Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973): or, You Know What? Go Ahead and Be Afraid

There was a time—i.e., the 1970s—when making a TV movie was still in fact making a MOVIE. There was little competition for the big 3 networks—no cable, no 24-hour movie channels with original programming and subscription resources, no VCRs and certainly no DVDs. The networks were all-powerful, and they took their movie productions seriously. With their stables of TV stars and their mountains of advertising money (“Where else youse gonna do commercials, da noosepapah? Don’t make me laff. Radio? Hokay, now I’m laffin’.”), they were able to make films that in some cases were only slightly less polished than their theatrical counterparts. And ABC was arguably the king of the movie-a-week studios.

This power and prestige is visible in every frame of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a film which, though it probably benefits more than it should from its obscurity and the tender ages of its most rabid fans when it first aired (how hard was it to scare a tv-addicted 8-year-old in the 70s, honestly?), still manages to deliver an entertaining 75 minutes and do enough right to make fans of Tales from the Crypt sit up and say "Hey."

TV star Kim Darby plays Sally Farnham, a young-but-frumpy housewife whose husband Alex is a lawyer on the fast track to success and overwork. Before the first commercial break Sally and Alex have inherited Sally’s grandmother’s estate, a spacious and forbidding manor house that needs a lot of TLC to get livable—but hey, free house! They move in and quickly discover a mysterious locked room in the basement, which the crusty old carpenter Mr. Harris (William Demarest of TV’s My Three Sons fame) encourages them to leave as it is.

Before you can say “Button your pie-hole, old man!” Sally has scared up a key and entered the forbidden room. Inside she finds the windows nailed shut and painted black, but most intriguingly the stone fireplace in the center of the room has been bricked up and its ash compartment locked down with steel bolts! She asks Mr. Harris what it would take to make the fireplace usable again, but the old man betrays an intimate knowledge of how impossible it is (“That fireplace is bricked and mortared 4 blocks deep, and reinforced with steel bars!”), and refuses, again encouraging Sally to leave things as they are.

"Leave it to, Beaver! Don't you know Father Knows Best?"

Not to be dissuaded, Sally gets a wrench and opens the ash door to have a look. Sure enough, she can see that the fireplace is bricked up but good—but strangely, she also sees a very deep shaft going down into the earth, though the room they’re in is at the bottom floor of the house. Still, convinced that the carpenter is right and the expense would be prohibitive to reconfigure the fireplace, she shuts the ash door and leaves, without bothering to bolt it back.

Why do they never re-bolt the forbidden doorways, huh? WHY WHY WHY?

Before you can say “Sorry old bean, you were quite in the right about that whole locked-room thing,” Sally is hearing whispering voices and seeing shadows out of the corners of her eyes. Her husband is singularly unsupportive, sure she’s “imagining things” or worse, trying to sabotage his career! ("You just hate that I'm making loads of money for you, don't you? DON'T YOU?") It comes to a head at a dinner for his law partners when Sally sees a deformed face peering back at her from under the table and starts screaming (like you do), ruining the party and making a very bad impression.

Alex has had enough--they’ll sell the house and move out...but only after he gets back from an overnight trip to San Francisco, leaving the distraught and possibly insane Sally alone in the house for a night. Timing! Timing!

Awww, who's a wittle winkly waisin man, huh?

Well, no prizes for guessing that Sally’s not crazy, and the little shrivel-faced demons who live in the fireplace are now running free about the house, trying to get her alone so they can murder her in her sleep! (Sally overhears them whispering their plans--secrecy is not a demonic strong point, apparently.) Even worse, whoever freed them from their prison must surrender his or her soul and become one of them, whatever they are, and join them in the pit beneath the house, whatever THAT is. Left alone for the night and thought crazy by everyone but the curmudgeonly Mr. Harris, can Sally survive a night alone in the house with her tiny tormentors?

Like I said earlier, this is a TV movie that eats like a real movie. The set is very nice, established in the first scene by many shots of the interior of the deserted, cavernous mansion while Alex and Sally argue in voice-over about whether to move in or not. At first I took this as clumsy exposition, but soon I came to appreciate the technique as setting the mood in quick, broad brushstrokes—by showing us the empty house and its many rooms, we get a sense of how isolated Sally is once she’s there alone.

Kim Darby does a great job as Sally, looking very vulnerable and frumpy compared to her handsome, confident husband. The script is good too, with the tension between Sally and her husband well drawn and believable. I even think there’s some sexual subtext about Sally being unhappy with the physical side of the relationship (she tells her husband that perhaps after he gets his promotion, he’ll be able to devote more time to her, and that he’ll “have more energy when [he’s] at home”--nudge nudge, wink wink, SAY NO MOOAH!). Of course her frumpy, un-made-up looks and sack-like nightgowns seem to underscore this problem in the relationship, if my theory is correct.

I also find it significant that late in the movie, when a half-conscious (thanks to sleeping pills) Sally is being dragged down to the forbidden room by the little men via a cord tied around her ankles, her short robe (first time we’ve seen anything on her less than mid-calf length) rides up over her thighs and she moans very suggestively with each tug of the cord, twisting her head back and forth and knitting her brow. Ooer missus! Add to that the locked room, the shaft of the fireplace (which manages to be simultaneously phallic AND vaginal), which when opened lets out horrifying, animalistic urges, and I’m paging Dr. Freud. Sometimes a banana is just a banana, but sometimes it's a giant throbbing cock.

"Oh my God, Vicar! It's HUGE!"

The real star is the cinematography and visual direction, though—lots of great use of shadows, center-lit set-pieces edged in darkness (the dinner scene is an especially good example of this), and for the first half hour, the shadowy motions of the unseen creatures, disappearing after just a glimpse. These things build up the feelings of dread and suspense very effectively, and make the movie tick.

Unfortunately once the creatures come out into the light, they’re a little silly looking—a cross between a low-rent Outer Limits alien and the California Raisins. The shots of the heavily made-up actors interacting with giant props don’t do the movie any favors, either. I have to say—if any movie could benefit from a well-done remake (and new creature design, or at least directorial decision to leave the creatures in shadow), this is definitely one. Still, once you swallow their b-movie looks, the drama and mystery is all there and pumping. The plot leaves the creatures’ origins and motivations largely unexplained (I call them demons, but there’s nothing in the flick to suggest they come from hell necessarily--they could be L. Frank Baumian subterranean Nomes for all we know), but it still manages to chill here and there, and the come-back-round-to-the-beginning ending ties it up in a nice Tales from the Crypt-ish package.

Overall I’m not sure whether Don't Be Afraid of the Dark deserves its legendary cult status on its own merits, but coupled with nostalgia it’s hard to argue with its effectiveness, and you can totally see how a young kid would be terrorized by visions of the little men living behind the walls, in the shadows, just waiting for you to go to sleep. For tapping into such a great area of childhood fear, and for its production values and performances, I give the flick 2.25 thumbs. Well worth checking out.

Bonus—the opening scene, in which we hear the creatures whispering and laughing about the new owners about to arrive (voice-over on the darkened exterior of the house) is so dead-on EXACTLY like the audio opening of rocker King Diamond’s horror concept album "Them," I’d be absolutely SHOCKED if King is not a fan of this movie and was referencing it specifically with that audio scene. King’s album is probably scarier than this movie, but still, if it inspired "Them," then the flick is all the more worthy of praise.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mill of the Stone Women (1960): or, Every Body Must Be Stone

Seriously, now--what is it with all these puppet/dummy/mannequin movies I've been watching lately? I went months and months with only one movie in this label group (that being the 1945 British anthology flick that started it all, Dead of Night), and now in the last several weeks there's been a veritable deluge of these soulless mockeries of humanity parading through DVD player, causing me no end of gooseflesh and strangely arousing dreams.

