Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Beast and the Magic Sword (1983): or, Samurai Werewolf

One of the wonderful things about becoming a Paul Naschy fan in this day and age is that, once you've realized the bottomless store of cinematic joy Jacinto has on tap, there's just SO much more out there for you to leap into head-first. Naschy was almost as prolific as he was manly, with damn near 100 acting credits and 39 for screenwriting on imdb alone. In the early days of my evangelism this would have been frustrating, since most of those movies are still either out-of-print or were never issued stateside. But now, thanks to the wonders of Technology, there are channels through which the devoted fan can pour his creamy love over even the most obscure entries in the Molina Oeuvre. And that, brothers and sisters, is a Very Good Thing.

Naschy's 1983 effort The Beast and the Magic Sword (La Bestia y la espada mágica) is one of those that saw release in the US, had a short VHS run, and then disappeared into the Iberian Hinterlands and the libraries of collectors. And it's a shame, too; in scope, acting, production values, and sheer horror/fantasy joy, it's one of the most impressive and entertaining Naschy flicks I've ever clapped my eyeballs on. And as all my readers should know by now, that's not a piece of praise I throw around lightly.

A simple three-word phrase should help explain: WEREWOLF VERSUS NINJAS. Let's dive in, shall we?

Note: Please don't let the sub-par quality of the screengrabs scare you. This movie is totally worth it.

"Y'all ready for this?"

Sometime in the early 80s it seems Naschy was approached by some Japanese investors and given the opportunity to make a series of documentaries on the history of Spain for airing on Japanese TV. As part of the deal, he was also able to secure funding for two full-length fiction films, this one and the excellent horror/thriller Human Beasts (recently released by Deimos DVD in an excellent special edition). Never one to let a creative opportunity pass by unexploited, Naschy crafted a script for his tenth entry in the Waldemar Daninsky saga--one which would send his cursed nobleman seeking a cure for his malediction in the wilds of Feudal Japan!

At an hour and fifty minutes, The Beast and the Magic Sword is one of the longer films Naschy produced, and it's wonderful to see him explore the space. We open in war-torn pre-medieval Europe, where the Emperor Otton is having trouble keeping his enemies in check--particularly those pesky Hungarians, who legend has it drink the blood of their vanquished foes and steal their souls. Otton's men have captured the Voivode of the Hungarian army, a massive barbarian named Bulcho who looks almost exactly like Sekkar Khan from Night of the Howling Beast, only without the eczema.

However, even chained in Otton's dungeons Bulcho is dangerous--his mistress Amese is a powerful witch and is still at large, and Otton is hesitant to execute the Voivode for fear of incurring her eternal curse. Bulcho must die fighting--and none of the Emperor's men are brave enough to risk both Bulcho's blade and Amese's magical wrath. To solve this problem, Otton calls in loyal Polish warlord Irenius Daninsky (Naschy, of course, looking AWESOME with his full beard, long hair, and golden circlet) to administer the Trial by Battle. If he wins, Irenius will receive the hand of Otton's daughter Uswika in marrige. Unlike her namesake in Dr. Jekyll meets the Werewolf, this Uswika is a cutie too--therefore, Daninsky agrees.

What is best in life? THIS, pretty much.

Of course Irineus kicks barbarian ASS in the fight (which is excellently choreographed and set-dressed...a real treat), hewing off his foe's head and tossing it at Otton's feet. He claims his bride, and after a few doses of Mighty Molina Manbatter Uswika finds herself pregnant with the Spawn of Awesome. None of this sits well with Amese, of course, who does the expected thing and calls down Satan's wrath on the Daninsky clan (in an *excellent* spell casting scene that pays homage to/steals from The Exorcist). Then, Amese appears before the hugely pregnant Uswika and pronounces her curse: "All the seventh-born sons will be transformed into beasts! The Daninskys will be a race of murderers! Hated and persecuted FOREVER!" Finally, to drive the point home, the witch takes a magic wolf skull and drives it fang-first into Uswika's pregnant belly, infecting her unborn child with lycanthropy before getting shot full of arrows by the royal guards! I don't care where you're from, that's BADASS.

We now fast-forward to Sixteenth-Century Toledo, where nobleman Waldemar Daninsky has drawn the seventh genetic short straw and is desperately seeking a cure for his werewolfism. He and his lady Kinga seek out scholar, alchemist, and persecuted Jew Salom, who along with his blind daughter Ester promises to cure Daninsky if he can. (The two are both members of an international secret fraternity whose members all wear the group's symbol on a necklace--one strikingly similar to the one Col. Sanders wore in Night of the Werewolf.)

But before Salom can complete his research, the local Catholics decide he's a warlock and slave of Satan and must be burned at the stake. (The unearthly howls they hear coming from his workshop on full-moon nights don't help.) Though Naschy fights off several of the anti-semitic authorities in another excellent fight scene (he kills them all in his nightshirt, because THAT'S how awesome he is), Salom is mortally wounded in the scuffle. With his dying breath, the learned Jew tells Waldemar to go to Japan and seek out wise man and fraternity brother Kian, who may be the only person who can free him from his family curse. Homeless and marked for death, Ester joins them on their quest.

Hair and the Dog that Bit You

We now cut to beautiful Feudal Japan, where The General has called a meeting of his fiercest samurai warriors to address a growing problem in the region. It seems that for the past few full-moon nights, villiagers have been found horribly murdered, as if torn apart by some wild beast. While the other warriors boast about how their katanas will make short work of the killer, even-tempered and meticulous Kian (an extremely charismatic Shigeru Amachi) wonders whether mere force of arms will be enough. When Kian's uncle stakes his life on his men's ability to bring in the beast, Kian starts investigating in earnest.

I should say here that despite the apalling video quality of the copy of this film I managed to secure, the top-drawer production values shine through at every turn. The sets in Europe and Japan are marvelous, and the costuming is great in every culture and time-period. Also, Julio Burgos' cinematography under Naschy's direction is very nice, with lots of cool compositions and moody lighting to make our monster feel at home in the Far East.

