Friday, February 29, 2008

Cruel Passion (1977): or, This World Is Nun Too Good

Ah, the Marquis De Sade. One of the most infamous and influential figures in world literature, De Sade is one of the few Pre-Revolution bad boys who still maintains his power to shock and appall modern readers. His tales of nihilistic social hypocrisy, of the triumph of vice over virtue, of the pursuit of one's personal pleasure without regard to the sufferings of others (even exulting in such suffering), still pack enough of a wallop after more than 200 years. If you've ever read any of De Sade's writings (especially his unfinished opus 120 Days of Sodom), you know that our modern conception of Sadism as a fun way to spend your weekend with some freaky kinky friends falls woefully short of the full picture when it comes to the man's literary ideas.

Probably one of De Sade's most-adapted stories is Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, and it is this story (along with its sequel, L'Histoire de Juliette) that forms the basis for Chris Boger's 1977 film Cruel Passion (aka The Marquis De Sade's Justine), a gorgeous and suitably bleak adaptation that doesn't water down De Sade at all. In this one Koo Stark (famous for being the American girlfriend of Prince Andrew before his marriage to the the Duchess of York) plays the titular maiden, who over the course of the film learns that meek adherence to Christian ideals of virtue in a world where no one else is virtuous is not only stupid--it's downright dangerous.

We open the film with Justine and her sister Juliette going down to the graveyard to attend their parents' funeral. Their father hanged himself, and thus cannot lie in consecrated ground; their mother, dead apparently of a broken heart, wished to lie beside her husband for eternity; thus, in the views of the strict nuns who run the convent where Justine and Juliet lodge, both are damned to ETERNAL HELLFIRE! The sincerely virtuous Justine is horrified by this pronouncement, and over the grave has the first of the film's excellent nightmare sequences, as she envisions the coffins spitting flame from the grave while the voices of tormented souls and condemnatory clergy echo in her ears.

Back at the convent the elder sister Juliette (played with laudable lasciviousness by the lovely Lydia Lisle) has been influenced by letters from their cousin, a prostitute making a fine living in London. Irreligious and disrespectful, Juliette torments the sapphically-minded Sister Claire into many compromising positions, laughing at her protestations and hollow repentance after the deed is done. Meanwhile the money-grubbing Mother Superior and the hypocritical Pastor John are both looking for ways to turn the girls' new orphaned status to their advantage. When Justine turns down the Mother Superior's amorous advances (in a wild, disturbing near-rape scene intercut with images of Juliette and Sister Claire and set to the music of otherworldly groans), the enraged Bride of Christ tosses both Justine and Juliette out of the convent to make their way in the world however they might.

Koo is a Kyootie

Justine wants to throw herself on Pastor John's mercy, but the canny Juliette has different plans. Since both she and Justine are virgins, Juliette plans to take Justine to the brothel where their cousin works, train to become prostitutes, and make a fortune selling their virginity to the highest bidders. Justine recoils at the idea, but having no other means of support she's forced to go along with her sister. On the road to London they meet the handsome Lord Carlisle, who flirts with both sisters and promises to win the bid for Juliette's maidenhead.

Once they arrive at the brothel, Madame Laronde (a wonderful performance by Katherine Kath) takes both sisters under her wing and begins training them for their future careers. The Madame delivers a lot of Sadean philosophy almost verbatim from his writings, musings about sex and power and a woman's responsibility to use what she has to get all she can. (Great quotes abound, such as "Religion is an illness--to be cured!" and "If nature had intended us to be modest, we shouldn't have been born naked!") The sooner they rid themselves of pretension to virtue and ideas about the innate goodness of people, she says, the happier and better off they'll be. Juliette takes it all to heart, but the pure-hearted Justine is not convinced.

I can't go by the brothel training scenes without mentioning one of the hightlights of the movie, a show-stealing turn by Barry McGinn as the cocaine-tooting sexual maniac George, whom the Madame keeps on hand to help initiate all the girls into the life of a prostitute. The skinny, effitte George is like something out of a Monty Python porno, all high-pitched laughter, wild gesticulations, and unintelligible Italian. He rides the whores like horses or is carried like a sack of potatoes, all the while cackling orgasmically. Juliette learns her lessons well, but Justine won't even try.

Relax, ladies--there's plenty of George
to go around

True to his word Lord Carlilse wins the right to be Juliette's first lover. While he deflowers her, though, Justine steals a bauble and runs away. Once the sisters' paths diverge, we begin to see the Sadean consequences of a life spent seeking virtue versus a life spent embracing vice.

Justine makes her way back to Pastor John's rectory, expecting the man of God to shield her from the evils of the world. Of course the Pastor is as fallen and corrupt as most (and more than some). Drunk when she arrives, the pastor spouts more Sadean philosophy and leers at Justine for a while before showing her to her room. She falls into a dream-filled sleep (giving us time for antoher wild nightmare scene, complete with zombie parents, monster nuns, and Justine herself stretched out on a flaming cross!), and then awakes to find the Pastor standing over her bed, ready to pounce! Justine overpowers the drunken preacher and runs to the roof, where he, tipsy from the drink, falls to his death. Another near-rape avoided, Justine is nonetheless wanted for the murder of a clergyman, and so has to flee for her life.

Hell Mary

She doesn't flee far before she's captured by graverobbers who are ransacking her parents' graves, which lets the horrified girl see her folks' decomposing bodies. The thieves decide to hold her for ransom or turn her over for the reward, but their matronly leader Miss Bonny likes a third option--have her join them and use Justine's beauty to lure victims into their murderous, thieving web. (In this world, beauty is always a trap for the unwary.) Justine again refuses, but when Miss Bonny threatens to let her men rape Justine before turning her over for hanging, she must finally consent.

Meanwhile back at the brothel, everything's going well for Juliette. Rescued from a Sadistic spanking by Lord Carlisle, she's soon to be installed as his mistress, with a big house all her own and all the gold she can spend. Worried about her sister, though, she asks his loving lordship to look for her, which he does. By a twist of fate he finds her tied up on the coach road, only to be waylaid by the gang of thieves! A brutal scene follows in which the thieves murder all the other coach passengers (including a young boy who gets his throat cut and a woman who gets raped posthumously!) and hold Carlisle for ransom. When one of the robbers decides it's too risky to let his lordship live, Justine offers to sacrifice herself to the man's lusts if he'll spare Carlisle's life. Before the deal can be consummated Justine manages to slip her bonds and free Carlilse, and together they ride off toward the nearest town, with the robbers in pursuit.

Being in close proximity with Justine is playing havok with Carlisle's libido, however, and finally even he is driven to attack Justine to satisfy his own vile lusts. Forsaken by her savior, Justine meets a perversely biblical fate when the robbers catch up with them and loose the dogs on them, a turnabout of the Jezebel story with virtue recast in the role of vice. Juliette presumably lives happily ever after (though Carlisle is also killed, one doesn't imagine she'll be long on the rebound), and the topsy-turvy turnaround of the kind De Sade loved so much is complete.

