Sunday, January 31, 2010

Snowed-In, With Benefits

Greetings friends! It is I, the Duke of DVD, sending you warm wishes this frosty 'eve. While you huddle around your wood-burning stove, your breath frosting the air in front of your sallow faces, wishing you could have one more moldy bite from the unleavened biscuit your whole family is forced to share, I have been busy.

Not content to curl my toes within my mink slippers before a roaring hearth, I have instead infused my blood liberally with many a draught of brandy (mixed with gypsy tears, naturally) and then took it upon myself to construct a snow edifice of sorts. I had heard in the local village of this custom, of course, but considered it below my station. Boredom, for lack of a better reason, drove me to engage peasantry of the most base sort, but I must confess I did enjoy it.

And so, I found myself standing, as it were, on an upper balcony, brandy in hand, directing a large team of servants below in my expansive front yard. They have constructed something exquisite, as I'm sure you'll agree. Standing over 30' tall, it shines as a beacon for all passersby:

Click to experience the Duke's Own Snowman.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bacchannales Sexuelles (1974): or, Legs Wide Shut

Like many European genre directors of the 1970s, Jean Rollin sometimes had to finance his unique cinematic vision by accepting directing jobs that can kindly be called somewhat beneath his ability. Throughout the 70s and even into the 80s, Rollin (often using the directorial pseudonym Michel Gentil) directed several lucrative but slight sexploitation films that blurred the line between art and pornography, sometimes even stepping boldly over said line. These were films whose only purpose was to secure the money for his visionary, deeply personal genre projects like The Demoniacs, Lips of Blood, or Vicar-fave The Living Dead Girl, and for some viewers betray the director's lack of engagement in the subject matter to an embarrassing, even appalling degree.

But so vivid is the dream-world in which Rollin lived and worked, and so active and curious his prodigious intellect, that even his sex-for-sex's sake moneymakers contain many of the themes, symbols, and visionary imagery that characterize his more lauded, artistic works. For instance, Rollin's 1974 film Bacchannales Sexuelles (aka Fly Me the French Way, aka Tout le monde il en a deux) actually presents incisive ideas about duality in human personalities and relationships, together with themes of betrayal, secret societies, and the importance--nay, necessity--of masking one's "true" identity in order to get along in an aggressively duplicitous society. While on the surface the film reads as a light, insubstantial sex romp, repeated viewings reveal Bacchanales Sexuelles to be one of Rollin's most artistically challenging and subversive works.

Nah, I'm just kidding. It's a porn.

Just a taste of what's to come

The film opens in the office of a magazine publisher, who has received a strange visitor named Malvina (harsh-visaged, statuesque Brigitte Borghese, credited here as Britt Anders), who is looking for the address of the rag's star investigative reporter. Using her feminine whiles and basilisk stare, Malvina is able to worm the info out of the pencil-stached Frenchman, and is soon on her way, toward what nefarious purpose we will soon learn.

Meanwhile, a young, naive, but not-so-innocent beauty named Valérie (the absolutely STUNNING Joëlle Coeur) arrives at her cousin's apartment in Paris, where he has graciously offered to let her crash while he's out of the country on business. The apartment--which according to internet sources (the BEST sources!) was in fact Rollin's own pad--is well stocked with books, booze, and fresh bedding, and soon Valérie calls her fun-loving friend Sophie (Marie-France Morel) for an impromptu sleepover. While Valérie gets refreshments, Sophie gets curious about the books on the top shelf of a precarious bookcase, and doesn't let her knee-high heel-boots nor dangerously short skirt prevent her from climbing up to have a look.

File under "A"

Of course this leads to a literary avalanche from which Valérie must rescue her friend, allowing for some groping before a few swigs of the cousin's vodka brings the girls' lesbian leanings out of the basement and into the light. We get some low-angle close-ups of Sophie serving Valérie Popov with her top off, and soon the girls are rolling like thunder across the floor and lapp-licking like a couple of Finnish puppies. This goes on for quite some time, and you'll get no complaints from me--Coeur is a living, breathing, humping work of art, and while Morel is hardly another pretty face, she does have quite an attractive bod.

After the loving, the still-drunken girls don some director-trademark diaphanous gowns and stumble into the sack. leaving the window open to let out the steam heat and sex stank. Unfortunately this allows a pair of petite cat burglars in skintight bodysuits and Lone Ranger masks to invade the apartment in search of some unknown, non-euphemistic booty. Their lack of stealth rouses Sophie from her sleep, and when she is unable to shake Valérie out of her vodka-induced stupor, she spends some time searching the darkened apartment for the source of the noise. This allows Rollin to engage in some light-hearted 1940s-style visual comedy, as the twin terrors hide behind chairs, curtains, and sometimes Sophie herself, who is unable to get a bead on them.

Should have worn blue

Spooked by the goings-on, Sophie telephones her friend Fred (Alain Bastin) and begs him to come over for (and with) protection. But before he can arrive, the home invaders (portrayed by Rollin regulars Marie-Pierre and Catherine Castel) jump out of hiding, roll Sophie in a rug, and exit the apartment through the front door. Because this is 1970s France and black-and-white bodysuits and masks were doubtless common attire, the doorman and other tenants suspect nothing.

Fred arrives, and thinking Sophie is playing sex-games with all her talk of intruders and such, climbs into bed with Valérie and attempts to mount her, mistaking her for his booty-call in the dark. This finally wakes her up, and after a bit of token resistance, brief introductions, and a perfunctory search for their missing friend, the two assume she's gone for a walk and take the opportunity to get it awn. Another lengthy sex scene ensues, which is a mixed blessing--we get more of Coeur's astounding nakedness, which is a plus, but it's often obscured by Bastin's bony, pasty Frog-butt and greasy long locks, which nobody really needs to see.

"Ooooh, Vicar!"