For instance, on the next night of the full moon we find ourselves in the werewolf's point of view, stalking through the eerily shadowed streets between traditional Japanese buildings for an almost Gothic feel. At the end of an alley we happen upon a brothel, where the silhouettes of jovial men and women move starkly outlined on the rice-paper windows, ignorant of the Hairy Death that stalks them in the dark.

Loves Japanese Food

Their blissful ignorance is short-lived, however, as the werewolf bursts through the flimsy portals in a blur of snarling, furry horror and proceeds to go on one of the most horrific KILL-CRAZY RAMPAGES in the Naschy canon! As the geishas rush around in a booberiffic panic, Naschy rips throats as well as kimonos, tearing huge swaths of human jerky off ho and john alike! Interrupted samurai sex leads to a useless sword-swipe and more naked carnage, and in a matter of moments the House of the Rising Sun is in a shambles, bodies heaped on each other like so much firewood! The frenetic camera work and editing here just makes it that much more exciting.

As the werewolf leaves the scene of destruction, he finds himself face-to-face with Kian, who has been following his tell-tale tracks. The stand-off between the two here is really a great piece of work, as Kian looks fearlessly into the eyes of the beast, which snarls back at him but does not attack, as if sensing the courage and determination of his adversary. Finally the werewolf bounds away, leaving Kian to clean up the bloody brothel-mess.

It doesn't take Kian long to find Waldemar, Kinga, and Ester in the cabin where they're hiding, and the guilt stricken Waldemar quickly shows Kian his medallion and secures his promise to help find the cure. Meanwhile Kinga has heard tell of a witch who lives in the mountains who might be able to help should Kian's alchemy fail. Meanwhile the aforementioned one-eyed samurai has sent ninja spies to keep tabs on Kian's investigation--in case you thought it couldn't get any awesomer.


In preparation for the cure Kian takes Waldemar to the thermal baths, where Kian's younger sister makes doe-eyes at the beefy nobleman while massaging his huge, scarred pecs. (Zang.) At this point THE NINJAS ATTACK! Not only ninjas, but FEMALE, TOPLESS NINJAS! Kian again shows his fighting prowess, towel-whipping one ninjette and stabbing another. Waldemar uncharacteristically hangs back and lets Kian do the fighting--I guess he's protecting the dude's nude little sister. Which is nice of him, really.

At this point the movie has really become more Kian's story than Waldemar's, but this is not at all a bad thing. Shigeru Amachi is really wonderful as the rational-minded scholar and samurai, projecting a calmness and authority that is just perfect for the role. His acting is spectacular throughout, whether he's tracking the moon-beast or having a post-bathtime katana duel with his one-eyed rival--another great fight scene, and one that cements Amachi as a charismatic badass worthy of the appellation "The Naschy of Japan."

Do NOT fuck with this man.

No points for guessing that Kian's initial attempt at a cure ends in FAIL, leading to more deaths and Daninksy-depression. Desperate, Kinga seeks out the witch she'd heard of before, who it turns out is a 200 year-old ghost bent on revenge against the samurai who banished her, and who wants to use Naschy as a WMD (werewolf of mass destruction) to make them pay. To make sure she'll get her money's worth, however, the witch locks Waldemar in her dungeon (using a magic silver katana for persuasion), and when he transforms has him fight her champion Serkan--who just so happens to be A FUCKING BENGAL TIGER! It's a werewolf/tiger fight! ZANG! (It was at this point that the needle on my awesome-meter snapped off and imbedded itself in the wall mere inches away from my face, but I was grinning too broadly to care.)

I could gush on and on and on about this movie, but then we'd be here all night--so instead I'll enumerate a few of the remaining awesomenesses in bullet-point form:
  • Kian's nightmare in which he sees Kinga having her belly ripped open by villagers in order to do away with Waldemar's demon seed

  • A rapid and surprising exit for two possible love interests
Yes, Ma'am!
  • Kian briefly considering BRAIN SURGERY to remove the animal part of Waldemar's mind, before deciding instead that the Beast Must Die

  • Wolfed-out Waldemar brazenly attacking an entire battallion of samurai guards and laying UTTER WASTE to them

  • An emotionally affecting scene in which Kian must assist his uncle in committing Hare Kari for his failures

  • Kian's Arthurian quest back to the witch's haunted castle to retrieve the Magic Sword with which Waldemar must be destroyed, and his subsequent epic battle with Onibaba-style demon ghosts

  • The final battle between the werewolf and our hero samurai, with the required tragic results

  • The delicious but sadly unrealized possibility that, thanks to said battle, Kian might now bear La Marca del Hombre Lobo. (I REALLY wanted a Kian Werewolf Saga!)
Easier said than done.

As I said before, the scope and ambition of The Beast and the Magic Sword is truly something special in the Naschy filmography. The mixing of time periods, the mash-up of Japanese and European myth, the competing tragedies of Waldemar's curse and Kian's honorable sacrifice, all just come together gloriously. The acting and the script are both superb (though the subtitles were a little iffy on my copy, the quality still shone through), and Naschy's willingness to stand aside in service of the story pays dividends thanks to Amachi's Naschy-an screen presence and charisma. It totally works as a supernatural fantasy/drama--not much to laugh at here, but plenty to make you stand up and cheer.

I can only hope and pray that the fine folks at BCI/Eclipse/Deimos DVD who put out those fabulous editions of several of Naschy's other great flicks last year will do the same for The Beast and the Magic Sword, because God knows it deserves it. The movie was so fantastic even in the sub-sub-par video-quality version that I watched, I can only imagine the intensity of the geekgasm that a pristine, cleaned-up print would cause. As it is, The Beast and the Magic Sword has climbed the ranks into perhaps my top 3 favorite Naschy films, and needs to be seen by his legions of new fans.

