Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Rojo Sangre (2004): or, There are No Small Roles, Only Large Knives

An aging actor, past his prime and forgotten by the public who once adored him, ridiculed and humiliated by the agents and directors who once clamored for his attention, finally snaps and plans his revenge on the shallow denizens of the entertainment world, taking back in blood what they have taken from him in spirit. This type of film has something of a tradition--not quite a subgenre, but close--especially among horror icons of the past. Vincent Price's Theatre of Blood is probably the best-known. Boris Karloff mines similar territory in Peter Bogdonavich's excellent debut Targets, though lacking the strong revenge element. It works best when the actor in the lead role IS in fact a former icon, and the audience is aware of his past glories.

Which is why Rojo Sangre, starring that elder statesman of Spanish Kickassery Paul Naschy, works so well. A septuagenarian when the movie was filmed, Naschy did not write script it (the writer was director Christian Molina, no relation to Jacinto), one gets the feeling he might as well have--the subject matter is palpably near to Naschy's heart, and the anger, pain, and malevolent glee he brings to his role here can't be all due to the aging icon's formidable acting chops. No, Paul was feelin' it here, and it shows, oh yes it does.

In Rojo Sangre, Naschy plays Pablo Thevenet, a veteran actor who's fallen on hard times. In the past he had it all--he played Shakespeare, was acclaimed in all the papers, and yes, made several gruesome horror flicks in the 70s. The opening credits are presented as director's notes at the bottom of stills from films starring "Thevenet"--actually, of course, they're shots from the Naschy monster extravaganzas we've all come to know and love. This device makes the character/actor connection explicit--Thevenet IS Naschy, and vice versa. There can be no confusion.

Next we see Pablo sitting in a waiting room, getting ready to audition for a bit part. Striking up a conversation with his colleague sitting next to him, Pablo wastes no time spitting some venom in the direction of the big movie types who have forgotten him, and bemoaning the fate of the old actor, who once he has given his all is cast aside like a dirty taco wrapper. He also details quite off-handedly the perverse joys of sticking a hamster up one's arse! Whether he's joking or not we don't know, but we get a picture of a man who's seen and done it all, and who is p1ssed off at a business that's passed him by.

"Me, starring in The Dick Cheney Story? No fucking way.
I don't need the money that bad."

The first few scenes establish Pablo's character further and the desperate situation he's in. Humiliated at the audition (in a particularly good bit, Pablo brags to a beautiful blonde about his resume and former fame; the lovely lass shrugs and tells him "I'm sorry, but when you were starring in flims, I wasn't even born!" Paul's deflation at this comment speaks volumes), Paul is reduced to watching celebrity gossip programs on TV all day, disgusted by the young stars' antics and the adoration heaped upon them (which he sees as his due), and waiting for a callback that won't come.

His agent can't find work for him, and is disinclined to try, encouraging Pablo to give it up. Almost as an afterthought, the agent gives Paul a card for a nightclub that just opened, The Pandora, that needs an actor to entertain people at the door by impersonating killers from the past. It's beneath Pablo's dignity, but he needs the money, and it sounds like easy work--so, swallowing his pride, hating himself and his agent for it, he goes to audition.

The Pandora is a KICK-ASS club--all decorated in red satin and candlelight. While wealthy patrons sip expensive whiskey and smoke Cubans, a troupe of nude performers onstage enact tableaux of the Seven Deadly Sins. Paul's audition is on Lust Night, lucky for him (and us!). To his surprise the management knows him and treats him very respectfully, just the way a man of his talent should be treated. A dog-faced, tranny-looking woman named Dora takes him back to see the young, handsome, slightly manic-looking owner of the club, the cleverly-named Mr. Reficul. They hire Pablo at an exorbitant fee, 10,000 euros for one night a week, and offer to pay for all his costumes and accoutrements, including knives. After the extensive, multi-language contract is signed, Reficul makes Pablo a gift of a sword-cane with a wolf's head handle--an obvious nod to Paul's real-life cinematic inspiration and history.

It's not long before Paul is conducting a one-man war on the Entertainment Establishment. With the aid of a capable, exotic-looking personal assistant named Tick-Tock (assigned by Mr. Reficul--her backstory posits her as a former Parisian whore who timed her tricks with a stopwatch), he outfits himself as Jack the Ripper, Gilles de Rais, and Ivan the Terrible, using his personas to extact bloody revenge on those who have wronged him--his agent, former collaborators, and current young stars who sully his profession and don't give him the respect he deserves. (In the best set-piece, Pablo uses a Marillo--the Spanish Oscar--to bludgeon a producer in flagrante delicto, afterwards going all Jack-the-Ripper on his screaming bedmate!) A subplot where Pablo directs a snuff film for one of Reficul’s other clients seems a bit out of place, but does showcase some very disturbing stuff and is perhaps a statement on where the art of cinema is going, from Pablo’s pov.

Paul rips shit up.

Of course you get no points for guessing who Mr. Reficul really is and what the fine print in Pablo's contract entails, but they're not really trying to hide it, and the real fun is watching Paul Naschy get to enact the revenge fantasies that were doubtless very real to him at the time. His Thevenet is a malevolent character, feeling "more sinned against than sinning," and his descent into darkness rings true thanks to the authentic venom Paul imparts to the role. (You can’t help feeling Thevenet’s tirades against the business come straight from Naschy’s heart.) The epilogue, though predictable, has some great visuals and is a fitting coda to the fun story.

Score for the film: the gore is good, the Faustian plot serviceable, and the acting from other principals, especailly Miguel del Arco as Mr. Reficul, is very strong. There's plenty of blood, loads of sex (the aged Thevenet even hooks up with Tick-Tock, of course), and thematic nastiness to go with the joy of Naschy, so surely it's a must-see for any Jacinto fan.

But even non-Naschyites might enjoy some of the interesting technical work that director Christian Molina brings to the table. Much of the movie was shot on "virtual sets" like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and others, using digital effects to construct a dark, dreamy, slightly unreal world for the film. The transitions between scenes take advantage of this, with some interesting wipes and fades, though after an hour or so these do get more than a little gimmicky. But it does look like a huge-budget flick, which makes it a little strange for a Paul fan--you're not used to seeing him in such lavish, un-grainy surroundings.

"Gettin' old ain't for lightweights, punk."

So I give Rojo Sangre 2.5 thumbs, but 3 if you're a Naschy Fanatic like me. Definitely worth adding to your Netflix queue, if only to hear Paul give instructions on the best way to put a mouse into a condom. Fun AND educational! What more could you want?

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails