Thursday, September 30, 2010

"....I've been locked away so long now I forget my crime...."

The story's old hat by now. Something sleazy makes a bit of money so a sequel gets hatched. With The Big Doll House we had what was perhaps (according to Jack Hill) the most profitable independent production at that time. So a sequel was not just inevitable but a solid guarantee - don't forget we're talking about a property owned by Roger Corman. All the same they couldn't very well make a direct sequel; those of you who've seen The Big Doll House know why. So Roger Corman put up a little money, probably even a little less than they had on The Big Doll House, and turned over all responsibilities to a mostly indigenous cast and crew. Women In Cages is a little more muddy, features almost unbelievably bad editing and relies too heavily on actors speaking their second or third languages but it also features a much more confident performance from a returning Pam Grier and some excellent work from fellow Big Doll House alums Roberta Collins and Judith Brown.

Women In Cages
by Gerardo De Leon
To the familiar sound of a delay-fitted conga drum we meet Carol Jeffries, a Filipino criminal's classy American girlfriend who has enjoyed the high-life enough not to ask where Rudy, her beau, gets his money. We join them on Rudy's boat just as the police show up looking to bust him on, of all things, drug possession. The boat is a whore house and gambling hall so that they have to go searching his pockets for something to bust him on is a little strange. Anyway, Rudy puts the dope they're after in Carol's purse and so she's the one who gets sent to the slammer. In short order she meets the sadistic Alabama (Pam Grier), the matron who runs the place with an iron fist, iron shoes, iron guillotine, iron maiden and a number of other torture devices in a room she calls the playpen. This place makes the torture scenes in The Big Doll House look positively tame. Her cellmates are an even rougher crowd than the last bunch we dealt with. Carol, or Jeff, as they all call her, is sharing the cell with the equally nasty Sandy and Stoke (Judith Brown and Roberta Collins) and a native girl and Alabama's pet Theresa. Sandy has it out for Theresa because of her constant dalliances with the matron, which everyone is fully aware she does to escape torment. Alabama, for her part, hates Sandy and Stoke and grows to loathe the reticent Jeff immediately because they're white. She spends more time accusing people of racism than Spike Lee but instead of heavy-handed agitprop, Alabama uses a whip to help get her point across. After Theresa gets a little carried away one night while massaging the matron, Alabama's newest form of pleasure is pitting the poor, rejected thing against the girls in her cell: what could be more fun than watching someone trying to murder the white bitches she so hates? All in all this place is much less hospitable than the big doll house.
And as if things weren't hard enough, the powers that be are making things even worse from the outside. Stoke happens to know Rudy and his people. The nervous gangster says he can get her an early release if she can kill Jeff before she can testify against the gangster. And after an attempted poisoning goes awry and a snake in the vents proves a close call, Jeff starts to get wise and Stoke starts thinking about other options. Meanwhile Alabama tries and fails to make Stoke her new bitch; the only thing her defiance gets her is a trip to the playpen. So between Theresa's hatred for Alabama, Stoke's fear of Alabama, and Sandy's resignation to her sentence, they're all ears when Jeff proposes a break-out. They've got it all sorted but some visiting officials throw a monkeywrench in the works. They ask Jeff what she thinks of the place and an honest answer lands her in the hole. It's not all bad news, however, for the hole has a weak spot: some bars that lead to a sewer can be easily removed and that's a much safer way out than through the jungle like they originally planned. Even if they had made it out, the prison keeps some trackers on staff that have caught everyone who's ever tried to escape. So all they have to do is land themselves in the hole and then it's a long crawl to freedom. That is unless Rudy's guys get to them before they find their way to sanctuary...
...the point of that ellipsis is that after the crawl through the sewers is done and the fates of most of the major characters have been assigned the film should have just stopped. Roberta Collins hangs around with no more dialogue, Pam Grier and Judith Brown's stories are wrapped up and all we have left is the D.A. coming to Rudy's whoreboat to arrest him and save Jeff, easily the least interesting of the cellmates. That part is poorly edited and frankly pretty uninteresting. The movie did nothing to make us care about Jennifer Gan's Jeff and I certainly don't give a goddamn about Rudy or the investigation into his criminal activities. The whole movie takes place in a prison cell and placing the climax back on the boat was a serious miscalculation. The three leads had all progressed enough to make me wish we'd spent the last ten minutes with them. Judith Brown basically plays Alcott from The Big Doll House this time around and Roberta Collins is like a mix of that film's Harrad and Bodine. Theresa is this film's Ferina and there's almost no difference between the two characters' behavior. Collins gets the bulk of the film's heavy lifting like the scene where she busts into the harbour master's cabin while he's screwing his girlfriend and she's the only one with conflicting motivation inside the prison. She handles addiction a little better than Brooke Mills though the post-fix reverie is note-for-note the same thing in both films. I'm sorry to make so many references to The Big Doll House but it's hard not to judge Women In Cages as anything but a retread and cash-in by a less competent director. De Leon had an eye for composition that Jack Hill did not but it hurt as much as it helped. The scenes in the playpen are much more interesting and Corman-esque than those in Lucian's room but scenes like the beach-set confrontation between the gangsters and the police are as nice to look at as they are impossible to follow. Everyone's in silhouette so I didn't know who was still alive until it was over.
That said De Leon's craft does not extend to any other aspect of the production. The acting from everyone who isn't a native English speaker is terrible. Pam Grier wasn't quite Pam Grier yet but she was inching ever closer. Roberta Collins is gorgeous here and I'm really bummed that they waited until Caged Heat to put her in another of New World's WIP films. But I don't think we can chalk any of the performances up to De Leon. The editing, particularly where dialogue from angle to angle is concerned, is a mess. If the film hadn't been made in 1971 I'd swear someone pieced this thing together on iMovie what with all the inexplicable fade ins and outs and the nearly impenetrable darkness in some scenes. The film needed to be dark and messy, but that should have been on screen not behind it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happy Birthday Claudio Cassinelli, Rest In Peace

As a sort of disclaimer, I'm not going to be fair to the four movies I'll be discussing today. Today, September 28th, is Claudio Cassinelli's birthday and I've been minorly obsessed with the late Italian actor since seeing him in Big Alligator River a few years ago. So if I don't give the films the breadth of attention I might ordinarily, its because I'm far more interested in Cassinelli's appearance in these movies (he was the reason I watched them, after all) than how they relate to anything else. In Italian movies, good performances are so rare that even if you saw one you probably wouldn't recognize it (dubbing makes this doubly hard, HA! Please don't leave....). Cassinelli was a special case in that I instantly knew that his performances were the thing I liked best about the second rate films he appeared in. He was always thrilling because he never suffered from the many ailments that plague most performers: crazy eyes, awful dubbing, PROJECTING!!!!, chronic whimpering, and inhuman facial expressions. He was a cool, if put upon, breath of fresh air, which is why most people don't ever draw attention to him. He just disappears, and, like the jungle setting of Mountain of the Cannibal God, he's taken for granted as one of the few things that work. Cassinelli's first film was Marco Bellocchio's little seen China Is Near and after languishing in little parts in little films (he was in Flavia The Heretic and one of Vincente Minnelli's later films, which is about as lofty a name as you'll find on his resume, pre-77) became a favourite of Sergio Martino, who cast him in nearly everything he did after their first collaboration. And while we've already looked at him in Martino's adventure trilogy, we're going to take a look at the few genre films he made before he died in 1986, including the film that claimed his life, in the hopes of alerting you gentle, patient readers to the talents of one of the Italian film industry's few truly underrated talents. The world is full of people willing to scream the praises of Italian filmmakers who never once deserved an ounce of it, but Cassinelli hit his marks everytime and was one of the few people to walk away from terrible movies unscathed. He was a real talent in a world almost completely devoid of it, but he never once rose to brag about it so he goes unappreciated. Let's try and correct that.

The Scorpion With Two Tails
by Sergio Martino
Arthur Barnard (played by John Saxon, wrapping up a stint in Italy that had him star in Cannibal Apocalypse, among others, before returning semi-triumphantly to the states for A Nightmare On Elm Street) is an archeologist who's stumbled upon some ruins he figures ought to bankroll whatever he decides to do next. He wants to ship the artifacts he finds in big crates back to the states and curiously his boss, Mulligan (played by a way over-qualified Van Johnson; aging Americans were something of a vice for Martino; he collected their performances like baseball cards), wants them sent straight to his house. Barnard doesn't have time to puzzle that one out because someone kills him before he can send them anywhere. This is bad news for Mulligan, but even worse news for his daughter Joan, who just so happens to be Arthur's wife. She rushes off to Italy to look for evidence concerning her husband's death and, along with nightmares and hallucinations replete with maggots, finds a plot as convoluted and intriguing as this movie is boring and pointless.

