Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween, You Dogs!!!

For the final night of voodoo fun and on the very special occasion of Halloween, I’ve got a classic here that is just begging to be discovered. I’ve been saving this one for a special occasion such as this because it is not everyday you encounter a movie where so many women bounce about in leopard undies in the jungle. This is a movie so full of the sort of perverted auteurism that harkens to a not-too-distant past, specifically the year 1973. Ah, 1973….a simpler time. A time when Jack Taylor was on top of the world and the white man knew as much about black, youth, and female culture as he did about Vietnamese cooking. A time when voodoo movies were reaching the height of their potential to insult. In the world of voodoo films, there’s only one thing worse than Americans bastardizing the religion for the sake of laughs and that’s when other countries see our films and make their own versions, throwing out even the faintest glimmer of dignity they may have received in the states.

Night of the Sorcerers
by Amando de Osorio

So, what have the gods of bad movies given us this time? A prologue fills us in on the story as such. Somewhere on a sound stage that the titles tell us is in Bumbasa, which, lets be clear, doesn’t exist, a white woman is being sacrificed by a group of dancing Africans. Then, outdoors during the day, a group of soldiers comes looking for her. I point out the difference in the time of day because Amando de Osorio would like very much for us to believe that these scenes are happening simultaneously, but I’d like to know where in the world night goes from being dark to bright as day depending on how deep in the jungle you are. Anyway, the whites show up and shoot everyone to death (again they film the white guys opening fire and edit in footage of the black people being shot on the sound stage without ever showing them together) but not in time to save the sacrificial woman, whose severed head stands upright and laughs maniacally at no one in particular. Now if that sounds like a lot of half-assed artifice for one prologue, baby, you don’t know the half of it.

Next thing we see is a party of safari-ing folks most of whom I believe qualify as Jive-Turkeys. Their leader, one Jonathan Grant, is played by none other than that great mustachioed purveyor of protagonism, Jack Taylor. Once you’ve seen Jack Taylor, you never forget him. He’s the bloke who shaves for a few minutes during Female Vampire and spies on Dyanik Zurakowski while she gets undressed in The Vampire’s Night Orgy. Osorio used him a bunch of times, including his third entry in the blind dead series The Ghost Galleon; my first encounter with Jack and his bottomless face. His role as Grant is actually one of the few he was suited to, in that he isn’t chasing anyone’s skirt and I don’t have to watch him do so.

So Grant and his team show up in Bumbasa (the English language dubbing correctly identifies the region as Mumbasa, which is real, but the titles have it wrong) looking to document endangered species. The team – a dark skinned professor Rod Carter and three buxom women, Liz Meredith, Carol Harris, and Tanika – are greeted first by the prying eyes of a bunch of villagers for no real reason. Those gentleman are driven away by the arrival of Tomunga, a local fur trader who's been expecting them. He tells them the place is haunted by ancient voodoo and they’d do good not to linger. Carter and Grant think they know better and decide to hold their camp for a day before pressing on further into the jungle. And while they discuss this some exposition comes out. First is that Carol is the daughter of whomever is funding their expedition. She’s also got a crush on Carter, who’s shacking up with Tanika. That night Carter gets the first watch and spends it screwing Tanika half submerged in a stream while Liz photographs them from a bush. When Liz gets tired of snapping pictures she wanders off into the same voodoo ceremony that claimed the girl from the prologue and she gets her head cut off. When we see her next she will be dressed in a leopard print bikini like the first girl. The next day tensions run high. Liz is gone, Carol is mad at everyone, Tomunga gives no help other than to say ‘get out’, and when Grant develops the photos in Carol’s camera, he sees that his lookout was doing no such thing. Then the natives decide that suspense isn’t really what this film does best and kill both Carol and Grant. Just one more voodoo ceremony left, but will Rod stop it in time?

This film confirmed a theory of mine I’ve been cultivating ever since I saw Tombs of the Blind Dead and that is that its director Amando de Osorio is the Spanish equivalent of Russ Meyer. Granted Russ Meyer never made an out-and-out horror film, but think for a moment about the two men’s work in their respective genres. Both fill their works with artfully composed footage in interesting locales, both use characters intended to be mentally handicapped in some way, both rely on lewd, simple humour, both fill their films with antgonists who seem to get off on being evil, and finally their movies are filled to the brim with women whose defining feature is comically enormous breasts. Russ Meyer and Amando de Osorio lived and worked in different times and Meyer’s use of nudity was much more revolutionary (ok, I’ve just read that twice and see how funny that word is, so, let’s say taboo instead) than Osorio’s, but neither man’s films benefited from their gratuitous nudity – in fact, Meyer’s best film, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, featured none at all. Both men really, really enjoyed breasts and put a lot of energy and thought into pressing them into (and out of) different costumes. Take a film like Fangs of the Living Dead – the plot is a mishmash of giallo clichés and vampire film plots shuffled together like a deck of cards, but the one thing you won’t forget is the parade of nearly nude women (some in costume vampire teeth) who populate the film. Osorio was curiously outside the average market of horror films. Not stuck making very strange masked-killer movies like so many of his countrymen and not nearly as busy as Jesus Franco or Joe D’Amato, he spent most of the second half of his career making gothics that he filled with buxom women. Tombs of the Blind Dead and its three sequels follow much the same formula, but they kept writing his checks and there was even the odd accidentally beautiful shot in there, sort of like in Meyer’s films. Russ was a gifted cinematographer and his last films were carefully planned, even if they don’t feel that way at first. Osorio had a way with…well, he wasn’t a gifted cinematographer, but he really took his time finding transcendently weird ways to film scantily clad women, which brings us to Night of the Sorcerers.

This movie does have a few nicely composed shots in it and the photography cleans up nice on the DVD transfer, but the thing I’m gonna remember years from now when the plot escapes me is the footage of Bárbara Rey, Loreta Tovar, and María Kosty bouncing around the jungle in leopard print bikinis. Now, I’m not sure what religion worships the god of themed stripper costumes but Osorio seemed fairly certain that when you die in a voodoo ceremony, you come back in leopard. So, how does he stage the stalk-and-kill scenes featuring our undead beauties? He has them hop like bunnies and then shows it in slow motion. He knew his audience, I’ll give him that. There must be some kind of prize for this – the film has seven characters and we see five of them naked before the credits roll; of the four women (not counting the topless girls in the voodoo ceremony) in the movie, they are all topless at one point and three of them get to bounce around like they’re in a wet t-shirt contest at Señor Frogs. I’ve never seen anyone give that kind of thought to the obligatory naked women in a zombie film. That sort of care I’ve only seen in Russ Meyer’s movies.

As for the voodoo, this film has the blasphemy points of Wes Craven’s Serpent and the Rainbow. Night of the Sorcerers doesn’t have anything that you wouldn’t find in the earliest of voodoo pictures (the genre went largely unchanged from I Walked With A Zombie onward), except now we’re treated to racism and nudity set to Muzak! That the plot is largely unremarkable isn’t really my complaint, it’s simply that there didn’t appear to be the slightest hint that anyone gave this bullshit a second thought. Now, King of the Zombies isn’t exactly what I’d call progressive, but put it in the context of its 1941 release date and Night of the Sorcerers starts to look a lot more pathetic. I would have thought that the blaxploitation movement and especially Sugar Hill’s release in the states would have sent ripples around the globe, and I guess in a way it did. Voodoo zombie pictures essentially became extinct soon after this one (they were even given a sort of farewell in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie), or anyway, they evolved. When it became clear that people wouldn’t come out for a voodoo picture, producers found another genre to populate with naked natives, heedless violence and more xenophobia than you can shake a stick at – the cannibal movie (the degrees of separation meet at Zombi Holocaust, and I mean that two ways – the meeting of the zombies and cannibals and the big ass mistakes made in the hands of distributors).

