Monday, May 19, 2014

The Birthday Party (1968)

As evidenced by his two most recent masterpieces Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2012), both based on stage plays written by Tracy Letts who also wrote the screenplays for both films, William Friedkin has a knack for brining plays to the screen. Adapting a play isn’t always the easiest thing to do what with the task of keeping things interesting within the confines of limited settings (for the most part) and really only a handful of directors can pull it off with ease and make it look effortless. Probably the best example would be Hitchcock, who’s film adaptations of Rope (1948) and Dial M For Murder (1955) showcased masterfully how to transfer a play to film and while films like Lifeboat (1944) and Rear Window (1954) weren’t based on plays, several of the filmmaking techniques used in Hitchcock’s play adaptations are present. Back to Friedkin, even before his brilliant collaborations with Letts the man was no stranger to the stage having began directing opera’s in 1998 and continuing to do so to this day with great success. In 1968 Friedkin helmed The Birthday Party based on Harold Pinter’s second play of the same name with a script written by Pinter. While it may have only been his second non-documentary film, The Birthday Party not only showcased Friedkin’s talent for turning plays into films but also his ability to make audiences very, very uncomfortable.

Stanley Weber (Robert Shaw), the lone tenant at a seaside boarding house is informed by Meg, the landlady that two men have inquired about a room, news which Weber is taken aback by and seems rather nervous about. Meg also wishes Stanley a happy birthday, although Stanley insists that its not his birthday until the following month. When the two men, who go by the names of McCann (Patrick Magee) and Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) arrive later in the day Stanley immediately goes on defense and with good reason as the two being to terrorize him, interrogating him with a series of ridiculous questions. McCann and Goldberg are also informed by Meg of Stanley’s birthday and Goldberg insists that a party be thrown. Despite Stanley’s vehement protests, a birthday party is indeed thrown with events becoming more and more strange as the night goes on.

The go to term most often used to describe The Birthday Party is “comedy of menace” which is perhaps the most accurate way to describe this oddity. The Birthday Party is as humorous in certain scenes as it is horrifying in others and is quite often both at the same time. Perhaps the best example of this would be the “interrogation” scene as its usually referred to, never before have questions like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” been asked in such a psychologically traumatizing manner. The overall odd and random nature of the film makes certain scenes even more unsetting albeit in a perplexing way, for instance when a game of blind man’s bluff played at Stanley’s party, a scene which was strange enough to begin with, takes a sinister turn, at first in a slightly comedic fashion when McCann is playing, then becoming deadly serious when its Stanley’s turn. Even before McCann and Goldberg enter the picture there is a peculiar moodiness to the film, what with an early conversation between Stanley and Meg becoming more threatening in tone and the now iconic scene of Stanley performing an increasingly violent snare drum solo. Its important to note that save for the opening credits and the closing moments of the film, very rarely does Friedkin take the camera outside the boarding house, which, along with the precise direction gives off an uncomfortable, claustrophobic feeling throughout which is crucial to the films effectiveness.      

The Birthday Party would also be the first of many times Friedkin would win the casting lottery. Interestingly, Pinter played a big role in the casting of the film and Friedkin would write in his memoir The Friedkin Connection that he felt the cast played it to perfection and couldn’t have been improved. One of the more brilliant things regarding Robert Shaw’s performance as Stanley is his ability to make Stanley a sympathetic character as he’s not exactly the most likeable of characters. Almost instantly after the introduction of his character he’s revealed to be irritable, rude and quick to insult Meg at every opportunity. Good as he is when it comes to those traits of Stanley’s, its later on in the film when Stanley is at a complete loss for words at the hands of McCann and Goldberg does Shaw really shine letting his facial expressions take over. Again, Shaw is flawless, but its Sydney Tafler and Patrick Magee who own the film as Goldberg and McCann. Tafler’s Goldberg goes beyond being “extraverted”, he’s overly chatty, radiates confidence and obviously fancies himself as a highly educated and cultured man and has the ability to go from friendly to fierce in a matter of seconds. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the stoic Patrick Magee as McCann who is imposing from the get-go and his curious demeanor contributes greatly to the general weirdness of the film. Just the sight (and sound) of him obsessively tearing strips of newspaper is bizarrely nightmarish.