Sergio Martino is by no means my favourite Italian director - either for actual quality or camp value - but you can typically expect professionalism and at least a shred of entertainment value in his movies. The professionalism in this film extends past the performances to Martino's handling of a few setpeices but the only entertaining part is Claudio Cassinelli. This was the first of his films outside the adventure cycle that I'd seen and it took me a minute to recognize him. In Island of the Fishmen he looked a little less assured of his leading man capabilities than in either Mountain of the Cannibal God or Big Alligator River and it looks like he completely abandoned any pretense about his looks in the years between his and Martino's last collaboration. When he walks on for the first time, you're looking at a man who has made one of the most graceful transitions from leading man to side-player in the history of cinema. Cassinelli so owns his performance that I was still looking for him when he was right in front of me. He becomes his character in a way I'd never seen before in an Italian film so it's a little ludicrous that he brought so much to a film that brought him nothing in return. I don't know that I've ever found a positive review of The Scorpion With Two Tails and other than Cassinelli I can think of nothing to recommend it, but as a fan of his, I do recommend it on the strength of his performance, but then not everyone is as wild about about combing through trash to find treasure.
Claudio mostly found himself in crime movies between The Scorpion with Two Tails and our next film and as I have zero interest in watching him play Zeus to Lou Ferrigno's Hercules in a Luigi Cozzi-helmed Conan rip-off, I haven't seen any of them....though I do think I'll be tracking down Grog, a film that pits him against Franco Nero and Letter From Venice, the last of four films written and directed by Susan Sontag. And for anyone who's seen him in the adventure cycle, I don't think it'll come as a surprise to learn he played Jesus Christ in a film by Pasquale Festa Campanile in 1980. Anyway, his new career as a heavy came to the attention of Lucio Fulci, a man for whom I have little time. Yet, the prospect of seeing a misguided Road Warrior knock-off by one of the worst directors ever regarded as great was just too great a chance to pass up. And, much to my surprise, despite its thickheaded treatment it's way ahead of its time.

The New Gladiators
by Lucio Fulci
As the opening voice over helpfully explains, the world has fallen into disrepair and is now largely controlled by two warring TV stations. Intertelevision and The World Broadcasting System have built up a pretty serious rivalry with their shows, which provide a mix of torture porn and reality TV. Problem is no one's watching. Ratings have dropped on their staples, like a show where people are put in VR simulations of their worst fears (one woman thinks she's being taken apart Pit & The Pendulum style, for instance). So all hands are summoned to figure out a sure fire winner. The studios even drop their rivalry for an eleventh hour meeting to figure out how to keep people watching. The solution comes from Cortez (Cassinelli), a ruthless executive who proposes a show where criminals fight to the death like gladiators. The higher-ups like it, but how do you get the public interested in criminals: that's where Drake comes in. Drake is the star of a popular sport called Kill Bike and he's caught the attention of some very important network executives. They think that someone with so many fans could make the ratings for their new show skyrocket: the public loves a hero, eh? So they hire some thugs to kill Drake's wife and then pin the murder on the athlete so that they can put him on TV to fight for his, and the network's, future.

And if this sounds familiar it's because that piece of shit Gamer had exactly the same plot. Granted the story (by veteran screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) steals liberally from Stephen King's story The Running Man - thus making that story's adaptation seem like a much more expensive remake of this movie. Luckily for me, The New Gladiators spends so much time stealing from other movies (Rollerball, Escape From New York, Blade Runner...actually, come to think of it, the The Road Warrior got off easy) that it only rarely gets around to being something that reminds me of director Lucio Fulci's worst work. His direction makes me nervous because with every clumsy, handheld close-up I expect some poor woman to get stabbed in the face. Sci-fi, especially of the dystopian variety, is not something Italians get right and its about as far from Fulci's comfort zone as you're likely to travel. In fact if it weren't for the ideas driving the script (a few of which have actually become reality, while others have provided the impetus for a slew of dumb blockbusters of the last decade, Gamer chief among them) this movie would be too inept to watch. As it is there's no tension because you don't like anyone and all the action sequences are too muddled and slow to generate excitement. I did notice that the way the film is directed reminded me a lot of Enzo G. Casterllari's Escape 2000, the sequel to 1990: Bronx Warriors. The frenetic (and poor) quality of the action, the ludicrous costuming, the parade of unlikable characters both behind and in front of the guns tie them together neatly. Cassinelli is fine but the stupid costume Fulci's got him in precludes anything he might have brought to the role. As the villain I suppose he does a fine job underplaying it, but he's too often sidelined by subplots involving some kind of mystic programmer, an evil computer, and the gang of interchangeable kill biking death row inmates. Fred Williamson is fun as Abdul, Drake's only real competition, but just like Claudio, he doesn't get nearly enough to do. It's better than Escape 2000, but only just. the script tries to wring interest from a lot of nonsense when really all I wanted from a film that promised me New Gladiators was people tearing each other apart.
While it's not nearly as well thought out as, say, The Beyond, it's still a lot easier to stomach. Now I'm not someone to talk to about the genius of Lucio Fulci, I think I've made my opinions of him perfectly clear...which is why I now need to backpedal and admit that I've just walked right into a trap of my own making. How was I to know that amongst his poorly dubbed, horribly violent, maybe occasionally artistic oeuvre, was a movie that one-ups the first ever giallo by co-opting its premise and handling it with something like restraint (in its quieter moments)? For when it's not dancing itself into a lather, killing any chance of its being regarded as even a minor classic, it is one of the most thoughtful Italian horror films I've ever seen.

Murder Rock
by Lucio Fulci
Instead of Blood & Black Lace's modeling school, Murder Rock takes place in a fictional New York dancing academy where they treat modern dance (read hideous post-disco writhing) as seriously as ballet. Flash Dance was released the year before, Murder Rock's most serious misstep is totally ignoring the film's plot. Murder Rock is most certainly a film meant to exploit Flash Dance's box office performance but my guess is not one of the dozen screenwriters on Fulci's film had paid enough attention to know that you didn't go to the most prestigious school in New York to learn how to learn how to Jazzercise. Anyway, the top class is run by Candice Norman, a woman with a dark past. One night after rehearsals, one of the top dancers, up for a spot as leader of the company, is murdered by someone with a rag full of chloroform and a poisoned hatpin. Suspicions fall on the other members of the company and when the next day, another of the four finalists for the part is murdered in the same way, the police shift into overdrive. Meanwhile Norman and her second-in-command Dick Gibson are beset by other problems. Gibson has a thing for Norman, but gets that she's not into him - a rarity, to say the least. After the first killing Candice has a nightmare where a man in a leather jacket is coming to kill her. In one of the best bits of screenwriting in any Fulci movie, we've never seen the man before either. But one night while Gibson's giving Norman a lift home, they see the man selling scotch on a billboard. A few strategic phone calls gets Candice the man's name and address and in no time at all she's broken into his apartment looking for clues. Unfortunately for her the man, George Webb, stumbles in drunk while she's in there snooping around. She's so surprised that she runs out without her purse and has to call him the next day to ask him to return it to her. Webb is down on his luck and looks like he hasn't had a friend in years so has no problem giving his would-be burglar back the evidence. They get to talking and after Candice learns that George used to be a model and actor she not only puts in a call to an agent she knows with the intention of jump-starting his career, but the two wind up dating soon after.

