Monday, September 28, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 15: Bad Influences

The french are not known particularly for their sci-fi. With the exception of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's output (which is decidedly hard to pigeonhole. There are sci-fi elements to be found in his first films, though it's a touch more antiquated and Fritz Langy in Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Alien: Resurrection is most assuredly sci-fi, but it wasn't exactly his idea, was it? If 20th Century Fox drove a dump truck full of money to my house with a screenplay on top, you can bet I might not scrutinize it) there have been precious few cinematic journeys into the scientific and strange. It's fitting that the first real instance of Sci-Fi in France was a dissection of dystopian fiction mixed with noir called Alphaville by the master of audacious cinematic (ir)reverence Jean-Luc Godard. The man changed the face of cinema so I guess if anyone was going to make the country’s first genre picture it may as well be him. Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang followed much the same tack in 1986. Rene Laloux's animated film La Planète Sauvage is about the only thing produced in country that can be read as sci-fi until late into the first decade of the 21st century. And to make things even more incestuous the first of them was directed by none other than Marc Caro, Jeunet's co-director on Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. And as soon as they wrapped production (or possibly just before they started), Caro's first assistant director Franck Vestiel thought he might like to helm just such a project and started production on another quite like it. Neither is quite as good as they could have been, but they aspire to provoke thought which is more than can be said of most of their peers across the Atlantic.

Dante 01
by Marc Caro
Through voice over, we're told that everything begins in a primordial fire, just as we see the rockets of a space shuttle ignite. The woman's voice tells us that if someone were to examine their story, they could do worse than starting with the arrival of the shuttle. They, as we'll soon learn, are three scientists, two security guards and seven psychiatric patients. The shuttle is docking at a floating sanatorium orbiting a planet called Dante apparently engulfed in the fire of a thousand volcanos or some such thing. The narrator is one of the scientists and her name is Persephone. She uses phrases like "antechamber of hell", so you know what a blast this place must be. She and her colleague Charon are humourless and have clearly been out here too long. Their newest transplant, a doctor called Elisa, surmises as much the instant she meets them. Persephone and Charon fill Elisa in on the way things work, just as the same thing goes on with the inmates. Elisa isn't the only new transplant, you see, she also came with a freeze-dried inmate with no name. The new guy is weird-looking and doesn't talk. He meets the others as he defrosts; there's Cesar the de facto leader and the only face you'll recognize (he's Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), Attila who's either under the thumb of Charon or vice versa, Raspoutine a doe-eyed zealot who believes the new guy is Saint Georges sent by god to defend them, Boudda whose religious beliefs lead him to offer to strangle the new guy to death and lastly Moloch and Lazare, two heavies who do Cesar's bidding because they seem to like bossing people around (the Crabbe and Goyle of the nut house, if you will). The regulars explain the what happens normally around the ship but they're are about to discover there's something nothing normal about either newcomer.

Charon has Atilla look into Elisa's file through a secret communication channel because back in the real world, using computers for evil was what the prisoner was best at. Before he can learn much, Elisa explains to Persephone and Charon that she has a new bit of therapy that 'the company' sent her to try out. It involves nanotechnology and she seems to think that by injecting tiny robots into the bloodstream of crazies she can modify their behavior. She gets her first opportunity when the staff gases the inmate's living quarters (which happens whenever they get too rowdy), putting them all to sleep and allowing the guards, CR and BR, to collect blood samples and bring one of them, Boudda, up into their lab. Charon is reluctant at first but agrees when she tries it on Boudda and he calms down significantly; Persephone wants no part of it. Boudda and the others see the incident as something else entirely. Before the gassing started, the new guy stood over him and had a vision wherein he saw an amphibious-looking arachnid not unlike a rubbery rendering of a face hugger from Alien, but bright orange instead of traditional grey, inside of his fellow inmate's chest. No one else can see what he sees and thus don't respond when the new guy pulls the spider out and eats it. Boudda and Raspoutine interpret the incident as the new guy, whom they nickname Saint Georges, performing a miracle by relieving his pain. Cesar, perhaps sensing that their support could mean an end to his reign of admittedly limited power, has Moloch and Lazare try to kill Saint Georges. Raspoutine intervenes and cuts Moloch's throat but following another of Saint Georges' visions, CR and BR can find nothing wrong with him when they gas the inmates to get a closer look.

These miracles begin affecting everyone. Persephone questions her belief in science and refuses to let Elisa put her nano-face huggers inside Saint Georges bloodstream. Charon overrules her and they try anyway but Saint Georges wakes from his sleep and escapes back into the inmates quarters. Cesar maintains that Saint Georges is evil until, one more spider-eating vision later, he cures the dictator of the nano-technology that Elisa gave him. Atilla finally finds out what Elisa's been sent here to do and responds by seizing control of the ship's controls and setting a collision course for Dante. They have about an hour before their on the fiery surface of the planet and the only way that Charon can see to save everyone is to get to the manual piloting chamber below the floor of the inmates quarters, which means confronting them for the first time. Elisa, of course, has her own plans and so for that matter does Saint Georges.

With all famous partnerships that break up, the tendency is to try and examine their solo work to determine who brought what to the table. When Caro split from Jeunet, he did precious little before Dante 01, giving us ample time to figure out that what exactly he had contributed to their two collaborations. Jeunet clearly was responsible for the touching, quirky romances and heart-warming friendships at the core of their films, whereas the bug-eyed weirdness and confrontational, claustrophobic angles were all courtesy of Caro. Which means that the geniuses at 20th Century Fox took the wrong co-director to make Alien: Resurrection. If Caro had been put in charge, the result may have been salvageable, as it was clearly he who had the killer instincts required to handle the more grim and gooey aspects of the movie. Coincidentally or not, the one film that comes immediately to mind when I think of possible influences on Dante 01 is David Fincher’s Alien³. Like in that film misshapen bald heads, amber-tinted production design, gothic prison sets, and a plot set in motion by the arrival of a visitor are all present. I rather liked the look of Alien³ and so consequently enjoyed the look of Dante 01, even if those common design elements and the frenetic quality of the action have been turned up to 11. Like Fincher, Caro used a specific and beautiful look in order to better spin a yarn steeped in religious thought and ancient tales involving dragons, juxtaposing the timeless with the ‘futuristic’.

Fincher, of course, had a stout 150 or so minutes with which to give his gorgeous production design all the attention it deserved. Caro had 81 minutes and a hell of a lot more story to tell. Yet, all in all, Dante 01 is a much better movie than both Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection because it moves at too quick a pace for you to get bogged down in its unanswered questions and biggest flaws. In fact, if I have one problem with Dante 01 it’s that it doesn’t address its biggest mystery. We know right from the start that Saint Georges is no ordinary prisoner, and we also know that Elisa is up to no good and yet we learn nothing about either of them. Elisa clearly knows something’s up with him, she was sent in the same shuttle with him to that big psych ward in the sky, and the company trusts her enough to let her administer bloodspiders so why doesn’t she know anything about Saint Georges’ abilities? Does no one know that he has psychic power? What do they allow him to do exactly; can he heal anything? The ambiguity is not unwelcome, per se, as this is a sci-fi film and I would have rioted in the non-existent aisles if someone had sat us down at the end to let us know exactly what we’ve been watching. Really I don’t mind so much, it’s just that Caro had crafted a neat little potboiler and I expected him to be able to answer some of the more pressing questions he poses. I don't think it would have taken away from the film’s greatest strengths to learn where Saint Georges came from or whether he was supposed to figure into some larger plan or other.

Marc Caro’s first assistant director Franck Vestiel must have liked the taste of sci-fi films with more questions than answers he got while working on Dante 01 because his own take on the genre followed shortly after. The only problem is that if he came up with any answers at all he sure didn’t feel like sharing.

Eden Log
by Franck Vestiel
We open a man covered in mud who, for like two hours, crawls through a cave to the entrance to a big labyrinthine facility. He is greeted at the entrance by a myriad of voices, each in a different language, welcoming him to Eden Log. He goes inside and works his way up several stories, via broken ceilings, vents and elevators that no person could be expected to fit through. Along the way he picks up several clues as to what’s going on, even if he doesn’t understand them; I think he’s got amnesia but seeing as the man never says a word it’s pretty hard to tell one way or the other what’s going through his mind. Anyway, he finds recordings made just before whatever catastrophe killed everybody took place alongside people who seem to have fused with giant plants before dying. Shortly after he finds two things that give him irrefutable evidence that whatever was going on in Eden Log was not on the level. First are the armed guards who seem to know who he is and try to apprehend him. Second are the Descent-style mutants waiting for him around every corner.

Just before things start to get super-repetitive, our mudman comes across a botanist or biologist or some such ologist, who hides out in her apartment in a HAZMAT suit. She runs some tests on him and she doesn’t like what she sees. I think what we’re supposed to gather from this is that he’s got a higher predisposition towards turning into a tree or a mutant. She tries to flee, leaving him to die at the hands of the mutants, but he catches up to her and then rapes her in a service elevator. Maybe. It’s hard to tell, but he keeps roaring and grimacing and she alternates between seeming to enjoy it and clearly not. Afterwards, they join forces to evade the soldiers, but they both wind up caught anyway. The ending makes little to no sense, even if it looks kinda cool.
I think what’s going on here is that the man from the mud is actually the architect or president of Eden Log, so it’s totally fucking ironic that he’s like in the mud and being attacked and shit, right? No, that part doesn’t make any sense. If he’s actually important, why does no one recognize him? Why do the soldiers initially try to kill him? Why doesn’t the botanist speak to him by name? Moreover, what’s the point of Eden Log (the facility, not the film. Although....)? What work was being done before the great mutant-causing, tree-mating cave-in? If these are the side-effects of working there, I can’t imagine anyone paying millions of dollars in grant money to open this place. Also, there are a number of crucial design flaws which I’m sure were designed simply because they looked cool: anytime we find a recorded message, it’s projected on the spot where it was also recorded. This makes no sense from a technological standpoint. Why would you want a recorded film to project on your face, instead of on the wall opposite? Why did some people turn to mutants and others to trees? How did our man end up in the mud, way the hell away from everyone else, if he’s so important? Just what is he doing at the end of the film, other than miming that scene from Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain? Was Eden Log designed for that, or was he doing something illegal? This is a movie where the proposition of questions was, aside from production design, the most important thing on the agenda. Everything kinda crumbles under scrutiny.

Vestiel, whose movie is in his second language, is almost as bad at directing extras as Jean Rollin. The dialogue that the soldiers deliver is so stilted and hackneyed that it feels stolen from a video game, along with the plot. The mutants feel lifted in much the same way. They look like their more vicious older brothers from Neil Marshall’s The Descent, yet pose no threat because our mudman lays them out with little to no problem whenever he encounters them. One of the film’s greatest problem is that the majority of its set-pieces are borrowed or stolen, and together they retain nothing of their original power because they have to fit into the weak storyline. Clearly Vestiel put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the film, and its best images, those of the treemen and half destroyed laboratories, are really quite stunning. I just wish he had either let someone else direct or given the script a little more thought.
So neither film has all the answers to the many questions they pose, but a film that seems to designed to make you think about anything is better than one that insists you shut your brain off. These films were given direct-to-dvd releases, by Dimension Extreme and Magnet Releasing respectively, in the states presumably because they couldn’t secure theatrical distribution. Let me just say that in the summer of 2009 alone theatres in the United States were hit with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Gamer and Terminator: Salvation, so I’m a little pissed off at America right now. Personally I think Eden Log would have done pretty well with the teenage boy set in this country, what with it’s chic boiler room set design, video game plot devices, and faux-philosophical subtext; It could have been the next Matrix. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so because Christian Alvart's Pandorum, a film produced by Paul W.S. Anderson or as I like to call him The Greatest Living Filmmaker, is a pretty flagrant rip-off. We have guys in a big Alien-esque environment who don't know anything. There are Descent-style mutants with Road Warrior costumes, a lot of destruction, a botanist/biologist love interest, silly ass fight scenes and a big profound ending. So despite my issues with it someone somewhere thought Eden Log was cool enough to steal from and erase all of its subtlety in the process. Well, I guess it’s been a hundred years and stateside audiences still can’t quite cope with foreign films so I’m stuck a pessimist’s optimist. People don’t realize that there are films they might quite enjoy if they’re willing to read; they don’t have to settle for Michael Bay or Paul W.S. Anderson.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 14: Death By Brain Damage

In researching French horror films, I’d come to the sad, sad realization that about 25% of it was directed or influenced by Jean Rollin. I read a review with Rollin in Penny Blood Magazine, which was either conducted by someone too taken with the director to question him or had no idea who he was. Rollin, for his part, has almost nothing to say about his work; he talks about his films, which took up more than 30 years of his life, with all the gravity of a man recalling the names of goldfish he owned as a child. Here’s a sample of the kind of affection he shows on his body of work:

PENNY BLOOD: 1958’s Les Amour Jaunes was your first film?
ROLLIN: Yes, it’s a short film.
PENNY BLOOD: One of your experimental films?
PENNY BLOOD: So, you made a number of these short films before your first feature, Le Viol Du Vampire, or The Rape of the Vampire, in 1967?
ROLLIN: Yes. That was my first long form film.

Granted, out of context, but I swear to christ the whole thing's like that. After Rape of the Vampire, he dove headfirst into his new niche, the lesbian vampire film, with three new takes on the subject, Shiver of the Vampire, The Nude Vampire and Requiem for a Vampire, each more confusing and full of naked women than the last. I'd review them, but I can only bang my head against a wall for so long before it bleeds. His first film outside his beloved creation is easily his most interesting, but you can’t really call it any better or worse than The Living Dead Girl or Grapes of Death, it just seems to predicated upon an idea rather than a stack of genre conventions; In the interview, Rollin admits that Grapes of Death, Zombie Lake and Living Dead Girl were made for no greater reason than zombie films were making money at the time. In fact, of Rollin’s films, these two are the only ones that I’ve seen that have (in minor ways) transcended the man’s apparent inability (or unwillingness) to direct.

The Iron Rose
by Jean Rollin
Open on the same beach where most of Rape of the Vampire transpires. A woman in red picks up an Iron Rose from the surf and examines it lovingly before throwing it back. Then she walks on a beach, then she walks through a misty field, then two people make out on the front of an old train for most of the opening credits. We then cut to a wedding where a moody kid, who looks a bit much like Jack Taylor for my liking, recites a dark bit of poetry as entertainment, which everybody applauds. A bit later he asks the lady in red, who we learn is a ballerina, to go on a Sunday bike ride with him. This bit of flirting that they do and the wedding that comes just before, for the record, are the only bits of acting I’ve ever seen in a Jean Rollin film. So either he was off having a smoke and the 2nd unit handled this scene or it’s possible that Françoise Pascal and Hugues Quester were simply tremendous actors. Either way nothing in the entirety of Rollin’s canon approaches the realism of these scenes. The flirting isn’t even that good, but that’s how wretched Jean Rollin is at directing people; further evidence can be found in the rest of the film.

The boy and the girl (who never get names) go for a picnic in a cemetery. The boy insists on doing a bit of roaming around even though his date seems scared. He’s so enchanted by the notion of fucking around in a cemetery that they climb into a crypt and actually have sex (which, from what we see, consists of kissing topless and moaning a good deal) while people (including a clown) lay flowers on nearby graves. After their tryst she insists they leave; “I’m Knackered!” she yawns. I wonder if the subtitlers were British? They discover that the path they walked in on has disappeared and so our lovers will spend the rest of the film trying to find their way out of the cemetery, getting alternately angry and hysterical. He beats her and tears her clothing, she starts spouting cryptic nonsense, he gets locked in tomb, she gets finds an iron rose, gets naked and joins him in the tomb…the end.

There are subtle differences that make this a different film from Demoniacs or Living Dead Girl. There appears to be a Night of the Living Dead influence leering over things, what with the cemetery setting and all that, and the belief that people are more evil alive than dead. The shoddiness of the film is less evident, but it’s still there; for once when a bit of scenery falls down, it feels like it may have been planned that way; usually things fall over and Rollin insists that everyone ignore it and keep going with the scene. Pascal’s dialogue late in the film is pretty absurd: she finds the iron rose in the cemetery and says “A Rose of Crystal!”. This could be an error in the proofreading, but the thing is black as night, how could you possibly mistake it for crystal. She deadpans lines like “Aloes live for 50 years and blossom only once” and “November 1st. The world of the living meets the world of the dead” as she yawns and stretches and slows the film to a crawl. The latter line scares the bejesus out of the boy for whatever reason as he runs in terror as soon as she’s done saying it. The film quickly gets bogged down in bullshit, as Pascal foregoes developing her thoughts any further at around the end of the second act by dancing naked on a beach and repeating every line of dialogue she’s had since night fell. The last thing she does is perform an impromptu ballet through the cemetery (cause she’s a ballerina? I don’t understand this). Rollin basically distracts us from the emptiness of the preceding 70 minutes by rewarding the audience with the scenes of a very naked Pascal. Though I can think of a number of people whom this would appease, I am not one of them. As she lowers her head into a grave, she intones “We alive…you dead”; that’s the overarching philosophy. Learn it well, skip the film.

