Tuesday, 29 November 2011
Frankenstein 1970 (1958)
FRANKENSTEIN 1970, despite its 'futuristic' title, begins with a distinctly retro feel (even for 1958) as a girl is chased through swampland by a faceless, hook-clawed monster. This sequence only lasts a minute or two and isn't at all bad. It's edited and paced well and unfortunately, although we don't know it yet, has just set a standard the rest of the picture is going to have a lot of trouble meeting.
The opening is a gag, a staged sequence filmed by a television crew which has travelled to Germany to film a documentary about the history of the Frankenstein family. There's talk of an anniversary but absolutely none of the mathematics add up so it's probably best to ignore that the same way the actual film-makers have. The only Frankenstein still living is concentration camp survivor Boris Karloff. Fortunately his castle has fared rather better than he has and betrays none of the damage the fiery climax of numerous Universal and other pictures should have caused it by now. Either they have very good (and very busy) stonemasons over in the part of Germany where he lives, or is it just possible that the exterior shot we keep seeing is stock footage of a model?
Karloff probably wonders what he's doing reciting distinctly dubious dialogue next to a tomb that allegedly contains 'Richard, Freiherr von Frankenstein I' and whose stonemason couldn't even get the last word of his epitaph centred properly, but then he was probably too busy rebuilding the castle yet again. The TV crew betrays not the slightest hint of futuristic fashions and while we're not expecting to see a flared trouser or a feather boa it does make one wonder quite why they chose FRANKENSTEIN 1970 as a title at all unless by some weird use of a time machine that isn't mentioned Karloff is actually the 1970th Frankenstein to hold the name. But that would be silly.
Boris has agreed to the TV crew coming because the money they're paying him is going towards the atomic reactor he has in the basement. His gurning manservant discovers the Baron at work in his secret laboratory and pays the price for his Charlie Ruggles impersonation (if you don't know who he is then look him up, or on second thoughts don't) by having Boris hypnotise him with a pair of scissors and then take his heart out. Boris is carrying on the family tradition by making one of the cheapest, tattiest-looking monsters in Frankenstein history, who you can't help but feel sorry for as he wanders around the castle looking like a half-hearted Michelin man in his head-to-toe bandages with two eye holes in the head bit for eyes he doesn't even have until close to the end of the film. The ending is underwhelming to say the least and seems to involve a cloud of radioactive steam killing both monster and creator that then miraculously disappears in time for the wind up.
If the above leads you to think I don't like FRANKENSTEIN 1970, nothing could be further from the truth. It's not a terribly good film but Karloff really is quite delicious in his role, the Cinemascope framing is often well used and there's the kernel of a good idea here. The concept of treating the old horror classics as if they really happened and then bringing a reality TV / documentary crew in to meet their ends at the hands of the legend they've come to exploit is a subject ripe for satirical fun on a number of levels. FRANKENSTEIN 1970 doesn't develop the idea at all but with the right handling a remake could be very interesting indeed. FRANKENSTEIN 2020 anyone?
Friday, 25 November 2011
The Redeemer - Not Quite a Class Act
The movie opens on a long shot of a valley. The credits come to an end and the camera doesn’t move as we are treated to a wait of several long seconds before a pseudo-biblical quote appears and we move in for a close up on the surface of the river. A hand appears from the water that turns out to belong to a very late 70s fully dressed ten year old boy with a pudding bowel haircut and corduroy trousers. Sopping wet he walks up the bank and catches a bus into town, where he enters the local church and gets changed into cassock and surplice with some other choirboys, who seem entirely nonplussed at this newcomer in their midst. The church service is led by a blood and thunder preacher who goes on and on about sin while elsewhere someone is busy murdering the caretaker of a local (we presume) school, making a latex of mask of his face and cutting out pictures from a school yearbook of the ‘six most likely to succeed’. We are presumably meant to think of these individuals as sinners as each is introduced by a rant from the priest’s sermon. The ‘sins’ they are guilty of seem to consist of: being a criminal defence lawyer, marrying for money and shooting pigeons, being divorced, having an affair or possibly just eating lots of cheeseburgers but not being at all fat, being vain, and being a lesbian. These six attend their school reunion to find they are the only ones who have turned up. They are let in by the caretaker (our mystery killer in disguise) and rather than run a mile at the sight of the apparently deserted school that has now acquired bars on all its windows they sit down to eat lunch in a scene bizarrely reminiscent of the last supper. It’s not long before they start to get bumped off by a killer who seems omnipresent, wears a series of frankly disturbing masks while killing, and who eventually turns out to be the priest, who gets to finish his sermon at the end of the film.
