Monday, September 29, 2008

Frightmare (1974): or, Must Have Been Something She Et

After watching and enjoying Pete Walker's mistitled but still-interesting thriller Die Screaming Marianne, and then LOVING his gore-and-booby-filled horror flick The Flesh and Blood Show, I had high hopes for his 1974 terror trip Frightmare. I mean, just look at that poster. Creepy old woman holding a bloody power tool, the font of the film's title itself shattering under the onslaught of HORROR--it just had to be good, right?

Well, perhaps it was a case of expecting too much, or maybe the Vicar was just a little down this week, but somehow this Walker effort just didn't come together for me. In spite of a seemingly can't-fail set of ingredients--Beautiful sisters at one another's throats! A dark family secret! Abandoned carnival grounds! Ultra-mod bikers!--it managed to wind its way through all the reveals and a few reasonably gory set-pieces without making the strong impression it was probably trying for.

It's a shame, because the film starts out very strong. After a bright color shot of "LONDON, 1957," we're suddenly thrust into a black-and-white flashback in which hapless sap Barry (Andrew Sachs of Fawlty Towers fame!) is walking through the aforementioned abandoned carnival, his brows knit with purpose. There are few things creepier for my money than an abandoned or empty carnival, and the crane shots here showing Barry traipse across the strangely silent grounds are full of atmospheric possibility. Finally he comes to a dingy-looking trailer and knocks at the door. After a moment it opens, and Barry tells the unseen inhabitant that he "needs help" as he's in "rather a mess." As soon as the door shuts, Walker gives us a strange but cool montage of the grubby interior of the trailer--unwashed dishes, fluttering drapes, fortune-telling posters on the walls--all to some creepy minimalist piano music. Again, great stuff that gets even greater when we track over to the bench by the door where Barry sits, half his head mangled to a bloody pulp! The door opens and closes, and we're off!


Not very far, though, as we suddenly find ourselves at the Old Bailey where a bewigged judge is pronouncing sentence on an unseen husband-and-wife team. Though the husband was not involved in the murders, the judge intones, he's still culpable as an enabler. His honor is inclined to pronounce a death sentence, but since they're both obviously koo-koo, he instead sends them to an institution for the criminally insane until such time as they can be proven cured. An extreme close-up of the still-unknown hubby and wife's hands clasping, and CREDITS.

If you've been paying attention you know I'm a sucker for a good credit sequence, and I like the one Walker gives us here--a deck of tarot cards are dealt out, a different card with each credit, some of them seeming to make a comment on the credit being shown. (For instance "DEATH" falls under the film's title, and when Walker's director's credit rolls around, "THE DEVIL" turns up. Nice.) It's not the booty-shakin' grooviness of Die Screaming Marianne's credits, but then what is?

Next we're whisked away to full-color present-day, where a Totally Mod Motorcycle gang is pulling up to the Toby Jug, a groovy pub and dance joint in swingin' 70s London. The chief troublemakers in the group are little Debbie and her Biking Boyfriend. When the barman refuses to serve the obviously underaged Debbie, she reports the insult to her Boyfriend, whose rage at the conscientious drink dispenser gets them all tossed from the club. The ne'er-do-wells lie in wait for the barman after closing time, though, and give him a vicious beatdown that leaves him bloodied and helpless. They scarper when an old man threatens to ring the constabulary, but Debbie stays behind a moment to say her goodbyes...

Debbie Has That Certain Flare

Meanwhile Debbie's sister Jackie is at a stuffy dinner party with stuffy friends, including Matthew, a goofy-looking dweeb of a psychiatrist to whom she is inexplicably attracted, despite his hyper-analytical emotionless bearing and distinctly unflattering spectacles. After dinner Jackie comes home, has a venom-laden confrontation with her kid sister, and then heads out again on a mysterious errand in the wee hours.

The mystery is soon solved when we discover that Jackie and Debbie are the daughters of the couple from the b&w prologue, who have just been released from the asylum after 15 years (which is EXACTLY Debbie's age, it turns out); her nocturnal errand is to visit them at the country farmhouse they now call home. Her father Edmund is played by British character actor Rupert Davies as a kind, congenial sort who is slavishly devoted to the still batshit-crazy mother Dorothy (Walker regular Sheila Keith). Jackie has brought a mysterious package for Mum and warns Dad that "Debbie suspects" something amiss. On the train ride home Jackie has an unsettling dream in which a gothed-out Dorothy cradles the package like a baby in her arms, leaving tell-tale spots of blood in her wake.

Up to this point (and indeed, mostly throughout) Pete Walker's direction is very creepy and disturbing--odd angles and dissolves, minimalistic scoring, and strange imagery put together with an expert's touch as each new piece of the puzzle comes into view. The weird family dynamic between Edmund and Dorothy is well-drawn too, as the kindhearted old man seems powerless in the face of his wife's insanity, desperately worried that she'll have a relapse even though she's been certified sane.

"Go on, take it! It's Brain Food!"

Well, it wouldn't be much of a movie if Dorothy DIDN'T relapse, and she wastes no time in getting round to it. Taking up her old hobby of telling fortunes via the magic of the Tarot, Dorothy lures unsuspecting lonely women to the farmhouse while Edmund's out being a chauffeur for some rich guy. Though it takes a while to get there, we eventually learn that Mum is offing her clients with a power drill (She can't help it! The DEATH card keeps coming up!) and stowing their bodies in the farm's hay bin for some nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Jackie learns from Dad that her still-mysterious packages are not having the desired effect--whatever that might be--and Jackie's psychiatrist admirer decides to stick his nose into the whole mess in a well-meaning but predictably disastrous way.

Along the way we also learn that Debbie is a chip off the ol' maternal block, as after an unproductive session with the police she leads her biker BF to a locked garage where she's stowed the body of the Beaten Barman, having murdered him and gouged out his eye post-smackdown! Mirroring this, Mum gets another attractive Tarot client and skewers her with a hot poker before drinking her blood, which she finds hard to explain when Edmund comes in and catches her in the act. ("It's my MEE-Graines!" she offers, unhelpfully.) Thereafter she reveals her stash of corpses in the hay to her husband, who ruefully but dutifully cleans things up and assists in the removal of the fresh body, thus falling back into that murderous co-dependency that got them where they are in the first place.

Meanwhile Matthew has taken matters into his own hands and gone to the asylum where Jackie's parents were committed to speak to the head headshrinker, Dr. Lytell, played by DSM's The Judge, the inimitable Leo Genn! (He's much more subdued and less fabulous here than in that other movie.) We also learn the Big Secret of Mum's incarceration thanks to a wonderfully casually delivered line from the chief inspector: "She was a cannibal...The fact is, she et people." Now we know why she held onto the remains! Haystacks? Hay-SNACKS, more like!

Nellie's reaction upon stumbling into the Vicar's Study was sadly typical.

The whole thing drags a bit toward the final confrontation. We learn that Jackie's been bringing Mum cow and pig brains to eat (the "packages"), telling her that they were human and leading her to believe that she, Jackie, was carrying on the family butchery business. Mum's smarter than they give her credit for, however, and in the big twist (Spoilers!) has tracked down Debbie and recruited her as an apprentice psychopathic murderer, a trade for which the girl has no small knack. The whole thing ends in tragedy and bloodshed, of course, with a downer ending of the sort that will appeal to many fans and a sort of touching fade out of Edmund, still powerless to stop his wife's insanity, resigned to being there for her anyway like a good husband should.