The latest float in this macabre parade is th 1960 French-Italian production Il Mulino delle donne di pietra, better known stateside by its literally-translated English title, Mill of the Stone Women, a leisurely-paced chiller with great sets, cool cinematography, and plenty of creepy atmosphere. And dummies. Lots and lots of blank-eyed, hair-raising dummies...

We open the film in 1890, with young journalist Hans (Pierre Brice) who has traveled to the village of Veeze in Rotterdam to interview Professor Gregorius Wahl (Herbert A.E. Böhme), a well-respected sculptor and curator of the famous "carousel" at the Wahl Mill where he lives. The carousel--a spookhouse nightmare device constructed by Wahl's father which uses the mill's wind-power to shuffle life-sized effigies of infamous dead folks like Cleopatra and Joan of Arc along a funhouse track--is celebrating its centenary, hence Hans' interest. Hans' childhood sweetheart Liselotte (Dany Carrel), with whom he is interested in rekindling a relationship, also lives nearby.

After being brusquely received by Professor Wahl, Hans is installed in an attic room and given a few days to complete his work. Sequestered in the mill, Hans begins to hear strange yelping howls coming from a locked room, and sees disembodied hands clutching a curtain before being warned away by the imperious housekeeper Selma. He also gets a look at Professor Wahl's studio, which is almost as full of nightmare fuel as the carousel--life-sized statues of gruesomely hanged women, beheaded women, strangled women --pretty much any nasty thing you can think of to do to a woman, chances are good Wahl has a model of it in the works. I wonder if he could have some kind of complex that will become important later?

Evidence of Professor Wahl's sexual hang-ups.

Next we get to see Dr. Wahl teaching a sculpting class in which red-headed Eurobabe Amilore (Liana Orfei) is serving as a model. Liselotte is a student of Professor Wahl's and it must be said he's much more personable with his girl students than he was with Hans. Later Liselotte, Hans, and their childhood friend Raab (himself) meet at the beer hall to shoot the schnitzel while Amilore sings and shows some ankle. Woohoo! Turns out Amilore is going away to Paris that night, and so will never see any of her art friends again. Hmm...I wonder if she'll make it to Paris without incident?

Finally, back at the mill, Hans investigates those doglike yelping sounds and discovers their very unexpected source--Elfy Wahl (the Barbara Steele-lite Scilla Gabel), the professor's heretofore unmentioned daughter! Hans is immediately enthralled by Elfy's strange, ethereal beauty, and Elfy doesn't think he's chopped liver either. However, the population of the mill continues to grow as the very stern Dr. Bolem (Wolfgang Preiss, looking just as German as his name), the Wahl's live-in physician, warns Elfy away from the young man's affections. "I am the only person in the world who knows everything about you!" Bolem sneers. "I am the only person you have a right to love!"

Unsurprisingly Elfy is not at all down with this idea, and invites Hans to her room at eleven that evening, for what purpose she will not divulge. When he arrives that evening--walking through some very eerie tableaux of Professor Wahl's macabre work--he finds Elfy stretched out on her bed in a red negligee, her intentions nowhere near as mysterious as her origins. Unable to resist, Hans falls on top of her as she turns down the lantern and shrouds them both in darkness. This is not followed up by more of her dog-yelps, but oh my god it TOTALLY should have been.

"Oh Vicar, you were divine."

The next day Raab (himself) and Liselotte come to see the Carousel in operation along with half the village. Liselotte makes her romantic ideas about Hans clear, but Hans is morose and withdrawn, telling her "I don't believe I'm worthy of you!" leading the audience to wonder just what kind of sick shit he and Elfy got up to last night. Dr. Wahl starts up the carousel and Liselotte faints from terror, like you do. She hits her head and leaves a bloodstain on Dr. Bolem's handkerchief. Hmm, I wonder if...

Like I said, the movie is VERY leisurely-paced, content to give tiny hint after tiny hint, building up layer upon layer of mystery and misdirection into a pervasive atmosphere of dread and unease. And for the patient viewer, it works--MTV addled youths might be asleep or out grinding a rail by now (punk kids! stay orf my lawn!), but if you stick with it you'll soon find yourself awash in atmosphere thick enough to cut with the dagger Elfy toys with while jealously eyeing Liselotte and Hans together. Gee, there's something a little off about that chick...

Once the dam breaks, though, it breaks in a big way. Elfy goes all Glenn Close on Hans, professing her love and refusing to accept his claims of love for Liselotte. Professor Wahl has meanwhile warned Hans that Elfy is an invalid, subject to a malady that could make any emotional shock fatal (the reason for Dr. Bolem's presence), but that doesn't stop Hans from dumping her like a Tonka Truck and bringing about her untimely demise. Full of remorse, Hans flees back to Veese.

I woke up last night with this standing over my bed. Again.

He's back the next day, though, hoping to explain what happened to the by-now-bereaved Professor Wahl. However, when he arrives he is sidetracked by Dr. Bolem, who notices how excitable the young man is and slips him a sedative. Dr. Bolem is not to be trusted, though, as Hans soon starts wigging in a BIG way. We are soon whisked away on a 6+ minute hallucination sequence in which Hans is preached at by a reverbed-out Dr. Wahl, sees visions of Elfy among spider webs in the attic, goes to the family crypt to find her corpse under glass in the tomb, and finally sees Amilore tied and gagged in an attic room. It's a very wild and creepy sequence, and a standout in the film.

When Hans finally comes down, Professor Wahl comes in and doesn't seem to know anything about his daughter having checked out or prisoners being shackled in the attic. Hans' frenzied investigations turn up nothing, making him lose his mind and all his dramatic acting ability. Really, Brice's acting is lamentable here, hammy and unconvincing as he regularly substitutes volume for pathos. However, this does allow him to deliver the line of the film to the calmly incredulous professor: "She's there, in her tomb! Dead! DEAD! NOT ALIVE!" That kills me. Dead. Not alive.

Finally Elfy herself(y) appears, none the worse for wear despite her slight bout of death. Convinced that he is in fact going crazy, Hans accepts Bolem and Wahl's flimsy explanations and leaves. No sooner is he out the door than the two men turn to each other and practically start rubbing their hands together villainously. "Bolem! My plan succeeded!" Wahl says, a mad gleam in his eye. And then we get a huge chunk of crazy exposition that almost erases all the sleepiness that was building up before.

Turns out Elfy really did die--but Bolem, being a mad scientist type, has discovered a way to bring her back to life using the blood of another girl (men's blood is apparently no good--it has to be a girl, and she has to be at least as hot as Elfy, apparently). They've been doing this for years, because Daddy Wahl just can't let his snooky-ookums go; unsurprisingly, Amilore ends up giving the fatal refill.

"I have a Monopoly...ON HORROR!"

