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.

Monday, May 16, 2016

O Happy Day (1970)

AKA 17 and Anxious, Heiße Teens aus gutem Haus and I desideri morbosi di una sedicenne

Unlike fellow Czech filmmakers such as Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel and Jan Němec, Zbynek Brynych sadly doesn’t seem to be a familiar name to many western aficionados of eastern European cinema. At least in America it seems, however there was a time when that might not have been the case. In 1968 when the Czech New Wave was a big deal and all the aforementioned names amongst several others became ones to drop, Brynych’s holocaust based masterpiece The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1964) made it to the States to glowing reviews. Roger Ebert even called it “a nearly perfect film”. Brynych always had a taste for the unusual and had no qualms about crossing over into genre material as evidenced by his odd Nazi sci-fi thriller I, Justice (1968) and even with its display of holocaust based real world terror, all the expressionist touches found in The Fifth Horseman is Fear do bring with them a feeling of surreality. In 1970, Brynych found himself in West Germany and while there his appreciation for films of an off center nature came to the forefront when he helmed O Happy Day, Angel’s With Burnt Wings (1970) and Femmine carnivore (1970), three of the strangest films to fall under the banner of “Euro cult” with O Happy Day having the distinction of being one of the most bizarre coming of age films ever made.

Favoring randomness over coherent storytelling, O Happy Day is essentially a plotless affair detailing the going’s on in the life of Anna (Anne-Marie Kuster), a 17 year old catholic girls school student. Despite being from a well-off family and having a seemingly good relationship with her boyfriend, Anna is dissatisfied. Like most teens her age Anna is terminally bored, feels her parents don’t understand her, is confused about what she wants out of life, full of raging hormones and just wants to be happy.

On paper it sounds like a relativity simple coming of age teen drama, however Brynych approaches the material in the most berserk manner possible, resulting in a film that’s incomparable to anything else. Anna has a habit of daydreaming as does Brynych and as a result the film has a tendency to drift in and out of fantasy without warning, leading to scenes involving dancing nuns and people cackling like maniacs for no apparent reason (something that would become a staple in Brynych’s other two German films from the same year) with Brynych’s camera going wild with delirious zooms, fish-eye lenses and constant movement to dizzying effect. The film is also overflowing with 70’s psychedelic kitsch by way of its hilariously exaggerated portrayal of hippies, select music choices and fashions on display as well as the interior design of Anna’s room, the surreal posters adorning her wall which come into play rather conveniently during one of Anna’s memorable dreams. As frivolous as the film is, it also has a fair amount of heart as Anna is a very likable and engaging character who’s easy to root for thanks to the presence and gusto performance of Anne-Marie Kuster who clearly enjoys being in front of the camera and really makes the situations Anna is going through seem more than simple and typical “nobody understands” teen nonsense. The moment when Anna spills her guts after her frustration with her parents finally boils over is very emotional and heartfelt with Kuster’s delivery coming across as genuine.

The film gets its namesake “O Happy Day” from the pop/gospel song “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers which is heard repeatedly throughout the film and its use in the final moments of the film is quite hilarious given the context of the scene and Anna’s voiceover narration. Brynych would use a similar tactic for his next film, the equally eccentric Angels With Burnt Wings, taking the title of the film from the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra song “Angels Who Burn Their Wings” which plays numerous times during the course of the film. The third and final film in Brynych’s German cycle and certainly the most over the top, Femmine carniovre has the distinction of being the only film from Brynych’s German cycle to have a legitimate DVD release having gotten an official Italian release. The Fifth Horseman is Fear was released on DVD from Facets while Transport From Paradise (1962), another one of Brynych’s WWII based Czech films was released on DVD by Second Run in the UK. Both O Happy Day and Angels With Burnt Wings continue to be MIA on DVD and its really a shame because if more attention were paid to these films its more than likely they’d quickly gain a fan base amongst lovers of Euro cult/trash fare. Fans of unclassifiable, offbeat 70’s cinema need to look no further than Brynych and O Happy Day.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Washing Machine (1993)

