Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971): or, It's In the Blood

I've decided I really, *really* like director Sergio Martino. In the few films of his I've watched for the site, he always seems to bring the stylish visuals, the neat compositions, and a much-appreciated Bava-esque use of color that always gives me a little ocular-induced frisson of pleasure. Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye was a cool old-dark-house gothic chiller that in retrospect deserved a bit more than the 2 thumb rating I originally gave it, and All the Colors of the Dark was a super-cool Rosemary's Baby-influenced Satanic Panic flick with some really striking images and gorgeous cinematography.

(Note: astute commenters have pointed out that my original attribution of Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye to Martino was incorrect--it was in fact Antonio Margheriti who directed that flick. Honest mistake: Martino/Martini, Margheriti/Margarita. That'll teach me to drink and review. :) )

Plus, I can thank Martino and that last movie for introducing me to the pants-straining wonders of Eurohottie Extraordinaire Edwige Fenech for the first time--a favor for which I can never adequately express the depths of my depraved gratitude.

Sure, Sergio gave me a bit of an upset tummy with his cannibal-cinema effort Slave of the Cannibal God, a flick that displayed none of the qualities I was praising a few sentences ago and thus I found not at all to my taste. (HAW!) But after watching today's entry, Martino's justly revered 1971 giallo The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, I'm prepared to declare his Keach-filled cannibalsplitationer an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise sterling filmography. Because Strange Vice, with its wonderful shots, gorgeous colors, intricate and sometimes exuberant overplotting, and more Naked Edwige than you can shake yer stick at (almost), is a real winner by just about any Mad Movie standard.

Let's cut to the chase...

We open with a typically stylish scene in which a streetwalker working near an airport is picked up by a faceless john wearing black leather gloves--yeah, don't get too attached to THIS character. They park on the side of the road and the girl takes off her shirt, giving us the first of the film's excellent and EXTREMELY COPIOUS instances of nudity. Rather than being impressed by her substantial charms, iykwim, her client immediately unfolds a straight razor and slashes her to death! A Pollack-style splash of tempera-paint blood on the inside of the black windshield is a nice stylistic flourish, tossing us into the movie on just the right gory, artistic tone.

After a very pointed epigraph from Sigmund Freud ("The very fact that the commandment says 'do not kill' makes us aware and convinced that we are descended from an unbroken chain of generations of assassins for whom the love of murder was in their blood, as it is perhaps in ours too"), we find busy-busy businessman Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) arriving at the airport, accompanied by the missus, Julie Wardh, played of course by the incomparably hot Edwige Fenech. Edwige is ROCKIN' the headscarf/turban-look, and is not at all upset that her husband can't accompany her to the hotel before heading to a financial meeting. She's a modern woman, after all--she has her own things to do.

The Lady Swami sees self-pleasuring in your future...

On the way to the hotel, Julie learns about the recent rash of razor-slashings that are all over the news in town. At a rain-soaked stop at a traffic light, Edwige goes all soft-focus and remembers a tumultuous encounter with ex-lover Jean (the sublimely creepy and oddly handsome Ivan Rassimov), also in a rainstorm, in which Jean literally beats Julie into sexy submission. It's another very stylish scene, with the rain streaking down over slow-motion blows, Edwige's blouse ripped open, and a long-range shot of Jean forcing his attentions on her supine form on the ground beside his distinctive black sports car. When a smack bloodies Julie's lip, the feel and taste of the red stuff turns her protests into violent passion--our first glimpse of the "strange vice" of the film's title.

Arriving at the hotel, Julie notices a strangely familiar sports car parked outside--what are the chances? Unnerved, she flees into the luxury suite her husband has reserved for them, which has the kind of 70s decor I can only dream about--broad horizontally striped wallpaper, tinted bubble-pane windows on the doors and even in the hallways, and a glass-topped sitting table whose center is a Lazy Susan of Boozin'. Sweet, indeed. Edwige wastes no time stripping off for a shower, giving us more toplessness and a bare bottom shot to die for. Again, suh-weet.

Wow! Just LOOK at that wallpaper!

Before she can get wet, though, the porter knocks with a bouquet of flowers and a card from a mysterious admirer: "The worst part of you is the best thing you have, and will always be mine.--Jean." Okay, maybe *not* so mysterious. Anyway, with her possessive and violent ex-master following her around Europe, Julie obviously has more immediate concerns than the razor-slasher to worry about...or does she?

Three days later Mr. Wardh has *still* not made the time to relax and cavort with his bored young wife (IDIOT!), so Julie goes to a party given by her ditzy socialite friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi). There she meets Carol's cousin and co-inheritor of the family fortune George (the eponymous and ubiquitous George Hilton), who seems en- rather than dis- couraged at the sight of Julie's wedding ring. Jean makes an appearance as well, leering evilly at Julie while two Italian models rip each others' paper dresses off for a good-natured, squealing naked catfight in the middle of the room! Yes, it's that kind of party. Where's the mashed potatoes at?

Ivan the Terrible

As she's leaving the party Jean catches up with Julie and makes his intentions clear: he wants to get together for a little slap-and-tickle, minus the tickle. At just that moment Mr. Wardh finally shows up and confronts his former rival. At one point he pops Jean one in the jaw, leading to some excellent acting from Ivan as he first gets all bestial and angry looking, then slowly calms down before letting loose a wonderful eeevil laugh. It recalls a similar scene from Bela Lugosi in Dracula, and that's a huge complement.

Back at the hotel Julie has another flashback to her problematic relationship with Jean, this one much more in the style of the freaky surreal sequences Martino did so well in All the Colors of the Dark. We get some cool fish-eye lens work as Jean towers over the sprawled Julie, first pouring a glass of champagne on her bosoms (nice) and then smashing the bottle on a table, sending a shower of gem-like shards of glass raining down on her! (NOT nice!) He uses the broken bottleneck to cut off Julie's shirt, also leaving a bleeding scratch on her torso, the sight of which again seems to push Mrs. Wardh from terror to desire. Obviously sex and fear and blood are all mixed up in poor Julie's psyche, and when Jean falls on top of her and they begin making love on a bed of broken glass, her back is soon dotted red with small cuts. Strange days indeed.

