Monday, February 23, 2015

La ocasión (1978)

While José Ramón Larraz may be best remembered for his early British films which consisted of horror/thrillers like Whirlpool (1970), Deviation (1971), Scream and Die (1973), Symptoms (1974) and culminating with Vampyres (1974), Larraz’s Spanish period upon his return to Spain following the death of dictator Francisco Franco really showcased Larraz’s versatility as a director resulting in numerous films in a variety of genres and subgenres. Larraz gained a reputation in Spain for comedies such as Give Us Our Daily Sex (1979) which starred Laura Gemser, La momia nacional (The National Mummy, 1981) and Polvos mágicos (1983) which were quite successful but before that Larraz directed the marital drama El mirón (The Voyeur, 1977), the bizarre The Coming of Sin (1978) which is perhaps the best known film from this period, the spy film The Golden Lady (1979), and the erotic drama Madame Olga’s Pupils (1981). Of course Larraz never forgot about horror and films like La muerte incierta (1977) and Stigma (1980) proved just how valuable Larraz was to the genre along with the notorious satanic sexploitation classic Black Candles (1982). There were others that also proved Larraz could do it all but anyone who’s seen a handful of Larraz’s films can attest too, Larraz felt most at home with thrillers so it should come as no surprise that 1978’s La ocasión is one of the strongest films from Larraz’s Spanish period.

Husband and wife Pablo and Anna return to their beachfront home only to find it trashed after having been broken into. Pablo immediately suspects a group of young hippies that have been staying at the farm next door and is determined to get rid of them while Anna, who isn’t exactly trilled with the group also doesn’t approve of Pablo’s overly antagonistic attitude. Pablo becomes increasingly more annoyed with the group and their antics eventually reporting them to the police in hopes of finally being rid of them for good, that is until the leader of the group decides to pay him and Anna a visit.

Following films like the surreal and superstitious La muerte incierta and The Coming of Sin, La ocasión (The Occasion) really finds Larraz in his element. The film is very much in the vein of his early British films complete with shady characters, isolated locations and ambiguity, although there is an apparent lack of atmosphere which Larraz’s British films contained in abundance but in all fairness to the film this particular story doesn’t necessarily call for heavy atmospherics and what it lacks in atmosphere it more than makes up for in sheer moodiness. Larraz was always a slow story teller and La ocasión is certainly one of his more languid pieces. As always nothing is ever obvious in Larraz’s world and La ocasión is an interesting watch in that for the majority of the film there is never really any clear indication of where the film is heading. While Pablo’s issues with the hippies are obviously at the forefront, Larraz spends an equal, if not more amount of time examining Pablo and Anna’s marriage and Anna’s hints of sexual frustration as well as her slightly conflicted feelings regarding the hippies. By the time the film reaches its third act and becomes a three character piece Larraz finds a way to brilliantly blend every single plot point previously explored leading to some quintessential Larraz intensity and the direction Larraz eventually takes the film results in some fairly twisted sexual ambiguity in regards to Anna’s state of mind which Larraz wisely leaves a slightly unsettling mystery.

La ocasión has proven to be one of Larraz’s most elusive films. Hardly anything has been written about it save for one dismissive review on IMDb and its home video history seems to be a bit of a mystery as well. A quick image search will turn up a clamshell VHS cover for the film that was being sold on a Spanish auction site. The tape was released by one Constan Films, S.A. which also happened to be the films production company, yet its also been said that the film never received a VHS release, that the only available version of the film is sourced from a VHS recording of a Spanish television airing of the film. Interesting to say the least. Image searches will also reveal other items related to the film that were sold on the same auction site as that VHS tape such as the films poster, several sets of lobby cards and a press book. Over the past year or so the film did finally begin to pop up on several torrent sites but for those that still prefer to watch films the proper way there are discs out there for those that know where to look which are more than well worth seeking out and picking up as La ocasión is an intelligent and psychologically ambitious thriller and a film that’s easily recommendable to any serious Larraz fan.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Emma, puertas oscuras (1974)