Wahl decided to make Hans think he was mad to keep it all a secret, because killing Hans--an out-of-towner with only tenuous connections to the local village--would be too complicated. Once the transfusion is complete there's the problem of what to do with the bodies, but Professor Wahl has learned a thing or two from Walter Paisley, apparently--with a handy secret serum he is able to petrify the dead bodies, which he poses like his sculptures and puts on display in the carousel! That's right, they're not mannequins, they're dead bodies! Just as I always suspected the ones at JC Penney's were. See, Mom! You thought I was nuts!

So with all that explained, Dr. Bolem figures out thanks to his bloodstained handkerchief that with Liselotte's blood he can cure Elfy for good. When Elfy dies again, they kidnap Liselotte, Hans and Raab (himself) race to her rescue, Bolem picks a very inopportune time to renegotiate his employment with Wahl, and Wahl makes a real mess of contract negotiations by killing Bolem before the cure is administered! Wild with grief, Wahl sets fire to the mill just as Hans, Liselotte, and Raab (himself) are reunited and flee into the night. The professor cradles his dead darling in his arms as the dummies burn and reveal their grisly innards all around him. Fade out.

Despite its slow first hour, I ended up with a smile on my face thanks to the film's crazy final third. Böhme's mad raging at the end is something to see, and there are some great effects with Wahl's "sculpture," particularly when he places Amilore's severed head on top of her pre-posed body (the sound effects are not spared, giving a nice icky touch). The girls are all lovely, and Dany Carrel even gives us a brief glimpse of nipple during the transfusion scene, shocking indeed for 1960. (The Mondo Macabro DVD also includes as an extra a gallery of nude photos of Scilla Gabel, who is quite buxom and lovely.) The mad science subplot is wild, and the ending very cool.

Now that's craftsmanship.

So for some good visuals, creepy details, and a wild finish, I rate Mill of the Stone Women 2.5 thumbs--better than your "run of the mill" horror flicks. Haha! Hey, thanks folks, I'll be here all week.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Vixen! (1968): or, The Dance of the Titillated Trout

Russ Meyer, the breast-obsessed director of the previously reviewed mmmmmasterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has been credited as one of the forefathers of the American Erotic Film Industry--his early film The Immoral Mr. Teas is singled out by film scholar Joe Bob Briggs in his "seminal" tome Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History as the flick that paved the way for nudity and sex in the cinematic mainstream. The eccentric and flamboyant Meyer worked pretty much constantly through the 60s and 70s, well into the heyday of American porn, the era of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones and dozens of other "classics" that finally shed their inhibitions and brought real live sex to the screen. Therefore it's seen by some as a kind of irony that Meyer himself, the man who brought gigantic bare bosoms and unabashed sex-for-pleasure to small-town cinemas across the country, never made a hardcore film of his own.

There are many possible reasons for this gap in the Meyer filmography--some argue Meyer was more about the tease than the act, and found actual filmed sex distasteful (though arguing for Meyer's refined sense of taste in the face of flicks like the gleefully irreverent mmmmmasterpieces Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and titanically tasteless Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems frankly ridiculous); others that his sexual interest began and ended at the bust line, and nothing else held the slightest fascination for him. Other theories abound. However, after getting a look at Meyer's 1968 offering Vixen!, I am prepared to posit that such arguments are merely academic. A bacchanalian orgy of indiscretion, nudity, and unrestrained, unrestrainable sexuality, Vixen! is porn without the penetration. But it's also much more than that--a film packed with Sadean notions of vice and virtue, sexual power struggles, and a wild finish that makes less sense narratively than it does tonally, Vixen! is, like all of Meyer's best work, a powerful sort of primitive art--art that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

We open with a patented Meyer voice-over, as a documentary-style narrator tells us that in Canada there are stretches of "bush" so wild and untamed they can only be reached by small-engine plane, and that "bush pilots" are rugged men with a sense of adventure who make travel to these places possible. I'm not sure if Meyer's being suggestive at this point, but just to be safe I'm going to go ahead and say "Hoo-ah!" We get some nicely shot footage of such planes taking off and landing, flying by Inuit totem poles, setting down on hardscrabble landing fields, and finally we're introduced to our main bush pilot, Tom Palmer (Garth Pillsbury, who also played the kindly crimelord/hit-man mentor in the amazing Malibu High), stopping in for refueling. A bearded mechanic pumps his plane full of fuel (Ooo-er!) and inquires about Tom's lovely young wife Vixen, all alone out at their house/hunting lodge in the bush. The grease monkey intimates that he wouldn't leave such a hot young thing alone for long, but the amazingly good-natured Tom laughs it off. "Vixen likes to tease," he says, "but she knows enough not to cross the line."

"Mirror, mirror, in my hand--who's the hottest
biggest-breasted racist nymphomaniac psychobabe in all the land?"

We soon find that Tom's admirable faith in his wife's self-control is disastrously misplaced, however, as in the next scene we find Vixen herself (the stunning Erica Gavin) frolicking in the bush in her bikini with a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police! It's not long before she is energetically mounted by the Mountie, showing her voracious appetite as she scolds him for "going too slow"! It's quite a wild scene in which we get to see all of Gavin's amazing measurements and hear her exultant barbaric yawp upon completion. Once the Mountie has suited back up she discards him like an empty Big Gulp cup, letting him know in no uncertain terms she only wanted him for a little fun, and now she's done. Dudley Do-Wrong obviously feels hurt and insulted, but what can he do? Vixen is a Class-A maneater, and he was nothing more than a morning snack.

On her way back to her house, Vixen is accosted by two rough-looking biker types. We quickly learn that one is her baby brother Judd (Jon Evans), who sports an amazing multi-squirrel-tailed riding cap and a denim vest bedecked with Maltese crosses and other medals. Judd's best friend is Niles (the excellent Harrison Page), an African-American ex-pat who has fled to Canada to avoid being drafted into the Viet Nam war. It's here that the ugly aspects of Vixen's character really start to manifest themselves, as she hurls careless, voluminous racial slurs at Niles pretty much non-stop, calling him "Rufus" and wondering aloud where he's going to "find a watermelon" out here in the bush! The hate-hate relationship between Niles and Vixen almost reaches a boiling point before Judd convinces them both to lay off. When they arrive back at the house, Vixen makes some very unsubtle incestuous come-ons at Judd (!) before firing a parting shot at "Rufus" as they drive away.

At this point Tom returns with a couple of paying guests, Dave King (Robert Aiken) and his voluptuous spouse Janet, played by red-headed stunner Vincene Wallace. (Meyer claims that Wallace was his first and only instance of "casting couch" casting, a bit of trivia to which the only appropriate response is "Zang.") Things go from suggestive to utterly wild when, at a campfire dinner that evening, Vixen performs an astoundingly suggestive dance for Dave using a soon-to-be-cooked trout as a prop, pantomiming "fish-head" for his benefit before slipping the fish down her blouse in a way that's...arousing, I guess? It's truly one of those "only in a Meyer film" moments. Janet fumes on the sidelines while Tom smiles in his brain-dead, good-natured way at Vixen's exploits.

Judd was the founding member of the short-lived kids' group The Cthuhlhu-teers.

The Dance of the Tittilated Trout has its effect, though, as later Janet tries and fails to seduce her husband while Vixen and Tom have noisy, energetic sex in the neighboring bedroom. (Watching Aiken say no to a topless-and-willing Wallace, the viewer must struggle very hard with his suspension of disbelief.) Vixen and Tom's conjugal copulation is another "porn-without-peen" scene that once again showcases both Gavin's body and her vocal range. However, given the layering of details leading up to this--the Mountie, the racism, the incestuous come-ons, the fish dance, and Vixen's perpetual wide-eyed, borderline-psychotic glare (even--perhaps especially--during moments of passion)--the viewer must start to wonder if there's something very, very wrong with Vixen behind her nymphomania and spiteful, ugly personal interactions. That doesn't put a damper on Gavin's sexiness, though, it has to be said.

