Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976), by Don Edmonds



1975 saw the release of what could easily be called the archetypical Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. That film featured Dyanne Thorne as Ilsa, a Nazi commandant who tortures prisoners at a concentration camp, while also seeking a man who can give her an orgasm. Those who fail in this task--i.e. all of the male prisoners at the camp--are castrated. As you may well expect, She-Wolf is a miserably gruesome watch, with much of the torture that's shown looking pretty authentic, thanks to the filmmakers only showing what they could technically accomplish, and implying the rest. When making the follow-up, which brought Ilsa to 1970s Saudi Arabia, the filmmakers toned down much of the disturbing content in an effort to seek an audience that wasn't comprised entirely of weirdos and perverts. But they still had to appeal to, y'know, weirdos and perverts, because it was still a film about a big-breasted, often-nude Teutonic blonde torturing people in ways that were occasionally erotic. While many consider this mixture of interests to be a failure, I'm of the opinion that the producers of Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks managed to create an atmosphere of camp which both the original film and this film's followup, Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia, were sorely lacking. This is, generally speaking, a feel-good exploitation movie, where it's just one bit of nonsense happening after another. It grows on you after a while.

Ilsa is now the lieutenant of a powerful Middle Eastern crime lord, El Sharif. El Sharif deals both in human trafficking and in drugs, and he and Ilsa's activities have caused them to be investigated by an international commission led by Commander Adam Scott and a pudgy, wimpy German dude named Dr. Kaiser. The pair have a spy planted in El Sharif's palace but she is captured and tortured before they arrive. Despite knowing that the two are spies, Ilsa falls for Commander Scott when he turns out to be a regular sex machine. Eventually her relationship with him causes El Sharif to sentence her to molestation at the hands of a leprous beggar whom she had flogged at the start of the movie. This causes her to help out a group of rebels seeking to oust El Sharif and replace him with the legitimate ruler of this region, his nephew Prince Ali. In the end Ilsa is betrayed by Ali and thrown in his dungeons to await a hideous fate.

I had to piece together aspects of this plot over multiple viewings, because as far as director Edmonds is concerned, story is as secondary and incidental as a hillbilly's napkins at an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet. No, we're here to see sleaze, and they are quite insistent on pouring on that sleaze whenever they can. Gore, dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, pedophilia, and rape are all key themes, though unlike She-Wolf none of it is brought "too far." For all that means. For example, they may talk about letting rats feast on someone's vaginal tissues, but they don't show it. We still get a girl whose breasts are crushed in a vice (which is actually a lot funnier than it sounds) and of course there are the women whose vaginas are outfitted with proximity mines. These mines are tested, by the way, by "the love machine"--a piston-driven mechanical arm that ends with an immaculate pewter dildo. (Might not want to use that too much, pewter can be real nasty on the skin I've heard.) Legit gross-out points to the scene where a girl's legs are eaten by ants--and then there's the guy who buys one of the girls, but says over a pair of pliers, "I don't like the scrape of teeth..."

Dr. Kaiser's arc in this movie is, um. Interesting. On the drive to El Sharif's palace he says, "I hope they do not give me...a sheep's eye. I have been all over the Arab world and it is a common gift to give to foreign guests. But they are disgusting, and I do not know if I could eat another one." Then of course El Sharif feeds him "the eye of [his] most beautiful sheep"--Kaiser's spy. Later, El Sharif sends an underage male prostitute to Kaiser's room, and despite initial resistance, there is every indication that he ended up taking him up on his offer! It's equal parts horrifying and comical, because despite its implications, it's so blatantly glanced over that it feels like a background gag! I have no idea what to make of this. I think it's best I move on. It is noteworthy that the same actor played a Nazi General in She-Wolf of the SS who commanded Ilsa to give him a golden shower. So he's always been a class act.

I don't really even know if I can call this film racist, because while it seems to assert that Arabs are vicious and have a propensity for human trafficking, it's not really something that's specifically dwelled on besides the provision of the setting. There are local people fighting El Sharif for presumably noble purposes, and it's not like the white Europeans are much better, with Dr. Kaiser being a pedophile, Commander Scott leaving Ilsa to die after sleeping with her, and Ilsa being, well...Ilsa. The sleaze is universal, and frankly, after watching movies like The Sheik and The Barbarian, this movie is pretty fair in its treatment of Arab folk. Though that's not saying much.