Frightmare is a well-made movie with some really cool visuals sprinkled here and there, and even some nice chunky gore on the post-mortem victims. The twisted family here, sort of a "Suburban Sawney Beane gone matriarchal," is a neat idea too. Still, I found myself a little bit bored by the end. It's fairly linear in its storytelling, which is not a bad thing in itself, but then everything plays out pretty much exactly as expected with few deviations or curveballs to divert you--even Debbie's involvement doesn't really surprise, as she's been a bloodthirsty psychobabe since square one.

Walker seems to have an axe to grind about the psychological health care system here, as Genn's Dr. Lytell says more than once, "Oh, we had to let them go--they were CERTIFIED SANE!", and the judge's pronouncement that the couple be held until they're "PROVEN ABSOLUTELY SANE" is echoed again in v.o.-flashback at the ending. It feels like Walker's poking you in the ribs going, "See? See? They SAY these nutso killers are sane, but they're NOT! And they LET THEM OUT ANYWAY! See? See? Get it?" It's an observation without weight, however, as from her first appearance it's pretty unbelievable that any doctor would have let Dot out of the looney bin without a second glance. Perhaps it was thrown in as a bone to the "social significance" cravers in the audience and on the censorship board. Or maybe it just popped up in the coke-fueled screenwriting binge and stuck.

Good CRAZYFACES run in the family.

Anyway, for me Frightmare was quite a letdown after The Flesh and Blood Show and Die Screaming Marianne, so I have to give it only 1.75 thumbs--fans of Walker's and people who like this sort of thing might find something to like, but I like my cannibalistic family dramas a bit more MAD than this one gets. Jaded? Perhaps--but I know what I like.

Oh well. I still have House of Whipcord on the shelf. Where there's life, there's hope...


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Animated Horror and People You Should Get To Know

Unfortunately responsibilities around the Vicarage have prevented your ever-lovin' Vicar from partaking in the bounty of MMMMMovies stored in the cathedral vaults as much as he would like this week--suffice to say that the Holy Water Cistern has sprung a leak and the Papal Plumber won't be in till the weekend, causing no end of soggy cassocks and dissolving undead servingmen. As if it weren't hard ENOUGH to find good help! However, until I can deliver my next sermon, I thought I'd take some time to point out a few things of interest to the congregation.

First of all, thanks to Vicar-buddy Gator for pointing me toward this trailer for the upcoming movie Fear(s) of the Dark, an animated horror anthology that looks UH-MAZING. With artists like Charles Burns (whose excellent Black Hole is required reading), Marie Caillou, and others, this is going to be some beautiful, powerful nightmare fuel, methinks.

Also, thanks to blogger's newfangled "Followers" gadget on the right sidebar (though the Duke and I prefer the terms "Parishioners and Subjects"), we've been able to get to know many of the people who enjoy MMMMMovies and reciprocate the enjoyment by visiting some of their excellent sites. For instance...

  • In addition, parishioner Professor Grewbeard offers a shot of wonderful nostalgia over at Magic Carpet Burn, with scans of the old Collegeville Costume catalogs the elder among us remember well and with undying love. The Costuminatrix looks at horror with an eye to fashion at her excellent blog The Fashion Victim. MJWho's Plan9 From offers lots of appealing weirdness, and even though I can't (yet) read French, I can still tell that Ghidora at Acheter et entretenir sa tronçonneuse and I are speaking the same language.
  • Finally, our newest friend is Kerry Kate at October Effigies, a truly wonderful showplace of truly wonderful art in the form of CREEPY DOLLS. If you're looking for a gift for the little girl who has everything but something to give her nightmares for the rest of her life, this is the place to go. Even if not, browse around--it's fascinating, beautiful, horrific stuff.
So while we're waiting for the Vicarage to be restored and for more madness to flow from my temporarily blocked tap--ooer--check out some of these great horror blogs. And check back here every now and then--soon more madness will be unleashed, that I swear. ;)

Nota Bene: followers who were not mentioned are nonetheless fabulous, wonderful people who should receive all praise and sexual favors. Present a print-out of this post at the Duchy to collect.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Private Parts (1972): or, I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watchin' Me

Voyeurism. Is there a better or more fruitful, disturbing sexual metaphor for the filmmaking and filmwatching enterprise? Is it even a metaphor? Long before Hitchcock's Rear Window, long before Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, long LONG before De Palma's Body Double and the countless lesser rip-offs, the idea of the movie-goer's gaze as an invasive, more-than-a-little perverse one was well established. Hell, one of the first films ever presented commercially to the public, the Thomas Edison Company's 47 second-long, 1896 effort The Kiss (aka The May Irwin Kiss, aka The Rice-Irwin Kiss, aka The Widow Jones) was decried by moral guardians as pornographic, corrupting, and generally a herald of the decline of morality in Western Civilization. (Turns out they were right. Go fig.) Yes, our discomfort with and simultaneous attraction to watching something we probably shouldn't be has been a part of movie history since its very rose-fingered dawn.

Over the years directors of all nationalities and artistic skill-levels have tackled the subject, sometimes turning the camera back on the viewer and shaming him or her for enjoying the filth paraded before the lens (the recent Funny Games and its remake are well-known examples of this; the pretty-good but not as well-known indie flick The Last Horror Movie is another), other times merely using the concept of voyeurism in a metacritical way to comment on their own movies while still in the process of telling a story. Paul Bartel's 1972 horror/thriller Private Parts falls into this latter category, I think, though to his credit the director never leans so heavily on the metacritical as to get in the way of the story he's trying to tell. It's more a garnish than a main course, and the entree for the most part is fairly satisfying--albeit with a slightly fishy aftertaste.

Bartel sets up the voyeurism motif from the very beginning, with an artfully done credits sequence consisting of high-contrast photographs of men and women in various states of undress or sexual congress, all seemingly unposed and washed over with bright, garish colors. After the director's credit fades, the scene on screen--a bright red print of a muscular male ass between spread feminine thighs--fades from duochrome into living color, and we find ourselves peeking in on a passionate sex scene! We're not the only ones, apparently, as a giggle from offscreen alerts the lovers there's someone else in the room. The boyfriend, a bearded beefy boy with perfectly permed hair and NO tan lines, leaps out of bed toward the camera, threatening to reveal his disengaged coupling gear to us all, not thirty seconds in! Luckily (for some of us) Bartel then cuts to the curtains by the window, where we see two tell-tale tennis shoes under the edge of the drapes. Beefy Boy pulls the voyeur out by her ankles, thus introducing us to our protagonist Cheryl (always pronounced with the hard "CH"--"CH-CH-CHAIR-UHL") played with skinny ripe-for-the-plucking innocence by Ayn Ruymen.

Cheryl's roommate Judy is NOT amused, since apparently this isn't the first time Cheryl has slipped in for a surreptitious peek at the poke. (It must be said that Judy, while she possesses a decent 70s sexpot body of which we get more than a glimpse as she rolls around with Beefy Boy, has a face like a female Peanuts character grown-up and gone whorish.) In a manic rage of Lucy Van Pelt-ish proportions, Judy instructs her naked boyfriend to "Strip her!", apparently seeing rape as the only just punishment in this situation. To his credit Beefy Boy draws the line there and tries to calm his psychopathic girlfriend down, giving Cheryl the opportunity to escape with a few clothes, her teddy bear, and Judy's red leather wallet--pay attention kids, it's a plot point.