AKA Vortice mortale (Mortal Vortex)

Its interesting to think that during the heyday of the giallo in the 70’s when filmmakers like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi amongst many others were defining the genre with films like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) and Spasmo (1974) just to name a few, that Ruggero Deodato was surprisingly missing from the giallo game. Deodato’s first 70’s thriller Waves of Lust (1975) owed more to a film like Polanki’s Knife in the Water (1962) than any of the films that inspired the giallos of the day and he would follow that film with Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976), an essential title in the poliziotteschi subgenre, and of course Deodato would soon make his entry in the cannibal genre with Jungle Holocaust (1977). It wasn’t until the late 80’s when Deodato chose to helm his first giallo and the resulting film, Phantom of Death (1987), was certainly one of the more unique the genre had to offer with a strange plot combing murder with the disease progeria of all things. Deodato would return to the giallo in the early 90’s with The Washing Machine, one of his best films and one sets itself apart from other films in the genre with its bizarre eroticism, demented sense of humor and overall oddness.

Inspector Alexander Stacev is called to the home shared by sisters Ludmilla, Vida and Maria after Ludmilla claims to have discovered the body of Vida’s pimp boyfriend Yuri chopped up in the washing machine in the middle of the night. When Alexander arrives on the scene however there is no body to be found nor any evidence that a crime has even been committed. Dismissing Ludmilla’s story as a drunken hallucination, Alexander concludes that, without a body, there is no case. The sisters however see it differently and begin to follow Alexander everywhere pestering him to look into Yuri’s disappearance, eventually seducing him one by one making things quite complicated as the more he investigates the more the sisters seductive mind games suck him deeper into their strange world.

While The Washing Machine is technically an erotic mystery/thriller, in truth the film doesn’t exactly play out like a typical mystery story, at least until the third act. Its not that Deodato totally eschews the mystery of Yuri’s disappearance or the question of whether or not he disappeared at all, but that particular plot element quickly takes a backseat to the wild goose chase Alexander is led on by the three loony sisters, described by Alexander at one point during the film as “deranged”. Its an appropriate description as the situations Alexander finds himself in with each of the sisters are quite loopy, making the film come across as some sort of off-kilter psychosexual comedy. It very quickly crosses over into absurd territory featuring a scene involving an attempt at seduction via a salad bowl thrown into Alexander’s crotch and a fairly uncomfortable looking sex scene taking place against a staircase railing which Alexander is handcuffed too. There’s also the zaniness that arises as a result of each of the sisters occupations, culminating in a hilariously bizarre scene featuring Alexander and one of the sisters going at each other in a museum surrounded by blind people. Such things might make the film seem impossible to take seriously as a mystery/thriller but the matter of fact way in which it’s all presented only adds to the films strangeness and give it its own identity along with Deodato’s slick direction, the cold, blue hue that saturates nearly every frame and Claudio Simonetti’s equally icy score.

Despite the fact that again, the film is one of Deodato’s best, Deodato himself doesn’t feel that way and has gone on record expressing his disappointment with the film, specifically singling out the cast saying in the book Cannibal Holocaust: The Savage Cinema of Ruggero Deodato “I wasn't very happy with The Washing Machine because I was never convinced that the casting was correct, and the film was made too quickly… I can only say that I am not at all pleased with the final result because it's a very intimate movie and should have had well-known actors, which it does not. So, after the first few minutes it collapses.” With all due respect to Deodato, this is clearly a case of an artist being his harshest critic as the cast is actually one of the best things about the film! The three sisters especially were all perfectly cast with Barbara Ricci really standing out as the drunken Ludmilla and Dylan McDermott look-alike Philippe Caroit giving an appropriately bewildered performance as Alexander. The Washing Machine was also Deodato’s last theatrical feature until his 2016 return Ballad in Blood so here’s hoping that in time his opinion of the film changes. There’s really nothing else like The Washing Machine either in Deodato’s filmography or the realm of the erotic thriller making it an eccentric, sleazy and at times ridiculous highlight for Deodato and giallo fans.