If you want uncut sleaze as only the '70s can deliver it, this is the film to watch. It's the one Ilsa movie I've bothered to go back to, and despite the change in tone, it is the most watchable of all of them in terms of content and lack of boredom. There's always something happening--whether you like it or not.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT

Starting next week, the A-List will be shifting from written reviews to podcast episodes. This is something I've wanted to experiment with for a while and I'm sure a good time will be had by all. Join me for bad jokes, bizarre trivia, and a fresh take on in-depth discussion of astonishing trash cinema.

The first two episodes, The Grapes of Death and Oasis of the Zombies, will be available TOMORROW on Patreon Early Access for $3. It's just $3 a month or $36 bucks a year (like, less than four months of Netflix) to get these podcasts and other goodies early. Check me out at www.patreon.com/AdamMudman

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sex Madness (1938), by Dwain Esper



We've probably all heard of Reefer Madness at this point. As a matter of fact a lot of you reading this site can probably cite a specific Favorite Moment from Reefer Madness, even if you've only seen it once. Reefer Madness stands relatively untouched as the exploitation movie of the 1930s, if anything because it's one of the few which is still watchable. The Cocaine Fiends, Marihuana, and all the others just don't hold up, because they lack that unique spark that made Reefer Madness fucking crazy. But, while it's still not close to Reefer Madness, Sex Madness is pretty special, if nothing else because it makes for a great riff with friends.

Sex Madness is a relatively plotless depiction of what will happen if you don't listen to your parents (or maybe listen to them too much) and spend your youth going to orgies. Okay, orgies were still off-limits in the '30s, even in exploitation films that posed as education fodder. That doesn't stop our main characters from stopping by a "guest room" party though! We follow the twin narratives of Millicent Hamilton, ambitious young typist and beauty queen, and Tom Lorenz, son of city reformer Paul Lorenz, who is on a quest to eradicate "social diseases" like syphilis. ("Social diseases"? Really? Not only does that have an edge of shaming to it, but "social" is perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious synonym for "sexual" I've heard in a while. It changes so many contexts!) Tom picks up his syphilis at said guest-room party, while Millicent, in her hunger to become a beauty queen champ, is infected via date-rape by her would-be manager. Tom struggles with whether or not to tell his dad and risk ruining his career, while Millicent seeks a cure so she can get married. Because I guess doctors in the 1930s had the authority to stop marriages if someone had syphilis. Or something. Anyway, Tom eventually learns that his dad is on his side, while Millicent is seemingly cured only to infect her husband and baby, killing the latter. I think they still swing for a happy ending, though. Yay?

This movie has all the requisite '30s exploitation tropes: poorly-integrated footage sampled from other films. Evil [minorities] (in this case lesbians). Exaggerated, lip-licking leering. Irrelevant, often nonsensical newspaper headlines ("Sex criminal jailed after baby murder" doesn't really describe any of the events of his film, even when a baby does die). Creaky stage-play cinematography. Horrible, horrible, horrible acting. Moral alarmism. Glorification of what it's ostensibly attacking. Etc., etc. Sex Madness, though, goes beyond in many ways, starting with the fact that it's a sexploitation movie about syphilis. It's the ultimate in combining lurid sexuality with shaming people for the accidental consequences of their actions. It shames people for being sexually assaulted. Every frame of this is subtitled "Ewwwww" in invisible ink. For every moment we're supposed to be aroused by the turn of a shapely gam or stock footage of dancing girls, there are characters pontificating about the horrors of one of the most gruesome diseases a human being can contract. They also feature footage of someone afflicted with the disease which may be fake, but the extra scratches on the film print suggest that perhaps this is real medical footage. I mean, it's far from ending your movie with dog surgery like Life Returns, or with live birth reels like a lot of the roadshow exploitation flicks did, but man, they really made sure you knew the word "exploitation" back then. Sometimes these 1930s films will do stuff that would shock the directors of the fucking 1970s. Someday someone is going to unearth a 1930s-era snuff film, or at least an equivalent of Faces of Death. Not only it is pretty sick to exploit people who already face heavy stigma to begin with (this movie is an entire novel on STD stigma), but to blend it in with content that's meant to turn the audience on is rather a cheap blow. More like a string of cheap blows, if we're being fair.