Whether this has all been a dream on the priest’s part is never explained, and neither is why he should want to kill these people, or how these really quite minor ‘sins’ can justify them being burned alive, drowned, shot, speared through the head and so on, never mind the murder of the caretaker. Some of these sequences are genuinely unnerving, not least because of their viciousness. At the end of the film the boy leaves the church, gets back on the bus and walks back into the river, but not before slashing the throat of a choirboy who threatened him with a knife at the start for not laughing at a joke.
I have yet to mention the recurring motif of having two thumbs on one hand. Where it fits in I have no idea, but the killer has this deformity, then at the end we see the priest with it, then his extra thumb disappears and the boy acquires one instead.
I still have no idea what this film is really meant to be about but some standout imagery in amongst all the silliness (there’s a scene on a stage with a giant puppet and The Redeemer in weird black and white makeup that could be a source of plentiful nightmares) and a really horrible synthesiser soundtrack where the only noises the keyboard could be programmed to make were presumably ‘wheeze’, ‘fart’ and ‘burp’ that just adds to the weirdness means this one’s staying in the House of Mortal Cinema DVD Collection.
Monday, 21 November 2011
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
We begin with one of the most manic undisciplined pieces of music composer Ennio Morricone must have ever committed to paper, if indeed he ever wrote it down and didn’t just tell his assembled musicians to ‘pretend they were in a room filled with wasps’. Or who knows? Perhaps that’s what actually happened. Intercut with the titles is a little beating heart that we never see again once they’re over. There’s no real reason for this other than possibly to indulge Dario’s predilection for including random cameos from internal organs in his films (after all there’s a pulsating brain in OPERA). We then get to meet groovy drummer Michael Brandon who is being followed by a chap in dark glasses and a big hat. He pursues him to an abandoned theatre where red curtains open like they will in PROFONDO ROSSO before he seemingly kills the chap as a masked onlooker takes photographs, one of which is then surreptitiously placed in Brandon’s record collection at a party. Brandon’s married to mad Mimsy Farmer (although we don’t find out about the mental bit until the end, unlike the entire film which we already know by now is bonkers) who’s rich so they have a maid. She knows who the killer is, but this being a giallo the only person she tells is the murderer themselves before agreeing to meet them in a deserted park after dark. Argento’s murder scenes are always one of the highlights of his pictures and this time he cleverly coveys her death mostly off screen by having her cries heard by bystanders the other side of a twenty foot wall. The fingernails scraping down the brick are a nice added touch. Mimsy disappears off with the police for reasons I couldn’t fathom and Brandon, who should be being accused of murder by now, is left free to employ a private detective who has a failure rate of 100%. Argento may have once been a superlative maker of horror thrillers but his comedy skills aren’t up to much. Perhaps a bit gets lost in translation but the comedy postman and the comedy camp characters we get in this film have either dated horribly or more likely never worked in the first place. It’s a tribute to actor Jean-Pierre Marielle that his detective character is still so likeable despite the stereotypical overplaying and his death because he has finally solved a case is doubly poignant. Fans of Italian cinema will raise a smile at Bud Spencer’s cameo as ‘God’, and his Professor sidekick is quite fun as well but otherwise it was probably wise for Dario to stick to the nastiness. Because Mimsy’s gone Brandon takes this as his cue to fall into the bath with pretty Francine Racette. Needless to say Francine’s soon at the end of the killer’s big knife, but not before being thrown down the stairs in a way that probably had Lucio Fulci thinking ‘I can do better than that’.