Night of the Sorcerers also has the distinction of featuring some of the sorriest translation errors I’ve yet seen. I discovered something when I accidentally left the subtitles on when I changed the language to English to hear the terrible dubbing – the words on the subtitle track and the words on the English dubbing don’t match. This means that someone – presumably Osorio – translated the dialogue into English from Spanish and didn’t have it proofread. He had his actors record it, mistakes and all, when all along there was a subtitle track written with the correct dialogue. That’s how it seems anyway – what I know for certain is that the line “I’m molested that Professor Carter made such a bad choice…with that dirty half-breed” wound up in the final cut. Molestar, the verb 'to annoy', seems to have been directly translated from Spanish with no regard for its actual meaning. Then there are the problems in the delivery that make the bad dialogue even worse. There’s a scene in the beginning when Liz and Tanika talk about Carol’s involvement in the expedition. Liz says something along the lines of “Carol’s used to getting what she wants,” and Tanika’s reply is a curt “Yes, and I’m too!” And while we’re on the subject of Carol, why is she there? She’s the daughter of the expedition’s backer, but she clearly hates being there and serves no practical purpose, so…what’s the deal? Just another set of breasts I suppose. And why does Liz want to take nude photos of Tanika and Carter? She claims that she’s going to make money off of them, but what magazine in the world would buy pictures of people screwing without their consent? And why does she explain her plan while sitting around naked? And why don’t Tomunga and Tanika get last names? And what nationality are they supposed to be? Do they know each other, because they act like they do? And who are those Africans who stare at them at length in the beginning for no reason and who never come back to serve a narrative function? Where are the soldiers from the prologue? I feel like I’m taking Crazy Pills! Not only does Night of the Sorcerers have no respect for a religion it doesn’t understand, it has no respect for people of any nationality. It is a film about hateful people who don’t trust each other, most of whom live just long enough to get naked – exactly like a Russ Meyer film.

Friday, October 30, 2009

For A Real Halloween Vacation Try Canada...Sorry, America...Try America!

As we’ve seen voodoo films from the 1940s capitalized on the things that had already proved successful marketing tools. Mantan Moreland, for example, was a bankable talent (lord knows why) and so it made sense for King of the Zombies to look like it did. So if we apply that same logic to the 1980s it makes perfect sense that a producer looking to disingenuously make a couple of bucks off a long-dead fad, they would use the voodoo zombie film as their chosen method and that’s exactly what Shledon S. Goldstein, Eleanor Hilowitz and Charles Storms did in 1986. Like King of the Zombies their film has no respect for its audience and asks you to believe a lot of rather silly things about people, this time around instead of exploiting racial humourists, the group of people that the three Canadians chose to exploit were Metalheads and punk rockers. Between its insultingly laconic and nonsensical plot and appalling misrepresentation of youth culture, it's a wonder Zombie Nighmtare isn't more well known. Even an appearance on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 couldn't get people to reappraise it's cult status....maybe it just sucks too much even for die-hards.

Zombie Nightmare
by Jack Bravman

The first thing we see is a rather poorly executed voodoo ritual. After an angry looking fellow rises from a box (it’s supposed to be a coffin) and screams at his ridiculous summoner we shift gears to a cheery baseball game. A young black woman watches (cause nothing appeals to attractive young black women than an all white baseball game, the highlights of which include a doughy guy showing off for his screeching son) and then tries to go home but is intercepted by a couple of movie greasers; the sort of people whose filthy hair and white shirts are supposed to pass for menace. The doughy guy comes to her rescue (not only is he fascinating, he's a suburban superhero) but gets stabbed to death in front of his wife and son. Then we flash-forward to that kid's post-adolescence where he's become a baseball player just like his old man. On the downside he also grew into Jon Mikl Thor, a rather unfortunately dressed post-metal head. We join Thor just as he wins a game for his team to a synth score that might ordinarily accompany a corporate training video. Then, because this is a Canadian film from the 80's, we get shown the director's idea of a wild night. Bored secretaries and young professionals dance like zombies until some punk kids interrupt them with their noise and loud conversation (later, to show just how badass he is, one of them will throw food at his mother. These kids must be stopped!). They get ejected (cause they're so dangerous!) and decide that what they'd like to do is drive around aimlessly and accidentally hit Jon Mikl Thor (but only after he's thwarted a motherfucking robbery while buying groceries for his mother. I think he was on his way to save some orphans from a burning, sinking church picnic but never made it).

The Italian grocer who Thor saved from being robbed returns the favour by delivering the dead hero’s corpse to his mother's doormat instead of, I don't know, calling a fucking ambulance. Mom is so distraught she decides to call Molly Mokembe. Who's that, you ask? She's a voodoo priestess who happens to live up the fucking block. More importantly she's the girl from the prologue who was almost killed by Squiggy and The Fonz. So after a few long minutes of watching Manuska Rigaud (who wisely kept her last name out of the credits) chewing the scenery as a neighborhood voodoo priestess, Thor comes back as a baseball-bat wielding zombie. You know what this means, don't you? Them punks better watch theyselves! You know what else it means? Because the footage of Thor coming back to life is the same footage from the very start of the movie, I’m willing to bet that Jack Bravman didn’t shoot nearly enough for this to meet it’s length requirement so he padded his movie with stupid tricks like re-using footage for no reason and lengthy scenes where people talk about nothing at the twist-n-crème. But what the fuck do I know?

Can I take a minute and point out that everyone of these 'punks' is so clearly a trust-fund kid. With the exception of their 'leader' Jim, they're all about as whitebread as kids come. And let's talk Jim for a minute, he looks like Axl Rose by way of David Lee Roth...except uh, I don't know somehow like a drag queen despite his constantly trying and failing to score with women. Two of the supposed punk kids play tennis in their spare time, though they pay for it, which makes them about as dangerous as David Cassidy. When they sneak around in the tennis club after dark Thor finds and murders them. Jim gets his trying to rape the waitress at the twist-n-crème, which is like a suburban Montreal dairy queen. When Amy, one half of the last two kids left alive, wants to book it before she gets murdered, she and the other kid go to rob Jim's uncle's garage. This doesn't go well. We then learn Goofus and Galant from the prologue grew up to be Jim's father and a detective Churchman, who's been overseeing the murder investigation throughout the film and who is played by a visibly exasperated Adam West. The survivors convene at Thor's grave and the plot comes out (not that it matters) and the only person left alive is the third or fourth-least likable person in the movie.

I believe that what Goldstein, Hilowitz and Stern (and don't they sound like a couple of lawyers?) were hoping to make was the Canadian Return of the Living Dead, with voodoo in place of that films charming embrace of existing zombie lore. So we have a smattering of punk music, a couple of in-name-only punk kids, and at the end some zombies burst out of the cemetery grounds (soundstage). Nice try, but Return of the Living Dead this is not. The problems start with a facile understanding of punk culture. Take the music. The film starts with a Motörhead song and that in and of itself is a problem. Motörhead were never punks nor were they ever really considered metal, though they had an equally big fanbase in the punk and metal scene. They got big in 1979 when they probably seemed a departure from Judas Priest or Black Sabbath (and certainly from whatever shitty rock bands were on the radio at the time) but Lemmy and Co. were too soft to please people who were ravenous for real harsh stuff like Metallica or Slayer (by 1986 they had fallen a bit by the wayside). I don’t think Motörhead had any trouble converting fans in either circle (and for a good reason, they’re quite excellent, even on their more recent albums) but if you want straight-up punk music listen to Slaughter and the Dogs or early Clash or The Sex Pistols. Motörhead were more interested in volume than any kind of political sentiment (they weren't without politics, like The Ramones, but they aren't remembered for their progressive stance on anything, either). Regardless, this was third-tier punk or metal at. Kudos for having Girl School on the soundtrack as well, but again they were in between genres. My guess is after paying for the Head and Girlschool songs the budget ran out so bands nobody remembers like Fist and Jon Mikl Thor's own band, which he selflessly called Thor, start to make appearances. Thor did most of the relentlessly terrible synth incidental music as well (a cost-cutting measure more than anything else I’m guessing). So you see what I mean...if the music editor and the producers couldn't agree about the music that their hooligans would be blasting in a car stereo what chance did their characters have?

The kids fall so short of menacing I simply don't know what the movie's wants to say about them. But for Jim, whose parents are rich, which negates any rebelling he plans to do especially considering his method of getting back at the rich people who raised him, the kids don't even look the part. Jim’s cohorts have no reason to take orders from their flamboyant leader and don't seem to like him much anyway so when he runs Thor over I really don't get why the others don't just turn his ass in. I have a hard time believing that Amy, the girl with a Cure poster on her wall, or the king and queen of the tennis club would have any problem sending Diamond Dave to prison. He murdered someone! They aren't punks so why do they care about preserving their faux-dangerous non-friend? In fact the only real punk is that kid with the mohawk who Thor stops from robbing the grocery store (the one act of rebellion worthy of the name in the whole script). He'll get arrested later because the police suspect he's the one picking off these kids. I'm inclined to agree with Detective Churchman's assessment of that kid in that he's clearly more dangerous than anyone else in the film. Makes you wonder just what the hell mohawk’s doing in suburban Montreal...he's like 26. There are big city heroin dens and punk clubs just a bus ride away.