Friedkin has stated that one of his upcoming projects is to direct The Birthday Party for the stage so when that finally comes to fruition it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to the film. Currently the film stands alongside Friedkin’s Rampage (1987) as well as the unrated version of Jade (1995) as being a more than deserving film that has yet to get a North American DVD release. Anchor Bay did release the film on VHS back in 2000 but for some reason not on DVD which is odd considering that the year before they released Friedkin’s still unfairly trashed The Guardian (1990) on both VHS and DVD. The film did however receive a DVD release in the UK which is now out of print and unsurprisingly goes for some pretty outrageous prices just like Anchor Bay’s long out of print DVD of The Guardian. The Anchor Bay VHS should be fairly easy to find via Amazon or eBay for good prices so thankfully the film isn’t impossible to get a hold of. The Birthday Party is perhaps forever going to be judged by how well it stands up to the play but as a stand alone film its not just a fascinating experience that exists within its own world and genre but also a shining example of Friedkin’s abilities behind the camera even at this early stage in his career.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Hot Nights of Linda (1975)

AKA But Who Raped Linda?, Erotic Dreams, Come Close, Blond Emmanuelle, Plaisir Solitaire (Solitary Pleasure), La felicità nel peccato (The Happiness in Sin) and Linda, i gymni eromeni (Linda, Naked Mistress)

Its literally impossible to discuss the filmography of Jess Franco without encountering one of the most interesting yet at times frustrating aspects regarding his career, that being the alternate version. Even those with a minor knowledge of Franco should be well aware that several of his films exist in multiple versions ranging from softcore versions, versions with hardcore footage (sometimes shot by Franco himself, sometimes not) added at the insistence of producers in order to sell the film to the adult market, versions cut to appease the censors of various countries and so forth. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be the many versions of Female Vampire (1973) released under such titles as Erotikill, The Bare-Breasted Countess and The Loves of Irina amongst others. Another well known case is the release of A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) featuring additional zombie footage shot by fellow Euro horror legend Jean Rollin nearly a decade after the original version of the film had been released. Then there’s of course the cut version of Exorcism (1974) released to home video as Demoniac. Helmed during one of Franco’s most exhaustively prolific periods, The Hot Nights of Linda is another film alongside countless others to have had more than one version released and in its originally intended form is a quintessential Franco experience, one that surely could not have been imagined by no other filmmaker.

Marie-France (Alice Arno) is hired as a live-in caregiver by Paul Radeck (Paul Muller) to care for his paralyzed daughter Linda at the families seaside home. Upon arriving, Marie immediately hits it off with Olivia (Lina Romay), Linda’s nymphomaniac cousin who has lived with the Radeck’s nearly all her life since the death of her parents. Marie also notices Radeck’s strange behavior and is taken aback by his rather harsh views regarding Linda’s condition and his unwillingness to discuss how Linda ended up in her current state. It becomes obvious to Marie very quickly that there is something Radeck is hiding, a family secret that he intends to never be known, but one that Olivia knows all the details of.

Italian poster
What may surprise many about The Hot Nights of Linda (Les nuits brûlantes de Linda, which has been mistranslated over the years as “The Brutal Nights of Linda”) is that for the film entitled “The Hot Nights of Linda” is just how subdued it is in the sex department especially when compared to other Franco films from this period. To be sure there is an abundance of salacious and taboo material to be found but nowhere near as much as say Female Vampire or Lorna the Exorcist (1974). What’s also interesting is just how little the titular character of Linda factors in the overall film. Franco’s main focus is the mystery surrounding Radeck and just what is the dark secret he is do desperate to keep as well as Olivia’s knowledge of it. Not only is it a well crafted story but the more Franco reveals about this odd family the already feeling of uncomfortable isolation and general strangeness is enhanced. This type of twisted family dynamic is something that Franco would return to again in films like La casa de las mujeres perdidas (1983) and Broken Dolls (1999). Franco also included a comedic side plot involving a bumbling detective and a photo journalist that actually works and isn’t all that distracting. Of course the film also benefits from its cast with Arno and Lina making a great match (unsurprisingly Olivia is the most interesting character and Lina was clearly enjoying herself) and Paul Muller shining in one of his most bizarre roles.

During his solo interview segment on Severin’s 3-disc release for the film Franco claims that there are 10 versions of the film that exist. One such edit was a French hardcore version which Severin have included as the 3 disc on their limited combo pack, affectingly referred to as the “French hard banana version”. Quality wise its along the lines of a 5th generation blurry VHS copy, something which Severin were upfront about from the get go. Still its a nice inclusion as its a perfect example of the quality of prints Franco fans have had to deal with until Severin came to the rescue with their release. Also included is an interview with both Jess and Lina who both agree that the feature on the first and second discs under the But Who Raped Linda? title is their preferred version. Its a great segment for fans to see the two of them together reminiscing about the film as well as their overall time together although a bit sad knowing both a gone now. There’s a nice reel of silent outtakes as well and an interview with writer Stephen Thrower who’s information as always is invaluable especially in regards to how this film relates to Franco’s other works. Its another brilliant release from Severin for a demented little film that should feel right at home on the shelves of any serious Franco fanatic.