"Wrecked 'em? It nearly killed 'em!"

De Sade's bleak world view is not softened here, and it's bound to turn off some less cynical viewers. Perhaps most central and hammered home is the view that not only is Justine's virtue no protection against the evils of the world, it actually provokes those evils to be brought down upon her; her vulnerability and naivety is an absolute magnet for the worst in everybody, even (especially) those from whom she expects only good. Self-sacrifice and self-denial are a chump's game; virtue is punished, vice is rewarded, everyone uses everyone else and no one is uncorrupted--the best you can hope is to get what you can and damn the rest.

So there are a lot of heavy philosophical ideas being floated around here--but of course really that's all an excuse for exploitational hijinks, and the movie doesn't disappoint here either. Koo Stark is absolutely gorgeous and often nude, and her angelic purity does indeed seem to invite the kind of lusts it seeks to defend against. Lydia Lisle, while not the beauty that Koo is, still has a great body and doesn't mind showing it with her character's attractive abandon. And the first half hour of this movie contains pretty much some of the most intense, dirty nunsploitation I've seen, particularly Justine's harrowing attack at the hands of the Mother Superior. Murder, rape, thievery, and more rape--the movie scarcely lets up, and leaves the viewer breathless and probably feeling a little sick.

So how to rate it? Well, most folks know what they're getting into with one of De Sade's stories, so if you've sought it out chances are you'll like what you see. The acting is good, the filming is gorgeous (there are some particularly nice compositions with religious icons in the foreground while horrors go on in the background, and the nightmare sequences are all really powerful), and I could look at Koo Stark for hours and not get bored. So I give this one 2.75 thumbs, and a hearty recommendation for those looking for the feel-bad sex romp of the year. And tell Madame Laronde the Vicar sent you. You might even get it free. ;)

...and this little piggy had nun.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pick-Up (1975): or, Swingin' in the Swamp

Here is the complete plot synopsis of Pick-Up from the back of the Deimos DVD Welcome to the Grindhouse Double Feature:

"An off-beat story about two young women whose lives are forever changed when they hitchhike a ride in a mobile home."

And strictly speaking, that's accurate--or we assume it to be, anyway, since there's really no way at the end that we can tell whether the events depicted here have indeed changed the girls' lives forever. But basically that's the plot--two girls, a mobile home, and a hitchhike ride. But allow me to draw your attention to one little hyphenated word in that synopsis: "off-beat."

Never have seven letters and a punctuation mark encompassed so much entertaining weirdness.

Quick, how many movies can you name that open with a tight shot of a huge rectangular belt buckle? How many of those follow that opening with a slow pan down the button-fly and then the tell-tale sound effects of a beside-the-road pit-stop? I can name only one, and this is it.

Groovy dude Chuck is the driver/roadside whizzard, who is in the middle of a cross-country mobile home delivery and soul-searching road trip. Thanks to the Fickle Bladder of Destiny, he has stopped at just the right place and just the right time to meet up with Carol and Maureen, two free-spirit hippie-chicks sitting in the waist-high weeds and communing with nature and child-like Carol's boo-boo kitty. Carol skips up to solicit a ride from Chuck, despite Maureen's spiritual objections. Chuck is an Aries, she can tell by looking, and with Aries in ascention and passing through the house of Saturn or Pancakes or something or other, he's giving off a real bad vibe that Maureen does not at all dig, not in the least. Carol pooh-poohs Maureen's astrological reservations, however, and soon enough they're boarding the bus, destination unknown.

There it is, ladies.

Once on the bus, Carol and Chuck sit up front and proceed to get high while listening to groovy tunes on the mobile home's sound system. We quickly learn that this is indeed a high-tech transportation machine, as it boasts not only a hi-fi stereo but also a mobile phone! (It's a rotary, kitchen-wall-phone model bolted to the vehicle's frame right behind the driver's seat.) Chuck gets a call from his boss, played in dripping-with-fried-chicken-grease Southerner mode by Tom Quinn, who seems to be channelling the spirit of Charles "Doc Hopper" Durning from The Muppet Movie, four years in the future! The boss threatens to withhold Chuck's $20 bonus if he doesn't make it to Tallahassee by nightfall. Meanwhile the instantly-baked Carol is go-go dancing for a truckload of libidinous hillbillies on the road in front of them, shakin' her money-maker and flashing her breasts for their amusement. Maureen sits in the back, morosely reading tarot cards and predicting gloom and doom. Chuck and Carol predictably ignore her Cassandra-like warnings.

Things go awry when a hurricane strikes (out of a clear blue sky! Seriously, all we get are stormy sound effects over a sparsely-clouded skyline while a Howard Cosell-like radio weatherman details the path of the tempest) and the freeway is closed to through traffic, leading Chuck to take a detour into the heart of the Everglades. Thanks to the heavy if invisible rains, once they get a few miles in the bus gets stuck in the mud up to its axle, and our trio of counter-culture travellers are stuck in the swamp, miles from nowhere.

It's here in the swamp that the psychoactive drugs that the characters are on (and presumably the filmmakers too) start to have their most serious effects. Chuck and Carol prance off into the undergrowth for fun and frolic, while Maureen does some morbid meditation. It's not long before Chuck and Carol are both buck naked, apparently having found the one square acre of the Everglades where mosquitoes and deer ticks are not indigenous. Over the next hour we see the Adam and Eve-like pair going at it in several paradisaical settings, including but not limited to a prehistoric-looking fern grove, a surprisingly crystal-clear swimming hole, and in the wildest segment on a huge sex swing that they must have fashioned from hanging creepers and a couple of old sticks! Hey, if you've got it, why not exploit it?


Meanwhile Maureen is having a trip of her own, not quite as jolly but just as entertaining. Wandering away from the relative safety of the mobile home, the spiritual-minded hippie chick is not at all surprised to discover a marble altar to the god Apollo, where she is entrusted by a white-robed priestess with the ultra-phallic Scepter of Apollo, for reasons that are deliciously unclear. Honored, Maureen throws off her own white robe and writhes on the altar like a living, sexy sacrifice. Later, back at the mobile home, she receives an out-of-nowhere visit from a campaigning politician (complete with straw hat and oversized "Vote for Me!" button), who panders to her every political opinion in the name of getting her vote. (Maureen is notably unsurprised by the politico's going door-to-door in the middle of the swamp; I guess once you've held the Scepter of Apollo, it takes a lot to shock you.) Once the political/social commentary requirement is fulfilled, we're ready to get back to our regularly scheduled program.