Clearly The Iron Rose was doomed from the start because it isn’t about anything. If he had invested any effort into the screenplay, which amounts to little more than two people getting lost and hysterical, it may have been a lot of things: frightening, profound, erotic, atmospheric or interesting. It’s none of those things, nor for that matter is another of his rootless efforts, Night of the Hunted.

Night of the Hunted
by Jean Rollin
A man drives through a wooded area at night and happens upon a blonde woman in tattered clothes in the middle of the road as a naked redhead looks on. He takes the blonde home and they have sex in real time for like fifteen minutes. He leaves to go to work and when he returns, she’s gone. He traces her to a black skyscraper in the downtown area of wherever the hell this is after she calls him from a payphone, but not before we see what’s going on in the black tower. The skyscraper is guarded by an organization keeping a bunch of lunatics locked up, away from society’s judgmental gaze. Why? Let’s let the director explain: 
“It takes place in a very near future. There has been an accident with a bomb, a nuclear catastrophe. The film is about the breakdown of society when this kind of catastrophe happens. In some versions of the film, there is a scene where a projection of a news video is on screen that explains this.” 
Fantastic. Needless to say, that's not the version I saw. That, incidentally, is all he says about the film. I find this troubling for a few reasons, not the least of which because it mirrors Umberto Lenzi’s repugnant defense of his Nightmare City. If there was an accident with a bomb, why does no one know about it? Why aren’t these people put in clinics. It makes no sense, nor for that matter does allotting twenty five minutes to people shambling about like zombies (but crucially they're not actually zombies) in someone’s hallway.

I could think of nothing quite so extraordinarily lame as filming people acting like their brains have been stolen in a hotel hallway they were able to secure for a single night’s shooting. Anyway, the man shows up looking for the girl he’s slept with and gets treated to a lot of vague answers from the staff, but not before one of the officials has a ballroom dance with him out by a fountain to some Goblin-esque carnival music. I wish I were kidding. So the girl escapes but gets captured again and gets put on a train headed for another tower; she escapes once more and finds her boyfriend. Before they get too far one of the doctor’s shoots him in the head, but it doesn’t kill him. The film’s ending: him shot in the head, her braindead from radiation poisoning, shambling off together…it’s almost poignant. It’s also the film’s only redeeming feature. The rest is a mess, pure and simple, made all the worse by the directors aborted decisions regarding it’s tone. Night shifts from gripping drama to nearly hard-core sex to absurdist fever dream to neutered societal lambasting and finally to thoroughly under-exciting action film and each of these is underplayed (I’d have loved to have read the shooting script if there was one). I would have thought Rollin had some defense for his roving fusion of empty style and non-profundity but he apparently has nothing to add; so either the film is perfect or not worth the breath it would take to explain it. In the absense of any kind of guidance, and having only the completed film to judge, I’m goin’ with the latter. Take it as a sign that the film is really poorly dubbed into French, yet the actors are all French. That should tell you everything you need to know about the care and precision that went into making it. I could offer a critical reading of Night of the Hunted, but Rollin doesn’t care so why should I?
I watched these two movies with the belief that I would find something to like in the director’s inexplicably vast canon; I didn’t, so now you have to hear my dissapointment. Allow me to illstrate the man’s greatest failing by sharing my favorite line of Night of the Hunted. The lead girl on the doctor in charge of the black tower: He cures my body but empties my head. And that is truly the ethos of everyone of Rollin’s films: nice women to stare at, nothing but the dumbest bullshit coming out of everyone’s mouths. The fundamental problem with all of his movies is that they behave like art films but there is nothing artistic about them. He made films because that was how he made his money; he’s no different than Roger Corman or Al Adamson or Joe D’Amato or anyone else who rather conspicuously took part in the factory filmmaking system. If there’s a lesson to be learned here in examining his films it’s that there are real people out there trying to make films with ambition and smartly crafted scripts and expert direction who never get discovered and that far too much money is being spent on celebrating the meaningless exploitation of women. If I had my way, films of this character, cheap manipulative treks through the effects of supply and demand on the output of artists would be taken from circulation, at least until all the proper films got their day in the sun. Jean Rollin was no artist, and there are far too many of his movies being treated as the works of a misunderstood genius. Anyone who’s idea of pre-production is finding a blonde willing to take her top off should be banned from making films. I’d forgive him if his movies amounted to anything more than nude women, great big pieces of scenery and meaningless dialogue, but I don’t feel much like forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 13: Death by Lethargy

Following the fervor over Rape of the Vampire, two new kinds of films would become common fair all over Europe. The first, the ambient sex film, would be practiced for just under 10 years and then vanish, leaving critics and onlookers to try and lump them half-heartedly into other genres. They weren't quite pornography, as most practitioners seemed like passive observers of the sex acts, rather than wanton purveyors. The directors were just as cool and unconcerned with the sexuality they were depicting as the lion's share of the people doing the deed. Jesús Franco was a big fan of this kind of fare, and did little else during the 70s (The Frightened Woman was another film in this vein). The second genre, as I mentioned in my Rape of the Vampire review, was the lesbian vampire film. As much as Rollin's film did little to impress audiences and critics in France, by 1972, just about every country in europe had produced one, many based on J. Sheridan LeFanu's novel Carmilla or the legend of Countess Bathory. Jean Rollin, as we'll see, split his time between both (when he wasn't making straight-up sex films, which was often). His movies were always static, featured sex and typically had two female leads at the mercy of a group of horny, unbalanced men. Oh, and they were also terrible.

By Jean Rollin

In a prologue not unlike the kinds in front of old American spy serials, we're introduced to four villains in what could be anywhere from the 1700s to the early 1900s who make their living wrecking ships, killing everyone who didn't perish in the crash and stealing the goods from the debris. In the midst of one such night of debauchery, two dazed blondes happen upon our rapscallions. Tina, the only woman in the gang, orders two of the men, Paul and Bosco, to rape and kill them while she has sex with the fourth guy known only as the Captain. We then watch the equally unappealing acts of Paul and Bosco (who look like impressionist painters dressed in kiddie pirate costumes) spend fully ten minutes raping and murdering the two girls, while Tina (played by the lovely and talentless Joëlle Coeur, who was in a few ambient sex films in her time, clearly cast based on her willingness to bare her naked breasts) and the Captain (John Rico, who's easily twenty years older and two hundred pounds heavier than Coeur) have sex.

Back in the island pub (which looks like a poorly furnished costume shop), the Captain tries to unwind amongst the other pirates (one of whom sports a pair of sunglasses) but he keeps having visions of the two women. He wigs out in the tavern and runs to tell his gang leaving the barmaid and her girlfriend to speculate about what's driving him mad. They will act like a Greek chorus throughout the film, except instead of making things clearer, they mostly play cryptic songs on the piano and make things even more confusing (they comment on things occasionally, but it makes no difference. Who cares what Bosco is thinking, he's the villain and he has maybe a dozen lines). The gang takes in the Captain's story but don't have time to react before someone reports having seen the ghosts of two women down by the shore. I'm only just now realizing the parallels between this movie and an episode of Scooby-Doo. So the gang rushes down to the beach in the Mystery Machine to find the g-g-g-ghosts in the ruins of some ships. They manage to corner the poor blondes in an old ship and burn it to the ground, but still the girls somehow manage to escape. Next thing we know, the two women have been led to an old set of ruins, which like most of Rollin's locations is cool and atmospheric but gets nowhere near the attention it deserves. There the two women meet a clown and a portly fellow in full Renaissance Festival garb. These characters tell the girls that they've a big part to play in some cosmic scheme or other and spout some faux-philosophical nonsense before asking the girls to take their clothes off so they can be introduced to Satan, who lives in a locked closet (I'm not kidding). The girls are told that they alone hold the key to letting the prince of darkness free, they just have to choose whether or not they want to...cause that makes sense. I guess the gang have a mean haunting coming their way, though, eh? If only Shaggy ever got half the punishment these guys do...

Enter much running around, terrible special effects, dropping vases on people, svengali piano playing, and nudity...loads of it. So much nudity that it becomes problematic: the women all have tan lines though they live in an age without tanning. The film has no plot to speak of. Things happen, sure, but allow me to run something by you: pirates kill two girls, who don't die, so they kill them again but they still don't die, then they meet Satan, a clown, and a fatman so the pirates die and then the girls die. That isn't so much a story as the finer points of a madman's drunken ramblings. The production design has much the same feeling: the costumes look procured from a poorly attended beat-happening, the sets are limited to the bar and underused outdoor locations, the actors are not really that at all, the death scenes are all based around things that can be executed cheaply (The girls try to kill Tina by dropping bits of stone on her from a great height by raising their arms and lifting them psychically...or whatever). It's awfulness really and truly has to be seen to be believed not that I recommend this or anything else Jean Rollin ever made but I could think of worse things to watch for laughs at a party. I do admit that despite my objections there is a certain hypnotic quality to the outdoor scenes but it is still and all a dreadful movie. It approaches hilarity with its cheapness and purposelessness and the sheer madness of bits like when Joëlle Coeur delivers her big revenge speech while completely nude and hopping on her bed. And who knew Satan was such a good guy?