OFF THE THUMB SCALE. If you get a chance to see this one, grab it like the last potsticker. And thank me later.

When Naschy wants head, baby, he GETS IT.


STUMP THE VICAR: HippIes, Black Power, and a Desert?

UPDATE: We thought we had this one sussed with Nigel_M's suggestion of the 1971 fake documentary Punishment Park, but the original questioner David informs me that, while PP is indeed an excellent movie and worth everyone's time, it's NOT the droid he's looking for. Back to the drawing board! Any more suggestions?

Good morning, parishioners! You know your ever-lovin' Vicar takes pride in knowing his stuff when it comes to trash cinema, but sadly even my time in B-Movie Seminary did not expose me to *every* piece of movie magic that might fall under this title. Reader David emailed me recently with the following poser that I couldn't quite place. But knowing that my readers are among the most knowledgeable on the planet when it comes to obscure 70s flicks, I thought if we put our heads together, we might just be able to solve this mystery. Here's David with the details:

it may have been a made-for-tv movie, made around 1971. during the last half hour of the film (maybe longer) there's several young hippie-like people (in their 20s) sitting around a table in a rather dark room, i think in a house out in the california desert. the people sitting at the table are deciding by consensus as to whom must leave the table. one woman is terrified at the prospect of being forced to leave the table. when the rest of the group decides she has to go, she screams like it's a matter of life and death. the last four people at the table are 2 men and 2 women. one of the 2 men is a Black Power militant, one of the women is a white revolutionary feminist - - these 2 come across as favoring violence as a means of addressing society's ills. the Black Power militant and white revolutionary feminist end up leaving the table. the last 2 people at the table are a white man and a white woman, apparently not interested in revolution. in the last scene of the film this man and woman leave the house and they're walking together across a desert, while the sun rises.

i saw bits and pieces of it as a rerun on some mid-day movie show on free tv around 1985. but i never got the title. does this sound familiar?
So what do you think, parishioners? To me, it sounds like it might be a post-apocalyptic joint, or else some kind of No Exit homage with hippies and Black Panthers thrown in for spice. But I have nothing but gut feelings to base that on.

If you recognize the movie by this description, post it in the comments and help a brother out! Anyone who comes up with the correct answer gets his or her very own Thank-You tweet, direct from the Vicar! Who could ask for more? :)

Come on gang--we've got a mystery to solve!


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Night of the Demon (1980): or, The Legend of the Rape Ape

How you react to James C. Wasson's infamous 1980 'Squatchsploitation flick Night of the Demon will depend largely upon a few key factors:

1. Whether your love for Bigfoot falls more heavily on the Monster Version side, or the Sasquatch: Friend of Nature side.
2. Your ability to forgive inept moviemaking and terrible acting in the name of wild, outre plot points and general icky enthusiasm.
3. How much you've had to drink.

If you're playing at home, metrics on items 2 and 3 should be SUBSTANTIAL.

We open with Professor Nugent (since he's not on first-name basis with anyone in the flick, hereafter I shall call him "Fred") regaining consciousness in a hospital. His lower face has been horribly mutilated (whether this occasioned a SHRIEK or not is unclear) so he wears an old-school Western Kerchief Mask as he warns the doctor and the aptly named Inspector Slack about the evil what still lurks in them there woods: "There's is a demon...a creature!" And apparently, IT'S HUNGRY FOR FACES.


We now flashback to Professor Fred's college course, where he's lecturing to a packed house about cryptozoology--specifically, the multiple Bigfoot sightings reported in the area over the years. As he spins an anecdotal tale we're treated to the first of MANY flashbacks within the larger flashback, this one dealing with the tragedy of one family's ill-fated camping trip. Out of nowhere the Bigfoot attacks, ripping the arm off the dad and treating us to some nice butcher shop-based gore FX. The short-armed father figure falls to the ground, and the blood flows in a red river from his meaty stump across the dirt, where it slowly fills up a deep Bigfoot footprint as the credits begin! Nice!

Unfortunately that's one of the few directorial flourishes we'll see in this flick, since apart from some Dutch Tilts here and there the camera work is fairly unimaginative. What's not unimaginative is the script when it comes to blood-soaked Bigfoot mayhem--the writer had so much of it banging around his braincase, we're barely back in Professor Nugent's class before the teacher says, "Another young girl saw her boyfriend brutally murdered..." and we're off into another flashback!

The girl in question doesn't look all that young--she actually looks more like Flo from Mel's Diner--but she and her unattractive boyfriend engage in a lot of gratuitous groping and nipple-nibbling in their van out in the deep dark woods. It's not long before Sasquatch has had enough of all this soft-porn crap and pulls the screaming boyfriend out, ripping his throat and washing the windshield in thick arterial spray. The girl screams and screams...and screams again...and just when you wish Bigfoot would finish the job and shut her up already, we're back in the present-day of the *original* flashback to begin our story proper.

"Thanks...for the...RIDE...Lady!"

Following the research of his mentor who died not long before, the Nuge and a select group of his grad students are going on a cryptozoological expedition to get to the bottom of all this bloody Bigfoot business, despite Fred's wife's misgivings and the university's withdrawal of its sanction. With his group of emotively challenged thirtysomething college kids, the Prof hires a boat and takes it downriver to Carlson's landing, seeking the one man who has seen the creature and lived.

Now's as good a place as any to talk about a few of the many shortcomings of this way-below-indie production. First of all, it's really hard to imagine the acting being any worse. The actors all sound like they're being overdubbed by a cut-rate Eurotrash dubbing team, even though they're not. If Professor Nugent has more than one facial expression, I didn't see it. And his aged college students are all pretty much interchangeable in their bland, talent-free screen presence. Old Man Carlson's makeup consists of baby powder in his hair and a gray-greased moustache. Throw in the aforementioned static camera and some truly slapdash editing, and you'd think the situation would be pretty dire.