There also seems to be some unwritten rule with these movies that the meaning of the title has to be explained as late as possible in the proceedings. In fact I wonder if at the time there may even have been something of a competition between film makers about this sort of thing. Here we’re 84 minutes into the running time before we get the spiel about Francine’s retina retaining the last image she ever saw, but not before the remaining cast have viewed her body in the kind of morgue that can only exist in Italy – one with black and white marble columns that looks more like the foyer of a 1970s hotel than a functioning pathology lab.
The Four Flies idea is a good one if intrinsically daft. No-one explains why Mimsy’s wearing a fly around her neck, but then she is a mad giallo killer so she probably doesn’t need a reason. “I was raised as a boy!” she screams at the denouement in a typical Argento murderer’s lament, “My father beat me! I was locked in an asylum for three years!” We still don’t know why she’s wearing a fly and we don’t have time to find out because off she goes in her car and her head’s come off and it’s The End. Would you really marry Michael Brandon just because he bore a resemblance to your mad father who you wanted to torture by a ridiculously elaborate scheme that involved paying someone to pretend to be killed by him before you threatened him in your own home but with a mask on so there was no way he could recognise you despite being married to you before admitting you were in a asylum where the rehabilitation programme presumably didn’t involve driving lessons?
Oh how I love these films. God bless Dario Argento and all who copied him.
Tuesday, 15 November 2011
The Hospice (1987)
Atmospheric, enigmatic and nightmarishly disorientating. THE HOSPICE works very well as a 50 minute adaptation of an Aickman story. Performances, location and music are all excellent, but perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that it was directed by Domenique Othenin-Girard who was responsible for the forgettable HALLOWEEN 5 and the regrettable OMEN IV - THE AWAKENING. On the basis of those two movies I had been anticipating something far more workmanlike and uninspired and THE HOSPICE is neither. In fact I would highly recommend it. Now to track down the other episodes in this series.
Friday, 11 November 2011
The Blood Spattered Bride (1972)
What would you do if you were walking along a deserted beach and came across a beautiful woman buried in the sand wearing nothing but a diving mask? If like me you’d be on the alert for the inevitable Spanish horror film crew that had to be lurking somewhere you’re reading the right column. There’s quite a bit of memorable imagery in Vicente Aranda’s 1972 Spanish lesbian vampire picture, but none that’s quite as bizarre or surreal as this. One presumes that the diving mask was probably requested, quite reasonably, by actress Alexandra Bastedo to stop all the sand from getting in her face, and to allow her to breath while the shot was set up. In fact director Aranda seems to have been most accommodating to both his lead actresses as one also presumes that he had no problems sorting out a nude double for Maribel Martin, even if it does look like they had to use more than one. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
While US horror cinema has only used Sheridan LeFanu’s story Carmilla for the briefest of inspiration (eg in Stephanie Rothman’s 1971 THE VELVET VAMPIRE) Europe has done its best to do Mr LeFanu proud, with interpretations from France (Roger Vadim’s 1960 BLOOD & ROSES / ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR), Italy (LA CRIPTO E L’INCUBO from 1964), and of course the UK (Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, which surprisingly enough is the most faithful of all, even if the two sequels, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE and TWINS OF EVIL aren’t). Spain’s version went under the original title of LA NOVIA ENSANGRENTADA but it’s best known by the title heading this article.