But there's the mundane stuff, too, which makes this stand out to me. I have to anatomize one scene in particular, because it was such a bizarre thing to witness. Was I warned of this scene in a review? Or have I seen this movie before and simply bleached it from my memory? Because there is a scene in this movie where Millicent fudges her line due to a window accidentally slamming in the background, and it came in like I was expecting it. Reshooting probably didn't even come up in discussion when this scene was filmed. The actors probably just whipped out their cigarettes (or joints) when they yelled cut and wondered if there was booze enough in the world to make them forget this mess. Seriously, this is one of the most dramatic and obvious flubs I've seen in a while. I have to wonder how fucking likely this even was. If I left my windows wide open it could be months before they slam closed by themselves. Either they were filming on a shithole location (probable) or the set was fucking haunted (equally probable).

I've been obsessed with the word synecdoche lately and I've been passing it on to my friends: and this scene, friends, is synecdoche. The statement and sum of the whole movie is held in that slamming window, that flubbed take.

Anyway, I don't want to say you should watch an entire movie just to see a window slam, but man, did I get a kick out of that. Also: all of the leering in this movie. If you make it a double feature with Reefer Madness make this the opening feature, not the follow-up. And if you value your souls, please turn your brains off before viewing.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984), by Chester Novell Turner



Black Devil Doll from Hell opens with this proclamation: "We all have our personal horror stories to tell. May yours never be as devastating as Miss Helen Black's." I'm glad that director Chester Novell Turner decided to include this expression of sentiment. Because now, I dread the day where I find an antique shop that sells a ventriloquist doll which will not only molest me, but call me a bitch over and over again, until I am driven mad. Verily, there is no worse fate on this Earth, save for perhaps enduring an existence without Black Devil Doll from Hell.

Helen Black is an ultra-Christian in a world of sin. Her friends call her up to brag about their gangbangs, and she runs into thieves selling stolen goods out of their car trunks on her walk back from church. She's sanctimonious and has a rather large stick up her ass, but many of her peers are just as bad. It's pretty great that her friends think they can talk about sex with her when she's told them time and time again about her beliefs on such things. Anyway, Helen eventually ends up at an antique shop where she is fascinated by a ventriloquist puppet. The store owner tells her it once belonged to an East Indian sorcerer, and it always finds its way back to the shop--she's sold it four times but it's returned one way or another every time. Helen decides to try her luck, bringing the doll home with her. Soon the doll comes to life and introduces her to the world of rape, consensual sex, and being called "bitch" every five seconds, all at the same time. These scenes are virtually indescribable because it's a woman being fucked by a puppet. When she wakes up she finds the puppet missing, and tries to replace him with flesh-and-blood men. This isn't the same, though, and she eventually remembers that the puppet always returns to the store. But you only get one try at puppet dick, because when she re-purchases the doll and tries to make it fuck her, its eyes light up and she dies from what appears to be brain hemorrhage. Fin.

This movie is upsetting on basically every level. Not only is about puppet-rape and its transformation into puppet-lust, presented as an apparent consequence for religious devotion, but aesthetically and directorially it is also a sensory mess. Scenes end too late, music comes in too earlier. The stylishly awful Casio just sort of barges in with no cares about appropriateness or dialogue mixing. For example, when the antique store owner is giving Helen the doll's backstory, a high-pitched squeal immediately breaks in and starts muting the dialogue through pure aural force. Characters will start talking but a lack of union between the cuts and cues fill their lines with unnatural pauses. And, if you want to see the "ultimate VHS movie" that's still visible through its sea of fuzz, look no further. This is SOV as fuck, and it's a miracle.

Then of course there is the script. Helen puts nylons on the Black Devil Doll from Hell, saying, "These will make you just a shade darker...you'll look more real." She follows this up with, "These are the only eyes to ever see me NEKKID...until we're married." So, is she gonna marry the doll then? When the doll pops out to knock Helen unconscious, not only is he played by a child, but the soundtrack appears to consist of velociraptor noises taken from a nine-year time-portal opening up to a showing of Jurassic Park. It just gets better and better.

The rape scene is simultaneously disturbing and laughable. We get lines like "Now that you have smelled the foulness of my breath, you can know the sweetness of my tongue" and "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" The foul breath in question is represented by filling the dummy's mouth with dry ice. The actors also go all-out on making sex sounds, so it does sound like porn if you look away. But when you look back, it's a two-and-a-half foot tall puppet fucking a human woman. There is no preparation for this.