But on the other side of the cinematic balance scales, the movie has INSANE BIGFOOT ACTION TO SPARE. In the next Nuge-narrated flashback, a young man sleeping alone under the stars awakens in the morning to find Sasquatch looming over him. Before the boy can scream, Bigfoot picks up the feet-end of the sleeping bag and twirls it around his head like David taking aim on Goliath! The boy screams, and Bigfoot throws him at a stack of old broken branches, where his victim is impaled upside down! Never mind the fact there's no way Nuge could *possibly* know exactly what happened to the lone murder victim, let alone whether Bigfoot was responsible--that's AWESOME.

Swing Your Partner

In a way, the Nuge's constant retelling of these Bigfoot sightings that nobody but the (dead) victims could have witnessed can be seen as emblematic of the whole I WANT TO BELIEVE aspect of many Bigfoot-search enthusiasts. No matter what happened, no matter how unlikely, "It HAD to be Bigfoot!" Gorilla suits in freezers? Obviously a government cover-up. Sasquatch Scat turns out to be identical to bear poo? Well, they have the same diet, don't they? It's kind of like Fox Mulder and aliens. Except, you know--not.

When the group finally convinces the crotchety old Carlson to open up via bribery--always pack extra booze and cigs on your Bigfoot hunts, kids--we learn that there's more to fear out in these woods than just the Big Guy. Turns out there used to be a crazy old preacher who lived deep in the forest, and taught his backwoods congregation that the creature was a Demon from Hell. When the creature raped the preacher's daughter and the holy man himself was immolated under mysterious circumstances, the now-at-loose-ends congregation decided that Sasquatch was not a demon, but a GOD. Now they roam the forest in their long robes, bearing torches, performing fertility rituals on the preacher's still-living daughter in praise of their hairy, stinky deity.

Yes, you read that right: a BIGFOOT SEX CULT.

Even though they don't do enough with that frankly jaw-dropping plot idea, the writers are still to be applauded for it, I think. Oh, and when the students catch up with the preacher's daughter (now known sensitively as Crazy Wanda), they learn via hypnotism and another flashback that she not only unwillingly learned the wonders of Stink Ape Love (Lengthy Sasquatch Sex scene? Why, of COURSE there is!), but also bore Bigfoot's love child, which unfortunately died soon after. So Godfoot now hangs around her cabin, either looking for his only begotten son or else hoping for some more sweet human nookie.

"Look, how am *I* supposed to know how they got power lines this far out in the wilderness? I'm a BIGFOOT HUNTER, not the Power company!"

So eventually the Big Guy lays seige to Crazy Wanda's cabin, trapping our group inside Night of the Living Dead style, and it ends up about as well as you'd think. But the plot, inventive as it is, isn't really the point here--the point is showing as many wild Bigfoot kills as possible, and the filmmakers wisely decide to throw caution and restraint to the winds where these are concerned. Via the always-handy unsubstantiated flashback, we learn the following from the Nuge about the hairy adversary:

  • Bigfoot is not only a cryptid and a cult leader, he's also apparently a NINJA. Not only can he sneak up completely undetected behind a lumberjack, swipe his axe when he turns away for a second, then bury it in his shoulder, he can also beat two knife-wielding Girl Scouts at their own game, bare-handed, grabbing their wrists and forcing them to stab each other again and again and again! Those hairy paws should be registered as deadly weapons!
"Quit stabbing yourselves!"
  • Never stop your motorcycle to go off to the side of the road and take a whiz when you're in Bigfoot country. He's absolutely invisible in the low brush, and prone to reaching up and ripping off your wiener if he catches any sidesplash. You were warned.
  • Baby Bigfoot skulls look surprisingly like those of a dog. But then, he had been in the ground a while. Also, Bigfoot is naturally adept at using tools--or axes and pitchforks, at the very least.
The filmmakers actually do well to keep Bigfoot in the shadows most of the movie, showing only his arms, legs, or hairy back, letting the viewers' imaginations take care of the rest. But when the Big Guy lays siege to the cabin at the end and bursts into full view, you finally understand why he's so insane--it's because he's not Bigfoot at all, but THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR!


Night of the Demon, for me, is perhaps the definition of a "so bad it's good" Mad Movie--inept, poorly acted, and technically questionable on just about every level, it muscles on through the joy barrier by sheer force of insanity and misdirected enthusiasm. And the copious gore scenes really aren't that bad--certainly not the worst I've seen, whatever faint praise that might be.

Still, rating it presents a bit of a problem, as your mileage will DEFINITELY vary depending on your love for cinematic badness and your willingness to short-circuit your taste receptors and bask in the Bigfooty goodness. Still, even for those who won't share the love, it's definitely worth seeing if only to say you have. Therefore I'm settling on a 2 Thumb, give-it-a-look rating. Whatever your reaction, I guarantee you've never seen Bigfoot like this, before or since.

And that is probably a good thing.

Come on now, it wasn't THAT bad!


Friday, February 20, 2009

MAD NEWS:: Severin Films to Release THE SINFUL DWARF on DVD

Holy Morally-Challenged Little People, parishioners! I never thought I'd live to see the day, but word in the confessional box has it that obscuro-horror/exploitation saviors Severin Films is planning to do the unthinkable: release the 1974 dwarfsploitation mmmmmasterpiece THE SINFUL DWARF in a super special-edition DVD! Here's the press release that the Vicar of VHS found in the poor box just last St. Swivvens's Day:


Long-Reviled 'Mother Of All Dwarfsploitation Films'
Promises To Incite Huge Ire From Little People

LOS ANGELES, CA, February 9, 2009 - Severin Films today announced the March 30th release of THE SINFUL DWARF, the infamous 1973 Danish-made/London-lensed shocker that has been called "perhaps the sleaziest film in EuroCult history." Events surrounding this first ever North American DVD release are scheduled to include a rare theatrical screening at Austin's Alamo Draft House on April 3rd, as well as national protests from various outraged Little People's organizations. Severin's restoration of the still-controversial movie was made possible by the recent discovery of a pristine 35mm print found hidden in a janitor's closet at The Danish Film Institute.

