming more and more blurry.

There seems to be two schools of though when it comes to Paula-Paula, that the film is either a hallucinatory glimpse into a disturbed psyche or Franco simply messing around with a digital camera for about 67 minutes. In all actuality, its a bit of both. Paula-Paula represents Franco at his most abstract, setting aside narrative almost immediately in favor of letting the visual take over. Franco claimed the film was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which actually makes sense in context yet this is a film where narrative only begins to matter after the film has ended. Its really a fascinating way of telling a story, or rather not telling a story, at least during the course of the actual film. Again, Franco shot the majority of the film in his own apartment and in some ways the film could be considered a full length version of a psychedelic nightclub performance seen in so many of Franco’s films set to a brilliant jazz soundtrack. The film was scored using recordings by Friedrich Gulda who of course composed the music for Franco’s Succubus (1967). Franco was given a CD of recordings by Gulda’s estate and conceived  the film around the music. “Free jazz filmmaking” so to speak, a label which becomes even more accurate when considering the films excessive visuals with Franco constantly digitally altering and distorting the imagery which recalls the digital experimentation seen in films like Vampire Blues (1999) and Vampire Junction (2001).

Franco made clear his mentality behind the film during the three interview segments featured on Intervision’s DVD. The first segment is a simple introduction for the film but the second and third are where it really gets interesting. The second interview in particular as it features Franco giving his opinions at the time on contemporary filmmaking and its really inspiring to hear Franco praise the younger generation of enthusiastic filmmakers who are doing it for the love of cinema just as he did. The third segment is Franco discussing Paula-Paula and again, its inspiring just to listen to his excitement over the film. Franco praises the cast especially Carmen Montes and rightfully so as Montes was one of Franco’s greatest discoveries during his later period and proved herself more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Lina and Soledad Miranda. Franco even goes so far as to claim that Paula-Paula is his strangest film! In a sense its hard to argue with the man. Paula-Paula isn’t the type of film that’s going to bring a Franco detractor over to the other side and it has the potential to drive away even those who defended Franco’s One Shot films. It really doesn't matter though as the spirit  in which it was made and the fact that it was Lina’s last film ultimately make Paula-Paula one of Franco’s most important films.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Vampire Junction (2001)

The weird west subgenre is one of the most fascinating in fantastic fiction. While the term “weird west” is a blanket term that can be used to describe works that blend westerns with various other fantastic genres, it’s the horror genre that makes the perfect tag-team partner for westerns. The mythology of the American old west with its ghost towns, mysterious nomadic drifters, things of that nature along with the consuming nature of the frontier landscapes are tailor made for horror, and one facet of the horror genre that works particularly well within a western environment is vampires. In film the most famous example would of course be Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Near Dark (1987), a film which set a new standard for not just horror/western hybrids but for vampire films in general. John Carpenter also masterfully fused vampires and westerns together with Vampires (1998) and Carpenter has admitted that Vampires was his excuse to finally do a western. No stranger to westerns having directed one of his own, Jaguar (1963), Jess Franco made his entrance into the weird vampire west during his divisive days with One Shot Productions. The resulting film was 2001’s Vampire Junction, a film that is so utterly bewildering not only is it unlike any other vampire western to come before or after it but it also achieves something astonishing by being of the oddest films in Franco’s entire oeuvre.  

Upon arriving in a small southwestern town affectionately refereed to as “Shit City” attempting to interview a famous doctor, journalist Alice Brown (Lina Romay) is immediately taken aback by the fact that the town seems to be almost entirely abandoned. After finally meeting the doctor, she becomes even more perplexed by his odd behavior, as well as the odd behavior of the few locals she encounters. Not long after settling in, Alice begins to have strange dreams, the only constant being the appearance of two mysterious vampire women. Alice’s dreams soon cross over into realty as she discovers that the town has been overtaken by vampires who intend to add Alice to their ranks.

Vampire Junction is a perfect example of the idea of Franco’s films existing within their own universe. The concepts of time and space are completely alien to a film like Vampire Junction. In fact the entire film seems to be taking place outside of time in an alternate dimension in that “Shit City” seems to be stuck in the old west, yet modern technology such as cell phones and lap tops are featured prominently throughout the film along with characters dressed in old west attire driving modern cars. Its an interesting clash of visual styles and neither one cancels out the other, in fact it only adds to the feeling of “Shit City” being some kind of netherworld of sorts trapped in between time periods. The pink punk rock wig, a mainstay of Franco’s One Shot days, worn by one of the two vampire women is also quite the sight when seen in an old west styled town. While nowhere near as visually excessive as Vampire Blues (1999), Vampire Junction does at times see Franco continue to experiment with filters and image distortions and the digital look of the film has a certain charm to it and actually works in the films favor by piling on to the surreality especially whenever the vampire women are on screen. It also has to be pointed out that this film does yet again feature Spanish actors speaking heavily accented English although its never completely unintelligible, Lina does especially well and turns in a good performance as well.

For some reason Vampire Junction was first released in the States by Sub Rosa in an edited 84 minute version on VHS. It wasn’t until 2004 when they finally released the 97 minute uncut version on DVD which featured a memorable and entertaining segment featuring Linnea Quigley giving a sneak peak at DVD’s for Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula (1998) and Blind Target (2000). Actually that DVD can still be found for decent prices which is amazing in itself considering how much some of the original DVD’s of Franco’s other One Shot films tend to go for ever since going out of print. Naturally Sub Rosa also released the film as part of the “Vampire Lovers” double feature along with Vampire Blues and again in the “Deviant Lust” multi-film set along with Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula, Red Silk (1999) and Blind Target. To say Vampire Junction is one of Franco’s most unpopular films would be a massive understatement. While Franco’s One Shot films tend to get thrown under the bus most of the time, reactions to this one have been particularly harsh with most being unable to look past the miniscule budget and limitations associated with such things, some even naming it Franco‘s worst film. Of course there are exceptions and the select few that can appreciate this period of Franco’s might want to take a chance on braving this junction’s waters.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Broken Dolls (1999)

As the 80’s drew to a close Jess Franco’s directorial output had slowed down considerably. Prior to 1988 Franco was known for producing multiple films per year however from 1988 to 1997 Franco only directed 8 films. Despite all the harsh criticism that has been directed towards the series of films Jess Franco helmed for One Shot Productions between 1997 and 2005 and the cries of “quality over quantity”, the fact remains that One Shot, along with the digital video medium allowed Franco to become prolific again at what he loved the most. Not only did One Shot allow Franco the ability to make films at a faster pace again but they also gave him complete artistic control which led to some of his oddest and most polarizing films. 1999 was a particularly productive year with Franco directing 4 films that year, Vampire Blues, Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell, Red Silk and Broken Dolls. Now obviously 4 films might seem like nothing compared to the 12 that Franco was able to complete in 1973 or the even more astounding number of 14 in 1983 but 4 films in one year is still quite the achievement especially considering how long it takes certain directors in between projects. While all the films Franco made in 1999 are unique in their own way, Broken Dolls is perhaps the most, representing Franco at his most serious and somber.

Ex-vaudeville actor Don Martin (Paul Lapidus) lives on an island along with his wife Tona (Lina Romay) and daughter Beatriz (Mavi Tienda) and Gina (Christie Levin), a woman whom he’d taken in and began an affair with. Originally brought to the island with the promise of a buried treasure, the island’s appeal has long been lost on the family and the relationships between all have become bitter and resentful with all but Don Martin, who has slowly begun to lose his grip on reality still believing the island to be the ultimate paradise, desperate to escape the island before Don Martin loses his sanity completely.

