Monday, October 29, 2007

Awakening of the Beast (1970): or, The Brazilian Insanity Machine

I'll never forget how I introduced the Duke of DVD to José Mojica Marins's work. The Duke had watched This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse at my urging, and had fallen instantly in love with the little bearded heathen Zé do Caixão, aka Coffin Joe. After that he'd hungrily devoured from my hand, like a damnable goat eating the dried corn of Evil, Zé's origin story and Marins's first feature film, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul. He wanted more, and I held in my grimy, filthy hands the third in Fantomas DVD's Coffin Joe releases, the 1970 mind-bender O Ritual dos Sádicos, aka Awakening of the Beast.

"Duke," I said, "You ARE NOT READY for this movie."

Despite my warning, though, he took it, and a week later was returning the DVD to me. His face was pale, his lip quivering, and in his eyes even brighter than usual glimmering the horrifying, delirious lightning flashes of madness.

"Vicar, you were right," he whispered. "I was not ready! I am STILL not ready! THE WORLD IS NOT READY!"

Such is the genius of José Mojica Marins. In the ground-breaking At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, Marins introduced moviegoers to his bizarre, twisted worldview, his inimitable art, and his soon-to-be iconic alter ego--he of the top hat and cloak, the medallion and talons, the goatee and unibrow that bends all to his indomitable will. In the masterpiece of a follow-up, This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, he cemeted Zé's place as the ultimate blasphemous badass in South American cinema, and continued his assault on the expected and respected. In a just universe, the Hell sequence from this film alone would be enough to garner a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences, not to mention the undying admiration and worship not only of South America, but of the world.

But as Marins would be the first to tell you, we do not live in a just universe--if we did, Zé do Caixão would not be necessary. Still, these two films let those of discerning tastes know that Marins was a talented, primitive artiste, a storyteller of unparalleled vision and passion, and a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

The power of Zé compels you!

Little did the cineastes suspect that Marins' true aim was not, and had never been, to be a simple storyteller. It wasn't until Marins unleashed 1970's Awakening of the Beast that his true intentions started to become clear. You see, the stories were not the goal; they were a tool, a weapon in his arsenal as Marins stormed the beaches of the establishment in pursuit of his true objective.

Marins didn't want to tell a story. He wanted to get into your mind, and DESTROY IT. The movies were just his avenues in, the roads he built over which to trundle his seige engines. AotB was that seige engine, the fire-spitting battering ram that would bring the gates of your sanity crashing down in ruin, reducing the mores and hypocrisies of so called "society" to smoldering heaps of carbon, and allowing Zé and his minions free reign in your brain.

And God help us--he did it!

In AotB Marins eschews traditional narrative structure and goes straight for your cortex. Opening with a happily-scored, festive-looking thank-you note to his producers and friends who helped make the movie possible, Marins befuddles but relaxes you just long enough to set you up for the horror you know is coming, but are powerless to resist--the dreaded opening credits. For my money no filmmaker has ever used a credit sequence to higher effect than Marins, as in all of his films the credits set you up and disorient you to such a degree that what follows after goes straight into your subconscious. It's like the credits find the vein, and then he can inject his madness directly into your bloodstream. And he gets you EVERY TIME.

It's go time.

Then we have what has to be one of the greatest opening vignettes in world cinema. A group of very unsavory Brazilian businessmen are sitting around focusing their rapt attention on a pretty blonde girl, who is lolling in the spotlight, preparing her fix of las drogas. I would not be at all surprised to find that the actress actually did shoot up for this scene--the injection into her foot (blasphemous echoes of the crucifixion?) is certainly real enough. Then she puts on a record with a protest song that seems to protest both war AND peace, but is nonetheless hypnotic, to which she strips before the increasingly ecstatic audience of wolf-like men. It is repulsive, yes, but not unexpected, a very normal perversion...until the men offer her with a nicely-wrapped present they've brought along, and their real entertainment begins...

Decades before MTV, Marins was using flash-cuts and machine-gun edits to disorient his audience and move the visuals along at a break-neck pace. Always visually interesting even when logically incoherent, the scene grabs you and won't let you go until you've feasted your eyes on all the deviance it wants to show you. And this is just the beginning.

Framed by scenes with mysterious men smoking and debating in accusatory tones in a darkened room (something about a doctor who wants to prove the harm drugs are doing to Brazilian society, but it hardly matters--the atmosphere and strangeness, the tone of it is the important thing), more incongruous and unsettling vignettes follow. We see a young girl seduced by a bunch of hippies into taking drugs, then seduced by the music of Brazil's answer to Menudo (except 200 times more awesome) into all manner of unladylike activities--stripping, charging money for upskirt peeks and more, and finally the whistle/finger poke game, which brings home the utter depth of her fall. Then one of the hippies channels Moses, and parts the Red Sea with his staff. And not figuratively, mind you. He REALLY uses his staff, a big gnarled piece of wood, which leads to our poor misguided girl's untimely demise. Truly a shocking scene, from which you cannot look away.


And it just gets weirder. We have the caine-tooting, ugly old dude with 3 young girls who look up to him in doglike devotion before removing their bras and allowing him to kick them each in the arse as if attempting three field goals--much to his delight. We have the theme song, of which I need an mp3 STAT. We have a rich lady who does snuff and then watches the butler and her daughter git it awn (though apparently neither of THEM is under the influence), a scene which includes a very strange and disturbing pony appearance. There is a piglike/doglike, pasta-eating movie producer with the nervous young starlet, whose interior monologues we are privy to, as they negotiate the girl's ruin...though strangely not through the producer's own machinations, but through a proxy stud. We have the adultress who weeps during her seduction while looking at a photo of her beloved, leaving us to wonder why she's doing it in the first place...but in Zé's world, there is no explanation, only depravity and horror.