Most Peculiar, Mama

Meanwhile, the Razor Slasher continues to cut a swath through the city's Beautiful and Naked, including one of the paper-dress girls from the party where Julie saw Jean, who goes out in a boobtacular homage to that famous Psycho shower scene. Julie's unhappiness in her marriage comes front and center, as she confesses to Carol, "I've got to escape from myself!" Fortunately for us stage one of the escape plan involves entering into a torrid affair with George, which climaxes (IYKWIM) in an extended lovemaking session on a couch in George's flat, giving us some more amazing Fenech-nudity, including a tantalizing cheek-spread just before Martino cuts away. Unfortunately they do this in full view of a picture window, where a dark figure watches, obviously angry about the whole thing.

I don't want to reveal too much more about the plot, as the movie takes this set up and goes on a narrative version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Will the Razor Slasher be revealed to be the violently jealous, jilted Jean, the obvious choice? Will it turn out to be Mr. Wardh, who perhaps knows more about his wife's dalliances than he lets on? Could it be (gasp!) her new lover George, who seems too good to be true and probably is? The flick gives motives and opportunity to all, and the way it pulls all the threads together in the end will please some and frustrate others, but at least it's never boring.

I would like to talk a little about some of the things Martino does right, though, as he really flexes some cinematographic muscles here. The director keeps a tight rein on the story, and the editing and pacing keep things going forward at a good speed, even if not always in a straight line. He also puts together some very stylish compositions. A scene where Carol goes to meet a blackmailer in Julie's stead at a botanical garden is both beautiful and tense, and a later scene where the killer stalks Julie through a darkened parking garage recalls some of the gorgeously geometrically lined shots from All the Colors of the Dark. (In fact, at times in that movie Martino may have been visually "quoting" himself). The flashbacks are great in their trippiness too, though not approaching AtCotD's weirdness, and a late confrontation between George and Jean in a desert-like setting looks like it could have come straight out of a super-stylized spaghetti western--a genre I'm sure Martino dabbled in at least once.

Here's Looking at You

As for the "strange vice" of that memorable title, I was surprised it didn't figure more prominently into the actual machinations of the plot than it did. Whether you interpret Julie's vice to be straight S&M or full-out hematomania, it's an intriguing aspect of her character that I felt could have been explored (and exploited) more fully. As it is, the vice is used to explain her attraction to the otherwise repugnant Jean, which is fine as far as it goes. But in this case, I think it could have profitably gone further.

The acting is good from just about everybody involved. Ivan Rassimov is a real villain's villain, with his reptilian looks and snarling voice injecting menace and creepiness into every scene. (His blonde locks seem to get several shades lighter in some scenes, which I take to mean he is in fact a chameleonic reptoid alien.) Hilton is not as good, but passable enough. And Edwige is mesmerizing as usual, though for my money not quite as believably terrified here as in All the Colors of the Dark. But as a Nef Double-D (Naked Edwige Fenech Delivery Device), Strange Vice has it all over that later film.

Nothin' Strange About It

As for the rest of the cast, a lot of them are female, most of them are HAWT, and *all* of them get nekkid. In fact, this movie has one of the higher noodz-per-minute ratios of any movie I've seen recently. Nuff said?

Much as I liked Strange Vice, if I had to pick a favorite Martino joint right now, I'd still go with All the Colors of the Dark. I'm just a sucker for a good hippie devil cult, so sue me. But that's in no way to diminish the goodness of this flick, which more than earns its 2.75 thumbs rating. If you like giallo and love Edwige Fenech (and as for that latter point, who doesn't, eh?), you should really give it a look. And I'll be looking for more Sergio Martino flicks in the future.


Postscript--Someone who's a better mixologist than I should really see if he or she can create a Sergio Martino-themed cocktail, called (naturally) the Sergio Martini. It should have vibrant colors, not *too* much taste, and after you drink it you should feel happy and dizzy. And be naked. Get to work, people, and send me your recipes!

Bonus Material: Added Edwige--because too much is never enough.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

The She-Beast (1966), Or, How I Was Really, Really Wanting To See Barbara Steele's Hoots.

Dearest friends, it is I, the Duke, writing to you from my estate in the south of France. Normally in this space I would relate to you my recent exploits, enthralling you with tales of odious gypsies in the darkest reaches of the globe. However, I will not be doing that this time, as I have been battling a curious malady that has forced me to stay close to home. Without going into specifics, let me instead suggest that if the Vicar invites you to accompany him to a brothel high in the Andes, a brothel filled with deformities cursed by what must be the most hate-filled god, politely decline.

Having nothing to do but smoke via my hookah, I had a trusty servant bring me a random sampling from the media library. I was pleasantly surprised when she returned with The She-Beast, starring the fabulous Barbara Steele. Made in 1966 by first-time director Michael Reeves, the movie was shot on a shoestring budget and was entirely made within 3 days. While this haste shows, we still get a movie that is wholly enjoyable, if for different reasons than me might first have expected. Let’s examine it more closely, shall we?

Our movie opens with a drunken old man driving a yellow car up to his “house”. I use house loosely because it’s really a cave, despite it having a front door and a little green mailbox. The cave is decorated with skulls, so props to his interior decorator. In his stupor, he stumbles over to his bed and picks up a book for some light reading. The book is an account of the nearby town’s witch problems some 200 years previous. Flashback time!

A boy flees through a forest and through fields, blood trickling down his forehead. Onward he runs, finally arriving at the village church. He pounds on the door, interrupting a funeral in progress, where most (probably all) of the townsfolk are gathered. The boy informs the villagers that the witch has taken his brother! The priest quickly calls for a torch-wielding posse. There’ll be an ol’ fashion witch-hunt tonight, oh yeah!

"My posse's on Broadway!"

As they are rushing out the door, one of the priests of the church tries in vain to remind everyone that the Count should be sent for first, so that he can exorcise the demon out of the witch before they kill her, because if they don’t she’ll “forever be in our midst!” Ignoring him in their bloodlust, they rush into the hills anyway, torches waving. The procession finally arrives at the witch’s cave and the head priest steps forward. “Come forth, Sister of Satan!!” he bellows.