It's nuts in that way that today's movies don't achieve (except maybe Tommy Wisseau's The Room) because today no one's willing to pay for an hour thirty of rubbish with no plot; today's producers want cookie-cutter sex farces and torture porn to go with their nudity. The days of the ambient sex film are over: if you want nudity (even PG-13 nudity) you have to sit through a lot of very objectionable content first (Hostel, Turistas, Jennifer's Body, etc.). Back in the day, if you had a moody set and a boat load of nude women that was all you needed. This next film was and remains pegged as horror but I defy anyone who's seen it to tell me what's frightening about it. It's in the films refusal to do anything that leads to its misidentification, which so often happened with the ambient sex films. Sure, its sinister and fantastical in a sense, but what exactly is scary about a bunch of women laying about nude on bear skin rugs? Nothing, but people would have rioted if they tried passing this off as Fantasy or Drama.

The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay
By Bruno Gantillon

The title comes from a bit of the Arthur legend about a witch of the same name whose story bears no resemblance to the 'story' in this film. Françoise and Anna are two girls on holiday. They stop at an inn but don't like the look of the place or the attitude of the many leering men inside. They decide instead to spend the night in an abandoned-looking barn. Whilst trying to go to sleep the two have sex; a dwarf spies on them from outside. In the morning two discoveries greet Anna...well, one greets us actually... The barn was attached to a house and the two girls could have slept in beds instead of a pile of hay, but what the fuck do I know? The other is that Françoise is gone. Anna runs into the woods calling her name and finds the creepy dwarf instead who insists he knows Françoise's whereabouts. She follows him to an atoll with a castle in the middle. She and the dwarf take a boat to the castle and are greeted by three women in see-through gowns (a staple of both the ambient sex film and the lesbian vampire film). Anna is then taken to Morgane (Morgana only in the notes for the english-language version of the film, apparently because a silent 'e' would have been too much for Americans to handle. No one ever calls her anything but Morgane), the queen of the island. Morgane insists that Anna not worry so much about her friend, that all will be revealed to her in time.

Anna never gives up asking about Françoise, but she does accept the uniform of the girl-slave (said gown) and partakes of more than a few girl slaves herself. She tries to escape, but Morgane keeps appearing out of nowhere with a full lunch spread and insists that escape is futile....people do a lot of insisting in this film. So she relaxes and along with about four or five dozen other girl slaves hangs out nearly naked making out while watching three of the women perform the sort of dance that is usually reserved for Sinbad the Sailor whenever he reaches a foreign land. Somehow in the midst of her decadent but lazy new lifestyle, she learns that the only way to escape (with or without Françoise, whom she locates in the orgy chamber) is by obtaining three tokens and because this is a french movie with the words "Girl Slaves" in the title one of those tokens is someone's shirt. Because the dwarf has been dwarfed by all the pretty girl slaves hanging about and feels neglected by Morgane, he helps Anna find the tokens so she can escape. And just once more for an even half-dozen: GIRL SLAVES!!!!

One of the other tokens is a ring that makes her invisible. And I don't mean Claude Rains-Kevin Bacon invisible, I mean she's standing right in front of us and everyone pretends not to see her. Gantillon didn't even try a take where she's not in the frame. That's a telling scene because the whole film reeks of that kind of lethargy. No one cared beyond putting on the gowns and writhing around a bit. The film shies away from anything resembling hard-core sex or even mild violence and so is effectively the story of a girl wandering from one orgy to another trying to find the perfect outfit. Yet we know it as a horror film. Thank you Jean Rollin. for allowing this kind of cinematic bunk to not only get made in the first place, then be given a special edition DVD. Doris Wishman made better films than this, because horrid though they were at least things happen in her movies. I wouldn't mind the idea of a film like this if it had any ambition. The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay is in that rare space between offensive and non-existent. If this went the extra seven paces with its content and could have been marketed as porn, I'd maybe not get upset; I often despise pornography but it has no delusions about its ambition. Girl Slaves is not porn because in order to be that someone would have do something; it's not horror for the same reason. I can't defend a movie that skirts major censorship problems by not being objectionable because the whole notion of making a film like this was to be objectionable.

So for awhile humanity was content with the idea that people were producing films where women lounged around in see-through gowns. I don't know how I feel about that. As someone who more often than not identifies as heterosexual, the sight of women in next-to-nothing is not something I can help but enjoy looking at but if I've said it once I've said it a hundred times: women should not be treated as set-dressing. They are not the means to an end, they are ends in themselves but the film industry (as much today as yesterday) has yet to come around to this way of thinking. The ambient sex film essentially gave misogynists a way to legally film what they masturbate about and then get paid for it, maybe even get critical praise 30 years down the line. That Jean Rollin was basically able to carve a niche out for himself in the cinematic landscape is admirable, but he wasn't the first or last to do it. What do men like? Naked women (explosions, car chases, gun fights, fighter planes....). That alone is not (as we have seen) enough to hinge a movie on. Rollin and others, like Bruno Gantillon, José Ramón Larraz and Jesús Franco tried skirting the issue by sprinkling profoundly un-profound images and bits of dialogue in the apparent hope of being mistaken for a genius, but there's no mistaking this films for anything but shit.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 12: Death By Boredom

If you're curious how French horror movies went from Eyes Without A Face in 1960 to The Girl Slaves of Morgana La Fay in 1971 and why the European grindhouse industry began releasing films like Daughters of Darkness and Vampyros Lesbos at roughly the same time, before Last Tango In Paris and then Emmanuelle made it possible for sex to fill prestige films as well as sex films, I've got your answer right here: they needed a catalyst and brother did they get one. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was such an important film that everything afterwards was influenced in some way or other. Whether through it's ignorance of genre conventions, its explicit violence, its political subtext or it's willingness to throw out the rules and kill everyone, Night changed things. In Italy, Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace and then later his Twitch of the Death Nerve did roughly the same thing for that countries' genre films. France wasn't nearly the prolific exporter of fright films that Italy and the US (or even Mexico and the Philippines for that matter) were. So, though it was probably inevitable that a film would come along and change the way that French filmmakers would make their horror movies, it didn't necessarily have to be as fantastic or memorable as Romero or Bava's. France was so willing to evolve as a purveyor and home of the arts that the mere suggestion that a genre had to move in new directions would have been enough to yield fascinating new films. That's why I find it so funny that the only film I've ever seen that is as boring and self-indulgent and nonsensically angsty as French films are so often accused of being was the same film that led to the trend in ultra-violent, sexualized vampire films that most of Europe became known for.

Rape of the Vampire
by Jean Rollin

The first thing we hear is a man telling a woman (as he undresses her) that three strangers are about to arrive and that she should beware the one who says that he'll cure her. They arrive in the middle of his narration at an old castle. They meet the old man who just issued that sage advice and he explains to the three guests, Marc, Brigitte and Thomas, about a legend concerning four vampires. Then we meet four women under his charge, one of whom is probably the girl he just warned (we will never receive any hint of an explanation as to why four young women are living under the care of an old loon). If this sounds maddeningly vague already (it hasn't been five minutes by this time), that's because it is. Contributing equally to the film's disorienting narrative is the fact that all of the women, of which there are many, look nearly identical. The black and white cinematography coupled with every female in the cast having the same shoulder-length dark hair makes distinguishing between them next to impossible; Rollin hadn't yet developed his affinity for blondes. Anyway, the old man has convinced these four women that they're vampires and they'll do whatever he says.

The girls all take orders from a statue out in a field, which the old man stands behind and pretends to be the voice of their evil god. Thomas, for some reason, makes it his mission to cure the girls of their delusions. This goes really well. He frightens them all half to death and runs around throwing things at them and dragging them around the grounds of the old castle they livein. Because the old man had spent so long convincing them they were vampires, he takes Thomas' quest personally. His reaction is to go into the nearest town and tell a bunch of villagers that his girls are vampires and that Thomas has freed them and that they'll soon be out killing wives and daughters. One of the vampires kills Brigitte and then the rabble kill everyone but Marc, Thomas one of the vampires and the old man. An addled-looking fellow who we've seen leering at the girls, kills another, before he gets stabbed to death by the remaining vampire. Thomas and the last vampire try to flee but Marc kills them. End part 1. Oh, yeah, this is in two parts, did I not mention that?