Meanwhile, the next day, Sophie is taken to a palatial estate and brought before Malvina, who ordered her abduction. Or rather she ordered Valérie's abduction, in the hopes of getting information about her cousin's description and whereabouts, since he is of course the investigative journalist she was seeking in the opening scene. Apparently Malvina is high priestess of the Cult of the Pure Flesh, a kind of coven-cum-sex club. Malvina holds her members (and their members) in check with incriminating photos, the negatives of which the cousin stole while undercover and writing a shocking expose for his magazine. Malvina wants the photos back, and will go to any lengths and depths to get them.

The priestess refuses to believe Sophie's protestations that she's not the Eurobabe they're looking for, thus cementing the recurrent mistaken-identity theme. Smoking a hookah while a nearly un-clad female servant sucks and licks at her feet, Malvina orders Sophie tortured in order to get the information they require. She's quickly taken to a dungeon where The Crimson Executioner's less-fearsome brother delivers a half-hearted lashing, while henchcouple Karl and Frida (Marcel Richard and Minia Malove) get all excited by the bondage and engage in energetic sex on a fur-lined bench. While the action has all been softcore simulation up to this point, some shots here of Karl feasting on Frida's furry funspot seem too up-close to not be legit.

"Hi, I'm Stan. I'll be your torturer this evening."

Back at the apartment and still unconcerned about Sohpie's disappearance, Valérie and Fred have each other for breakfast, complete with Nutella bodypaint, which is nowhere near as sexy as it sounds. When Sophie's torture yields no results, Malvina sends one of her twins back to the apartment, this time disguised as a maid, to try to find the negatives while dusting. It's not long before the faux-maid, Valérie, and Fred are in the bathtub together for a soapy menage a trois, which is really the only way to tip the cleaning staff imo. (The twin--I think it's Catherine, but I can't be sure--also displays some Euro-style hairy pits here, so watch for that if that's your thing.) After the lengthy three-way fizzles, the REAL maid shows up, leading to the first bit of awkwardness evinced by anyone in the story. Her livelihood threatened, Real Maid starts a knock-down drag-out catfight with Faux Maid, which surprisingly does NOT devolve into lesbian sex.

Caught in her lies and with a vicious house servant yanking on her pubes (seriously), Faux Maid spills the beans about Malvina's scheme and the photos. Fred, who found the negatives while looking for hashish the previous night--offers them to her if she will tell them where to find Sophie. Seeing a way out from under Malvina's stiletto sandals, Faux Maid readily agrees, and Fred and Valérie head out to rescue their friend at last.

Before agreeing to a blind date with the Duke, Valérie has a few questions.

Surprisingly, back at the manor house there's even MORE sex going on, with Malvina's servant Paul (Jean-Paul Hazy) failing to satisfy his mistress and being "punished" by having to go downstairs and service Sophie in the dungeon. (Oh, please don't throw me in the briar patch!) We also get a strange scene with Malvina practicing her handgun marksmanship on a bunch of well-dressed mannequins, shooting one in the crotch before making out with it, and Lips of Blood star Annie Belle shows up as a new recruit to the club. Valérie and Fred arrive just in time for the club's latest ritual meeting, which is of course the centerpiece of the flick. Men and women wearing long black robes, robber masks, and nothing else line the walls, while Malvina (resplendent in chainmail lingerie) pronounces the rites of the Pure Flesh and then goes around fluffing everyone prior to the ritual. Seriously.

If you insist.

Valérie and Fred are discovered, they're chained to the wall with Sophie, and the orgy commences in a scene so reminiscent of the bacchanal from Eyes Wide Shut that I wouldn't be surprised if Kubrick had been taking notes. Paul takes Annie Belle on the altar while Malvina chortles with glee, but at the height of the ceremony the Faux Maid busts in and announces she has the negatives, which she then throws in the fire, thus freeing all the partygoers from Malvina's thrall. No longer under the threat of blackmail and thus required to have sex with gorgeous French people for Malvina's enjoyment, everyone quickly gathers their laundry and leaves. In a final twist, Paul reveals himself to be Valérie's cousin--he was there all along!--and turns the whole master-servant table upside-downy on his former mistress. With Sexy Results.

Depending on your point of view.

Okay, so Bacchannales Sexuelles is not going to go down in any Rollin scholar's book as one of his best, but a perv with a thing for arty 70s genre cinema (not to name any names...) will find some stuff to like here. The plot is silly but never boring, even if the sex scenes can try one's patience (or endurance) at times. And Rollin did manage to sneak in a few of his favorite themes and symbols--the young and sexy doubles, the secret masked cults (please to see The Nude Vampire), the diaphanous gowns--even in the service of a money-grabbing wank-facilitator. He even gets off a few striking compositions with the exteriors of the villa and Malvina's target practice, and slips in a few interesting angles during the sex scenes, particularly when the focal point is Joëlle Coeur, who also made an impression as The Wrecker in Rollin's slightly less sexy opus The Demoniacs.

Every Occasion is a Special Occasion

It's no wonder Rollin and his camera love Coeur--she is SMOKIN' HAWT. The long dark hair, the gorgeous features, the frankly astounding and frequently undraped body--we're almost at Edwige Fenech levels of ridiculous sexiness here folks, absolutely DANGEROUSLY seductive. Added to her miraculous gorgeousity, Coeur shows a certain impish playfulness that is absolutely winning--she looks like she's having a blast, and it's hard not to go along for the ride.

The rest of the cast is serviceable (ba-dump), with the standouts being Brigitte Borghese's commanding performance as sexy ice-queen Malvina and Marie-France Morel as the frequently-fastened-and-fucked Sophie. On the upside, all the women, even in bit parts, are lovely and unshy about dropping their miniskirts. On the downside, the men are just as brave, but nowhere near as nice to look at. Apparently the Unwashed Anorexic Anemic chic was big in Paris in 74, because these are some fugly individuals who in no way deserve the beauteous bounty bestowed upon them by Rollin.