The next day Tom and Vixen take Dave and Janet on a fishing trip, and Vixen takes the opportunity to show Dave a "special spot" where he's sure to catch everything he wants. While Vixen and Dave make wild whoopee in the bush, a spurned and frustrated Janet tries to get her own back by seducing Tom. However, the good-natured nature guide is faithful to a fault and will not rise to the bait. (Again, one's suspension-of-disbelief muscles get a workout.) Inexplicably un-laid at every turn, Janet decides to get drunk at the cabin while the rest of the crew goes bird hunting. However, Vixen also stays behind to "keep our guest company." No points for guessing what happens when Vixen and Janet start drinking together, though once again Gavin's wide-eyed psychotic stare during the lesbonic encounter lends an aura of wrongness to the whole thing--Vixen literally can't help herself, and it's not all joyful sensuality. Still, her double-seduction seems to do the trick, as that night Dave and Janet re-consummate their marriage and leave the next day happily fawning over each other. The healing power of infidelity--it's really the feel-good story of the year.

While Tom returns the happily-laid couple to civilization, Judd and Niles show up again for more race-baiting from Vixen, who calls Niles' manhood into question for his refusal to fight for his country. Niles passionately explains his reasons but Vixen is having none of it, throwing out creative and frankly shocking racial epithets until Niles has to flee the house before doing something he's sure he'd regret. Judd seems to think the whole thing is hilarious, teasing his sister that she should just go ahead and have sex with Niles already, an idea Vixen shoots down with extreme--and I mean EXTREME--prejudice. I was really amazed and confused by the Vixen character's pervasive, ugly racism, and wondered what exactly Meyer was trying to get at here, having his protagonist show such an ugly side. I'm still not entirely sure, but it's certainly unforgettable, powerful, and for a modern viewer especially, profoundly disturbing.

You know you want it.

The disturbance doesn't stop there, however, not even close. As Niles tinkers with his hog outside, Judd decides to take a shower. Once again in the grip of her wild-eyed passions, Vixen decides to join him, leading to a very uncomfortable and strangely sexy scene in which all the incestuous come-ons finally come to fruition. The sex scene between Judd and Vixen is as wild and dirty as anything in a porn film, and we even get some amazing shots of the action from underneath the bed, through the wire bedsprings! When in the afterglow Vixen asks her seduced little brother what he thinks of her now, his response is all Meyer: "I've had better." Wow. Just wow.

We're almost an hour into a 70+ minute film, but there are still a couple more buttons left to push. Seemingly angry at his sister (and maybe himself?) for what just happened, Judd goes out and taunts Niles with things his sister may or may not have said about him, driving his friend into a rage and initiating what amounts to an aborted race-rape! It's the ugliest of many ugly scenes in the film, but before the hate can be consummated Tom's jeep appears on the trail and Judd comes in to break it up. Outside both Judd and Niles make small talk with the perpetually smiling Tom, a very weird and uncomfortable scene. Neither they nor Vixen (who appears on the porch fully dressed moments later) say anything about their afternoon dalliances.

Tom has another guest in tow, a stereotypical Irishman who wants Tom to fly him to San Francisco. Since Vixen's always wanted to go to San Fran, she and Tom go inside to pack while the Irishman and Niles sit and talk politics (Judd has motored off to the village to score some schoolgirls--yeah.) We quickly discover that the Irishman is a Communist and he plans to hijack Tom's plane and force the kindly pilot to fly him to Cuba! Pointing out the injustices and racism of Canada as well as the U.S., the Celtic Commie convinces Niles to join him, and before you know it the four of them are in the air on their way south.

"Comfy? Good."

The last 5 minutes of the movie concern the drama in the air, as Vixen goads the Irishman into an ill-considered racial slur at just the right moment and Niles puts an end to the hijacking plot just before they land at the US/Canada border. There's a brief scene of totally unearned reconciliation between Niles and Vixen, Niles heads back north, and presumably the Palmers wait around to hand the commie over to the cops. As they wait, another attractive young couple approach the plane, presumably to inquire about lodgings. Vixen gives the camera one of her knowing psycho looks, eyebrows arched and eyes wide, a comment on the ongoing circle of life and lust. The end.

At the beginning of this review I said Vixen! is pretty much porn without penetration, and plot-wise it certainly is--most of the movie has our title character having sex with just about everyone who comes across her path (ha!) and the amount of flesh and fornication on display stacks up favorably to any triple-X offering. But it looks a lot better than a porn film--Meyer's bright colors and clean crisp framing look fantastic here, and the girls are a lot more attractive.

But what really lifts Vixen! above its hardcore brethren is the weird psychology, deliciously shoehorned social commentary, and inexplicable spitefulness of all the characters but Tom. (I should note that it's never entirely clear whether Tom is blissfully ignorant of Vixen's indiscretions as he claims, or if he knows everything and loves her despite her faults, or even because of them--the fish dance scene would seem to support the latter. Anyway, it's another wonderfully ambiguous thread of the flick's tapestry, ripe for interpretation.)

Vixen! definitely takes place in the same universe as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, where the chicks are all larger than life, Olympian goddesses with foibles and faults magnified to the proportions of their amazing racks. Vixen is yet another figure in Meyer's strange, almost classical mythology--not on a level with Tura Satana's Varla, perhaps, but who is?

Just 'cuz I love you people.

As mad movies go, it'd be hard to get much madder. I was shocked, disturbed, aroused, and thoroughly entertained. I think you will be too. Therefore, I'm pleased to rate Vixen! 3+ thumbs, and call it a flick any Mad Movie enthusiast or Meyer-interested viewer should see. Just leave the fish in the fridge--you never know what might happen.

(Note: according to internet sources--the BEST sources!--star Erica Gavin says that seeing herself naked and having sex onscreen in this movie precipitated her development of anorexia, which over time robbed her of the voluptuous figure she shows off to such great effect here. A true loss to cinema and beauty generally--however, by all accounts she's overcome her eating disorder and is doing well. Hang in there, Erica! You're fabulous!)


Monday, April 21, 2008

The Vicar in LA--THIS WEEKEND!

Missed your chance to meet the Vicar of VHS at the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City? Well, if you're in the Los Angeles area the weekend of April 25-27, you'll have another chance! The Vicar will be attending the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Convention in L.A. along with the fine folks of City Slab magazine, rubbing shoulders with horror luminaries and pushing copies of one of the finest horror fiction publications out there. So if you're going to be there, drop by the City Slab table, look for the bearded fellow with a ball cap covering his monastic tonsure, and say hi!

Full convention information here.


Friday, April 18, 2008

The Horrors of Spider Island (1962): or, Old School Hoff/Bra Haus

You know, it's easy to disparage David Hasselhoff. He got famous taking orders from an effite-voiced muscle car, he's made dozens of pop albums that only a German could love, and his only career outlet now seems to be self-parody. But the thing you can never take away from him is that he had the foresight to see the genius of buxom beach babes running in slow motion and realize he could turn it into television history and a vast personal fortune. After all, when you've got that, things like plot, music, acting, and production values are secondary.