At first glance Broken Dolls might seem atypical for a Franco film on account of it being a serious drama but the idea of the destruction of an odd family unit living in isolation was nothing new to Franco having previously explored the idea in The Hot Nights of Linda (1975) and again with La casa de las mujeres perdidas (1983), the later of which Broken Dolls shares many similarities. Although Franco does throw in some instances of humor to lighten the mood just as he did in The Hot Nights of Linda, Broken Dolls is easily the most grim of the three films. While the impending ruin of the family itself is obviously a major component in the films morose tone, perhaps more striking is the defeated mindset of the family, who had long lost all sense of “normalcy” long before the film begins, perhaps best evidenced by Tona’s nonchalant attitude to Don Martin’s flaunting of his affair with Gina. Its suggested that Tona and to a lesser extent Beatriz are almost welcoming to their undoing, seeing it as their only way out of the false paradise of the island with the original promise of hidden treasure being a mere afterthought. Even with the economical digital video medium Franco brilliantly juxtaposes the natural beauty of the island and its ocean surroundings with the downbeat nature of Don Martin and the families fate which leads to an quintessentially Franco climax that recalls both Countess Perverse (1973) and The Sexual Story of O (1984).

Interesting tidbit regarding Broken Dolls, Lina was known to have said her performance in the film was her favorite out of all her performances. While she is indeed very good in the film it’d be a stretch to call it her best work. The entire cast is good as well, Lapidus especially in the role of Don Martin is a major reason why the film works as well as it does. Like the majority of Franco’s One Shot films though, Broken Dolls does feature the all Spanish cast speaking English (they did they’re own dubbing) with very thick accents which can be a bit distracting at times although it never becomes completely unintelligible. Also like most of Franco’s One Shot films the original DVD release from Sub Rosa which also featured as a bonus the de Sade inspired experimental piece Helter Skelter (2000) is long out of print, though it should come as no surprise that Sub Rose re-released the film twice, first as part of a double feature with Blind Target (2000) billed as “Naked and Dead Dolls” and again in a multi-film set, “Stripped Dead” along with Vampire Blues, Incubus (2002) and Snakewoman (2005). Ultimately Broken Dolls is an oddly upsetting and at times perverse film that will probably only appeal to a select group of hardcore Franco fanatics, but it is one of Franco’s most interesting films regardless of era.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Vampire Blues (1999)

AKA Vampire Sex - Lady Dracula 3

When it comes to vampire films, some of the most unique in the subgenre have come from the major Eurocult auteurs. For all intensive purposes, Jean Rollin could be considered the king of Euro vampires, completely turning the subgenre on its head with his debut film The Rape of the Vampire (1968) and continuing to do so with films like Shiver of the Vampires (1971) and Lips of Blood (1975) amongst several others. Also films such as Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Splattered Bride (1972) and José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) offered their own creative twist on vampires. Even amongst the sea of original takes on vampirism in Euro horror, its the vampire films of Jess Franco that stand out as the most uncommon. Never one for tradition (even Rollin‘s films retained some traditional vampire “rules“), Franco threw the rule book out the window with his two most celebrated vampire films Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Female Vampire (1973). While Franco wasn’t the only filmmaker to explore the idea of vampires as lonely creatures or the idea of the allure of vampirism as a means of escape from the mundane realities of everyday life, nobody quite delved into that world quite like Franco did in those two films. In 1999 Franco returned to that world of vampires with Vampire Blues, his most radical take on vampires as well as one of his most inaccessible films.

While vacationing in Spain, New Jersey college student Rachel Crosby begins to have visions of a mysterious woman wherever she goes and soon the woman begins appearing in Rachel’s dreams. The woman is Countess Irina von Murnau (Analía Ivars), a powerful vampire who has her sights set on Rachel in hopes of bringing her over into her world of vampirism. Marga (Lina Romay), a gypsy fortune teller senses the extreme danger Rachel is in and becomes determined to aid Rachel in protecting her from Irina’s enticing allure.

X-Rated Kult DVD's for the film under its alternate title
Easily Franco’s most experimental work at the time of its production, Vampire Blues feels less like a film than it does Franco aiming a camera at his thoughts during mid-daydream. While that description could be applied to a number of Franco films and the term “dreamlike” has been used to describe several of Franco’s films its more than apt when attempting to classify Vampire Blues as the film literally feels like a dream in progress from the moment it begins and retains that same mood for the remainder of its running time. To a certain extent the film follows the same trajectory as Vampyros Lesbos and Ivars’s Irina von Murnau does share a kinship with Soledad Miranda’s Nadine Carody as well as Lina’s Irina von Karlstein from Female Vampire and also features characteristics found by Pamela Stamford’s Lorna Green from Lorna the Exorcist (1974) and Ajita Wilson’s Princess Tara Obongo from Macumba Sexual (1981). What separates Vampire Blues from all those films however, is the films hallucinatory visual design with Franco really indulging in filters, post-production video effects, image distortion and color manipulation. Overindulgent? Absolutely, and most will probably find it grating yet considering the world this film occupies it makes perfect sense. The films theme song performed by the Ubangis which plays repeatedly throughout the film works wonders and plays a major hand in establishing the films hazy aesthetic with its lethargic bluesy swagger and almost Lynch/Badalamenti-esque vibe. Whenever Ivars is present and the song is playing the results are pure magic.

Its amazing to think that even by 1999 Franco’s films were still having different cuts released and such was the case with Vampire Blues with the longer European cut being made available as a special feature on Sub Rosa’s DVD of the film. Exactly why there were two different cuts releases makes absolutely no sense whatsoever but that’s how it went. Sub Rosa also released the film as a double feature along with Franco’s Vampire Junction (2001) as “Vampire Lovers” and it was inevitable that the film would end up on one of Sub Rosa’s Franco multi-film sets, “Stripped Dead” along with Broken Dolls (1999), Incubus (2002) and Snakewoman (2005). Quite a variety of viewing options for a film who’s audience was limited in the first place being a Franco film and made even more limited on account of it being a One Shot film. Admittedly there’s a lot about Vampire Blues that will turn many viewers, even the most defensive of Francophiles off, be it the excessive video effects or the Spanish actors speaking in phonetic English (or in the case of Ivars dubbed in after the fact), a common practice during Franco’s One Shot days. On the other hand, Franco’s audacity along with the combination of psychedelic visuals, surreal, otherworldly ambiance, the theme song and the shear presence of Analía Ivars make Vampire Blues an easy film to get lost in.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Name change

It took long enough but having run this thing for nearly 3 years now I can finally say its got a name that I'm happy with. The previous name, "Hell Broke Luce", while a brilliant Tom Waits song, didn't really reflect the content of the site and in truth I was never fully satisfied with it. "Vortice Mortale" on the other hand, taken from the original Italian title of Ruggero Deodato's underrated erotic giallo The Washing Machine (1993), feels like a much more appropriate name for the site considering the types of films that get covered. The header is still based on David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) just because. The exploration of the later films of Jess Franco will continue next week...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula (1998)

AKA Eight Legs to Love You

Deservedly dubbed “the king of Euro sleaze” by many, Jess Franco may be forever remembered for his psychedelic and erotic horror films but its important to remember that with a filmography featuring well over 200 films there really wasn’t any genre or subgenre that Franco never dabbled in throughout his career. Years before he entered the horror genre with The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) Franco got his start directing documentary shorts and even musicals such as Queen of the Tabarin Club (1960) which technically happens to be the very first Franco film to feature Soledad Miranda even though her part in the film could best be described as a minuscule cameo. Of course Franco was also no stranger to the “women in prison” subgenre with films like 99 Women (1969), Women Behind Bars (1975), Barbed Wire Dolls (1976) and Sadomania (1981). There’s also comedies like Celestine, Maid at Your Service (1974) not to mention the numerous crime and private detective films featuring the reoccurring character of Al Pereira. No matter what genre he happened to be working in, the end results were more often than not quintessentially Franco and such is the case with Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula. Franco’s second film for One Shot Productions, Mari-Cooke and the Killer Tarantula is a film so utterly bizarre and unclassifiable in terms of genre it could have only come from the mind of Franco.