Now, all this might seem to have nothing to do with an ever-thinning group of dancers, but the more we learn about George Webb, the more we start to think maybe Candice Norman's nightmares are prophetic. He was implicated in the murder of a colleague years ago and when he comes by the school to pick Norman up one day Gloria Weston, one of the dance students also up for the same spot as the dead girl, starts making out with him before he pushes her off. Something's off alright, but everyone in the film has motive enough to be offing the dancers, so just where do we start? The only person we know didn't do it was Willy Stark, the impish male dancer who gives a limp confession when the police arrest him. Between Gibson's jealousy, Webb's hidden past and everything Weston stands to gain the only thing we're certain of is that the police aren't going to stop the killer in time.
I....kinda like this movie...I don't know what to say. It's a Lucio Fulci film that rips off Flash Dance; I should fucking hate this! Yet the editing is crisp, the camera work is almost expressionistic at times, the performances are largely underplayed, the music is either enjoyably terrible or terribly enjoyable, the girls are cute, the murders aren't too horrific to sit through and anchoring it are two excellent performances from two of Italy's best B actors. Cassinelli is in top form as Gibson, the meddling, defeated official and matching him effortlessly is Ray Lovelock as George Webb; Cassinelli was a little like Italy's Sterling Hayden and Lovelock is a little like the country's Christian Bale. Lovelock gives the only decent performance I've ever seen him give (I loved him in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, but he was mostly just a well-dressed presence. Here he's handsome but there's definitely something behind that smile) and played against Cassinelli it's almost like the film has something like internal conflict. Lovelock is a bit more noticeable though he's clearly trying to scale it back and Cassinelli never likes to call attention to himself, so together you have two kinds of quiet intensity that, against all odds, work really well together. In a movie stacked to the rafters with kids fulfilling the Rock of the title, it's good to have lifers like Lovelock and Cassinelli silently giving the movie weight. And though you'd expect this to loaded with sex and gore (it being a Fulci film and all) there is no gore or sex to speak of and the nudity is confined to the studio shower. Granted what the film lacks in the bedroom it sweats out on the dance floor. With all the costumed jiggling that stops the movie dead and lines like "You're here because you're the best!" You wouldn't be wrong to call this movie "Flash Dance but with murder", but a more apt descriptor might be "Flash Dance but with more realistic camel toe". There is a dance scene maybe twenty minutes into the film that shows a woman practically exploding out of her leotard; it's by far the sleaziest thing in the movie, which is a relief because I know how Fulci likes to kill people, but it's still going to catch you off guard. The murders have all the nudity, which is fitting, I think, and they're even handled in a more-artistic-than-usual fashion.

In other words there are moments here that I plainly thought out of Fulci's reach. Moments, like the first dream sequence, that approach Dario Argento's visual sensibility, which is convenient, because Argento had all but discarded it but 1984. Or like when Candice Norman's phone call with her agent reveals that Webb may have killed a girl years ago. When Lovelock grabs her shoulder after the phone call. Oh man...I was really under this ludicrous movie's spell. Tension is something I thought Fulci incapable of, yet here it is. There's Impressive footage of New York that rivals Ruggero Deodato's in House on the Edge of the Park. There are even a few memorable lines, my favourite being: "No, he's not a psycho, he's an asshole!" Though if one thing's going to sweep you off your feet about Murder Rock, it's the astonishing quality of the digitally remastered print. Thanks to recent work, Murder Rock really looks like something Adrian Lyne might have done rather than a mostly forgotten and totally out-of-touch murder mystery from a guy most famous for lurid zombie films. Murder Rock has some of the clearest and most impressive camera work of any Italian film of a similar vintage and it's even weirdly appropriate given it's subject matter. I spent a few minutes thinking that it should have been lit more presentationally or more naturalistically, not the middle ground Fulci and cinematographer Giuseppe Pinori filmed in. But then I realized that Murder Rock is meant to look like the world's most ambitious music video and then I kinda gave in and admired it. I've given Fulci a lot of shit over the years but he knows how to shoot a dance number, even if his costume designer wasn't quite as cooperative as his lighting cameraman. If one thing dates this film (beyond the God awful Pan-disco music that highlights the whole movie) it's the ludicrous costume design. Weirdly it isn't even that this film suffers from the enthusiastic colour blindness of something like Zombie or Nightmare City. The colours are all muted and tasteful, it's the shape of the unitard and the novelty of making an all-dancing Giallo that plants Murder Rock's glittery ass in 1984. The central performances escape the time and display what these guys could do at their best.
Up next for Claudio was mainly miniseries for European television and one final movie for his longtime friend and collaborator Sergio Martino. This time money called the shots more than anything else: what we have here is a late-in-the-game Terminator rip-off with none of that film's steely cool or ambition. As per usual with this sort of thing, Martino just added a whole bunch of extra subplot and baggage that gets in the way of the one thing that works. The conceit of Steel Hands is one that would be repeated with roughly the same success in Terminator: Salvation: a robot who doesn't know he's a robot. It's bullshit here, too, but at least Hands of Steel has the language barrier and an industry known for greedily shoving logic aside to blame for its shortcomings. Terminator: Salvation only has greed to explain it's total fucking failure.

Hands of Steel
by Sergio Martino
Paco Queruak is a cyborg, programmed to receive orders from a powerful organization. For reasons too irrelevant and dumb to get into, he's sent to kill a scientist but can't do it. He goes on the lam to avoid being destroyed by his employers (played by John Saxon, who I think probably agreed because of his relationship with Martino and the fact that it was shot in the Southern United States rather than Italy) and winds up in a shithole cantina run by Linda (Janet Agren, who found herself in another Terminator-related project, Red Sonja, featuring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger). He decides to stay and help her with the local toughs by beating them in an arm wrestling competition, Over The Top-style. He even finds time to fall in love with Linda before the corporation sends Cassinelli's well-dressed hitman out to undo him. The conclusion stops making sense after Paco's confrontation with John Saxon and ends on a note of guitar-themed aggressive ambiguity.

Hands of Steel, technically speaking, is one of Martino's worst films, and worse it's been forgotten so it looks fucking terrible, not that this thing seems like it ever looked good. The effects are terrible (especially the laser guns - by 1986 you'd think someone would have let the Italians know that they couldn't do that), the cinematography is uninspired, the movie itself is largely pretty boring, and the script can't figure out what kind of film it wants to be. To its credit it subverts The Terminator's plot cleverly but does nothing with it. In fact once Paco goes on the lam, the movie becomes a Canon-esque love story broken up by visits with the corporation's attempts to track their rogue cyborg and the law's attempt to figure out who tried to kill the scientist. At the risk of sounding like a sentimental idiot, the love story is the only thing in this movie that worked for me (Cassinelli's role gave him nothing to do but glower). Daniel Greene wasn't much of an actor but his attempts at passing for human mixed with Janet Agren's callous world weariness (and I believe anyone who worked for Umberto Lenzi really is world-weary) worked for me; they truly seemed like two people who need each other. Their romance is pretty cartoonish but I liked it enough to watch until the end, but it all but ruins Martino's best efforts to sell their falling in love. It's like someone leaned over his shoulder in the editing room and whispered "Don't forget this is an action film, pal!" and sabotaged the film's emotional core. And the tragedy doesn't end there.
During an off day during the shooting of Steel Hands, Claudio Cassinelli opted to go up in one of the many helicopters used in the filming, I think because he wanted to see what it was like or something equally harmless. Something went wrong and the helicopter crashed, killing the 46 year old actor instantly. Along with Vic Morrow, Cassinelli was one of the few actors to be killed (by a helicopter, no less) in the line of duty. And though there's a lot I find infuriating about the accident (Martino kept right on making films, Cassinelli's role was too small in Steel Hands, Steel Hands itself is as forgettable as it is forgotten, Cassinelli never got to carry a movie again) I do find it somewhat touching that he died working for someone he seemed to have a great working relationship with, doing what he was best at. Cassinelli is one of the few Italian film personalities to come out of the B horror world that I would loved to have worked with or at the very least met. Like Robert Ryan or Sterling Hayden, he was always great because of his inconspicuous place in any film. He was never too big or too loud, he was always just right for his parts and was frequently the only good thing about a movie. Craftsmen like Cassinelli were something the Italian film industry was short on and it's a shame he's never gotten the respect he deserves.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"I'm A Long Time Woman and I'm Serving My Time"

We have Roger Corman to thank for a lot more than I feel comfortable thanking him for considering how much shit he's produced over the years. I guess I can't blame him, he was only ever trying to make a buck, though his directorial skills were at their best pretty excellent. But the shear number of genres and careers the man made commonplace is staggering. We have him to thank for the biker movie, the psychedelic drug movie and the women in prison film as you or I know it. Sure he didn't invent them, they go back to the 30s and matured in the 50s before festering and dying off, but he brought them back to life with a vengeance. Corman was famous for basically taking elements no one had played with and mixing them or modernizing them. He would later become famous for slipping in rip-offs before the things he was stealing from had made it to theatres. I think he probably loved gangster films from the 40s and 50s because so much of what came out of American International Pictures and New World Pictures were just rehashes of some of the most beloved crime films of all time. And if he didn't then his many proteges certainly did and the WIP films are proof positive of Corman and Co's genius with efficient moviemaking. When he got into business with Filipino filmmaker Eddie Romero in the late 60s he quickly learned a few things that would save him quite a bit of money in the early 70s. Firstly: working in the Philippines was dirt cheap and came with all the crew and extras you could ever ask for. Ferninand Marcos was still a few years away from declaring marshall law but anyone willing to torch the constitution to stay in power was probably pretty receptive to some Americans coming in and paying them a tiny dividend to make movies there. The country was still a shambles and didn't have the moral high ground to wonder whether Roger Corman was maybe exploiting their workforce. After all Marcos was definitely exploiting them and at least winding up in one of New World Pictures' women in prison films meant that you might have a chance to be noticed outside of the country. Secondly: you only needed a few new ideas stapled to a few well-worn ones to make a film people would pay to see. So with a script containing elements from movies like So Young, So Bad and Women's Prison and a cast of mostly unknowns including Corman's secretary Pam Grier, AIP wunderkind Jack Hill was sent to the Philippines to work with his old friend Eddie Romero (they'd collaborated on The Snake People and a few other unseen trifles) and produce what would turn out to be one of the single most important grindhouse films of the 70s.