"You think you can kick MY fucking football? FORGET IT, BITCH!"

Alone in LA without a place to stay, Cheryl decides to look up her estranged Aunt Martha, who runs The King Edward Hotel--a great old inn that retains intimations of its opulent past despite its present-day squalidity. Aunt Martha is a pudgy battle-axe with a thick country churchwoman accent, despite repeated claims that the family is originally from Ohio. Martha is reluctant at first to take her niece in, quickly and correctly deducing that she's run away from home and found nothing but trouble in the City. Cheryl's pleas and promises of good behavior eventually wear the old woman down, though, and Martha finally gives Cheryl a room and a stern warning: "Promise not to wander around the hotel alone--this is no place for a little girl!"

Judging from the glimpses we get of the King Edward's residents, she ain't just whistlin' Dixie. Cheryl's barely entered the lobby before she meets a Flamingly Gay Priest with an avuncular manner and admirably wide CRAZY EYES. A handsome but creepy young man watches her wordlessly as she climbs the stairs, his half-lidded eyes wet with menace. And a crazy old woman insists on calling Cheryl "Alice," a name Aunt Martha is pointedly unwilling to allow into conversation. A viewer might easily believe Cheryl would be better off staying in her room.

That is, until the viewer SEES the room and goes through the first night with our heroine. Decorated in Early American Brothel, the room seems paradoxically cavernous and cramped, the shadows thrown by the lamplight closing around the antique brass bed like solid walls. The bathroom down the hall is not much better, with its dingy-hospital tile, questionably stained ceramic tub and startling full-length mirror. When a drunken resident bangs forcefully on the door and lets out a string of obscenities as Cheryl is preparing for her bath, his unseen hostility is powerful and disturbing. Unwashed, she flees back to her room and lies awake through the night, hearing arguments through the walls, sirens outside the window, and strange creaks coming from the presumably empty storage room next door.

My Colleague, The Bishop of Buttsecks

Bartel uses some truly effective and disorienting low-angle shots along with smothering shadow and knife-like beams of light to create a very unsettling atmosphere and make the viewer feel how vulnerable Cheryl is, alone in an unknown place, surrounded by God-knows-what terrors.

Things get even more unsettling when Beefy Boy shows up looking for Cheryl, hoping to get the wallet back from her before Judy finds her and things get even more ugly than usual. The bearded bodybuilder comes off as a solid, even good-natured sort of fellow, oblivous to the Gay Priest's hilariously suggestive questions when he meets him in the lobby; really, he only wants to keep Cheryl from getting into even more shit with her former friend. This makes his SUDDEN AND STARTLING DECAPITATION even harder to take...though no less awesome. (<--Spoilers!)

With the creepiness and real physical danger to our heroine firmly established, now we can move on. Aunt Martha regales her niece over an unappetizing dinner with tales of the past and pictures of her unnamed daughter as a baby. "You and Uncle Orville had a girl?" Cheryl asks, leading to the first of many strange interludes from Auntie M. "Not Orville," Martha replies. "Just me. He was too old. We went to a doctor and worked it out another way. Didn't need Orville." Adoption? Artificial insemination? Cloning? Schtupping the doc in the exam room? These questions are left unanswered, along with Cheryl's query about the fate of Martha's little girl. "I guess you'd say she's in the Lord's hands," Martha quips cryptically. Hmmm....


Meanwhile the weirdnesses of hotel life get ratcheted up several notches. The sounds continue from the locked storage room, the Gay Priest displays an unwholesome interest in numerology, more hints about the mysterious Alice emerge, Cheryl meets George, the creepy dude from the lobby who is a professional photographer and doesn't get any less disturbing upon acquaintance, and Aunt Martha reveals herself to be a funeral fetishist, going to funerals for people she doesn't know in order to enjoy the service and take pictures. "I try to capture the exact moment when the spirit leaves the body!" she enthuses. Whatever melts your butter, Auntie. Furthermore, Cheryl discovers that instead of having a Gideon's Bible in her nightstand, she has a typewritten manuscript entitled Desire in the Shadows, complete with handwritten notes especially for her! Porn evangelism--an idea whose time has come.

During one of Aunt Martha's funereal outings, Cheryl is left in charge of her aunt's pet rat Whitey and told not to leave the kitchen. She's not rat-sitting for long before Whitey is electrocuted on a set of booby-trapped keys over the stove, which of course only piques the young girl's curiosity. Gaining the keys with the help of a nonconductive broom handle, Cheryl decides to spend the afternoon snooping around the hotel, ostensibly to find guests' handwriting samples to compare to the notes in her Gideon's Porn, but actually furthering her own voyeuristic desires and those of the audience.

One of the first places she goes is the mysterious locked storage room, which she finds full of piles of trash, its walls riddled with peepholes--on the bathroom, the hall outside, and of course her own bedroom as well! She also finds large, high-resolution prints of the mysterious Alice (the photos are labeled, helpfully, "Alice"), a beautiful blonde with big breasts and a slightly mischievous smile. Hmm...big arty boob'd have to be a professional photographer to get prints like those, wouldn't you?


Following her hunch she moseys down the hall to George's room, where she finds more gigantic pictures of Alice's boobs as well as a groovy television set ensconced in a giant print of two feminine lips. (Seriously, it's awesome; I've got my people working on a 37-inch version right now.) As she leaves the room, we the viewers see George himself sneaking out of an armoire, where he's been watching the watcher. A peeper peeping on the peeper peeping him! That's meta, bitchez!

Cheryl also invades the Flaming Gay Priest's room, which she finds littered with holy icons and muscle porn. (The altar with its votives always burning stands right next to an alcove full of gay bondage snaps, and a giant stand-up cut-out of a muscleboy lies on the ground next to a bed over which hangs a pair of antlers. This guy is LIVING THE DREAM.) Having struck out on her amateur graphology quest, Cheryl scuttles back to the kitchen before Aunt Martha gets back.

In the next few scenes we get to see Cheryl enjoying the knowledge her voyeuristic ways have gained her, making knowing comments to tenants and their visitors and smiling while they squirm. (She even makes a comment to one of the Gay Priest's gentlman callers that gets the harmless kook beat up--not cool, CHAIRUL.) But she gets as well as she gives, as her not-so-secret admirer leaves her lingerie and more notes, asking her to "perform" for him while he watches through the walls. Cheryl is as excited by being watched as she is by watching, and readily agrees, deducing correctly that George the Shutterbug is her Knight in Shadowy Spaces.

"You, eh? Candid photography? 'He asked her knowingly!' Eh?"

Unfortunately for her, George has more than one fetish, as we learn in one of the freakier sex scenes it's been my pleasure to witness recently. Voyeuristically, we watch as the lone and obviously agitated George fills a transparent vinyl inflatable love doll with water, dresses it in lingerie identical to Cheryl's "gift," and pastes an enlarged photo of her face on its featureless head! Before you have time to wonder what kind of heat retention a thing like that would have--well, almost--George has stroked and fondled the thing and got himself into such a state that there's only one thing he can do...PULL OUT A SYRINGE, TAKE A FEW CCs OF BLOOD FROM HIS ARM, AND INJECT IT ROUGHLY INTO THE CROTCH OF THE DOLL! Bartel gives us a shot from below as the water in the doll goes from clear to crimson, with the photo of Cheryl's horrified face staring down from the background. YIKES. I think we just pegged the Disturbo-Meter.