During this psychedelic, surreal section of the film we also get the backstories of each of our characters, told in flashback to each of their tender youths. (You can tell the girls are young, because they wear their hair in pigtails!) We see music-student Maureen molested by a priest at her religious conservatory, leading to her rejection of Christianity and embrace of alternative religions. We see a teenaged Carol acting out against her repressive mother by going into the woods with a group of boys in the ZZ-Top Mobile, then inviting the dumpiest and blondest of them (who it must be said looks about 15 in real life) to take her virginity. And finally we see young Chuck, the HAM-radio enthusiast (?) being berated by his gravel-voiced mother for some reason or other. So that explains everything.

As the movie speeds toward its conclusion, however, things take a turn for the sinister. Searching for her oversexed friends, Maureen goes into the swamp and meets one of the most disturbing clowns in cinema history. The jester's silent, mime-show actions and slasher-mask visage will haunt your nightmares and make you view every bunch of balloons with suspicion, I assure you. Somehow Chuck and Maureen end up together, and they make wild pagan love on the altar of Apollo. Meanwhile, Carol is found and pursued by the group of hillbillies from the pick-up truck at the beginning, who want to see a little more of her show. Just when it seems all of Maureen's awful predictions are coming true, though, the movie takes a twist you probably saw coming and brings us full circle right back to the beginning. Carol and Maureen re-board the bus, the worst behind them, and Chuck drops it in gear and heads toward the horizon...but why is there now a sinister bunch of balloons attached to the back of the bus? (Dun-dun-DUNNN!!!!)

Don't sleep. Don't ever sleep again.

Pick-up is an awful lot of fun, but only if you're in the right mood for it. If you're looking for engaging story, great acting, or competent filmmaking, then you'd best look elsewhere. However, if you're in the mood for drugged-out nonsensical plotting, laughably over-the-top performances, and loads and loads of gratuitous nudity and sex, then you're in the right place. 2.25 thumbs for this exploitation odessy oddity. Dig it, man.


TWO New Coffin Joe Films in 2008?!?!

Wow. This must be a harbinger of the End Times. I mean, we already knew that Jose Mojica Marins was going to unleash the third (and final?) film in the true Coffin Joe trilogy this year, Embodiment of Evil, thus throwing all creatures in this mortal plane into torment and confusion and possibly bringing about the downfall of civilization as we know it. But now TwitchFilm and others around the net are reporting that a lost Mojica film has been found, restored, and will likewise be set loose to destroy in this last year of our Lord, 2008! Abandon hope!

According to this news item on TwitchFilm, the movie is titled A Praga (English translation, The Plague) and was shot on 8MM way back in 1980. The movie was shelved for financial reasons, and there it has remained, waiting, biding its time... Now, with renewed interest in Mojica's work and Embodiment of Evil slated for release in Brazil in July (delayed from March 13, the director's birthday), Mojica has dusted it off, shot a few final scenes, and is planning to release this film as well! Saints preserve us!

Here's the plot from TwitchFilm, which sounds suitably Mojican and awesome:

Written by longtime collaborator Rubens F. Luchetti, A Praga (The Plague) tells the story of a young couple that goes out in a small trip and inadvertently takes some pictures of a strange old lady (played by the late Wanda Kosmo) who turns out to be a sinister witch. Doing what witches are expected to do, she places a terrible curse upon them.
Awesome awesome awesome. Here's hoping that all this renewed interest encouraged someone to restore and package more of Mojica's work, including all 14 films that Something Weird released on VHS back in the 90s.

TwitchFilm has stills, so go check it out now! Also, while you're there, take in the mindbending, soul-shattering trailer for Embodiment of Evil. (NSFW, nor for sanity!) And despair, ye mortals! DESPAIR!


Monday, February 25, 2008

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970): or, Daddy is a Vampire, Grandma Doesn't Sleep at Night

It's been said that the best folk and fairy tales are those that deal with the passage from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience. It's significant in these stories that the passage is fraught with danger, with goblins and witches and monsters waiting at every turn to devour the child protagonists, turn them into beasts, or lock them in a tower forever. Clearly the monsters in these tales represent the dangers of the adult world directed at children, and the young heroes or heroines must find a way to avoid or overcome these dangers in order to survive long enough to join the ranks of the grown-up themselves. And as anyone who's read a few of the classic Grimm's fairy tales in their original, unexpurgated form can tell you, these stories pulled no punches--virgins were sacrificed, body parts were sliced off, villains were punished with glowing hot metal shoes that forced them to dance themselves to death, all while the now-safe princess watched approvingly. The happy-ending, everybody's-nice Disney tales most of us know are a relatively recent invention.

The 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one such old-school fairy tale. Here the journey is explicitly one of a young girl from sexual innocence to sexual experience, and all the terrors and wonders that accompany that journey are represented in gorgeous, fantastical ways. It's a movie that's simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, intoxicating and confusing, disorienting and delightful--much like the journey its fairy tale plot represents.

The film opens with several dreamlike images of 15-year-old Valerie (played by luminous elfin beauty Jaroslava Schallerová, who was only 13 at the time) swimming, drinking from a fountain, and generally looking gorgeous and innocent. It's a really lovely opening, with soft focus cinematography and ethereal music setting off Valerie's angelic sensuality. We see right away that she is a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, with the burgeoning physical characteristics of a woman but the carefree ignorance of a young child.

"Hiya kids! See you in your dreams!"

As soon as the credits are over the fairy-tale plot starts in earnest, as the bespectacled Orlik creeps into Valerie's greenhouse to steal the sleeping girl's pearl earrings. The earrings were a gift from Valerie's mother, who disappeared when Valerie was very young (perhaps even an infant), and have some magical qualities that make them important to a monstrous, pale-skinned monstrosity known only as "The Bishop." However, Orlik is smitten by Valerie's beauty and soon returns the earrings to her, earning the wrath of his pasty boss.

The movie's sexual themes are made explicit in the next scene as Valerie watches a group of sexually mature young woman bathing in a stream, kissing one another and giggling as they drop slippery fish down their see-through gowns! We see Valerie gazing longingly at the women's bodies, comparing her own flat chest to their voluptuous breasts, wishing that she looked like them. Valerie also watches as one of the girls writhes naked on a fallen log for obvious masturbatory purposes, and is later joined by a beefy lover for a rambunctious tête à tree. With this foretaste of dangerous, delicious knowledge fresh on her mind, Valerie returns home.

Valerie lives with her grandmother, a puritanical old woman who obviously resents Valerie for her youth and carefree innocence. When Valerie wants to go greet a troupe of actors who've come to their village, Grandmom refuses, insisting instead that they go to church to hear a group of missionaries report on their spiritual conquests. Valerie watches the actors arrive along with a wedding party for a young woman who has been betrothed to a wealthy old man. The bride is presented here and later as a sacrifice, youth given over to the lusts of the aged. Among the crowd Valerie glimpses the monstrous form of the Bishop, who catches her eye and leers with evil knowledge.

How do you like them apples?