Zombie Nightmare is awful. A cash-in that failed in every way. Jack Bravman seems better suited to directing television than film, though he came from directing sex movies. He has an apparent aversion to close-ups, so we never get close enough to the kids to tell them apart. That's not a bad summation of what went wrong: the film never gets close enough to its subject matter; it doesn't care so why should we? Nevermind that the performances are all dreadful, the direction lousy and the premise stupid. I mean it's so bad that you can really only have fun watching it, which leads me to wonder why it never found a midnight showing fanbase. The Mystery Science Theatre treatment it got was quite good fun and I highly recommend it over a static viewing (if you somehow manage to track down an old VHS copy or one of the limited DVD copies pressed). It's dreadful but in a fun way that let's you ask of the producers "what the hell were you thinking?" just about every scene. Why do the fifties look like the 80s? Why does Thor have a different outfit as a zombie than he did as a jock metalhead? Why does Molly Mokembe talk like a shivering cossack as an adult? The most pressing question I have is whether the producers wondered why no one made voodoo films anymore?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Fall, Bring Your Tropical Vacation Home With You!

In the world of voodoo film screenwriting you can be sure of a couple of things (or at least you could before 1973). There’s almost definitely a woman in trouble who knows more than she’s told, an opening scene involving a pretty laughable voodoo ritual where a woman is sacrificed, an intrepid white guy who always has a bad feeling about something who has to save the female, an even whiter guy conducting the voodoo experiments with the help of a creepy assistant, a smattering of sorry looking zombies, and a few scenes of tropical locales (budgets having prevented more than just a few minutes of screentime for your nice scenery until exploitation filmmakers discovered they could shoot in Mexico, Haiti, and the Philippines for no money and have a cheap labor force at hand). Womaneater might be seen as the pinnacle or anyway an archetypal voodoo movie and a rather lifeless one at that (I blame it’s British patronage). Think of it as a rehearsal for Plague of the Zombies and maybe you’ll have an easier time makng it through the film’s 70 minutes (just wait until you see the titular Womaneater, that alone is worth the price of admission).

by Charles Saunders

Dr. James Moran of the Explorer’s Club (Ooooh! FAN-CEE!!!) receives a tip about where he might be able to thrash around in fake leaves and see some stock footage of Alligators. He and an expedition leave the next day and stumble upon a jackpot for crusty white guys – a voodoo ceremony! Moran seems thrilled and harrowed at the same time. There’s a woman in a trance preparing to be in the ceremony, a guy dancing with a snake (he seems kind of afraid of it, actually) and…what the hell is that? Is that supposed to be a sock monster? It looks like a muppet orgy. Oh, that’s the womaneater. Moran’s partner can’t take another minute of this barbaric display (dancing and hitting drums) and runs out to put a halt to it. He gets a spear in his chest and all Moran can do now is watch in ecstasy. When he wakes up he babbles about having seen a miracle involving the great sock-like plant we saw earlier.

Five years later in England, so our title card tells us, the native drummer from the ceremony is now in Moran’s basement and he’s beaten out a rhythm that has placed a pale local girl into a trance. When his song is done, Tanga the native feeds the girl to the big puppety plant while Moran watches. After the deed is done he says “She won’t have died in vein.” I guess I should cut to the reason Moran’s going to be feeding local girls to the dog from Fraggle Rock. The plant releases a toxin everytime it kills and Moran seems to think that the toxin can bring the dead back to life. He proves it on a human heart shortly after the first victim is eaten by the plant (the readings on the Pulsometer are off the chart). Think for a minute about this plan…what in the world is the point of killing people to prove you can bring them back to life? Haven’t you effectively achieved nothing? If you have to kill someone everytime you want to make a zombie, wouldn’t it be just as productive and scientific to not kill them? Sorry, I should just keep my big nose out of his mad sciency business. So let’s meet the people who are going to screw with his playing god, shall we?

First is Mrs. Margeret Santor, Moran’s maid and, one gets the feeling, his occasional lover (or at the very least past lover). Santor is only to happy to help Moran with his mad science and murder so long as she thinks there’s something in it for her. Moran han'y been treating her like an equal lately and has started to feel neglected (my guess is Moran hasn’t been treating anyone like an equal. He’s bringing the dead back to life, after all). The bike riding police constable is as useful a unibrow and so won’t be giving us or the plot any real trouble. The other monkeywrenches in Moran’s works are Sally Norton, a girl performing in a traveling carnival and Jack Venner, a garage owner. Venner spies Sally during her break and wins her a stuffed bear at the sharpshooting booth. When he hangs around longer than he should, Sally’s boss comes a calling and shouts at her about starting her act again; Venner feels she’s not receiving the proper respect and decks the old man. Sally shows up at Jack’s garage the next day with no job and no place to stay, perhaps more than he was expecting to come from what he thought was a very valiant thing to do (knock down the can, win a girl). Jack knows just the place where Sally might find temporary employment (cause she as sure as shit can't stay with him) – some creepy old scientist needs a secretary. I believe you know where this is going. Moran prepares to use Sally as food for the womaneater, Santor gets jealous of Sally, Jack tries to stop Moran, Tanga beats a drum, and tomorrow we’ll start the same old thing again.

Womaneater is really nothing special. It has some nice looking camera work and fair performances but the niceness pretty much stops there. I feel like this was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from being one of those psychedelic horror films that started emerging a few years after Womaneater’s 1958 release date but it’s far too reserved and British to be anything but a mildly exploitative horror film. The script is really nothing new: mad scientist, jealous woman, young lovers, diabolical scheme involving young girls and in the end one sorry ass zombie. We spend the whole movie looking forward to the emergence of a zombie (not that the scenes of the womaneater’s rampage aren’t a hoot, they just don’t last long) and then it shows up and it’s a pretty big letdown – I won’t ruin it on the off-chance you find yourself with nothing to do one evening and decide to watch a safe British horror film, but let’s just say it’s someone we’ve spent the whole movie with already. Womaneater scores points with me for the audacity of its plot. I admit freely to never having considered that there was a film where George Coulouris feeds pasty English tarts to a giant plant to harvest its life giving toxin to bring the dead back to life. That’s something a lunatic thinks up. And if you take away the plant, you basically have the plot to John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies. We have a doctor creating zombies that roam the English countryside so they can terrorize a girl who’s man must come and save her from the evil underground laboratory. Plots didn’t really do a lot of diverging from what had (read: could) make money back then. Not that Plague of the Zombies isn’t a much scarier and altogether better film but it was made during an age of the tried and true, especially in British horror. None of the roguish New Wave spirit that produced Billy Liar, Tom Jones and If…. ever trickled down into genre films and let’s face it voodoo films only have so many tricks up their sleeve.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Unwind On Nazi Zombie Island! Take A Tour Of The Haunted Bayou!

The 1940s were host to a zombie boom not unlike the one in the states over the last six or so years. White Zombie didn't take hold quite as quickly as say 28 Days Later... or Dawn of the Dead did in the states and later internationally, but, the Stateside Zombie boom was undoubtedly the work of the Halperin Brothers film. Things wouldn't really pick up until their work was co-opted rather loutishly by Monogram pictures in the early 40s in a despised little movie called King of the Zombies. It wasn't the first post-Halperin zombie film, there was at least George Terwilliger's Ouanga in 1936 a film that has eluded me for a few years now, but King of the Zombies was probably the most significant, because it set the tone of most of the voodoo films that followed: xenophobic and painfully unfunny. There were a few exceptions, but until roughly 1966 (excluding Ed Cahn's Creature With The Atom Brain), zombies were black, wore rags, came from exotic islands, and battled protagonists who were hampered (often comically) by their big city behavior. For better or worse, King of the Zombies was the first film to do that.