"A young bride," promised the original U.S. ads, "left alone to the lewd passions of an evil dwarf!" Former kiddie-show host Torben Bille stars in this EuroSleaze classic as a diminutive degenerate who imprisons drugged teenage runaways for use as sex slaves in the attic of his elderly alcoholic showgirl mother's decrepit rooming house.and that's just the first ten minutes. In their December 12th 1973 review, Variety condemned the film as "repulsive", further declaring "Torben leers and lurches like a demented Bette Davis."

"THE SINFUL DWARF is a towering achievement in graphic depravity," says Carl Daft, co-founder and CEO of Severin Films. "With this release, Severin is officially going to Hell, and plans on taking as many EuroCult fans as we can with us."
For more information, visit

If you think they're overstating that "sleaziest film of all time" thing, just read the Vicar's appreciation of this until-now little-seen classic here: The Sinful Dwarf: or, Don't Sell the Danes Short. Then go take a shower.

Watch this space for an updated review once the DVD hits the streets! And may God and Peter Dinklage have mercy on us all!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

La Residencia (1969): or, The House that Screamed "Awesome"

By this point in my movie-watching career, there are certain known quantities when it comes to watching Mad Movies. For instance, my tastes being what they are, I pretty much know going in to a movie by Paul Naschy, Jose Mojica Marins, or Jean Rollin that I'm going to find something to make my heart beat a little faster; similarly, I'm fairly confident that most Eurocine productions are going to leave me crankily unsatisfied. These are patterns that emerge over time, and though there may be exceptions, their general truth gives me a comfortable place from which to set off when dealing with such fare.

And while I always find it rewarding when a Naschy flick comes through with the awesome monster-mash action or a Coffin Joe joint blasts my eyeballs with the shocking, artistic perversity I've come to expect, it's even a little more rewarding when a movie I knew nothing about comes out of nowhere and bowls me over with its beauty, technical excellence, and/or effective storytelling. It's happened a few times--Bell from Hell, Lady Frankenstein, and Vampyres, to name a few. Like discovering a new species of butterfly, viewing these unexpected masterpieces is what really puts a spring in the Vicar's step and keeps him digging through the trash piles in search of similar treasure.

My latest Eureka! moment: this period-piece reform-school mystery/proto-slasher from Uruguayan director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1969's La Residencia (aka The House that Screamed).

"Don't fuck with me, girls."

We open at the "residencia" of the title, a boarding school for girls in 19th Century France. Overseen by stern, no-nonsense matron Madame Forneau (an absolutely EXCELLENT Lilli Palmer), the boarding school specializes in the education of young girls who are "difficult" and come from "non-exemplary homes," teaching them sewing, cooking, gardening and dance in the hopes of helping them one day land a husband. Of course with the more rambunctious girls this sometimes involves breaking their spirits in "The Discipline Room," where Forneau hands out punishments to be administered by her Matron's Pet and She-Wolf-in-Training, Irene (young Linda Fiorentino lookalike Mary Maude).

After troublemaker Lacienne is sent to the DISCIPLINE ROOM for disrupting Forneau's dictation class, the headmistress is called away to a meeting with obviously well-heeled aristocrat Mr. Baldie (Tomás Blanco), who sadly has a full head of hair. Baldie is delivering a new student and our clear protagonist for enrollment, Theresa (the lovely Cristina Galbó of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). The scene in which he negotiates the specifics of the girl's tuition with Forneau is really wonderful in its understated tension--Baldie says he is not a relative, but only "a great friend of the girl's mother," who has fallen ill and is unable to care for her. He pays Theresa's tuition up front but wants no reports on her progress and is not to be bothered with any difficulties--obviously he is in a hurry to drop the girl off and wash his hands of her, and it's clear to the audience (and the stern, disapproving Madame Forneau) that his relationship to Theresa is closer than he's prepared to say.

While Mr. Baldie and Forneau discuss her future, Theresa has a light dinner in the boarding house's huge, empty dining hall. As she nibbles at her soup and biscuits, Theresa is frightened by a cockroach scurrying across the table toward her. It's a small touch, but implies that despite the richly furnished surroundings, something dark and unclean infests this house, something that is slowly creeping into the light...

The Harold Lloyd Hat was big that year...

We soon learn that Theresa's illegitimacy and her shame about her mother's burlesque hall singer/call girl profession are only the first of a complex web of buried secrets and dark truths that converge in the Gothic boarding house's lush, shadowy rooms. Apparently three girls have run away from the school in recent months, never to reappear; since all the girls live in fear of Forneau's cruelty, no one thinks this odd.

Furthermore, Madame Forneau's 16-year-old son Luis (John Moulder-Brown) is the only young male on the grounds, an initially phantom-like presence who follows the girls through the garden and spies on them from the furnace vents. He's also secretly meeting one of the girls in the boiler room between classes--Isabelle, played by the gorgeous Maribel Martín of Bell from Hell and The Blood-Spattered Bride. When Forneau finds out, her fury is equal parts Ilsa and Oedipus--holding her young son's head in her hands, her lips a bit too close to his, she admonishes him, "These girls are not good enough for you...What you need is a woman like ME!"

Serrador continues to ratchet up the sickness when he gives us a taste of Forneau's idea of discipline--after giving Lacienne a stern lecture in the Discipline Room, the headmistress orders Irene and her Heathers-like goon squad to strip the girl, hold her down on a cot, and whip her with a cat o'nine tails! The line between "Gothic Old House Chiller" and "WiP-flick" is thus blurred and the viewer is thrown a bit off-balance, not knowing quite where the filmmaker will take us.