Seriously, ladies?

So while Bacchannales Sexuelles doesn't approach the director's more poetic, lyrical, genre-centric fare, for me it definitely passed the entertainment test, in more ways (and more times) than I care to count. It's a film that rewards multiple viewings, and I can see myself returning to it again and again in the future, IYKWIMAITYD. Therefore, 2.75 thumbs for this Rollin sex-romp.

And if you're in the neighborhood, could somebody check in on the Duke? He hasn't been answering his phone since I loaned him this flick a few days ago...I'm starting to worry he might be dehydrated.


A few more images from Bacchannales Sexuelles (1974):

Me too!

Malvina proudly displays her 100th-visit commemorative portrait of the Duke of DVD

Only a maniac would ever leave

Slide it in

Hint: you're the one with the boobs.

Malvina prefers the Unreal Doll(tm)

L'affaire de Coeur

Be sure to visit Jeremy Richey's essential blog Fascination: The Jean Rollin Experience for more about Rollin's career and collaborators, in a decidedly more scholarly vein.

Read F:TJRE's review of Bacchannales Sexuelles here

And don't miss F:TJRE's fascinating focus on Joelle Coeur Here


Monday, January 25, 2010

Lisa and the Devil (1974), Or Telly Savalas Owns Us All

Dearest friends, the Duke of DVD bids thee welcome. Won't you come in, sit, and let us talk of all things Mario Bava? After many reviews of his work, I thought nothing he could do would surprise me. I was wrong! So very, very wrong. Lisa and the Devil is his masterwork, in my humble opinion. An unfettered look into Bava's mad-genius mind in which the plot doesn't matter so much as the camera, which serves as an unblinking eye, showing us sights that range from the amazing to the macabre.

I should start by mentioning that Lisa and the Devil stars two of the most talented people to ever grace the silver screen. First we have Elke Sommer, whose "talents" are on display for all to see. Next we have Telly "Motherfucking" Savalas, who exudes an almost child-like glee in this movie. You can really tell he was having a blast, and he easily steals every scene he's in. I've seen him in a lot of movies, from war movies to westerns, but this is, in my eyes, his best performance.

Lisa and the Devil has a rather interesting production history as well, which I'll get into later, but suffice it to say I am agog.

Let us explore, shall we?

Our movie opens in an old Spanish town where a tourist by the name of Lisa Reiner is vacationing with a friend. A tour guide is leading them through an area filled with baroque churches and other buildings. The guide takes them to a fresco on a church wall which depicts the Devil Himself, doing something devilish. Lisa is enthralled by the painting. At that precise moment, she hears some haunting music coming from a nearby alleyway. Telling her friend she'll be right back (yeah sure!), she heads to investigate.

Coming around a corner, she finds a shop on a deserted street. It's filled with all manner of thing, from handwoven tapestries to life-like mannequins (basically, it looks like the Vicar's drawing room). A dapper bald man stands with his back to Lisa, conducting business with the store's owner. Business that involves a life-like dummy. More on that later. The music, it turns out, is coming from a rather awesome music box of sorts that has small figurines that rotate on top of it. Lisa asks the owner if it's for sale, but he informs her that the gentleman here has already purchased it.

"Excuse me, is there anything in this shop that isn't an apparatus for smoking hashish?"

That gentleman turns around and... it's Telly Savalas, exuding charm, dashing, cunning, sex, and machismo in one all-engulfing wave that ripples outward through the screen like an ocean of burning testosterone. Lisa is stricken immediately with Soaked Panties Syndrome(tm) as well as the notion that Telly looks exactly like the fresco'd Devil, which Bava shows to us using super imposition. She backs out of the shop in horror, and starts to head back to her tour group. Or rather, she tries to. The twisting alleys get her confused in no time, and suddenly she's lost. The streets are deserted as well, except for a few slack-jawed yokels who offer no succor.

"I'm just here to get my RealDoll upgraded with an extra-tough O-ring."

Bava does a masterful job here of situating his camera to give us the maximum feeling of claustrophobia, as experienced by Lisa. The alleys are narrow and the walls surrounding them at all times are high. We get long shots down deserted cobblestone streets where not a soul is seen but Lisa, hurriedly walking, trying to get to safety. She looks increasingly more frazzled as her journey takes her further and further into desolation. Dust swirls off street corners, and no animals are seen at all. Lisa is truly lost and alone, and we feel it along with her.

"Have you seen my lollipop, baby?"

A few turns later and she runs into Telly again. He just happens to be walking through the same area as Lisa, carrying his disturbingly life-like mannequin and that music box from earlier. She asks him for directions and he points her off down another alley, which she quickly takes, as his oozing manliness is too much for her to handle without getting weak-kneed and giddy. A few turns later and we have what is just the start of this film's inherent fucked-up-ness: Lisa runs into a guy, who is basically the mannequin that Telly was carrying earlier! He seems to think she's an old love of his named "Elena". Lisa tries to get away from him, but he insistently grabs her arm. She shoves him away and he tumbles down some stairs, knocked unconscious by the fall. His pocketwatch slips from his coat and breaks nearby. Lisa flees in horror, realizing her day has gone from bad to worse.

Night falls soon thereafter, and Lisa is still lost. Slumped against a wall in yet another deserted alley, she is defeated. Suddenly, car lights appear on the horizon. A fancy old car pulls up as she flags it down. She asks for and is given a ride. The people in the car turn out to be Francis and Sophia Lehar, being driven by their hunky chauffeur George. The car is overheating but still drivable, so George takes off. Very quickly Lisa realizes the tension in the car between the other three people. With everyone casting sidelong glances at each other, we can quickly see that George is making googly-eyes at Sophia, which Francis pretends not to notice.

