Monday, December 26, 2016

Lulu (1980)

It makes complete sense that Walerian Borowczyk would adapt Frank Wedekind's “Lulu” plays for the screen. The plays, Earth Spirit, first performed in 1895 and Pandora’s Box in 1904, attracted a considerable amount of controversy upon their premiers due to their treatment of topics considered at the time to be taboo, namely female sexuality, not unlike the controversy that would later surround Borowczyk and several of his films, for instance Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975). The plays have been adapted a few times, with the most famous being G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film version of Pandora’s Box (starting screen legend Louise Brooks in the role of Lulu) which was first brought to the screen in 1921 by Arzén von Cserépy whereas Earth Spirit was made into a film by Leopold Jessner in 1923. The plays were also turned into an opera via Alban Berg in 1937 and severed as the inspiration for the 2011 album Lulu, the notorious and fiercely divisive collaborative effort between Lou Reed and Metallica. Borowczyk’s version is somewhat of a hidden gem in his filmograpgy. Easily Borowczyk’s most neglected film, Lulu may lack the scandalous reputation of some of Borowczyk’s more well known films and the source material may be Wedekind’s, however said material was prime for a Boro treatment and the resulting film is unmistakably Borowczyk and one of his most interesting films from a stylistic standpoint.

For Lulu, Borowczyk combined both Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, detailing the downfall of the titular Lulu (Anne Bennent), a young dancer married to the much older Dr. Goll, who drops dead of a heart attack after discovering Lulu cavorting with Schwarz, a painter whom Lulu was modeling for. Lulu and Schwarz soon marry, although that too ends in tragedy and Lulu soon finds herself married to the affluent Dr. Schoen (Heniz Bennent). Lulu’s luck takes a turn for the worse however when she finds herself implicit in Schoen’s death which sends her and her lover Alwa, Schoen’s son, onto the streets where Lulu is forced into prostitution and makes the fateful decision of taking on Jack the Ripper (Udo Kier) as a client.

If Lulu is remembered for anything its for “featuring Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper!” and while its true that Kier is amazingly wild-eyed and menacing in the role, ultimately it’s a very brief appearance and Lulu has much more going for it than one scene. What makes Lulu a fascinating film is Borowczyk’s approach and handling of the Lulu character. There have been many interpretations of the character over the years, with some claiming that Lulu was a misogynist creation, that her fall from grace was a punishment resulting from her promiscuity while others see Lulu as a positive example of liberated female sexuality. The later is most certainly more akin to Borowczyk’s tastes, with the celebrating of uninhibited females a constant in his work and Lulu is no different. Borowczyk presents Lulu as an archetypal “free spirit” who refuses to be tied down and is eventually brought down not by her lack of inhibitions, but rather the selfish and domineering men that surround her and wish to control her all for themselves. Lulu’s frivolous nature is perfectly captured by Ann Bennent who always has a whimsical nature to her even during the later portion of the film when Lulu is living in squalor which makes the outcome of the film all the more unfortunate. Being based on a play, Borowczyk directs in an appropriate fashion, having the film play out over the course of five confined and meticulously composed scenes, or “acts”, complete with precise staging and Borowczyk’s typically voyeuristic idiosyncrasies.

German actor Heinz Bennent who plays Lulu’s third husband Dr. Schoen was in fact lead actress Anne Bennent’s father. The following year Bennent would go on to work with another Polish master, playing the role of the wonderfully eccentric and hilariously zen Heinrich in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981). Udo Kier would of course work with Borowczyk again the following year playing Dr. Henry Jekyll in Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osborune (1981). While being interviewed for DVD release of Dr. Jekyll, Kier described working with Borowczyk as amazing due to his aesthetic mindedness and specifically singled out his scene in Lulu as Jack the Ripper, stating that Borowczyk took an unusual amount of time in getting the position of the hat Kier was wearing in the scene just right. Interestingly, Kier also reminisces about Borowczyk wanting him to play the role of the infamous French child murderer and compadre of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais in a film centering around his trial although the film never came to fruition. Just one of several projects Borowczyk was unable to find support for in the 80’s. Lulu however did get made and again, the film may be one of Borowczyk’s most ignored but the films visual design along with Borowczyk’s approach to Wedekind’s plays and the instances of Boro’s odd humor make Lulu well worth the time for Borowczyk fans.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Killer Barbys (1996)

AKA Vampire Killer Barbys

Along with Lina Romay and the cinema, music, and particularly jazz, was the other great love of Jess Franco’s life with a good number of his films defined by their soundtracks. Franco’s fruitful collaborations with Bruno Nicolai immediately spring to mind, from the lush classical compositions of Justine (1968) to the exotic Velvet Underground inspired soundscapes of Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969). Venus in Furs (1969) has often been described as a jazz influenced film, complete with a soundtrack courtesy of Manfred Mann of all artists! Female Vampire (1973) wouldn’t have been the same without Daniel While’s melancholic main theme, just one example of White and Franco‘s various collaborations. Franco’s experimental video project Paula-Paula (2010) was constructed around pieces recorded by the legendary Friedrich Gulda, who’s brilliant soundtrack to Franco’s Succubus (1967) helped make that film the mystifying masterpiece that it is. Then there’s of course the Vampyros Lesbos (1971) soundtrack, which has gone on to become as famous as the film itself. Given the types of music Franco was known to have an affinity for, it shouldn’t be a stretch to say that horror inspired punk rock isn’t the first thing to associate with Franco. Nevertheless, the two would become acquainted with Killer Barbys, somewhat of a comeback film for Franco after a few years of inactivity as well as the last film Franco would shoot on 35mm.

Following a concert, punk rockers the Killer Barbies set out to their next gig although they are soon in a dilemma after getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere late at night. A strange old man, Arkan, approaches and invites the band to stay the night at a nearby castle, home of the Countess Von Fledermaus, whom Arkan is of service too, until morning when a mechanic can be contacted. The band agrees, however they soon realize the mistake they’ve made upon discovering the Countess’ lust for the blood of the young in order to retain her beauty, and the Killer Barbies find that they fit the criteria perfectly.

Killer Barbys saw Franco returning to the realm of gothic horror which is where his story in the genre began, although admittedly Killer Barbys is a far more frivolous endeavor than the likes of The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus (1962). While first and foremost a horror film, Killer Barbys is yet another example of Franco’s tendency to hop between genres at any given moment as the film also has a good number of comedic moments. So while the film may be all over the place tonally, going from horrific to hilarious and at times both at once, ultimately it all ends up working as the film succeeds in both spectrums. As a horror film it works for a few reasons. The biggest one being the incredible atmosphere Franco was able to conjure up despite the films relatively small budget. The film has the look and feel of the classic British gothic horror films from the 60’s, complete with liberal use of a fog machine, heavy blue tones and naturally, an imposing castle with a dark past. The film is also a pretty interesting twist on the Bathory legend and surprisingly the rock songs that make up most of the soundtrack don’t deter from the gothic ambiance. The Killer Barbies themselves are the reason the films lighter moments work as the entire band handle the comedic parts well and are clearly having a blast, lead singer Silvia Superstar especially who is a natural in front of the camera.