When a problem comes along...

In fact, Serrador makes a habit of throwing us off-balance throughout the run-time, and the deliciousness of that cinematic vertigo is so exquisite that it would really be criminal to ruin it for you. Suffice to say there's murder, mayhem, and a shock ending in store that sent me away with a huge, impressed smile on my lips.

There's so much to love about this movie, it's really an embarrassment of riches. First off, it's simply GORGEOUS to look at. The sprawling, Gothic boarding house is the stuff of any Eurohorror fan's wet dreams, absolutely choked with shadowy atmosphere and menace. The ornate antique furniture, the dusty mirror in the ballet room, the sweltering claustrophobia of the greenhouse--all just fantastic sets, and photographed sumptuously by Serrador and cinematographer Manuel Berenguer. If you're a fan of Old Dark House Architecture, this movie is definitely for you.

The plotting is fantastic too, using standard thriller/mystery tropes and mixing them up, so that as I said before you're really never quite sure where you stand. And even though there's only a smidgen of nudity, Serrador still manages to infuse the proceedings with a pervasive sense of psychosexual wrongness that will keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering where this director is going next. The slow-burn character build-up of the first 45 minutes never seems boring to me, and really pays off in spades at the end. Just wonderful stuff.

"...and BATHE you! Especially the bathing..."

The acting is nothing short of brilliant as well--Lilli Palmer as Madame Forneau just couldn't be more awesomely stern and evil, and her interactions with cherub-faced son Luis just reek of Oedipal wrongness. Galbó is great as the much-menaced Theresa, and Martin and several of the other girls make favorable impressions as well. And creeptastic character actor Victor Israel (the clumsy plan-buggering robber in Naschy's Crimson) has a small but memorable role.

But the real show-stealer here is Mary Maude, whose performance as the sadistic hall monitor Irene is absolutely arresting. Sadly she didn't do a lot of movie work after La Residencia, and her acting here (aided by Irene's surprising but totally awesome character arc) will make you wish she had.

Come-on, Irene

Serrador is a director whose work I'm sadly unfamiliar with, but I plan to rectify that as soon as possible--the wonderful camera work and his deft hand at cranking up the suspense have me sold on his "true artiste" status. (Struggling to remain spoiler-free, let me just say that La Residencia contains one of the most beautiful murder scenes I've ever witnessed in a movie.) He also directed the highly esteemed killer-kids movie Who Can Kill a Child? and a segment of the 2006 anthology 6 Films to Keep You Awake, both of which have rocketed up my Netflix queue as of NOW.

Intriguing, creepy, and visually mesmerizing, La Residencia is a movie I can wholeheartedly recommend to any Eurohorror fan, and I'm pleased to give it an enthusiastic 3+ thumbs. Do like your Momma tells you and see this one today!

Nota Bene: this has been released on DVD in a couple of versions under its Americanized title, The House That Screamed--one of which is, inexplicably, the Elvira Movie Macabre DVD line. It goes without saying that if you watch that version, be *sure* to turn off the hostess's "witty" interludes. The movie's too good to be undercut by lame jokes, I don't care how big your funbags are.

Fair enough.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Devil's Kiss (1975): or, We Blew the Budget on Candelabras and This is What's Left

It's an old, sad story: an underprivileged high school football player, a good kid if none too bright, nevertheless has a certain amount of talent for the game he loves. He's got big ideas, creative play plans that could change the fortunes of his team, and enough enthusiasm and confidence to put them into action. But on the day of the big game when the time comes to put those plans into motion, sadly, he finds he and his teammates lack the skills in football fundamentals to implement his plays appropriately. Creativity and hard work keep them in it, but you can only go so far without those basic aptitudes; passes are dropped, balls are fumbled, and despite scoring a few spectacular touchdowns, eventually the scores-against total overwhelm even those could-have-been-legendary goals. The buzzer sounds and the underdogs, dejected, bruised, and beaten, slink off the field to a chorus of boos from the very throngs they hoped to impress.

Now, replace "football" with "Eurotrash Horror Movie" and "fundamentals" with "basic filmmaking skills," and you've got a pretty good analogy for this 1975 Spanish horror wannabe, La Perversa caricia de Satán, aka Devil's Kiss.

Or maybe not. Still, though--hoo boy.

The movie opens as promisingly as you'd like, with creepy, profundo-basso butler Joseph (Carlos Otero) bearing a twisty-tapered candelabra down to the basement of a Gothic chateau, which the Duke de Haussemont (José Nieto) has converted into a swingin' 70s night club for the amusement of his aristocratic friends. As a bikini-clad dancer shakes it like a Polaroid and writhes on the floor while a black man in full African Tribal war dress dances around her, the jaded aristocrats stand around sipping scotch, fondling their monocles, and stroking their goatees, completely unimpressed.

She loves the Night Life

Hoping to fire up his bored friends with a little something extra, the Duke has invited an old friend back to the chateau, the Countess de Moncourt (Silvia Solar of Naschy's Night of the Howling Beast). Having fled society years ago after her husband's suicide and her subsequent financial and social ruin, the Countess has changed her name to Claire Grandier and made a new life for herself as a medium and an occultist. Even though she's obviously still upset about the Duke's having bought her husband's stables out from under her for a song, she has agreed to come back and perform a seance for his party guests' entertainment.

This opening party sequence gave me high hopes about the film, despite some really atrocious dialogue (I know it was dubbed, but even so--serious info-dump exposition with absolutely NO style). The jaded gentry coming to the antique building for wild entertainments (after the Native Dance there's an avant-garde fashion show where models in plastic jump suits strut through the crypt clumsily on platform shoes--which is pretty awesome) reminded me not unpleasantly of the best parts of Eyes Wide Shut--you know, the parts without Tom Cruise.