Rollin made the first half as a short film, then, deciding he wanted to make some money, made it feature length by simply picking up where the last one left off and then having his plot disappear in a cloud of ludicrously pompous imagery. This explains a lot, actually, because I'd wondered how someone with apparently no idea how to direct actors could have gone from whatever served as film school to making feature films at such a prolific rate. He just decided that the film had to be longer and so one of the least competent cinematic personalities was born. What he decided was not that the story needed continuation per se but that he could stretch his aimless movie to feature length by piling ridiculous images on top of each other and hope that critics would mistake it for a profound commentary on existentialism. The resulting film is one of the most ponderous, egotistical and boring horror films ever made. The second part of the movie is essentially about the fact that there's a vampire queen pulling the strings of all the vampirey wierdness we've seen so far and that both Marc and Thomas, who is miraculously unharmed for some reason, will join forces with a clinician to find a cure for vampirism. When they find one, it just kills Brigitte for the second time. In the middle of that are endless scenes of dancing, improvisational theatre, crawling, screwing, lots of shots of scenery and waves and pointless talk about absolutely nothing. The vampire queen spends so much time just issuing decrees about this and that and none of it goes anywhere. The plot of part 2 is composed entirely of window-dressing. People die and are brought back with no rhyme or reason, the film has no message beyond 'life is cruel' and it falls apart after the vampire queen shows up. It has just as many shoddy bat effects as anything Monogram Pictures ever produced and thinks it can make up for it's incoherence by filming topless women on beaches and in the backs of corvettes. It's dead wrong.

Rape of the Vampire is a mess, plain and simple. If Jean-Luc Godard had made a send-up of vampire movies instead of retiring to increasingly pedagogical films about the inextricable links between humans and politics at the end of the 60s, it might look like Rape of the Vampire. Of course, it would have been intentionally funny, which Rollin's film is not. The odd bit of arresting imagery shows up here and there, but who cares? Rollin seemed to have been operating under the notion that you could throw a bunch of faux-profound images and words together and that the rest was up to infinitely patient and forgiving film critics. Take for example the scene where Thomas and the last vampire lie naked on a beach after waking from the dead and begin talking about some dreams they had. The vampire: "Yes, a woman strong and imposing leaning over me. Then whiteness....The masks, the white masks! Then, the woman." Palme D'Or, please! The editor went fucking crazy, thrusting us in the middle of scenes that haven't been explained yet, while the actors lazily flit in and out of character. This film is almost a pastiche of the kind of films made by Ingmar Bergman and Michelango Antonioni....except it's not. Rollin also makes a big deal about the juxtaposition of an ancient evil being fought with modern methods (the 'psychoanalyst' is the vampire's nemesis) what with his non-sequiturs involving dueling aristocrats and all that vague sciency stuff in the third act, but all he succeeds at doing is illustrating how much better antique takes on the genre are. Nosferatu and Vampyr look timeless when lined up next to this travesty. Though if you're looking to have fun with it, play David Bowie's "Cygnet Committee" over any portion of the film and you'll have an instant pop-art freakout!
The film does set up Rollin's style, which would appear in everyone of his horror films in the coming decades. There's his cheapness: the vampire queen is just a woman with her breasts hanging out, an old set of curtains around her neck and a lizard pendant stuck to her forehead. She performs her last sermon in front of a giant bat made out of ornate bed sheets and old pillows. A bunch of Rollin's friends round out the cast and he seemed to refuse to do second takes: Just as the queen bends over to bite a new girl in her sex room, a piece of the scenery falls over and hits her shoulder. His penchant for letting the movie air out: There are long stretches where nothing much happens. Granted this isn't as glaring here as it is in say Night of the Hunted or The Grapes of Death, but it's still a problem. His love of breasts: all the vampires wear sheer clothing, see-through nighties, or simply forego covering themselves at all. His laughable direction of actors: the best scenes are the ones with the angry villagers, who clearly hear the word 'action' in the scene, because they sit around statically for a few moments before they put on their angry faces. His love of fat hippies: as in Demoniacs, a tubby guy who looks like he just escaped from a Renn Fest, prances around for much of act 2, doing things that don't make anything like narrative sense. Which brings me to the finest of Rollin's trademarks as a director: His refusal to make sense.

The movie makes no sense at all, Rollin can't even decide whether these people are actually vampires or not. If they're vampires, how come they die so easily, as when Marc and Brigitte appear at the end with Tommy Guns (...the hell?) to finish off their foes? Why do they react to poison and knives? That's not what I'd call a vampire, that's what I'd call a human being who happens to like killing other human beings...or a murderer. We see teeth occasionally, but they do so little that it's hard to tell what exactly their vampiring amounts to. Then there are lines like after the vampire queen leans over to her vampire minions looks at the bodies of Thomas and the last vampire and says: "You know what you have to do....don't forget they're vampires." Well, fucking duh!
I'm usually a bit more charitable with Rollin's films, because though they're all uniformly terrible, they seem to know what they want to say. This was a film made up of plot threads that go nowhere and say nothing. Every scene is apparently meant to be taken out of context because together they make no sense. If a director can't be bothered to assemble a coherent screenplay with something to say, I don't think I should be bothered to play by his rules. It's boring, it's gratuitous, it's nonsensical, it's one of the most pretentious movies I've ever seen and it deserves to be forgotten. And blessedly, I’m not alone in my assessment of this trash. Apparently audiences rioted when Rape of the Vampire debuted in France. They too would not be fed pointless misogynist existentialism lying down; even France hated Jean Rollin. And yet, just what do you think most French horror films looked like for the next decade? That's right empty, ambient films about women in gossamer gowns dancing, screwing and wandering about doing absolutely nothing; Rollin gave us the Lesbian Vampire genre, a gift I don't remember anyone asking for. No less a cinematic pariah than Jesus Franco would adopt that style at the turn of the 70s. The only films that have ever lived up to the stereotypical criticisms of French cinema as a whole were films in the Rollin vein, and by and large most French critics hated those because they aren’t proper films. George A. Romero brought us violence with a message, Mario Bava gave us violence with blinding style, Rollin pretended he had both and waited to be treated like cinematic royalty. He wasn't and today he's barely remembered at all...for once, justice was served.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 11: Death By Scarring

So France was making a foray into genre films and success was proving elusive. Diabolique had placed them on the map in the mid to late 50s (depending on when it arrived in your country) and so distributors went looking for the next big thing. That they relied on several old big things kinda shows you that the French weren't really the people to go for exploitation cinema. They were much more concerned with artistic merit, which for once in the history of the arts, failed them. Thankfully, someone had the bright idea to ask a no-name director already associated with that burgeoning, cultural slap-in-the-face the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave. Wunderkind critics-turned-directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were tearing up cinematic conventions and leaving a trail of defiled genres in their wake. One of the many minor names who got slapped onto the movement in an effort to over-think things (which is a rule with magazines and movements. If you even resemble the members of a movement, you had best believe that some terrified journalist is going to rope you in for fear that they're behind the curve) was a really smart short film director called Georges Franju. Franju's feature debut Head Against The Wall was by all accounts one of the most accurate, bold and haunting takes on mental illness to date (because getting ahold of a minor French New Wave movie is about as easy as hearing 'please' in Boston, I have yet to see it - Ed. I have since seen it, and it's more a study in cultural/social isolation than illness. It fits in rather perfectly with the early crop of New Wave fare in its depiction of someone who simply cannot find his footing in French society). So Champs-Élysées Productions, which was still in relative infancy in 1960, did the reasonable thing and asked Franju, a new filmmaking name, to make them a horror film that might simultaneously appeal to critics and, crucially, younger audiences. They then partnered with veteran production house Lux Films in order to gain access to its roster of respected character actors to make what would become the second biggest French horror film of all time.

Eyes Without A Face
by Georges Franju

The first thing we see is a shifty looking Alida Valli, who'd once owned the international art film scene by appearing in The Third Man and who was headed to a pretty bad end in the hands of Italian filmmakers (look for her in relative prestige films Suspiria and 1900 and unequivocally embarrassing films Killer Nun and Lisa And The Devil). Anyway, Valli's character's name we'll later learn is Louise, but for now she's a nervous, guilty-looking woman driving a car at high speeds with someone in the backseat whose face is covered by a fishing hat. She then parks in a secluded spot and dumps the body into a reservoir. Upon arriving home, which is a stately manor near a private clinic, she's greeted by Docteur Génessier (veteran sideman Pierre Brasseur, who'd been rounding out marquees since the 30s, here effortlessly commanding his screentime with his mad scientist beard and steely gaze which would be copied almost as many times as the plot for this film). Génessier gives her some vague but understanding dialogue and they go into the mansion. On the second floor is the doctor's daughter Christiane who curiously refuses to show her face while both Louise and Génessier comfort her. Without being too specific, they intimate in their talk that some accident has taken place and that they've faked Christiane's death. Christiane is understandably bummed, first because she has no way of telling her boyfriend that she's still alive; second because the accident left her faced scarred to the point of monstrousness. The only thing left intact were her eyes, which are visible behind the face mask she's been forced to wear in the aftermath of the accident.