The Big Doll House
by Jack Hill
In one of my favourite openings to any film, Marnie Collier is sent straight from the courthouse to a horrid Filipino prison while a song called "Long Time Woman" plays over the credits. Proving that she really must have dug her heels into Corman (thank heavens for that, by the way), the woman singing is none other than Pam Grier. Collier doesn't go into the specifics of her crime with the prison doctor Philips but suffice it to say the trial was fake. After meeting the bitchy wardress Lucian she's put in her cell which she shares with five other girls. There's Grear (now that's screenwriting), the only black girl in the prison, Alcott the feisty blonde, Bodine the revolutionary, Ferina the local girl with the pet cat and Harrad the drug addict and Grear's bitch. The following morning they attend the funeral of O'Connor, the girl who's bed Collier's now sleeping in and Alcott tries to tell the prison head, Miss Dietrich, that she wasn't killed trying to escape, which is the accepted story. Unfortunately she makes this complaint in front of the wardress which lands her in a world of hurt. Dietrich hears her out in private a little later on, but between you and me I don't think that's going to do much. The only people who can do anything to stop the brutal reign of the wardress are all sitting behind bars.
And while that's going on we get a chance to meet the only other guys in the movie. Fred and Harry are the supply guys and although Fred's new and seems ok, Harry is played by Sid Haig, who would play this kind of dirtbag for most of the 70s, so you know what that means. Risible doesn't even begin to describe the sex jokes he makes. When they pass through the cell selling fruit (after bribing Leyte the shift commander) Harry loves every second of attention he gets from the sex-starved female prisoners. He has a particular hold over Grear; he convinces her to let him feel her up for what feels like hours in exchange for a letter that isn't even for her. The letter, from Bodine's revolutionary boyfriend, is discovered during fieldwork and Bodine winds up in the torture chamber later that day where Lucian subjects her to waterboarding and naked whipping while hanging by her arms all while the mysterious Prison Official General Mendoza watches from afar. The rest of the movie proceeds much like you'd expect it to: shower scene, attempted male rape, torture scene, mudfight, food fight, torture scene, and finally the girls in Collier's cell band together to escape right around the time that Dr. Philips gets it in his head that he's got to stop Lucian from torturing prisoners. Of course things don't quite as planned. Chief among those things: my really caring about the fate of these girls. I certainly didn't see that coming.
Even as I watched The Big Doll House and noted how poorly it was shot, how terrible the performances are, how cheap the sets look, how awful the dialogue can be and how it's essentially the epitome of misogyny, I found myself liking it more and more and by the end I was totally in love with this terrible little movie. I know exactly why: even in a film as tawdry as this I can't help but get behind a film that depicts women taking on men and coming out on top (and quite spectacularly I might add). My feminist side has to compete with my love of shitty movies and their completely undignified view of empowerment and with my admitted weakness to seeing women firing machine guns. It's not much but you have to take it where you can get it in a movie like this. Compare it to something like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and the victor is clear but I'd never try and add it to the curriculum of a women's studies class. At the same time if you don't have a sense of humour about the things you care about, you tend to be a big fucking bore. So while I get why it'll offend some people I'd defend its merits up and down the block because when you consider all the strikes against it, it still manages to get you excited for the conclusion. The Big Doll House was nakedly just another moneymaking venture but out of it came a film that almost transcends its trashy trappings. Consider this: a movie made by guys telling women to take their clothes off about women who take their clothes off to trick men into giving into their demands and the men both in and behind the movie were in thrall to the women. No women, no women in prison, right? So while it would have been more than easy to make, say, hardcore pornography, Hill and Corman built a movie around women who couldn't quite act and managed to sensationalize them to almost the point of folk heroes. It helps knowing that the Philippines were being run by a megalomaniac warmonger who winds up being the spiritual villain of the piece. Bodine's wish to get back to the revolution and her willingness to die for it was as close to a manifesto as that poor country got during Marcos' time as President; hardly the sort of thing you expect in a sexploitation film from the director of Spider Baby. And I don't know about the rest of you but the thing I remember most about The Big Doll House is Pat Woodell throwing off her shawl and, a grease-gun in each hand, going down in a hale of gunfire and a blaze of glory. It's not only one of my favourite conclusions to any movie ever but it's also brilliant because it's an empowering image that rose out of a film that should have nothing of the kind. It's terrible, yes, but I defy anyone not to love the shit out of this thing after the conclusion.
The Big Doll House was also the film that paved the way for Pam Grier to become the 70s black action star, eventually dwarfing the likes of Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson. She wasn't yet the Pam Grier everyone fell in love with but she has moments that hint at how great she'd become. Woodell and Roberta Collins' performances seem much better in hindsight and on second viewing, with the images from the film's climax in your head, you see them not as bit players given too much responsibility but as gun-toting ass-kickers to be. It helps too that Collins looks like a more alluring Nicole Kidman. Neither Jack Hill nor Roger Corman come off as good as the leads because while the performances can win you over, Hill's sweaty, grubby direction and Corman's calculating production never grow on you in the same way. The script is full of twists and turns that largely don't mean anything. The final one should be a kick in the stomach but considering what we've already seen it's just maddening, perfunctory and kinda disheartening. For the record I think the last lines were added in post when Hill couldn't think of a satisfactory way to end the movie. I still think the character they try to sell as a rat isn't one at all. At its best the movie comes across as a bargain basement version of The Guns of Navarone but most of the time it's exactly what it is: no good, just a lot of fun. Anyway it was fun enough to gross over 10 million dollars, which was 80 times its 125 thousand dollar budget. If that ain't success, I don't know what is. It led to something like six more Women In Prison films by New World Pictures with similar cast members, plot elements, and soundtrack cues (those delay-heavy conga drums would make an appearance in at least two more of these things). The movies would get better but they'd rarely feel as raw and reprehensible. Women In Cages, the movie that followed, was a less successful retread with a pointless criminal subplot that sucked the life out of the third act. The Big Bird Cage is a better movie but the conclusion isn't quite as powerful. The Arena makes the mistake of dubbing Pam Grier and Margret Markov and cuts their impact in half. The Woman Hunt is dull and lifeless even by Eddie Romero's standards. And so on and so on. The thing these mostly wanted for was Hill's flair for dialogue and his double edged view of women. Hill may have been a mediocre director but he had a way with making threats and swear words sound like they were lifted from the "I Have A Dream" speech. Doll House's successors and copycats rarely featured dialogue as good as "Action, big mouth!" and "You stupid bitch, do what you're told!" Out of context I realize how generic they sound, but they're hard to beat when you're watching Collins and Woodell barking them. The Big Doll House comes out swinging and pins you down until long after it's over.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A New Breed Of Terrible

The time has come for change. I realize that as I write more and more of these that there needs to be a line drawn; I need to be more constructive in my criticism. When I started handing out Z grades to movies I knew that though it was a step in the right direction, it didn't really satisfy me. It didn't say quite what I needed it to. You see, when a movie is so offensive it stops you in your tracks, you surely want to warn people. But when a movie is jaw-droppingly terrible or delightfully, irredeemably sleazy and you want everyone to rush out and see it as quickly as possible, you are equally driven to alert the masses. So, clearly I need to start making that distinction, otherwise I might give people the wrong impression. I don't want people to go see Avatar (but boy did they) but if you were planning a party I could think of worse ways to spend it than by howling along to Zombie Lake, The Devil Hunter or Massacre In Dinosaur Valley. Sometimes there is a grey area, as when a movie has a few rough spots and I'm drawn to it time and again after being disappointed by it. So as in the case of a movie like Joe Johnston's stupendously awful The Wolfman, I know it's terrible even if I've watched it twice now in the hopes that it'd show me something I missed. It hasn't and though I'll probably watch it again I don't for a second recommend that you watch it even once. Clearly I need to start being more proactive about pointing students in the direction of something they'll enjoy watching for the qualities that make it so terrible versus something that either means to offend or simply doesn't know how far it's gone. In other words, I need to let you know about movies that I would watch over and over or never again. So from now on be warned: if you watch a movie I've given a Z minus rating, you do so at your peril.