While the Duke and Claire set up for the seance, the jumpsuit models are changing clothes and showering upstairs, and we get a WTF episode where a totally cadaverous butler accuses one of the models of stealing before getting all rapey and slappy, then stopping when she gets bitey. Afterwards the near-rape victim is calmly getting dressed while below Claire prays to Satan to bring forth the spirit of the Duke's dead brother. The model sees something, screams and faints, and the seance is brought to an end. The aristocrats leave in a disappointed huff, and neither the spirit of the Duke's brother, the rape, nor the girl's experience are ever mentioned again.

Good Grief!

Despite the failure of his party entertainment, the Duke invites Claire to stay and teach him "the occult sciences." He also invites her consort Dr. Gruber (Eurocine mainstay Olivier Mathot) to move in and continue his experiments, which as it happens involve telepathy and "the regeneration of dead animal cells." Short on research funding, the pair readily agrees.

As it turns out Claire has gotten over her social failing NOT AT ALL, and has returned to the chateau with a view toward vengeance on those stinking rich folk what wronged her. The plan, like many such in Eurotrash horror lore, is elegant in its simplicity: Dr. Gruber will use his SCIENCE (mad variety) to build a body of rejuvenated cells, which Claire will then use her occult prowess to instill with a demonic spirit, thus completing the soul/body pairing necessary to revive dead flesh. The doctor will then use his telepathy to control the demonic Frankenstein's monster, ordering it to kill Claire's enemies and right the scales of justice to her liking. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

In pursuit of this goal, Clair also rescues a dwarf (Ronnie Harp, in his only screen appearance) from an angry mob who are after him for molesting a village girl. She installs him in the lab unbeknownst to the Duke, because hey, you know--a Mad Lab is simply not complete without a rapey dwarf assistant.

Solar-powered Villainy

So as you can see, the pieces are all there for a Eurohorror puzzle that could well be put together into something beautiful: occultism meets Dr. Frankenstein, jaded aristocrats and a witch's revenge, and an old dark house full of eccentric servants. The ideas are interesting--but the execution is so horrendously botched that the MADNESS just cannot overcome the BADNESS. The aforementioned exposo-dump dialogue goes on and on; sometimes the principals even offer their lengthy, detailed exposition of baffling events several scenes AFTER they occur, which doesn't help anybody. (For instance, after the vivified creature murders the Duke, the police search the whole chateau and find "nothing out of the ordinary." A good five minutes later, Claire and Gruber go back to the basement and Clair blurts out "Fortunately we were able to hide in time--the coffin and the dwarf!" Thanks, babe, I was wondering about that!)

Also working against the movie is the garish lighting setups (could you sleep with a blue-gelled spotlight blazing on your bed? Not I), the musical score that disappears for long segments and is none too good when they remember to put it in, and NUMEROUS "walk from here to there without edits in REAL TIME" sections that absolutely stop the movie cold. Add a murderous Frankenstein's creature who's barely taller than his creator, and you've got quite the Suck Cocktail there. I don't know where Gruber went to Mad Science school, but really, that's just inexcusable.

The one bright spot in the dank darkness of this movie--or really just a dim appliance bulb, but it still shines brightly compared to the rest--is the character of Loretta, the Duke's maid, played by busty blonde beauty Evelyne Scott. Not only is her maid's outfit of the Sexy Halloween Costume variety (zang), but she must have the largest collection of exciting underwear ever amassed by a domestic servant. Seriously, she's often shown in her bedroom, and never in the same lingerie twice. Check it out:

Change my linens.

Trouble Sleeper

Diaphanous Decolletage

For a while I thought Loretta might end up as the heroine of the flick--the Duke seemed more than a little interested in her, and after his death, his inheriting nephew (Daniel Martín, who looks like a cross between David Hasselhoff and Mickey Dolenz) also seems ready to put the moves on her. In addition, her stable hand boyfriend shows up now and again for a refreshingly intense sex scene. I was way more interested in her than in any of the other characters...IYKWIM.

However, it's not to be--she's killed by the creature when Gruber loses telepathic control because he's suffering from an annoyingly prolonged heart attack. (Really, for half the movie he's gasping and groaning and ready to drop dead--by the time he finally dies, I was ready to cheer from relief.) Claire and Gruber reanimate her corpse in order to hold off suspicion, again setting up an interesting idea on which the movie fails to capitalize--she murders the stable hand, is taken into custody by police, hooked up to a colander-based brain scan, and then dies when they give her electroshock...for some reason.

Oh, and somewhere in there the creature kills Claire, chases the new Duke's girlfriend (a slumming María Silva, who would prefer you remember her for Tombs of the Blind Dead and Curse of the Devil), and is shot down by police. The end.

Win Ben Stein's Beakers

I wanted to like Devil's Kiss, but the movie thwarted me at every turn, and committed the one cardinal sin: it got boring. In fact, the more I think of it, the more its failure to entertain irks me. It was all RIGHT THERE, Devil's Kiss! All you had to do was haul it in! But it bounced right off your fingers into the end zone.

A sad, drooping 1 thumb rating for this one. Fast forward to Loretta's scenes and enjoy Silvia Solar's shiny shiny boots, but otherwise, don't waste your time.

"Wha Hoppend?"


Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Vicar-ious Valentine: A Bouquet of ZANG

Valentine's Day is a time when we're obligated by the might of the Romantic Industrial Complex to spend some time (and an insane amount of money) thinking about the ones we love. Because I, the Vicar, love you, my parishioners, in a very real, deeply emotional, and possibly legally actionable way, I thought it only fitting that I offer you a little gift as a token of my carnal esteem.

But since candy is bad for me (and I know you'd want to share), flowers are cliched, and jewelry costs more than I'm frankly willing to spend (what, you think the Church of Antique Video Formats pays that well?), I've decided instead to give you the gift that keeps on giving: a pictorial bouquet of some of the most Zangworthy Actresses to grace the pages of Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies so far! And if you prefer your bacon a little beefier, stick around...there's a bonus.