Driving Miss Daisy 2: Drive Harder

The car journeys for some minutes more before finally tanking out completely, a fact that Sophia seizes upon to complain loudly that Francis just has to have his classic cars. While George raises the hood and tries to make it work again, a gate opens outside an estate that they stopped in front of. Surprise surprise, it's Telly's estate! He quickly talks them into coming in to stay for the night, saving the car work for the morning. Lisa doesn't believe in fate, apparently, and begins backing away as soon as she sees Telly. Her flight is interrupted by a strange, handsome young man who apparently lives in the house as well. Using his piercing blue eyes, he talks her into coming in the house.

As it turns out, Telly is in fact the butler of the house! Dressed to the nines in full black-tie regalia, he cuts a striking figure. Wearing white gloves and a coat with tails, he fairly struts around as he leads the party through the opulent estate, around impressive gardens and statuary. The manse is certainly impressive. One can tell immediately that Telly is into this role, so different from his other films at the time. He has a barely restrained grin at all times, and a twinkle in his eye and a bounce to his step.

The estate, it turns out, is home to the Contessa and her son, Maximilian, the dashing young whippersnapper that got Lisa to come inside. The travelers are shown rooms to freshen up in. Sophia and George waste no time hooking up for a bit of the ol' in-and-out, which Bava shows us via a killer reflection shot off a makeup case. Lisa showers (off screen, unfortunately) and sets about combing her hair. A noise makes her look out the window, where she sees the dummy man again!

Fleeing out into the estate, she sees the dummy man lumbering towards her; she runs again, right into the arms of Max. He soothes her, says it's good to have her back, which she frowns at but doesn't pursue. He leads her back to the house. We see that the dummy man is once again in mannequin form, being carried around by Telly for who knows what nefarious reason.

"Sure, you can drive a car, but let's see how well you drive me!"

A sumptuous meal is prepared, and everyone sits to eat. The Countess arrives late to the party, and speaks cryptically about some 5th visitor that no one else has seen. Max calms her somewhat just as Telly brings out a multi-tiered cake and a bottle of red wine. He drops the wine, shattering it on the floor, which gives Bava an excuse for another insanely awesome reflection shot of Telly's face in the red wine. Genius! Max begs off with a piece of cake, taking it to someone upstairs. He enters a hidden room via a secret door among a row of mirrors upstairs. The room is dank and we can hear some woman moaning and sometimes giggling. Very creepy! He offers the cake to someone on a bed shrouded with dark linens hanging from the ceiling. We don't see who it is.

"Would you care for some fava beans, or perhaps a nice Chianti?"

Meanwhile, post-repast, the chauffeur George is attempting to repair the car. Telly watches, sucker in mouth. As most fans of his know, Telly Savalas is well-known to affect a lollipop at most all times. This started with his work in the Kojack detective tv series, which the great Wikipedia in the sky tells us came about because he needed something in his mouth in lieu of a cigarette for a certain scene. It worked so well that it became a trademark of Savalas's (just like talking with a lisp and holding his hand out to be kissed, not shaken, is a trademark of the Vicar's).

The others, meanwhile, are relaxing in the parlor. Sophia is tired of waiting and is itching to leave. The Countess arrives, Telly in tow. It turns out she's blind! Given no indication of this before at dinner, the guests are as surprised as we are. She asks to "see" Lisa, having Telly describe her as she feels her face. Elsewhere, Max is looking through some old diaries and we see his love Elena looks exactly like Lisa! He burns the picture, apparently moving on with his life now that Lisa's arrived.

"Yes, and her boobs are this big."

After being groped by an old blind woman, Lisa is tuckered. She retires to her room, whereupon she has a fanciful dream, featuring her in a ludicrously low-cut dress (huzzah!) and also featuring a heaping helping of classic Bava slow-motion and dream-like soft focus. She runs through the sunlit estates, coming to a pavilion, where she meets none other than dummy man! They begin to make-out. Lisa suddenly wakes up to find Max in her room, watching her sleep. He whispers sweet nothings to her and suddenly they begin to kiss. The camera rotates around and we see that she is in fact kissing the mannequin guy! Recoiling in horror, she flees once more.

Outside, Sophia comes looking for George, who is nowhere to be seen despite the car running. Calling his name, she turns to find her husband giving her the ol' stink-eye. She starts to go but he grabs her arm. She says to him "If this is your way of being a man, I'm not impressed!" to which he retorts "You slut!" then backhands her, a training tool useful for all slut interactions. As she falls away, she catches the door handle, pulling it open to reveal a murdered George! His throat has been punctured.

The murderer is swiftly revealed to be the Countess, as we see a quick shot of her holding a pair of bloody scissors. Telly the butler quickly arranges a cart to carry the body off as Sophia mourns. Telly wheels it away, with everyone following in sort of a small funeral procession. Bava's mastery is in full effect here, giving us silhouettes of each person passing behind a pair of stained glass windows. Amazing! We next seen a scene where the mannequin man, who is some old family ghost apparently, is watching through the shroud at whomever is in the secret room.

Bava showing us how it's done.

I must talk about a singular perfect scene involving Savalas and the rich guy. The rich gent is talking about leaving while smoking a cig, and Telly asks to bum one. He uses the man's lit cigarette to light his own just as the Countess comes down the top of the stairs behind them. Seeing her there, he quickly shoves his own cigarette in between the rich guy's fingers, waves the smoke away while saying very loudly "Can you please put that out sir, the Countess doesn't like the smoke!!", then he quickly whips a sucker out from his glove and pops it in his mouth! Genius!

Lisa meets Max out in the garden, where the Countess interrupts them. Lisa heads back to the house while the Countess admonishes Max, telling him to not get involved. Lisa happens across a ivy-covered building, where she looks through a window and sees Telly, busy setting out decorations for what appears to be George's funeral (which is bizarre in and of itself--why have a funeral for George at the estate?!). A wreath covers most of the corpse, but we can see the coffin it is lying in is too small for the body. Telly notices this as well, and unceremoniously breaks the corpse's ankles so that it now fits! He finally removes the wreath, revealing to us and Lisa that the body is instead that of mannequin man!