So why the business with the body dumping? Why haven't they sought medical help for the girl? Well what we learn a little later is that Génessier is both a respected surgeon and a bit of an egomaniacal cad. Christiane explains that he has to control everyone....even on the road. Yes, it was Génessier who crashed the car that claimed Christiane's face and he was so guilt-ridden that he promised to fix his daughter's face if it was the last thing he did. The only problem is that when you're trying to perform secret facial grafting operations (facial transplant is actually a closer approximation to what goes on) you can't very well go around asking for donors. Who would give up their face to edify a guilty mad scientist and his disfigured daughter? Well, Louise and the doctor have found a way around that. Louise goes into Paris and makes the acquaintance of pretty girl loners with facial dimensions roughly equivalent to Christiane and then promises them that she has something worth showing them back at the mansion; in the case of her next victim, it's a cheap apartment. Once they're back at the manse, it's drugging and then involuntary surgery; hence the faceless girl from the car. Why is Louise helping the doctor with his evil plan? Well she too was once in need of some major under-the-table surgery and he helped her get a new face; the only evidence is some scarring which she hides beneath a pearl choker. Their next operation is a qualified success: The girl whom they lure back to the mansion escapes and throws herself from a second story window after they steal her face and the facial tissue they borrow only lasts Christiane about a month before it decays and needs to be removed.
A number of things seem poised to undo the doctor. First is that you obviously can't keep abducting the young girls of Paris without someone noticing. Two detectives (one played by Pierre Brasseur's son Claude, who's appearance in Godard's Bande à Part would solidify his importance in the New Wave) are already on the case and the only thing they manage to get out of the last victim's friends is that she had befriended an older woman with a pearl necklace. Christiane's boyfriend Jacques comes around to the detective to ask about any developments with his presumed dead girlfriend. He doesn't hear anything positive but the mention of a woman with a pearl choker abducting girls catches his ears. Jacques met Christiane through her father because he works at Génessier's clinic, you see. So that means he's pretty familiar with the regulars, including nurse Louise. The police find this information pretty useful and decide a sting is in order. Finally, Christiane herself is in no way happy about this turn of events. She's pretty pissed off about her dad's reckless behavior and even less happy about the fact that he's been sacrificing women on her behalf. If the police don't apprehend him soon, one gets the feeling that Christiane might just take matters into her own hands.

Eyes Without A Face made a pretty tremendous impact on the world. It inspired rip offs and remakes in countries all over the world, the most notorious being The Brain That Wouldn't Die, a minor grindhouse hit that Mike and the bots gave a good working over on one of their many televised years stranded in space on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It was so popular it was enough to retroactively change the name of an old Louis Feuillade film to match it's title when it was revived for scattered screenings and museum stays; Feuillade made silent French serials in the teens and twenties, the most well-known of them Les Vampires and Fantomas are cult items among cinephiles. This is especially funny considering how much Franju loved and stole from Feuillade. It hit Mexico under the name The Torture Chamber of Dr. Faustus and inspired René Cardona to make countless awful mad-doctor films. Israel and Palestine threw down their weapons and embraced each other like brothers....wait, scratch that last. Everyone loved Eyes Without A Face. They loved it so much they were willing to overlook how smart it was and use it to power their nasty little film industries. Indeed everything seems hard-boiled and grimy about it (down to the chilling title) except the movie itself. Eyes Without A Face is an almost unrealistically elegant horror film, lightyears ahead of its peers and disciples where composition and mood are concerned. The characters look like classical sculptures, especially Christiane in her porcelain mask. For all the sweaty madness it would engender in the coming years, the only remotely dirty things about it are the surgery scenes and a few seconds of the climax. Other than that the film is bloodless and relies solely on dialogue, implication and a lot of very harrowed expressions for its shocks and spooks. Also noticeably absent are the jump-cuts and genre send-ups that were by then staples of the French New Wave. You could have dared some filmmakers to film a scene as grizzly as a face transplant in the early 60s and they wouldn't have touched it, let alone with Franju's clinical detachment. It recalls Charles Laughton's handling of his patient's screaming face in Island of Lost Souls. Which meant not only was Franju peerless in the horror genre, he was no longer in danger of being roped in with the other pioneers of the new wave. His take on the horror film was so spotless and beautiful that any lingering associations between him and any other school of filmmaker disappeared. You could easily get the impression from watching Eyes Without A Face that it's director had been at it a lot longer than he was.

Don't get me wrong, as an atmospheric horror film, it's one of the best. There's a misty sort of malaise hanging over the heads of every character and a sense of loss and fatigue plagues even the film's most minor characters. Pierre Brassuer and Alida Valli have pretty challenging roles to play, but they were pros so not only do they pull off a sense guilt attacking their sense of duty, they do it often without saying a word. This is a rarity and a contradiction: a mad science film without any histrionics and some relatively tame science. What's great about it is that the operation doesn't seem like too much of a stretch and the time frame they give isn't all that unreasonable either. The characters drudge from crime to crime waiting to see if anything changes, because absolutely everyone counts on Génessier to make some kind of move, whether they know it or not. So there are long stretches of the simple agony of getting through a day. When you've experienced loss, solitude is the hardest thing of all and we see plenty of that. Edith Scob pulls off a very touching performance from behind a face mask. She is one of Franju's many great compositional victories. Her white face mask is both really eerie and cool and it also reminds us why we don't want to be perfect. As much as we strive for the perfect body or better skin or whatever other cosmetic gain people are after, perfection is actually kind of creepy and getting there is no picnic. Christiane seems like she'd be ok being deformed if it meant seeing Jacques again, but it's her father who imprisons her until she looks perfect again. Sound like any parents you know? So as much as Franju made a modernist Frankenstein tale which hits much closer to home than either Mary Shelley's book or James Whale's movie, he also perfectly outlines what's wrong with most parents. An accepted theory behind parenthood is that your child is a representation of your finest points; if your kid leaves home with torn jeans and a tattoo that is directly proportionate to how responsible you are as parent in the eyes of society (or at least in the minds of parents who take the words of their fuckhead friends and neighbors as the gospel truth). So, your kid wants to leave home with her face scorched off, how's that going to reflect on you? The surgery is as much about Génessier's pride and arrogance as it is about curing anyone of anything. Which is even more frightening because it means Christiane may never actually be able to tell her dad what she thinks because on top of being imposing and having science on his side, he's also her dad and standing up to an authority figure like that is not easy for children to do.
With all this subtext and really impressive direction hanging around it's not the least bit surprising that people completely ignored its finer points in favor of its theoretical horror, at least until it's critical resurrection in the last twenty or so years. Those looking to rip it off kept the vanity of the doctor and the guilt of the patient but forgot why they were there in the first place. In fact the one thing they sought to replicate was what I found myself least impressed with. The scenes with the surgery are well executed and the premise is psychologically terrifying to be sure, but after one viewing I just don't find it that scary anymore. So when you take out all of that, you know, intelligent motivation shit and get to the mad science, you're selling sleazy self-importance, which is certainly fun but it isn't the least bit compelling. That's part of the reason that The Doctor's Horrible Experiment doesn't work; that film's mad scientist Dr. Cordelier is an asshole because of the fact of science. We don't know what he was after with his experiments and Jean Renoir refused to raise the stakes so it's just arrogance amplified by science to the point where he goes around kicking people in the streets because he's so fucking impressive. Franju piled on the gravity to the point that the slightest nod or gesture is really devastating and everyone is capable of pulling it off. If Franju had been slightly more concerned with making sure he was scaring people, this would be a masterpiece. It's pretty fucking close though.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 10: Death By Miscalculation

So, it's 1958 or thereabouts. Audiences worldwide have come out in droves to see Diabolique and French studios maybe see that their avoidance of the horror genre is something they should cure themselves of if they wanted to see that kind of money come in. Unfortunately for the makers of the next two major horror films, they relied on two people who had no experience or stomach for horror. Films EGE turned to Roger Vadim, a director with a penchant for marrying his leading ladies, most likely on the basis that because he'd caused a huge stir with both his feature debut And God Created Woman and 1959s Les Liaisons Dangereuses and he could be counted on to bring audiences in. Some distributors thought the answer lay with Jean Renoir, France's most revered director, who'd just made a horror film for French TV. Both were dead wrong. Neither film did even remotely well, primarily because the trademarks of both men were noticeably absent. On top of that, neither was particularly good. Vadim turned in a boring, predictable and conspicuously sex-free take on the soon-to-be-ubiqituous J. Sheridan Le Fanu novel Carmilla and Renoir, who usually made compelling meditations on class divisions, turned the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into a ludicrous film about the horrors of rude people.