The Killer Barbies are an actual Spanish pop/punk band and the bands name is spelled in the correct way although it was altered for the title of the film as a precautionary measure in order to avoid a lawsuit from Mattel. Franco and the Barbies would team up again during Franco’s digital years for the supremely ridiculous Killer Barbys vs. Dracula (2002). Interestingly, the band had nothing to do with the original script, it wasn’t until Franco became involved with the project did the idea for the band to star in the film came into play. Convenient timing seeing as their second album Only for Freaks was released around the same time. By all accounts the shoot was a blast and hilariously, band leader Silvia Superstar wanted so badly to be covered in blood for the film but Franco refused. Its also interesting to note that Caroline Munro was originally in talks to play the Countess but things fell through. Even more interesting is that one of the band members is in fact the grandson of Charlie Chaplin. Small world. Obviously Killer Barbys isn’t an intensely personal work from Franco, but as a somewhat silly and at times fairly gory gothic horror romp it does its job very well and more importantly, it restarted Franco’s fire and led to him becoming prolific again, shooting several films a year again up until his passing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Waves of Lust (1975)

Ruggero Deodato has had a particularly interesting directorial career, especially when compared to careers of some of his fellow Italian genre masters. While it isn’t uncommon for directors to hone their craft in a multitude of styles before cementing their legacy in a particular genre, (this is especially true of say, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi) Deodato’s career path is nonetheless more curious than most. For starters, Deodato’s friendship with Renzo Rossellini, son of the legendary Roberto, led to Deodato learning from the master while doing second unit on some of Rossellini’s films. Deodato also made a comfortable living for himself shooting commercials, and eventually made his feature film debut, albeit uncreditied, with Hercules, Prisoner of Evil (1964). From then on he helmed a variety of films in different genres ranging from musical comedies to adventure/superhero films before taking a break from features in 1969 to concentrate on television work. It wasn’t until his return to features in the mid-70’s did Deodato enter the Italian genre market that was booming at the time and even still, Deodato’s work differed from the likes of Bava, Argento, Fulci and Martino just to name a famous few. Rather than throw his hat in the giallo ring, Deodato’s first thriller, 1975’s Waves of Lust was a sun baked Polanski-esque potboiler that really set in motion the types confrontational and pessimistic films Deodato would eventually become notorious for.

Vacationing couple Irem (Al Cliver) and Barbara (Silvia Dionisio) spot playboy George (John Steiner) and his girlfriend Silvia (Elizabeth Turner) water-skiing from a distance and are immediately intrigued by George’s demeanor and carefree attitude towards Silvia’s safety. Later in the day, Barbara encounters George and after a bit of flirting the two make plans for dinner later that night. Unbeknownst to George however it’s a ruse and all four find themselves together. Despite barely knowing each other, George invites Irem and Barbara to accompany him and Silvia on his yacht and the group set sail the next day. Almost immediately, George reveals himself to be a verbally and physically abusive tyrant, with Silvia essentially his slave. There is also an obvious attraction between Irem and Silvia as well between George and Barbara. Despite agreeing to lose all inhibitions, George’s attitude and increasingly erratic behavior become too much and it isn’t long until tension and jealousy erupt into violence.

Although nowhere near the savagery of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), Waves of Lust (Ondata di piacere) is still a nasty piece of business with Deodato’s nihilistic worldview in plain sight. It would be easy to describe Waves of Lust as simply “horrible people doing horrible things to equally horrible people”, although as is the case with Deodato nothing is ever that black and white and the shades of grey quickly become more defined. For a film that is so blunt in terms of eroticism, its also rather ambiguous when it comes to character motivations. Almost immediately its made clear that George is an insufferable bastard and his relationship with Silvia is dominant/submissive, what’s not so clear is Silvia’s true feelings on the matter. It would certainly appear that she is unhappy with the situations yet its also hinted at that she sticks around solely due to George’s wealth. What’s also left out in the open is Irem’s true feelings regarding the relationship that develops between him and Silvia. Does he truly care for her well-being or is it purely sexual? Even Irem and Barbara’s love  comes into question at times with it being hinted that, despite being together, it wouldn’t be a shock if one betrayed the other. Deodato brilliantly juxtaposes the misanthropic story with the films tropical locations and nautical theme song with the claustrophobic confines of the yacht and isolation of the open sea only adding to the already uncomfortably tense mood.

At the time the film was made, Deodato and lead actress Silvia Dionisio were married. When Deodato told her he was going to direct an erotic film with plentiful nudity Dionisio objected, that was unless she had a role in the film which is essentially how she got the part despite the fact that the role of Barbara was already cast. It might seem strange to think Deodato would be uncomfortable filming anything, yet Deodato admitted that he was incredibly nervous shooting the nude scenes and actually wasn’t all that interested in making an erotic film at all but rather wanting to make a straight-forward thriller. So even if it may have been accidental, the end result wound up being a mash-up of both. Deodato also expressed some reservations about the finished film, wanting to have shot more outside of the yacht but bad weather prevented it which actually worked in the films favor as again, the confines of the yacht made for many a tense moment. Its also worth pointing out that the film was the first screenwriting credit for Lamberto Bava. Waves of Lust is a film that any Deodato fan owes it to themselves to see as it establishes the attitude Deodato would adopt for his future films and really proves that (fans of the film with immediately understand) even when viewed upside down, the world looks just as sick.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The House of Witchcraft (1989)

AKA Ghosthouse 4: Haus der Hexen (House of Witches)

Unlike Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci who all excelled when dealing with supernatural themes, Umberto Lenzi is one Italian genre specialist that didn’t dive into the mystic nearly as much. Much like Ruggero Deodato, Lenzi preferred his horror and thriller films to be rooted in reality somewhat, focusing on the horrors humans are capable of inflicting on each other as witnessed in his early erotic jet set thrillers starring Carroll Baker such as Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970). Lenzi also showed a knack for psychological puzzle films with the bizarre giallo Spasmo (1974) and Euro crime classics like Almost Human (1974) and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977) display the gritty nihilism that Lenzi brought to a good number of his films. Still, Lenzi did on occasion delve into some otherworldly territory and even if his more esoteric efforts aren’t held in the same regard as some of his more renowned titles, they are nonetheless interesting films when viewed in the greater context of Lenzi’s entire body of work. In 1989, both Lenzi and Lucio Fulci signed on to direct two made for TV films under the banner of “The House of Doom”. The House of Witchcraft, Lenzi’s second film for the series is somewhat of a hidden gem and perhaps Lenzi’s most successful attempt at mythical and magical material.

Every night, Luke Palmer is plagued by a reoccurring nightmare. The dream is always the same, with Luke running through the woods into a mysterious house, into the kitchen where he meets a witch who promptly disposes of his head in a boiling cauldron. Following a nervous breakdown, Luke’s wife Martha suggests some time away at an estate Martha rented will do Luke good. Much to Luke’s surprise, the estate happens to be the exact same house from his dreams and sure enough Luke beings seeing the witch around the estate. Feeling uneasy and untrusting of Martha, Luke invites his sister in law Elsa and her daughter to visit and it isn’t long until they too, along with Sharon, the niece of the estates owner, find themselves trapped in a waking nightmare.

For a relatively low-key made for television production, The House of Witchcraft (La casa del sortilegio) is a fairly ambitious and mature endeavor, one which puts a fresh spin on various horror tropes. Even by 1989 the blurring of dreams and reality probably seemed a bit old hat but with the witchcraft angle Lenzi effectively avoids cliché in creating a sort of ambiguous world which may resemble reality yet may also be suspended between the waking and dream world. The film is basically split into three stages with the first two acting as a slow set-up, exploring Luke’s dreams as well as his for all intensive purposes defunct marriage to Martha, a fascinating character who plays a major psychological role in relation to Luke’s constant unease. Lenzi also makes creative use of another well-worn horror device, that being the house with a dark secret which again thanks to the element of witchcraft is given new life. When more characters eventually enter the fray the film essentially becomes a body count movie while all the while retaining its slightly surreal essence. The film is one of Lenzi’s most visually accomplished with the house and its surroundings shrouded in atmosphere with Lenzi wasting none of its potential giving way to such striking imagery like bleeding flowers and a decrepit, dungeon-esque basement suddenly being filled with snow. The witch herself has an interesting look. Perhaps a bit goofy looking at first she gradually becomes more and more grotesque and even a bit unsettling with each appearance.