Simon Andreu and Maribel Martin get married but all is not well. As soon as they get to their honeymoon hotel Maribel’s starting to suffer from hallucinations in which she is raped, causing her to want to leave. They travel back to Simon’s ancestral home, which has a tumbledown church next door (the kind of beautiful location movies like this seem to be able to come up with effortlessly) and paintings of all his female ancestors in the cellar, one of which is holding a bloody dagger, has had the face cut out of it and bears the name ‘Mircalla Karstein’. In this film the legend goes that she killed her husband because he wanted her to perform ‘unspeakable acts’ on their wedding night. What these acts were we never get to find out but they were certainly bad enough for Mircalla to become cursed as a vampire (probably) and to get sealed up in the crypt next door. While we’re finding all this out Maribel’s suffering from more hallucinations, but now she’s where Mircalla presumably wants her they’re taking the far more pleasant form of a ghostly Alexandra Bastedo, draped in lilac and wandering the ruins during the hours of darkness. It’s not long before Simon has discovered Ms Bastedo naked on, or rather in, the beach (see above) and has brought her back home for tea, as one does in EuroHorror films based on Carmilla. Of course it’s not a good idea, not least because one of Maribel’s night-time hallucinations has already involved both her and Mircalla stabbing Simon to death in a particularly unpleasant scene that has graced video box covers up and down the land. Calling herself Carmilla her seduction of Maribel continues, leading to the death of the local doctor and a huntsman, who gets more than just his face blown off after releasing Carmilla from an animal trap in a yet another arresting (sorry) image. The finale involves possibly the one direct visual reference to LeFanu’s story, when Simon riddles Mircalla’s coffin with bullets, causing it to fill with blood. But Simon has a further fate in store for the two bloodied female corpses within, summed up rather more subtly than one might expect by this point by a newspaper headline that leads to the fadeout.
Like many European horror films of the time, THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE is a mixture of atmospheric longeurs, fine visual imagery, and the necessary exploitation elements that enabled this to be booked at many a drive-in cinema (with a movie called I DISMEMBER MAMA, which I have yet to see but I can’t say I’m in any hurry). Fans of films of this period, and of this style, will find a lot to reward their viewing patience in a film where probably the least subtle thing about it is the title. Oh, and all the blood that gets spattered over…well, perhaps it is a good title after all.
Wednesday, 9 November 2011
The Exquisite Cadaver (1969)
A fantastic title for an obscure late 1960s movie, matched only by its original language title of LAS CRUELES which is perhaps even better, EXQUISITE CADAVER is a weird, Spanish art-house Euro-Horror that might also be considered a giallo by some, simply because of its ingredients. The movie has a complex and quite ludicrous plotline, there's the presence of beautiful fashionably dressed ladies, and the drink of giallo kings and queens - J&B - is in evidence, although only the most eagle-eyed will spot it.The movie opens with a girl laying her head on a railway line. For those in the know she's played by Judy Matheson, who in a couple of years will become a minor BritHorror babe by featuring in TWINS OF EVIL, Pete Walker's THE FLESH & BLOOD SHOW, and CRUCIBLE OF TERROR. A train rushes past and then we cut to an editor (Carlos Estrada) at a publishing house being sent a severed hand in a box. He tells his secretary it's wax to which the girl replies 'It doesn't smell like wax', prompting him to disappear off into a forest so he can bury it. At home, where his two strange little boys enact weird burial rites over their recently deceased tortoise while wearing spectacles with red and blue lenses, he's confronted by his wife who wants to know what the letter means that has come for him that says he's soon going to be receiving a forearm. Carlos makes up some ludicrous (but perhaps not for this film) excuse before engaging on a quest to find who has been sending him bits of a girl through the post. It turns out to be PINK PANTHER star Capucine, who may or may not have a false right hand (it's that kind of film) and who leaves him alone in her big old house after giving him drugs so he can go for a wander and find Judy's naked body squashed into the fridge. There's a lot of did-it-happen-or-didn't-it before we get some backstory, revealing that Carlos had an affair with Judy several years ago and then dumped her (I think). Capucine is now her lesbian lover who was distraught enough when all Judy would do is go on about Carlos but now Judy has died of leukaemia and Capucine is out to make Carlos pay. I think. Judy's death may actually be thanks to the ministrations of a quack doctor who ends up with his head in a bidet - the film isn't quite clear, but then it's a bit blurry on lots of things and believe me it's a far more dreamy and bizarre experience than I'm doing my best to rationally recount here. It all ends a bit quickly and rather weirdly with a head in a box but I have to say I was spellbound by the entire picture. Director Vicente Aranda was responsible for THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE a couple of years later and this movie is possibly even more interesting. The dialogue is often stilted and the actors are wooden, but it feels more as if this is part of the deliberately strange style of the piece rather than due to incompetence on anyone's part. Those who make a start with this may be put off by what feels like a very slow, stilted beginning, but even then there are enough weird goings-on to reward the viewer's persistence. Another one that deserves a decent DVD release.