One of the most fascinating things about watching the work of a cinematic auteur is witnessing the gradual creation of a self-contained cinematic universe. Not only is it fascinating but rewarding also when the films are viewed in chronological order, being able to see the beginning of both narrative and visual motifs, said motifs being expanded on and eventually perfected, noticing how one film relates to another, things of that nature. José Ramón Larraz was one such auteur who unquestionably created a highly personal universe. Larraz is a particularly interesting case in that with his first film Whirlpool (1970) he essentially laid all his calling cards out on the table, the isolated countryside setting, shady and hedonistic characters clearly hiding some form of ulterior motive, a prevailing sense of mystery and an approach to sexuality that was both visceral and psychological. What’s incredible is that even with Whirlpool being his first film Larraz clearly had a pretty good handle on all these things and would continue to expand upon them with subsequent films like Deviation (1971), Scream and Die (1973) and Symptoms (1974) , which for all intensive purposes is the culmination of everything Larraz began with Whirlpool. Somewhat lost in the shuffle of all those films is Emma, puertas oscuras, a transitional piece that found Larraz again expanding on his obsessions while also adding some new elements making for one curious little film.

Emma, a young woman is seriously injured in a hit an run accident. Silvia, a psychiatrist who witnessed the accident gets to know Emma at the hospital where Emma is recovering and the two became very close. So close in fact that Silvia offers to become Emma’s legal guardian and adopt her upon her release from the hospital as Emma has no known family. The accident however has changed Emma, leaving her with severe abandonment issues  causing her behavior to become erratic and violent and Silvia’s threats of sending Emma back to the hospital push Emma, razor in hand, over the edge and out into the country on her own.

Sandwiched in between Scream and Die and Symptoms, Emma, puertas oscuras (Emma, Dark Doors) is the logical bridge between the two films utilizing the slasher components of the former while flirting with the psychology of the later. While the film isn’t nearly as psychologically sophisticated as Symptoms its nonetheless a precursor in the way it explores Emma’s separation anxiety and her fear of abandonment which leads to violence. The majority of the first half of the film is made up of Larraz’s focusing on the loving yet somewhat contentious relationship between Emma and Silvia and as always with Larraz nothing is ever spelled out entirely making the nature of their relationship all the more fascinating. Although its not as overt as in Symptoms there are some clear hints of lesbianism and sexual tention between the two which Larraz perverts with the fact that Silvia is technically Emma’s adopted mother. Per usual Larraz tells the story in a leisurely fashion only to give a nice jolt by way of Emma’s nasty scissor and razor attacks and a bizarre dream sequence. Its during the third act where the films slasher side takes over and where it really begins to recall Scream and Die with Emma’s survival (predatory) instincts kicking in and Larraz brilliantly setting the action in an abandoned hotel. The perfect setting for Larraz’s trademark atmospherics to make an appearance which give these moments a classical, gothic feel, a technique Larraz would return to in future films like Stigma (1980) and Deadly Manor (1990).

One of the most interesting things about Emma, puertas oscuras is that it was a Spanish production made right in the middle of Larraz’s British period. The locations and vehicles seen all throughout the film make it clear that it was shot in England, at least the overwhelming majority of it was so its interesting that the film was funded with Spanish money especially considering Larraz having left Spain years before due to censorship. Another fun fact is that two years prior lead actress Susanna East (who by the way is excellent in the titular role of Emma) appeared in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972). Larraz fanatics will no doubt instantly recognize red headed actor Andrew Grant in the role of a hippy that makes the mistake of trying to take advantage of Emma late in the film. Grant of course played Tom, Karl Lanchbury’s accomplice in rape and voyeurism in Whirlpool. Emma, puertas oscuras is another one of Larraz’s films that remained elusive for some time having been (presumably) only released on Spanish VHS until it began to pop up online in recent years much like Larraz’s La muerte incierta (1977). English subtitled discs are now out there, sourced from that Spanish VHS tape and its a film that Larraz fans would benefit from seeing as its ultimately a film that would end up becoming a fitting piece in Larraz’s cinematic puzzle.