Italian horror fans should get a kick out of Lenzi’s homage’s to his fellow countrymen during the course of the film, the most obvious being the character of Andrew Mason, the owner of the house the film takes place in, a blind man with a companion German Sheppard, a clear reference to Cinzia Monreale’s character of Emily in Fulci’s The Beyond (1981). Mason was played by the legendary Jess Franco's favorite Paul Muller who would go on to appear later the same year in Lenzi’s Hell Gate (1989). One of the most interesting, and potentially confusing things regarding The House of Witchcraft is its German re-branding as Ghosthouse 4. Although its common knowledge amongst Italian horror fanatics, Lenzi’s film Ghosthouse (1988) is technically part of a series of unrelated films re-titled for their Italian release, the “La casa” (The House) series. The first in that particular series being The Evil Dead (1981) which was released in Italy as La casa. Lenzi’s film was released as the third La casa film with the fourth film to get the La casa tag in Italy being Witchery (1988) staring Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff, also known as Witchcraft, not to be confused with Lenzi’s film! The House of Witchcraft is a proper horror film, one that should be a treat for genre fans looking for something somewhat different, from both Lenzi and films dealing with witchcraft.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Oasis of Fear (1971)

AKA An Ideal Place to Kill (Un posto ideale per uccidere) and Dirty Pictures 

Although he’ll probably forever be best known, and perhaps rightfully so, for the radiation sickness outbreak epic Nightmare City (1980) and notorious cannibal classic Cannibal Ferox (1981), Umberto Lenzi doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the contributions to the giallo field. During the time period in-between Mario Bava’s jumpstarting the genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s opening the floodgates with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Lenzi, along with many other filmmakers, was responsible for several thrillers that would continue to lay the foundations for where the giallo would eventually be headed in the 70’s. Long before the infamy of Salon Kitty (1975) and Caligula (1979), Eurotica maestro Tinto Brass delivered the Antonioni influenced pop art thriller Deadly Sweet (1967) which starrted Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin who would both go on to star in Giulio Questi’s bizarre and utterly singular Death Laid and Egg (1968). Even Lucio Fulci got in the giallo game early on with Perversion Story (1969). That same year also saw Lenzi began his string of erotic jet-set thrillers with the Carroll Baker led Paranoia (1969), So Sweet… So Perverse (1969) and A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) which Lenzi followed up with 1971’s Oasis of Fear, one of his best thrillers and a film which see’s Lenzi putting an interesting spin on previously explored obsessions.

Dick (Ray Lovelock) and Ingrid (Ornella Muti), two young American tourists are financing their trip across Europe by selling pornographic photos of themselves. After running into some trouble with the law in Italy they find themselves with a 24 deadline to leave the country and their luck gets even worse after being ripped off by a gang of bikers, leaving them with no money and no gas. The two eventually stumble upon a seemingly abandoned large estate and in a move of desperation, attempt to siphon gas from a car in the open garage, although they are interrupted by Barbara (Irene Papas), the lady of the house. After explaining their situation, Barbara becomes sympathetic and even invites them to stay and the three have a wild night together. The fun is short lived however as Dick and Ingrid discover Barbara’s reasoning behind keeping them around is far more sinister than what she originally led on.

In many ways Oasis of Fear is a spiritual sequel to Paranoia with Lenzi once again utilizing somewhat of a home invasion angle, although here he reverses the roles with the younger generation being the pawns. Where the films differ is in Lenzi’s toying with audience expectations in regards to characterization. In Paranoia, it was obvious from the get go that Carroll Baker’s character would be the victim and therefore easy to sympathize with. With this film however Lenzi obscures the notions of “good” and bad” a bit, presenting the audience with a bit of a moral conundrum by leaving it out in the open as to whether or not Dick and Ingrid’s way of dealing with their dilemma is the best solution. This is were Lovelock and Muti really excel in their roles, perfectly capturing Dick and Ingrid’s youthful spirit early on in the film and also their naivety when things become dangerous. As Barbara, Papa’s is brilliant as the brooding and mysteries femme fatale with obvious ulterior motives yet there is also a seductive empathy about her which Lenzi exploits to gain a bit of uncomfortable sympathy from the audience due to Dick and Ingrid’s treatment of her. The class warfare and generational gaps between predator and prey that were prominent throughout Paranoia are even more pronounced here and it could be said that Lenzi’s outlook is more nihilistic this time around with the outcome of the film essentially mirroring what would very likely happen in a similar real life situation.

Given the release history of some of Lenzi’s previous thrillers, its only appropriate that Oasis of Fear would have some alternate titles liable to confuse some viewers. The film was released in Italy under the title Un posto ideale per uccidere or An Ideal Place to Kill. This is of course not to be confused with Lenzi’s A Quiet Place to Kill which was also released as Paranoia, not to be confused with Lenzi’s 1969 film Paranoia also known as Orgasmo! Lenzi would return to the giallo fold a few more times following Oasis of Fear, reuniting with Carroll Baker for the excellent Knife of Ice (1972) along with helming two films more in line with the direction the giallo would take as the 70’s moved forward, Seven Bloodstained Orchids (1972) and Eyeball (1975). Then there’s the bizarre Spasmo (1974), Lenzi’s delirious psycho thriller that in many ways almost dares to be classified as a giallo. In between all that Lenzi also found time to plant the seeds for the Italian cannibal film craze with The Man From Deep River (1972) as well as begin a series of films in the Eurocrime genre of which Lenzi is rightfully considered a master of. As far as his giallo/thrillers are concerned, Oasis of Fear is right up there with the best of them with a perfect cast as well as a fairly bleak world view.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Paranoia (1969)

AKA Orgasmo

The world of the Italian horror/thriller has seen many a memorable artist/muse collaboration over the years. One that springs to mind immediately would be the now legendary pairing of Lucio Fulci and Catriona MacColl with the trilogy of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House By the Cemetery (1981). Another obvious one being Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi with Argento giving Nicolodi, his wife for a time, numerous roles in films like Deep Red (1975), Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987). Then of course there’s the king and queen of the giallo, Sergio Martino and Edwige Fenech who defined the subgenre with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). One of the more fruitful director/performer tag-teams to come from the golden age of Italian genre cinema would be Umberto Lenzi and former Hollywood blonde bombshell Carroll Baker, who from 1969 to 1972 made four films together after Baker relocated to Italy following legal troubles and a divorce, Paranoia, So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) and Knife of Ice (1972), with the first of these collaborations, Paranoia, being the best along with being one of the best Italian thrillers to come from this period and one of Lenzi’s finest films.

Kathryn West (Baker), a wealthy jet set widow retires to her estate in Italy following the death of her husband. One afternoon, Kathryn hears a car horn outside the gates and meets Peter Donovan, a young local who’s car has broken down and needs to use the phone. Peter returns later that night and Kathryn aggress to let him stay and the two begin a passionate affair with Peter eventually moving in. Not long after, Kathryn is introduced to Peter’s sister Eva whom Kathryn takes an immediate liking too and she too moves in. At first Kathryn feels reinvigorated, letting go of all her worries and having fun until she returns home one night to find Peter and Eva in bed together. Soon Peter and Eva’s sinister intentions behind befriending Kathryn dawn on her as she finds herself becoming a plaything for the two incestuous sadists amusement.

Featuring dialogue like “One has to be afraid of everything these days, especially when one’s happy” and “When I think of myself I want to vomit. But I’m happy because I realize it”, Lenzi makes no attempt to hide his nihilism throughout the course of Paranoia. Even by Lenzi standards Paranoia is a pessimistic gem, shining a light, albeit a highly eroticized and pulpy one, on some of the rotten things human beings are capable of doing to each other. As a thriller, the film works for all the obvious reasons although what’s interesting is that there really isn’t a sense of mystery to the film setting aside Peter and Eva’s end goals. Virtually every advertisement for the film made it glaringly obvious that Peter and Eva aren’t what they seem and in any other film a similar storyline probably wouldn’t have much momentum however in the case of Paranoia its what gives the film its wheels. This is mainly thanks to the wonderful performance of Carroll Baker who is sympathetic from the start of the film and only gets more so as the film becomes more mean spirited. Baker perfectly captured the devolution of Kathryn’s psychical and more importantly, mental state which Lenzi also perfectly translated visually by deliriously liberal use of the zoom lens. What also makes the film interesting is that underneath the main plot is a none too subtle element of class warfare and generational gaps which Lenzi would explore again in the similarly themed Oasis of Fear (1971).  