So now knowing what lies in wait for our unwary Cherry, we get more clues about Alice (I think we can guess by now what happened to her), a visit from Judy that ends badly for her in the basement darkroom, Cheryl going out on a date with a square kid who used to know Alice, and more weirdness from Aunt Martha, culminating in a strangely moving soliloquy where we start to wonder if George is the only psycho in the apartment block:

"Cheryl dear--when you're older, you'll realize that the body is a prison that traps and bends the natural spirit to its will. It makes us weak, or sick, or ugly; it makes us into men, or women, or whatever it likes, whether we like it or not."


Anyway, it all ends up in a wild finish in George's studio that's not really a twist--if you've been paying attention or have seen a big-budget Meyer flick in your life, it's pretty well telegraphed--but is nonetheless weird and disturbing. If it had faded out here, this would be a near-three thumb flick for sure.

But unfortunately it DOESN'T end there--after the climax, we get another five to ten minutes of the square kids' dad bringing the police to the King Edward and discovering the carnage upstairs, which occurs with such a drastic shift in tone that it's really kind of incomprehensible. Up until now we've had an occasionally eccentric but pretty much straightforward psycho-thriller, with a serious somber tone and artfully disturbing cinematography; but for this coda Bartel brings in a few members of his comedy troupe and treats the whole thing like some kind of vaudevillian farce, with overblown Jewish accents, slapstick, smirking one-liners, and a fairly stupid ending for no good reason I can see. I mean, I know he later made his name with the black comedy cannibalism flick Eating Raoul, but come on--this is just jarring.

Still, for the most part the movie is an excellent excercise in moody lighting, suggestive score, strange visuals and eccentric plotting that hits more often than it misses, with those added layers of voyeuristic commentary to give it some intellectual flavor. And it's been a while since we had a good disturbing dummy in a movie, it has to be said. So I give Private Parts 2.5 thumbs--like many private parts, this one's well worth having a look at.




Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Dracula Saga (1972): or, Keep It in the Family

Every day, in every way, I find new reasons to thank God for that fateful afternoon I found a $1 copy of Paul Naschy's Vengeance of the Zombies in the Halloween bin at my local discount store. Not only did that purchase introduce me to the fantastic, uplifting, and life-affirming movies of Jacinto "Mighty Mighty" Molina--his legendary cursed nobleman Waldemar Daninksy, his evil-to-the-core sorcerer-knight Alaric de Marnac, and the rest of his unique, awe-inspiring filmography--it has since helped open my eyes to whole realms of the fantastique that otherwise might have remained dark to me. That seemingly chance discovery many Octobers ago has changed my life, and awakened me to pleasures that have enriched my experience of mad mad mad mad movies in ways I cannot even begin to catalogue properly.

That movie also introduced me to the cinematic vision of Argentina-born director León Klimovsky, who helmed not only VotZ but also collaborated with Naschy on Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf, The Devil's Possessed, A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, and all-time Vicar-fave The Werewolf versus the Vampire Women. With a true painter's eye for eerie, effective compositions and striking supernatural imagery, Klimovsky helped shape the Naschy legacy and doubtless influenced Molina's own directorial style when he finally stepped behind the camera himself.

But of course Naschy made movies without Klimovsky, and so did Klimovsky without Naschy--and if his 1972 spooky vampire tale The Dracula Saga (released in the US this year by Deimos DVD, which has also been putting out excellent editions of many of Naschy's great films) is representative of the rest of his body of work, he is a director whose name every fan of horror, the fantastique, and the MAD should hold in even higher reverence.

We open with some very stylish titles--black background marred by a splash of brilliant red blood, growing larger with each subsequent drip. Simple, classic, beautiful. Count Dracula himself speaks to us in voice-over, recalling a time when the Dracula family was all but extinct. Fearing an end of the aristocratic bloodline, the Count's great-grandfather (the previous Count Dracula) sends for his newly married and 5-months-knocked-up granddaughter Berta and her skinny blond slip of a husband Hans to visit the castle where Berta grew up and, he hopes, stay long enough to drop an heir to the Dracula line.

On the coach ride to Bistritz, Berta is plagued by horrible, wonderful nightmares. Shot through what looks like one of those marbled glass mirrors your grandma had in the 70s, the visions find Berta running through an abandoned, sunlit house, in a seemingly endless Hall of Doors. Every now and then she opens a door to find a hideous, hissing Man-Bat creature waiting for her! The freakiness of which is not to be understated. She awakens with a start in Hans's spindly arms, only to find that the horses have been spooked by something and refuse to go any closer to the Borgho Pass. However, the feisty coachman offers to walk with them the mile or so into the village, carrying their bags himself, since obviously neither Berta nor Hans has the physical strength to manage it.

The Man(bat) of Her Dreams

In the village we get the requisite superstitious townspeople, including a long-haired hunchback type who regales the travellers with tales of lamias in the woods and an abandoned churchyard fifteen leagues distant whose eerie bell can be still be heard, rung by no human hand. "The cemetery of Vlad Tepes," he warns them, "is inhabited only by the dead!" Well, duh. Despite the nice, creepy warning, the travelers decide to continue on foot to their final destination.

Soon they're off traipsing through the creepy woods, and a soundtrack blast of that famous sampled wolf howl tells us that something evil's afoot. (At least we can infer the creepiness from the soundtrack--the pristine digital print Deimos has given us, while it gives us some truly gorgeous colors and creepy contrasts later, certainly doesn't do the day-for-night cinematography any favors.) Sure enough the pair soon stumble over the body of a peasant girl--topless, with tell-tale fang marks not only in her neck, but on her exposed boobs! The girl is not dead, however--she gets up and takes a few steps before collapsing from loss of blood. Somehow Hans and Berta get her back to the village.

The villagers are a colorful lot--we have the gruff superstitious innkeeper, the wanton one-eyed drunken gadabout who finds every horrible thing extremely hilarious, the inquisitive doctor/investigator who also happens to be crippled for some reason, and the more-than-slightly manic village preacher, who opines that the girl (now stretched out on a table in the pub for examination) "provoked wickedness" with her looks and got the wages of her sin. "There on the table you see LUST stretched out!" he cries, a little too enthusiastically IYKWIM. The innkeeper's wife gives Berta some info on her family history, none of it good, and a previously bitten barmaid puts the moves on Hans, only to be REJECTED but later taken up on her offer by a mysterious cloaked figure in her room (to whom she bares her breasts Hulkamania-style...zang).

Girls Cant Resist the Pop-Collar Look

Berta, meanwhile, is having more awesome dreams, this time involving an old woman in a black choker who really loses her head if people mess with her jewelry (an old story, and creepily well-done here). In the morning a suave stranger named Gabor, a servant of the Count, has come to bring them to the castle at last. Gabor is a real pleasure to watch, an understated Renfield character with young Oliver Reed-handsomeness and crazy eyes second to none--well, maybe one. His oily smiles and strange nonchalance--as when Berta discovers what appear to be the graves of her grandfather and cousins in the family crypt, despite having been told they were all waiting for her at the castle, and Gabor laughs manically and sighs, "Oh, don't let it worry you." Seriously, some people are just so uptight.