"Surprise! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"

Screeching like a Turkish sailor who just paid good money to have a prostitute in high heels to stomp on his sack, the witch flies out of the cave in a rage. Her face looks like she began using boric acid as a pimple cleanser and didn’t know when to stop. Her hair could only be described as “kind”… the kind that grows on a goat’s ass. Wearing only a black dress and a bloody bone around her neck to accessorize, she strikes a fitting image for a bride of Satan.

She bites and claws, but quickly the villagers have her subdued. These folks really know how to show a witch a good time! Off to the lake they go, whereupon we are greeted by the sight of what I thought at first was a witch catapult. This movie would have vaulted into a hallowed 3+ Thumbs territory if they had loaded the witch into a catapult and launched her, screeching, out into the lake. Sadly, it turns out this was simply a dunking stool, or “ducking stool”, a medieval device designed to dunk people into water, sometimes for minor offenses, but eventually it grew to be used for determining if someone was a witch or not.

The Vicar looks on with excitement as his servants begin Operation Pig-Launch(tm)

Here the villagers refer to it as the Chair of Chastisement, a fitting name given that they already know this lady is a witch and simply wish to dispose of her in as horrible way as they can. The witch is strapped into the chair, and then a giant heated spike is driven in through the back of it, into and through the witch’s body. These villagers know how to go the extra mile! The device is wheeled down to the water’s edge and the witch is then dunked repeatedly, and one must assume she is drowned. However, before they can properly torture her to death, the witch utters the classic “I’ll haunt this place, I’m super serious!” witch-curse. Why no one thought to gag her first isn’t covered.

Suddenly we are back in modern times. A young married couple are driving a VW Beetle through the Transylvanian countryside (also known as somewhere in Italy, where the movie was shot). We have Philip, played by Ian Oglivy, and Veronica, played by Barbara Steele. We learn they are lost, until a policeman comes by on a bicycle and recommends them an inn to stay the night at. They head off in search of the inn.

"Excuse me Miss, but ZANG."

The inn, it turns out, seems to have only one room, and is run by a grotesque fat man who apparently is a Communist. The couple meets up with the drunk old man we saw reading the book at the start of the film. Turns out he’s a Van Helsing, decedent from a long line of Van Helsings who watch over this area, waiting on the witches curse to kick in. Meanwhile he spends his time getting toasted. Soon the couple is ensconced in their room, whereupon they start getting a bit randy.

What’s a perverted fatass of an innkeeper to do but watch? Groper (a fitting name) sneaks around back and watches the festivities. I was hoping here for some glimpse at Steele’s ample mammaries, but unfortunately we only get some cleavage, which really is enough, because, well, zang. Veronica catches him looking and alerts Philip, who rushes outside and repeatedly fucking BASHES Groper’s head into the wall! I thought he was dead, given all the blood, but no he’s ok it seems, waking up a bit later.

"Easy, dear. You might feel a little pressure..."

Groper rips the distributor cap out of the VW, out of revenge I guess, but this doesn’t work out too well, since Philip just barges into his room and gets it back after realizing it’s missing from the car. With that, the couple is on their way. Or so they think! Something, some “force”, takes over the car, and suddenly Philip can’t steer! Narrowly avoiding a lorry, they plunge off into the very lake the witch was drowned in! The truck driver, thinking he has some responsibility for what happened, drags Philip and Veronica out of the lake, but alas poor Veronica has expired!

The driver takes the unconscious Philip and the dead Veronica back to the inn. Groper helps him put the bodies in the kitchen. The driver leaves, fearing police involvement, and Groper sits down to wait on Philip to wake up, bottle of booze in hand. Philip finally comes around, and Groper drunkenly informs him of what went on. Rushing to check on his wife, Philip pulls back the cover they have over her to reveal… someone who isn’t his wife! It’s the witch! Of course, Philip and Groper don’t know this, and are quite perplexed as to what is going on. Luckily Van Helsing shows up. He’s the man with the plan.

"Where's my money, man? Where's my money?!"

Van Helsing whisks Philip away, back to his man-cave. He grabs a wooden totem, which looks quite phallic frankly, and begins reading from another of his books, trying to discern the best way to get rid of the witch. Philip becomes impatient, and runs off, heading back to town. Van Helsing can’t locate Philip, and heads back to the inn himself, wooden dildo in tow. He chants over the witch, bringing her back to life (so that she might be exorcised and killed properly, natch). He quickly regrets this decision, as the witch promptly chokes him into unconsciousness before running off into the forest.

Van Helsing is an erotic asphyxia practitioner.

Meanwhile, Groper is reclining on his soiled bed reading through a naughty book, when sudden a local girl bursts in through the front door. Seems she had been passing by when she heard some suspicious screeching in the woods. Groper, drunk and horny, throws the girl on his bed, ripping her shirt open and attempting to mount her. I could only compare this to an attractive girl being dry humped by a walrus. The girl gets away, fleeing in terror. Groper runs after her, calling for her to come back, when Philip walks up asking Groper to call the police. Startled, Groper swings the bottle he’s carrying before really looking to see whom it is. Philip is down!

Thinking Philip dead, Groper drags him into the middle of the road, where, after narrowly avoiding getting hit by the same lorry driver from before, Van Helsing finds him and pulls him to safety. Meanwhile, back inside the inn, Groper gets what’s coming to him, as the witch returns, sickle in hand, and proceeds to very messily murder Groper. It was about here that I realized the director was taking a different direction with this film. After killing him, the witch tosses the sickle onto the floor, where it comes to rest on a hammer, making the classic Soviet symbol!

Where's Joseph McCarthy when you need him?

The witch runs off, Philip and Van Helsing begin tracking her down. Their search leads to an alley in a small town, where a young boy has snuck out of his house in order to watch a cock fight through a window. The witch attacks, but the guys save the boy from certain death. Injecting the witch with something to knock her unconscious, they take her back to the inn and leave her.

Meanwhile the lorry driver finally turns himself into the police, and upon hearing his story the police chief decides more investigation is in order. Off to the inn they go! They discover the witch’s body, and load her up into a van, and speed off, just as Philip and Van Helsing are returning to finish the job. This sets off another corny set-piece of the movie that had me scratching my head. We get a way over-long chase scene in which the bumbling police drive all over trying to get their van back. The director uses sped-up camera techniques meant to convey speed, and the whole thing plays out like a Benny Hill skit.