But wait a minute--WAS it foresight? Or was it in fact HINDSIGHT? Is it possible that the Hoff did NOT create the formula he popularized? Blasphemous as such questions may seem, I had to entertain them upon my recent viewing of the 1962 classic, The Horrors of Spider Island.

Let's look at the facts here. Buxom blonde babes? Check. Beachfront sets? Check. Any excuse to show skin? Check. GERMANS? Check! Hmm....

It doesn't matter, really, because like Baywatch, The Horrors of Spider Island is a treasure trove of campy, fleshy fun. You know you're in for a good time from the opening titles, when you see the credit "Barbara Valentin as 'Babs'". First of all, when your lead actress has to be named the same as her character in order to keep her role straight, that's a red flag.

And "Babs"? If Babs isn't a 50-year-old housewife, she's a bodacious young slutmuffin. Those are the only two possibilities for that name. No points for guessing which we have here: hailed as "The German Jayne Mansfield," Ms. Valentin is a quivering mound of voluptuousness, almost to a frighteningly fleshy degree.

But what of the plot? Well, hold onto your hats, boys. We open in Sunny California--palm trees and surf music--and immediately go into the office of a snivelly, sunglasses-wearing casting agent, who is holding auditions for dancers to join a troupe that's going to tour the nightclubs of Singapore! Not seedy at all, no siree!

The girls prep for their all-dancing production of Heart of Darkness.

As a result, the waiting room is a veritable Babe-O-Rama, especially if you love the full-figured beauty standard of the early 60s--which I do, oh yes I do. We get about 10 minutes of auditions, allowing each of the girls to be leered at while the beefy troupe manager Gary and his first mate (?) Georgia look on. The fun-nuggets in this scene include:

  • "Show us your legs...You're hired!"
  • Babs gets the dancing gig without dancing a step--of course when you're the German Jayne Mansfield, all the rest is just details.
  • One girl walks in and strips to her undies completely unprovoked. She's hired on the spot.

With the seediness of its set-up and the readiness of (nearly) every girl to get down to her girdle for a swing at stardom and all the Kari Lemak Ayam they can eat, this scene is like time-traveling to The Land Before Porn. One can only imagine the heavy breathing such shots must have occasioned in 1962. But it's going to get much better, kids...

Once the troupe is assembled, Gary and his Glamorous Gamlets charter a flight on Stock Footage Airlines to Singapore. They quickly fly the pre-filmed skies, taking off in a jet with two engines. We're treated to some aerial shots of New York City--wait a minute, how'd we get to New York? Where are the palm trees?

Before we can fathom this, though, our now-four-engined jet runs into trouble. Stock-filmed crew members fiddle with switches, and suddenly our passenger plane is a WWII bomber going down in flames! As it plummets we get shots of our dancers screaming in terror in a pitch dark room! The suspense! The bomber goes down, but incredibly the whole troupe and Gary survive on a raft with a gas-can full of water (?). The separately-filmed flight crew's fate is lost to history.

After a few tense moments at sea arguing about water rations, the girls spot land and row madly for it. Once there they collapse in scantily-clad exhaustion on the beach, their plump legs splayed as Gary carries them ashore, one by one. Hubba hubba Grandpa, this is for you!

After solving their water problem by finding an idyllic waterfall (everyone jump in!) they explore the island under Gary's authoritarian leadership. Soon they find a long-handled hammer in the bushes, from which the canny Gary quickly deduces that there's prospecting going on here, "most likely for Uranium!" None of the dancers calls him on his logic leap, which is just as well since he's absolutely correct! They find the prospectors' cabin and rush in, only to find the corpse of an old man ensared in a giant web! Needless to say, something has put a damper on his prospects.


The girls are so distraught they run outside in full panic-jiggle mode, unwittingly escaping an attack from one of the best spider puppets ever--a Muppet-worthy contraption with a pissed-off, scrunched up face, a nose-stinger, and the darkest eyes, the devil's eyes...really a marvel of sfx for 1962.

Much distress and undress follow, as after Gary buries the professor (we learn from his journal he was a professor) the girls fight over the clothes they find in the cabin, ripping the garments to pieces as they roll around on the floor in a nice catfight scene! Gary lays down the law, and soon the girls are sewing, doing dishes, and cooking--as they should! One of the girls can't take the heat so she strips down to her undies, and another treats us to a hilarious Daisy Mae accent. We even get a 1962 shower scene and a sultry sleeping montage! This is as sexy as it gets in 1962, and believe it or not, it's actually pretty sexy.

But where's the horror, you might ask? It comes in spades as Gary, overcome by the heat, goes for a walk and is attacked by the grumpy spider puppet! He kills it, but not before he is bitten. Not all radioactive spider bites make for superheroes, apparently, as Gary becomes a hairy-faced, claw-handed manbeast! How will the girls survive?

"C'mon, punk! I got chunks of guys like you in my stool!"

Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that two beefy boys who worked for the professor show up out of nowhere, the girls throw an "island dance" to celebrate their rescue--complete with luau costumes!--and Gary shows up to ruin the party. Good prevails, the spiderbeast dies, and they all go off into the sunset--except the ones who died, naturally.

Though it's stupid and badly dubbed and worsely acted, I found it difficult to dislike The Horrors of Spider Island. The transparent goals of the movie--to show the girls in as much undress as possible for whatever reason--and the way the producers had to tiptoe around moral standards of the time make it simultaneously sleazy and innocent--a hard combo to pull off. (Much harder to pull off than a luau skirt, that's for sure!) The fights and effects are fun, and there's even a "death reveal" that prefigures many such scenes in future slashers, as a girl taps her beau on the shoulder only to have him fall dead at her feet. Not the greatest movie ever, but fun enough for 77 mins and a time capsule of pr0n of the past.

Apparently this was released in Germany in 1960 under the title Ein Toter hing im Netz (A Corpse Hangs in the Web), and had some nekkidity in the original artistic Euro version; still, I think it loses nothing in the US cut version. A neat little glimpse into our parents' pervy past, HoSI gets 2 thumbs for fun, if only half a thumb for actual cinematic quality.

And Hoff, if you didn't rip this off, you're just lucky you stumbled onto what the Germans already knew and loved. Oh, the whole KITT thing too--what a lucky break THAT was.


Monday, April 14, 2008

The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968): or, I Want My Mommy

After partaking in several of José Mojica Marins's cinematic masterpieces over the past few months, I thought I had a handle on him. Though he displayed a certain fascination with gore and violence, he saved his most devastating assaults for the psychological realm, constructing images of such surreal cognitive disturbance as to make his viewers wonder whether the film were in fact the illusion, or rather that the lives they live every day were thin coverings over the brutal, insane truths that Zé would thrust upon them. The high water mark of this is obviously Awakening of the Beast, the closest thing to bottled insanity ever created by mortal man. Having faced and survived that attack on my very notion of reality, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where Mojica would take me.

I should have realized that Coffin Joe does not rest lightly within any boundary, however far-reaching. He exists as the anti-boundary--he does not break through limits so much as he embodies their very opposite. For proof I point to the 1968 anthology film The Strange World of Coffin Joe (aka O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão) in which Mojica as always goes after the mind, but this time he accompanies that with an assault on the body that would make Romero, Craven, and Cronenberg sit up and say, WTF?!?!