The Doctor's Horrible Experiment
by Jean Renoir
Docteur Séverin is a respected scientist who goes to visit a colleague with a discovery to share. The discovery that his friend Dr. Cordelier has made is a bit of medicine that makes him into a hairy fellow with Jo Shishido cheeks who goes around making people's days slightly miserable. Of course, we're not 'supposed' to know that Cordelier and Opale the rude guy are one and the same. The big reveal at the end would be completely without gravity if we knew the entire time that they were the same....oh, wait, it is. In fact the whole film never really makes it off the ground. The stereotype for TV movies is that they're all very tame as there couldn't be even a glimmer of a chance that they might offend someone. Well, imagine they took one of those totally harmless movies then just passed it off as a proper film. It worked sometimes in the 70s, like with Crawlspace or anything by Dan Curtis, but not in the 50s, not in France, and not by Jean Renoir.

There are a thousand reasons with The Doctor's Horrible Experiment doesn't work. The film was initially called La Testament Du Docteur Cordelier, which made as little sense narratively as the Horrible Experiment, the reissue title, does tonally. The experiment and its consequences are far from horrible (I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the film is. There's a stipulation in the contract when you start operating a review-based website that says you need to make at least one obvious title-based joke a year). Cordelier or Opale starts his reign of terror by trying unsuccessfully to separate a woman from her baby and then he trips a bunch of construction workers with his cane. The best way I can think to describe his appearance is something along the lines of a dime-store approximation of a homeless wino version of Mr. Hyde. His clothes are too big, he walks with a limp, he's got those ridiculous sideburns and squirrel cheeks and his idea of an evil walk is nimbly side-stepping people as they approach him. I feel like the film is about twenty minutes exposition, showing what a rich tool Cordelier is, and then 75 minutes of Opale sinisterly avoiding people on the streets of Paris. The performances are all risible. Michel Vitold is a pious wimp as Séverin and Jean-Louis Barrault does less heavy-lifting as Opale then he does as Cordelier. To say that nothing happens is an understatement; granted Georges Leclerc's cinematography is nice but it's like all of Renoir's genius stepped out to lunch.

Let me say that Jean Renoir is one of my all time favorite filmmakers. He made a string of hits in the late 30s that almost no one can touch. Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game are unprecedented masterworks. But by 1959 his career was winding down and he'd made just about every kind of film he'd ever wanted to: dramas, comedies, technicolor musicals and some of the finest politically-charged melodrama on record. My guess is that Horrible Experiment was probably more about Renoir dabbling in horror for once in his life than it was about some long-lost aspiration to make Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde The Movie. Renoir's take on life was a bit more worldly than most genre filmmakers so it made sense that after movies like The Lower Depths and La Bête Humaine, the idea of making anything as dark as Diabolique or even, say, The Black Room or The Seventh Victim probably didn't appeal to him. So he took what really bothers most people, some asshole knocking them over in the street, beating up children and kicking the handicapped, and constructed a horror movie around it. Renoir had never shown his age as a filmmaker until this film: I'm quite surprised no one asks Opale to get off his lawn. To be fair, Opale is really worrying, but that's not what horror should be. Horror should be a visceral experience, not the feeling of collective agreement about how socially unacceptable something is. No one watching Horrible Experiment could possibly say Opale isn't annoying, but I don't know anyone (other than apparently the Finnish board of film censors who banned the movie) who would find this all that scary or interesting. I went back and forth about what grade to give this movie and though I feel bad about preying on old man's antiquated view on horror, the film is worse than bad, it's boring, which is unforgivable. It made me uneasy watching this guy trip people in the streets for what felt like hours but it takes more than a bright mind and an accomplished style to make a great fright film. Films EGE learned that lesson the hard way in 1960.

Blood and Roses
by Roger Vadim

The first thing we hear is voice-over narration by Annette Vadim (née Stroyberg) telling us that once upon a time, a trip from Italy to the Carribbean took more than the few hours it does now by plane. "What does that have to do with anything?" I hear you asking. Well, the narrator it seems has been around long enough to see the advances we've made in transportation and what we're about to see is just one of her many incarnations in human form. The narrator is also never going to shut the hell up, so get used to her. We're then taken to an Italian villa in what's probably the present day (1960). Leopoldo De Karnstein (Mel Ferrer, who's career was about to take a nose-dive into Italian schlock) is preparing for his marriage to Georgia Monteverdi and so invited his close friend Carmilla and her father up to his villa to celebrate. Carmilla and Leopoldo have been friends since adolescence and she harbours a pretty big crush on him (And really, who could blame her? Mel Ferrer looks like a cross between an aging Henry Fonda and a youngish Martin Landau but he's called upon to cavort with two women fifteen years his junior). Leopoldo also invited Guido Naldi, a fireworks expert to set up some pyrotechnics at his engagement party. Naldi is also a card-carrying member of the exposition police because his announcement that the perfect place to set up his fireworks is an old mausoleum sends out a wave of shifty eyes amongst everyone in the sitting room.

Carmilla is a bit more impetuous than Georgia, which she demonstrates by explaining the local lore concerning the vampires who are supposed to have inhabited the manse once upon a time; they're also the reason that that mausoleum is considered haunted. All but one, Millacra, was killed by villagers; her tomb was simply buried in the mausoleum, leaving her fiance alone to wonder what happened. He suffered in ways beyond being jilted; his next three fiances all died before their wedding day. Carmilla apparently believes the legend as she goes into a trance just telling the story and is later impelled by the narrator to put on Millacra's old wedding dress, which is just hanging out in the attic for some reason. She then goes out and finds the mausoleum (because the narrator won't stop telling her how great it is) just as Naldi's fireworks accidentally set off some long-forgotten German explosives and open up passage to Millacra's tomb. Well, with all that convenient build-up it'd be a shame if Millacra's spirit didn't posses Carmilla's body, now wouldn't it? 'specially considering their names are pretty clumsily thought-out anagrams. And so commences phase two, wherein a newly possessed Carmilla turns on the charm to win her cosmic boyfriend away from that Monteverdi girl, drinks the blood of a maid and does so much goddamn voice over you want to strangle the life out of her. Along the way we get a really excellent dream sequence that probably gave American censors a heart attack.

I have a few theories concerning Blood and Roses or Et Mourir de Plaisir as it was known in its home country. The first is about the name: And To Die Of Pleasure probably didn't have the poetic horror (read: zing!) that distributors were looking for, so the name Blood and Roses was chosen because both things appear in the movie, often around the protagonists. My next theory concerns the future ex-Mrs. Vadim. My guess is that she asked for more screentime and when her husband couldn't give her any, because he hadn't filmed any, they went back and added enough voice over for a Ken Burns documentary. Vadim leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination of the viewer and explains her motivation for doing everything! So all that stuff that's usually clouded in shadow, so as to create some blessed tension, is completely out in the open. I don't know if you can really call this a horror film considering there's no doubt in anyone's mind how it will end and who will have been harmed. The ending could have had some bite to it if he hadn't let the voiceover explain to us in painstaking detail just what a great idea it is. In fact the only thing left to the imagination is what's under the oddly antiquated gowns on Elsa Martinelli and Annette Vadim. Considering that Roger Vadim became famous for showing the world Brigitte Bardot's ass (another ex-wife) he shows considerable restraint. I don't know if this is because the producers (of which there were none on his first film) finally got him by the collar and said "knock it off" or if he was just bored by the project. There are flashes of Vadim's charmingly prosaic risque direction, like when he flirts briefly with lesbianism between Georgia and Carmilla, but mostly all he does is hint. When you realize that Barberella was in this man's future, this becomes incredibly maddening. And my final theory concerns said nightmare scene. The French version of this film is fully fifteen minutes longer than the version that the English speaking world got. My guess is that maybe some of the implied sexuality became more than that before the censors got their scissors on it. My guess is maybe a more satisfying version is out there, but I have no way of knowing or getting to it. But what confuses me is that the dream sequence features a topless woman on an operating table (one of a few memorable images) so what exactly were the censors afraid people would see? Was lesbianism a bigger threat to American morals than bare breasts? That's not the America I know...