Van Helsing also likes a little man-on-man action.

Soon, though, the chase is over. The witch hops out and attacks the cops, who finally corner the van. Distracted, she doesn’t see Van Helsing sneak up and inject her yet again! Quickly they drag her down to the lake, strap her into the dunking stool, and dunk away, submerging her repeatedly. Suddenly, she is no longer on the chair! The guys have a moment of panic until a newly healed Veronica floats up out of the water!

"I think I broke a nail..."

Philip wades out and drags her to shore. She’s groggy and wet, but appears unharmed. We cut to later as Van Helsing admits there’s no longer a reason to stay in this country. He decides to accompany Philip and Veronica as they head back to England. All three pile into the VW and head out. Philip says he can’t wait to put Transylvania behind him, and Veronica says “Oh… I’ll be back.” Dum-dum-DUUUUUM goes the music! Quick cut to a close-up of Veronica’s face. She gives a sly smile, and repeats the line:

“I’ll be back.”

Overall, I enjoyed this movie. Did it blow me away? Heavens no! It came across as exactly what it was: A cheap movie with a cast of about 10 people made for as little as possible. However, it was terribly enjoyable. I loved the humor sprinkled throughout, especially the sickle and hammer shot. How could I not chuckle at that? The Benny Hill car chase was a bit much since it went on for so long, but overall it was evident the director, and all involved even, really tried to put their best foot forward and make a good movie with what they had.

In researching this film, it seems Barbara did this movie simply as a side project that she got paid $5000 to do over a 3 day period. Reeves, very young at 22, started crafting his techniques that would become more famous with his epic film Witchfinder General (also one of my favorite bands!) The film stock presented on this new DVD is the original Technoscope 35mm print, and overall it looks fairly descent. There were a lot of noticeable scratches, dust, and at one point what appeared to be a bubble creeping across a few frames, so it is evident that not a lot of restoration went into the final cut. I wish it had had some more care but at least it is watchable and in the correct aspect ratio.

In the end, I would have to give this film 2 Thumbs, mainly because we get to gaze upon Barbara Steele quite a bit, and also for the corny humor that I had to laugh at despite myself. With only one good scene of violence, when Groper gets sickled, there isn’t much gore to speak of, except for a few close-ups of the witch’s visage, oozing blood and such. The music also deserves special mention, I felt Ralph Ferraro’s score was fitting.

My friends, if you find yourself wanting some good witch-dunking entertainment, you could do a lot worse than The She-Beast.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Manipulator (1971): or, Hey Kid, Let's Put on a Show!

There was a time when there were not that many people in the world more famous than Mickey Rooney. The star of the hugely successful 1930s and 40s series of "Andy Hardy" movies for MGM, Rooney was the perfect embodiment of all-American male purity, optimism, and energy, a kid whose boundless enthusiasm and willingness to put himself out there couldn't help but result in a happy ending. His onscreen partnership with music and film legend Judy Garland only cemented his star status. In 1940 he shared a special "Juvenile" Oscar with Deanna Durbin "for their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement." Hell, rumor even has it that Walt Disney named his most famous creation after the lad. THAT'S how famous he was.

But as often happened to actors who achieve their greatest fame as youngsters, Rooney found it difficult to make the transition from Golden Boy to more dramatic, adult roles; the studios and public just weren't willing to accept Andy Hardy as a grown man, and Rooney's diminutive stature didn't help him any there. In the middle years of his career, plagued by drug addiction and unable to find big studio work (with the exception of his now infamously un-PC portrayal of buck-toothed Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's), Rooney was forced like others before him to take some film roles that many considered far beneath his ability and reputation.

Perhaps none of these roles was further removed from that fresh-faced boy of the 40s than Rooney's portrayal of demented wannabe-moviemaker B. J. Lang in Yabo Yablonsky's 1971 cinematic freakout, The Manipulator.

We open the film in a pouring rainstorm, showcasing some excellently composed shots of an old-fashioned streetlamp and a decrepit back alley. A trench-coated figure wanders down a lonely back street and finally ends up at the stage- and movie-props warehouse that may or may not be his home. Once inside he takes off his weather-wear to reveal--well, MICKEY ROONEY, but with a bushy gray beard that makes him look like a kinder, gentler Coffin Joe. He's also wearing exactly the same sunglasses Kermit the Frog wore when pretending to be a big-shot producer in The Muppet Movie, which makes me wonder if Jim Henson was a fan of the film.

"I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. That's my nightmare."

After taking a moment to collect his thoughts--and doubtless shake off the heebie-jeebies inspired by the full-sized, taxidermied rocking horse and cobweb-covered mannequins that surround him--Rooney begins what amounts to a 90-minute KEE-RAZY rant, as B. J. Lang starts "directing" a film that only he can see, barking instructions to the nonexistent film crew at at times answering himself back in his peons' subservient voices.

This goes on for a while, and it's to Rooney's credit that it never gets particularly boring--though a viewer gets the very real feeling that Mickey is perhaps more than a little "altered" here, and not just through method acting, Rooney's years of training and experience come through strong and he is able to hold your attention and make you interested in his character's psychosis. He's assisted greatly by the work of cinematographer Baird Bryant, whose work will be consistently wonderful throughout--extreme closeups of dust-covered props and extreme Dutch angles give the creepy old warehouse a "haunted playroom" ambience that's quite effective.

It's during this part of the movie Lang first starts hallucinating what might be scenes from his movie, but in fact are a kind of waking nightmare--kabuki-faced women and naked old men doing a slow waltz in front of the derelict props, mannequins smiling and laughing at the action, and Lang himself pushing them on to great heights of frenzy. I was reminded favorably of the opening sequence of the Roald Dahl TV series "Tales of the Unexpected", in the best possible way.

Hallucinations in a Deranged Mind

Soon Lang starts hearing high-pitched noises that could be whimpers or mad laughter, and at first this seems just another manifestation of his madness. However, the stakes are raised when he pulls back a dusty curtain to reveal the source of the noises: the wheelchair-bound Carlotta (Luana Anders), an actress Lang has somehow kidnapped and is forcing to perform in his "masterpiece." Note that when I say "wheelchair-bound" here, I don't mean she's paralyzed--I mean she's literally bound, tied to the wheelchair with strips of cloth and stout cord, unable to move till Lang calls for ACTION.