Just when we think this parade of degradation might go on forever, we're treated to a respite as José Mojica Marins, playing himself, defends his art in front of the Brazilian People's Court; though for many filmmakers this would seem self-serving, José uses the opportunity to decry the lack of filmstock and respect he gets in his native country. He's acquitted by the jury, and a doctor watching the show gets the idea to inject addicts with LSD and expose them toe Coffin Joe, just to see what happens. What happens, indeed...

The color sequence detailing the LSD freakout is one of the greatest depictions of the perils of drug use ever put to film. Zé in all his glory acts as the demonic angel to the tour group of freakeez. The field goal punter has more women putting themselves at his mercy, fulfilling his depraved fantasy. Strangely-masked revellers cavort in the hellish landscape. The horse-woman is trapped in a psychadelic nightmare, while the stripper from the opening is subjected to horror and pain in some truly disturbing scenes. We get some fantastic shots, such as Zé walking down a staircase made of human bodies, a disturbingly-masked crowd run rampant in a statuary, and an absolutely Boschian lineup of painted arses, one of which actually, impossibly, smokes a cigar!

Stairway to Heaven? No, Stairwell to Hell!

As the druggees come down we find that each tripper has seen only what was already in his or her mind, and that in fact there was no LSD--they were under the influence only of Zé, which is perhaps even more disturbing. The movie ends with José leaving the studio and watching another young thing led to temptation, in the enigmatic shadow of Pap's Dog. He laughs and calls for the cut--and the movie's fantastic themesong plays again:
"Peace! Peace! Peace!
Peace--Peace is a lie
I try to deny
That's why I get high..."
Thus putting the cap on a movie that is truly unlike any other I have ever seen, and also more awesome.

If the synopsis above is confusing, it can't be moreso than the film--and yet the images Marins conjures are so lovely, so weird, so depraved, they burn into your brain like a red-hot iron. Disturbing, hypnotic, seizure-inducing--the images have stuck in my mind and won't let me logical brain cannot put into words the pure emotional responses the movie inspired, from fear to rage to laughter to craziness. Just a tour de force, and an experience I shan't soon forget.

The nightmarish content is served so well by the editing and innovative shots, the atmosphere and attitude--it all adds up to something you can't define except to say "It is teh awesome!" All the thumbs I can find, mine and others----WAY WAY UP.

A word of warning, however: DO NOT START your exposure to Marins with this movie. Watch AMITYS and TNIPYC first, then see if you still want more. Whatever your decision, I can assure you:


She thought she was ready. She was WRONG!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Curse of the Devil (1973): or, the Werewolf Worries the Witches

The morning dew dampened the footfalls of of the knight's mighty steed, its barding shining in the newly risen sun. A stamp of its foot and a metallic shake of its head gave notice to the rider that it, too, shared his impatience. Across the field, the Black One sat his horse like a demonic crusader, his dread mace seeming to drink the little sunlight that made its way down to him. The air stood still, nature seemed to hold its collective breath; no crow cawed, no insect strummed. With an unholy cry, the Black Knight shot across the field in a flurry of hoof-beats, his night-mare tearing great divots from the earth. Waldemar kicked his spurs in return, launching forward, baring his teeth in a silent grin, sure of his victory over evil... from Waldemar: Portrait of a God by the Duke of DVD.

So opens the 1973 Naschy opus El Retorno de Walpurgis, aka Curse of the Devil. Waldemar Daninsky has come unstuck in time, and is now an armored witch hunter and defender of the Church, sallying forth to fight the covens and black knights in Satan's service who were apparently rampant in medieval Spain. After a truly epic battle with the Black Knight, whose constant cries to Satan for aid cannot save him from Waldemar's wicked biting blade (Waldemar, the definition of badassery, taunts the evil knight with such banter as "I'll be your exorcist--not with a cross, but with a sword!"), the not-so-gentle Good Knight Daninsky rides to the knight's castle where a bevy of witches waits in the Chapel of Evil. He strides in majestically, throws a gauntleted hand in their direction, and growls "I'll see you bitches in CHAINS!" You know this is one Inquisitor who is NOT screwing around.

"Chains, do you hear me? CHAINS!"

After dangling the associate coven members from the castle drawbridge in a visually stunning scene, Waldy the Witch Hunter prepares to immolate their leader in the usual fashion. Unfortunately but also as usual, he immolates too late and allows the witch ample time to curse his ancestors from the pyre before making an ash of herself. If I ever burn a witch, you can bet your ass I'm going to slap a gag on that chick. My grandkids will thank me.

Flash-forward a couple of generations and we find Waldemar Daninsky the Younger hunting on his vast ancestral estate. Possibly the quarry is quail or pheasant, but as luck would have it Waldemar bags a werewolf. How he's able to kill the beast with standard bird shot (and in broad daylight) is not explained, but before you can question it we learn that the lycanthrope was one of those dirty, thieving gypsies who have long been the bane of the Daninskys' existence.