The Wolfman
by Joe Johnston
We open on the first of many, many great mistakes that The Wolfman has in store for us. A man we'll later learn is called Ben Talbot is out on the grounds of his family's rather large English estate. He's able to call out for someone once or twice before that person (or thing) steps out of the dark and cuts him in the throat and stomach with two large claws. He manages to run a pretty good distance despite this before the creature claws him to death on the steps of a mausoleum. To start a movie with someone's guts getting spilled is basically announcing that you should put your monocle away. And that's fine, but then the movie tries so desperately to be taken seriously for the next twenty five minutes and just can't quite get us to forget the opening. What I take to be little more than a week later Lawrence Talbot closes a night of what looks like the most lifeless performance of Hamlet I've seen since I was in the sixth grade. Backstage a woman announces herself as Ben's fiance and Lawrence quickly clears the dressing room to hear her story. Evidently they haven't found Ben's body since his attack so no one knows yet the hairy, toothy fate he met. Lawrence isn't really keen on going back to Blackmoor; he hates his father, always has, and hasn't seen his brother since they were kids. Plus he's been paid to sleepwalk through Shakespeare for another 30 performances. But seeing as how Gwen is played by the unfairly gorgeous Emily Blunt I guess I'd probably quit my day job, too. So, for better or worse, Lawrence finds himself on a train to Blackmoor a few days later. Curiously the man he shares his car with is none other than Max Von Sydow and after mentioning a werewolf story of his own (name dropping a much better movie than this in the process) gives Lawrence his silver cane. This will serve no function in the story, defying Chekhov's third act rule and proving how utterly confused the screenwriters must have been.

By the time Lawrence gets to the Talbot estate Ben's body's been found and he's obviously quite dead. Gwen's distraught as anything. Not only has her fiance been murdered but his dad, Sir John Talbot, refuses to stop creeping her out. When he and Lawrence aren't bickering about petty bullshit John won't stop staring at Gwen like a blind rapist. Because, once again, she's played by Emily Blunt, Gwen persuades Lawrence not only to stay at Blackmoor but openly investigate Ben's murder, which he does that very evening. The problem is, as Sir John warns him, whoever killed Ben is probably still out there. And as luck would have it, as Lawrence is paying a visit to the Gypsy Camp on the edge of the forest that surrounds Blackmoor, who Ben used to barter with, the same murderer strikes again. After a lot of airless comic-gore set-pieces, the creature corners Lawrence in a sort of mini-Stonehenge and bites him on the shoulder. The police bring him back to Blackmoor where Gwen, John and the family servant Singh, tend to him. From here we're treated to the requisite healing-too-soon stuff and falling for Gwen (fucking duh) and then when the full moon comes around John engineers a situation whereby Lawrence is locked outside when he turns into a werewolf and kills a bunch of superstitious townsfolk. The next morning the authorities find Lawrence covered in blood and cart him off to the looney bin. But this wouldn't be much of a Werewolf movie if he didn't get out.
But even still this isn't much of a werewolf movie. It isn't much of a horror movie, it isn't much of any kind of a movie. In fact it's fucking terrible. In The Wolfman's favour is Anthony Hopkins swimming effortlessly above this shipwreck doing the thing he does when he isn't being directed - making it up and still being the most capable and assured performer in the movie. The monologue he gives when he visits Lawrence in the asylum is the best part of the movie, hands down. I'd call Emily Blunt's myriad appearances in mostly flattering Victorian garb the best part but her role is so underwritten that she looks in danger of falling asleep at any moment. She's crushingly attractive and a fierce talent, and unfortunately Joe Johnston didn't make use of either of those factors. Apparently he was too busy getting the worst performance Benicio Del Toro has given maybe ever...certainly since The Usual Suspects. I love Benicio Del Toro and I give him a pass for this because, well let's face it, he's earned his life pass by this point: The Way of the Gun, Che, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 21 Grams, Traffic, etc. After earning his Oscar Del Toro probably decided that he had enough staying power that he could safely do basically one movie a year and would only donate his time to projects he believed in. And even the films of his I haven't yet seen post-Traffic (The Hunted, The Pledge) have big name directors attached and I could easily see that even if they don't meet his usual standard the prospect of working with Jack Nicholson, William Friedkin and Sean Penn was a big enough draw in and of itself that I'd see why he signed on the dotted line. But the things the script asks him to do as Talbot - brood, get mad, prevent himself from falling in love - he could do in his sleep but it actually looks like he tried to do just that. The problem with his casting is simply that he's too old to be either skipping stones or running around the moors at night. In his defense he's been a huge fan of the original The Wolfman for many, many years and when he signed on it certainly didn't look like this. And frankly if they'd made it how they planned to, when they planned to, he might have looked the part but I wouldn't be surprised if the process of getting The Wolfman made didn't turn his hair grey. Nearly every aspect of the film was changed from when the film was announced in 2006 and finally tripped into theatres in February 2010.

The screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the man behind the Seven script but when Johnston signed onto direct (after Mark Romanek had parted after hearing how the studio wanted the film to turn out. As I understand it Johnston gave them exactly what they wanted), just a few weeks before shooting was to start, he had David Self rewrite it. This is maybe why so much set-up goes on unrelieved by the time the credits roll. Take for instance the silver cane. Horror novelist Jonathan Maberry was given an early draft of the script in order to write the novelization which is so much better than the movie it's almost ridiculous to consider that he got his ideas from such a muddled script. Maberry told me that when he saw the final cut he recognized passages from his book that he'd fabricated to fill in the gaps; the producers had simply lifted dialogue that was better than what their people had come up with. By this time the film was already such a mess that any hope that his book (based on what I think was the first draft of the script) was going to save their movie was just so much dreaming. Just as Johnston and Self weren't the first directors screenwriter, the editing has an equally problematic story. When the movie was finished, everyone involved knew how bad it sucked and that the only chance of making it watchable was to get someone in the editing room to work a minor miracle. Naturally they went to Walter Murch because though he hadn't worked on Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, the movie The Wolfman wishes it was, he had worked with the director a number of times. He demanded that they bring him an antique Steenbeck editing table and even still he couldn't make this shit play. And keep in mind this guy made sense of Apocalypse Now.
So with all this talk of stock shuffling and drop-outs and add-ons, just what does it look like when vomited at us through the screen? Well, the problem is that though the movie is nicely shot, the costumes and production design are rich in detail and the people all look the part there is not an ounce of tension or a surprise in the plot or a special effect that doesn't actively hurt the film. Self's screenplay paints in broad strokes: the townsfolk are superstitious and violent and most of them pay for it, a priest delivers a sermon that acts as voice over in one scene only, Del Toro drops his brooding exterior for Emily Blunt alone, Anthony Hopkins' character couldn't be anything but what it is, the gypsies are full of ancient wisdom about curses, everyone arrogant loses their footing, the climax plays out exactly how you expect it to, the CG adds nothing and is nothing you haven't seen a hundred times. And in Johnston's hands the few diversions it has from its own hopelessly derivative structure explode into chaos. Take the scene in the asylum. Lawrence's hallucinations ought to be cool, except until that point The Wolfman has not film that can support such flights of fancy. It's already filled with dream-lake flashbacks and we know very well what the werewolf looks like by this point (he's not scary) so what did Johnston think he would accomplish by showing us what we've already seen just at a higher volume and quicker? There is brief respite in Hopkins' speech about his history with wolves but then it's back to too-little-too-fast. In the asylum Lawrence is looked after by the amazingly overwrought Freud clone Dr. Hoenneger. After days of dunking Talbot in cold water (for no reason) he presents him to a room full of colleagues in a scene that's probably supposed to mimic Van Helsing's introduction in Dracula but comes off like one of the worst Abbott & Costello routines never made. Hoenneger blathers on and fucking on about how it's all in Talbot's head and how the moon will do nothing to him. Then he turns into a wolf and kills him (he even throws him out the window he makes specific reference to not being able to fly out of). Such dogged meeting of expectations comes off as sad and almost perverse. Could a film be so out of ideas that they need to add something like this?