Obviously Carlotta has been Lang's prisoner for quite some time, as when Lang appears she immediately starts begging for food. "I'm hungry, Mr. Lang...Mr. Lang, I'm hungry!" Lang ignores her pleas for a while, chastising his actress for being late to the set and reliving a few more memories of his glory days in studio-era Hollywood. Eventually he relents to her pleas, though, feeding her spoonfuls of baby food from a small glass jar. The way Carlotta snaps at the offered spoon every time Lang's attention wanders is actually kind of chilling, emphasizing the mental and physical strain the poor girl is under.

The rest of the movie is pretty much Lang tormenting Carlotta by insisting she perform the romantic lead in his version of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Lang himself as her long-nosed hero, of course. More mental torture is in store as the increasingly unhinged director reminisces about the Old Days some more while applying Carlotta's make-up--all while in the persona of the fey make-up man Lang in fact used to be, with Rooney wearing heavy eye-shadow, lipstick, and tons of rouge! Again, Rooney manages through force of acting talent to take the strange, silly scene and make it somewhat chilling, coming off like nothing so much as a crazy old man in Nora Desmond drag.

He's ready for his close-up.

As good as Rooney is in his TOTAL COMMITMENT to the aged movie-obsessed psycho role, Luana Anders is unfortunately just that BAD as his helpless victim. Granted, it can't be easy to perform 3/4 of your role while completely immobile, but Anders' whiny line readings and attempts at petulance just come off as amateurish and painful to watch. She's a long way from Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Easy Rider, that's for sure.

You'd think that an hour of watching an old man act crazy for the benefit of a young(er) lady tied to a chair would get tedious, and unfortunately you'd be right. Despite Rooney's periodically excellent performance, the plot wears thin by the halfway point, and even Carlotta's eventual required escape (accomplished through a piss-poor all-around heart attack scene in which the spasming Rooney releases Anders so she can get his pills) and extended game of hide-and-seek through the creepy warehouse (featuring a cameo by a frankly embarassed-looking Keenan Wynn as a homeless drunk crashing in the costume department) do little to spice things up.

What *does* help spice things up, though, are Yablonsky's frequent detours into cinematic Acid Trip-ville. Not only do we have repeats of Rooney's earlier creepy hallucinations and more extreme close-ups than you can shake a powder-puff at, we also get Mickey doing a rendition of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" at Keystone Kops speed (TWICE), an extremely odd wrap party/orgy sequence (featuring moustachioed men in harem girl outfits, writhing masses of gauze-draped hippie chicks, and a naked toddler Rooney cradles to his chest protectively, whispering "My baby! My baby!"), and a delirious Carlotta dashing down long corridors of hanging sides of beef only to encounter a string quartet performance going on in a butcher's locker, men in tuxes and women in furs enjoying the chilly, meat-scented performance! And yes, it makes just as much sense as it sounds like.

Sonata in D minor, for Cello and Spare Ribs

When it's talked about at all, The Manipulator is often compared to Otto Preminger's infamous LSD-fueled flop Skidoo (1969), in which Rooney also had a role. I haven't seen that film yet, but judging from the synopses I've read, that sounds about right--only replace the all-star cast with a one-star cast, and remove the Preminger prestige factor. While LSD is never mentioned in The Manipulator, one can't help feeling it or some other mind-altering drugs (or perhaps a coctail of *all* of them) had a hand in forming Yablonsky's vision.

Yablonksy himself never directed another film but had some success as a playwright and screenwriter; in fact, the stage version of The Manipulator (entitled B. J. Lang Presents: Cyrano) is still periodically produced. His teleplay for the TV movie Revenge for a Rape (1976) also got some good notices.

Rooney was famously "born again" in the 70s, becoming good friends with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and making frequent appearances on the PTL Club. He also experienced a latter day career resurgence, as his boyish stature and aged baby-face looks suit him very well playing kindly and/or crotchety grandfather types. He's still working, recently putting in a role as an unlikely heavy in the blockbuster Night at the Museum. Rooney always says he's proud of everything he's done, and only wishes he could have done more--still, I have to wonder if his post-conversion pride extends as far as The Manipulator.

Whatever the case there, for a Mad Movie fan, The Manipulator has an undeniable charm. Despite the late-film drag and the rather silly ending, the joys of the weird visuals and Rooney's kind of amazing performance more than even it out. Though it's been called "one of the most bizarre, inept films ever made" by those who obviously haven't seen as many such films as I have, I give The Manipulator 2.25 thumbs. It's on the Mill Creek 50 Drive-In Movie Classics set, so it's easy to come by for those interested. If you get the chance, give it a spin.



Friday, May 15, 2009

Top 10 Inexplicably Awesome Bit Characters: Part 2 of 2

Yesterday I started my countdown of favorite supporting characters in Mad Movies I've reviewed. With all the great, wild, and totally out-there performances I've seen since MMMMMovies began, it was really hard to narrow my choices to a top 10. I could easily have down 25 or 50, but that would have seemed overly self-indulgent. And while I usually indulge myself like a mad minx every chance I get (IYKWIM), I figured that if I went on that long, I'd be enjoying myself alone. As usual. :P

So without further ado, here are my Top 5 Favorite Bit Characters of the moment. Enjoy, and use the comments to let us know what faves of YOURS should have made the list!

5. Stacy in Madman (1982)

My love for this lesser-known 80s slasher knows no bounds. Not only do I love the movie, I have a close, personal, intimate relationship with pretty much every character, from the Appollonian TP to the sagely Max to the Pencil-Thin Pornstache Bearer. But the independent, free-spirited Stacy as portrayed by Harriet Bass remains a mystery to me. Not conventionally beautiful with her Epstein-in-Welcome Back Kotter hairstyle, sleepy eyes, and modest wardrobe, she still exudes a strange sensuality that's hard to ignore. Perhaps the fact that she seems more interested in Gaylen Ross's Betsy than in unattached possible-psycho Dave is part of it. Maybe it's the Bronx Cheer she flings at Mother Nature upon reaching to top of a difficult incline. Here's a woman I would like to know better, but whose essence stays maddeningly out of reach. That fact that she has easily the most memorable death scene in the film only adds to my attraction. Oh, Stacy, won't you sit in my dinghy and blow on my flute for me?