Hans and Berta are forced to eat lunch alone when none of their hosts show up, and they help themselves to a cold dinner of nearly-raw meat and Chateau du Temprapaint wine that Hans pronounces "horrible!" and yet continues to drink; Berta wisely abstains. After dinner Hans notices a portrait of a regal, commanding, beautiful woman whom Berta doesn't recognize--and who we later learn is the count's new wife. Hans quickly becomes hypnotized by it--and since the countess is played by Eurobeauty Helga Liné (Naschy's gorgeously icy partner in evil from Horror Rises from the Tomb), well, no fucking wonder.

A couple of things worth noting at this point. First of all, it appears that Klimovsky is playing around a little with some visual experiments, much as he pioneered the creepy and effective slow-motion vampire sequences in WWvVW. For scenes inside the castle, for instance, there often seems to be a gauzy fabric or something over the lens, lending a dreamlike, almost "canvas" quality to the visuals. I'm not sure how effective it is (at first I thought it might be a flaw in the transfer, or something wrong with my TV), but it is interesting. Also, Berta's history with the family is a bit confusing, since apparently she grew up at the castle, had her two female cousins for playmates, and remembers her grandfather fondly and without a hint as to his vampirism. It's implied that perhaps Helga brought the curse with her, as one might easily believe--her character exudes evil commanding sexuality in every frame--but since grandpa's name on his tombstone reads "Ivor Vlad Tepes"--well, you can't help but wonder.

"Well, I don't eat flies, IYKWIM..."

Be that as it may, when dinner time rolls around Gabor announces that the family is ready to receive them now, presumably since the sun has set. Everyone is there: the Count himself (played wonderfully weary and aristocratic by Narciso Ibáñez Menta), the new countess Munia (Liné), and Berta's beautiful young cousins, one of whom is played by another HRftT alumnus, Cristina Suriani (the painter's blonde girlfriend from that earlier film). The makeup on the vampire family is GREAT, it has to be said, especially on the Count and the Countess--unnatural, otherworldly pale skin and glittering eyes. (The Count explains they suffer a "family illness" that causes the odd skin tone.) Despite the Count's aristocratic bearing, Munia is obviously in charge of things here, turning her cold, commanding gaze on Hans with a seductive, hungry look.

From here things really pick up, with lots of wonderful, creepy set-pieces and plenty of gorgeous Euroflesh on display. We soon learn that the Count hopes Berta's son will be the healthy, vibrant shot of fresh blood needed to keep the Dracula line going, since the only remaining heir is an inhuman monster--"The result of the excesses and degradations of my anscestors!" the Count explains--they keep locked in the attic and periodically feed a villager or errant gypsy girl to. (The makeup on this creature is truly nightmarish and unsettling, and unless I miss my guess must have influenced some of Guillermo Del Toro's fantastical creations in Pan's Labyrinth.) Helga Liné seduces Hans with a vampire dance of love that really made me want to go stake someone IYKWIMAITYD, while the undead family watches pervily from the shadows. Won over to the dark side, Hans tries to inject Berta with his vampire love, but is denied to the tune of two vicious stab wounds and the old "It's not me, it's YOU" breakup speech.

Unable to seduce her to vampirism, the Dracula clan inistead locks Berta in the house and reduces her to a human incubator, waiting patiently for the new heir to be born. In the meantime she starts going a little crazy, wandering the halls of doors during the daytime (just like in the dream!) and chewing on her hair while subject to disturbing abdominal pains ("Don't you understand?" Dracula intones, "She's being eaten from the inside!"). Meanwhile the cousins find the Pervy Preacher walking in the woods and have their wicked way with him (after getting their kits off--double-zang), and two amorous yet still dirty, thieving gypsies break into the castle and get screaming death for their trouble (one at the hands of the Last Son of the Dracula Klan, the other in an amazing head-knocking fall down a spiral staircase). Finally the baby is born, apparently dead, leading Berta to off Gabor Scatman Crothers-style and hobble down to the crypt to finish things off for good and all. It's tied up with an amazing and off-putting final image that I wager will stick with you long after the credits roll.

"That's all, folks!"

Enough cannot be said about the visual style of León Klimovsky--this is just a beautiful film to look at, from the bright and wonderful castle sets to the cramped and darkened dungeons and pub. The haunting look of the vampire family, the wild creature design of the Last In Line, the dream sequences, the seductive walking dead, the almost-okay-definitely-too-much red of the family's special "wine"--all work together to create a near-fairy tale ambiance that permeates the whole film. The Deimos print brings all this out wonderfully, with the exception perhaps of the too-bright day-for-night scenes, but hey, this is the 70s--whatchagonnado?

Performance wise, Tina Sáinz as Berta starts out the flat, two-dimensional damsel in distress, but actually pulls out a good "crazy prisoner" turn near the end that I found effective and surprising. Menta as Count Dracula is the picture of world-weary aristocracy, and a scene where he creeps into Berta's bedroom (presumably to feed) starts out feeling pervy and wrong but thanks to his bravura acting turns into a touching, poignant expression of lost nobility, as he finally decides not to take his grandaughter's blood.

She can neck with me any time.

But the star of the show for me is Helga Liné, who just absolutely OWNS every moment of screentime she gets. Having only seen her in concert with Naschy before, perhaps I felt that some of her lustre was due to the reflected glory of Jacinto. Here she proves this is not so--she's regal, beautiful, and dangerous, a screen villainess definitely NOT to be trifled with. And her seduction scene with Hans--WOW. ZANG. ZANGWOW.

It's not a perfect film--the experimental gauze filter (if that's indeed what it is) is interesting, but often more distracting than effective. And some of the performances--I'm lookin' at YOU, Hans--leave a bit to be desired. Still, for fans of the fantastique who'd like to see an interesting variation on the Dracula story with added helpings of monsters and Euroflesh, this is one you should seek out. 2.75 Thumbs. And here's hoping we get to see more of Klimovsky's work stateside in the near future.



Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Crimson (1973), Or The Majesty That Is Paul Naschy

Like a starving ship captain who suddenly realizes that his first mate’s ass can serve the dual purposes of sexual release and dinner, I was feeling giddy as I stepped out of my calash, having arrived in the early morning hours at the townhouse of the local noted phrenologist Herbert Wakken. Herr Wakken had sent a hastily scrawled note my way a few days previous, claiming in vague words to have made a breakthrough. Needless to say, I made travel arrangements post haste, and off I went.

The familiar scents of associated with scapulimancy were in full effect as I crossed the good doctor’s threshold. Letting myself in and making my way down a long, dark hallway, I entered a room on the right, which was dully lit by a wax candle made from the rendered fat of an unborn human fetus. Averting my gaze from the arcane charts on the walls lest I become lost in their mysteries, I hurried on, through a heavy curtain door that was damp and rank.

Beyond lay my destination, a circular room large enough to hold a small congregation, but containing only Herr Wakken, who stood over a bronze brazier set in the middle of the room. Acrid smoke drifted up from the bluish flame that burned therein, giving off the scent of Juniper berries and scorched bone. Lifting a large shoulder-blade from the brazier, the doctor and I watched as cracks began to form and run throughout the wide bone, in patterns easily decipherable to those who followed the discipline.