King of the Zombies
by Jean Yarbrough

Before anyone gets any ideas, let me say that though this film was historically significant, that doesn't make it good or even easy to sit through. White Zombie had set the bar for zombie spookiness and when Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur proved that even in the new formula zombies could be eerie, films like King of the Zombies and its sequel seem pretty silly, even for a movie from the 40s. King and it’s sequel share the special distinction of featuring 40s racial performer Mantan Moreland. I don't understand his humour and find it derrogatory but African American film scholars have stated that he was actually progressive. I don't see it that way, so popular discourse and I are going to have to agree to disagree. It seems pretty dispicable to me and it most certainly isn't funny, so, there you go. Anyway, Moreland plays Jefferson Jackson (two stereotypical black surnames), the extraneous assistant of patriotic adventurer James McCarthy. Their plane make an emergency stop on a remote island and they discover that the island's only white occupant, a doctor called Sangre (blood) is making zombies to aid in the Nazi party's global domination. McCarthy, with occasional help from his bumbling sidekick, defeats the nazi and his zombies and he gets the girl, which they somehow found room for on Nazi Zombie island.

So while it’s easy to see why this was influential, it just isn't any fun, not even in the usual cheesy, old movie, kind of way. I think part of the problem stems from Monogram's billing this as a comedy, though perversely it's musical score was nominated for an Oscar that year. Even then they couldn't come up with zombie humour that I approve of. It’s just bad and because I don't 'get' Moreland's humour, it feels offensive. Even if he were white his jokes would still have the same effect as Owen Wilson's in Shanghai Knights or Phil Silvers in A Thousand And One Nights; he makes modern jokes while the rest of the cast tries to play an almost humourously diabolical plot straight and believe it or not no one wins! It's just a mess. The nazis and zombies were layered over top of the usual hero/villain plot that was common in Monogram pictures at the time; Monogram, I should add, was one of the more notorious factory filmmaking houses of its day, the American International Pictures or Troma Team of its day. Between 1932 and 1952, they put out just under 800 movies….noodle that for a minute. When you take into consideration the average budget of these films and that Bela Lugosi was in roughly 400 of them, things become clearer but only just. King of the Zombies is an extraordinarily underfunded and silly film and as is custom for Monogram films, tackles more than it can possibly pull off like outdoor sets for example. Though in its corner, this is the first movie where people shoot zombies with guns.

In fact, if you remove the historical significance of King of the Zombies, the film becomes simply a hard-to-swallow farce, the sort of thing that they seemed only to make in the 40s, when horror could and frequently did simply act as a springboard for popular comedians at the time. William Beaudine's The Living Ghost springs immediately to mind as one such film. The sort of film that Monogram did best (relative term) were evil-'genius'-in-a-house films because they had a house set or two and could populate it with scenery chewing bad guys and dull good guys, and when it came time to make a semi-sequel to King of the Zombies, that's exactly what they did.

Revenge of the Zombies
by Steve Sekely

James McCarthy has been replaced by not one but two dull white guys, one called Harvey Keating, the other called Larry Adams. They're after a displaced Nazi doctor, the preposterously named Max Heinrich von Altermann who’s played by John Carradine which makes this film marginally easier to watch than its predecessor. He's still a Nazi (with that ridiculous name, what else could he be?) and he's still making zombies (duh!) and Mantan Moreland is still here making jokes that make me terribly uneasy. It's all in a mansion on the bayou (soundstage) and its stagey and its really quite silly, but again, not silly in the right kind of old movie sort of way. Revenge of the Zombies came out the same year as I Walked With A Zombie, proof that this was a kneejerk film that Monogram knew they had the resources and the Carradine to make. There's no reason a film like this has to suck, but it does when you make it about receipts. Revenge repeats all the mistakes of the first film, but as there was no place to go but up, I did sort of like this film better cause I like John Carradine. There's still a love story, but its a bit more complicated and there are a few extra characters like the sheriff who's actually a nazi (with no accent) and bits like that made it slightly easier to swallow, but not much more.

In the end, sometimes its rubbish like Last House on the Left or King of the Zombies that sets precedents. It's a reasonably safe bet that there wouldn't have been an I Walked With A Zombie (and thus no Zombies on Broadway, Sugar Hill or Zombie) were it not for King of the Zombies and it's a less safe bet that there wouldn't have been The Unearthly were it not for Revenge of the Zombies. If I'd known just how risible these films were, I probably would have just reread Tell My Horse or revisited I Walked With A Zombie. Ah, who am I kidding, I’d have watched them if there were actual Nazis in the cast; if there are zombies in the offing I’ll watch quite literally anything.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Halloween, Go Abroad! Try Cambodia or Voodoo Island!

Ok, so pooch screwing occurred last Halloween when I decided (in my usual Hemingway-like stupor) to dedicate the month of October to Voodoo films. Well, I dropped the ball and cranked out only two reviews and they weren’t even of some of the notoriously bad films that pollute the waters of the zombie genre and especially the voodoo subgenre. This Halloween, however, shall be different. I promise shitty bug-eyed zombies aplenty complete with white playboys solving mysteries and more xenophobia than you can shake a stick at. This week prepare yourself for some of the very worst in voodoo zombies as I’ll be giving you at least one a day until Halloween. So, with that in mind, let’s head back to the very start of this ravenous love affair the world has with zombies with a sequel to the very first.

Revolt of the Zombies
by Victor Halperin

Well, if I screwed the proverbial pooch last October, at least I have no mistake as big as Revolt of the Zombies to own up to. You can tell right away what sort of colossal fuck up you’re about to watch when the lighthearted music starts. The credits play to music that should start a W.C. Fields short, not a follow-up to one of the greatest B-films of the decade. White Zombie would have launched anyone’s career in the 30s and only a special kind of reject could have trashed it with that sort of success under his belt. Victor Halperin and his producer brother Edgar were those special rejects. The time is World War I. The place is the British-Austrian Lines and the enemy is creeping up on…Armond Louque? Oh, it’s the FRANCO-Austrian lines, no one’s even remotely French and I got confused. Anyway, so things look bad until a Cambodian Priest shows up (…?) with a trump card he thinks the French could use. Power of prayer? Absolution? How about a pair of Cambodian zombie super soldiers? Didn’t see that one coming did you? Yeah, well, enjoy it, it’s the last pleasant surprise you’re ever gonna get! So, the Cambodians make mincemeat of the enemy and the French are so impressed and understandably petrified about the ramifications that they murder the super soldiers and Tsiang the priest. Is that enough to make the white folks sleep soundly at night? Not on your life so the commanding officers of both the Austrians and the French collaborate to go to Cambodia and see to it that no one darker than the underside of a bass should be turned into a super soldier ever again.

Then the action…stops. Goodbye zombie plot, here comes the romance! That’s right, Halperin now takes us to a subplot that fast becomes the plot concerning Louque’s misplaced affection for his commanding officer’s daughter Claire. Claire doesn’t actually love Louque; she loves someone else…GUH! WHO CARES?!?!?! Where did the zombies go? Oh there they are. Louque’s got a whole army of them! Oh wait, no, he’s freeing them…hmm…well, this riot should be…no, that’s kind of lame too…wait, it’s over? Are you serious? Ok, let’s try and make sense of this. So, the secret to zombifying people is hidden someplace in the Khmer religion of Cambodia’s past, which isn’t even close to accurate. So Armand finds out about it just in time to get really angry at everyone and turn them all into zombies. Then, once at the height of his power, when he might finally do SOMETHING, he turns tail and gives them their free will back. Why? Because he’s still trying to get the girl and he thinks this will win her affections. Well the only thing it buys him is a freshly un-undead mob hungry for his blood.

This movie sucks. It’s stagey, it’s boring, everyone’s wooden; it’s basically the antithesis to White Zombie, which was moody, scary and subtle. Revolt is just cheap and disingenuous by comparison. That the Halperins, clearly capable filmmakers, would force this nonsense down moviegoer’s throats is appalling and confusing. Every new scene smells of cost-cutting and lazy writing. What really happened is that they remade White Zombie for a tenth of the budget and all of the elements out of whack. I thought at first that maybe this was just an excuse to take a vacation to 1930s Cambodia (don’t ask me whether people did this or not, I have no clue) but each and every scene that’s supposed to take place in Cambodia is so obviously filmed in front of a blanket coated in poorly developed photos depicting Cambodian locales (a trick so shameful that even the makers of Revenge of the Living Dead Girls would have rolled their eyes and said “Bullshit”) that not even an actor’s vacation could account for its wretchedness. I wonder if it was a shock when Ed and Vic Halperin woke up and found out their career was dead and not a fucking soul would have a thing to do with them ever again?