4. Oraclon in Escape from Galaxy 3 (1981)

Joe Spinell's Emperor Zarth Arn from the unapproachably MAD sci-fi/fantasy flick Starcrash would be a hard act for anyone to follow, but in Escape from Galaxy 3--aka Starcrash 2--Don Powell doesn't just follow: he pulls into the passing lane and gets in the lead. As intergalactic baddie Oraclon, King of the Night, Powell provides Mad Movie Fans with a villain for the ages. Whether ordering his minons to "Scan the whole Eastern Galaxy!" or giving James Brown-style "Heh!" laughs every time he successfully asplodes a rebel ship, Oraclon commands your undivided attention every time he's onscreen. Of course his P-Funk/Mexican Wrestling outfits help, but that's just part of being the King of the Night. That Powell also composed the score (and also appeared in and scored [in] Black Emanuelle 2) only adds to his legend.

3. Dameia in Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Sometimes a Mad Movie character is memorable for what he or she says, some awesomely quotable bit of dialog that immediately enters the fanatic's daily parlance (i.e., "Let's send these fuckers a Rambo-Gram!"). Sometimes immortality comes from the way he reacts to a particularly heinous happening, or a sudden flash of bravery where none was expected (i.e., "You've gotta be fucking kidding me!" or "I kick arse for the Lord!"). And sometimes the character's manner of death is so out there, so wild, so beyond anything one could expect or hope for, it eclipses all else and shoots the victim into the Mad Movie Stratosphere.

Such is the case for poor unfortunate Dameia in the amazing 80s sci-fi/horror flick Galaxy of Terror. You might forget that Robert Englund was in the movie gearing up for his legend-making roles a few years later. It might slip your mind that Erin Moran trades in her poodle skirts here for an exploding head shot. You might even erase Sid Haig's crystal-flinging warrior from your mental hard drive. But you will never forget scoleciphiobic space-babe Taaffe O'Connell getting her clothes ripped off and being gooed to death by an overly amorous nematode! There's a reason "Taaffe O' Connell Worm Rape" and its many variations are consistently the top very search terms leading readers to Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies. (This is a TRUE FACT--according to Google Analytics, more people search for this than for "Naked Nuns" and "Russ Meyer Boobies" combined.) Sometimes immortality comes hard--but Taafe, you've GOT it, babe.

2. The Totally Awesome Narrator from Blood Freak (1972)

How do you make a movie about a musclebound, genetically mutated Turkeytaur who drinks the blood of drug users when he's not smoking pot at Bible School meetings EVEN BETTER? You add THIS guy. Part narrator, part Greek chorus, part philosophy lecturer and ALL 100% AWESOME, Brad F. Grinter chain smokes his way through the movie and increases its watchability by a factor of ten. Open silk shirt, wood panelling backdrop, earnest and penetrating eyes, sonorous voice, and a John Waters moustache under Stan Lee's hairdo--how much more awesome could it be? The answer is: none. None more awesome.

For an encore, on the Something Weird Video release Grinter returns in the no-more-need-be-said short subject, "Brad Grinter: Nudist." And yes, he chain smokes even while in the buff.

And the NUMBER ONE FAVORITE bit character in a Mad Movie of ALL TIME...

1. The Manager in Evilution (2008) and Basement Jack (2008)

Old fashioned clothes. Eccentric line readings. A look in his eyes that makes you want to know what's going on behind that smile, and at the same time frightened of that very knowledge. This is The Manager's world. We're all just leasing it.

Two of my most pleasant surprises last year were these features from Black Gate/Island Gateway films. Evilution is the story of a biozombie outbreak in the decrepit, hauntingly ornate hotel The Necropolitan, and Basement Jack an old-school slasher with a new-school difference. But the highlight of both films for my money is Nathan Bexton's icon-building turn as the superintendent of the Necropolitan, the enigmatic and endlessly entertaining Manager. Despite extremely limited screentime in both films, Bexton's character provides a fascinating substrate linking both stories, using his strange mannerisms and tossed-off asides to create the sense of a whole other movie going on in the shadows of the ones we're watching, a movie I desperately want to see. I was lucky enough to get screeners of these first two entries in Island Gateway's projected trilogy of fear flicks based around the mysterious apartment building, and every time I watch them I love the Manager more. I haven't heard any news about distribution yet, sadly, but I'm still chomping at the bit for the third film, titled THE NECROPOLITAN, which promises to bring this icon-in-the-making center-stage and answer some of the questions the first two flicks so tantalizingly raised. When that film finally hits the festival circuit or--dare I dream?--commercial DVD, I guarantee I will no longer be alone in my worship of THE BEXX.

Interspecies Honorable Mention: Whitey in Private Parts (1972)

Proving you don't have to be human to make an impression. I think my poem in this little mouse's honor says it all.

Hope you enjoyed this little trip down supporting-character lane. Please let me know *your* favorite bit characters in the comments! And keep coming back for more Movie Madness!


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Top 10 Inexplicably Awesome Bit Characters: Part 1 of 2

It should almost go without saying by now that Mad Movies are not like regular movies. Different rules apply; different dialectics are at work. Things that would get a mainstream director hounded off the set and sent back to the Music Video Bush League are transformed by the filmmakers' enthusiasm and joie de vie into something charming and even emotionally resonant. Performances that would make the average moviegoer toss his popcorn in disgust become emotive tours des force that earn their actors a permanent place in the b-movie lover's Pantheon of Awesome. Reviewers who don't know enough French to order breakfast at their local Le Madelaine suddenly grab their baguettes and start gushing over the film's je ne sais quois.

It's easy to love a particularly resourceful hero or a deliciously evil villain. But often the real joie of a Mad Movie resides not in the pro- or ant- agonists, but in the supporting characters who add that certain special indefinable something to the flick, sometimes pushing the film from horrible trash-piece to joy-bubbling giggle-fest by sheer force of personality. Today on Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, I would like to pay tribute to a few of these minor stars in the constellation of awesome with my Top 10 Inexplicably Awesome Bit Characters.