Get the lotion and click away!

1. Edwige Fenech

Possibly the woman for whom the term ZANG was invented, Edwige improves the quality of any movie she's in by sheer force of smokin' hawtness. Her acting chops aren't bad either.

MMMMMovie Reviews: All the Colors of the Dark, Ubalda, All Naked and Warm.

2. Yutte Stensgaard

Ever since the lil' Vicar first saw Ms. Stensgaard covered in blood in a book of horror movie stills, it's been love. A formative influence on the Vicar's future attributions of scream queen zang-worthiness, Yutte is a beaut (in her birthday suit).

MMMMMovie Reviews: Lust for a Vampire, Zeta One

3. Rosalba Neri

So hot that the sadistic warden of a women's prison STILL allows her to wear her sheer stockings with her jailhouse uniform (strangely, it totally works) and smart and ruthless enough to seduce a retard, put another man's brain in his body, and use the resulting monster to avenge her father's death, Rosalba Neri (aka Sara Bay) just may be the perfect woman. If not, she's close enough for me.

MMMMMovie Reviews: 99 Women, Lady Frankenstein

4. Barbara Crampton

(with thanks to Arena of the Unwell)

We can't talk about formative influences on the Vicar's scream queen tastes without mentioning the gorgeous and talented Barbara Crampton, whose fearless work in Re-Animator has rightly made her a movie legend. I don't know how many VHS tapes got worn out at one specific moment in that movie from excessive rewind/replaying, but I know about at least 3 for a fact. (The Vicar ALWAYS springs for Movie Protection Insurance!) I actually got to meet Ms. Crampton a couple of years ago and a horror con, and she's a delight in person as well as on film. Plus, she smells nice.

MMMMMovie Reviews: Chopping Mall, From Beyond

5.Helga Liné

A memorable collaborator of Paul Naschy's and a dominating presence whenever she's onscreen, Liné is paradoxically cold as ice and hot as lava. With aristocratic looks and a sneer of command you wouldn't even THINK of refusing, Helga is the Ice Queen of my dreams.

MMMMMovie Reviews: The Dracula Saga, Horror Rises from the Tomb

6. Marisa Mell

If she'd never made any other movie appearances after Danger: Diabolik, Marisa Mell would still appear on every unbiased list of OMG SMOKIN HAWT-ness compiled ever after. She did appear in other movies, but for my money there was never anything hotter or groovier in the history of cinema. I want to cover my bed with ten million dollars just in the hopes she'll stop by.

MMMMMovie Reviews: Danger: Diabolik

7. Tura Satana

The definition of Bigger Than Life: warrior goddess, anti-hero, and happy dream all rolled into one. Russ Meyer's enduring contribution to American Myth is a figure he didn't even create--he just pointed the camera at Satana and she did the rest. Never has beauty been more terrifying. Hurt me, Varla, hurt me!

MMMMMovie Reviews: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

8. Françoise Blanchard

One of my favorite parts of one of my favorite movies, Blanchard floats across the screen like an endlessly beautiful, endlessly sad ghost. Her performance as Catherine in Jean Rollin's gorgeously tragic fairy tale is absolutely transcendent. Her smokin' hawtness is almost beside the point. Almost.

MMMMMovie Reviews: The Living Dead Girl

9. Valerie Leon

(thanks to Cosmobells--seriously, thanks!)

You need an explanation here? I mean, come on, just LOOK at that. So beautiful it makes you want to defile an ancient tomb, IYKWIM.

MMMMMovie Reviews: Blood from the Mummy's Tomb

10. Alexandra Bastedo

Eurocutie Maribel Martin is nothing to sneeze at in Vicar-fave Blood-Spattered Bride, but for sheer otherworldly gorgeousness she can't hold a candelabra to Bastedo, who is so exotic and sexy you almost forget she's an undead creature bent on the destruction of the patriarchy. Or else you don't care--deconstruct me, baby!

MMMMMovie Reviews: The Blood-Spattered Bride

11. Candace Glendenning

Those eyes, that hair, the beautiful smile--oh Candace, can't you see that it's kismet? Working with the likes of Brit auteurs Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren, Candace is worth staying up to watch the late late show for any time.

MMMMMovie Reviews: The Flesh and Blood Show, Satan's Slave, Tower of Evil

12. Marianne Morris and Anulka

Stars of another of my favorite flicks over and apart from the titillation factor (which is SUBSTANTIAL), these two women are impossible to choose between. Their chemistry and strange relationship is the central crux of the movie, and director José Ramón Larraz uses it to craft a real horror masterpiece. Plus, I mean, really--DOUBLE ZANG.

MMMMMovie Reviews: Vampyres

13. Soledad Miranda

I'm still not sure how I feel about Jess Franco's work by and large, but you cannot argue that Soledad Miranda is a picture of 70s hotness. I know vampires are not supposed to sunbathe, but as long as the vampire is Soledad, I find myself not too worried about the mythos here.

MMMMMovie Reviews: Vampyros Lesbos

BONUS: Jean Rollin's Fur Bed

Rollin is one of my favorite directors, and this image from Shiver of the Vampires (which he recreates in Requiem for a Vampire, to lesser effect imo) is one that will forever be burned into the beauty section of my brain. Thank you, Mr. Rollin, from the bottom of my heart.

And if chicks ain't your thing...

1. Paul Naschy

What, you thought I could leave Jacinto off a list of heart(?) throbs? Manly, suave, and with an undying love for old-school monsters, The Mighty Mighty Molina brings all the girls to the yard, and boys too, if reports are to be believed. If you don't see why...well, just get (the fuck) out of my club.

MMMMMovie Reviews: Lots of 'em!

2. The Hoff

Nuff said!

MMMMMovie Reviews: Starcrash, Witchery

Happy VD from the Vicar!


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