Based on the Brazilian TV show Mojica produced to capitalize on his successes in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul and This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, The Strange World of Coffin Joe presents us with three stories in anthology format. The tales build from a rather conventional EC-comics-style story, through a stylistically experimental departure with patented psychological disturbance, and finally into a depth of depravity and darkness that will shock even the most hardened horror geek. You think I'm overselling this? If so, you don't know Zé.

After a great opening sequence (as usual) in which Coffin Joe expounds upon his contradictory but true philosophies, we're treated to a credits roll over what can only be called a "Hymn to Zé do Caixão." If these songs are compiled anywhere in Brazil, I need the CD. Though not quite as disturbing as other Coffin Joe credit sequences, the use of extreme close-ups and machine-gun edits still serve to knock the viewer off balance in preparation for the attack to come.

The first episode in the anthology, titled "The Doll Maker," is the most conventional of the lot. We start out in a groovy happening in some bar somewhere, with a great band, cool Brazilian rock n' roll surf music, and lots and lots of groping and drinking--an average night in São Paulo, I'm sure. The decadence on display is staggering.

Pillow fights transcend cultural barriers, as does pervy voyeurism.

After a brief scene introducing the titular Doll Maker, we're back at the bar, where a crowd of no-goodniks are up to no good, talking about the old man. He's known for his dolls' realistic eyes, and is purportedly stinking rich. His four daughters, all very young and beautiful, work with him building the dolls at home. Before you can say "Don't do it, you fools!" the plan is hatched--the four bad guys will rob the old man, "have some fun with his daughters," and leave them all in a big steaming pile of tragedy. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

You can probably guess, but the destination is less important than the journey here. The camera work and editing is great in this segment, with extreme close-ups being the order of the day, leading to some interesting, arousing, and often disturbing effects. The Doll Maker's daughters, even while they're being pillaged by the gang, are strangely detached and laconic--only when one notices the crooks' "beautiful eyes" do they come to life, getting into the pillagement and showing the bad guys a good time before the predictable but still satisfying conclusion.

The women are fairly hawt in a 60s way, the sex scenes are enjoyable, and the ghoulish ending shots of the girls viewing the aftermath of their handiwork will stick with you long after the final reel rolls. A very nice beginning, and interesting to see Mojica doing more conventional horror here, still with his own inimitable zest. And I'd be remiss not to mention the music and ambient sounds--most notably the sound of the wind and of a dog barking outside that sounds like a hound of hell--which as always Mojica uses to weird, great effect.

Here's looking at you, kid.

In the second episode, "Tara (Obsession)," we step off the beaten path and never look back. The shortest of the three tales, this piece is done all with music and visuals--no dialog at all. We follow a poverty-stricken hobo who makes his meager living selling balloons in the park, where he sees and becomes obsessed with the beautiful Tara. As he stalks her through the streets of São Paulo, her beauty is unaffected by several shocking scenes that happen around her--a fatal car accident with bloody corpse is followed by a languorous Tara bath scene (zang), and a funeral procession cannot distract the girl from making out with her beefily handsome fiance. Love in the shadow of death, as it were.

However, when Tara marries Beefy Boy while a heartbroken Balloon Man watches, we see that he is not the only obsessed person in Brazil: a woman, presumably jilted by Beefy Boy, assassinates Tara on the steps of the church! For most folks, this would be a tragic end--but Balloon Man's love is not so weak as to be vanquished by something as trivial as death, and once the funeral is over, he creeps into the crypt to show his devotion.

Though the sets in this segment could have been ordered from Plan 9 Set Design Ltd., I still found myself strangely moved by the Balloon Man's plight, even during his transgressive and painstakingly filmed necrophilia session with poor dead Tara. Mojica throws in some expressionistic shots of owls, spiders, and mice, together with some nice lightning effects and the patented Mojica disturbing ambient music to create a strange but compelling mood. A story that on paper I wouldn't have thought I'd find intriguing, but in execution, I did. Kudos.

Even in their later years, Menudo still knew how to strike a pose.

So we've gone conventional, we've gone stylistic/expressionistic--but still, nothing I'd seen before could possibly have prepared me for what came next: the final episode, "Ideology."

With a title like that coming from José Mojica Marins, you know you're in for a wild ride, but just how wild it was still shocked me. Mojica stars as well as directs this one, not as Coffin Joe but as a controversial professor of social studies or something ("Dr. Oaxiac," if you can believe it), who in the beginning of the episode is on a television discussion panel arguing that love does not in fact exist. One expert debating him is sufficiently intrigued by the professor's ideas that he asks to discuss it further after the program is over, so Professor Oaxiac invites him to his house for a "demonstration of his theories," making sure to tell his guest "Bring your wife!"

Again, you may well scream "DON'T DO IT, YOU FOOL!" but to no avail. The TV debater and his lovely wife arrive at the Doc's mansion and are taken down to the dungeon, where Professor Oaxiac stages several "burlesques" of perversion and torture for them, including a strange sexual 3-way with scrub-brushes and a needle-torture scene that had to have been done for real. When the horrified couple tries to leave, the prof's assistant (played by Jose Lobo, the same actor who memorably portrayed the hunchback Bruno in This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse) won't let them. The professor then proceeds to prove his no-love theory in a way that will definitely haunt your dreams and make you question even your own notions of love.

What follows shocked me, I don't mind telling you. More gore than I'd have credited in a film of this vintage, more messed up sexual stuff, and an ending "feast" that had my jaw on the floor. I don't want to spoil it for you, but this was a visceral, mind-fucking, cringe-inducing gorefest second to none. Must be seen to be believed, so see it!

The doctor watches 2 Girls/1 Cup. He is not impressed.

It's rare to find a movie that genuinely shocks while still maintaining its artistic integrity, but Mojica does it here, and delivers the goods that any horror fan should find satisfying. A natural bridge between the Coffin Joe films and the madness of Awakening of the Beast, this is a truly wild anthology show demands attention and reverence, outstripping even This Night... in terms of shocking perversity and eerie, disturbing effectiveness. Like many of Mojica's films this one might be tough to track down--though hopefully the upcoming release of Encarnação do Demônio (check out the trailer at Coffin Joe's Official Site! NSFW!) will change all that--it will reward those who put in the time and effort.

Off the thumb scale, obviously. Wowee wow wow.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Satan's Baby Doll (1982): or, Mummies and Nuns and Yet So Little Fun

If I were the sort of cinematic clergyman who was inclined to judge a DVD by its cover, I would immediately give Satan's Baby Doll a 3-double-plus thumbs awesome award based on that poster art alone. I mean, just LOOK at that image and tell me you aren't tempted to have it tattooed full-size on your back. And if I didn't have a morbid fear of back-wax, I'd be right there with you. Unfortunately the old maxim proves true once again, and no amount of tat-worthy cover art can do anything to rescue this film from its status as the Wooden Spoon Award-winner in the Vicar's Satanpalooza Sweepstakes.

The unanswerable question is, how did Satan's Baby Doll (aka La Bimba di Satana) go so horribly wrong? On paper it sounds like it should be the most amazing slice of Satansploitation sleaze ever slapped on celluloid. In fact as you read the highlights following, you may find yourself thinking, "What are you on about, Vicar? This sounds completely awesome!" And to that I would just have to shake my head and sigh. Yes, it does sound awesome. And yet, it's not. How does that happen?