Today's post celebrates honorees 10 through 6; enjoy, and be sure to check back tomorrow for the Top 5!

Nota Bene: in the interest of simplicity and pumping up my archive-reading traffic, I've limited my choices to movies that have been previously reviewed here on the site. I invite my loyal parishioners to propose their own honorees in the comment section--because God knows I need more movies on my To Be Watched list.

10. Sheriff Liggett in Silent Madness (1984)

There are lots of neat little touches in this largely forgotten 3-D slasher effort to warm the cockles of the mad movie fan's heart, but chief among them is Sydney Lassick as the foul-mouthed, combatatively incurious Sheriff Liggett. Despite bearing an ugly neck scar from a previous encounter with the movie's killer, Liggett is aggressive in his determination to let bygones be bygones and stay as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. Sort of like the anti-Loomis. Plus, how can you not love a police chief who looks like Zelda Rubenstein in man-drag and delivers lines like "Just because the goddamn broad is so good-lookin' don't mean we all have to think with our dicks! Huh? Right?" I'll answer that for you: you can't. You can't NOT love this guy.

9. Sherry in Three on a Meathook (1972)

William Girdler's early-70s paean to cannibalism and Mommy Issues focuses mostly on the trials and tribulations of young Billy Townsend (James Pickett) as he tries to come to terms with having an alcoholic father, a dead mother he may or may not have killed when he was a kid, and heaps and heaps of frustrated sexuality. But the real star is for me is compassionate-beyond-belief barmaid Sherry, played with inexplicable awesomeness by Sherry Steiner. With a voice like the world's most soothing dental hygenist, Sherry is indugent of Billy's drinking, accepting of his father's rudeness and tendency to pickaxe her friends, and works in a bar where the house band is the similarly inexplicably awesome AMERICAN XPRESS. But most importantly, when after a night of wild passion she awakes to find Billy has WET THE FUCKING BED, she shrugs it off with a smile, kisses her urine-soaked lover, and heads off to fix breakfast. Maybe she's a saint or maybe she's a freak, but in either case, she's a keeper.

8. Nicky in Savage Weekend (1976)

Cinematic history is littered with portrayals of the Flaming Gay Friend. He's almost always played for comedy, and hardly ever given more to do than flounce about commenting archly on the female characters' taste in clothes and periodically making double entendres about the hero's "package." Well, that ain't how Nicky rolls. Played with uncommon intensity by Christopher Allport, Nicky does his share of flouncing in a early scene at a redneck bar, but reveals the iron fist below the velvet glove when he throws off the sheepskin and proceeds to beat the asses of every local tough in the joint! He's the only character man enough to remove the totemic vampire bat nailed to the cabin door on their arrival, and his protectiveness of best friend and total slut Shirley (Caitlin O'Heaney) borders on the psychotic--in the best possible way. His final, ambiguously sexy dance number with Shirley is a highlight. In fact, if he hadn't been distracted by his own fabulousness in a full length mirror in the hallway, I doubt the killer would ever have got the drop on him. Nicky, you rule.

7. Harry DuBaul in The Guy from Harlem (1977)

A piece of wild folk art masquerading as a blaxploitation movie, The Guy from Harlem is something special, in both the "extraordinary" and "riding the short bus" senses of the term. One of the major contributing factors is the explosive screen presence of Steve Gallon as gang lord Harry DuBaul. (Pictured above right.) Dressed like a $300 picnic and delivering all his lines as if his vocal chords can barely contain the awesome bubbling up inside, Gallon bleeds charisma and confidence, making the most of his sadly limited screentime. When I say he's like a less shy and reserved Don King, I mean it as the highest complement.

6. Rodriguez in Die Screaming, Marianne (1971)

Though Pete Walker's family drama-cum-thriller is one of the more misleadingly titled films of the era, if one can get past the lack of screaming and dying, there are quite a few things to enjoy here--such as beautiful Portuguese scenery, a fairly risque incest subplot, and Susan George shakin' it like a Polaroid in the movie's rightly revered opening titles. (Check youtube now, thank me later.) But my favorite character is Rodriguez (Kenneth Hendel), the strong, silent bodyguard to the deliciously nefarious Judge. Hendel plays the thin, seldom-speaking heavy with quiet, self-assured menace throughout, and a late-reel face-turn is both surprising and perfect. One of those characters whose importance you don't appreciate till the end credits roll, Rodriguez makes the movie for me.

What bit characters will make the top 5? Come back tomorrow for the rest of the list! And tell us your favorite bit characters in the comments below!


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cannibal Girls (1973): or, I Wouldn't If I Were You

Director Ivan Reitman has had a lot of success outside the world of horror, mostly in the realm of wacky, star-studded comedy. He first struck comedic gold in 1979 with a young, top-of-his-game Bill Murray in 1979's Meatballs. He followed that in 1981 with Stripes, perhaps still the funniest army movie ever made. And then he and Murray mixed giggles and ghosts in the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters and its sequel. By the time the 80s drew to a close, it was clear that not many directors could do wacky big-budget comedy like Reitman.

But nobody starts at the top--often it takes an artist a few false starts before he finds that perfect vehicle for his unique talents, the one that will allow him to showcase his abilities in the best possible way. Ivan Reitman is no exception to this rule, as proven definitively by his last pre-Murray flick, the 1973 would-be horror/comedy Cannibal Girls.

We open in the snowy, craggy Canadian wilderness, where a couple spreads a blanket on a comfortable-looking snowbank so they can lie down and make out--I guess when you're Canadian, you get used to the cold. Before they can generate any significant body heat, however, a mysterious figure clad in a knee-length skirt, nylons, and sensible shoes strolls out of the woods and pickaxes the both of them! Just goes to show the wisdome of the old maxim: GET A ROOM.

Meanwhile, in the extremely ugly rural town of Farnhamville, an old van goes by with a telling legend on the side:

"I'm your Cold Meat Man, Stop Me When I'm Passin' By..."