Lisa flees back tot house, running into mannequin man once again (WTF I say!). He again calls her Elena and professes his love. Lisa runs in horror back to the house. Meanwhile, the rich couple has had enough and is leaving. With the car running, Sophia climbs in first, and as Francis heads around the front of the car, Sophia seizes her chance and slides quickly over to the driver's seat, slams it in drive, and floors it. Francis barely has time to scream as the car plows over him. Slamming it into reverse, Sophia backs over Francis, then runs over him again, over and over, crushing his corpse further into the muddy ground. The effects used here are sublime.

Francis suffers what is known as the "Sicilian Divorce"

Sophia heads back into the house, where she is confronted by an angry Max, who uses a brass pole to club her to death in a rather brutal fashion! We cut to Telly who is in a room surrounded by mannequins. He's working to repair the mannequin man we keep seeing, which has a busted face. Lisa walks in and is suitably horrified once more. She leaves and runs into Max, who takes her up to the secret room behind the mirror. He tells her this is Elena's room, his former love. Pulling back the curtain, we and Lisa are horrified to discover that Elena is a skeleton, dressed in the low cut dress we saw Lisa in during her dream.

"Miss, does this rag smell like chloroform to you?"

Max drugs Lisa with a chloroformed rag, then puts her on the bed beside Elena's body. He strips Lisa, and Bava's camera gives us shy, partially obscured shots of Elke Sommer's awesome breasts and stomach. Seriously, I'd eat a plate lunch off her supple nude body. Max takes his own clothes off and begins kissing the passed-out Lisa. In an obvious nod to necrophilia, Max mounts Lisa and begins to go to town, but can't perform because he's crying like some sissy. Max flees in anguish, running to where his mother the Countess is. They get in a big argument, which culminates in Max stabbing his mother with a spiked candelabra.

Max flees the scene, heading to the dining room, where all of the visitors (and Elena's corpse) are arrayed around the table, mannequin-esque in their silence. They all stare at Max, who freaks the fuck out. Suddenly, his dead mother comes shambling into the room. Max backs away, and falls out a window, where he is impaled on top of an iron fence. The mother's body slumps over as Telly grabs her from behind, saying with a smirk "They just never stay put!"

"Spam for dinner, again?"

Lisa wakes up from her chloroform lunch. Still naked, she looks around to see that everything is grown up and decayed. The whole house and estate is covered in vines and decay. She dresses and walks out to the front gate, where a group of schoolgirls are tossing a ball around. The ball bounces over by Lisa, who picks it up and offers it to one of the girls. Another girl in the group tells her to stay back, that only ghosts live there, the house having been abandoned for over 100 years! The girls run away, leaving Lisa alone. She wanders away from the house and very quickly finds the same plaza where she started the film, under the Satanic fresco. She hails a cab, and asks the cabbie to take her to the airport.

Now in her seat on the plane, Lisa lays back and rests her eyes, weary from all that has happened to her. The plane takes off. She wakes up sometime later to find the plane deserted! Wandering around and finding no one, she heads upstairs to first class. Arrayed before her in various seats are the other guests of the house, all dead and mannequin-like! Seeing them stare at her with their dead eyes, she flees in horror, heading up to the pilots cabin. She knocks furiously on the door, pleading to be let in. The door unlatches and slowly swings open to reveal Telly Savalas, lolly in mouth, wearing a Captain's uniform! He turns slowly around and gives her that sly smirk and calls her "Elena." The camera pans back to Lisa, who is suddenly dressed in that low-cut dress from her dream. Her features are ashen and we see that she is now mannequin-esque as well.

Lisa has now become Elena. She slumps dead to the floor. Fin.

"What's that awful smell? Oh wait, it's me..."

Whew. Sorry to gush so much, dear friends, but I just couldn't help it! Bava's mastery of the camera was in full effect during this movie, demonstrating a filmmaker at the height of his powers. Bava's international success with Baron Blood had caused producer Alfredo Leone to give Bava carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted, and this was the result. Lisa and the Devil is like the journey into a twisted mind's nightmare, where nothing makes sense and we, along with the protagonist, are swept breathlessly along, not knowing what is coming next but unable to look away.

The movie ended up being a commercial bomb, despite getting critical praise at Cannes. This was mainly due to lack of distribution. Apparently theaters assumed the general public wasn't ready for necrophiliac overtones, a sweaty, lollipop sucking Telly Savalas, or the pert nipples of Elke Sommer. How little did they know! It was ultimately re-edited by Leone and new footage was cut in making it into a possession movie, turning it into a cheap attempt to capture some of the Exorcist hoopla at the time, and calling it House of Exorcism. The original Lisa and the Devil wouldn't be released until 2 years after Bava was called back to Hell.

To me, the movie was deliberately confusing, striving to make little sense to the viewer, who would be as off-put as the players in the movie. The film also dwelt heavy on decay, loss, and death. Bava's camera loved to linger on shots of dead bodies, or mannequins, or mannequins of dead bodies. It would appear to me that Lisa really is Elena, and that the whole trip to Spain is some sort of personal Hell that she is trapped in, forced to relive the events of her life over and over. One can easily pretend that in that final shot of Elena/Lisa slumping against the wall of the plane would then be cut to her arriving anew in Spain to see the fresco, the cycle starting over.

If I could, I would invent a new rating system just to give this movie a higher rating than others. Wait a fucking minute, I'm the Duke of DVD! I indeed have that power (along with the ability to drop a woman's panties at 30 paces, and to consume enough spiced rum to kill a mule and still be able to operate a motor coach). So, in the wake of that revelation, I give Lisa and the Devil 4 Fucking Thumbs Up! This film deserves to be in the ultimate pantheon of MAD movie greats.