A series of disappearances has been plaguing the seaside community of Antifagasta. Sherriff Marga (Michelle Bauer) is convinced that the culprit responsible is Tarantula (Lina Romay), an avant-garde punk nightclub performer and also the alter ego of bubbly housewife Mari-Cookie (also Romay), the spawn of a woman who unknowingly had a spider crawl into her vagina and lay its eggs after being raped by a solider. Determined to prove Tarantula’s guilt, Marga hatches a scheme along with rival dancer Queen Vicious (Analía Ivars) using Amy (Amber Newman), the daughter of wealthy socialite Tere (Linnea Quigley) as bait resulting in herself and all those involved becoming tangled in Tarantula/Mari-Cookie’s web of seduction.

Its often said that Franco’s films exist within their own universe and the same could be said about Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula. However, at the same time a special exception could also be made for this film as its so incredibly strange it seems to occupy a space in its own alternate universe within Franco’s already alternate universe. As if its title didn’t already make it obvious, this is far from a serious film. An oddball mixture of surrealist horror, absurd comedy, erotica, exploitation and even featuring homage’s to B-films of the 50’s and classic Warner Bros. cartoons, Mari-Cooke and the Killer Tarantula is Franco at his most over the top and campiest. Like so many of Franco’s films it’s a “just go with it” type of situation which is the best way of enjoying the film much like the cast, who were clearly in on the joke so to speak, are enjoying themselves. Lina was always a very good comedic actress and shines in the duel role especially in the persona of Mari-Cookie. Bauer, in her first role for Franco beautifully hams it up in her barely there Sheriff’s outfit and Ivars and Newman are having a blast as well. Linnea Quigley might not have much to do, but like everyone else was obviously having fun with her role. What makes the film seem even more “off” is the fact that the mostly Spanish cast speaks phonetic English throughout the film which was a common occurrence during Franco’s One Shot films.  

Franco makes no attempt to hide the films low budget, in fact he does the opposite by blatantly acknowledging it and yet visually the film is quite ambitious in parts. Despite the fact that the massive spider webs featured prominently throughout the film are clearly made of rope they're nonetheless quite eye-catching, particularly during the scenes taking place within Tarantula’s lair. The film also features some unmistakably Franco nightclub sequences featuring Lina performing on the aforementioned giant spider webs and both are prime examples of Franco’s knack for lulling viewers into a delirious, trancelike state. The second one in particular which leads to an unforgettable encounter between Lina and Amber Newman goes on for so long it becomes almost hallucinatory what with the lighting and music, which could be best described as eastern influenced electronica. The films soundtrack is also interesting in that while portions of the film do feature Franco’s trademark jazz scoring, for the most part Franco opted for a more “modern” (“modern” for 1998 anyway) approach. “Sueño Nº 7” performed by Fangoria and Intronautas during the films opening nightclub act is a definite highlight, perfectly fitting the scene and being an incredibly catchy song to boot. The film really shows its budget when it comes to showcasing  Tarantula/Mari-Cookie in her actual spider form, which is essentially a prop lowered down on a string with a picture of Lina’s face plastered on it. Of course its absolutely ridiculous looking, meaning it couldn’t have been more appropriate for a film like this.

Like all of Franco’s One Shot films Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula is available on a multi-film set from Sub Rosa entitled “Deviant Lust” along with Red Silk (1999), Blind Target (2000) and Vampire Junction (2001). It was also released as a double feature by Sub Rosa with Franco’s Incubus (2002) under the banner of “Jess Franco’s Perversion”, not to be confused with Franco’s 2005 film Flores de perversión (Flowers of Perversion) which was released by X-Rated Kult as Jess Franco’s Perversion. The original DVD for the film, also released by Sub Rosa is still fairly easy to find for good prices and is full of extras, most famously a segment featuring a nude Linnea Quigley reminiscing about the production. Well worth owning. A curious thing, there were two VHS releases for the film, one under the Eight Legs to Love You title and the other as Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula. What’s interesting is that the second tape features no dialogue, only the soundtrack. In a perfect world, Mari-Cookie and the Killer Tarantula would have a large cult following, however despite Franco’s devoted fan base with this being a One Shot film its even more alienating than some of Franco’s other more well known films. Still, the fact that there’s a film directed by Franco and featuring the likes of Lina, Michelle Bauer and Linnea Quigley all together make it worth seeing.

*Mari-Cookie trailer starts a 9:43

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Art of Love (1983)

The 80’s were an interesting and slightly trying time for Walerian Borowczyk. While the controversial direction taken by Borowczyk in the 70’s with films like Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) resulted in Borowczyk’s fall from the good graces of critics, the films were nonetheless profitable. By the 80’s however Borowczyk didn’t have the easiest time of getting financial backing for projects, perhaps in part due to changing markets but the types of films Borowczyk had in mind weren’t an easy sell to producers looking for straightforward “erotic” films, a label which Borowczyk loathed. Borowczyk started the 80’s off with Lulu (1980), based on the Lulu plays of Frank Wedekind which featured a cameo by Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper which in some ways foreshadowed Borowczyk’s next film Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981) which starred Kier. Perhaps due to its ancient Rome setting, Borowczyk probably didn’t have quite such a hard time getting his follow up to Dr. Jekyll and His Women, 1983’s The Art of Love off the ground, and perhaps not coincidentally with Italian funds, what with ancient Roman themed films still being quite popular due to the notoriety of Caligula (1979). The Art of Love however is no mere Caligula cash-in. In pure Borowczyk fashion its a curious film that couldn’t have come from any other filmmaker and one that over the years has been slightly overlooked.

Claudia (Marina Pierro), the wife of high ranking military officer Macarius begins an affair with the considerably younger Cornelius while her husband is away on a military expedition. Cornelius is a student of the poet Ovid who teaches his pupils “the art of love”, or rather seduction and one of his students even manages to seduce Macarius’ mother Clio. Not long after his return Macarius learns of Claudia’s infidelity as well as his mothers indiscretions, the consequences of which will prove be dire for all involved.

Its fitting that The Art of Love (Ars amandi) was an Italian production because the film shares several similarities with Borowczyk’s previous Italian film Behind Convent Walls (1978) with both films featuring a very loose, episodic narrative structure. The film however isn’t as nonsensical as the films structure makes it appear to be and the way Borowczyk eventually brings the film full circle is both clever and unexpected, but not before things descend into complete bedlam in classic Boro fashion. The film is loaded with Borowczyk’s trademark quirks including his unique treatment of the erotic content which culminates in one of the most bizarre and surreal segments in Borowczyk’s oeuvre featuring Pierro and a hollowed out bull which not only recalls Borowczyk’s own The Beast but is also reminiscent of the infamous horse scene in José Ramón Larraz’s The Coming of Sin (1978). Although not as overt as some of Borowczyk’s other films in its jabs at the establishment, Borowczyk’s anti-authoritarian attitude makes some select appearances and of course Borowczyk also makes time for some absurdist humor based around the antics of a troublemaking bird. Visually the film is also similar to Behind Convent Walls with its handheld camera work, soft focus photography and Borowczyk’s masterful use of light which just beams off of various objects throughout the film especially Pierro. More often than not Borowczyk frames Pierro, who is in especially fine form here, as if she were an angel surrounded by a halo of light, the effects of which are astonishing.