Not ones to take a kin-killing lying down, the gypsies refuse the remorse-ridden Waldemar's offer of recompense and instead hold a Black Mass. Satan appears wearing a mo-cap suit of the darkest black, and one of the young gypsy girls sheds her gossamer gown to couple with the Devil in a most vile and arousing scene. Then this bride of Satan is off to the Daninsky estate to visit upon our hapless hero THE CURSE OF THE DEVIL!

The scene wherein Waldemar is afflicted with werewolfery here is doubtless one of the most visually interesting of the sort I've seen. Using her feminine wiles to seduce the lord of the manor, the girl sneaks out while he's asleep to retrieve the bleached skull of a wolf. Returning to the bedchamber, she uses the skull to wound Waldemar on the chest, thus condemning him to change at the next full moon. It's gorgeously done, wonderfully weird, and really a high point in a movie chock full of them.

Waldemar gets a little head.

Having accomplished her mission the gypsy girl flees into the night, her translucent gown billowing behind her in the moonlight. (Zang.) But both she and we have a surprise in store for us, as from out of nowhere a crazed killer leaps out from behind a tree and buries an axe in her chest! Not since The Shining have I been so gobsmacked by an axe attack. Having been brought to eternal justice for her crime, the gypsy girl expires.

Of course the wheels are set in motion now for a wondefully tense third act, as Waldemar wolfs out and the crazed killer remains on the loose, so that Waldy's heinous acts of villager-slaughter are assumed to be the work of the (other) lunatic. Meanwhile a wealthy foreigner's two daughters have appeared on the scene and both have eyes for Lord Daninsky. While the younger girl is more worldly-wise and more agressive, it's the elder redhead who steals Waldemar's heart. Not to be outdone, however, the little sister lures Daninsky to a woodland hunting shack and kicks into high-seduction gear. "I came here a virgin," she says, once her ruse is discovered, "but I'm NOT going to leave that way!" Milady, with Naschy around, you needn't worry.

Unfortunately the foolish girl has chosen the night of the full moon as the evening of her deflowerment, which climaxes both literally and figuratively with Waldemar wolfing out and taking more than her maidenhead. So sad, a youthful flower plucked before she fully bloomed! And by plucked, I mean "had her throat ripped out."

"Why do my dates ALWAYS end this way?"

Waldemar is guilt-ridden as usual, desperately seeking a way out of his curse--and of course the only way out is for his true love to kill him. But before that happens we get lots of other great stuff, including an angry, torch-bearing mob hanging Waldemar's hired man for imagined crimes (Ah, those torch-bearing villagers, God bless 'em--always out there, burning witches at the stake, hunting werewolves, hanging people. Where would we be without 'em?), a gruesome end for our serial-killing red herring, a wonderful "The End...OR IS IT?" finale, and plenty more.

But perhaps the piece de resistance is THE SINGLE MOST ASTONISHING LEAP ATTACK EVER COMMITTED TO FILM, as a wolfed-out Waldy performs a picture perfect SOMERSAULT off a stairway landing to come crashing down on a hapless blind old woman below! Talk about death from above! The beauty, the horror, the Naschy! It brings a tear to one's eye.

I have a lot of fun watching Naschy for the "cheer for him, laugh with him" nature of some of his crazy monster mashes, but Curse of the Devil is one that's NOT so bad it's good--this one is so GOOD it's good. One thing that really amazed me and set this apart from some of the other Naschy flicks was the cinematography and the sets. Now the cinematographers who worked on Paul's films seemed always to have at least a few good shots in them, but they were often mixed up with lots of boring or outright inept ones. Not so here. Director Carlos Aured, who worked with Naschy on such other horror classics as The Mummy's Revenge, Horror Rises from the Tomb, and House of Psychotic Women, here gets some truly STUNNING mise en scenes, really wonderful shots, such as when the gypsies are leaving Waldy's castle: a low-angle shot of them coming across the drawbridge with the majestic ruined castle lit very eerily in the background. Also some of the nature scenes on Waldemar's property as he courts his love are just gorgeous stuff. The lighting and set design in the black mass and other scenes were superb and beautiful, and that castle set--I wonder where they got it, because it was just perfect. Just a beautiful film to look at, and the pristine Anchor Bay transfer helps loads.

If you want to get into Naschy but aren't sure about tackling some of his goofier fare, Curse of the Devil is a great place to start. One of his most visually accomplished and narratively cohesive flicks, that still retains that patented Naschy charm. 6 Thumbs, and more if you can find 'em. See it, or I'll see you in chains, bitch!

PS--I stole these images from I hope they don't mind.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Trauma (1978): or, Try Not to Choke Under Pressure

I recently finished watching all the flicks on Mill Creek's 50 Chilling Classics set (buy of the century folks! Get one now!), and while I'll be mining it for reviews for months to come, I found myself quite melancholy as the last of the twelve discs spun in my player. After all, where would I be able to find such a treasure trove again? Where would I go for the thrill of discovery, and the agony of disappointment?

Luckily, Mill Creek has put out six or seven more of these packs, and while they can't possibly live up to the Chilling Classics, if this flick is any indication, there's still plenty more b-movie bonanzas to be had. My first exposure to non-Chilling brilliance was on the Drive-In Movie Classics 50-pack, which is off to a promising start with this little slice of Italian Giallo Gouda, Trauma.

Wowee wow wow.