"Who loves ya, baby?!"


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Manitou (1978): or, Native-American Exorcist is a Pain the Neck

The capsule review: Oscar-nominated Hollywood legend Tony Curtis and Susan "Daughter of Lee" Strasberg fight forces of ancient evil manifested as a rapidly growing tumor on Susan's neck, which turns out to be the fetus of a 400-year-old Indian Shaman. Fellow Oscar nominees Burgess Meredith and Ann Sothern also star in this final film from the director of Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook.

Do I really need to go on?

Okay, I will.

Based on the 1975 best-selling novel by Graham Masterton, 1978's The Manitou is something of a Mad Movie Miracle. How was horror/exploitation filmmaker extraordinaire William Girdler, whose other output includes the demon-possession/blaxploitation opus Abby and killer omnivore epic Grizzly, able to assemble such a cast of Hollywood heavy hitters for a mashup of The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Omen, with a healthy dollop of Dr. Who and Luigi Cozzi's Starcrash thrown in during the slam-bang finale? The world may never know--but that mystery should only intensify our gratitude for this film's existence.

I appreciate a slow-burn character-establishing build-up as much as the next guy, but there's also something to be said for a movie that drops the laundry and gets right down to business, and the latter is Girdler's approach here. We open on a series of x-ray photos showing a strange growth on the neck of Karen Tandy (Strasberg). Drs. Hughes (Jon Cedar) and McEnvoy (Paul Mantee) discuss the case in serious tones--apparently the "tumor" appeared only a few days previous, and has been growing at an alarming rate. The x-rays show not cancerous cells, but tissue, fluid, and even bone, flummoxing the specialists. "I've been through every chemo book," Dr. McEnvoy sighs. "I wrote the books," Dr. Hughes shoots back, "And I still don't know what the hell it is." Subscribing to the "When in Doubt, Cut It Out" philosophy, Hughes schedules an emergency WTF-ectomy.

Not comforted by her doctor's vague reassurances and in despair at her shocking lack of back-story, Karen looks up former flame Harry Erskine (Curtis), a tarot-reading charlatan who wears a wizard robe and fake pornstache to bilk wealthy old widows of their hard-won inheritances. Ever the trouper, Curtis really throws himself into the performance, wringing all the eccentricity he can out of his new-agey pronouncements, and every drop of comedy possible out of his post-work disco dancing to his reel-to-reel hi-fi. Words really cannot due justice to the beauty of his performance here.

Get down, Tony!

After a long stroll through the streets of San Francisco ends with the former lovers in bathrobes back at Harry's apartment (I can only hope the lost love-scene footage, like Curtis's famously ambiguous scenes in Spartacus, will someday resurface and be restored for the NC-17 special edition), Harry hears Kathy mumbling a strange phrase in her sleep. No, it's not "No more wet celery and flying helmet!"; rather it's "Pana Witchi Salatu," a Native American phrase we later learn means "My death foretells my return!" When an elderly client of Harry's starts chanting the same phrase the next day, then levitates down the hallway and tosses herself energetically down the stairs to her death (breaking every bannister support on the way down), the mendacious mystic starts to wonder what his bulbous-naped booty call might have gotten him into.

Back at the hospital, Dr. Hughs tries to remove the lump, which he now admits "you could almost describe as a fetus!", but Karen goes all Regan MacNeill on his ass, causing him to cut his own wrist with the scalpel and forcing the cancellation of the procedure. Taking the (running) bull by the neck, Harry summons some friends for an honest-to-goodness seance (Sothern and Stella Stevens, who apparently taught Erskine all he knows), which summons a cigar-store Indian head out of the table's surface before ending in spinning chandeliers and French-door explosions, just as cinematic seances almost always do. Clues thus gained lead them to a book about Native American folklore containing the story of a medicine man who reincarnated himself through a lump on a young squaw's forearm. Could the same squamous squidginess be afoot in the City?

When I hold a seance, I usually hope to get a little head under the table.

This leads Curtis to the author of the book Dr. Snow (Burgess Meredith in an endearlingly absent-minded, doddering turn, and an even more endearing Colonel Sanders beard), who translates Karen's sweet nothings for them and confirms that they're dealing with a powerful ancient medicine man, whose soul or "manitou" never dies but is constantly reborn, growing in power each time. As to how to stop it, Dr. Snow basically tells them they're fucked--unless they can find a real live medicine man to help them undo that bad magic.

"I crap bigger than you!"

A quick flight to South Dakota and Curtis is talking to John Singing Rock (a frankly excellent Michael Ansara, who delivers some astoundingly silly lines with such dignity and conviction you nearly forget to laugh). Initially unwilling to help "Mr. White Man" due to the whole genocide/land-stealing thing, John relents when Curtis admits he wouldn't help the Indian if their positions were reversed. His price: $100,000 for the Indian Education Foundation, and a couple of plugs of tobacco. Oh, John Singing Rock, you are so wise and colorful and not at all cliched!

At the hospital things have gone from worse to WTF, as Dr. Hughes ill-advisedly tries to remove the fetus using a high-tech laser scalpel that looks like it's on loan from a Pink Panther film. Unfortunately, as John Singing Rock informs them too late, all things have manitous--rocks, trees, even machinery, like the LASER--and a powerful medicine man can call upon these non-human souls to do his bidding. What does that mean in layman's terms? It means the operating room turns into the opening scene from Star Wars, with the powerful laser scalpel blasting lights, burning trails in the wall, and maybe even killing a couple of people, all while Karen stands in the corner laughing. Hang on, folks, it gets better.

That's a precise surgical instrument, people.