The horror aspects of the plot kick in at this point, as we learn that the Bishop is a vampire who needs young blood to survive. He meets with Valerie's grandmother, and the old woman makes a deal with the devil to sacrifice Valerie in order to regain her own lost youth. Valerie sees the vampire and her rejuvenated grandmother making the beast with two backs in an abandoned crypt to seal their bargain, a horrifying recreation of the tree scene from earlier. This is just one of the many instances in the film where innocence and experience are juxtaposed in both good and evil forms, and the effect is pretty powerful, even if the viewer is not always aware quite what is going on plot-wise.

We learn eventually that the Bishop is in fact Valerie's father, having seduced her mother years ago, making his relationship with Grandma and his desire for Valerie's blood slightly incestuous and even more uncomfortably evil. Furthermore Orlik is revealed as the Bishop's son as well, and thus Valerie's brother. As Orlik fights to protect Valerie from the Bishop and her newly vampiric grandmother, his own sexual desire for Valerie complicates things even further. Beset by these dangers, Valerie must rely on the magic of her mother's earrings and the kindness of strangers whose motives may be pure but probably are not.


So that's the plot, but really the movie makes its points more through surreal, symbolic imagery and episodic adventures than through a strictly linear storytelling structure. We get to see the young bride from the wedding procession on her honeymoon, sacrificed to the lusts of her aged lover--the Bishop and Grandma stand on opposite sides of the wedding bed which is arrayed like a sacrificial altar, and the bride herself is shown in a crucifix pose, waiting to be taken. Afterward she is pale and deathlike, as though the old man has drained her blood as surely as any vampire. (Later Valerie rejuvenates the bride by sleeping with her in a scene that has strong erotic overtones but which I still wasn't quite sure was meant to be a lesbian love-in.)

The adults and authority figures in this film are all very predatory toward Valerie, again speaking to its fairy tale roots. The village priest attempts to rape Valerie in a weird and wonderful nightmare scene, and then orders her burnt at the stake as a witch when she refuses him. Flagellants attack Orlik and Valerie at a fountain, and there can be no confusion about the meaning of their whips and sweaty bodies. And even those who are ostensibly there to help Valerie are sometimes horrifying with their unknown motives--Orlik most especially, but also a strange, silent flower girl who presents bouquets to Valerie with a knowing, not-quite innocent look in her eyes. The pale makeup and lascivious leers the characters wear in certain scenes only add to the nightmare quality, the feeling that once sex enters the picture, no young girl is safe from anyone, even her friends.

This is a really wonderful movie, totally gorgeous and endlessly intriguing. The images that director Jaromil Jires packs into the frame will stick with you long afterwards, dreamlike and meaningful and sinister and beautiful all at the same time. Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie is absolutely perfect, playful and childlike while at the same time achingly, sexually gorgeous. The Bishop would figure prominently in the nightmares of any young child who happened to see this movie, and the recurring theme of age feeding on youth for its own purposes resonates beyond the simple plot. And the movie's ending sequence, which starts out as an Alice in Wonderland conclusion but morphs into a weird parade of characters beckoning the now-experienced Valerie into the fraternity of adulthood (ending significantly on a bed in the middle of a dark, lush forest), wraps things up in a wonderful, moving way.

Your Honeymoon as directed by Tim Burton

This film is often compared to another coming-of-age fairy tale horror flick, Lemora: a Child's Tale of the Supernatural, and indeed the two movies make excellent companion pieces, though I think Valerie has the edge in terms of imagery, acting, and all-around storytelling excellence. If you get a chance to see this one, don't pass it up. 3 Thumbs, easily, and worth the trouble it takes to track it down.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971): or, A Girl's Best Friend is Her Mummy

There are two good reasons to watch Blood from the Mummy's Tomb: Valerie Leon.

Okay, that's an easy joke--and one that frankly has to be made--but it's not entirely accurate. While the camera (and the viewer) spend a great deal of the flick's running time leering over Ms. Leon's protuberant gifts, they're actually only a couple of the things that make this Hammer horror worth watching. A well-done take on the Egyptian Priestess-Resurrection story, BftMT also boasts an excellent cast, some nicely disturbing imagery, and some dated but nontheless effective gore that should keep Mad Movie enthusiasts grinning from the opening frames to the final frantic denouement.

Of course, Valerie's talents don't hurt things either.

After an extended credits sequence we open with a nice tight shot of Valerie's heaving bosom, a sight from which we will never stray far for the remainder of the flick. She's sleeping fitfully, disturbed by a nightmare/flashback that the director graciously lets us in on. A group of suspiciously pasty ancient Egyptian priests stands over a sarcophogus that contains the inert form of Ms. Leon, all done up like King Tut night at the Tops N' Bottoms Gentlemen's Club. The first shock of the flick comes as they put a sleeping draught up her nose and then ritualistically chop off her right hand. Then one of the priests takes the purloined paw outside and throws it to a pack of snarling dogs! Brutal.

The short-handed Valerie is then sealed in the tomb, and the priests step outside only to find the mangled remains of the dog finally came up with the digits. Then a sudden sandstorm blows the men down, and when the silicon clears all the priests lie dead with their throats ripped out! Next we get a wonderful scene with the severed hand crawling Addams-family "Thing"-style across the sand and back into the tomb. Cue Valerie to wake up screaming. A strong opening by any standard.

Resurrection or Bust

The next morning Valerie (her character's name is Margaret Fuchs--pronounced "FOOKS," of course) comes downstairs to meet her Egyptologist father, portrayed with bearded intensity by Andrew Keir, who Mad Movie fans will doubtless recognize as the indomitable Dr. Quatermas from the excellent 1967 British sci-fi classic Quatermass and the Pit. We learn quickly that the next day is Valerie's birthday, and Dr. Fuchs has an early present for her--a ring with a ruby the size of a sliced beet which seems to reflect a constellation in its facets. Dr. Fuchs is strangely insistent that his daughter wear the ring at all times, and she, being a good little Daddy's girl, agrees. Meanwhile, a smartly-dressed man in the abandoned house next door is spying on young Ms. Fuchs, for who knows what evil purpose.

After a quick visit to an insane asylum where we find an aged inmate having strange visions in his cell, we jump back to Valerie as she drops in on her boyfriend, Tod Browning (obviously a nod to the Dracula director; this film also claims to be based on a story by Bram Stoker). We get more cinematic ogling of Valerie's cleavage, and her character even half-way acknowledges this when she says to Tod, "Sometimes I think there are only two things you want me for!" Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more.

Tod is a bit of an amateur parapsychologist--naturally--and when Valerie shows him her birthday present he gets very interested and suggests they take it to a friend of his for an appraisal. The friend is Professor Geoffrey Dandridge (played with hangdog earnestness by Hugh Burden), who unbeknownst to the young couple was a colleague of Dr. Fuchs back when the two of them and their pals used to go around robbing ancient Egyptian tombs. When he sees Valerie for the first time the old man suffers a mild coronary, which could be considered a natural reaction to Ms. Leon's gorgosity but in this case has other, more ominous significance. We then cut to a gypsy telling fortunes and seeing the ring's constellation in her crystal ball, for reasons that will be clear in a few minutes.