Paranoia is one of several Lenzi films that has a tendency to confuse some newcomers to the world of European cult cinema based on its title. The film was originally released in Italy as Orgasmo (Orgasm), however once it entered overseas markets the films title was later changed to Paranoia. One year later following this film and So Sweet… So Perverse, Lenzi and Baker teamed up again for what was originally released in Italy as Paranoia later became A Quiet Place to Kill. This particular re-titling can lead to some confusion of its own as the aforementioned Oasis of Fear is also known as An Ideal Place to Kill! Lenzi would encounter the re-title again and sometimes ironically as when his TV movie The House of Witchcraft (1989), part of the House of Doom project Lenzi did along with Lucio Fulci was released in Germany as Ghosthouse 4, despite having absolutely nothing to do Lenzi’s original Ghosthouse (1988). Then there was Lenzi’s underrated voodoo/zombie mash-up Black Demons (1991) which was renamed Dèmoni 3 and marketed as the third film in Lamberto Bava’s Demons series. Regardless of its title, what’s certain is that Paranoia or Orgasmo is a special film from an unusual yet surprisingly simpatico director/actress collaboration. Sexy, stylish, more than a bit misanthropic and featuring what has to be one of Carroll Baker's finest performances, Paranoia is unquestionably an essential Lenzi title.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Scorpion With Two Tails (1982)

AKA Assassinio al cimitero etrusco (Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery)

From 1971 to 1973, Sergio Martino was on a serious role, establishing himself as the king of the giallo. Together with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, Marino helmed the genre defining masterpieces The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and Torso (1973). Gastaldi and Marino continued to collaborate although either out of boredom with the genre or fear of burnout, Martino began to move away from giallo films and began working in a plethora of other genres like Euro crime with The Violent Professionals (1973) and Gambling City (1975), spaghetti westerns with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977), the cannibal epic Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), and creature features such as Island of the Fishmen (1979) and The Big Alligator River (1979), several of which feature writing by Gastaldi. In 1982, Martino and Gastaldi, along with fellow legendary screenwriter, former Lucio Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti, teamed up for Scorpion With Two Tails, somewhat of a return to the giallo for Martino but with a (literal) twist. Originally conceived as a mini-series then later edited down to a theatrical feature, Scorpion With Two Tails is often dismissed as a lesser Martino film when in fact its one of Marino’s most interesting and a unique spin on the giallo.

Soon after discovering a previously unheard of Etruscan tomb, Arthur Barnard, an esteemed archeologist is murdered by having his head twisted backwards, an ancient Etruscan method of murder. Prior to his death, Arthur’s wife Joan had a dream involving a ritualistic sacrificial ceremony taking place in the exact same tomb Arthur had discovered. Joan, along with two of her late husband’s colleges travel to Italy and come to find out that while in the tomb, Arthur uncovered a crate, the contents of which were very lucrative and not for Arthur’s eyes. Dissatisfied with the way to police handled Arthur’s murder, Joan decides to stay in Italy to so some investigating of her own and soon finds herself in the middle of a mysterious plot involving murder, drug smuggling and an ancient Etruscan treasure as well as coming to the realization that she may have more in common with the ancient Etruscans than simply knowing the language.

A strange mix of giallo, Euro crime and supernatural horror, there certainly is a lot to digest at once with Scorpion With Two Tails. Given that the film originated as a much longer mini-series, there are some points in the film where it becomes apparent that certain things were trimmed for time, for instance a very important subplot ending rather abruptly, however in the end Martino has the film come full circle with most of the loose ends being tied up. The things that are left unexplained mainly pertain to the films supernatural side and is here where the film really becomes interesting. Despite it being fairly obvious that Joan has some sort of connection to the ancient Etruscans, Martino wisely leaves it a mystery as to whether or not she actually is supernaturally inclined which leads to many a surreal moment expertly rendered by Martino in an appropriately dreamy fashion and often involving the memorable use of maggots. Of course being centered around the ancient Etruscans the film is ripe with stunning locations, the main tomb is an astounding site and Martino wastes none of its potential, particularly during the finale. What’s also unique about the film is the blending of various subgenres with the giallo/murder mystery elements leading to the more esoteric side of the film while the crime subplot makes both a bit more engaging and never once does one trip over the other which is again surprising considering that many things had to be omitted for a theatrical release.

The final theatrical edit of the film received several VHS releases around the world over the years and finally a DVD release from Mya Communications in 2006, however the original TV version has yet to be seen anywhere. As a bonus, the DVD included a few excerpts from the TV version which includes more screen time for the legendary John Saxon who plays Arthur. One of the many complaints leveled at the film is Saxon’s bit part and while more John Saxon is always a good thing, for the sake of the narrative his character had to be killed off early in the film so even if he was in the TV version longer he still probably wouldn’t have made it that much longer anyway. Lead actress Elvire Audray in the role of Joan is another big target of negative criticism. Her dubbing may be a bit off (not exactly her fault) but otherwise her performance was more than appropriate as she appears to be in a delirious state a good portion of the time which fit her character. For whatever reason, Martino signed the film with his “Christian Plummer” pseudonym. Perhaps he was unhappy with the final edit of the film but its hardly a film to be ashamed of. True, its not like his earlier giallos but its something a bit different and a good melding of distinctly European genre styles.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977)

Quite possibly Italy’s most popular contribution to the world cinema landscape, the spaghetti western was certainly one of the most lucrative subgenres to be born during a time of intense productivity in the Italian film world. There may have been an innumerable amount of films made in other popular Italian genres, namely giallo and poliziotteschi, but in terms of the sheer volume of films made during a specific time period, the spaghetti western trumps them all. While there were European westerns made before, clearly the film that jumpstarted the Italian western craze was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and from then on until the mid to late 70’s it seems as if virtually every Italian director tried they're hand at the western genre. This included many who would go onto to become horror maestro’s such as Giulio Questi, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi. Dario Argento even received a writing credit on Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Being the gene chameleon he is, naturally Sergio Martino spent some time in the wild west. Following his two mondo oddities Wages of Sin (1969) and Naked and Violent (1970), Martino made his narrative film debut with Arizona Colt Returns (1970) and would return to the west 7 years later with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, one of the best and more unusual films the spaghetti western genre has to offer.

A mysterious, hatchet wielding bounty hunter ominously known as “Blade” (Maurizio Merli) arrives in Suttonville, a corrupt mining town to collect the reward money for capturing a wanted man. Almost immediately after arriving however Blade runs afoul of Theo Voller (John Steiner), the ruthless right hand man to Ed McGowan, who rules both the mines and the town with a fanatically religious iron fist. Blade confronts McGowan, although things aren’t what they seem as Voller is soon discovered to be disloyal, kidnapping McGowan’s daughter with plans to take over the town which prompts McGowan to plead with Blade to deliver the ransom money Voller is demanding in order to save his daughter. Reluctantly, Blade agrees and sets out to get rid of Voller all the while confronting his own personal demons.

Mannaja is a deceptively unconventional film. To be sure, as far as western canon is concerned, Martino covers quite a few of the bases with the character of Blade being a fairly archetypical western hero, i.e. the mysterious nomadic drifter with a dark past who’s arrival disrupts the order of the town, plenty of bandits (which leads to a brilliantly composed stagecoach ambush) and vendetta’s to be settled. At the same time however Martino makes the genre his own and what really sets Mannaja apart from the majority of westerns, spaghetti or otherwise, is its mood, visual design and atmosphere. There is downbeat esotericism to the film with the preverbal dark cloud trailing both behind and in front of Blade and Martino essentially lenses the film as if it were a horror film which gives the film an air of surreality, with the town of Suttonville shrouded in rain, fog and copious amounts of mud. In proper western fashion, it’s a landscape as unforgiving as its inhabitants and one particularly unforgettable method of torture employed in the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jodorowsky or Arrabal film. Martino also masterfully utilizes slow-motion during the films memorable opening and a haunting shot of a near death driver manning the aforementioned stagecoach. A literal “phantom carriage” so to speak. The films odd theme song also bears mention as it features some of the most bizarre vocal styling’s heard in any spaghetti western theme song fitting in perfectly with the films other offbeat tendencies.