First of all, this is not Dario Argento's Trauma, a fairly well-regarded 1993 film and another chapter in the ongoing lurid saga of a father coming to terms with having sired one of the hottest women on the planet, Asia Argento. ("Daddy, do I have to get explicitly raped in THIS film too?" "No dear, just take your clothes off. That's a good girl. ACTION!") No, this is an earlier piece of Italian cinematic history, originally released in 1978 as Enigma Rosso, or The Red Enigma (aka Virgin Terror, Red Rings of Fear). As usual with giallos that title has more to do with the film tonally than literally, but I'm willing to allow that a lot gets lost in the translation.

This movie starts off with a credit sequence over some nefarious doings that involve a dead body being disposed of in the best sure-fire way possible: wrapped in Bisqueen and chucked into a raging river. There's both visual and text-based silliness here, as on one side we see the body apparently ejected from the car trunk and off a cliff without the intervening of human hands (all it was missing was a cartoon "SPROINNNNNNG!" sound effect), while on the other we see that no fewer than SIX writers dipped their pens for the script. They say the more the merrier, and in this case I can definitively state that the adage holds true.

Further fun is had as we get a corpse-eye view from underwater up toward the cliff, where we see not one but two cars departing the scene in a hurry. I can only assume this was a pick-up shot added in post-production, since the raging river has been replaced by a bubbling fish tank and the cars are clearly plastic models. One of the drivers is in such a hurry that he departs the scene SIDEWAYS, without even turning the wheels! The credits hadn't finished, and already I was agog at the crafstmanship.

Of course the body turns up almost immediately near a dam in the river, and upon its discovery we meet Inspector Gianni De Salvo, essayed with admirable energy by Fabio Testi. The inspector, who seems to have the collar of his trench coat absolutely stapled to the back of his skull, lives up to the actor's surname, as he's doubtless one of the testiest detectives in cinema: his innovatively irritable interrogation techniques will be a source of much entertainment later in the flick. Over somewhat disturbingly languorous pans across the dead girl's naked, plastic-wrapped form we learn that she died of strangulation but was also "torn up inside," meaning in the lower abdominal area, if you get my drift. We also learn that other girls who attend the same school as the victim have been stalked and killed, so obviously we've got a lunatic on the loose here. The inspector's superior, who bears an uncanny resemblance to John Hillerman of Magnum P.I. fame, gives the standard "we're relying on you to solve this case" speech and we're off and away!

Next there's a scene where De Salvo catches a shoplifter in the act at a local supermarket, but instead of reporting her he invites himself to join her in some of the stolen comestibles. It turns out she's his girlfriend, and probably part of some larger subplot one of the writers had in mind that was 86'ed by the rest of the supernumerous creative committee. I guess the main effect is to show that De Salvo is no law-and-order angel, though how heroic any policeman who winks at his friends' lawlessness is certainly open to debate.

Anyway, back to the murder case: the victim was a student at a Catholic school for girls (hey-o!), where the inspector begins his investigation. We meet several suspicious members of the faculty. De Salvo gets nowhere shouting at and bullying the collected suspects, but luckily the victim's little sister also attends the school, a precocious nine-year-old who has been conducting her own investigation and has no shortage of leads to offer our hero. A good thing, too, as she seems to be much better at this whole "finding clues" thing than De Salvo.

It turns out Big Sis was part of a clique at the school who call themselves "The Inseparables," upper-classwomen who don't seem too torn up that their friend got torn up. We get to know these girls extremely well during a completely and awesomely gratuitous post-P.E. shower scene that goes on much longer than it needs to (but who's complaining?). The plot thickens as one of the girls shows signs of illness, collapsing into the arms of her naked friends. No points for guessing she's pregnant, as a couple of scenes later she sneaks out of bed to meet up with an unidentified lover in the school basement. A bit later she's in a clinic having her little problem taken care of, and she has some wild, disturbing flashbacks to some kind of sex party she and her friends all participated in. Everybody seems to be having fun until Big Sis is stretched out on a table and assaulted, graphically, leading to DEATH BY DILDO! Theses scenes are intercut with the girl's abortion procedure to provide one of the most chilling and artfully icky sequences in the film.

De Salvo is still pretty useless without his prepubescent sidekick, though he does follow a billboard clue he recognizes from one of the girl's notebooks to a clothing store where he meets a very slimy shopkeeper. A murder or two later we discover that not only is someone stalking the Inseparables with killing on his mind, but the faculty have been receiving threatening notes from someone calling himself "Nemesis," claiming he's coming for his revenge. Is this the same killer that's stalking the girls, or do we have two maniacs on our hands? Nobody knows, but De Salvo is determined to find out.

The rest of the flick just gets more convoluted and confusing, but we do get some effective scenes in the school where a statue of a nun manages to creep the viewer out and a faculty member is nearly killed when she descends a staircase too quickly thanks to some cat's eye marbles. But the piece de resistance of the wild and weird is when De Salvo questions the creepy shopkeeper by taking him to an amusement park, forcing him onto a roller coaster, and THROTTLING HIM WHILE THE CARS WHIP AROUND THE TRACKS! I don't know if this is standard procedure for Italian cops, but it made the whole movie for me. It's not very effective, however, and a bit later the dude ends up a victim of Nemesis, impaled on broken glass. Yikes.

The ending continues the weirdness, as an out-of-nowhere confession leads to a hilarious out-of-nowhere suicide, and Nemesis is revealed in one of the most shocking and hilarious scenes I can recall in a film of this vintage. I don't want to spoil it, but I was surprised, delighted, and laughing my ass off.