And speaking of careers on the skids, let’s talk Del Tenney for a minute. Del Tenney will go down in history as having been at the right place at the right time. A no-talent actor who decided his real calling lay behind the camera, Tenney worked his way up to assistant director for a no-budget studio producing no-budget pictures. He finally got his breakthrough when he was able to direct Horror of Party Beach, one of those rare schlock films that’s lost nothing of its capacity to entertain in exactly the opposite way its creator intended. Then came Curse of the Living Corpse, a go-nowhere pot boiler that sits somewhere between Dementia 13 and Bloody Pit of Horror but isn’t as good as either of those movies. It features a pre-stardom Roy Scheider, should that sort of thing interest you. Finally Tenney made the film that would seal him forever in horror movie lore, Zombies. Of course, you won’t know it by that title. That’s because when it was first made it sat on a shelf for seven years. It wasn’t until schlock producer Jerry Gross bought the distribution rights to David E. Durston’s film Phobia. Of course Zombies and Phobia didn’t exactly make for a catchy name for an evening at the drive-in so Gross ran it past Barney Cohen, one of his ad men, and history was made. The films went out in what has become one of the more infamous double bills in history: I Drink Your Blood, I Eat Your Skin, Two Great Blood Horrors To Rip Out Your Guts.

I Drink Your Blood
by Del Tenney

Writer Tom Harris is in a bit of hot water. He’s trying to cool off in Miami Beach but his agent wants another book out of him. He would ordinarily tell him to cool it but just as his agent tells him he’s got a story he wants the horny scribe to check out, the husband of the girl he’s been fondling shows up looking for blood. All of a sudden a plane to Voodoo Island sounds ok. Yes, Voodoo Island folks, my absolute favorite racist vacation destination in the annals of cinema! What’s so special about Voodoo Island? Well, first of all there’s a doctor there trying to cure cancer using snake venom (yeah, I know), second of all there’s supposedly an army of zombies in the heart of the island, raised by the native ‘voodooists’, and lastly, and this is the deal-maker for Harris, his agent promises him girls, Girls, GIRLS! Virgins aplenty and Harris need only take his pick. His agent brings his wife Coral (a ‘battleax’ if ever there was one) along because he’s spent his last dime chartering the plane for Voodoo Island (and he’s just suffered some massive gambling losses as well…he’s not very smart with money, this fellow).

Well, as often happens in these situations, their plane runs out of fuel and Harris has to land the plane on the beach in a clinch. Harris goes inland looking for help and instead finds first a girl bathing nude in a pond then a zombie with hungrier eyes than the writer also spying on the girl. When he swims out to help the girl he can find no evidence of either bather or zombie. Harris flags down a man in a boat, who tries to help him stop the mad zombie (who now has a machete) but the man gets his poor head cut off. Luckily help arrives in the form of Charles Bentley, the suave doctor who owns the house that Harris spied from the air. He takes Harris and everyone else in his party back up to his heavily-guarded plantation and for a minute all appears well, but I’ve seen too many of these films to fall for that bullshit. Harris tries to get information out of Juarita, Bentley’s housekeeper but as she’s evidently in the throes of a painkiller binge she isn’t much help. So Harris busies himself trying to get busy with the only single white woman he can find Jeanine Billinder, part-time nude swimmer and the daughter of that cancer researcher we’ve heard so much about. After shutting on her dad’s endeavors (fuck that guy and his fucking cure for cancer) he lays on the smarm…sorry, charm. He doesn’t get too far before dinner is served and I started to wonder just what in hell everyone does during their days here. They talk about smoking and safe cigarettes and stuff and they move into the parlour and…just what the Christ goes on here? Some voodoo drums start up and Bentley has to lie his way through an explanation of what the natives do on their part of the island. When Harris asks for a tour of Billinder’s laboratory, Bentley eyes bulge wider than the zombies so clearly these two are up to no good.

It becomes only too clear that Billinder and Bentley are the ones making zombies when a crowd of the buggers tries to separate Harris and Jeanine on their walk after dinner. Yeah, I wouldn’t that creep touching my daughter either. Bentley tries to sell Harris a raft about the natives taking drugs and believing in a nonsensical religion and behaving like King Kong, but we know what’s up. We kow because what we see next (following an interlude with Harris and Jeanine, of course) is a voodoo ceremony. They dance and sing (a song clearly written by white men meant to sound like a black church hymn) and speak in Italian…? Yeah, I don’t quite get that either. Just who settled Voodoo Island? When Bentley discovers that what Harris is writing is precisely what he’s seen so far he gives him the passive aggressive bidding of adieu, right on schedule and declares his laboratory out of bounds to interlopers. And as if that weren’t enough Tom and Jeanine go on another plot-forwarding walk and find a closet full of zombies, a nervous native who tells Jeanine that she’s to be the next sacrifice and a basement that leads to the laboratory. They ought to send Harris and Jeanine after Jimmy Hoffa or for a stroll on the grassy knoll, who knows what they’d find.

I Eat Your Skin is fun in its transparency and its quite glaring shittiness but it’s twenty minutes too long to be the sort of thing I would watch for a laugh. Maybe with a little help from Mike and the Bots this could have earned the schlock classic status it was given when Gross attached it to the much better I Drink Your Blood. Actually it also shares with its half-sister film a gruesome decapitation that I wondered how they got away with in 1964 then I remembered that no one saw it until 1971. It is really quite bad and a few things stand out as particularly excruciating examples of what kind of filmmaker Del Tenney was. Take Coral for example, she is the annoying housewife of bad horror movies incarnate. Her voice alone would be worth killing her for and yet she’s one of the few people who survives. When she arrives at Bentley’s house and says “What a lovely house you have. It’s so TROPICAL!!!!” UGH! It’s like nails in my spine! And of course there's Tom Harris a character worthy of special commendation for lasciviousness. His first words in the movie are a pick-up line but not quite as stupendously awful as the one he says when he first lays on Jeanine. “What part of heaven did you fly down from?” I don’t really get this line…are there states in heaven or different rooms or something? What the shit does that fucking mean? I get it, angels and whatever, but that doesn’t make any sense.

The film’s biggest problem plotwise, is the zombies. I don’t mean the fact of zombies, though they are quite awful on their own, no I mean that Tenney has them roaming around the island cutting of heads but neglects to say why Bentley’s been making them in the first place. And it is transparently Bentley who is behind it all but Tenney spends so much time covering up his guilt with stories and racism that he forgets that he’s supposed to have a reason for making zombies. So when the plot has come undone and the final chase is on Dr. Billender has not one but two last-minute speeches to explain everything we just saw. His first is so breathless and perfunctory that I suspect that Tenney wrote it about eight seconds before he shot it. “What’s that?” asks Harris, to which the doctor pants “The end of voodoo island and Charles Bentley’s dream of conquering the earth with an indestructible army.” Ok? Had he mentioned an indestructible army before? Well, lets let the Doctor explain it as he dies “I started using natives as human guinea pigs…making the subject devoid of will…a human vegetable…Bentley became obsessed with the idea of creating an army of these unfortunate people.” Now that’s what I call screenwriting!

Following the shelving of Zombies and even its subsequent rebirth as I Eat Your Skin, Del Tenney spent most of his life in the unemployment line. He finally made another film in 2003 with Katherine Heigl, of all people, called Descendant which I hear is decent. Just goes to show you…mishandle zombies and you’re gonna get burned. I love zombie movies (fucking duh) but I know that they are a dangerous subject. Some people start with zombies and never get a second chance. Some people like The Halperins and Del Tenney get mired in zombies and never come back. The zombie movie is a cruel mistress, indeed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 22: The End

As I take my leave of all things ghastly and french I find I must bend the rules for a final time. Today's film is not a horror film, a crime film or even really a film with anything resembling tension. It is a sex film, through and through, and a most important one. Ask anyone who was between the age of 20 and 35 in 1974 and chances are they'll be able to offer a cursory explanation of who or what Emmanuelle is. Emmanuelle did for France what Jaws did for the US, got people off their TV watching asses and brought 'em down to the cinema like old times. Emmanuelle was a soft-core pornographic movie (the soft-core pornographic movie), that revolutionized the whole notion of pornography (at least in Europe and Japan). It inspired sequels, spinoffs, ripoffs, a TV series and a good many masturbation fantasies in men and women the world over. It was banned in Franco's Spain (banning the film would most probably have been one of the last thing his regime did before the old fucker died), it was a sensation in Japan, it would eventually turn Joe D'Amato from a minor Giallo maker to one of the revered kings of smut, it would inspire Anatole Dauman to hire a little-known Polish filmmaker called Walerian Borowczyk to save Argos Films from bankruptcy, and it would do the very thing that the makers of Deep Throat had tried to do: get couples into porno theatres. Why this movie managed to do that is simply beyond me. While it has a number of things going for it (not the least of which is Sylvia Kristel, who failed to find work in anything but porn and porn-lite following her turn in the title role) it just isn't what I was expecting from the film that saved soft-core pornography if not indeed the entire French film industry.