By the time Mannaja was made the spaghetti western was beginning to decline and interestingly Mannaja was one of the very last spaghetti westerns made. Martino assumes it was either the second to last or the very last of the cycle that began in the 60’s. Martino also insists that his casting of Maurizio Merli was not simply because of Merli’s resemblance to Franco Nero, a common criticism but rather because Merli was also an established genre star and was the right fit for the role of Blade. Martino has also explained that the films unique visual design relied heavily on environmental factors as the film was shot at Elios Studios near Manziana which was in a state of decay and rather than spend the money to repair it, Marino shot it as is which allowed him, in his own words, to portray a "ghost town". The weather also played a major hand with the constant rainfall leading to even more mud and fog. Despite the technical difficulties the area posed, in the end it contributed to the films singular look and feel. Despite being made when the spaghetti western was beginning to die off, Mannaja doesn’t at all feel like the product of a dying era. Thanks to Martino’s original stylistic approach and the films interesting tone, Mannaja is a must see for spaghetti western fans and a fairly essential Martino title.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Naked and Violent (1970)

AKA America così nuda, così violenta (America So Naked, So Violent)

Although pre-dated by the cautionary films from the 1930’s and 40’s such as Reefer Madness (1936) and Mom and Dad (1945), the “mondo” film is nonetheless one of the oldest subgenres in the exploitation field. Generally speaking, the mondo film in its classic form is very much an Italian creation with the main men responsible being Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara with their film Mondo Cane (1962), which caused a sensation worldwide and spawned numerous imitators. While Jacopetti and Prosperi continued to steer the ship with other infamous films like Africa Addio (1966) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), more Italian directors decided to throw their hat in the mondo ring such as the Castiglioni brothers Angelo and Alfredo with their series of African based mondos and Antonio Climati and Mario Morra with their “savage trilogy”. Of course there are other international examples of films that came in the wake of mondos, perhaps the most infamous being the Faces of Death series which in turn led numerous similarly themed imitators, however by and large, the exploitation documentary market was cornered by the Italians. Sergio Martino, an Italian master, began his directorial career in the mondo genre with Wages of Sin (1969) which he quickly followed-up with Naked and Violent, a stand out film in the mondo genre for its setting but also for being of the most bizarre films of its type.

Unlike other Italian mondo films of the time which mainly focused on Africa or other exotic locations, Naked and Violent is a travelogue across the United States casting its leery and often scandalous eye on a variety of topics ranging from the homeless, living conditions of the elderly, the hedonism of Las Vegas, hippies and the anti-Vietnam war movement, race relations, the sexual practices of the bored bourgeois, fringe religions, bikers, the plight of Native Americans and everything in between.

Taken at face value, Naked and Violent probably comes across as cynical and crass and in truth it is, however like the majority of mondo films the manner in which it approaches its subjects is so hyper sensational and over the top its impossible to take completely seriously. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that a good portion of what the film presents is accurate, although it becomes a guessing game of what is and isn’t as the film also makes use of another mondo trait, staged scenes. More often than not its fairly obvious to figure out what was staged, for instance the crew following the police to the scene of a “suicide”, a gang of rednecks attacking a black man or a hippie cutting off his fingers as to avoid the draft. There are however scenes in the film who’s authenticity is a tad more ambiguous. What really sets the film apart from other mondo’s is its sheer oddness with some “exposes” being so strange they almost cross over into surreal territory such as an African tribal ceremony being performed in New York City, a man getting close with a rather frightening looking blow-up doll, a bourgeois orgy where all the participants dawn grotesque masks and the obligatory satanic ritual featuring a sacrificial chicken. Of course there is “lighter” material like young hippies being “rented” by bored middle class ladies for a weekend rendezvous and the condescending Italian narration throughout makes everything a bit more humorous.

There are those who will no doubt be quick to label the film racially insensitive although such reactions are quickly dismissed considering Martino’s condemnation of the bastardization of Polynesian culture in Hawaii for tourism purposes, and the film does paint a fairly sensitive portrait of the struggle of the American Indian. Plus those with racist beliefs shown in the film are generally portrayed as backwards thinking and ignorant. Its bears mentioning that the film was scored by Bruno Nicolai who would go on to score Martino’s Arizona Colt Returns (1970), The Case of the Scorpions Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). Jess Franco fans will immediately recognize cues from Nicolai’s soundtrack for Franco’s Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) reused here during the satanic ritual which, despite being recycled was a perfect choice. Naked and Violent isn’t mentioned all that often despite having an official DVD release from Mya Communications. Like all mondo’s its bound to incite some sort of reaction, never apathy. Its an interesting look into Martino’s pre-giallo days and a fascinatingly weird film in general especially when compared to other mondo films. Those looking for a serious Italian critique of early 70’s America should know better, however as an exploitative freak show, Naked and Violent has all the bases covered.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Maps to the Stars (2014)

One of David Cronenberg’s biggest strengths as a filmmaker has always been the ability to contort reality by introducing slightly futuristic concepts into what were otherwise fairly real world situations. In early films like Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), a man made parasite and surgical advances caused an outbreak of sexual mania and a unique form of vampyrism of sorts. With Videodrome (1983), technology really came to the forefront with the “watching is better than living” idea of television causing hallucinations, an idea Cronenberg would expand upon using video games and virtual reality in eXistenZ (1999). While not a “genre” film per-say, the fetishization of metal colliding with flesh in Crash (1996) also has a slight sci-fi bend to it. Psychology has always been of the biggest weapons in Cronenberg’s armory and with films like Dead Ringers (1988), Spider (2002) and A History of Violence (2005), it’s the psychology of the characters that distort the perceptions of what’s real and unreal with the protagonists of said films either living in their own self-created realities or slowing slipping into one. Maps to the Stars is a logical continuation of films like Spider, A History of Violence and Cosmopolis (2012), shining a darkly humorous and at times uncomfortable light into the minds and worlds of the Hollywood elite in what has to be one of Cronenberg’s most demented films and easily his best since Spider.

Fresh off a lengthy stay in a mental asylum, Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a badly burned schizophrenic arrives in Hollywood. Thanks to an online correspondence with Carrie Fisher, Agatha is able to land a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging starlet desperate to land a role in a biopic playing the part of her dead mother, a former actress who’s ghost constantly haunts Havana. Pop psychotherapist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the father of both Agatha and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13 year old child star and recovering addict, doesn’t take too kindly to the news of his estranged daughters arrival in town as it threatens to let known a dark secret, the consequences of which would spell disaster for all involved.

If Mulholland Drive (2001) was David Lynch’s love letter to Hollywood then Maps to the Stars could be considered Cronenberg’s break up letter. While its true that Cronenberg gleefully gives tinsel town and the big personalities it can create a proper skewering, saying that the film is solely about Hollywood would be selling the film short. By and large, Cronenberg seems more interested in exploring the self-involved, insular worlds these characters have created for themselves. Its not always a pretty picture, with there seemingly being no low any of the characters won’t sink too which is where the film gets its perverse sense of humor from with several moments that are sure to make many question whether to laugh or cringe. As funny as the film is, there is also an element of Greek tragedy to it all with the final moments of the film being equally touching as it is twisted. Cronenberg also has the film take the occasional foray into hallucinatory territory with multiple characters seeing visions of the departed and his use of schizophrenia here is interesting when contrasted to how the condition was portrayed, although never named, in a past film. The performances are all around brilliant with Moore being more than deserving of her best actress award at Cannes by relishing in Havana’s despicable nature, but stealing the show with ease is Evan Bird as the egotistical rotten little bastard child star who’s deadpan delivery of many of the films best, awkwardly hilarious lines is just pitch perfect.