Come on, now.

Again we're back to Valerie in a post-coital pose with Tod. (Zang.) She's dreaming again, the standard mummy story: predestination, reincarnation, the survival of the soul through the centuries. We see Dr. Fuchs, Professor Dandridge, the creepy spy from next door, the lunatic and the gypsy woman all entering the tomb from Valerie's original dream. There they find the body of Tara, the legendary Egyptian Queen of Darkness, uncorrupted in her sarcophagus, her severed hand curled at the foot of her tomb like a faithful pet.

What's more, at the very moment the tomb is opened and Tara's name is spoken for the first time in millenia by Dr. Fuchs, back in London Mrs. Fuchs dies in childbirth, delivering a still-born daughter. A moment later, however, the baby resuscitates, presumably incarnated with the soul of the demon priestess. Valerie wakes up again, feeling something's wrong and home and she must get back--which gives her to opportunity to do the requisite gratuitous moonlit butt-shot, for which Tod and we can only be grateful.

Over the course of the next few scenes it becomes clear that the expedition members have each kept one of the relics from Tara's tomb against the time when she would be fully reincarnated and regain her dark power on earth: the gypsy has a cat statue, the lunatic a cobra, Professor Dandridge a sacred jackal's skull, creepy spy-guy Corbeck the Scroll of Life™, and Dr. Fuchs the Jewel of the Seven Stars. Not to be outdone, though, Fuchs also has Tara's body in a locked basement room (with strong necrophiliac implications on a corpse that looks exactly like his daughter--eew), where he also seems to have installed Tara's entire tomb, including the altar and heiroglyphic-bearing walls! You just can't leave anything not bolted down when British archaeologists are about, that much is clear.

Mummy knows breast.

Of course Valerie/Margaret is the reincarnation of Valerie/Tera, a victim of a supernatural conspiracy that started at her birth and has manipulated her ever since. As the expedition members start shuffling off their mortal coils (with the help of the evil Corbeck) and the relics are reassembled in Dr. Fuch's Romper Tomb, Tara's soul gains strength and starts controlling Valerie's actions. It must be said that Valerie's transformation from a confused child into an imperious, evil dark Queen wears well on her, ramping up her sexiness considerably. No small feat.

Once the night of the ritual arrives with just a few of the original parties there to witness it, we get treated to an abortive transubstantiation ritual, a sudden change of heart, and a struggle between Valerie/Margaret and Valerie/Tara for who will have control of that rockin' bod and who will be dust. Who wins? Well, your guess is as good as mine and the filmmakers'. Maybe better.

As usual with a Hammer production, the movie looks great. The hallmark bright colors and sumptuous period costumes (for the ancient Egyptian scenes) are in full effect, and Ms. Leon's wardrobe of a few dresses and several gauzy nightgowns is nothing short of gorgeous. And while the camera work is mostly static, a few of the supernatural attack scenes display some entertaining inventiveness--particularly a dizzying sequence in the insane asylum with Dutch tilts, gibbering lunatics, and strange chants that was actually pretty unsettling. The gore effects are pretty good for the time as well, with ripped-out throats, that ragged, crawling hand, and several nice shots of Tara's stump pumping bright red gouts of blood each time a victim is dispatched.

Andrew Keir in The Nick Nolte Story

And of course the acting is a lot of fun as well. Keir is blustery and great, but it's really James Villiers as the mad archaeologist Corbeck who steals the show, delivering several great eeevil speeches and seducing the faltering Margaret to embrace her dark side. (When she asks what will become of her father after Tara's resurrection, Corbeck scoffs, "We cannot afford the weak...The meek will not inherit the earth. They wouldn't know what to do with it!") And Aubrey Morris, most memorable for his role as Malcom McDowell's completely twisted parole officer in A Clockwork Orange, turns in a delightfully weird performance in a bit role as the Fuchs family physician. The rest of the cast you could take or leave, and as for Valerie Leon--well, she does the best she can with what they give her, and what she's been given.

That said, the film is not without its weaknesses. Though the gore effects are nicely done, the camera lingers a bit too long on them in most scenes, allowing you to study the rubbery applications where a quicker cut might have claimed more realism. And while Corbeck's mad monologues are a highlight, he has perhaps too many of them in too short a stretch, almost to the point of ridiculousness. And the turn on which the climactic ritual hinges is a bit weak and obvious, though the earthquake and open-ended epilogue almost make up for it. Lastly, except for that moonlight mooning, Valerie stays stubbornly if seductively clothed--which could be a plus for some, a minus for others, depending on your tolerance for tease.

"Oh, Vicar! You were wonderful!"

But there are some Mad Movie details that will either delight or frustrate you--corpses that are obviously breathing, overuse of that famous sampled wolf-howl, and a car crash effect done entirely through jump-cut edits. My favorite WTF detail: when Valerie/Tara appears to claim the cat statue from the gypsy woman, the old lady's door is answered by a flamingly gay beefy boy (complete with long, red-painted fingernails and eye-shadow!), who was never introduced and flees the scene once the cat hits the fan, never to be seen or commented on again--except for what has to be the best screen credit in cinema history, as he's listed in the closing credits as "SATURNINE YOUNG MAN." I don't know what he's doing in the film, but I'm glad he's there.

I enjoyed Blood from the Mummy's Tomb a lot, and recommend it with a 2.5 thumb rating. The conspiracy angle is well done, the whole thing is suitably manic, and you'll never see a better showcase for Ms. Leon's talents. Really, what more do you need?


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lust for a Vampire (1971): or, a Hunk of Burnin' Vampire Love

Have you ever heard that saying, "An old friend you've only just met"? Usually people use it to describe a new acquaintance with whom, for some strange, almost mystical and inexplicable reason, you just have an immediate connection with, a feeling of kinship usually reserved for people you've known and loved for years. It's also used by happy-hour Lotharios who want nothing more than to establish a long-lasting connection in the subject's pants.

Lust for a Vampire and I are like that. On both counts.

Allow me to explain: back when I was just a TV altar boy, in the days before cable, before the internet, even before VCRs (I know it's hard to imagine, kids, but it's true), there were two ways a horror-obsessed lad like me could find out about the mad mad movies I craved. One way was to scour the TV guide every week and stay up late on Fridays for the Weekend Fright Fest, which was usually some boring crappy z-movie from the 60s but was occasionally something spectacular like A Bucket of Blood or Taste the Blood of Dracula. The other way was to go to the local public library and check out all the books they had on horror movies. I did both, and as a result I knew about a lot of films long before I ever got a chance to see them, still images in living color and glorious black and white burned into my impressionable brain.

It was in one of these books--a tome whose title I've forgotten but which I remember was a study of the evolution of the vampire film from Nosferatu to Frank Langella's Dracula (which was a fairly new flick at the time, to give you an idea of the Vicar's age), that I happened upon the picture below:

That woman made a man outta me.