The doctor turned to me and began to speak, but I already knew what he was going to say, so I held up a hand, signalling instead for him to continue. He nodded, and turned back to the brazier. From within the folds of his robes, he produced a stopped bottle, and dumped its contest into the pot. Steam hissed, and a low rumbled filled the room as Herr Wakken began chanting.

Suddenly, from within the steam, a blackened, taloned hand shot upward. Red, angry welts covered its surface, its three fingers grasping an object that made my heart skip a beat upon viewing. The doctor reached forward and plucked the object from its grasp. The hand slowly descended back into the brazier, a final hiss of steam and billowing smoke announced the ritual’s ending. The doctor slowly turned to me, a wicked grin on his face, and placed in my hand…

Crimson, starring the genius mangod Paul Naschy, aka Jacinto Molina, aka Paul Nash (as he is credited in this particular film), is a movie that titillates and enthralls on so many levels. Starring a cast of characters so nefarious and fabulous-looking that it forever scars the mind, completely ruining all future movies with its brilliance and subtleties, but alas I get ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning.

Surnett, played by Naschy, is the head of a gang of thieves. Our movie opens with Surnett cracking the safe of a jewelry store in the early morning hours while his gang waits nearby. After hiding from a cop, the safe is cracked, but before it can be opened one of Surnett’s henchman, a guy who resembles a ‘70s sex predator, botches the whole thing by stupidly setting off the alarm. Fleeing in a car, the gang runs for the hills, only to run right into a police roadblock. In the process of getting the car turned around, Surnett takes a bullet to the back of the head.

The criminals escape back to their lair. Surnett’s girlfriend is called in and one of the lackeys goes for the only doctor that they can get to help, a drunk who owes them. The movie is filled with both intentional and unintentional hilarity, and the scene in which the bumbling lackey gets the doctor is one of the former. Unable to rouse the doc, who is passed out drunk, the thug grabs a vase of flowers, thinking to throw water on the doc, only the vase contains no water and he succeeds in dumping only flowers all over the oblivious doctor!

"I'm Keith Richards, have you seen Mick around?"

Finally getting the doc to come help, via a combo of slapping and threats, they race back to the hideout. The doc deems the task of saving Surnett beyond his less than capable hands, and suggests they take the gang leader to a friend of his, another doc who is on the cutting edge of mad science. Seeing no alternative, they load Surnett up and head that way. I must pause here to describe Naschy’s gang. First we have the idiot who stole a necklace and set of the alarm, next we have a stereotypical Frenchman who is tall and overtly gay. The default leader in Surnett’s absence falls to this grey-haired gent who alternates between brutality and more brutality to get his point across. Finally, we have the girlfriend, a busty blond who I’d assume Paul was hitting between shots (and sometimes in them!).

Arriving at the scientist’s house, the gang coerces the unfortunate doc into helping them via threats against his hot wife and young daughter. I say unfortunate because the scientist apparently lost the use of his hands in an experiment gone wrong. He takes Naschy in for an exam and quickly deduces that the only way to save him is to perform a BRAIN TRANSPLANT! Is that all? No problem! But where to get a brain? The gang figures out that the only brain that will do belongs to none other than Surnett’s greatest enemy: The Sadist!

No. Fucking. Shit.

With a name like that, you know we are in for a treat! A quick cut later and we are at a nightclub. Two gentlemen are watching a burlesque show. One of them, a suave, mustachioed gent, is The Sadist, the other his right-hand man. What a show it is, too! I haven’t witnessed such awesome since the last Druid orgy I attended. On stage, two men resembling Klingons and dressed like Russian sheepherders, leap around a nubile woman in a gold, sparkly bikini. Pantomiming a fight, the dudes push and pull, all the while the woman is tugged around between them. Suddenly, employing the use of real magic, the woman blinks out of existence!

A rare glimpse at a Klingon wedding.

The Sadist and his partner look on with the same bored expressions they constantly wear, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Personally, I would have been at least somewhat impressed, but apparently these guys are hard to please. Inexplicably, the woman is suddenly back, now dressed like one of the dudes, and the dance continues a bit more before they bow to thunderous applause, but not from our two bad guys, no, they finish their drinks and leave.

In the next scene, The Sadist and his lackey are at a card game, which quickly goes bad when The Sadist accuses another player of cheating. Threatened with a switchblade and a gun, the other players quickly leave, which signals to The Sadist that he’d better head home for bed time. This allows one of Surnett’s gang to follow him. After being offered a flower from a local merchant, who recognizes both Surnett’s henchman and The Sadist, we finally get to see some real action. The Sadist is confronted by Surnett’s girl, who apparently left The Sadist for Surnett a while back. Claiming to now hate Surnett, she seduces The Sadist in a dark alley, allowing the trailing henchman to shoot The Sadist in the back! We get a tiny amount of boobage here, but that is more than made up for later.

Two of Surnett’s gang carry The Sadist’s body off in a large wicker basket to a local graveyard. Unable to perform the necessary decapitation themselves, they decide to bring the whole body back with them, until a stroke of genius hits one of them as they are passing a railroad. If you need a head severed from a body, why not use a train?! In no time at all, the head is neatly severed and off they go, leaving the body where it is.

Behold the brain-swapping power of the kaleidoscope!

The scientist, employing the use of his wives hands as well as a kaleidoscope, begins the brain transplant procedure. Meanwhile, in a flash of brilliance, Surnett’s right-hand man sends The Sadist’s severed (but now empty) head to his own gang, wrapped up like a Xmas gift. The ensuing scene, in which the head is unwrapped, sets off The Sadist’s gang like a nest of angry hornets. The Sadist’s girlfriend, in particular, is incensed.

Naschy has the right to refuse any women, but he lets them down easy.

Meanwhile, Surnett is finally out of surgery, which was an apparent success. After convalescing for a while, he regains conscienceness, only to discover that he now shares The Sadist’s perverse desires. These include throttling his own girlfriend and basically macking on anything young and nubile that enters his gravity. And gravity it is, folks! Naschy exudes raw manliness in waves; a virtual avalanche of masculine power that would turn even the straightest among us into pride-flag-waving friends of Dorothy. But, alas, Paul loves the ladies, and in this film we get to see that again and again. Whether pressing a young nymph up against a tree in a fit of animal passion or throwing a woman across an examination table and tearing open her shirt like a sexual beast, Paul approaches these scenes with a poise and grace that few, if any, achieve.

Naschy, pictured here, giving off his natural musk.

The unfortunate delivery of The Sadist’s head quickly results in most of Surnett’s gang being accosted by their rivals. The figure out Surnett’s gang is responsible via the flower merchant, who rats them out. The drunk doc is beaten to a pulp and unceremoniously dumped out of a car. After making his way back to the scientist’s house, he warns of the impending danger before succumbing to his wounds. Surnett’s girl is captured and tortured with cigarettes until she gives up the gang’s locale. A rotating guard is posted, but alas this is not enough for the machinegun-wielding Sadist-worshippers, who quickly surround the house.

Under a withering hail of bullets, Surnett’s gang is reduced one by one, until only Surnett himself is left. With a bandage wrapped around his head, he runs through the woods, before finally returning to the house and having his way with the scientist’s wife, who very much looks like a young Judy Dench. Finding the good scientist’s pistol, he runs headlong into danger via the front door, confronting cops who have arrived. In a spectacular death scene, in which no less than 25,000 bullets are fired into Surnett, Naschy collapses, a bullet-riddled man with a confused idea of who he is.