Longtime Cronenberg fans will no doubt spot the films connection to The Brood (1979) by way of Stafford Weiss’ very psychical approach to psychotherapy which echoes the psychoplasmic practices of Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood. Cronenberg also has a wink to his previous film Cosmopolis by casting Robert Pattinson (which is sure to hilariously irritate the same people that scoffed at his casting in Cosmopolis) in a role as a limo driver as opposed to having him reside in the backseat of one for the majority of the film ala Cosmopolis. Much like Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars was a hard sell with Cronenberg trying unsuccessfully for several years to get it made. Cronenberg stated “…it's a very difficult film to get made as was Cosmopolis actually. Whether I can get this movie to happen, I tried it five years ago, I couldn't get it made, so I still might not be able to get it made." and Maps To The Stars is very extreme. It's not obviously a very big commercial movie, and even as an independent film it's difficult.” So perhaps it could be considered a miracle that it did get made as its yet another example of Cronenberg’s ability to still make films that are not only as off center and challenging as his classic work but wipe the floor with the dreck that passes for cinema these days.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Night in Nude: Salvation (2010)

The cinematic landscape of Takashi Ishii is filled with several reoccurring motifs whether they be represented visually via his obsession with torrential rainfall and neon drenched lighting which are found in virtually everyone of his films, or thematically, for instance his predilection for sadomasochism in films such as Flower and Snake (2004) and Sweet Whip (2013). One particular idea that Ishii is constantly exploring no matter what genre he may be working in is just how rotten the human race can be to itself and there is a great sadness running throughout all his work. Ishii has never shied away exposing the physical and psychological trauma humans inflict on each other and more often than not its women who are on the receiving end of the abuse. This has led to many westerners dismissing Ishii as a misogynist while in Japan Ishii is applauded by many feminists and its easy to see why, as all of Ishii’s films are incredibly heartfelt and it should be glaringly obvious that Ishii is always on the side of his female protagonists as evidenced by films like Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988), Freeze Me (2000) and Sweet Whip. A Night in Nude: Salvation, Ishii’s sequel to A Night in Nude (1993), is one of Ishii’s most potent plunges into the abyss of human cruelty and yet another example of Ishii’s sensitivity while dealing with wounded female psyches.

Jiro (Naoto Takenaka), an odd job man willing to take on any task depending on the payment, is approached by Ren (Hiroko Sato), a young woman asking him to locate a missing Rolex. Although skeptical of her story, that the watch was accidentally dropped out of a helicopter while scattering her late fathers ashes, Jiro accepts and finds the watch. Impressed by Jiro's never asking questions, Ren goes to him again for another job, to locate the whereabouts of a missing girl named Tae whom Ren credits with having saved her life. Jiro once again accepts and the further he gets into his investigation of Tae, the more over his head he finds himself in Ren and her family’s strange and dangerous world of sex and murder.

To the uninitiated, A Night in Nude: Salvation (Nûdo no yoru: Ai wa oshiminaku ubau, ヌードの夜 愛は惜しみなく奪う) will probably seem like a barrage of nihilism and exploitation and there is quite a bit of truth to that idea. The film is one of Ishii’s bleakest projections of his worldview, presenting a vision of Japan where the rain never stops, human bodies are nothing more than a form of currency and the concept of family is perverted and synonymous with nothing but suffering. At the same time, those already familiar with Ishii will recognize an attempt at understanding the behavior of the characters, specifically Ren. Ren is one of the Ishii’s most tormented creations and the more time Ishii spotlights her family, the more her reasoning becomes apparent which makes the involvement of Jiro all the more gripping and ultimately tragic. Ishii’s way of setting up the story is a bit deceptive with the mystery of Tae quickly revealing itself to not be much of a mystery at all. Instead of loosing its momentum, Ishii’s letting the audience know more than the characters beforehand gives the film even more, with the mystery being how will the main players react to certain situations and just what depths will they sink too. The sheer bizarreness of Jiro’s journey down the rabbit hole make the film all the more fascinating and Ishii even finds time for some pitch black humor thanks to the lunatic antics of Ren’s family and their nonchalant attitudes towards some fairly risky activities.

In what instantly became one of the most infamous moments in Ishii’s oeuvre and a make a break factor for many viewers, Ishii has lead actress Hiroko Sato repeatedly flagellate herself for an extended period of time. It’s an exhausting sequence and while many have complained about the length and indulgence of the scene, Ishii brilliantly uses the scene to give a glimpse into Ren’s state of mind and the harrowing voice-overs heard throughout make it a scene of immense self-loathing and emotional purging. The scene is not only a testament to Ishii’s unique way of handling some pretty loaded subject matter but also the phenomenal performance of Hiroko Sato who follows in the footsteps of a long line of fearless actresses like Harumi Inoue (who appears here as one of Ren’s demented sisters), Aya Sugimoto and Mai Kitajima who’ve gone through the psychical and psychological ringer for Ishii with astonishing results. As good as Naoto Takenaka is in his 9th role for Ishii reprising his role as Jiro the handyman from Ishii’s first Night in Nude, as is often the case in an Ishii film, it’s the female who gets center stage and Sato leaves a lasting impression. Despite being a sequel, A Night in Nude: Salvation works perfectly on its own and is further proof of Ishii’s willingness to go to places most contemporary directors don’t have the nerve to go.

Monday, July 25, 2016

One Missed Call (2003)

Its funny how trends come and go in the horror genre. These days, its hollow patchwork "homage" films and remakes of classics and it would appear that Hollywood has gotten so bored of remaking films that have passed the 30 year range that plans are in motion to remake films from the 90’s. In the late 90’s and mid to early 2000’s however, Asian horror was all the rage. Clearly the most popular country of origin during the Asian horror boom was Japan and in particular Japanese films belonging to that specific faction of J-horror dealing with vengeful poltergeists with the most popular examples being the Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge) series of films and of course their Americanized remakes that just had to follow. While Takashi Miike is rightfully considered a master of Japanese horror, he interestingly chose to stay away from these types of films for the most part with his horror films from around the time period covering a wide variety of styles from the dramatic Audition (1999), to the over the top zombie/musical/comedy hybrid The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and the surreal and abstract Gozu (2003). Miike did eventually throw his hat in J-horror ghost story ring in 2003 with One Missed Call, a film that hits all the right notes of the subgenre making it stand out in a crowded sea of similarly themed films.

Yumi, a young psychology student witnesses her friend Yoko receive a missed call notice on her cell phone. Strangely, the call was dated two days in the future and sent from Yoko’s own number and the voice on the message appears to be Yoko’s own, in mid-conversation before letting out a blood-curdling scream. Two days later while walking home and talking to Yumi on her cell, Yoko is suddenly killed by an oncoming train. Not long after, another friend of Yumi’s confesses to getting the same missed call notice and is immediately killed in front of Yumi which is followed yet again by another one of Yumi’s friends receiving the call. Yumi eventually meets Yamashita, who’s sister was one of the first victims of the cursed call and soon enough Yumi too gets the call as the two set out to uncover the origin behind the calls in hopes of saving Yumi from the fate of her friends.

Although relatively straightforward on the surface, One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, 着信アリ) could nevertheless be interpreted in a few ways. Detractors of the film dismiss it as a mere Ringu rip off while others see the film as a parody of the J-horror craze of the time. The later is somewhat understandable given the films almost hilariously familiar trajectory as similar films however the film seems more like a deconstruction of J-horror, as if Miike took all the familiar tropes of the subgenre that were prevalent at the dawn of the new millennium and said “Now this is how its done!” and therefore as a stand alone horror film, One Missed Call knocks it out of the park. Despite being one of Miike’s more commercially minded films when compared to the likes of Ichi the Killer (2001) or Visitor Q (2001), the film isn’t exactly lighthearted even with some well placed humorous commentary on the media and one very over the top death scene. Much like Audition and even Imprint (2006), there is a feeling of great sadness that hovers over the entire film with virtually every character dealing with some kind of past trauma and Miike finds a way to brilliantly fuse Yumi’s tragic past with the exceptionally grim origin of the cursed phone calls which culminates in a scene which turns from horrifying to heartbreaking in a matter of seconds. This overwhelming gloom is further emphasized by the films equally bleak visual design and a general feeling of unease and unusualness.