Friday, 4 November 2011
The Alligator People (1959)
After an opening title sequence over suitably atmospheric swampland we cut to a doctor’s office where Dr Lorimer is hypnotising pretty nurse Beverly Garland with the aid of intravenous drugs, quite possibly fulfilling the dreams of many cinemagoing men of dubious moral virtue of the time. This medication seems to induce a state of wild hallucination where she envisages herself in a rather sub-par monster movie. But oh no – actually it’s a flashback! Beverly’s just got married to Paul Webster (Richard Crane) but no sooner have they got on the train to begin their honeymoon than he receives a telegram and sooner than you can say ‘it’s your ex-wife you’re actually still married to’ he’s jumped the train and disappeared. Beverly tracks him down in the heart of Louisiana swamp country where mad scientist George Macready has been injecting accident victims with a serum from alligators that allows them to grow new limbs. It also makes them go all scaly and turn green – probably, as this is in black and white. George has a cobalt bomb and the means to use it – a complex looking piece of equipment that must have cost a bit as it gets demonstrated frequently during the film’s brief running time of 74 minutes. Because Paul turning into an alligator and the constant threat of radiation poisoning isn’t enough Lon Chaney Junior is also stumbling around in a torn seersucker suit and boasting a hook instead of a right hand due to a previous alligator attack, allowing him to wax lyrical at length about how much he hates them ‘gators and would spend the rest of his life killing them if he could. In fact he’s actually on hand (sorry) to molest Beverly after she’s lost a fair amount of her skirt in the swamp, which is probably about all the titillation a film like this was allowed back then. Presumably that and the drugging was enough to satisfy a certain part of the audience demographic. The alligators for Macready’s work, and the mutilated results of his experiments, are all captured and / or restrained by men who look as if they should be extras in a particularly non-heterosexual remake of ‘On The Town’, the tightness of their white T-shirts only matched by the severity of their haircuts.
It all ends badly of course. Despite still being able to play the piano and thus opening up a whole new possible market in Alligator Music Recitals, Paul gets an Extra Big dose of radiation and ends up with a properly snouty head filled with big teeth. Off he goes into the bayou pursued by Beverly, where before either of them can stop to wonder at this reversal of a classic horror film trope they both demonstrate a quite uncanny ability to fall over a lot before Paul falls one time to many and ends up in the swamp. Where he sinks. The End. Oh, except we get to see nurse Beverly again just so we can be reassured that the two doctors who drugged her haven’t been using the film we’ve just seen as a distraction while they cart her off to be sold to white slave traders or anything like that.
One for completists, as is director Roy del Ruth’s previous PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE does have a few nice moments, namely that of Garland’s arrival at the deserted Louisiana railway station and the piano-playing alligator man, even if overall it’s a bit slow considering its brief running time. The science is the usual utter rubbish with a few words thrown in from medical texts but for fans of a certain type of movie (you know you are, and I’m certainly one) the ending has to be watched at least once.