Paul takes what is rightfully his.

It is with great fortune that the DVD of Crimson contains as extras sexy scenes thought myth by some, and lost by others. We are treated to several scenes that border on the hardcore (no penetration is shown, but man it looks real). Most of them are dull, but the scenes with Naschy more than make up for it! Paul disrobes and kneads some breasts with his meaty paws. We get to see some bare ass, but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) Naschy chose to use a stunt-butt.

Behold, the stunt-butt.

No doubt this is to stave off the wave of suicides that would result from men everywhere, who would witness such a perfect male ass and choose death, knowing that they could never achieve this perfection, and knowing full well that this would be the ass by which all other asses would be judged by all of woman-kind. Thank you, Paul, for such a wise decision. Many of us would be eager to gaze upon the sun, only to get a few seconds of glory before our eyes ran like milky fluid down our blackened and crumbling faces, burned to ash by the awesome.

I have no words.

I encourage everyone to watch Crimson, and to check out the extras on the DVD. It is by no means a perfect movie, for it has far too little Naschy screen-time to be called such, but what there is works on many levels. I give Crimson Two Solid Thumbs Up, and deem it a must-own for Naschy fans everywhere. It is unfortunate that the movie isn’t known here by its international title, “The Rats Don't Sleep at Night”. So much better, no?

Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

As an added bonus, check out this picture of The Sadist. (hint: he's the one with the rakish good looks, the molester mustache, and the glint in his eye that says he'd do a whole room full of nuns before breakfast, then watch non-stop go-go dancing for 10 hours)


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Deathstalker (1983): or, Bush League Barbarians

It's no news to anyone by this point that cinematic nostalgia is a risky proposition. So many things go into the formation of a fond memory--not just the thing or event itself, but the person you were at the time, the things that were going on in your life, your experiences up to that point, the way you perceived the world around you. Those are all things that change over time, so when you go back to something that was dear to you years ago--now older, wiser, with more experiences to draw on and possibly even different ways of viewing the world--you're really kind of a different person. Therefore your experience of that previously beloved thing, informed by all these new factors, is bound to change as well.

Case in point, the 1983 Roger Corman-produced sword-and-sorcery adventure Deathstalker. When I first saw this flick on cable in the mid-80s, Ronald Reagan was president, George Michael was still with WHAM!, and Socs and Greasers everywhere were still arguing about whether Ali Sheedy's transformation at the end of The Breakfast Club was sweet and fitting or inexcusably character-betraying and EVIL. As for me, I was chubby, socially awkward, and at the mercy of the waves of mind-corrupting hormones coursing through my pubescent body, with only Savage Sword of Conan magazines and scrambled late-night Cinemax for release.

At that time, Deathstalker was JUST what I needed.

Do you feel a draft?

After Conan the Barbarian hit the box office like a giant womanizing politically-motivated Austrian bombshell in 1982, the market was flooded with cheap knock-offs and imitators almost immediately. Deathstalker is one of them. Eschewing the lengthy origin story of that prototypical flick (the childhood trauma, the Wheel of Anguish, the boulder-based weight-lifting regimen), our hero Deathstalker leaps into action fully formed, saving a hapless damsel from a horde of goblins who want to rape her, and her sheepskin-wearing escort who...well, who also wants to rape her. He's about to take his reward as stipulated in the "It's Not Rape If I Just Saved You From Goblins" Accord of 456 B.C., when suddenly he's interrupted by an old man who's come to summon him to the court of the deposed king. The girl gathers her tattered robes and buggers off, leaving our hero feeling underappreciated and horny.

Deathstalker is played by Rick Hill, who after this went on to wield a sword in Warrior Queen, Dune Warriors, and Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans. He's buff and handsome in a plastic "Ken Doll meets George W. Bush on Steroids" kinda way, and delivers all his lines as if he were responding absently to questions on a phone survey while filing his nails. He does rock the Prince Valiant hairdo and proto-Sorbo leather wardrobe, though, it has to be said.

Deathstalker Endorses Gold Bond Powder

The King's court is a frankly pathetic bunch of guys in tents in the forest, since the evil wizard Munkar has taken over and kidnapped the Princess in the bargain. The King offers Deathstalker half his kingdom if he will fight Munkar and return the land to its rightful ruler. Stalker is not interested. "You need a fool," he tells the king. "Not a fool," the old man retorts, "A HERO!" Deathstalker looks at him blankly from atop his steed. "Heroes and fools...are the same thing." Yeah, just like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, this Rick sticks his neck out for NO ONE!

So, with our reluctant hero and his dramatic situation economically established, we next get a montage of evil-doin's in Munkar's castle. We get an all-girl hot tub orgy, mead-hall brawls, MORE rape and pillagement, and copious displays of female flesh. Munkar--a bald, goateed baddie with a wicked dragon tattoo on the side of his skull--watches it all with bemused evilness. Aaaand...that's our set-up. Stalker good, Munkar bad! GO! Economical storytelling, but in the way a 25-cent microwave burrito is an economical meal compared to a chimichanga from El Chico.

"Be honest now, which do you like better: this..."

...or this?"

Cut to an unknown innocent getting dragged behind horses for no reason we viewers will ever know. (I guess it's just shorthand for "the guys on the horses are NOT NICE.) That business done, the leader of the bad guys, Kang, approaches the straw hut of an old witch and has words with her, something about a Sword of Justice and how Munkar wants it. The witch transforms her walking stick into a serpent with some powerful magic words--"Transform Stick into Serpent!"--while Deathstalker rides up and commences to slaying, again for no reason we can discern. (He does get a nice "head lopped off and flying through the air" kill, though, which is always fun.) Kang uses his magical amulet to change his form and slip the witch's grasp (Magic words: "I change my form and slip your grasp!") leaving Deathstalker confused in a sheen of oily sweat.

Turns out Deathstalker knows the witch and trusts her, since once she explains that Munkar has The Amulet of Life and The Chalice of Power, needing only the Sword of Justice to become all-powerful and immortal, the Barbarian of Blond Buffness immediately takes off to foil the wicked wizard's scheme. I guess 50% of a kingdom doesn't appeal, but a sweet new sword and the Witch's say-so carry more weight.

Soon he's found the Cave of the Sword of Justice, where Salmaron the Keeper of the Sword lives. Salmaron is set up here as a kind of Yoda figure, living in a cave in the swamp, possessing the knowledge the hero needs for his quest--but better than that, he's a freakin' hilariously awful hand puppet! Seriously, he's a slap in the face to everything Jim Henson ever stood for. Salmaron refuses to help Deathstalker find the sword--he's been trapped in the cave for 40 years, cursed into this form by a witch, and only a young boy can break the spell and free him, yada yada yada. At that moment a Cave Troll that looks like one of the original members of GWAR attacks, and without another thought Salmaron hands over the sword so Stalker can slay 'im.

NOT a prototype.

Using the sword's magic, Deathstalker transforms himself into a little boy so that he can fulfill the prophecy, to such strains of overbearing dramatic score you'd think this was the climax of the film rather than the end of a plot thread that just started three minutes ago. (Seriously, the score here has more orchestral stings than a hornet's nest under the Philharmonic.) Free of his bondage, Salmaron transforms into a little Italian man and accompanies Stalker on the rest of his journey, though for all the action he has he might just as well have stayed in the cave.