Once John gets Karen to himself, he becomes a Native-American Father Merrin and questions the demon inside her, learning the intruder is Misquamacus, the most powerful, eeevil medicine man who ever lived, a man who in his 3rd or 4th incarnation could move mountains and send pebbles up the asses of his enemies on a whim. One glimmer of hope is the fact that modern technology seems to bother the 400-year old medicine man--the x-rays cause him pain (Dr. Hughes helpfully explains that every time they take an x-ray, some cells die, and in a fetus this could cause all manner of deformity).

Where the movie goes from there is so awesomely, amazingly MAD it can only be detailed in bullet-list form:

  • The x-rays have indeed interfered with Misquamacus's medicine, as he emerges from his birth-sack on Karen's back (in an effectively icky sequence) as a long-haired, wooden-faced dwarf!
"FEELINGS! Whoa-whoa-whoa, FEELINGS!"

  • Misquamacus summons "the manitou of the Flesh" to strip the skin from one orderly's body, later resurrecting him as a red-painted zombie to terrorize the rest of the staff. Later he summons the Manitou of Cold to turn the entire hospital floor into an icy wasteland, complete with Star Trek-level papier-mache icicles. A flash-frozen nurse gets shattered in the battle, her head snapping off and flying through a window!
  • Misquamacus summons "The Great Old One," the Native-American Lucifer, to do battle with his foes; TGOO takes the form of a double-exposure of a man in a lizard mascot suit, who bites off Dr. Hughes' hand!
  • John and Harry convince Dr. Hughes to focus all the hospital's high-tech computers (complete with flashing jewel-lights and reel-to-reel data stores) in one energy surge, hoping the machine manitous will help them send the medicine man back to where he came from. Unfortunately the surge causes Dr. Hughes to explode like a meat-filled firecracker!
"I'm as surprised as you are, folks."
  • The final battle takes place in a Dr. Who starfield, wherein Harry's love for Karen channels the machine manitous to her aid, leading to a Starcrash laser battle for her soul! Seriously.
For all Girdler's low-budget pedigree, he actually makes a fairly well-crafted film here, at least on the technical level. Interesting low- and high-angle shots, a non-stationary camera (frequent but not distracting uses of tracks and zooms), and some striking visual compositions go a long way toward keeping the viewer's interest, which is good, since certain sections of the movie admittedly tend to drag. The sets and settings are all lovely, and the shots of San Francisco simply gorgeous. Girdler had come a long way from Asylum of Satan--unfortunately the director died in a tragic helicopter accident before he could see his best film on the big screen.

But story-wise, there's no two ways about it, friends and parishioners--The Manitou is a megadose of movie madness from one end to the other. Watching Tony Curtis and the other talented actors struggle with the cheesy dialogue ("Harry, you don't call [supreme deity] Gichi Manitou!" "Oh yeah? Well he's going to ge a person-to-person call from me. COLLECT!") and the challenge of taking it all seriously gave me no end of joy, and the slam-bang finale just piled on the nuttiness until my cup was overflowing onto my lap tray. I don't know if the wild plot is entirely faithful to Masterton's novel, or if Girdler added his own amazing flourishes of insanity, but this is definitely one of the MADDEST stories I've seen in a while, and it never failed to entertain.

Susan Strasberg in Barbarella 2: 20 Years Later

Dwarf sorcerors, laser battles, shameless Exorcist rip-offs and has-to-be-made-up American Indian folklore, plus Tony Curtis in a wizard robe...really, you couldn't ask for more. In short, The Manitou is highly recommended, and garners an easy 3 Thumbs from your ever-lovin' Vicar.

Also recommended: the excellent and exhaustive website, where webmistress Patty Breen has compiled with loving care the definitive retrospective of Mr. Girdler's career and work. Don't ask why--just go and enjoy a fan's-eye-view of Girdler cinema. Tell her the Vicar sent you!

A few more images from The Manitou (1978):

Attempted Nape

"Hello, is this my agent? Maury, you are so fucking fired."

"Forget the tarot cards. Come fiddle with my planchette, IYKWIM."

Tony Curtis in Parasite

He represents the Fuck You Up League



Friday, January 15, 2010

The Boneyard (1991): or, All-Out Zombie Poodle ATTACK!

Wow, what a fun flick!

Even though it was made in 1991, writer/director James Cummins' zombie seige flick The Boneyard plays like a drippy slice of pure 1980s horror-film goodness. With its offbeat comedy, Ancient Chinese Magic folklore, goopy practical effects and rubber-suited monsters, it's got a little something to please everyone who ever loved a Full Moon feature or chuckled in glee at Big Trouble in Little China. Add meaty roles for TV's Mr. Roper Norman Fell and hall-of-fame comedy queen Phyllis Diller, and you get nothing but a big heaping plate-full of Vicar love.

The movie opens with police lieutenant Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) and his inexperienced partner Gordon Mullen (James Eustermann) visiting the house of retired psychic investigator Alley Cates (Deborah Rose). Scarred by the horrors of her visions and the notoriety of being the PD's Resident Psychic, Cates has become a shut-in at her derelict house, burning her old newspaper clippings in the fireplace and completely rejecting societal pressures to "do the dishes" or "not sleep under a pile of unwashed laundry." She also tries to forget the visions that still haunt her; when Callum asks her to come out of retirement for one last case, she quickly shoots back, "Why? In case I get the urge to help you dig up baby bones again?"

"It was...the salmon mousse!"

Still, Jersey needs Cate's help--seems the police recently found the bodies of three children locked in the back room at a local mortuary. There was evidence that the Chinese mortician, the seemingly crazed Mr. Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn), had been feeding the children pieces of his "clientele" while keeping them captive. Callum wants Cates to use her powers to find out who the kids were, who their parents are, and exactly what (the fuck) was going on down there.

Cates initially refuses, but after a vision of her own decomposing daughter (whose death signaled the onset of her unwanted psychic powers) implores her to help them, she shakily agrees to cooperate.