I do have to say that the print on the Drive-In Classics set is pretty horrible: not only are there scratches and audio mismatches aplenty, but the cropping, especially in the early scenes, is really distractingly awful. But let's face it, this thing is never getting an anamorphic transfer. So in the end, I still have to recommend it to fans of Giallo cheese. Wild plot developments, loads of gratuitous nekkidity, a couple of truly disturbing scenes, and a ride on the roller-choker. What's not to like?

2.25 Thumbs. Check it out.

ps--Through a little internet research I've just learned that this is the third in a "Schoolgirl Trilogy" of films that includes the intriguingly titled What Have They Done to Solange? and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? all starring Fabio Testi. If the others are as much fun as Trauma, I'll definitely be hunting them down.


Monday, October 8, 2007

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961): or, A Tale of Bitter Woe (Wo-wo-wah-ooooooo)

First off, confession: I am a huge, HUGE fan of The Wolf Man (1941); I count it among my most favoritest movies of all time and credit it with inspiring my love of horror that continues to this day. Since first viewing Lon Chaney Jr.'s legend-making performance when I was 6 years old, I've sought out other werewolf movies, particularly the classics, in hopes of recapturing that feeling of first discovering the manbeast.

In the dark ages before the internet, before cable and even the VCR, I haunted the film section of my local library, reading every book on horror movies I could find. I scoured flea-market coverless issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, seeking information. Every week I pored over the TV Guide, looking for horror movies in the wee hours on the 3 channels available to me. Finding one was akin to discovering a buried treasure, and my entire weekend would be structured around getting enough sleep to stay up late and watch.

Bear with me here.

All through those years, the one movie that I kept reading about, kept seeing stills for, kept salivating over, and yet was never able to find on TV, was the Hammer Horror 1961 werewolf entry Curse of the Werewolf. I saw the stills of Oliver Reed in that iconic makeup, similar to Lon Chaney's but different enough to be totally new, and ached to watch this movie. I read critical reviews praising it, but never found it in my TV Guide. Incredibly, even after the advent of cable and the VCR, I never found it on my TV or in my rental store. Over the years the desire waned, and I forgot.

Until last year, when The Hammer Horror Collection was released. There he was on the cover--Oliver Reed in all his lycanthropic glory, waiting to be watched at long last by me. With childish glee I purchased the DVD set, mindless of the other features contained therein, seeking only to finally satisfy my long-held desire: to see Curse of the Werewolf and rejoice.

Perhaps it was inevitable that I would be disappointed. After all, what film could bear that level of accumulated expectation? How could it possibly live up? I am willing to admit, perhaps all those years of privation led me to expect too much.

Still, though, I didn't expect the unrelenting, pitiless snoozefest that awaited me.

Curse of the Werewolf is, quite simply, one of the WORST werewolf movies I've ever seen, and before you ask, yes, I have seen Werewolf and An American Werewolf in Paris. In a 92 minute movie, Oliver Reed (the protagonist) does not appear for nearly a full HOUR, and after he does, it's another 15 minutes before he finally becomes the werewolf. Do the math.

This (fantastic) still is better than the whole movie.
Stare at this for 92 minutes instead.

Now this would be fine if the previous running time were spent building up tension, investing us in the characters, ratcheting up the suspense until the release of the beast coincides with the release of our own unbearable expectation. But it doesn't do that, oh no. By the time Reed wolfs out, those who are not asleep will be shouting "FINALLY! ABOUT DAMN TIME!" But even then, you're in for more disappointment.

But I get ahead of myself. Plot summary follows. Complete and Utter Spoilers Below, but really, don't worry yourselves.

The first 45 minutes of the movie are an interminable back story about how Ollie was conceived, none of it having anything at all to do with lycanthropy. A beggar is unjustly imprisoned by an evil Marquis, and in the dungeon over years becomes more and more beast-like, held to his humanity only by the kindness of a mute servant girl who feeds him. When the aged Marquis tries to force himself on the girl, she rebels and is thrown in the dungeon for her insolence. The beggar, finding his angel on his side of the bars, at first reaches out to her with kindness--but when she is repulsed by his hideousness, the pain of rejection enrages him, and he rapes her.

Later the girl is released, murders the Marquis, and runs into the countryside where she is found by a respected middle class Spaniard, who has been narrating the story in voice-over up until now, though we don't know this until he appears, more than a half-hour in.

Let me stop there and give some props. There's some very nice Marquis de Sade-ish behavior by the wicked Marquis, and the devolution of the beggar from man to beast in the dungeon, made an animal because he was treated like an animal, gave me real hope that the movie would have something a bit thoughtful to say about man's inhumanity to man and the consequences of treating your fellows like beasts. The colors, as in all Hammer releases, are sumptuous, and the mute girl is nice to look at. At this point, even though the word "werewolf" had yet to be spoken, I had hope.

Alas, all for naught. The story of the Marquis and the beggar is quickly dropped and never mentioned again. The girl gives birth on Christmas Day to the young Ollie, and she dies moments later. Since she is mute and illiterate, there's a bit of a mystery as to how the middle class Spaniard who becomes Ollie's adoptive uncle was able to narrate that 45 minutes of backstory in such meticulous detail, particularly since, even if the girl had been able to write it down, she couldn't have known about half the events narrated, which happened well before her birth. But it doesn't matter in the end, because none of that has anything to do with why Ollie is a werewolf.