by Just Jaekin

Emmanuelle (Kristel) is the wife of a diplomat who is being shown the country her husband works, Bangkok, Thailand, in for the first time. She's a bit overwhelmed, not just because the place is so new and full of totally alien sensations and customs, but because sex is so central to everyone she meets. Her husband Jean, as he explains to anyone who will listen, is trying to loosen her up, trying to get her to understand that just because they are married doesn't mean that they will be only having sex with each other from now on (now if only the heels who populate American sex comedies could be as forward thinking as Jean, then maybe they wouldn't all go to Vegas and wind up in humourously compromising situations in their last ditch efforts to score before 'tying themselves to one woman'). The women she meets at the club (to be honest I don't know what this is supposed to be. Do they have western health clinics in Bangkok that allow women to lounge topless by the pool?) are all just dying to know who she's been fucking while her husband's been away on business because they clearly are not strangers to the idea. Emmanuelle isn't as open about her sexuality as Jean or any of the women are. She meets a teenaged local called Marie-Ange who takes it upon herself to help Emmanuelle become open sexually (she's one in a long line of people aiming to do just that). Firstly she invites herself over to Emmanuelle's house, feels her up while she's napping, takes her shirt off and masturbates to a magazine spread of Paul Newman while sitting about six feet away from the mortified French diplomat's woman.

So just how is Emmanuelle going to break the confines of her (comparatively) conservative ideas about eroticism? Well, let me say for the record that the idea that she would simply try and please her husband is really nothing I find all that incurably 'straight'. Call me old fashioned, but then again in 1974 this was a manifesto for sexual freedom. Anyway, first she tries turning the charm on Bee, one of the club women whom none of Emmanuelle's friends seem to like; my hunch is that its because Bee's a career woman and doesn't spend her days fucking guys and then giggling about it poolside. In fact Bee appears to Emmanuelle as clearly a masculine presence; she dresses like a man and works in a typically male-driven field. She's taken with Bee's devil-may-care attitude and follows her to the construction site where she works. They have sex and afterwards Bee tries to tell Emmanuelle the same thing guys have been saying to women after such encounters (in films, anyway) for decades: she's not looking for anything long-term and she also doesn't see a one-afternoon stand as the basis for a real relationship. The fragile Emmanuelle takes this hard and walks back to her husbands house (which is miles away).

Her disappearance to Bee's job site and less-than-triumphant return worries Jean so much that he decides that decisive action must be taken to see that she isn't hurt by attempted freedom ever again. At Marie-Ange and one of the more predacious of the club women's urging, Jean gets in touch with an aging charlatan called Mario. Mario's job: liberate Emmanuelle, once and for all. How does he do it? Basically gets her to fuck a bunch of locals in a bunch of different public places. I mean, that's about it. Sure he prattles on endlessly about 'outlawing the couple' and spouts all kinds of high-falutin bullshit about sex, only half of which really means anything at all. I don't know, he's really just kind of a shit who forces a bunch of Thai men on the girl, a lot of which feels like rape (the music certainly makes us think its rape). The last thing we see is maybe a dream-sequence but Mario's final thought is that in order to get the predictability out of the bedroom you have to forcibly introduce a third person, which he does in the form of yet another burly Thai man. And that's how it ends.

Ok, so I didn't hate Emmanuelle but there's a lot I find pretty irritating about it. The filmmaking is a touch sloppy. Just Jaekin and crew didn't have any way of viewing their footage on set so a lot of it pretty amateurish and Italian-looking. Early Ruggero Deodato and Sergio Martino come to mind as stylistic yardsticks, though Jaekin had a much nicer eye for composition. The movie's definition of conservatism has no consistency. The character of Emmanuelle has a definition of eroticism that the free-floating morals of the poolside crowd and Jean consider to be unacceptable. I don't really understand that because really all she's really shy about is fucking strange Thai men in public. That's not what I call repression, that's what I call racism. One of the first things she does is has sex with two men in about ten minutes on the same flight into the country. I'm not french but I don't call that repressed. Really what everyone is bothered by is that Emmanuelle doesn't want to have sex with whomever they want her to have sex with. Mario plainly wants to see her get naked (he says as much the second he meets her, at a garden party no less) and then spends an evening getting all the nudity he could ever ask for from his doe-eyed quarry. In fact he never actually does any of the screwing in their evening together. How this guy is supposed to be the hero of the piece is beyond me. He's a creepy bastard who either truly believes that fucking strangers makes you a better lover or he just manages to convince hapless women that their salvation lies in his nonsense and gets a lot of voyeuristic pleasure for almost no work.

Producer Yves Rousset-Rouard stated that his intention with Emmanuelle was to make a film that outdid Last Tango In Paris in every aspect (which explains the colour scheme of the movie, come to think of it). I can't really speak to the success of that endeavor because personally I find Last Tango In Paris to be tiresome and self-important. Emmanuelle is self-important but has no delusions about its purpose. Rouard and Jaekin both went into the project understanding it was to be a movie where people take their clothes off. They knew this and because they were open about their purpose they had a hard time finding a lead who would agree to be in the film - that Sylvia Kristel was something like a Hail Mary pass is rather funny to me because thinking of anyone but Sylvia Kristel in the lead is nearly impossible. She is quite excellent, even though she's dubbed - she was from the Netherlands, spoke not a word of French and opted to learn her lines phonetically. But what no one can really change is the fact that though the film claims to be about liberation (and I don't mean the stereotypical liberation, what people refer to as 'burning bras', I mean really not giving a goddamn who you have sex with so long as you're having sex) it is really just about a woman being controlled by societal expectations, just completely different (indeed totally backwards) societal expectations than would ordinarily characterize a movie like this. Usually it's in society's telling you to put your clothes on that drives characters to madness. Here the heroine's one crime is not being willing enough by society's insane standards to take her clothes off.

I will say that to this movie's credit every scene of sex (save one, which I'll return to) is both tastefully done and crucial to the plot. Everytime Emmanuelle has a sexual encounter it says something about her sexuality and her journey to try and please her husband and find herself. Where the film loses its way to my mind is its view of the locals. We're evidently supposed to find Thai men to be exotic 'others' or their many sex scenes would have no kick. I think this says more about the French than it does about anything else. French movies had been exploiting the sex appeal of foreigners for years (Pépé le Moko wouldn't exist were it not for that view and that film is a fucking classic). So while I commend the screenwriters use of sex as a plot device rather than a plot-stopper, I still don't understand how latent racism counts as sexual repression; it certainly makes this movie's success in Japan and the rest of Europe all the more perplexing, or at any rate loaded. I mean clearly they weren't all relating to the racism, were they? Rouard claims to have been written letters for years from lesbians thanking them for portraying girl-on-girl sex as the most beautiful act in the film - and I quite agree. The idea of lesbianism is sort of muddled by the script but the scenes with Bee carry the most weight and depth of any in the movie and they're the ones I have no moral issue with. Scholars claim that this was the first movie where men could take their wives and not feel guilty because it's about a woman's search for pleasure in a weirdly anti-repression-yet-still-repressive society; and they did so by showing sex in spurts no longer than two to three minutes long and never having anything hardcore onscreen. But I will say that such a phenomenon could not occur today. Despite our supposedly lax view of sex (or anyway that's what the political right and the motherfucking church complain about every goddamned day of the week) I simply don't see anyone putting up the money to fund a movie about people taking their clothes off (remember this got a wide release in 1974). And furthermore I can't imagine men and women flocking to see such a thing today, not in America, anyway. So while I don't agree with the politics of Emmanuelle I will say that we have since regressed in our standards since its release which I believe explains why you can't make a good exploitation movie today; people simply wouldn't stand for it. 