We open not with a black mass this time, but with a family funeral. A blonde, slightly less-than-middle-aged corpse lies on a bier in the middle of a great room, her presumed family hovering around her corpse like vultures. A beautiful young girl, hair blonde and styled just like the deceased woman's (so you know they're related) enters bearing a white carnation as an obvious symbol of her purity. As she stands over the body of the older woman, the corpse suddenly convulses and the girl screams! Freeze frame, start the credits. So far so good!

Unfortunately that's the last point in the movie where we'll have anything like narrative coherency. Over the next few scenes we see the traumatized girl, Miria (the jaw-dropping Jacqueline Dupré), flee to the arms of nun-in-training Sister Solo (Mariangela Giordano) for comfort. Sol is a live-in nurse for Miria's Uncle Ignazio, who is paralyzed at least from the waist down and must be carted everywhere in a wheelchair. Mira's father, Juan Aguilar, intercepts his brother's morphine supply from family friend Dr. Antonio, and kicks it Bela Lugosi-style in his bedroom, presumably while the cripple suffers.

Olivia Newton John's death metal career was mercifully short-lived.

Uncle Ignazio has his own methods of pain management, however, as he manages to lurch along well enough to peek in on Solo while she's getting out of the habit in her cell. As the nearly-nun undresses--showing off Giordano's rockin' bod and excellent high white stockings (she's in the Order of Our Lady Victoria's Secret, apparently)--we see superimposed images from Uncle's naughty imagination, with Solo going solo on top of the covers. The imaginary sister pleasures herself for Uncle's pleasure--for a LOOOOONG TIME--while in another room Daddy Juan is tripping his brains out and getting as paranoid as a recently-widowed junkie with some dark family secrets to hide. Spurred into action by the smack, Juan busts his crippled brother for peeping on Solo and generally behaves horribly to everyone who crosses his path.

Meanwhile, in another room, a dude dressed as a priest is writhing on the ground as if it's the night of the full moon and he's about to get all hairy on our asses. I had no idea who this fellow was supposed to be (I learned through later research some call him "The Butler"), but he's apparently under a lot of stress, which he works out by rolling around on the floor, crying "I'll save you, Miria!" and biting the heads off live chickens! Hey, in the days before Xanax, you did what you could, I guess.

A little later--or maybe the next day or concurrently with the geek show, who knows?--Miria is still convinced that her mother came to life and looked at her. Brooking none of this nonsense, Juan forces his grieving daughter to view Mom's corpse in the family crypt, with Dr. Antonio in tow to confirm his diagnosis of a case of advanced death. This leads to gratuitous matriarchal corpse nudity and extremely suggestive stethoscopy on Dr. Antonio's part. (Seriously, dude, her daughter is RIGHT THERE, lighten up!) After the widower and bereaved girl leave, Antonio goes to embalm Mama, but when she opens her eyes and suddenly transforms into the nude likeness of young Miria, he's had enough of this crap and blows out a massive coronary. Like you do when faced with a supernaturally hot nude 16-year-old; it's only natural.

"Dude, do you mind? I'm trying to have a moment here."

So the family decides to cover up the doc's death, because--ah, I don't know, and it doesn't really matter. Juan tosses the doc into the family crypt, and everything returns to what passes for normal in the Aguilar household.

Part of what constitutes "normal" in this family is Juan being strung out and horrible ALL THE TIME, taking any opportunity to do or say something monstrously inappropriate. For instance, when he runs into Sister Solo walking in the garden, the greasy junkie leers, "Though you're not a nun yet, I've always dreamed of desecrating a temple!" Get in line, brother. Solo shoots him down with extreme prejudice, which he takes as a personal affront and growls that he will make her HIS. A real Don Juan, this guy.

Back in the crypt, crazy-butler-priest dude--who might also be a member of the family somehow, I really don't know--is rearranging the corpses in the crypt for some reason the director felt best left unexplicated. The corpses look more like mummies, but I'm willing to buy that it's just aristocratic grave wrappings and go with it. Meanwhile in her bedroom Miria is having trouble sleeping, and so decides to pass the time by copping a langorous self-feel--like you do--for a long, LOOOOONNNG time. As she's got an even better bod than Solo this is a welcome reprieve from the incoherencies, though the fact that she's meant to be underage makes things a bit iffy in the ethical spanking realm.

Down in the crypt Butler is molesting the mummies, again rambling about "saving Miria," though how his necrophilia is supposed to help is anyone's guess. Finally the possession plot comes into full swing, as masturbating Miria hears Mom's voice from beyond the grave, saying "Come, Miria! Kill, Miria! It is your mother who orders you!" Talk about a mood killer. Miria heads down to the crypt, re-animates one of the mummies and puts an end to Butler's nonsensical suffering. The gist of it is, Mom has possessed Miria, presumably through satanic and/or witchy powers--though we haven't heard anything about her being a Satanist or a witch before her death. I'm extrapolating here.

Portly Pajama-Man vs. the Aztec Mummy

Back in Uncle Ignazio's room, it's time for his sponge bath! While Sister Sol soaps him up--including several flashes of graphic flaccid peen bath happening--he dreams of more nun-fun, which looks like the same footage we saw before. (Not that I'm complaining.) Juan poops the party once again, barging in to molest Sol in front of his brother, the paralyzed man stop him!

Blah blah blah, Juan has withdrawal, we learn that the Uncle had an affair with Mamma Maria before his accident, which led Juan to retaliate, causing his brother's paralysis. Paranoid Juan leaves his brother to starve in the crypt, but possessed Miria comes to the rescue--or to the fondle, as it were, in a typically nonsensical scene. I think the brother dies here, but honestly, it all fuzzes together.

So it comes out that Mamma and Solo had an affair too, and in his jealousy Juan throws Sister Sol into the crypt (that's your answer for everything!) before Maria appears to Juan--nude, of course--to take her final revenge on him for poisoning her before the opening credits. Maria comes on to Juan hard, and then just as he's succumbing to the seduction, she turns back into Miria for a nice icky incest vibe. The horrified, horrible man runs madly away from his daughter--clearly-seen peen swingin' in the breeze--and takes a header off the balcony to his death.

With Sol the only person left alive, you think it's all over--but for some reason the sister goes down to say goodbye to Maria's corpse, which possesses Miria again and teases with some lesbonic beyond-the-grave action. Then Sol is pushed down on Maria's (actual) body, the corpse embraces her, crushing the life from her and effectively ending the movie.

Now, if you can go through all that and tell me WTF it was supposed to be about, by all means, feel free.

"Read my lips: I. CAN'T. FUCKING. FLY."

The nearest I can figure, Satan's Baby Doll is like one of those 80s body-switch comedies, except here the older person possessing the younger wants bloody revenge instead of a chance to dance the Charleston one more time. But without George Burns's buoyant personality and amazing dance steps, this one falls flat on its face. There's absolutely NO Satan on display here, possibly (but not necessarily) witchcraft, but pretty much it's just weird things happening for no good or well-defined reason. And while the lurid scenes described above might sound pretty good on their own, the long stretches of boring pointlessness rob them of their punch, and in the end even the imaginary nunsterbation and Miria's gorgeous nekkidity can't salvage it. And there's little-to-no gore either, which is just one more strike against it.

Unfortunately, and despite its great poster, Satan's Baby Doll was a very anticlimactic end to the Satanpalooza. If I had it to do again, I'd watch them in reverse order, building slowly through this one to the better blasphemies of Satan's Slave and ending up with the brain-battering evil of Satan's Blood. But on whichever end I watched Satan's Baby Doll, the judgement would be the same: 1 thumb, fast forward to the nudie parts and the mummy attack and skip the rest. You'll be glad you did.