You see, he's a werewolf because he was born on Christmas, which is an affront to God in the eyes of the superstitious villagers. Yes, THAT'S IT. No bite by another werewolf. No gypsy curse. No beast-man metaphorical comparisons. Not even the nonsensical but sometimes-seen idea that ingestion of wolfsbane somehow turned him wolfy. Nope, because he was born on Christmas, an evil animal spirit enters him at birth, which battles his soul throughout his life for control. If he experiences love, happiness, contentment, his human soul wins; if rejection, anger, hatred, evil, the beast spirit takes over. All this is related by a priest who oversees the boy's baptism, complete with howling winds and boiling holy water. How he knows is anyone's guess. I suppose he took a class in seminary.

So we get another long stretch of Ollie as a child and the troubles of local goat farmers whose goats are getting killed by a young wolf that we never see. The adoptive uncle and aunt become werewolf enablers by keeping Ollie locked in his room and framing a local dog for the crimes. Ollie grows up unaware of his beastly nature, and because the aunt and uncle are so nice, never wolfs out again, apparently. Until an hour in, when he moves off to seek his fortune in a neighboring town.

"God, I wish I was drunk right now. Oh, wait...I am."

Another pause here--so the uncle and aunt know Ollie is a werewolf, but Ollie doesn't. They also know that if he gets mad or hurt, he's liable to wolf out. Yet they're perfectly all right with him going off on his own completely blissfully unaware of this? Not even a taking him aside, "By the way son, something you should know...?" Argh.

Blah blah blah, on and on and on. Ollie gets a job at a winery, falls in love with the vinter's daughter, she's already engaged, he gets drunk in despair, and FINALLY we get the werewolf. Check that--we get the werewolf's HANDS. He kills a couple of folks, runs back home to Auntie and Uncle, returns to work the next day, gets arrested for some reason, and rots in jail until nighttime. The uncle comes to get him out but can't, so he instead gets a silver bullet and prepares for the worst. Thanks, Unc, you're a real pal.

So it's not until literally the LAST FIVE MINUTES OF THE MOVIE you see that iconic makeup. Now I'm not one that thinks the transformation is the be-all end-all of werewolf flicks; but even so, the transformation is poor. Chaney's was better, twenty years earlier. But that makeup does look fantastic, and Reed wears it well.

But while it's good, what does he do in wolf form? Does he go on a rampage? Does he terrorize anyone? Oh no, that's too clichéd . That's just what you'd expect out of a freakin' WEREWOLF MOVIE. No, instead he climbs to the roof of a church, pursued by a torch-bearing mob, and spends much of his final 5 minutes screen time leaping from roof to roof, well out of reach of the crowd, and thus no danger to any of them. ("I spit at suspense! HOCH, PTUI!") Somewhere in there director Terence Fisher apparently got drunk and imagined he was making The Hunchback of Notre Dame instead, as Wolf-Ollie displays his gymnastics skills by vaulting and climbing and swinging and descending and then climbing again--this goes on forever, and never gets anywhere--and then at last goes into the bell tower and glowers at the crowd from there until his uncle comes up, rings the bells (stunning the poor doggie) and shoots him with a silver bullet. The end.

"Sanctuary! SANCTUARY!"

Words really cannot describe how ABYSMALLY disappointed I was in this movie. It was so bad I almost wish I'd never seen it. Better to have kept my unsulled, imaginary view of it than to see it for real and have it turn out to be the disjointed, nonsensical, poorly-acted and anticlimatic snoozefest it turned out to be. To give you an idea of my soul-crushing disappointment: I also watched Uwe Boll's House of the Dead for the first time the same weekend, and I preferred it to Curse of the Werewolf, because at least you could laugh. CotWW was so slow and uninvolving I couldn't even joke about it.

To make a long story short (TOO LATE!), just a stupid, slow, incoherent mess of a movie with a few minutes of great makeup. One-half Thumb. My advice--avoid avoid AVOID. Save yourselves. It's too late for me...


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Requiem for a Vampire (1971): or Vampires, Virgins, and Velvet Elvis

I'd heard about the work of Jean Rollin for years before I actually buckled down to watch one of his movies. I knew about his obsession with female vampires, his strange, borderline surreal sensibilities, and his unwillingness to let such things as logic and narrative get in the way of a single beautiful image. I was intrigued, but not so much that I wanted to rush out and see all his flicks.

That is, until the Duke loaned me his Redemption DVD copy of Rollin's 1971 masterwork, Requiem for a Vampire.

Requiem is not your average vampire film. Though it clocks in at a spare 88 minutes, more than 40 minutes go by before any meaningful dialog is exchanged; up until that point it is for all intents and purposes a silent film with sound effects. The sets and cinematography are obviously shoestring-budget affairs, sparsely populated farmland or tourist areas where Rollin probably filmed without permission--and the makeup effects are almost childlike--rubber bats on wires, vampire fangs that, if real, would pierce the vamps' lower lips every time they spoke. But in the context of the movie, this weird, surreal, dreamlike movie, it all somehow worked for me.

The movie begins with a bang, literally, as someone shoots out the back window of a small French car which takes up the whole screen. As the glass falls away we see the shooting is being done by two young women while a young man drives in an apparently desperate getaway. Thrown into the action in media res, we don't know what they're running from, who's in the car chasing them, or why the two girls are dressed in motley satin clown suits and sporting full clown makeup. (?!?!?!) And we won't know for quite a while--if you can't go along with that, then you should get off the boat here, because it just gets weirder and more wonderful.