Yasushi Akimoto's novel, the cover
of which was the basis for the poster
art for the American remake.
Considering its subject matter and the time period in which it was released, its almost as if Miike was begging an American studio to remake the film which is exactly what happened in 2008 which funnily enough was a few years after the J-horror craze in the west began to cool off a bit. Unsurprisingly the remake is considered a failure in pretty much every area and is normally classified as one of the worst American remakes of a Japanese film. In Japan the original film spawned two sequels although Miike didn’t return to direct any of them. What’s also interesting is that while the film is technically based on a novel by Yasushi Akimoto, the script for the film and the book were written side by side with both differing from each other in various ways. According to Miike, he was forced to make some compromises while making the film and that if he had it his way the film would have probably turned out more in the vein of Gozu. Nevertheless the film still retains several of Miike’s signatures and again manages to do something personal even with the tried and true premise. Definitely one of the best films J-horror has to offer and a peculiar film for Miike that, despite its relative lack of eccentricities normally associated with Miike, still fits right in with many of his other horror films.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Crimes of Passion (1984)

While there have been exceptions, for the better part of the past 20 or so years it seems as if Hollywood and American films in general have stopped caring about taking chances in terms of material, choosing to stay stagnant in a sterile CGI/green screen rut. It might seem strange that there was once a point in time however when a Hollywood film with several million dollars behind it could cause a major stir, draw the ire of the MPAA and be completely subversive. Paul Verhoeven for example had this down to a science with films like RoboCop (1987), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), films infamous for their content but for their intelligence as well. William Friedkin’s notorious Cruising (1980) also immediately springs to mind. So its not entirely surprising that Ken Russell would be invited to Hollywood to make Altered States (1980), although Russell’s reputation as a result of his clashes with Paddy Chayefsky who adapted to screenplay from his own novel not only led to Chayefsky taking his name off the film, in the process Russell found himself becoming a persona non grata of sorts in Hollywood. Never one to let reputation get in the way, Russell again managed to cause a major fuss with his follow-up to Altered States, 1984’s Crimes of Passion, one of Russell’s most outrageous films and at the same time one of his most heartfelt.

Electronics salesman Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) is hired by a fashion designer to do some nighttime surveillance trailing one of his employees, Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) whom he believes is stealing from him. While following Joanna, a serious, no nonsense business woman by day, Bobby is shocked to learn that at night Joanna takes to the streets as China Blue, a sharp tongued prostitute willing to fulfill any fantasy. Bobby, who’s marriage to his high school sweetheart Amy is in shambles, pays Joanna, as China Blue, a personal visit and soon finds himself falling for the real Joanna, all the while Joanna is being relentlessly pursued by reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a psychotic preacher obsessed with “saving” her.

Crimes of Passion is a blunt as a film can be in the way it presents it ideas yet at the same time can still be a bit difficult to get a read on in that while its subject matter is incredibly heavy, this is also a Ken Russell film filled to the brim with bizarre and flamboyant moments. On a purely surface level, this is a film about sex, however deep down its really a film about fear. Bobby’s fear of admitting his marriage has lost whatever spark it may have had, Amy’s fear of admitting her lack of interest in sex and Joanna’s fear of being herself and letting anyone into her life in an intimate manner outside of her China Blue persona. Its these things which give the film its heart, particularly in the dialogue department. The discussions of sex are frank and at times awkward yet purposely so, for instance in a brilliantly performed scene between Bobby and Amy where the two are finally honest with each other for the first time in what seems like ages. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the back and fourths between China Blue and Reverend Shayne, which are just fierce but also darkly comic and the film does have a tendency to bounce back and forth between being a serious drama, erotic thriller and absurdist comedy and the later takes over every time Perkins is on screen in one of the most hilariously deranged performance ever captured on film.

Russell would return to similar territory and controversy later in his career with Whore (1991) which in many ways could be seen as somewhat of a sequel to Crimes of Passion with its pull no punches look at the life of a streetwalker mixed with the occasional moment of Russell oddness, although nothing that comes close to the lunacy that is Perkins in Crimes of Passion. Whore also features a typically fearless performance from Theresa Russell just as Crimes of Passion features Kathleen Tuner in one of her most iconic and greatest roles, no hyperbole. Aesthetically however the films are worlds apart with Whore being no frills and shot documentary style whereas Crimes of Passion is smothered in flashy neon lighting and 80’s kitsch even featuring a random moment of classic Russell surrealism represented by a television commercial and the film is equally defined by its gloriously 80’s synth score via Rick Wakeman. Despite the controversy surrounding the film upon its original release, it would appear that the film has been somewhat forgotten about over the years especially when compared to other Russell titles like Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) or Tommy (1975) just to name a few. Both perverted and poignant with astounding performances from Turner and Perkins, Crimes of Passion is a quintessentially Russell experience and deserves to hailed as one of his best films and a 80’s highlight.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Door into Silence (1991)

Popular consensus seems to dictate that the 90’s were a down time for horror following the massive boom of the 70’s and 80’s. Italian horror found itself in a particularly interesting place at the dawn of the 90’s with many fans feeling that as the 80’s drew to a close, the Italian horror industry began to decline, despite the emergence of new blood like Michele Soavi and films like Stage Fright (1987) and The Church (1989) and Gianfranco Giagni’s The Spider Labyrinth (1988). While Dario Argento remained on top in terms of popularity and box office draw, other Italian masters like Sergio Martino began to move away from horror and concentrate on TV work while others like Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi continued to make horror films going into the 90’s only to basically retire from features by the mid-90’s. Despite numerous health setbacks, Lucio Fulci stayed the course throughout the 80’s and going into the 90’s. Even though his post-New York Ripper (1982) films are often looked down upon, several of Fulci’s films from this period are nonetheless interesting and some rather personal, A Cat In the Brain (1990) immediately springs to mind. Although it wasn’t intended to be, 1991’s Door into Silence would eerily and prophetically wind up being Fulci’s final film and its an effective, low key little chiller that essentially see’s Fulci looking the inevitable right in the eyes.

After a pit stop to visit his fathers grave, real estate agent Melvin Devereux (John Savage) sets out on his return home to his wife following a business trip in New Orleans. With the main highway closed, Melvin is forced to take the back roads and along the way encounters a hearse which no matter how hard he tries is unable to pass. Melvin’s trip home soon take a turn for the unusual as he discovers a mysterious woman following him who claims to be “waiting” for him and begins to find himself in one strange situation after another. The more Melvin confronts the hearse on the road, the more obsessed he becomes with the contents of the casket inside, gradually turning his journey into a waking nightmare.

Door into Silence is often negatively compared to a feature length Twilight Zone episode and although those comparisons are dismissive of the film they're somewhat accurate in terms of the films trajectory. Much like a Twilight Zone episode, the film beings with a typical, everyday situation and gradually takes a turn for the freighting and its precisely what makes the film work as well as it does, Fulci’s turning of the mundane into something surreal. Stylistically, the film is an exercise in minimalism. There are long stretches of time in the film where seemingly nothing happens except Melvin driving, however Fulci uses these moments to really let the increasingly bizarre nature of Melvin’s day sink in. A common criticism of the film is its lack of mystery and its true that its fairly obvious where the film is headed but in a way Fulci makes it glairing apparent from the first few frames of the film. In the end, this is a film where the answer of where its heading is far less important than the way the question is asked, and Fulci poses the question in a variety of interesting ways. To his credit, Fulci also does pepper the film with instances which may make some question the films ultimate destination so its not entirely out in the open. The film was shot on location on the back roads and small towns of southern Louisiana, a place with a mystique unique unto itself making the eerie mood of the film very naturalistic.

