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.