And all this is bad but it's proven worse by it's dramatic incongruousness. If like Francis Ford Copolla's Dracula, this film's obvious inspiration, The Wolfman had gleefully thrown everything at the wall then played with it with like a bunch of special ed kids it might have been worth watching. The problem is that Joe Johnston (or somebody) decided to keep a veneer of professionalism about the joint so everytime it goes off the rails, there's someone there trying to make it look it happened on purpose. Slapstick gore scenes, CG action scenes a la Underworld or Van Helsing (in whose company this film belongs) would be fine if they were this film's sole elements, but contrast it with the constant references to classical literature and the quiet romance between two actors as seasoned as Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and they tear the movie down. Subtle, candle lit flirtation and scenes like Del Toro teaching Blunt how to skip stones don't exactly gel with a Wolf aping King Kong on the rooftops of London (like so much of The Wolfman's "humour" that pun was intended). Emily Blunt's character and the sadness she brings to it outweigh a scene of two hirsute stuntmen doing wire work in the Talbot's living room. Aside from Rob Bottin and Tom Savini, Rick Baker is easily my favourite make-up artist and his talents are many. Here they fail him. Del Toro's Wolfman looks exactly like a man in a shitty, unflattering wolf suit (somewhere between Oliver Reed, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Teenwolf) and Hopkins looks exactly like a CG werewolf who behave nothing like a proper wolf. And when did we stop hiring real animals to appear in movies? I kinda get the wolfman but A CG bear and a CG deer that do nothing but stand there? That shit is just fucking lazy and annoying. And will someone tell me what Hugo Weaving is doing in this movie. His character does nothing, adds nothing and has no bearing on the proceedings. If he was simply excised the movie would have been exactly the same minus a few close-ups. In fact if his character was removed we'd have been spared another pointless tangent about Jack The Ripper that goes nowhere. If they'd played that up even a little it could have paid off. In fact if they'd stuck with any one element long enough for it to make a dent in this cliche-tastic screenplay maybe The Wolfman would be worth your time.
There are things that work occasionally but there is no fun to be had with The Wolfman. It's out and out terrible and that is what gets you a Z- around here. The movie so often shoots itself in its big hairy feet that I simply can't stand everything that surrounds its best parts. If someone recut this movie or better yet remade it as a character study with someone like Tom Hardy or Karl Urban as Lawrence Talbot and just focused on the relationship between Lawrence, crooked Sir John and gentle but cautious Gwen and never left the estate, not only would I pay to see such a film I'd fucking bankroll it if I had the money. But what we have is a kitchen sink film, a movie that changes tone every five minutes and always fumbles. So, in summary, I will not be watching The Wolfman again if I can help it and as the Z Minus below will let you know, neither should least not without silver to protect yourself.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Go To Sleep...."

For whatever reason the latter half of the 40s and the early 50s saw very little fanged activity. Vampires had been run into the ground with the rampant revision of the Dracula mythos and guest appearances in terrible comedies. Aside from La Vampiro Negro, an early Argentinean horror film by Román Viñoly Barreto, there wasn't much caped trouble brewed up. Though match point goes to England's Hammer Studios for introducing vampires back to the world's audiences, no one attacked the subject of vampires with quite the same zeal as the Mexicans. After Hammer's Horror of Dracula opened up the fanged floodgates, other countries threw their own entries into the mix but I rather think that Mexicans made the most out of their threadbare source material (though you wouldn't actually be able to find all of Stoker's novel unless you watched every vampire film from 1957 to 1975). Indeed many saw the vampire movie as a way to explore new special effects techniques and as a way to really build a solid genre film industry in their country. If we go back to the very beginning, we have Abel Salazar to thank for some of Mexico's finest horror films. He decided that though acting was going well, he wanted to produce horror films and that's just what he did. His company Cinematográfica ABSA produced around eight horror films before ceasing in 1963 with Curse of the Crying Woman. Aside from the truly bizarre Braniac in 1962 there wasn't really a dud among them but ABSA's vampire films really display his company's strengths. They excelled in gothic horror and could conjure up really awesome visuals when they wanted to.

El Vampiro
by Fernando Méndez
Marta Gonzalez is home to see her aunts, both are apparently sick. Her arrival in their home town should tip you (and her, if she had any sense) off that she's about to endure a weekend full of unspeakable evil. There are no carriages around to take her from the train station to The Sycamores, her family's estate. The surrounding town is filled with superstitious types who scoff at the idea of Marta headed up to her family's house and the only carriage willing to take her is full to bursting with boxes of dirt. She manages a ride halfway to town along with fellow stranded train passenger Enrique (played by Salazar). Enrique seems like affable enough company even if his reason for being in town seems suspect at best. When they arrive at the Sycamores there is a lot of bad news waiting for Marta. Her Aunt Maria Teresa's illness, whatever it was, has claimed her life and Aunt Eloisa seems not so much changed as a completely different, exuberant person. She's rebounded quite nicely from her sister's death and now wants to sell the Sycamores to a neighbor, one Mr. Duval, as it happens the recipient of all that dirt. After Eloisa takes Marta up to her room, Enrique stays behind to grab a word with Uncle Emilio. Enrique is actually Dr. Enrique and he's not just a traveler looking for a place to stay; Emilio invited him here after the simultaneous sicknesses of his sisters and their equally simultaneous condition changes. Enrique is actually an expert on the occult, specifically vampires and he thinks Emilio's got 'em. So all he's got to do is catch Duval and Eloisa in the act with the help of Emilio and the serving staff, charm and save Marta who he's got to fall in love with and then serve up a bit of stake-shaped justice. In the meantime it's secrets and intrigue for dinner and lies and murder for desert.

It's funny after so many Vampire movies that you can be charmed by a little change of pace or in this case setting. Mexican horror films don't have much of a reputation and in spite of that they went back to basics. Abel Salazar wanted to take one of the most successful horror films of the sound era, Dracula, and bring it to Mexico and not only did he do that, he, writer Ramón Obón and director Fernando Méndez managed to make it resonate with Mexican audiences and they also made a film much more thoroughly satisfying movie. Obón's script doubles down on the complicated plot but Méndez managed to make every character with lines a real person with a personality. One of the people I found myself most concerned about was Anselmo the butler, not because the other characters weren't as interesting but because Méndez managed to make him seem like an unfortunate victim. How often do the serving staff of doomed manors wind up the victims of vampires and other horrid creatures? Anselmo was given the kind of consideration that you'd only find in latter day Hammer films. Then there's the emphasis that Obón puts on family, something only given the faintest attention in Browning's film. And it helps too that everyone is likable, a feet Browning never tried to pull off. Salazar, our hero, is an interesting choice which hints at Mexico's more humane view of stardom. He's the hero of the film and he's a bit paunchy, a little smug and kinda goofy. Good luck finding him outside of a Leo McCarey comedy in the states. And yet I like him more than nearly any male lead in a horror film from that era in the English-speaking world. Celebrity in Mexico was more about crowd-pleasing than superficial definitions of such; how else could they idolize a fat man who wore a mask for most of his adult life? And opposite Salazar? Germán Robles, bridging the gap between Lugosi's foreign charm and Christopher Lee's youthful vigour and charisma. Robles looks a touch like Lee (though he predates him as Dracula) and his cool demeanor never waivers. He's also a touch more charismatic than anyone who'd donned the cape beforehand.

Méndez also proved himself quite an ace at creating mood and atmosphere as well as tension. El Vampiro takes as much if not more time than Dracula setting up the climax but unlike that film it utilizes its quiet moments well. The scene where Marta confirms our suspicion by singing the eerie song she keeps hearing in her bedroom. I'd wondered if it was meant to be something we were both hearing, but when she starts cooing "Go To Sleep...." to Salazar, I realized Mendez was playing with a full deck. The Sycamores makes for a perfectly spooky setting for the conflict and intrigue to play out over. It's an old villa and its owners haven't been quite up to running it lately so the cobwebs that have accumulated and the general mildewy feel of the place feels natural, rather than like a movie set (though that too comes across at times, like in the tunnel connecting Duval to the Gonzalez's house). The smoke outside helps bring the place to life; the Sycamores would become the template for most of ABSA's horror films' settings. There are a few nifty visuals here but my favourite is the teleporting light that Duval uses to get around; not only does it look cool but it establishes that ABSA was playing by different rules. The most obvious sign of their dissent is in the fangs that these vampires wear. El Vampiro was the first film to put in over-sized canines on its vampires and though, again, Hammer made it fashionable ABSA deserves credit for thinking it up first. And that Méndez delivers a film worthy of such innovation is much to his credit. El Vampiro has its weak-spots but there's never a moment where anyone appears to have forgotten where they are. Salazar's facade never drops around Marta and even when trying to comfort her he never plays dumb or too mawkish; the secret is always just behind his smile. And furthermore between the breathless array of poison and loaded questions at dinner and the fist fights, reveals and chases, El Vampiro picks up in a big way to make up for its dull spots. It's a film that feels like the work of people who cared about more than how much they'd gross and that's more than even Hammer can boast for all their professional sheen and Shakespearian artistry.
As it happens I wasn't the only one who loved El Vampiro so whether or not they cared to, ABSA found themselves in a situation where the smartest thing to do was to make a sequel. So like Universal before them and Hammer alongside them, a sequel they did make. Unlike either of those studios, theirs was almost completely different where style was concerned. Mendez found a cinematographer who could really attack the new urban setting and even got to keep his three leads from the last film. Altogether a crisper, more streamlined vision, El Ataúd Del Vampiro or The Vampire's Coffin, is just as thrilling, if perhaps not quite as revelatory, a watch as its predecessor.