Now, I don't know how many of you have ever been a pubescent boy in the age before the internet, but let me tell you, in those days images like this were hard to come by. You couldn't just Google "outrageously hot Swedish chick with blood all over her boobs" and satisfy your youthful curiosity. To me at that time, this was just a little bit short of a miracle. You just didn't see things like this every day.

Well, unless you could get to the library before I rechecked said book for the 20th time. And you couldn't. People tried.

So now, after all these years, I've finally met my old friend, Lust for a Vampire for the first time. And I must say I'm very pleased to make its acquaintance. Generally considered one of the lesser flicks of the Hammer vampire cycle (though I'm not at all in agreement with that assessment), this movie has everything I could have asked for from it: beautiful photography, gorgeous period costumes, heart-breakingly gorgeous women, and some genuinely perverse and disturbing set-pieces, all tinged with that trademark almost-but-not-quite-camp feel that's so common to the Hammer brand.

And it has that image. Praise be to the Lord of the Undead!

"Cranberry juice? CRANBERRY JUICE?"

The movie opens in a German village in the age of chesty barmaids who dressed like the St. Pauli Girl and were not too particular about taking rides from strangers driving funereal black coaches. Before you can say "Eurobabe Abduction!" one such wench finds herself in the clutches of a mysterious couple in long satin robes, who take her back to a ruined castle and perform a devil-worshipping resurrection ceremony. The male of the couple is played by the wonderfully named Mike Raven (if he didn't have a porn career, it wasn't his name's fault!), who is a perfect Poor Man's Christopher Lee, right down to the sonorous voice, the spear-point widow's peak, and the impossibly bloodshot eyes. He and his lovely assistant sacrifice the barmaid and spill her blood on a dessicated skeleton in the crypt, leading to a wonderful effects scene as the body glows and reconstitutes itself under a white sheet stained with the blood. When the vampire rises, it is revealed to be the Hot Swedish Countess of my youth, Yutte Stensgaard, in all her bloody, tit-hanging-out glory.

We then go back to the village, where novelist and outsider Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson, whose costume and bearing make him look like a very passable Timelord understudy) is macking on the remaining barmaids and alienating the townsfolk by laughing at their silly superstitions about the vampires in the castle on the hill, who seem to come back every 40 years like clockwork to feast on the blood of Eurobabes. After a stern reproof from the pub owner, Lestrange proposes to prove what a bunch of backwards rubes they all are by heading up to the castle himself to show the vamps don't exist. Once in the crypt, however, he encounters a strange gentlemen and three strangely silent women in pastel, see-through gowns. (Zang.) Is he to be the prey of the Legion of Undead Hawtness?

"Who's There?"


As it turns out, the crew is NOT a gaggle of vampires, but a teacher and three young women on a field trip from a nearby girls' school! Lestrange goes back to the school with them, where he meets the Mrs. Garrett-esque headmistress and watches the student body take their daily exercise in "Roman Dancing," each of the girls in see-through togas and all of them HAWT. Unsurprisingly Richard offers his services as English instructor, a position he gains after a little underhanded dealing sends the original prof to Vienna. One of the female teachers, Janet Playfair (played by the beautiful but slightly strange-looking Suzanna Leigh) marks him approvingly.

Of course according to Chekhov's principles of drama you can't introduce a girls' school in a horror movie and NOT have gratuitous nudity and lesbianism, and that's just what we get as enigmatic new girl Mircalla (Stensgaard) and her classmates share a wanton basin-bath scene before Mircalla and her roomate engage in some out-of-nowhere massage and necking. (Ziggity-zang.) The girl goes missing, and the school is in turmoil. The headmistress resists calling the cops because she abhors scandal, and in the meantime the nerdy, Stephen King-like history professor recognizes Mircalla as the spitting image of Carmilla Karnstein, one of the notorious family of vampires said to haunt the nearby castle. Lestrange has fallen hard for Mircalla in the meantime, despite the fact that Janet Playfair is totally crushing on him. More folks die, Count and Countess Karnstein reappear, Richard is torn between his hypnotic slavery to Mircalla and his genuine love for Janet, and the villagers are getting restless and stockpiling torches in preparation for the castle-storming finale.

There's a lot of really great stuff here, so much I hardly know where to begin. For one thing, the movie is gorgeous to look at. The sets, the costumes, the colors, the mise en scene, all top notch, especially in the blood-spilling scenes. One thing you can always count on a Hammer film to deliver is a great visual experience, and Lust for a Vampire is no exception. There are also some great Bava-esque color filters used during a couple of weird dream sequences, and the sex scenes are well-shot and quite arousing all around.

The Vibro-Stake 3000™ had many interesting uses.

The acting is all pretty great as well. Michael Johnson does well as the gadabout skeptical novelist drawn into the world of the supernatural, seduced by the forces of darkness. Stensgaard (who was also a standout in recent Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie discovery Zeta One) is great as the seductive, slightly reluctant vampire woman, and her parents are both delightfully evil and menacing. And the character actors in bit parts also demand notice, from the intense, surly bartender to the ill-fated police inspector who almost blows the lid off the case before being chucked down a well by his quarry. Suzanna Leigh is good as the strong, educated woman who tries to win Lestrange back to the side of good, and Ralph Bates as Giles Barton does fantastic work as the history nerd who longs to join the ranks of the undead. And David Healy as one of the missing students' father determined to find out what happened to his daughter gives a strong, memorable performance as well.

There's a little bit of hilarity too, as when during Lestrange's first trip to the castle we get some clumsy voice-over flashbacks to events that happened less than five minutes before. And the only drawback to Richard and Mircalla's otherwise completely zang-worthy love scenes is the painfully earnest song that plays over them, "Strange Love," which sounds like a Burt Bacharach nightmare and which we get to hear in its entirety not once but TWICE. Brutal.

The vampires are kind of unusual too in that they don't mind coming out in the daylight, seemingly returning to their coffins at night in an strange inversion of the legend, and aren't at all bothered by the prospect of being burned up in their castle by the mob since "Fire holds no death for us!" and they can just reboot the whole enterprise in another forty years. The ending is pretty wild, with an out-of-nowhere cardinal appearance and the mob's blatant disregard of his instructions, and Lestrange having to be rescued by Healy from the burning mansion just as Mircalla meets an accidental and somewhat grody fate.

Suzanna Leigh does a spot-on impression of a Picasso.

In fact, there's so much going on here (I've barely touched on some of the great wry humor of the script, which gave me many pleasant chuckles throughout), that I can't really describe it all. suffice to say it's a lot of fun, very entertaining and even a little scary, and certainly one of the better of the Hammer vampire flicks in my book.