Alley wonders if she's breastfed too long

Down at the station, Cates watches a video of Mr. Chen's investigation, and things go from "yuck" to "what the fuck" in a hurry. Chen claims the dead children are "kuei-shen," Chinese demons that his family has been cursed to keep contained for the good of mankind. "They are becoming restless," Chen explains, "Harder to manage!...If they are not fed, they WILL FEED!" The cops cart Chen off for psychological evaluation, but soon we learn that thanks to a lapse of watchfulness on the part of a guard and an unsecured service revolver, Chen punches his own ticket on the Ancestor Express.

Cates needs physical contact with the remains in order to kick her ESP into gear, so she and the cops take a trip to the city morgue--affectionately known as "THE BONEYARD"--in the middle of the night, naturally. Night porter Mrs. Poopinplatz (Diller, who else?) gives the cops and their charge a hard time, all while stroking and coddling her toy poodle Foosums. When they finally get down to the morgue, coroner-on-duty "Shep" Shepard (Norman Fell, sporting a ponytail and a Wilford Brimley moustache) pulls out the badly decomposed children's bodies and puts them on display. A comic relief corpse-delivery-man shows up to let them know the hydraulic doors on the lower floors (where the bodies are kept) are out of order, and the elevator is the only way in or out. If you think this might become important, go get yourself a cookie.

Norman Fell in the shocking, unaired final episode of Three's Company

While Cates fondles a lock of a deceased child's hair for vibrations, Jersey and Gordon watch Shep perform an autopsy on a recent arrival, a young girl assumed a suicide. Turns out there's been a severe clerical error, however, as at the first incision the girl sits up and screams! I kept expecting her to be part of the upcoming zombie plague, but nope--it seems she was just very unlucky and the EMTs uncharacteristically lazy. The girl, Dana (Denise Young) quickly takes a shine to Gordon, forgetting all about the crushing depression and pointlessness of existence that led her to take a bath with her hair dryer on--some guys got it and some guys don't, I guess.

At almost the same time, Cates gets a vision of a black magic ceremony taking place in Ancient China, where a pair of grieving parents hire a sorceror to raise their deceased spawn from the dead. (Presumably one of Chen's transgressive ancestors, bringing the curse into our plane.) After that she flashes forward to the body storage facility, where from the corpse's point of view she can see Jersey, Shep, and the rest through the plate glass window. The three corpses on the slabs begin to rise in a very creepy, atmospheric scene, and Cates snaps out of it, desperate to warn her friends.

"Let's play Hide and Seek. You first."

After a tussle with Poopinplatz for the elevator key that brings all of them down below (including Foosums), Cates arrives in the bloody aftermath of a zombie rampage, with several of the staff gutted and eviscerated, and the child zombies sitting over them, scooping their guts out like pudding cups! She's found by the survivors--Shep, Jersey, Gordon, and Dana--and they lock themselves in a room and prepare for the seige. Diller gets cornered by one of the ghouls but manages to knock a shelf of acid over, disintegrating it--but not before the undead menace pulls a piece of rotting flesh off its own skull and stuffs it down her gaping pie-hole!

Of course this sets up the us-versus-them climax, with the increasingly battered survivors trying to find their way out of the locked-down building, all the while fending off the hungry and vicious undead children. It plays out almost the way you would expect, but with a couple of WTF-worthy twists and one out-there plot development that I think must have been an inspiration to Ang Lee in one of his more divisive modern projects.


There's a lot to like in this movie, starting with the aforementioned goopy effects. The child zombies are very gross and creepy, and move in a jerky, shambling gait that calls to mind Stuart Gordon's re-animated dead. Cummins doesn't skimp on the squishy sound effects either, which really pays off when the zombies are feasting on the all-you-can-eat buffet in the morgue.

The movie is also a bit of a horror-comedy, as you would expect with people like Fell and Diller in the cast. However, the comedy is never overly broad (except in one instance, about which there will be more to say in a moment), and for the most part it works. The atmospheric lighting and scene composition also add to the movie's substantial creep factor. The dissonant, Danny Elfman-meets-Richard Band score helps as well.

"Olley olley all-come-free!"

The performances run the full gamut from good to meh. Diller is surprisingly effective in her mostly straight role as a wise-cracking battle axe, toning down her larger-than-life comedy persona to the realm of believability (she even appears without her trademark flamboyant wigs). Nelson as Jersey Callum is a bit TV sit-commy for my tastes, and Eustermann and Young are frankly awful. It's fun to see Norman Fell in an atypical costume if not an atypical role. The real heavy hitting is done by Deborah Rose as the psychic heroine, however. She's not your typical movie-star heroine--she's middle-aged, overweight, and smokes like a chimney--but she brings a simultaneous toughness and vulnerability to her portrayal that is a pleasure to see.

It's in the film's climax that things really get MAD, however. For instance, have you ever wanted to see Phyllis Diller as a gigantic flesh-eating zombie? Well brother, now's your chance:

Killer Diller

Once the rubber-suited mayhem starts it just doesn't stop, as Foosums gets a taste of one of the slain zombies' goo and hulks out to mammoth (which is to say, man-sized) proportions and terrorizes the survivor's in the wild and cottony climax. I feel a little bad spoiling the visuals for those who haven't seen the movie, but since the poster and VHS box had the giant zombie poodle plastered all over them as a selling point, I think somehow we'll all survive:

Don't make Foosums angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

It's not a perfect movie--there are a couple of momentum-killing exposition/soul-baring scenes that strike me as serious directorial missteps--but that's a minor quibble when put up against everything the movie gets right. 2.75 thumbs for this relatively obscure monster romp from the 90s with one foot firmly in the day-glo 80s. Seek it out, parishioners--you'll be glad you did.

A few more images from The Boneyard (1991):

"Hell no, I don't know anything about a sexual assault on your pet chicken! Do you, Mullen?"

The Fell of Dark, Not Day

Madman 2: The Bride of Marz

"Gotcher nose!"

"Duke, NOOOOOO!"


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