To further emphasize the issues Borowczyk had with producers, during the filming for The Art of Love Borowczyk was forced to endure many instances of producer interference, the results of which are featured in the film in the form of spliced in footage from Joe D’Amato’s Caligula: The Untold Story (1982). Around the time of The Art of Love Borowczyk had several ambitious ideas for film projects although none of them ever came to be and it would be another three years before Borowczyk would make another feature which would end up being Emmanuelle V (1987). Although the film does have its fans the film is seen by many as an artistic low point for Borowczyk even though at this point its fairly well known that the majority of the films principle photography was done by the AD. Borowczyk rebounded though in a big way with the staggeringly brilliant and still criminally under seen Love Rites (1988) which would eventually wind up being his last feature film. As for The Art of Love, its unlikely that the film will ever be held in the same high regard as films like Goto, Island of Love (1968) or Immoral Tales. Nevertheless its one of Borowczyk’s most visually astounding films featuring yet another fantastic turn from Pierro and despite the obviously spliced in footage, the film remains for a most part a quintessentially Borowczyk experience.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fear City (1984)

Setting aside his 1993 adaptation of The Body Snatchers simply titled Body Snatchers, Abel Ferrara has never done a “traditional” genre film. Although its title may have had viewers expecting wall to wall blood and gore and a British video box who’s front cover was enough to land the film on the infamous video nasties list, Ferrara’s debut (non-adult) feature The Driller Killer (1979) was far more psychological than most elitist snobs would give it credit for. Ferrara followed up The Driller Killer with Ms. 45 (1981), a film which is miles beyond others in the rape/revenge genre thanks to the brilliant lead performance from Zoë Lund (who would later go on to write one of Ferrara’s masterpieces Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Ferrara’s unique visual approach perfectly blending the films sleazy aesthetic with stylish direction. The of course there’s his brilliant take on vampires The Addiction (1995), a film which is in a league of its own when it comes to vampires and to this day there still isn’t any other film remotely like it. Fear City was Ferrara’s third major film and his follow up to Ms. 45, and its defiantly a genre film, one that refuses to sit comfortably in one genre or another. Part slasher, part cop thriller, part mob movie, part drama and even featuring some martial arts/action film elements, Fear City is one of Ferrara’s most entertaining films.  

All across New York City an unknown assailant known as “The New York Knifer” has been attacking the city’s stripper population. Coincidently, all the victims belong to an agency co-operated by troubled ex-boxer Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) that hires out dancers to various clubs throughout the city. With more girls turning up dead, Rossi begins to feel pressure from not only the mob boss who controls the agency, but also from Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), the head detective on the case who’s had it out for Rossi for years and is convinced he’s involved somehow. With both sides of the law on his back, Rossi decides to take matters into his own hands and is determined to catch the killer himself while confronting some personal demons of his own in the process.

Considerably pulpier than both The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, Fear City is nonetheless a quintessential Ferrara film in the way it offers a nice amount of dramatic substance and psychology to go along with all the stripper slicing. Considering the wide variety of genres and subgenres the film dabbles in on the surface the film might seem all over the place tonally speaking but Ferrara balances everything out nicely so not one aspect of the film cancels out another. As much as the film is about the killer, its also equally somewhat of a character study of Rossi which also includes a well executed romantic subplot involving Rossi’s ex-girlfriend Loretta playing by Melanie Griffith in an early big role. Its Berenger who really makes the drama of the film work so well as he brings so much more to the role of Rossi than just the stereotypical “sensitive tough guy”. Ferrara’s clever way of working Rossi’s boxing past into the main storyline was not only a great way to bring more depth to the character but it also gave the nameless killer a creditable opponent. The killer by the way also happens to be an expert in martial arts which leads to one really innovative subway attack sequence as well as an unquestionably 80’s training montage. Naturally Ferrara presents everything in his trademark meeting of the middle of 42nd St. grime and high style which at this point he had perfected after having really found his directorial calling card with Ms. 45.

According to Ferrara the idea for Fear City actually predated The Driller Killer with screenwriter Nicholas St. John writing the first script for the film in 1975. The original idea for the film was more psychological from the killers standpoint and by the time the film actually got made in 1984 the finished product was drastically different from that first script. The film does deal somewhat with the killers motivations although its obviously not the main focus of the film. Still its pretty fascinating to know how long Ferrara had the idea for the film and how much of that original vision remained in the final film. Ferrara has also stated that at the time the first script for the film was written he and St. John actually lived behind an agency like the one depicted in the film which played a big hand in the inspiration for the story. Fear City is also important as it was Ferrara’s first Hollywood production with a good sized budget behind it. Ferrara would go on to describe the film as “taking the payday” which sounds a bit dismissive although its hardly a film to be ashamed of with its original melding of genres and flawless cast. Fear City is again one of Ferrara’s most entertaining films, and a considering the films that came before and after it, its placement in Ferrara’s filmography makes complete sense.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Craving Desire (1993)

AKA Désir meurtrier (Murderous Desire), Sonjas Exzesse (Sonia’s Excesses) and Deseo de amor (Desire for Love)

Sergio Martino has certainly had an interesting career, one which epitomizes the term “running the gamut”. Martino got his start making mondo films before eventually finding his true calling in the giallo genre. Bava may have started it and Argento may have popularized it, but for all intensive purposes, Martino is the king of the giallo with his collaborations with Euro goddess Edwige Fenech The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) along with films like The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) and Torso (1973) being the standard setters for the genre. Martino’s filmography is all over the map ranging from giallo’s to Euro crime efforts like Gambling City (1975), his entry into the cannibal genre The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), creature films such as Island of the Fishmen (1979) and The Big Alligator River (1979) and post-apocalyptic fare with 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983). During the height of the 90’s erotic thriller craze, Martino threw his hat in the ring with Craving Desire. While its probably never going to be as highly regarded as his giallo masterpieces, Craving Desire is nonetheless one of Martino’s most enjoyable films and one of the best of his post-70’s output along with being of best erotic thrillers from the genres heyday.

Luigi (Ron Nummi) is a man who’s going places with a great job and a beautiful fiancé. His life takes an unexpected turn however when his cousin Sonia (Vittotia Belvedere), whom he had recently been acquainted with after having not seen since childhood shows up at his door claiming to have nowhere else to go and Luigi agrees for her to stay with him. There is an obvious attraction between the two and although Luigi initially tries to fight it, the two begin a passionate affair with Luigi eventually calling off his engagement. At first the relationship seems to reinvigorate Luigi and brings some excitement into his life although things start to go south when Sonia’s idea of fun begins to include breaking the law, and with her behavior becoming more and more erratic, dangerously erratic in fact, Luigi discovers the hard way that getting involved with Sonia was a serious mistake.
French DVD

First and foremost there’s no mistaking Craving Desire (Graffiante desiderio) for having been made in any other time period as everything about the film just screams early 90’s erotic thriller. Not that’s a bad thing, however considering the talent involved it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Craving Desire is miles beyond other films of its type. For starters there’s the films taboo subject matter and the fact that the entire cast “gets it”. There’s no pretension to be found here, everyone involved knew exactly the type of film they were making and relishing in it and there are moments of sleazy humor peppered throughout the film to further emphasize this. Speaking of the cast, normally with these kinds of films the cast is chosen based solely on their looks and nothing more although that cannot be said in the case of Craving Desire. Ron Nummi was perfect for the role of Luigi as he has a presence about him that suited all of Luigi’s characteristics to a T, from being the ambitious business man as well as being the innocent, naïve boyish type that could be easily duped. Good as Nummi is, this is Vittoria Belvedere’s show to steal. Not only is Belvedere unbelievably gorgeous, she can actually act and like Nummi is convincing in portraying every aspect of Sonia’s personality particularly during the films third act where her psychotic side takes over, and while nowhere near as visually excessive as Martino’s giallo’s, the finished product is still rather slick in presentation.

Craving Desire was released on DVD in 2009 by Mya Communication, a company who has put out a lot of Martino’s films and one that catches a lot of negative criticism. Most of the criticism seems to be with the picture quality on the DVD’s but they also have a habit of re-titling films and/or releasing films under alternate titles instead of the original ones which can lead to some confusion especially if one films alternate title is another films original. In the case of Martino, they’ve released The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh under one of its alternate titles Blade of the Ripper and their release of The Big Alligator River is simply titled Alligator, not to be confused with the 1980 film of the same name. Mya also put out Martino’s The Smile of the Fox (1992), another erotic thriller as Naked Obsession which happens to be the name of another 1990 erotic thriller. As for their DVD of Craving Desire, no complaints. It looks as good as a film like this is probably ever going to look and although the disc is bare bones at least its English friendly. So while Craving Desire probably isn’t going to be celebrated by many as much as Martino’s 70’s films it is a highlight of Martino’s later career and as far as sleazy erotic thrillers go, they don’t get much better than this.      