I should also point out that this is the second in a loose "Karnstein Trilogy" that Hammer did, inspired like so many others by the novel Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, which I guess I'm going to have to break down and read some day. (The other two films are 1970's The Vampire Lovers and 1972's Twins of Evil, both of which are now on my must-be-seen list.) If this is indeed the least of the three as many critics claim, the other two must be fantastic.

I have been handing out a lot of high scores lately, and it's bound to fall off sooner or later, but I can't in good conscience give Lust for a Vampire anything less than 3 Enthusiastic Thumbs. Seek it out, ye fans of blood and boobs. I promise you will not be disappointed.



Friday, February 15, 2008

The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972): or, Sex IS Violence

The Blood-Spattered Bride is included as a bonus feature on the Blue Underground Daughters of Darkness special edition, almost as an afterthought. I mean, Daughters of Darkness is the real attraction with all the extras and documentaries and commentaries and such. The impression is that they just had BSB lying around and decided, "Hey, this is about Lesbian Vampires too...let's toss it on there for shits and giggles." And so they did.

I watched DoD and loved it (though I loved it less than Jose Ramon Larraz's 1974 masterpiece Vampyres, still to my mind the best of the lesbian vampire subgenre) and then put the disc aside to immerse myself in other horrors, barely giving the other flick on this set a second thought. But after Jean Rollin's surreal slice of wonderfulness called Shiver of the Vampires reawakened my thirst for blood-covered nekkid Eurobabes, I remembered Blood-Spattered Bride and thought "What the heck, this should be good for a little titillation," emphasis on the "tit."

MAN, was I not ready for this movie! It literally floored me. It knocked me on my ass. Then it kicked me in the ribs, ran its nails down my back, and spanked me with a leather belt. And I liked it, oh yes I did. I liked it a lot.

The movie begins with young virginal Susan (played by the gorgeous Maribel Martin, who also lent her gorgosity to MMMMMovie-fave The Bell from Hell) and her new husband on their way to his rich family's country estate for the honeymoon. When they stop at a hotel for their first night together, it becomes clear that Susan's nervousness is more severe than just a blushing bride's excitement--sitting in the honeymoon suite, waiting for her groom, she has a day-mare about a masked man (who looks a lot like her husband) coming in and violently raping her on the marriage bed! She's so traumatized by it that she refuses to stay in the hotel, and they press on to the family estate, not having consummated the marriage. The husband is obviously upset about it, but defers to her fragile, feminine sensibilities.

"How 'bout this? How 'bout YOU do the goddamn dishes?"

Once at the family manor, we get the usual introduction to the weird family history. Susan wonders where all the portraits of the women in the family are, and her hubby mentions offhand that they're in the basement, as his grandfather had ordered due to some woman-hating history. Apparently one of the family brides, Mircalla, had murdered one of the patriarchs on her wedding night, leading to a generational distrust of wicked, wicked women. Susan is understandably worried about her place as a woman in such a family, but not being an aristocrat decides to put it aside while celebrating her wedding. She meets a young female cousin, 14-year-old Carol, whose youth and innocence will become an important symbol later in this symbolism-filled flick.

Susan can't put off her husband's advances forever, and eventually their marriage is consummated, though obviously she's none too happy about it--while she is in love, she also feels ravaged physically, and her husband's rapacious sexual appetite begins to take its toll on her fragile psychological state as the days wear on. It also doesn't help that he begins to show himself a true son of the woman-hating family tradition, aggressive and insensitive and concerned only with his own sensual needs.

There are some truly wonderful character moments scattered throughout this part of the movie, as when Susan puts off her husband's pawing advances with an exasperated "No, no, please! You're like a puppy, waiting to be given his food!" But the theme is particularly well-illustrated in a tense scene where Susan locks herself in a pigeon coop to escape her husband's lust, and he paces wolf-like outside before breaking in to have his way. When the 14-year-old cousin interrupts them in flagrante delicto, Susan takes the opportunity to run away.

"I wanna break...I wanna break my..."

While she's struggling with her repulsion to her husband's appetites and her guilt over that repulsion ("I love you, I don't hate you!" she tells him, obviously trying to convince herself it's true), Susan is also learning more about the mysterious Mircalla's story, even finding her defaced portrait in the cellar due to Carol's secretive help. The painting which shows Micalla (sans face) wearing strange rings and carrying the decorative dagger that she probably used to kill her husband. As if by magic, the dagger appears in Susan's bedroom that night, the first in a string of increasingly disturbing and weird occurences. Susan begins to dream about a strange, otherworldly woman, and in one amazingly sexy and disturbing dream sequence she and the woman use the dagger to bloodily murder Susan's husband, with lots of turnabout-penetration images that can't but be symbolic. When Susan wakes up clutching the dagger and standing over her sleeping spouse, she begins to fear for her sanity.

Some might call the movie slow-paced, and there's truth in that--however, even though I was nearly an hour into the movie and no vampire woman had shown up yet (except in dreams, and then not of the bloodsucking variety), I was still completely drawn in and mesmerized by the fantastic character development, the struggle between the male aggression and the female vulnerability, Susan's inner struggle with feelings of duty to her husband and to herself, and some truly arresting visuals. Slow, but not boring--I was totally enraptured.

Of course a strange woman DOES appear on the scene (the otherworldy, mind-bendingly gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo), the spitting image of the woman from Susan's dreams. (The woman's first appearance is on the on the beach, where Susan's hubby finds her completely buried in the sand wearing snorkeling gear! It's so weird as to be almost surreal, but it's also very, very wonderful.) She says her name is Carmilla, and she quickly becomes Susan's closest friend and confidante, taking her husband's place in Susan's affections.

Rough diving.

There's a great scene here where the husband is talking, trying to get on Carmilla's good side, and all the time the two women are silently bonding, excluding him. It's a quiet but intensely character-building scene, as we see that this woman/woman relationship--a more-than-friendship, a marriage without a man in it--is both Susan's greatest desire and her husband's greatest fear. As more and more strange happenings occur around the new houseguest and Susan's attachment to her gets more and more "unnatural," the husband finally pays attention to the family legends. All this leads to a climax that I don't want to spoil--suffice to say it was bloody, shocking, symbolically devastating, and in the last couple of scenes, completely gobsmacking!

This movie is not your standard vamp flick, as Carmilla is more a vengeful revenant than standard-issue vampire. For instance, though she does drink blood and bite Susan (in a scene that's totally mind-blowing in its sexay-ness), she has no problem being out in the daylight and doesn't seem too worried about religious imagery.

But what the movie is really about, and uses the vampire legend to underscore better than any other movie I've ever seen, is the dark side of sexual politics and relationships--the Mars/Venus thing taken to bloody symbolic extremes. And it's hard to take sides in the struggle--while the husband is clearly repugnant, the rampage that Carmilla leads Susan on is also disturbing, even if they are in a sense "returning the violence that was done to them." The film seems less concerned with whose side to be on than with showing the messed up, tragic consequences of old fashioned sex roles meeting what was at the time the new feminism. Not that one was better than the other, but that the very nature of the struggle was not sexual, but violent--or rather that sex in such a situation IS violence, in a very real and tragic way.