Nota bene: According to my sources, Satan's Baby Doll is a remake of the wonderfully titled Malabimba, the Malicious Whore (1972), which also saw a mother's spirit possessing her young nubile daughter, but this time with hardcore inserts to keep the viewer engaged. I can totally see how this would improve things.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Satan's Slave (1976): or, Don't Let Your Uncle Get Your Goat

After being reduced to a quivering pile of happy-goo by the previous entry in my three-pronged Satanpalooza, Satan's Blood, I needed something a bit less frenetic to allow me to regain my strength and again be able to function in the world of normal human beings. In my weakened state I knew I could not withstand another bazooka-blast of blasphemy on a level with that inhumanly awesome Spanish horror, so it was with unsteady hands that I loaded the next volume in my Satanic triple feature: the 1976 British devil-worship rarity, Satan's Slave. I could only hope that, true to their cultural stereotype, the English would be a bit more reserved and proper than their brothers across the channel and to the South.

Directed by Norman J. Warren (who also helmed the mmmmmemorable Alien homage Inseminoid), Satan's Slave starts off in almost exactly the same way Satan's Blood did: in the middle of a Black Mass! Warren's high priest of Satan is less interested in rape than oration, however, as he intones Doomsday prayers in a deep sonorous voice that is only slightly muffled by his amazing full-head goat mask (with patented Devil-Lite Eye Bulbs!). Once again a nubile young sacrifice is led to the altar, this time willingly, ready to accept the dark spirits the Priest is invoking into her earthly form.

For Warren this is another opportunity to assault the crotch of his female thespian, as the High Priest probes between her legs with a black-bladed sword! It's not a giant transparent Inseminoid cock, but I guess it'll have to do. (And Norman, see somebody about this fascination of yours. Really, people are starting to notice.) The invocation goes wrong, as invocations will, and the girl dies a horrible screaming death just before the opening credits roll.

The most popular guy at the Dio concert.

Next we find ourselves in a swingin' bachelor pad, where intense aristocratic Stephen Yorke (Martin Potter, who played Lord Carlisle in the previously-reviewed de Sade adaptation Cruel Passion) is plying a young Anglobabe with drinks and inviting her to stay as long as she'd like. She agrees but soon has cause to regret it, as Stephen half-smothers her, gags and ties her, cuts off her clothes and teases her naked flesh with a pair of scissors! (At one point he even makes as if to snip off a nipple, a very tense and unpleasant scene.) She manages to escape her bonds and flee down the stairs, but is stopped just short of freedom when Stephen slams the front door on her head and then stabs her repeatedly in an all-out psycho-frenzy!

Seriously, Norman: GET HELP.

Still reeling from that double-barreled opening, we are allowed to take a breather as we zip over to London to find a gorgeous young lady extracting herself from her lover's bed and getting dressed. The girl is Catherine Yorke (the heart-breakingly beautiful Candace Glendenning, also featured in The Flesh and Blood Show and the Vicar's "happy dreams"), and she's got to meet her parents for a cross country trip to visit her estranged Uncle Alexander, whom her father hasn't seen since they were boys. Since she'll be at her uncle's house on her 20th birthday--a fact you just know is going to become significant--her boyfriend (played by the wonderfully-named Michael Craze) gives her a family heirloom bracelet as a gift and a sign of his honorable intentions. After teasing her about hearing voices ("They're premonitions!" Catherine corrects him, again significantly), he kisses her goodbye and she's off to meet the folks.

On the road trip down we get a little more exposition about the family, with more mysterious hints as to the cause of the estrangement. We learn Uncle Alexander is very wealthy doctor and a widower, and we get some cool Charlie Brown jazz traveling music as the Yorkes make their leisurely way north. Tragedy is in the offing, though--as they approach the palatial estate, Dad has some sort of seizure causing him to crash the car into a tree in Uncle Alex's front yard. Catherine runs to get help, only to have the car explode as soon as she's cleared the blast radius! Suddenly orphaned, Catherine collapses in the arms of her uncle.

It's a bat! It's a priest! No, it's SATAN-MAN!

As Catherine recuperates from the shock of seeing her parents go up in a fiery cataclysm, we discover that psycho Stephen is her cousin, and is involved in some kind of power-struggle sexual affair with his dad's secretary Frances. Uncle Alexander (played with Ian McKellan dignity and a kickin' fake 'stache by the excellent Michael Gough) is kind but domineering, dictating all facets of her care and barely giving her a choice as to whether she'll stay at his estate or not. (She does.)

They bury Catherine's parents in the family plot, giving Catherine a chance to have a vision of a nude witch being whipped and branded near a graveyard oak! Not long afterwards she discovers an ancient grave with the name "Camilla Yorke" etched in the weather-worn stone. Coincidence? I think not.

We get a few scenes of Frances and Stephen having intense psycho-lovers' spats, and a mysterious figure steals Catherine's bracelet in order to cast a hex on her boyfriend back in London. The cursed BF goes through all sorts of mental anguish in an elevator before walking off his apartment building's rooftop to splatter most graphically on the concrete below! Catherine has a disturbing dream involving nudity, snakes, and several unknown women, and before you know it she's fallen into Stephen's arms and started testing the boundaries of familial love. (Again, whether this is incest or not depends on your local laws.)

And so, the Rooftop-Rave dance Craze came to an end.

In a LOT more time than it takes to tell it, we learn that Uncle Alex is the Satanic High Priest, and has been planning for years to resurrect his powerful ancestress Camilla Yorke in order to profit from her power. He'd tried once before with his wife--presumably in the pre-credits ceremony, but we all know how THAT worked out. Worse, the then-7-year-old Stephen witnessed the ceremony, leading to his subsequent mental problems and general stabby behavior. (We get a WILD montage here of Stephen's previous killings that's pretty entertaining in a sick way.) Since Catherine is a direct descendant of Camilla, Unc figures he'll have better luck with her if they hold the mass on the night she turns twenty--the same age as Camilla when she died. See, I knew something like that would come up!

Though it all sounds pretty wild and frenetic, actually the movie is pretty slow-paced, sometimes nearly grinding to a halt before some surprising piece of perversity or gore pops up to keep you from nodding off. The final struggle and ceremony, for instance, features some appealingly creepy coven members and an unexpectedly brutal eye gouge that almost make up for the repetition and drowsiness that comes before. But the downbeat ending is more confusing than awesome, and might leave a more critical viewer wondering what the point of all that was meant to be.

Still, Candace Glendenning is stunning and worth watching eat a bowl of cereal, and those few wild set-pieces and Michael Gough's good performance raise Satan's Slave out of the "skip it" pile. Also, the version I watched was ATROCIOUSLY panned-and-scanned (sometimes all you see of two conversing characters are the tips of their noses on either side of the frame), and I couldn't help feeling that had I watched it in widescreen I might have had a much more satisfying experience with it. (I know, Karswell, beggars and choosers!)

So I give Satan's Slave 2 thumbs, worth watching at least once, especially if you're a fan of movies about cults, movies about witchcraft, or movies featuring Candace Glendenning. And if you're not--well, I just don't know what to say to you.


Tune in tomorrow for the final review in the Vicar's Satanpalooza! Has he saved the best for last?


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