The Vampire's Coffin
by Fernando Méndez
In an opening more redolent of a Frankenstein sequel than a Vampire movie, we start with a little graveyard larceny. Dr Enrique (still the affable Abel Salazar) is back doing what he does when he's not out killing vampires, practicing medicine. A colleague of his, Dr. Marion, heard all about his tangling with Count Lavud, and was so impressed with the idea of the vampire that he's dug up the body with the help of a grave-robber. Anyway Enrique is sympathetic to the ambitious Marion's ideas about what he could do by studying the vampire, but he also knows what a stupid idea it is and how catastrophic it would be if Marta were to see his body there. She just happens to be on her to way visit as they stand there talking so Enrique quickly distracts her but frankly she's too caught up in her dancing to notice anything like a coffin in his office. Everything seems perfectly professional until the graverobber comes back and tries to take the pendant from around Lavud's neck. The only problem is that damn cross holding it in place, but he pulls it out no problem. You could write the rest yourself, no? After taking on the graverobber as a slave and stalking the streets for a few days he finds Marta in time for her big performance and Enrique finds him soon after. The conclusion may not be better than the one in El Vampiro, but it's brilliantly filmed and the setting is even cooler.

The first thing to say about The Vampire's Coffin is just how awesome the cinematography is. It's right up there with the likes of The Third Man, M or anything by Billy Wilder. Fernando Méndez was still calling the shots and though El Vampiro was excellently moody it has none of the crisp compositions or brilliant chiaroscuro lighting set-ups so I think credit must be given to new director of photography Víctor Herrera. The scenes that immediately come to mind are the ones in the streets just after Lavud breaks free from the hospital, and then the chase down the huge staircase before the climactic fight in the torture museum, shades of Phantom of the Opera, making this quite the Universal homage. It's worth pointing out that filming in a torture museum was a stroke of genius, but there isn't a dull moment visually in the whole film and the end chase just happens to be the best moment in those terms. You could freeze any moment here, frame it and throw it up at the MFA for my money. The story isn't quite as memorable as the craft it took to make the film but that's ok as it followed on the heels of one of Mexico's greatest horror films. To try and top it would have seemed like megalomania and frankly El Vampiro worked so well because it was really a number of little things that combined to make one solid movie that felt bigger than it was. To be fair I've been on the lookout for an heir to best early vampire movie ever since being soundly disappointed with Tod Browning's inexplicably beloved Dracula, and in that search either of these movies will do, but El Vampiro has enough slightly off about it that works that when you step back you see what a balancing act it must have been. Abel Salazar, nor indeed really anyone, had never produced a horror film and he was taking a risk putting himself in the lead role. The production design probably would have come off looking rather cheap were it not for the amazing work with shadows, fog and cobwebs. And the trick photography is actually really effective. In The Vampire's Coffin I was totally hypnotized by just how beautiful the whole movie looks and so was willing to overlook the few faults that definitely show up before the credits role (Mexicans were no exception to the rule that to make a vampire film, people thought you needed the biggest, cheapest looking rubber bat you could find). There are moments here - one of the main characters confessing their fear of death, the fact that the script references the events of the first film so practically, the excellent use of the vampire's inexplicable cape in shot composition - that make this just as endearing a watch.
Considering how many American vampire films preceded it and that Hammer films were attempting the same trick at almost exactly the same time, both El Vampiro and The Vampire's Coffin make for pretty entertaining treatments of the same well-worn subject. Abel Salazar succeeded in his efforts to bring horror films to Mexico and ABSA would produce several more classics before folding. Indeed they would even continue to breathe new life into the vampire film before all was said and done. While The Horror of Dracula is better remembered and comes off as being effortlessly entertaining where El Vampiro looks like the work of professionals straining to keep up, I have to say that my respect lays more with this little production that could. Bringing horror to new lands is something that I think we should all support. When a country has a means to express itself, especially during times of crisis, it always helps maintaining sanity....even if that means showing people losing theirs.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Could You?

I like to try and keep some sense of order on this site when I can so that I don't just bombard potential followers with one thing after another. I like building up history and importance around certain films because one of my firm beliefs, indeed one of the reasons I started writing in the first place, was because I believe that horror films are one of the best lenses through which to view contemporary society. You could say fiction (especially historical fiction) or diary or documentary (though that's a more recent development) but I do think that horror films are the best way to explore the effects of society on a troubled mind. And what causes those minds to be so troubled is all too often a massively repressive government, a harsh religious conditioning or personal tragedy. So when General Francisco Franco takes over Spain and murders maybe 50,000 people who oppose him ideologically and continues to run the country for some thirty years after this, running rough-shod over human rights and treating the country like one big serving staff, it's bound to make speaking up infrequent. Or if you were a young man growing up in Uruguay in the 50s and 60s and saw the economic downturn yield student and labour protests that led to mass robbery and violence, such a thing would probably have left an indelible stamp on the way you relate to fiction. The former is most definitely what inspired Juan José Plans' novel The Children's Game, released in 1976. Less easy to determine is which of the two dictated Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's decision to adapt the novel into a movie that same year. While I know that Serrador was born in Uruguay, information about his adolescence is scarce. He directed television in Argentina as late as 1962 but by 63 he was in Spain doing the same thing. He moved back and forth between the two countries for much of the late 60s and early 70s so I'm not at all sure I know just what country he was condemning when he adapted Plans' novel but it's a safe bet that he was more than aware of how badly Franco had fucked the Spanish people. And so a man with a few TV horror movies under his belt set about making his second theatrically released film and for nearly six years after the fact he either couldn't or didn't want to make anything. It's not hard to see why. I've seen the movie a few times now and I'm still reeling from it for while it starts harmlessly enough Who Can Kill A Child? is one of the most powerful movies ever made and one of the most terrifying indictments of a government ever committed to film. So maybe it interferes with the order of things around here but this is a movie that means to offend and you can't take your eyes off of it for a second and I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't get a big sign and point you in its direction. But I'll say this, reading this might spoil some of it for you so please, please, please go see it first. My words cannot do justice to the experiencing of seeing this in a dark room.

Who Can Kill A Child?
by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
After an opening that consists of photos of malnourished and tormented children throughout recent conflicts, we find ourselves on a sunny beach in the Spanish town Benavis where a blonde haired boy of probably five years of age discovers a dead woman floating in the shallows. The ambulance drivers notice that she has four stab wounds in her chest and at least three more on her legs. Just as the ambulance drives away married couple English Tom and very pregnant Evelyn come in on a bus. They're here for an annual festival but also because Tom used to vacation around Benavis as a child. Specifically he remembers visiting the island of Almanzora and he wants desperately to go back. Their trip is ominous from the get go. On TV Thích Quảng Đức is burning himself alive, memories of civil war linger even among the festivities and just after Evelyn gets out of the water everyone on the beach is rushing to the sound of a whistle. Though we know very well what they're all so fascinated by, Tom and Evelyn don't hang around to find out. If they did, maybe they'd think twice about heading to Almanzora. But the next day they rent a small boat and three hours later they've docked. Some kids are hanging out at the dock and they're more than happy to help the couple tie their boat down but then Tom gets too close to one of them. He asks the boy what he's using for bait on the end of his home-made fishing pole and when he tries to look in the boy's basket he closes it so fast Tom almost gets his fingers shut in the lid. The boy simply stares daggers at the interloper until Evelyn calls him away.

