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.