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Demoniacs (1974)

AKA Curse of the Living Dead

Jean Rollin’s name may be synonymous with vampires however anyone with a knowledge of Rollin’s entire body of work knows the man was far from a one trick pony. Rollin had a signature directorial style that was not only almost instantly identifiable but he had the ability to bring that style to basically any subgenre within the realm of horror and the fantastic and make it work. Not too many filmmakers would even think of approaching a zombie film the way Rollin approached The Grapes of Death (1978) or The Living Dead Girl (1982). While obviously influenced by early Cronenberg, Night of the Hunted (1980) is an emotional piece of surrealist sci-fi that is quintessentially Rollin in execution, and even a film like The Escapees (1981) which on the surface may seem a bit atypical at first glance has Rollin’s fingerprints all over it. By 1974 Rollin had essentially found and perfected his style with films like Shiver of the Vampires (1970) and Requiem for a Vampire (1971) under his belt so it was interesting (albeit in true maverick fashion) that he decided to try something different after those films which resulted in the minimal masterpiece The Iron Rose (1973), and Rollin’s return to the horror genre following two erotic films, 1974’s The Demoniacs, one of the oddest and most original revenge films from the 70’s was again something different yet unmistakably Rollin.

After looting the contents of a crashed ship which they purposefully lured into rocks, a gang of pirates or “wreckers” brutally rape and leave for dead the two young girls who were the only survivors of the wreck. Wracked by the nervousness of having their crime discovered and with the Captain seeing visions of the girls, the gang set out to find the girls and finish them off for good however they escape again, finding they way to some ruins on the edge of the village where the girls encounter the guardians who inform them of a powerful demonic entity imprisoned in the ruins. The girls release the demon who in turn rewards them with the powers needed for one night to exact their vengeance on the pirates.  

Technically, The Demoniacs (Les démoniaques) could be seen as a rape/revenge film however with this being a Rollin film it is unlike any other rape/revenge film to come before or after it. What could have been a fairly straightforward tale of revenge becomes something else entirely with Rollin throwing in various random ingredients including superstition, cursed villages, guardian clowns and prostitutes with second sights. Not much back story is given regarding the demon jailed in the ruins or just how or why the village is cursed so the film probably won’t make much sense to those not familiar with Rollin from a narrative perspective, however it doesn’t need to as like all Rollin films, subconsciously it all resonates with no explanation needed. Obviously given the subject matter it doesn’t take much to make the two girls (one of Rollin’s most recognizable motifs) who’s names are never revealed easy to sympathize with and root for, and the two actresses portraying the protagonists both have incredible screen presence, especially Lieva Lone in sadly her only known film role. The same can be said of the pirates with John Rico as the lunatic Capitan and Joëlle Coeur who easily steals the show as the Tina, the one female in the group who is perhaps the most sadistic out of the four who really goes for it during the films gut punch of a finale, defiantly one of Rollin’s most stinging climaxes which is only made more so by the morose piano music courtesy of Pierre Raph.

Interesting to point out that actress Mireille Dargent who plays the clown in the ruins also played the graveyard clown in The Iron Rose. Other Rollin regulars are also featured in the film, most notably Louise Dhour as the all knowing prostitute conveniently named Louise and Paul Bisciglia in the role of one of the pirates should be a familiar face to Rollin fans as well. Another interesting fact regarding the film was the 1st AD was Miletic Zivomir, the actor playing the demon and was apparently quite useless in the role of 1st AD, so writer and friend of Rollin’s Jean-Pierre Bouyxou who was originally to be just an extra in the film basically took over 1st AD duties. Its also worth noting that the film was Rollin’s first to have decent budget and the money did come in handy giving the film a much “larger” or “grand” feeling. Still, even with the budget it still didn’t prevent the production of the film from being prosecuted by Murphy’s Law as detailed by Tim Lucas in the liner notes to Redemption’s remastered DVD. Even still, the finished product is one of the most unique entries in Rollin’s already unique body of work and a film that Rollin fans who’ve yet to see the film would benefit from checking out as it’s a prime example of Rollin’s unmistakable style as well as his versatility.

Monday, August 25, 2014

La belle captive (1983)

As one of the innovators and leaders (if not THE leader) of the “new novel” or nouveau roman movement, Alain Robbe-Grillet along with a handful of other radical literary thinkers completely changed the perception of the novel and what could be accomplished within the medium in terms of style, narrative (or lack thereof as it perhaps appeared to many) and characterization. Its no surprise then that when Robbe-Grillet began to work in film his attitude towards screenwriting and directing was essentially the same as his approach to literature which resulted in his Oscar nominated script for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a work which still manages to perplexe to this day. Just like his novels Robbe-Grillet’s films defy any sort of genre categorization. His films are often labeled “erotic”, certainly not inaccurate as his films do feature plentiful amounts of eroticism, more often than not sadomasochistic in nature, however its impossible to classify his films as straightforward “erotica”. The same goes for the “fantasy” label, or “horror” tag when films such as Eden and After (1970) or Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) are in question, or “thriller” when speaking of a film like witty self aware Trans-Europ-Express (1967), a “film within a film” unlike any other of the sort. Then there’s 1983’s La belle captive, a bewildering blend of surrealist mystery, fantasy and horror that’s as masterful as it is mystifying.  

Walter Raim, an agent working for a secret police origination of sorts encounters a mysterious, nameless blonde woman in a nightclub and is soon dancing with the beautiful stranger before being called away by his boss, the enigmatic Sara Zeitgeist. After receiving his job instructions from Sara, Walter discovers the prone body of the woman he was dancing with earlier bound in the road and drives to the nearest house to look for help, only to encounter a group of ominous men. One claims to be a doctor and escorts the two to a room which they soon find themselves locked in. The next morning, Walter wakes up to find the house empty and in ruins and the blonde woman missing. Utterly confounded, Walter sets out on the odd and potentially dangerous task of uncovering the identity of the blonde woman and figuring out just what happened on that night.

Almost impossible to mistake for the work of any other filmmaker, La belle captive (The Beautiful Prisoner) is a quintessential Robbe-Grillet dreamscape inspired in part by the works of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. Immediately after the opening credits Robbe-Grillet establishes a mood that gives off the sense that what is happening is happening outside of time in another dimension and the further Walter gets in his investigation of the mystery woman the more pronounced that mood becomes. Robbe-Grillet’s languid pacing and Walter’s noirish voice-overs heard throughout the film also add to the films already ethereal abstractions as well and give parts of the film a kind of 1940’s detective story feel. As bizarre as the film is, its must be emphasized that the film is far from being weird for weirdness sake, the central mystery is legitimately intriguing and the stranger it gets it only becomes more so with all the left curves Robbe-Grillet throws in from the added subplot of a murder investigation, the detective always on Walter’s trail, the idea that the blonde woman may or may not be the dead daughter of a man who see’s spirits and the suggestion that she may be a vampire. Of course Walter’s occupation and boss Sara Zeitgeist also come into play which give way to one of the films reoccurring visual motifs, postcards featuring a seaside landscape, just one of many Magritte inspired pieces Robbe-Grillet features prominently throughout the film which in turn also lead to several archetypal Robbe-Grillet beach set pieces.