Blood and Roses was a series of gambles that didn't pay off. EGE bet that Vadim could generate anything more than sexual tension, and he couldn't. Vadim thought his then wife could carry a film and boy could she ever not do that. Someone thought Mel Ferrer could laugh and carry on like a man twenty years younger, and he couldn't. Screenwriter Claude Brulé thought that any take on Carmilla could make a name for itself without heaps of the novel's famous sexual content. Ten years later, the name Carmilla became synonymous with foreign sex films that lost all but the faintest glimmer of Lefanu's story. Both Renoir and Vadim were men with a style that filmgoers had become accustomed to and their horror films failed those in the audience with expectations. That's why only film nerds and serious critics have any knowledge of either film. Horrible Experiment was put in a box along with some of the director's lost silent short films, which is wise given its aching dissonance with his major works. Blood and Roses is mostly unavailable (I watched a rather sorry VHS copy for this review). Just goes to show you that sometimes the arthouse and the grindhouse aren't meant to mix.
The movies are important if for no other reason than studios needed something more alluring than two floundering titans to fill theaters. The next time around, though, things would be different. A film was on it's way that would cement France's place in the history of fright films, picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Diabolique.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 9: Death By Fright

In looking back at classic French horror films you’ll notice something almost immediately: there aren’t many. Granted France had its share of fright films during the golden age, we just don’t have any way of getting at them. If France had divisions of their major studios like Universal or RKO dedicated to making horror films, they’ve either been lost or forgotten because there is nothing even remotely close to the boom in horror films that the states and England saw in the 30s and 40s. France, of course had early silent horror films (that are nearly impossible to track down) as the French were pioneers in the field of cinema. I think it may be because the success of those horror films from the US was rare indeed. I don’t mean box office wise, I mean artistically. How often have you seen something outside of the canon of the so-named classic Universal era (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) that was worth a goddamn? Other than Val Lewton’s films for RKO the odds of finding a really great American horror film before the 60s, and I mean start to finish great, is really quite tough. You’ve got oddities like Freaks and West of Zanzibar and then crucial films like King Kong, White Zombie and Phantom of the Opera in there, but other than those can you name one classic that deserves its status? As a counterpoint, look at the films now considered classics of European horror. Germany alone gave us Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis and The Hands of Orlac in the span of eight years. I think the reason that we don’t know about many French horror films in the span between the 20s and the 50s is because they knew that there were more horrific things in the everyday without the aid of the occult or cloaked murderers. There were shades of horror to be found in dramatic films like Jean Renoir's La Bête Humaine or Abel Gance's J'Accuse! but you'd be hard pressed to find a haunted house or a mad doctor just doing their thing. I’ve touched on this phenomenon before, but today we look at it square in the face and that is that French filmmakers have ideas bigger than one genre can contain. The first bona fide French horror classic was less a horror film than an intense bait-and-switch of expectations, sleight of hand and unnerving images. The filmmakers needed the audience to believe as strongly in the terror on screen as the characters did, a notion largely absent from America’s genre films.

by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Christine and Nicole are two very tired looking teachers at a boarding school in a small French village. The reason for their drawn appearances is that they’re both locked in what appear to be very tumultuous relationships with the same man, Christine’s husband Michel, the principle of the school. Christine has been aware of Nicole’s affair with her husband for some time, to the point that she’s started offering her tips to deal with her husband’s ill temper and foul mannerisms. He’s clearly made both of their lives miserable, as exemplified by a pretty disgusting display at dinner with their colleagues (not to mention all their students) present. Just when you begin to think that maybe these two ought to do something, they do. In fact they’ve been planning to kill Michel for some time. The plan goes something like this: they drive out to an apartment that the two women have rented as both their alibi and as an out of the way place to do the deed in relative secrecy. Christine will call Michel and threaten to divorce him; not wanting to invite that kind of embarrassment, he’ll come out to reason with his long-suffering wife. Once he arrives they drug him, drown him in the bath, put him in an old wicker trunk, put his body in the school swimming pool and wait for him to surface, their hands apparently blood-free. It sounds like the perfect plan, but this wouldn’t exactly be a fright film if it were.

Christine has a number of doubts, many brought on by her heart condition. She’s worried that the stress of the operation might just cause her poor ticker to give out and it nearly does from the look on her face as she gives her husband wine that Nicole poisoned earlier that day. There are a couple of near-misses involved in bringing the corpse from their room to the pool and once Michel’s body is at the bottom the pool becomes a fixation for Christine; she can’t stop obsessing over it, staring at it during class and experiencing palpitations whenever anyone goes near it. Finally she and Nicole are granted an excuse to uncover the last phase of their plan when something falls into the pool and one of the boys who swims after it comes up with the principle’s cigarette lighter. Imagine both womens’ shock when the pool is emptied and the man they left there is absent. Though I guess it makes a certain kind of sense; after all, only someone with an intimate knowledge of the crime could begin leaving hints that Michel is still alive for Christine and Nicole to find, like when the suit they drowned him shows up pressed and cleaned at the school. Christine and Nicole do some investigating and very quickly they determine that either someone found the body and moved it or something went wrong with their plan. The third option, that Michel has come back from the grave to haunt them, seems just as ridiculous to them as it probably does to you, but when even the students begin seeing him around the school reason and logic are no longer the comfort they once were.
The greatest strength that the film has is that you the viewer are presented with the same set of facts as our heroes. We experience the ups and downs of the plan right along with the girls because we know what a cad Michel is and we want poor, pretty Véra Clouzot (the director’s wife and favorite leading lady until her death of a heart attack in 1960, poor thing) and sassy Simone Signoret to come out on top. When we start receiving the clues left by whomever is out to get Christine and Nicole, they are just as shocking to us as they are to them. Granted, I’m speaking in something like generalities; I had the misfortune to have the ending ruined for me before I ever got a chance to see the movie, for which I blame Showtime’s 100 Greatest Horror Movies and John Motherfucking Landis. Anyway, the first time I saw one of the final menacing clues (it involves a school picture) I couldn’t help feeling like the bottom had dropped out of my stomach, even though I knew where the film was going. I can only imagine how much more effective it would have been if I’d actually been in the dark because as it is it's extremely effective. The picture and of course the conclusion are pitch-perfect. Unlike American or British films of the same vintage, the film is played entirely straight. Christine and Nicole and everyone else for that matter are all firmly grounded in reality; even at the end when it seems like something truly sinister can only account for the mischief we’ve seen, Christine refuses to believe in anything but what she can see (her background as a nun helps drive home her reluctance to believe in anything, especially as I strongly suspect Michel was directly responsible for her fall from grace). No one ever jumps to conclusions, in fact no one but Christine, Nicole and the detective they hire called Fichet ever knows anything’s at all wrong. Christine has to put up a front of innocence while everything she takes for granted slips away. In essence, it’s the first film I can think of where massive fits of hysteria and superstition don’t immediately plague our heroes. Even when the supernatural seems to be the only possible answer, Christine doesn’t want to believe it.

All this is just a round about way of saying that this film, its director Henri-Georges Clouzot and its intended audience were all smart. Clouzot plays up the evils of humanity, even in the children who attend the boarding school, so that when he pulls the rug out from under you at the end you’ll be shocked but prepared. His script is amazing; every line of dialogue, no matter how trivial, every single tangent serves the plot and his investigation of the crime is just as clever as the crime itself. And to keep everyone grounded in reality while things spiral out of control, his direction is very straight forward (if nicely composed). The performances are uniformly great down to the bit players and the film is, with the exception of one shot of Christine running down the school hallways at night during the film’s conclusion, completely free of artifice or anything to suggest that what we’re seeing isn’t really happening. Yet even lacking stylish editing or expressionistic shadowplay the film manages to be just as creepy and effective as anything produced in Germany at the height of the 20s. Clouzot knew that what is most frightening is what’s around us and what people are capable of and even with an incredibly frightening conclusion, what we’re supposed to take away from all this is that people are the most frightening thing in the world.
So while the film straddles the line between mystery and horror (yet still maintaining a masterful feeling of suspense) it can’t really be called either without selling its finest aspects short. Clouzot was a tremendous filmmaker who refused to just make a genre film, whose ideas went beyond what we typically associate with ordinary stories and made some of the most riveting films in history that despite being mostly a half century old haven’t aged a day. If you haven’t seen the film, run, don’t walk, but don’t let the world ruin its ending for you because there is nothing quite so satisfying as letting something so wonderful and spellbinding frighten the hell out of you the one time that it can. Diabolique gets to the core of why fright films are so tremendous, the magic, if you will that comes from a good scare. Sometimes, when a plot is lovingly crafted and the scares are so carefully planned, it just feels great to turn the lights out and let a master auteur do what he does best.