The film was produced by Joe D’Amato’s Filmirage company who, amongst other things, also produced the infamous Troll 2 (1990) and if some of the music in the film sounds familiar its because certain pieces were lifted from Troll 2 although they’re quite effective here and surprisingly don’t clash with the phenomenal jazz music that makes up the rest of the score. Interestingly, D’Amato muse, Black Emmanuelle herself, Laura Gemser, is credited as the costume designer for the film just as she was for Troll 2. While D’Amato went on record saying the film was the best he produced, the film was barley released and where it was it was tinkered with by distributors who changed the music much to Fulci’s disappointment. The opening credits also read “Directed by H. Simon Kittay” as according to Fulci, one of the films distributors felt that Fulci wasn’t an in demand name at the time therefore nobody would want to see the film. Another fun fact, star John Savage and actress Sandi Schultz who plays the mystery women in the film were married in 1993. While Door into Silence may seem worlds apart from Fulci’s more famous horror titles, its nonetheless an interesting watch not simply because it was Fulci’s final film but also in the way it sees Fulci exploring a heavy subject that was clearly on his mind quite a bit at the time.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Demonia (1990)

AKA Liza

The mid to late 80’s going into the 90’s weren’t the easiest of times for Lucio Fulci. From 1971 to 1982 Fulci was on a serious role, with seemingly one classic after another ranging from giallos like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), the brilliant spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse (1975), and of course his string of horror masterpieces Zombie (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), The House By the Cemetery (1981) and The New York Ripper (1982). During the mid’80’s, Fulci became seriously ill and numerous heath problems would plague him for the rest of his life and there is a prevailing opinion that just like Fulci’s health, his films from this period also began to decline. Fulci would again fall ill during the filming of Zombi 3 (1988), his intended sequel to Zombie forcing exploitation stalwart Bruno Mattei to complete the film, its disastrous reputation now legendary. 1990’s Demonia was envisioned by Fulci as a comeback film of sorts, a supernatural horror film in the vein of his early 80’s classics featuring elements of the nunsploitation subgenre. Unfortunately the film failed to connect with viewers and is often cited as being one of Fulci’s worst films. A hyperbolic statement for sure as Demonia is a much more interesting film than its critics are willing to give it credit for.      

While in Sicily researching the ancient Greeks, Liza, a member of a team of archeologists finds herself drawn to an old monastery and while exploring discovers the remains of five crucified corpses. Already unwelcome by the superstitious locals, Liza faces even more hostility when inquiring about the monastery and is warned by the leader of her team to stay away. After being approached by a strange woman, Liza soon learns that the monastery was once home to five nuns who made a pact with Satan and were executed for their heresy by being crucified and burned at the stake, and Liza’s entering of the crypt has awakened their spirits who begin enacting their revenge on the current residents of the village.

If there’s one thing that’s bound to hold Demonia back in the eyes of many its that Fulci was clearly going for the same vibe found in films like City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, however the overwhelming sense of apocalypse that defined those films just isn’t present in Demonia. That’s not to say that the film is without mood. On the contrary, the film is defined by a feeling of oddness from very early on and the quintessential Fulci irrationality is ever present. Interestingly, the history of the nuns and the cursed monastery is detailed at great length yet Fulci still leaves enough room for some left over mystery. Another thing that is often mentioned as a negative is the films slow pacing with most of the “action” so to speak, involving the vengeful nuns reserved for the very end however this too works in the films favor in the sense that it plays out like a hazy, unusual sleepwalking session. The utter randomness of some of the scenarios also gives the film a feeling of surreality including a very memorable death scene involving a man being split in two halves by two trees. The films photography is also a main complaint for many, even Fulci himself claimed the film was ruined by it although the locations are stunning, particular the monastery and the interiors of the nuns crypt and Fulci adds some neat post production filtering during some dream sequences featuring Liza wandering near the monastery to hypnotizing effect.

Considering the circumstances, it’s a miracle the film was even completed at all. According to actor Grady Thomas Clarkson in an interview with horror writer Alan Jones for Eyeball, the production was bound to be a mess long before shooting began. Clarkson recounts that miscommunication was common due to none of the American actors being able to understand Fulci’s broken English and in a hilarious anecdote, Clarkson gives an example of just how low the films budget was due to the fact that the alcohol seen in the film was really ice tea and nobody was allowed to swallow it in order to avoid having to spend more money buying more tea, forcing Clarkson to ask “What sort of film are you making where you have to be fake drinking fake booze?!” In the piece Clarkson also recalls almost being killed for real during his death scene and just hammering the point home that Murphy’s law was in full effect during the shooting of the film. Still, despite all that went wrong, Demonia is far from Fulci’s worst film. Fulci fans who’ve put off seeing the film based on bad press should go in with an open mind. Let films like City of the Living Dead and The Beyond be what they are and let Demonia be what it is, which is a fun supernatural horror film with a welcome spoonful of nunsploitaion.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Fiancée of Dracula (2002)

Both Jean Rollin and Jess Franco are often mentioned in the same breath by both fans and critics of Euro cult cinema and the connection is understandable. While there are numerous differences in the way both approached filmmaking, there are some striking similarities which make the two kindred spirits. Rollin finishing the notorious Zombie Lake (1981) after Franco had abandoned the project not withstanding. A journey through the filmographies of both Rollin and Franco sees the gradual formation of personal cinematic worlds in which both relished retreating into with both returning time and time again to similar ideas, both thematically and visually, locations, obsessions and in several cases casting the same actors. In Rollin’s case, some of the usual suspects would be the constant use of two females as protagonists, cemeteries, the Dieppe beach, childhood nostalgia and of course, vampires. Despite Rollin’s and Franco’s constant returning to similar material never did it seem redundant. No matter how familiar the subject matter seemed both always approached it from a different angle and by the time the new millennium had arrived both men’s biggest influence had essentially become themselves with each film becoming more and more self-referential. Rollin followed up his return to the vampire subgenre, Two Orphan Vampires (1997) with Fiancée of Dracula, one of Rollin’s most surreal works and a film that once again finds Rollin drawing on his past is fresh ways.

While staking out a cemetery, a vampire expert professor and his assistant Thibault witness a dwarf calling upon his vampire lover and soon after accost the dwarf and begin interrogating him about his leader. Both the dwarf and his vampire woman are “parallel” creatures, supernatural beings living in the real world under the control of Count Dracula. Isabelle, a mysterious woman being held prisoner in a convent has been promised to Dracula, a union which the professor and Thibault are attempting to stop, however they’re plan is interrupted when Isabelle escapes the convent with the help of the parallel’s. Things become more complicated when Thibault begins falling for Isabelle as he and the professor face off against more parallel creatures in their desperate attempt to stop Isabelle’s marriage to Dracula and prevent her crossing over into Dracula’s parallel realm.

As is the case with most Rollin films, narrative cohesiveness takes a backseat to the visual poetry on display, however Fiancée of Dracula (La fiancée de Dracula, The Bride of Dracula) is nonetheless one of Rollin’s busiest films in terms of plot. There are several different things going on at once and each direction taken by the story only serves to make the film all the more bewildering and nonsensical with Rollin’s random stream of consciousness storytelling ultimately having the film cast the same beguiling spell Dracula has put Isabelle under on its audience. Again, the film see’s Rollin calling upon his past films for inspiration yet never once does the film seem pastiche as all the visual references take on a different context. The most recognizable visual motif would be the use of the vampire appearing from inside a grandfather clock ala The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), however in this film Dracula uses the clock as a portal of sorts transporting himself to several different areas via the clock and its use during the films finale on Rollin’s favorite beach recalls the climax of The Nude Vampire (1970). The film also sees Rollin expanding upon what he began with Two Orphan Vampires by adding other otherworldly creatures in the mix such as witches, an ogress and Brigitte Lahaie in the role a she-wolf. Rollin also incorporates a group of mad nuns who’s antics inject a healthy dose of absurd comedy into the film which only adds to its already off-center tone.

Along with all the visual cues, Rollin also harkens back to his debut feature film The Rape of the Vampire (1968) via the one of the lines of dialogue that ended that film when Isabelle recites “I am the small boy who went to look for your scarf by the sea… Dear, dear oh dear Cordelia!” This also doubles as a reference to Gaston Leroux and Phantom of the Opera. Leroux was clearly a major influence on the film. One particular line of dialogue repeated throughout the film and in some ways could be considered the films mantra, “The presbytery has lost none of its charms nor the garden its colors” is a line from Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Leroux’s Queen of the Sabbath is seen when Isabelle is introduced. Exactly what it all means is left open to interpretation but the way in which Rollin incorporates these literary influences within the engagement of Dracula and Isabelle give way to another Rollin trademark, the idea of doomed romanticism. Rollin would only make two more films before his passing, the deeply personal and even more self-referential La nuit des horloges (2007) and Le masque de la Méduse (2010). Despite all the health issues that may have held him back, a film like Fiancée of Dracula is proof positive that Rollin was still more than capable of delivering a surrealist masterpiece.