"Buddy, you picked the wrong clown car to jack!"

The driver is wounded before ditching the pursuers, and he tragically dies in the arms of his clown friends, his last words an enigmatic phrase, "The water tower!" I might have missed it, but I think no water tower is ever mentioned again, much less shown onscreen--why did he say it? Some childhood memory flashing across his dying synapses? A riddle that holds the key to understanding the whole film? Who knows? It's one of the many enigmas of RfaV, and like the others, best left unsolved.

The clown girls torch the car with their friend's corpse in it, then start on a cross-country trek that takes up much of the film's first half. Along the way they lose the clown outfits and don short skirts and knee-socks, while also styling their hair in braided pigtails. The word "ZANG" comes to mind. It's like pint nite at The Flying Saucer made an arty vamp film, and that is in no way a bad thing.

Along the way they trick a traveling lunch vendor away from his van in order to steal food, they wander into a graveyard where one of the girls slips into an open grave and is nearly buried alive by a startlingly inattentive grave digger. (Dude! LOOK IN THE GRAVE! There's a Eurobabe down there on the coffin!) Finally they discover an abandoned chateau/ruined castle. They find a bed with a large fur blanket, and the next thing you know they are getting all lesbonic on it. The post-coital tableaux with the two nekkid beauties on the fur-blanket is so beautiful and trashy at the same time, it's like a velvet painting of Elvis as Jesus. And like that painting, I wish I had this image on velvet on the wall of my den.

Rollin is a GENIUS.

Upon further investigating the chateau, however, they discover in the dungeon a rotting, hanged corpse in quite a shocking scene. Then in a nightmarish sequence they find other body parts strewn around the castle, culminating in a scene in the chapel that gave me genuine chills, as they discover what they think is a religious ceremony going on but discover to be a horrific tableaux of bones.

There is one living--or at least not dead--person in the chapel, though: a menacing vampish lady who's playing the organ. Another chase ensues; our young girls flee while pursued by the woman and some animalistic men who join her. In the end they are caught in the cemetery, explain their presence (some strange tale about being at a dress-up ball, hence the clown costumes, and knocking someone unconscious and fleeing to stay out of trouble--which doesn't explain the gunplay or why they didn't just go to the police, but still) and come face to face with a vampire--the Last Vampire, apparently, who wants them to help him keep his race alive.

This is a gorgeous scene, as the girls run through the graveyard enveloped in inky blackness, lit in such a way that you see only them--all the rest is dark. Then the lead vamp actually looks pretty creepy with some nice green lighting, and then he opens his cape to reveal--two rubber bats hanging from his armpits! The bats "fly" out and attach themselves to the girls' necks, and for the next few minutes they wear the flying mammals like corsages, enslaved by their wicked magic.

"We're as surprised as you are, folks."

They are then taken to the dungeon, where other living girls are now chained as love/blood slaves to the vampish woman (who as it turns out is not fully turned yet, thus a half-vamp who can still go out in daylight). The animalistic men and another vamp woman proceed to have an orgy of blood and sex, all lit with stunning red gels. This orgy scene goes on and on, and is very hot stuff. It culminates in one of the most jaw-dropping WTF/OMFG moments I've had watching a film in a while, as we see one of the love slaves writhing in her chains, and then the camera pans down to reveal the reason--one of the vampire bats from earlier, attached to her crotch! "Wild" doesn't even begin to describe it.

The story wraps up rather neatly, with one girl choosing to become a vamp and the other rebelling in an odd and arousing way, and the surprisingly stoic and merciful Last Vampire accepting his fate and setting the girls free.

If one is looking for plot holes, this thing is Swiss cheese. Why did the girls torch the car? If they're schoolgirls, why were they packing two guns that they use again and again like gangsters? Why didn't they go to the police? Where are all these love slaves coming from, out in the middle of nowhere?

But to dwell on such trivialities as plot cohesion is to miss the point. This film is surrealism, and is a visual feast. Rollin treats us to some great wide-angle shots wherein the actors are tiny specks in the larger painting of the lens, and gets some great effects--particularly one shot close to the opening when the girls in clown regalia are crossing the fields and a cloud passes over the sun, such that we can trace the shadow of it as it envelops and then uncovers the girls. It couldn't have been planned--that's just cinematic magic. In a similar scene later the girls are running from the men and half-vamp, and as they come across the huge barley field, the vampire party spreads out ominously on the hill above them. Just great, arty stuff, and I found myself entranced.


But Rollin isn't all about the art; or at least, his art isn't all landscapes. In addition to the wide-angle shots, we get several trademark low-angle shots of the girls running here and there--the kids call these "upskirts"--and again my vocabulary stops at ZANG. This director wears his voyeurism on his sleeve with these shots, the aforementioned furbed, the amazing dungeon orgy, and a great sequence late in the movie with one of the girls running around the castle ruins in nothing but knee socks and pigtails (!!!). There's some whipping and a little (but not much) blood drinking thrown in too, so you know this guy's all about the pervyness.

I can see why people would think this boring, but I was enthralled. Like I said, there's almost no dialog until 40 minutes in; and strangely, once the talking started, I found myself wishing they had kept it silent--not because the dialog is bad (though it IS) but because I was so digging the purely visual trip. It didn't MATTER to me why they had been dressed as clowns and what the reason behind the gunplay was; I even stopped wondering about that water tower. I was just drinking it all in, silent movie style, and loving it.