"No, I'm pretty sure that's the gall bladder.
Damn it, we'd better look in the textbook."

I probably haven't spent as much time thinking about a movie after the credits rolled as I have about The Blood-Spattered Bride in ages--I want to revisit it soon, and I wish it had a features-laden special release to rival DoD, as I believe this is a far superior movie. It's rocketed up the charts from nowhere to now being one of my favorite horror movies, period. Great cinematography, great script, great character development, good acting, beautiful women, and something to think about afterwards...what's not to love?

Off the thumb charts. See this NOW.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974): or, Zé is Absolutely Beside Himself

Ever wonder what Satan's holiday special would look like? Well, wonder no more. José Mojica Marins is pleased to satisfy your curiosity.

Released in 1974 and made after The Awakening of the Beast (though AotB would not be released for another twenty years!), The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (aka O Exorcismo Negro) continues that film's theme of the power of Zé de Caixão (your ever lovin' Coffin Joe) as a fictional character intruding upon the real, non-fictional world. Mojica is obviously very interested in ideas about how myth and reality converge, about where fiction starts and reality stops, and how things that are imaginary still seem to have power to shape our reality. Though he uses film mythology to approach these ideas, the parallel religious implications of this concern are quite obvious--in this it shares thematically with Mojica's Finis Hominis, though BEoCJ has a decidedly darker bent.

The movie opens with Mojica, playing himself, wrapping up filming on his latest horror flick. Afterwards he takes questions from reporters and talks about why he makes the movies he does. The reporters press him about whether he and Coffin Joe are one and the same, despite Mojica's continued protestations that Zé is merely a fictional character. The press won't let up, though, pointing out Mojica's talon-like nails, which he insists her grew only for authenticity in the character. Exasperated, Mojica finally shouts at the thick press corps, "Coffin Joe DOES NOT EXIST!" However, upon this pronouncement, one of the lamps in the room explodes--which Mojica claims is a coincidence, but the press take as proof of Coffin Joe's existence and displeasure with his creator. An exasperated Mojica then announces his plans to go to his friends' country estate to come up with a screenplay for his next film, The Demon Exorcist.

We are then treated to an uncharacteristically calm opening credit sequence. Still, Mojica is not one to waste film, so while the credits roll we get some great shots of Jose on a ferry boat going down river into the country. The sense of movement and growing feeling of traveling away from civilization and into something dark and unknown are very well done, sold by subtle looks of unease on Mojica's face as he travels, as well as his nervous drinking. It's a light touch, but for this viewer it had an effect.

"Excuse me, waiter? Could you tell me where the restroom is? I seem to be a little lost."

It's Christmastime, and Mojica will be staying with his friend, an architect and amateur parapsychologist, for the extended holiday. There's some great characterization of the large family done very quickly and economically, and some more intellectual discussions about religion and myth between Jose and his friend. Discussions such as these will continue throughout the movie, and offer some valuable insight and commentary on the film going on around them, in an almost metafictional way. It's very sly and sophisticated, and a testament to Mojica's serious intellectual concerns expressed through art.

Mojica settles in to start writing, but it's not long before supernatural events in the house intrude upon his creativity. Furniture moves on its own, icons of the saints explode, light fixtures continue to malfunction. The first half hour of the movie very effectively establishes a feeling of dread and impending terror, so much so that when José goes down to the basement on a midnight walk (ALWAYS a good idea, no?), I was actually kind of nervous for him. With good cause, as it turned out.

Things finally come to a head when the grandfather of the clan goes crazy in the best old-man-freakout scene I've witnessed since Gramps' LSD trip in I Drink Your Blood. It's quite disturbing as the possessed patriarch speaks in multi-layered voices, with the patented Mojica odd angles and distortion of sound. The grandpa-thing claims he is owed a debt and has come to collect--then, dispossessed, the old man collapses on the ground.

"Your FACE is IN a BOX! Your FACE is IN a BOX!"

From there the paranormal occurrences fly fast and furious. A little girl (and sleepless Mojica) witness a toy piano playing itself in a VERY creepy scene, and the family's Christmas tree is infested with spiders and snakes--a Zé do Caixão Christmas! Carlos, the pre-incarnation of Ashton Kutcher and fiance to the family's buxom baby Vilma, is also possessed and attacks Mojica with an axe. Strange visions and symbols assail the family and a dark secret is revealed, leading to a memorable and typically wild climax in which Mojica must confront his dark alter-ego to save his friends from damnation.

As usual, there are some truly inspired set-pieces in this movie. The piano/Christmas tree scene is very unsettling, and a late possession-attack from Vilma's younger sister can only be described as F*CKING SCARY! A witch who is tormenting the family has several memorable ritual scenes, all carried out on an altar that looks set for a "Happy Birthday Satan" party! A conversation between Carlos and Mojica about why we need horror movies functions as a commentary on the film itself, opening the possibility that the film we are watching is in fact the film Mojica said he was going to write at the beginning of this film--which if you stop to think about it may BLOW YOUR FREAKIN' MIND.

But the piece de resistance is definitely Mojica's confrontation with Coffin Joe, who is more malevolent here perhaps than in any other Zé movie I've seen. His opening rant to his red-robed disciples is a thing of evil beauty, with such lines as "May the blood of those who don't deserve to live burst from their bodies! May lightning annihilate the scum! May your loved ones be your executioners!" and the famous cryptic Zé de Caixao mantras, "It will be what it HAS to be! If something exists, it's because there is a reason for it to exist!" And the way he says it, he really makes you believe it.

And then follows the Orgy of Pain--a truly disturbing scene depicting the torment of damned souls, in many ways even worse (or at least gorier) than the famous hell sequence in This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse--albeit mercifully shorter. Fingers are chiseled off, tongues ripped out, hands amputated, and demonic ghouls and harpies cavort in evil glee, even taking time out to do an impromptu evil dance number! Mojica calls on his neglected faith to exorcise the demons, but Zé lets him know that no puny cross can dispel Coffin Joe!

Coffin Joe: The Musical!

While Mojica was certainly famous by this time, you can still tell his budgets were nowhere near what he needed for his expansive visions. While the house where he films the outdoor scenes is palatial (nice gardens and a truly amazing swimming pool), the indoor scenes are obviously studio-shot, sometimes with long drapes serving as walls and curtained door frames in the place of doors. This doesn't keep Mojica from filling the frame with dread and creeping unease, though, and his inventiveness as always is to be lauded.

Hard to find (but not impossible, obviously), The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe is another weird, wonderful trip into the strange wold of José Mojica Marins, and one every fan should take. 10 taloned thumbs wayyyyyyyyy up! Find it however you can, and have a Holly Hellish Christmas!

PS--Images were taken from Coffin Joe's Official Site...I hope he doesn't mind! Love you, Ze!


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