On the basis purely of message, I would hope that maybe people (especially women) would not sit through something like Emmanuelle today, but I would really be curious if women would come out for something retroactively called soft-core pornography if it actually showcased the search for liberation from a woman's point of view. Personally, I think this film's message is to not let creeps like Mario and Jean run your lives and to not put stock in the word of gossipy women who find nothing more interesting than infidelity, but hey, what do I know? Finally, my last complaint is with a scene that Rouard insisted that they insert into the movie. Remembering that Last Tango In Paris achieved infamy because of one scene in particular (the infamous "pass the butter" scene) so he sought to one-up Bernardo Bertolucci. His solution: a woman smoking out of her vagina. Yes, apparently while scouting locations he had wondered into a brothel (for business purposes only, I'm sure) and found a club where women put cigarettes in their sex (my urge to make vaudeville or magic show jokes has been outweighed by my frank outrage at Rouard for being such a boor who clearly missed the point of the film he was trying to emulate). So guess what comes out of left field just after Emmanuelle's encounter with Bee? That's right. It is jarring and strange and racist and brings the whole movie down off its philosophical pedestal and has no business in Emmanuelle. Jaekin knew as much and refused to shoot the scene, which meant that cinematographer Richard Suzuki had to do it on his own. Without that scene, perhaps I'd be willing to reappraise the movie as a touch more open-minded than I saw it as. In the meantime, it's a slightly xenophobic, vaseline-lensed look at sexuality that some people call a classic.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 21: Death By Deviance or My Favorite Films Volume 13: Murderous Maids

When you watch movies as frequently as I do, as frequently as if it was your job, it takes a good deal more than good to make an impact on you. You need a story just a little out of the realm of popular fiction, you need characters who are compelling and different from those of age-old fiction, you need odds that are great but crucially they need to amount to something greater than the usual emotional catharsis. You need something more than what just anybody can do. You need something to just come roaring out of silence and not give you the chance to compare it to anything else. That doesn't happen all that often but it happened when after a long time putting it off for no real reason I watched Jean-Pierre Denis' first film after a nearly 15 year hiatus from making feature films Murderous Maids. Filling in the blanks in the true story of the Papin Sisters, an infamous footnote in pre-war French history, Denis' mix of true crime, psychological horror, romance and historical drama is spellbinding and had me glued to the spot in ways that so few films have.

Murderous Maids
by Jean-Pierre DenisThe Papin sisters were doomed to lives of hardship. From the day their mother dropped the eldest two, Emilia and Christine, at a convent, their alienation from normality was assured. Emilia used to hold out hope that their father would come for them but that faded soon enough and before long she'd given herself to a life steeped in the faith taught to her by the sisters. Christine lost a sister and a friend when Emilia became a nun and as soon as she was old enough entered into the field of indentured servitude as a maid. With her earnings she would spend enough on herself to survive and the rest would go her little sister Léa, who soon became the only thing in the world Christine cared about. The story proper starts in the 1930s. The Papin's mother keeps a house for them while Léa is at school and Christine works. Léa worships Christine and looks forward to becoming a maid as well to take the financial burden off of her mother but Christine is aghast at the prospect of her sister going to work, especially as a maid, a job she knows to be grueling and thankless. When their mother decides that 14 is old enough to start working and sends Léa to train to become a maid, Christine is furious. Her demands and protestations amount only to ensuring that they work in the same household once Léa has been properly groomed. Christine’s battle to hold Léa’s attention and favour over their mother and her own troubled relationships lead her to begin showing signs of mental fatigue. Voices and loud noises creep in and cause her great pain and distraction while she works. It isn’t long before her abnormal behavior and suspicions cause her and Léa’s dismissal from the household they work in.

Undeterred, Christine begins looking for another house in need of two maids but such circumstances don’t come along every day. When her mother’s boyfriend makes advances on Christine one day, what little safety she may have felt in her home vanishes. She settles for a job working in the Lancelin household which already has one maid. Luckily for Christine that maid is fed up with her conditions and leaves over a torn stitch a few days into Christine’s tenure leaving a space easily filled by the younger Papin sister. Now that the two live in the same bedroom Christine tries desperately to get Léa to see the world for what it is and dream of more than mediocrity. She gets her sister to hate their mother as she does before long and soon they only talk to each other. While away at a hunting party with the Lancelins, Christine sees something dangerous in Léa’s eyes when they’re alone. They seem to invite her near but Christine won't let herself be drawn in. That night she doesn’t sleep, but stays up furious and scared by the pleasure she feels when close to her young sister. How long before she gives in to the urge that overcomes her when she stares into her sister’s eyes, and what will it lead to in repressive French society under the watchful eyes of bored aristocratic women?

Jean-Pierre Denis’ break from feature films must have taught him an awful lot about how to master them. The story of the Papin sisters has been dramatized before but I’ve never seen it done like this, never balancing innocence and guilt so evenly. His film crosses so many lines unceremoniously that you hardly notice that what you’re so riled up about would seem scandalous if you saw it happen first hand. He builds a repressive atmosphere effortlessly by simply painting a realistic picture of life in France for those living in poverty and showing that it isn’t simply that the sisters are poor that does this to them. What brings out Christine’s demons is the pain of broken expectations. She starts the film by saying that she’s waited on her father her whole life. Emilia’s insistence that their father will rescue them evaporates when Emilia herself sees that there is no hope and dons her nun’s habit and abandons Christine and Léa to the mercy of their selfish mother. Christine has hope for Léa and tries to engender some of that hope in her young sister who cannot see beyond what confronts her everyday; her dreams of owning fine things makes Christine angry, for she’s been planning a better life for her sister for all of her own miserable existence and the thought of her sister being seduced by the finery of the catty women she slaves away for is to her a sort of betrayal. When that dream life slips further and further out of Christine’s grasp and Léa doesn’t fight for it, her own life becomes even more of a mystery. Her love as a sister becomes a need for pleasure, for something certain. She cannot provide her sister with a better life so she gives her the sexual attention that she seems to beg for in her big, innocent eyes. And when even that fleeting but damned solace is threatened, the act that has been promised since the opening finally comes. I was so swept up in the promise of their happiness that I begged for everything to turn out well when I knew it couldn't. I really wanted their incestuous cry for help to work out. I can’t help but feel that it’s a perfect film when the director can make you wish for things that on any other day you’d find reprehensible, unforgivable. And because Denis was able to turn the most repulsive of stories, a descent into madness with many hard discoveries along the way, into something so engrossing and so heartfelt that I was moved to the point of speechlessness, I feel that, for me anyway, he is a gifted artist. I also felt deeply for Sylvie Testud who as Christine ignites the screen with her subtle facial ticks and immovable presence as she submits to temporary madness at the hands of her employers; she screams for respite with the same fury that she quietly refuses to take orders that she feels belittle her. Her hold on her own life and mind becomes more tenuous as the film goes on and Testud makes us feel every slip of her fingers.

And perhaps Denis’ greatest accomplishment is that he does what he does free of frill or artifice. Murderous Maids simply progresses in a slightly fragmented straight line. Told as a series of interactions between Christine and the rest of the world (and occasionally her own inner turmoil) the film shows us her hopes rising and falling. His shots are fleeting and his editing swift but everything is clear as crystal and nothing is superfluous (there is no music, for instance to draw you from the dialogue, which is the first time that I've really noticed that the drama and horror is all right there on the faces of the lead actors. If you feel something, it is because of his direction or the performances of Sylvie Testud and Julie-Marie Parmentier). And because the movie is told so straight-forwardly, only showing us what is necessary to understand the conclusion (in other words, what’s missing from the case files) it’s astonishing that Denis wrings so much beauty and passion from the story. He tells it virtually as a reenactment but the performances he gets and the situations he creates are so spot-on that it’s as if he’s spent much more time lingering over embraces and filling our heads with the inner monologue of the characters than he has. And his sparse style would predict major filmmaking trends for the decade that followed; the same no-frills, distant-yet-claustrophobic feel can be found (to much different ends, of course. Denis didn’t so much inform them as predict them) in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. He’s such a capable storyteller that he needs only his brilliant actors to draw you in with the telling of a story. It’s in those few moments, those perfectly lit glimpses into the few intimate moments that the Papin sisters shared that Denis shows us that it didn’t matter that they were capable of murder. All that matters is that they understood that love is what is most important in the world. Removed from it, as they were, it’s no wonder they acted the way they did. Christine lived a life with virtually none in it so that her affection was contorted into something so hideous is not in the least surprising. What’s surprised me is how completely I felt for her as she was persecuted by everyone, even herself. And if perhaps all this sounds like common sense and I haven’t explained myself well at all then maybe you ought to simply see it for yourself.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 20: Death By Fire

Michael Haneke is very good at two things: post-modern holocausts and intimate visions of quiet self-destruction. I don't think anyone controls elements in quite so concise and careful a way as he does, least ways, not in the horror genre, which is where his movies would belong if made by anyone else. He's taken incredibly simple and time-worn set-pieces and turned them into thoroughly devastating comments on modern life that are anything but simple and time-worn. I think only Godspeed You! Black Emperor enjoyed as much success dissecting the late 20th century through dark art as Michael Haneke. As I've stated previously, I find most of his work almost too harsh to watch more than once (his Funny Games being the ultimate example of his power to horrify) but the one film of his that I could watch over and over again is Time of the Wolf. Time of the Wolf is Haneke's take on the apocalypse and given his view of media violence it's both surprising and completely natural that it's his least troubling movie. One of the few Haneke films with what could be called a happy or inspiring ending, Time of the Wolf is a meditation on the afterlife as well as a beautiful portrait of the French countryside and proof positive that Michel Haneke is just as capable of beauty as he is at seeing the worst in people.