(Note--when he's a goat-man Salmaron has a hilarious gruff Bronx accent that lends another level of surrealness to his puppety goodness; but once transformed, the actor portraying him has a thick Italian accent that is not funny in the least. Why they didn't get the same actor to do both bits is beyond me.)

On the road again, we find another barbarian by the name of Oghris (who looks like the lab-born love-child of Scott Baio and Mark Hamill), rockin' his midriff scale-mail armor and saving yet another damsel from the rape squad. Deathstalker comes in to add the assist (ANOTHER excellent lop, chop, and roll) and learns from Oghris that Munkar is holding a tournament of warriors to determine who will be his heir. Now with THREE possible motivations for going to Munkar's castle, Deathstalker joins Oghris for the remainder of the trip.


And now we come to the part of the movie that cemented it in my adolescent brain forever. Hearing some noise by their camp in the middle of the night, Oghris and Stalker investigate and are attacked by a mysterious cloaked warrior. The stranger bests Oghris but can't take Stalker, who soon steps back and realizes that he's fighting a woman--a woman pretty much completely naked but for her cloak and sword! Yes, it's Kaira, the Braless Barbarian, played by future Barbarian Queen Lana Clarkson. With steely eyes, frosted 80s hair, a mighty sword, and fully liberated funbags, Clarkson is a Heavy Metal cover painting come to life. Before long she and Stalker are gettin' it AWN by firelight, in a gloriously extended sex scene that at age 14 I could never outlast.*

*TMI Alert

Be back in 5 minutes...

So we finally get to Munkar's castle, where the joint is really jumping. Princess Codille (played by fresh-faced Playmate Barbi Benton) struggles for survival in Munkar's harem, Munkar feeds his monster-puppet pet a slave boy's eyeball, women are taken off the street by jackbooted thugs to provide entertainment in the visiting warriors' Rape and Rumpus Room, and in what may be the surest and most awesome sign we're watching an exploitation flick from the 80s, in the main hall two girls are thrown into a specially built pit for a no-holds barred bout of MUD WRESTLING! (Betcha Thulsa Doom never thought of THAT!) We get pig-man warriors, the possible reappearance as an extra of a character who died earlier, sweaty men grappling with girls in diaphonous gowns, and a pair of elderly dwarfs in jester outfits. Really, it makes you want to be an evil wizard when you grow up.

Munkar offers Princess Codille as a prize for a preliminary bout, which Stalker wins pretty much by default when everyone else starts brawling (in a bit of slapstick, the sore-knuckled Pig Man rips off a passing server's arm in order to continue beating his victim). Promising to send the princess to his room later that evening, Munkar goes to his chambers and calls in one of his goons. Reasoning that no one can beat Deathstalker and recognizing the Sword of Justice when he sees it, the wizard plans to take advantage of Stalker's weakness for women by transforming his goon into the spitting image of Barbi Benton! After feeling himself up a little--like you do--the assassin goes to Deathstalker's room.

"Seriously...does my butt show in this thing?"

Benton actually does some of the best acting in the film here, pretending to be a man in a hot woman's body trying to assasinate a man who wants to get into her/his pantaloons. The nervousness and discomfort, the clumsiness walking on heels--it's actually rather well done. Of course the assassination attempt is an EPIC FAIL, and Stalker throws the wench on the bed and proceeds to get amorous. Never let attempted murder get you out of the mood--that's the Barbarian Code. The mood IS broken, however, when the gender-confused goon gets a taste of Stalker's love and cries out "YES!" in her full-throated man-voice. Stalker quickly ejects his sexually awakened transgendered lover--which is really just rude, when you come down to it.

But the show goes on--Kaira is killed in a TOTALLY LAME duel with the manhood-restored assassin; the tournament begins and we get to see all kinds of barbarian fighting styles, from "wiry hyper horn-hatted dude stabbing the shit out of dudes" to "pro wrestling dropkicks" to "Gallagher Sledge-O-Matic Style"; a traitorous Mark Baio wrestles Deathstalker all over his bedroom, body oil and pheromones flying, and gets his neck snapped like a chicken for his trouble; another head-roll kill followed by a magical recapitation; and a final battle between Munkar and Deathstalker that ends with the wizard quartered by a rebellious populace and Deathstalker destroying the artifacts of power for no good reason. The end.

"By the Power of Greyskull...I--what? Oh, shit."

So revisiting this slice of nostalgia in the clear light of adulthood, I find myself a bit more critical of its faults than I was more than twenty (eep!) years ago. The acting is terrible throughout--apparently a barbarian maintains the same expression whether he's eating roast dog or skewering a pig-man. There's no characterization to speak of--everyone wanders onto the set like they have an appointment to get to, sleepwalks through the scene, and wanders off again, without a hint as to their motivation or inner lives. (Benton's transgender performance excepted.) The puppets are laughable, the battle choreography is terrible, and the sets--oh my god, the sets! The castle walls look like nothing so much as those of the Fun Castle at the state fair, all airbrushed fiberglass and cardboard. Writing, direction, musical score, basic scene blocking--nearly everything in the movie is decidedly half-assed.

Notice I say nearly everything. The one area where Deathstalker ISN'T half-assed is in the arena of...well, ASSES. Make no mistake--this movie is ALL ABOUT the gratuitous butt-shot! Bare asses, thong-wearing asses, diaphanous gown-covered asses, wet asses, muddy asses--there's almost always some female flesh on display, and it's almost always EXCELLENT.

Yes, but...

Yes, but...


And that's just the extras--Barbi Benton as the princess (and the ill-fated assassin--a word I just realized has TWO "asses" in it) is frequently naked and always gorgeous. And enough cannot be said about Lana Clarkson as the Double-D Destroyer, who actually fights in the nude, has a sex scene, seems extremely interested in Benton's Princess IYKWIM, and even when she's clothed seems pretty much naked anyway. Sure, she's not given much to do (none of the sidekicks are), but when she's onscreen--well, let's just say I can totally see why the 14-year-old me would count Deathstalker among the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.

However, I'm older now, and the Internet has asploded into everyday life, so gorgeous barbarian asses and tremendous tremulous ta-tas are not the rarities for me they once were. While I can laugh at the puppety atrocities, snicker at the sets, and smirk knowingly at the wooden acting and stilted choreography, I just don't get the joy out of Deathstalker that I once did. There are better, more exciting, funnier, and madder Sword-and-Sorcery pics out there, in comparison to which my beloved Deathstalker looks quaint and a little sick. Therefore what would have been a 3 thumb movie in my youth has fallen to half that stature, with a quarter point added for helping me make it through a turbulent time in my formative years. 1.75 Thumbs. And thanks for the mammer--uh, memories.

Note: as nearly everyone knows, Barbarian Queen Lana Clarkson suffered a tragic end to her career and life when she was found shot to death in Phil Spector's apartment in 2003. Spector's trial for his alleged role in her death is still ongoing. It's a testament to her screen presence or perhaps my own soullessness that this knowledge did not interfere with my enjoyment of her sexy strong scenes in this movie. Thank you, Lana, wherever you are--with greatest respect and gratitude, The Vicar.

Blinders to Go Blind For.


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