Robbe-Grillet's novel
Despite the title, La belle captive the film is not an adaptation of Robbe-Grillet’s 1975 novel of the same name. Adding to this confusion is the Magritte influence as the book is illustrated by Magritte’s paintings strategically placed thorough the book. Of course exactly how they relate to the story Robbe-Grillet leaves open to interpretation. As for the film, it was hardly the first time nor would it be the last Robbe-Grillet turned to painting as in influence. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the iconic moment in Successive Slidings of Pleasure where Anicée Alvina channels Yves Klein by recreating one of Klein’s  Anthropométries on the walls of her convent prison cell, albeit in red naturally which was appropriate considering the film whereas Klein preferred blue. There are several references to painting in Eden and After as well with Robbe-Grillet even staging a real life recreation of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2” and Robbe-Grillet found a muse in Eugene Delacroix for his final film Gradiva (2006). Robbe-Grillet also found an interesting inspiration for the character of Sara Zeitgeist’s name which was taken from the titular character Phoebe Zeit-Geist from the comic book The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Certainly an interesting combination of influences, Magritte and comic books yet its perfect for a visionary film like La belle captive, a film that like Robbe-Grillet himself, belongs to its own genre.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gradiva (2006)

It was a long time coming, but as of June 2014 the majority of the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the brilliant novelist turned filmmaker are finally available on DVD in English friendly restored versions the exceptions being Playing With Fire (1975) and 1995’s The Blue Villa (Un bruit qui rend fou). As is all to often the frustrating case when it comes to many of the films by the masters of European cult cinema, for the longest time fans had make due with bootleg copies of Robbe-Grillet’s films until Kino/Redemption and BFI (in the form of a box set) released L'Immortelle (1963), Trans-Europ-Express (1967), The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After (1970), Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and N. Takes the Dice, an alternate cut of Eden and After. Originally it was announced that Mondo Macabro was going to be the company to release those six films until the films eventually went to Redemption. Mondo Macabro however were one of the first in line when in 2009, one year after Robbe-Grillet’s passing they released his final film Gradiva making them the second company to release a Robbe-Grillet film on DVD, the first being Koch Lorber with La belle captive (1983). Robbe-Grillet may have only directed nine films, but those nine films are some of the most unique and thought provoking works in all of cult cinema and Gradiva is certainly no exception.

While studying the works of Eugène Delacroix in Morocco, art historian John Locke receives a package of slides featuring never before seen sketches done by Delacroix all featuring the same woman. Locke is determined to uncover the history behind the sketches and who the woman is and not long after he beings to have visions of the woman in the sketches wandering about the medina. Locke soon becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the woman and her connection to Delacroix, and despite the constant warnings of his servant Belkis, Locke keeps searching which leads him into a mysterious and dangerous fantasy world of sadomasochism, doppelgangers and murder.

Whether or not Robbe-Grillet intended Gradiva (C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle, “It's Gradiva That is Calling You") to be his cinematic swan song it nonetheless made for a very fitting farewell featuring all the trademarks that his previous films employed as well as references to his past films even featuring some spliced in footage from Eden and After and Successive Slidings of Pleasure. Comparisons have been made to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) which are fitting considering the films obsessive theme, although at the same time Gradiva takes places in a singular universe that is quintessentially Robbe-Grillet and if there were any other films to compare it too, the two most apt would be Robbe-Grillet’s own L’Immortelle and La belle captive. To those uninitiated with Robbe-Grillet’s style or those who have a low tolerance for fragmented “narratives” the film has the potential to frustrate in that in pure Robbe-Grillet fashion time and space seem to be alien concepts in this dream world. Fantasy sequences bleed into reality and back again so much so that the two become one and the same featuring characters, oftentimes portrayed by the same actor, with multiple identities. Its a truly bewildering and intoxicating experience, one that becomes even more so when considering the delirious bursts of S&M, exotic Moroccan locations (much like he did with Istanbul in L’Immortelle, Robbe-Grillet essentially makes the medina its own character) and fantastic interior sets, including some extravagantly decorated hotel rooms which serve as the perfect backdrop for some of the films more hallucinatory moments.

Again, Mondo Macabro essentially beat everyone to the punch when it came to Robbe-Grillet with their release of Gradvia. Aside from looking amazing the DVD contained a great interview with Robbe-Grillet who discussed a variety of topics including his cinematic influences, the Marquis de Sade, the different ways he approached literature and film, his distaste for realism in film and perhaps most intriguing, his thoughts on eroticism. This leads to some particularly interesting anecdotes where Robbe-Grillet recounts his observations on how certain members of the audiences in French cinemas reacted to the erotic content of Trans-Europ-Express which also segues  into a hilarious story of how Successive Slidings of Pleasure sold more tickets in one Paris theatre than the theatre had seats. When one person would walk out of the film whoever was manning the box office would sell a ticket for recently vacated seat until eventually there would be two lines of people, one going out the exit and the other going in. Aside from Robbe-Grillet’s entertaining banter, the interview is an invaluable insight into one of the most brilliant minds in both literature and film. It can be somewhat difficult to suggest just where to begin with Robbe-Grillet due to the potentially alienating nature of his films, but for those interested or for fans who’ve yet to get to it, Gradiva is unquestionably essential. One final fever dream from a master transgressor.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Frustration (1971)

AKA The Chambermaids Dream

The term “rebel” tends to get thrown around rather liberally and in the case of cinema its often a bit questionable whether or not some of the people who are labeled as such are truly deserving of the tag. When the major figures of European cult cinema are discussed however, the term is more than accurate with filmmakers such as Jess Franco and Walerian Borowczyk amongst several others that made films (for the most part) on their own terms with no attempt to pander to the critical establishment. If there’s one Eurocult auteur who defines words like “rebel” or “maverick”, its José Bénazéraf. By his own admission Bénazéraf was the type of person who, if told not to do something would react by doing that thing in question ten times as worse, something which landed him in hot water with the French censors which eventually led to the banning of his 1966 film Joë Caligula the night before its intended premier. Aside from royally pissing Bénazéraf off that stunt by the censorship board cost him some serious coin and would play a major role in Bénazéraf eventually getting fed up with making “normal” films and eventually crossing over into full on hardcore territory. Prior to taking the hardcore route Bénazéraf helmed some truly unique films all of which bare the trademarks of a defiant artist with 1971’s Frustration easily being Bénazéraf’s undisputed masterpiece.

Adelaide (Janine Reynaud) is a single woman living with her sister Agnes (Elizabeth Teissier) and Agnes doctor husband Michel (Michel Lemoine) in their secluded countryside home. Along with being a bit socially awkward, Adelaide is sexually repressed and frustrated and constantly witnessing the affection between Agnes and Michel isn’t helping. Its apparent that Adelaide is attracted to not only Michel but her sister as well and soon her sexual frustration begins to manifest itself in the form of bizarre hallucinations which become increasingly more violent and sadomasochistic as Adelaide slips further and further into sexual psychosis.

What on paper might sound like a so called “Euro trash” riff on Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) quickly reveals itself to be something much more. Frustration is one of the best examples of Bénazéraf’s mastery of mood resulting in a film that implants itself not just in the psyche but under the skin as well which might not have been the case had it not been for the brilliant performance of Janine Reynaud. The film is light on dialogue so Reynaud’s performance is all about body language and facial expressions. Her strong presence coupled with the films lack of dialogue along with the sense of isolation from the films setting make for a fairly original type of unease. Its as if Bénazéraf’s intention is for the discomfort to be felt while watching the film is not simply psychological but physical as well. To literally “feel” Adelaide’s repression. Frustration is also one of the most imaginative films to come out of the golden era of Euro sex and horror films with Adelaide’s fantasy’s ranging from a sequence of a series of seemingly endless doors being opened revealing Agnes and Michel in variety of sexual positions to a scenario being played out in a medieval dungeon. Bénazéraf's presentation of Adelaide’s hallucinations, often loud and energetic, provide a nice jolt due to their abrupt change in tone from the majority of the films unsettling quietness. Amazingly Bénazéraf even found a way to sneak in a brief political discussion. It just wouldn’t be a Bénazéraf film without one.

One of the most frustrating aspects regarding Frustration, and for that matter the majority of Bénazéraf’s films is its current English friendly home video status. Several of Bénazéraf’s films have official DVD releases in France, Frustration included but in America currently the only film of Bénazéraf’s to have an uncut release is Sexus (1965). His debut film L'éternité pour nous (Eternity For Us, 1963) is available on DVD-R from Something Weird in its English version known as Sin on the Beach, the only issue being that its around 20 minutes shorter than its original French version. His follow up film Le concerto de la peur (The Concert of Fear, 1963) also received a release in its English version entitled Night of Lust which is an edited 58 minute cut. Irritating to say the least. Frustration did get an uncut VHS release back in the day on the Private Screenings label under its absurd alternate title The Chambermaids Dream (surly one of the most ridiculous re-titles a Euro film has ever gotten) and thankfully DVD-R’s are easy to track down and most seem to be sourced from that tape so until Frustration finally gets the proper North American release it deserves those curious about the film would be wise to seek out the DVD-R, as Frustration is easily Bénazéraf’s best film. As far as this type of cinema is concerned, Frustration is required viewing.