Time of the Wolf
by Michael Haneke

Anne and Georges Laurent are headed to their secluded cabin with their children Ben and Eva to wait out the crisis that's taken hold of Paris (and presumably, though it's never stated, the rest of the world). They've apparently fled just in time and too late for once they get to the cabin they find a family already living there. When Georges tries reasoning with them, the head of the squatter family shoots him dead in front of Anne and the children. Anne, Ben and Eva leave with only a bicycle to store their food and belongings (including Ben's parakeet) on. They get to the nearest village and ask some former friends and neighbors for help but as supplies are low and have no hope of replenishing their generosity toward the newly widowed Anne isn't exactly boundless. The Laurents take shelter in a wooden shack in the middle of a field until the night Ben goes missing. They build a fire to try and draw him back but predictably it burns out of control while Anne goes out into the darkness to look for her son and when she returns there isn't much of the shack left. The next morning he does come back, but he's not alone; a homeless boy about Eva's age shows up with a knife at Ben's throat and tries to trade him for supplies. Anne is too good a mother to let the boy leave on his own so once she gets her son back she offers to let the other boy stay with them as they try to find help. The boy reluctantly agrees and says he knows of a place where trains carrying supplies are supposed to go so they set off for the station that day.

The train very quickly proves to be less than the saving grace the young scavenger believes it to be. It passes them on their way and not only does it not stop, there doesn't seem to be anyone on board. They reach the station not long after and find a group of survivors led by a monsieur Koslowski who looks like Jean Renoir and because for whatever reason he's in charge he abuses what little power that entitles him to. His interactions with the Brandts, a married couple, pretty much show you what people think of him. Lise (played by Trouble Every Day and À l'intérieur's Béatrice Dalle) hates him and constantly belittles him; Thomas, thinking his wife's insolence is going to get them kicked out of their shelter, makes a big show of berating her in front of everyone. The young scavenger doesn't particularly like taking orders so instead he lives in the woods nearby; Eva visits him every now and again to make sure he doesn't go hungry while they wait for another train to pass through the station. Before anything can really come to a head, an enormous group of people shows up with horses, goats and guns.

Koslowski kisses his power goodbye and what little space the survivors enjoyed is now encroached upon by about a dozen families, all of them waiting for the same train that may never get there. Despite the large group's proficiency for order two conflicts arrise soon after they settle in, the first when the young boy steals one of the goats they had been using for milk. The next when Eva recognizes one of the newcomers as the man who shot her dad. Anne and Eva want justice but have no proof beyond their word that the man and by extension his whole family is guilty of murder. This absense of justice (and the many others floating around) has led many of the survivors to find comfort in wild mystical theories about 'chosen' people. Ben listens as some of the older travelers spin wild tales about these people who survive walking through fire and persecution so they can bring hope to those who need it most. Wanting dearly to do so, Ben gets it in his head that he too must walk through fire. And who's to say he's wrong with so much death, lawlessness and hopelessness everywhere? His act of bravery and selflessness could be what people need while waiting for a train that promises salvation but may never come.

There are a lot of movies I'd like to make people like Michael Bay, Akiva Goldsman and Paul W.S. Anderson sit down and watch and Time of the Wolf is at the top of that list. Once again I'll come clean and say that this post-apocalyptic fable isn't exactly a horror or sci-fi film. It's a revisionist dystopian movie set in an endless grayish-green landscape featuring excellently understated and realistic performances and whose villain is simply the evils of of human nature. In other words it is approximately my favorite kind of film. Haneke understands that you don't need a billion dollars or CG vampires to make a good post-apocalyptic film. Time looks like it was made for nothing and achieves its barren atmosphere not in what it shows you but what it doesn't show you. Haneke had proven how strongly he disapproved of movie violence and spectacle in Funny Games so relies only on people and their inability to act humane as the focal point of what could be called the fright.

Haneke returns to this theme quite a bit, as in Caché and The White Ribbon, and drives home the point as often as he can, that the only thing we need to fear are people who see others as means to an end. There's an apparent nod to Andrei Tarkovski's Andrei Rublev that spells this out; the newcomers are low on food so they shoot the horses just as unceremoniously as Georges Laurent is killed at the start of the film. The man who shot Georges is dangerous because his view of human life is just as unfeeling as the others' view of the horses. Eva and Anne watch the slaughter of the horses with just as much unease as if they were watching Georges die again and again. Though they seek justice for their loss I feel what they and Haneke both want is for people to treat each other as equals. Koslowski's petty abuse of power has the same despicable character as he simply wields something he found first like a weapon. He seems content to treat other people like shit so long as they respect him, which is why the arrival of the newcomers is more than a small victory because he's impotent without property to lord over his tenants (marxist justice if ever there was any). The newcomers make everyone equal again, but they can't make everyone care about human life, which is why the young scavenger still steals the goat from them. You cannot make people care; you can simply care for them and hope that they will come around to your way of thinking (a Randian shrew trying to prove he knows how to survive best of anybody, because he seems to enjoy stealing and surviving without anyone's help). Hence why Eva never stops trying to help the boy; her father died trying to protect both her and her borther so they seem forever destined to try and protect other people. Their simple and often stilted acts of altruism are much more poignant and interesting than ten thousand gunfights or battles with special effects. Haneke's film, though simple and inexpensive, is years ahead of other modern tales about the end of life because it's just about people; that's all he cares about which makes his movies both incredibly dark and optimistic all at once. That's not to say some spectacle is out of the question (Children of Men proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt) but really there must be a human story at the heart of all of it. The power to do good, to solve the greatest of crises is inside every person, they just have to embrace it. That is what Haneke seems to have broadcasted since his first film and conversely, what happens when you reject it.

Of course the only problem I find with movies so deeply routed in the everyday lives and of people is that the action can become a little monotonous. I could have done with a touch more from the characters in the second and third acts. Once they arrive at the station Ben is almost abandoned by the story until the final scene and the young scavenger is not shown doing enough to make me believe he survives the whole time. And though I get it's an age-old tradition to kill horses for films and it drives his thesis home, I feel Haneke could have not actually killed those horses and still made a beautiful film. Other than that....that's it, really, I love this movie. Not a lot happens but it's gorgeous and poetic and realistic and really excellent. Isabelle Huppert is great as usual but the heart of the film is Anaïs Demoustier as Eva. She's sneering and angry for a good part of her screentime but when she loses that exterior like when she writes a letter to her dead father or cries in front of the scavenger, she's brilliant. Haneke's ability to get naturalistic and believable performances from actors is amazing and the crisis of faith he examines throughout the course of the film is visible on Demoustier's face. His examination of our need for belief in the afterlife wouldn't work with a more pious set of characters but it works with the very ordinary Laurent family.

The last thing that Haneke does that really puts him above his peers is his take on religion. The stories that influence Ben about the chosen, the arrival of the train and Eva's letter to her dad are all ways to hypothesize about the after life without guessing about its existence or trying to tell you what to think. Contrast this with I Am Legend's sent-by-god speech and it’s like there’s a clear line between good filmmaking and bad right there in their respective tacks. He doesn't drive anything home, he merely shows the merit of differing belief systems and then rather than saying that we must think this or it's better to think that, he shows that the only thing that's truly important is being brave enough to help those you care about. Ben's final act is thus the leap of faith that proves that he believes in people and a belief in god or a higher calling is irrelevant. He acts out of love and hope. The final shots can be seen as transcendence of the plain of misery the characters are trapped in because Ben has shown himself worthy of being saved and we're treated to the only sunny day of the film and the beauty of such a simple thing is greater than anyone's vision of paradise; the train means hope for people and what else could you ask for?