Tuesday, 1 November 2011
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel was one of those rare pictures that until very recently had escaped me, not for any reason other than the opportunity to watch it properly hadn’t presented itself. Aside from the fact that it’s a very good film indeed there was a certain fascination for me in watching a film intended for an audience of more than 40 years ago for the very first time, particularly one that really hasn’t dated that much.
We all know the story by now but here it is again anyway. Shy, fragile, nervous little Mia Farrow is married to boorish wisecracking actor John Cassavetes. They move into the building in New York where John Lennon was later assassinated to come under the influence of neighbours Minnie & Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her immense skills at portraying an annoying old woman, and Sidney Blackmer). Mia does her best to make friends with young ex drug-addict Terry in the laundry room. Mims comments on Terry’s likeness to ‘the actress Victoria Vetri’ in a rather odd exchange because the girl actually is Playboy model and movie star Ms Vetri acting under her real name of Angela Dorian.
Angela’s in denial mode, however, presumably because she knows that this is a classic film and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH, in which she will be appearing next year, is not. Angela / Terry / Victoria plunges to her death, but did she jump in a drug-fuelled frenzy or was she just pushed by an evil elderly person? Either way Mia inherits Angela’s smelly fungus-filled neckwear (according to friend Maurice Evans who is on the side of Good and Reason and so isn’t going to last long in this film). After consuming just a spoonful of Mrs Castavet’s evil chocolate mousse Mia has a dream where a nude stand in of her is painted with satanic symbols and mauled by hairy hands, and wakes up to find she’s pregnant. Nice obstetrician Charles Grodin is dispensed with to make way for top-notch-but-nevertheless-suspicious obstetrician Ralph Bellamy while Mrs Castavet keeps popping in with a health drink that looks suspiciously like those natural yoghurts that are meant to help bowel function. Of course all these measures are actually designed to ensure the Second Coming of Satan’s child but the horrors here are not so much anticipated ones as those derived from everyday mundanity. It’s interesting that ROSEMARY’S BABY came out more or less at the same time as Hammer’s THE DEVIL RIDES OUT – another adaptation of a popular novel. I saw the Wheatley adaptation when I was twelve years old and Polanski’s film only recently and I think I’ve seen both at just the right times in my life. The Hammer film is a rip-roaring adventure story with spectacle, monsters, moustache-twirling villainy and noble heroics that you almost need to be a boy of a certain age to get the most from.
But you need to be an adult to appreciate what’s best about Polanksi’s film, because it isn’t the devil worship stuff, or the implications about the second coming of Satan being responsible for the cultural climate of the late 1960s, it’s Polanski’s ruminations on what evil actually is. Ultimate evil isn’t Dennis Wheatley’s Mocata in a cape, it’s the annoying old couple who live next door, the obstetrician who wants your baby for his own devices, the best friend who kills themselves and leaves you alone again just as you thought you were managing to settle into your strange new environment a tiny bit. It’s the empty corridors that always look as if they’re hiding someone or something threatening around the next corner. It’s those individuals in our society (spouse, neighbour, doctor) that you should be able to trust but you can’t.
Despite the exploitation pedigree of some of the participants the film was hardly likely to have been advertised as from the director of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and the producer of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, HOMICIDAL and THE TINGLER, but it should nevertheless be remembered that Polanski had already chalked up a track record of working with exploitation film producers with commendable results. Both REPULSION and CUL-DE-SAC were made for Tony Tenser (Tigon) and Michael Klinger (GET CARTER), and I suspect that William Castle had a hand in keeping Mr Polanski under control and on schedule to ensure that ROSEMARY’S BABY was the success it turned out to be. In fact there is very little to complain about here, although Ms Farrow’s drastic ‘save the day’ Sassoon haircut really does occur at a fairly unbelievable point in the proceedings, even if being able to wash it more quickly probably meant more minutes in the day for Rosemary to worry about everything else that was happening to her. And would even the mother of Satan have wanted quite such a preponderance of yellow in her furnishings?
Actually, thinking about it, the sofas of hell probably are upholstered in yellow nylon.
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