Monday, July 14, 2014

La muerte incierta (1977)

One of the things that the majority of the most well known films from José Ramón Larraz are known for is their high level of sex and violence, particularly Vampyres (1974) but what’s interesting about that is Larraz went on record several times (including during his often hilarious commentary track on the DVD for Vampyres which also featured producer Brian Smedley-Aston) claiming to not be a fan of having a lot of blood in his films. Larraz was also quoted in Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill’s 1995 book Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 that his debut film Whirlpool (1970) perhaps wasn’t the best choice for a debut feature as it pigeonholed him in the eyes of many as strictly a sex film director. While its true that Larraz’s films had a tendency to be quite visceral at times, anyone who’s seen a handful of his films will attest that Larraz was much more interested in the psychological as the sex and violence in his films was balanced out nicely by the unique psychology Larraz brought to his films. This is especially evident in his early British thrillers like Whirlpool, Deviation (1971), Scream and Die (1973) and Symptoms (1974), although there is considerably less violence and overt sexuality present in that film. La muerte incierta, one of Larraz’s Spanish films, is a perfect example of Larraz’s creative psychological approach to horror.

Clive Dawson, a wealthy English plantation owner returns to his estate in India with his new bride Brenda (Mary Maude). Prior to leaving India and getting married Clive had ended his relationship with Shaheen (Rosalba Neri), a native girl who felt used and thrown away by Clive’s ending of the relationship, promising to place a curse on Clive and all who lived on his plantation. Shortly after arriving Clive is informed by his son Rupert that while he was away Shaheen commited suicide and most of the superstitious servants have left in fear of Shaheen’s curse. Clive remembers Shaheen’s curse threat very well and not long after settling in his own superstitions take hold as Shaheen’s presence begins to be felt all over the plantation.

In the hands of a lesser director a film like La muerte incierta (The Uncertain Death) could have easily been turned into a lazy and pedestrian ghost story but in the hands of a master like Larraz it becomes a brilliant supernatural psychological thriller. While the film does make use of certain ghost story tropes it really isn’t fair to label the film simply a “ghost story” as the places Larraz takes the film travel far outside that one subgenre. Larraz makes things ambiguous early on and the film becomes even more so as Larraz delves deeper into the Dawson family history which raises the question of whether or not the plantation is really haunted or what Clive is experiencing is the result of paranoia. This exploration of Clive’s past also gives Larraz license to create a fascinating mystery involving superstition, mental illness and murder all of which make the curse angle all the more intriguing not to mention create some incredibly tense moments. The subplot involving Clive’s past also serve some of the films more supernatural elements which are in turn aided immensely by the films Indian settings with the surrounding jungle becoming a character in itself, which Larraz puts to use masterfully during one of the films most memorable moments involving a tiger hunt which ends with a truly innovative visual metaphor. On top of all that Larraz even throws in a seriously uncomfortable semi-incestuous side plot involving Brenda and Rupert, a quintessential Larraz character, as most in the film are.

There seems to be a bit of confusion as to when the film was actually made. IMDb lists the film as having a 1973 release while the Immoral Tales book claims it was 1977. Considering the amount of research that went into that book plus the actual time the authors spent interviewing Larraz 1977 would seem like the more likely release year. That would also place it alongside The Coming of Sin (1978), another film dealing with familial curses and superstitions so it makes sense if the film was made around then. For the longest time La muerte incierta was a pretty hoarded film until it became more widely circulated among collectors. When the film was first unearthed the print had turned completely red until a fan color corrected it and English subtitles were added. Most of the DVD-R’s seem to be sourced from the color corrected print although some of the red does make an appearance on occasion. Watching it is another one of those cases of just knowing how amazing the film would look if given a proper restoration. Still though the film is available which has to count for something, and although Rosalba Neri technically isn’t in the film for long the fact that a film exists that was directed by Larraz and features Neri, two giants of European cult cinema, that alone should make La muerte incierta required viewing.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Rest in Pieces (1987)

When talking about the films from the major figures in European cult cinema, more often than not the majority of the discussion is rooted in the films from the 70’s. Not surprising in the slightest seeing as said decade was easily the golden age for the style of filmmaking perfected by directors like Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin and José Ramón Larraz amongst several others. While the films to come from the 70’s were unquestionably important, some of the later output to come from these transgressive auteurs is equally worthy of the same attention and unfortunately has a tendency to get dismissed. The most obvious example would be the later digital films from Jess Franco with only the most devoted Francophiles coming to their defense. José Ramón Larraz is an interesting case. Larraz basically retired from feature filmmaking in 1992 so the late period films from him to get somewhat swept aside would be his last three horror films, 1987’s Rest in Pieces, Edge of the Axe (1988) and Deadly Manor (1990). The main criticism of these films seems to be that Larraz was trying to cater to the American rental market. Really a perplexing critique especially when the film in question is Rest in Pieces, one of Larraz’s most unusual and wacky horror films and a film that is certainly unlike any American horror film to come from the late 80’s.

Following the death of her Aunt Catherine, Helen and her boyfriend Bob move into the estate of the recently deceased Catherine which Helen has inherited along with Catherine’s remaining fortune. Almost immediately after arriving however strange occurrences around the house begin to plague Helen including seeing visions of her aunt. The odd behavior of their new neighbors, all of whom were very close with Catherine don’t make things any easier for Helen either. Bob however isn’t content with giving up his new life of luxury and talks Helen out of leaving, although he too becomes suspicious of the neighbors when questions are raised regarding Catherine’s money and their behavior becomes increasingly more antagonistic making it clear that there something the neighbors aren’t telling them, and Aunt Catherine has plans for Helen from beyond the grave.  

Aside from sharing a few very faint thematic similarities with films like Carnival of Souls (1962) and Jess Franco’s A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971), Rest in Pieces is really incomparable to anything else. A strange meeting of supernatural and slasher components rounded out with instances of oddball humor, Rest in Pieces represents Larraz as his most offbeat while working in a genre. Obviously the film doesn’t take itself 100% seriously but it wouldn’t be fair to label the film as a true “horror comedy” as the horror elements far outweigh the comedic but when the film does go for laughs it works, particularly because most of the films humor is rather absurd and fits right in with the horror story. Even one of the films most memorable violent moments has somewhat of a comical tone to it due to the utter randomness of it. The story itself is quite original and becomes quite ambitious with Larraz throwing in all sorts of bits about suicide, cannibalism, and even a side plot involving a slight mystery dealing with the mental health history of Helen’s family similar to what he had done previously in La muerte incierta (1977).  At times it might seem a bit convoluted especially later on in the film but it takes some creative twists and the way Larraz eventually brings it full circle in the end is pretty unique and despite the films very slim budget Larraz was also able to conjure up his typical atmospheric artistry in select scenes.

It has to be mentioned that two of the neighbors in the film are played by (American born) Eurocult legends Jack Taylor who portrays a blind man with a retractable blade at the end of his walking stick and the late Patty Shepard. Unsurprisingly, whenever Shepard is involved in a scene she’s the most magnetic presence on screen. Shepard’s last role was in Larraz’s Edge of the Axe which also features Taylor although both are in considerably smaller roles. Edge of the Axe is also the one film Larraz’s last run in the horror genre to have been rediscovered as of late and has gained a decent fan base. What’s also interesting about Rest in Pieces is that it was the first time Larraz worked with Brian Smedley-Aston since Vampyres (1974) who edited the film. Aston of course was the editor on Symptoms (1974) and the producer on Vampyres and would go on to produce Larraz’s last horror film Deadly Manor three years after Rest in Pieces. With Rest in Pieces being a Larraz film obviously it doesn’t have a DVD release but it did get a VHS release and low priced used copies are fairly easy to find as are DVD-R’s. Its not Larraz’s best film to be sure, but it’s a fun and fairly creative horror film that not just Larraz fans but horror fans in general should give a chance.    