The village turns out to be just as quiet as Tom remembers. In fact it's too quiet. There's no one running the ice cream stand and when they try to serve themselves they find it's all melted. There's no one running the local cafe or the supermarket and when they arrive at the only inn in the center of Almanzora they try to make themselves at home but there's no one at work and all the rooms are empty. The only people they do see are children, unless you count the dead body on the floor of the supermarket that Tom walks right past without noticing. Tom and Evelyn catch glimpses of people, like the girl who comes into the cafe where Evelyn sits waiting for Tom to get back. Curiously all she does is touch Evelyn's very pregnant belly and stare at it. Then there's the house with the shutters that close just as Tom walks past. He goes up to investigate and finds nothing, but the second he leaves something very much like the sound of children giggling escapes from the corners of the room. Then there are the phone calls. Someone keeps calling the hotel and then either just breathing heavily or speaking in panicky German. When Evelyn goes out and sees an old man running away down an empty street, the only adult they've seen since arriving on Almanzora, Tom is the one who finally gets it. You see the old man isn't running away from the tourists but from a little girl who beats him over the head with his own cane when she finds him. Tom rushes over and tries to help but to no avail. The most he can do is lay the old man in a stable while he thinks of what it all means but just a few seconds after he walks away, some more kids find the body and...let's just say you won't soon forget what they do to him. The questions are many at this point but only one thing is certain, the odds of Tom & Evelyn surviving with their sanity are slim to none.
That the coat of arms, national anthem and flag that served as national symbols of Spain under Franco's reign are now banned should tell you something about his legacy in Spain; the new government owed it not only to the many dead Spaniards who'd been killed in action or flat out murdered for standing up for a cause its people believed in (and voted for and elected legally) to completely dishonor his memory, but to everyone one else who died for the same reason alongside them. The Spanish Civil War is one of the only times in history that commies and sympathetic parties from literally all over the western world came to the aid of single country. World Wars I and II were about fighting a scourge that ostensibly threatened nations (Anyone who thinks that this was the only reason would perhaps also be interested in a bridge I'm selling. It's all part of my "The Civil War was fought over Slavery because Columbus discovered America" sale) but this was one country trying to maintain its democratically elected government and by association its freedom and sanity. And people, not armies, came from all over Europe to fight Franco's army. Unlike the Nazis the Frente Nacional weren't voted in, they had simply seized control when they lost and then quelled all opposition, then ruled with an iron fist until Franco's death in 75. George Orwell, who wrote the book Homage to Catalonia about the experience, was one of the many foreigners who came to help those loyal to the Popular Front; Richard Nixon lamented Franco's death, calling him an ally and a friend to the United States. That's about as good a summation of the arguments on either side you'll ever need. So while it's possible that Serrador was calling upon his experiences in Argentina or Uruguay, I find it far more likely that he had recent Spanish history in mind when he made his second and final theatrically released movie. I also think he knew exactly what he was doing. Unfortunately Juan Jose Plan's The Children's Game is either out of print or was just never released in English so I don't know whether or not it was just a straight-up horror story or if it really was a kiss-off to Franco but one thing's for sure: Who Can Kill A Child? is easily one of the boldest and most terrifying metaphors/movies ever made.

The central thesis of most of Spanish horror & fantasy (everything from Guillermo Del Toro's childhood trilogy Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth to The Others to Shiver to The Orphanage to The Nameless, even the totally bug-eyed Anguish) is that our actions will have catastrophic effects on our children and that, by and large, childhood is stolen from children unfairly. The only other movie I can think of that tackles this thesis with comparable bravery is Victor Erice's gentle-hearted The Spirit of the Beehive which had to skate by on implication because it was released while Franco was still alive. Guillermo Del Toro made the point explicitly by setting The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth during the Spanish Civil War (they work just as well as political texts as Ken Loach's excellent Land & Freedom). But Erice's film was declawed with good reason and Loach and Del Toro had the gift of working some forty years after the General's death. Not that that detracts from the power of their work but I make this point simply to say that Narciso Ibáñez Serrador must have had a professional death wish, if not an actual one by making Who Can Kill A Child? just one year after Franco kicked the bucket! Imagine Pasolini making The 120 Days of Sodom the year after Mussolini was killed and that still doesn't quite put you there. Franco died of natural causes and it was another six years before democrats took over and led Spain into something resembling normalcy. That people can comfortably vacation in Spain today is kind of amazing. People like to theorize a lot about what Germany would have been like if Hitler had won. In Spain, he did, and for years school children were told he'd been sent by God to save the whole country. Serrador (and probably Plans) reasonably got to wondering just what the hell that does to kids. Spain was already one of the most heavily religious countries on the planet, so if they'd already had the fear of god drilled into them, one more name wasn't going to make much difference. But when you convince kids that someone who was STILL ACTIVELY KILLING PEOPLE WHO OPPOSED HIM was not just to be respected but paired with fucking god, you were asking for kids to grow up thinking that murdering dissidents was an order handed down by god almighty and that's pretty much what happens in Who Can Kill A Child? Kids just start killing adults for no reason; the only thing we ever see that resembles a cause is when the boy with the fishing rod simply stares at some kids from another part of the island. Seconds pass and those kids are now part of the fold and they presumably then head inside to kill their own parents. The teachings of a government kept in power by silencing those with the power to do oppose and teaching children (unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly) that the way to adulthood and reason is through torture, murder and death. This is what makes Who Can Kill A Child? not just a horror classic, but one of the most astonishing films of all time. And because this was a genre film he was able to escape the critique that would have accosted a more direct approach to the subject matter, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that real power lies in horror.
Stripped of its context, Who Can Kill A Child? is still unquestionably one of the most gut-wrenching horror movies of all time and along with The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead, Shivers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit On Your Grave, The Devils, The Wicker Man, Alien, Mark of the Devil, Blood on Satan's Claw, Nosferatu The Vampyre, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Phantasm, Vampire Circus, The Hills Have Eyes, Black Christmas, The Brood, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and maybe a combined strike for Jaws & Duel, represents the vanguard of 70s horror. And of those movies only Alien, The Devils and The Exorcist match or best its intensity; none of these films can compete with its pitch black center and die-hard convictions. It's easy to distance yourself from the events of The Devils thanks to its period setting, Derek Jarman's lavish and baroque set design and Ken Russell's operatic direction. The Brood comes close but ultimately even that has a sunnier outlook. After all that was about a relationship that had festered and died. Who Can Kill A Child? is about an unstoppable force of which a couple is but one casualty. In fact only the flawed films I like to label Cinema Paranoia (The Crazies, Rabid, I Drink Your Blood) come close to matching this movie's bleak thesis and not a one of them is as well made or frightening as this. What Who Can Kill A Child? reminds me most of for it's first forty-five minutes is one of Val Lewton's horror films (though don't go expecting a lot of shadow play, Serrador was more of a realist). Like Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie it's set-up is just a display of lives in transition, people with problems but who have the potential to live happily. Like the Reeds of Cat People, Tom and Evelyn are making a commitment and something outside of their control conspires to bring them apart. Like those films it's early scenes have a kind of lyrical beauty and ease to them; Serrador and Jacques Tourneur were equally adept at depicting married life; It's almost a shame to see them give way to the later tension. And once it establishes not just how normal Tom and Evelyn are but how happy they are (the scene where they shout and kiss in front of the fireworks is hard enough to watch the first time just dreading what's to come. A second viewing makes the scene downright heartbreaking), that's when Serrador strikes. The movie is all unrelieved tension; it's like a rattlesnake, eying you, waiting for the moment when you're closest and then strikes, but not always where you expect it to. The remastered version with the soundtrack revamped makes it clear how much it used loud noises and abrupt, dissonant musical cues to its advantage. Having spent as much time as he had in Television, he'd honed his direction skills and manages to establish a lot using very little. And then of course there are the images he creates.

I've seen a lot of killer child movies but none that have capitalized quite so much on just how terrifying they can be all on their own. The Brood and The Village of the Damned alter the kids' appearance and The Bad Seed dresses its villain up as a caricature but these are just kids who spend most of the movie smiling coyly and relentlessly. Serrador wrings so much fright by just grouping them together as in the scene on the other side of the island or the climax which is one of the few times I actually found myself biting my nails wondering if he was actually going to fucking go there!?! that I was amazed no one had done it before. Seconds before we learn the answer to the above question we get maybe the best still frame in the whole film. But what really gives that scene its power is the end of the previous night. Not only do we get a glimpse of how far Tom is willing to go to protect his family, but we also get Serrador's most troubling and exhausting scene. I'll only say that it's what finally flips a switch in Tom's head. That scene comes after more than an hour of nonstop tension and you get the sense that everyone has had it. Lewis Flander and Prunella Ransome are good throughout; I buy them completely during the early festivities and rooted for them for the whole film but these last scenes are simply flooring. The fear of realization in Evelyn's eyes is one of the most awful things I've seen an actor convey. What makes it worse is that you don't know whether to believe her. You don't find anything half as genuine and truly scary in 99 out of 100 horror movies.
And while it is both a poignant metaphor and a masterfully directed horror film I guess the one thing I forgot to address was the title question. If you found yourself surrounded by murderous children, could you do it? If your life or the life of your loved ones was at stake, could you do it? This is a rare film that asks the same thing of its audience as it does of its characters. I love The Exorcist but in the end what ultimately does it leave up to you? Dawn of the Dead's central thesis lends itself to a question of this sort but it's nowhere near as prescient. None of the other great horror films of the 70s leave you with a question that burns itself into your subconscious in quite the same way. So while it may colour outside the lines every now and again, the dialogue is a touch heavy handed during the first night in Benavis and the editing is a little iffy at times I don't think I can ask much more of this asks so much of me, of all of us.