Yes, we're all about the subtlety here, folks. To drive the point home, the local Sheriff (Bob McHeady, doing a pretty fair Edward G. Robinson impression), informs the local doctor "It looks like we've got another one!" and sends some boys to collect the corpses. This is a town with an industry, and it's obviously not tourism.

But despite the almost universal agreement in horror films that it's NEVER a good idea, there's always some tourist who likes the idea of going off the beaten track. In this film it's hippie couple Cliff and Gloria, played by future SCTV stars and comedy middleweights Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. They haven't been dating long, and Cliff has arranged this dirty weekend in the wilds of Canada in hopes of getting some comedic tail. After some meant-to-be hilarious car trouble solved by ditzy Gloria's "talk nicely to the car" method, they make it into Farnhamville and set about looking for a hotel wherein to GET IT AWN.

I wish I could say that Levy and Martin bring the full weight of their respective future comic brilliance to the proceedings here, but sadly we seem to have caught them (like Reitman) several years before they came into their own in their chosen field. Reitman's script doesn't do them any favors, but we can't lay all the blame on Ivan, since much of the "comedy" seems to be improvised. Obvious gags like Gloria honking the horn instead of cranking the engine, leading to Cliff hilariously bonking his head on the open hood, are pretty much the acme here. And Levy's chemistry with Martin is nothing like that he would develop decades later with a much better comedienne, Catherine O'Hara, in films like Christopher Guest's mockumentary Best in Show, which he also co-wrote. Maybe Ivan should have handed the pen over to Eugene.

Still, is is kind of fun to see Levy in full-out, near-unrecognizable hippie garb:

"Man, I sure could go for some Doritos."

It turns out that GET A ROOM is perhaps not all that great a piece of advice either, as Cliff and Gloria settle in to the only local motel and are regaled by the elderly owner with tales of the town's sordid past. According to legend, three girls used to live in a house on the outskirts of Farnhamville, aided only by a hunchbacked, inarticulate servant named Bunker. After picking up travellers at the local tavern, the girls would invite them back to the house, coax them into staying with promises of free food and free love, and then murder them for their meat. "They were cannibals," the old lady beams, "and they et men! And rumor has it they were never sick a day in their lives!"

Through a poorly constructed flashback we get to see the story of three such victims, giving Reitman the chance to focus on his cast's nonexistent improvisational skills once again in the form or boring, repetitive, and really atrocious dialog. The characters are meant to be wacky and hilarious (one is a professional parade organizer, another an ice-cream truck driver, the third a nerdy, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing rich kid), but all the jokes fall flat ("Are you sisters?" "No, we just share a lot of similar tastes.") and the attempts at building suspense just fizzle. The Cannibal Girls themselves are pretty enough in a 70s way, though, and when they finally get around to the killings after reciting a nice little ceremonial verse ("Within me, and without me, I honor the blood which gives me life..."), they do it in their underwear or fully nude--which goes a long way toward making up for their somewhat lacking acting skills.

As for the kills themselves, Reitman actually manages to pull off a few competent grindhouse-level gore scenes, including an in-the-throat scissor kill and a bra-and-panties axe-murder. The best scene comes when the three girls handcuff the sole surviving victim to a bed, leading him to believe he's in for some kinky foursome action--then they pull out the gravy boat, add some sauce, fall on him and start eating him alive, buffet-style! It's actually almost chilling in a weird way, with the victim screaming and straining under their teeth--and it's probably the closest the movie gets to legitimate horror.

Axe Me No Questions

Upon learning that the girls' old house is still standing and is in fact the town's only gourmet restaurant (DUN DUN DUN!), Cliff and Gloria decide to go see the place and grab a bite--like you do. Once there they meet the only real reason to watch the movie, the Reverend Alex St. John (the absolutely EXCELLENT Ronald Ulrich). Dressed less like a man of the cloth than a stage magician you'd hire for a kid's birthday party--top hat, tails, even white gloves and a red satin-lined cape at one point--Ulrich totally OWNS every scene he's in, delivering his lines with the drawn-out creepy tones of Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and obviously having a blast. After treating his guests to the specialty of the house--it's the only dish on the menu--he invites them to stay the night, and of course they accept.

You can probably see where this is going. Turns out the Reverend is the one who initiated first the farm girls (who are still on hand as his servants-cum-harem) and later the rest of Farnhamville into his black magic, cannibalistic ways. Gaining power and immortality from the flesh of the living, the Reverend makes mincemeat out of every tourist who comes through, sharing the spoils with the rest of the town, and occasionally recruits a pretty girl or two into his inner sacreligious circle. No points for guessing his plans for our hippie-dippy couple.

In the movie's favor, the idea of the whole town being part of the enigmatic Reverend's cannibalistic cult is a nice way of expanding the horror outward, giving a Lovecraft-lite vibe to the proceedings that slightly recalls the much scarier and more excellent US film of the same year, Messiah of Evil. But Reitman seems more interested in wringing gags out of his script than shivers, and obviously hadn't yet developed the directorial chops to do either effectively. The editing is slapdash, the shots are static and uninteresting (with the exception of a few nice pre-credit garden compositions and one almost-LOL-worthy visual reference to the Sweeney Todd legend), and the script--what there is of it--is kinda stupid.

Ulrich Revs it Up

As I said before, Levy and Martin are shadows of their future selves here, and the rest of the cast seems mostly composed of non-actors. Ulrich as the Reverend is the sole bright spot, imparting even the corniest dialog with an infectious charisma. (One scene where he narrates the family history over a slow pan of the house's den that was obviously shot without the actors present, shows not only his talent but the film's extremely limited budget.) Unfortunately Ulrich never appeared in another film, according to IMDb--a shame, since I think he'd have been spectacular in a vehicle worthy of him.

In the final analysis I can say I'm glad Reitman built on his experience here and went on the bigger and funnier things, but I can't in good conscience recommend the movie, unless you're a Canadian Comedy Completist, or the president of Andrea Martin's fan club. If you catch it on TV sometime it might be worth sticking around for ten or fifteen minutes, just to get a flavor--especially if Ulrich is onscreen or one of the girls is getting naked. But there are better ways to spend your movie watching time--like watching Ghostbusters again, for instance. Final rating: 1.25 thumbs.

Whoa-oh, here she comes...


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