Anyway, I give it 2.85 thumbs, leaning toward more. I definitely want to see more Rollin now, and I'm so glad I got to see this one. Great stuff, if you're in the mood for it, which I was. If you can throw yourself into it and surrender your eyes to the screen, it's quite rewarding.

"Holy shit! Did you SEE those chicks?"


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Dead of Night (1945): or, Anthology Films for Dummies

Made in 1945, Dead of Night may be one of the earliest horror anthologies. A British production of Ealing Studios, one immediately obvious difference between DoN and a Hollywood production of the same period are the actors' accents, which are a lot thicker than the smooth-as-velvet English tones you might have heard from Hollywood-based Brit stars of the period--indeed, sometimes so thick as to require close listening for translation.

The movie stands out not only as one of the earliest anthology horror films, but also one of the best. An intriguing frame story finds the architect Walter Craig summoned to a country house in England to discuss a contracting job, building a new barn on the affluent owner's estate. As Craig arrives, he is overcome by a feeling of déjà vu--he's been to this house before, met the owner, Eliot Foley, and had the conversation they engage in.

He soon realizes that he has dreamed all this--lately his sleep has been plagued by a recurring nightmare that he largely forgets shortly after waking, but now he realizes that this house, Lord Foley--it's the same as the dream! Inside the house he meets a group of visitors, all guests of the owner, who also appeared in his dream. He predicts correctly several events in the house before they occur, leading the guests to engage in a conversation about the supernatural and weird happenings without explanation. It seems that each guest has had some such experience or other, and their recounting of these experiences forms the meat of the movie.

There's a race car driver who, after a near-fatal crash, was plagued by dreams of a hearse driver inviting him in. This story has been re-filmed in various versions many times since, notably on the Twilight Zone (the famous "Room for One More" episode), so horror fans know what's coming well before hand--still, it must have been brand new in 1945, and the way it's filmed and the way the suspense is built up are all very masterful and creep-inducing.

After the driver, a young girl tells the story of a game of hide-and-seek at a party she attended, wherein she met a young boy in an abandoned wing of the house who might not have been a guest at the party. This is a serviceable if bland little tale, but the "old dark house" creepiness is in full effect, and the story, while not horrifying, is well told.

Then we get my second favorite story of the lot, told by a beautiful socialite about some strange events that occurred just before her wedding. She buys an antique mirror for her fiance as a wedding gift, but when he starts to see things in the mirror that aren't there, she wonders if he's going insane or if something even more sinister is at work... As someone who has ALWAYS been creeped out by mirrors in the dark (what if something's in there that isn't in the room when I turn around? *shudder*), this one really got to me, though another viewer's mileage may vary.

The next story is the only misstep of the entire flick, a comic relief story told by the estate owner about a pair of golfing buddies who fall in love with the same girl and decide to play a round of golf to decide who should bow out. When one cheats, the other commits suicide and comes back for retribution. It's a stagy, hokey, corny little story, and goes on a bit too long, but might have been passably amusing for 40s British audiences. Still, to a modern viewer, it's simply unfunny.

The final story more than makes up for it, however, as the high mark of the whole film--what is probably the first ever creepy ventriloquist doll story committed to film. Michael Redgrave, patriach of the Famous Acting Redgraves, is fantastic as the tortured and possibly insane ventriloquist. This segment sets the bar for all other such stories that have followed since, with a truly unsettling dummy and some sharp, creepy dialogue. The film would be worth watching for this segment alone, even if the other stories were not excellent in their own right, as all but the golfing story are.

"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"A creepy old dude at the cell door."
"A creepy old dude at the cell door who?"
"...Go fuck yourself."

But the filmmakers are not done yet, as the frame story wraps up in a surreal, bizarre, and truly frightening climax that you might have seen coming, but which still delivers the goods.

The more I think about this movie, the more there is to like. The acting is good across the bar, with the exception of the golf story, which is played as very broad comedy without worrying about credibility.

Not only that, but there are some uses of unusual lighting and off-kilter camera angles in many of the stories that you don't really expect to see in movies of this vintage, when the standard for filming was a mid-range stationary shot. These shots are very effective in conveying visually the otherworldly menace of the themes, and make the movie a treat to watch.

Even in the drawing room frame story, when the characters are talking about their experiences, toward the middle and end of the film the camera starts to do strange things, filming the actors from low angles instead of eye level, giving a visual clue that the world of the supernatural is creeping into the real world and not staying put in the stories. Very nicely done.

The movie is a British film, and an old one, so you mustn't expect anything to jump out and say BOO to make you jump from your seat or scream--that would be rude, and very improper. But if you open your mind and go with the vintage movie conventions, it does provide some very nice gooseflesh-raising scenes, and a frame story that is much more than just a device to get the other stories in--it actually becomes one of the stories, and a good one at that.

2.75 Thumbs. Well worth seeking out, and highly recommended, especially to fans of the classics.

Caveat Emptor: I bought this dvd off the Anchor Bay sale on (on a 2 disc set with Queen of Spades), and I must say the transfer is a bit lacking, particularly in regards to sound. Outdoor dialog scenes were obviously and poorly redubbed later, and both inside and out the music almost always surpasses the dialog by several decibels. This makes viewing rather a trial-and-error process as one is constantly fumbling with the remote to find the appropriate volume level. In the defense of the dvd authors, this was probably the way the sound was engineered from the time of production; still, an audio-remaster would have been nice.


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