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stigma (1980)

Earlier this year, January 12th to be exact, cancer sadly took the life of actress Alexandra Bastedo who was 67. A classic beauty if there ever was one, Bastedo is perhaps best remembered by mainstream audiences for her role as Sharron Macready in the British sci-fi spy series The Champions which ran from 1968 to 1968. To fans of European horror however, Bastedo is legendary for her role in Vicente Aranda’ brilliant Le Fanu inspired The Blood Spattered Bride (1972). She also had a role in the 1975 Peter Cushing vehicle The Ghoul. On two occasions Bastedo served as the muse for the late, very great José Ramón Larraz, first in Larraz’s 1977 marital drama El mirón (The Voyeur) and again in 1980 for Stigma. Along with Bastedo, Stigma is also notable for being the first Larraz film to feature Eurocult goddess Helga Liné whom Larraz would cast again as the titular Madame Olga in Madame Olga's Pupils (1981) and more infamously in Black Candles (1982). When compared to some of the more well known titles from this mid-point in Larraz’s directorial career, namely The Coming of Sin (1978) and Black Candles, Stigma seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle a bit. Like the majority of Larraz’s films, Stigma is yet another deserving of more recognition, a fascinating little film and one of the most original horror films to come from Larraz.

Following the accidental death of his father, José, the older brother of Sebastian (Christian Borromeo) expresses concern to their mother (Liné) over Sebastian’s lack of empathy for their fathers death and Sebastian’s odd behavior in general. Sebastian is indeed not like other teens as he has the ability to cause death with his mind. All he has to do is wish it and the target of his thoughts perishes, an affliction which causes him to bleed from the lower lip once the death has occurred, as well as hallucinations, a stigma  Sebastian claims to neither understand or accept, although it doesn’t stop him from using it whenever he feels wronged. After being introduced to José’s girlfriend Angie (Bastedo), Sebastian is immediately taken by her and the two immediately hit it off, so much so that Sebastian confides in Angie about his condition who agrees to try and help Sebastian discover the origin of his curse.

Far from the derivative Carrie (1976) riff that most would assume due to the troubled teen with supernatural mental abilities angle, Stigma (Estigma) is a rather ambitious film in the way it presents itself. There are essentially three stories going on at once in Stigma. The first obviously being Sebastian’s ability to murder with his mind. The second being Sebastian’s relationships with his mother, José and Angie and the third being the actual cause of Sebastian’s titular stigma which Larraz uses to craft a mystery that becomes more and more bizarre with the inclusion of psychics and hypnosis until Larraz really turns the tables and eventually has the film switch time periods! Par for the course with Larraz, Stigma is as moody as they come, especially when dealing with Sebastian’s contentious family life with Larraz throwing in some seriously uncomfortable incestuous overtones which also play a major hand in the films central mystery, and Larraz’s trademark atmospherics coming into play during the hallucination sequences. The films third act also sees Larraz channeling the threatening countryside aura found in previous films such as Scream and Die (1973), Emma, puertas oscuras (1973) and Symptoms (1974). Of course also at the heart of the film is the believable friendship between Sebastian and Angie and the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does without the casting of Borromeo and Bastedo. Dubbing aside, Borromeo is fantastic making Sebastian much more than just a one note teen with issues and he and Bastedo were perfectly matched.

Astonishingly Stigma did have a DVD release at one point in time as part of a 3 disc, 5 film set released as “Crypt of Terror: A Collection of Nightmares” along with Black Candles, the Tiny Tim (who happens to grace the sets box art) film Blood Harvest (1987), Evil Eye (1975), which was also released as a double feature with Black Candles, and interestingly Naked Dreams which is an alternate version of Black Candles. This set seems to have gone out of print almost as fast as it was released and is now damn near impossible to find for a decent price. For a while Stigma was also made available on DVD-R from Amazon made on demand via Mr. Fat-W Video, the same as Black Candles and Larraz’s final horror film Deadly Manor (1990) although Amazon no longer seems to be selling it, and the instant video streaming option is no longer available for the film either which is a shame seeing as those were the easiest ways to get a hold of the film. Surely there must be some other way of tracking this film down. Euro horror fans, and Larraz fans especially are a persistent bunch so if there’s another way of discovering the film they’ll be the ones to do it, and it’s a film that’s well worth discovering, one that showcases just how versatile a director Larraz was.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Serial Mom (1994)

John Waters has certainly made his fascination with true crime no secret. In addition to having a massive collection of true crime books and various items of memorabilia which includes a jar of dirt that allegedly came from John Wayne Gacy’s crawlspace (which he proudly displayed during for the camera during the episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show UK documentary series dedicated to him), Waters has also shown his films in several Baltimore, MD jails and has admitted to being an audience member at many a trial, although he admits that came to an end once he started becoming more recognizable. In addition Waters has also been a vocal advocate over the years for the release of former Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. While the concept of criminal as celebrity was nothing new to Waters, having brilliantly utilized the idea in Female Trouble (1974), the concept for a film like Serial Mom couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. 1991 saw the debut of Court TV which meant constant trial coverage in real time and the more sensational the trial the better and sure enough thanks to the trial of the Menendez brothers ratings were through the roof and America couldn’t get enough, naturally making it the perfect fodder for Waters to lampoon. The result was 1994’s Serial Mom, one of the funniest and most spot-on parodies to come from Waters.

On the surface, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Tuner) appears to be the archetypal suburban housewife. Loving mother to her son Chip (Matthew Lillard) and daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) and devoted wife to her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), Beverly is small town USA personified. There is however, a hidden side to Beverly, and for those who slight her family in any way or offend her high standards of decency the consequence is death and when more people turning up murdered in the Sutphin’s Baltimore suburb, Beverly becomes the main suspect, is eventually arrested and her subsequent trail becomes a media sensation drawing attention from across the nation as the public just cant get enough of “serial mom”.    

Along with sharing a kinship with the previously mentioned Female Trouble due to the celebrity criminal angle, Serial Mom could in some ways be considered Waters’ over the top riff on ideas found in films such as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). To go along with poking fun at America’s obsession with high profile trials Waters also satirizes so called boring suburban “normalcy” and the hypocrisy that is normally associated with such, all done with a sarcastic wink of the eye naturally. Of course this being Waters behind the camera the film as a whole is absolutely hysterical for those who share Waters deranged sense of humor and even those who haven’t seen the film should by now be well aware of the driving force behind the film, that being the performance of Kathleen Turner. Without Turner, who for lack of a better term “kills” every aspect of Beverly Sutphin, from enthusiastically singing along to Barry Manilow or bludgeoning someone to death with a leg of lamb, there would be no Serial Mom. Alongside Turner is one of the most impressive casts Waters ever assembled including the rest of the Sutphin clan, that being Sam Waterston who nails the “proper” suburban dad role, Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard. Also making appearances are Waters regulars Traci Lords and Patty Hearst and the amazing Mink Stole who’s character of Dotty Hinkle lends herself to one of the most hilarious and quotable scenes of crank calling in all of cinema.

As if all that weren’t enough to make Serial Mom a perfect film, the great L7 even make a memorable appearance as “Camel Lips” performing “Gas Chamber”, a song the band wrote with Waters. Waters also pays tribute to H.G. Lewis by making Chip a fan of gore films and clips of Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) are seen in the film which gives Waters an opportunity to take a jab at hyper moralists who feel horror films are a bad influence on kids. There is also an entire special feature on Universal’s fantastic DVD release of Serial Mom dedicated to Lewis and producer Dave Friedman with both men discussing their history and legacies with Waters chiming in on their influence. One of the most interesting things regarding Serial Mom mentioned by Waters on one of the features on the DVD is again, how perfect the timing was for a film like this to be made as it almost seemed to predict the fiasco that was the OJ Simpson murder trial, and there’s one particular scene in the film where which would come to resemble Simpson’s infamous Bronco chase witnessed on live TV, the irony of which was not lost on Waters. Any fan of the film should have the disc in their collection as its a more than commendable release for one of Waters’ best films. Absolutely brilliant satire from an undisputed master.