Somehow, the whole affair does manage to be a little boring at times, due to a large amount of padding, but this simple tale contains enough vomitous horror for everyone and anyone who can dare its cruel mysteries. Just be ready to get shocked to your soul.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Miracle in Paradise Valley (1948), by James M. Constable



Safety films, like a lot of things, work best as a story. There's no better way to drive your message home than to wrap it up in something that people can sympathize with--and if sympathy is not your aim you should at least give them something to look up to, to inspire them to change. In some ways, safety films are like propaganda, only there aren't too many folks out there wanting to suppress human rights or blow people up in the name of watching out for loose nails. Though sometimes it certainly seems like it. Most of us have, in some form or another, seen a narrative-driven safety film, through our school experiences, or through the shorts they ran at the start of Mystery Science Theater 3000. These exercises in supreme cynicism often feature implausible characters thrust into easily-written situations which yield horrifying possibilities upon the use of the most rudimentary thought. Through MST3K, the world was introduced to abominations like A Case of Spring Fever and Mr. B Natural, which featured thin stories meant to be used as skeletal supports for the ideas and ideals of the filmmakers. Miracle in Paradise Valley ramps up the narrative a little bit for a safety film, pushing it into comfortable A-List territory--it's also one of the few safety movies of its ilk I've seen that comes close to being a feature, coming up just shy of 40 minutes. On top of that, it's probably a ripoff of It's a Wonderful Life, so there's more than a little to discuss here.

John is a relatively impatient farmer who is working his way back home along a narrow ridge when his tractor engine cuts out. A mysterious man in a suit and bowler hat comes out of nowhere and shows him that if he's not too careful he's going to roll his tractor over the edge. It is here that the man demonstrates supernatural powers, knocking the tractor off the edge and then reversing the event in time--John seems to implicitly understand he's in the presence of a guardian angel. The angel calls himself "Joe, the Special In-the-Meantime Agent"; he takes care of people "in the meantime" before their death. He's decided to take care of John because he "saved him some trouble" by rescuing his fellow sailors during a torpedo incident from World War II. Thus begins John's personal Hell, as Joe begins stalking him, getting increasingly angry as John puts himself in more and more danger, and passes over each incident as unimportant. Joe's invisibility means that John ends up socially isolated when his friends hear him shout at nothing. Eventually, John is taken to a world where his apathy over safety has its consequences--most of his friends are dead, the victims of little things John never thought would matter, like rusty nails, or inappropriate use of kerosene. This leads John to decide to make his town's Safety Fair a huge success, by breaking onto people's property and planting skull-and-crossbone logos all over the place. People mock the Fair when it finally arrives but John's rabid passion whips them back in line, so they finally devote themselves to the proper cause of household accidents, and thus avert the dark future Joe showed to John.

It's kind of amazing just how perfectly this movie fits the archetype of many of the PSAs that would follow it--while also improving on the formula, by trying to give some degree of backstory to the characters by briefly describing their wartime experiences. We have a story of a man whose minor mistakes open him up to the intrusion of a supernatural presence which claims to be benevolent but gives every indication of being infernal. Said presence torments him with illusions and social stigma until he becomes a fanatic pawn of the supernatural being's personal ends. It is incredibly easy to substitute Joe with Coily the Spring Sprite, though Joe at least has a human form for us to contend with, and his concerns are ostensibly with preventing death, which contrasts Coily's mission of punishing those who don't respect springs. However, that Joe claims death as his domain makes him seem very sinister indeed. He acts like Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life, but his involvement with John's torpedo incident makes it clear he's much more like the Grim Reaper. He also says he "has many names," which is a rather Satanic proclamation. True, it's unlikely Satan would be this helpful, but we never quite get the feel that Joe's an agent of God either. He ends up with the line, "It ain't so easy putting people back together, y'know," when he reassembles John's tractor, as if he speaks from experience. Brrr.

But that's just the start. I would argue that refusing to replace one's ladder rungs is hardly a reason to teleport someone to a phantom world where all of their friends died horribly in a single year. They really pour it on once they hit this ghost world, as you might expect, not only killing a woman in a kerosene fire but forcing her husband to give up their girls to the orphanage as well--cue obligatory long-walk down the road to the orphanage door, as sad music plays. This is triggered by John asking, "But what about the kids?!" to which Joe only responds, "Oh, you'll see..." as if we're about to see a pile of severed child body parts.

Then, there's the whole deal of planting skull-and-crossbones all over people's farms. If I found a bunch of skulls all over my farm, and inside my house, I wouldn't assume it was a friendly neighbor promoting a local Safety Fair. I would assume that terrorists were threatening to kill me. Once they arrive at the Safety Fair everyone transforms their fear into bad humor. The line, "Those skulls scared my cow so bad I thought she was gonna dry up," is enough to make this audience laugh for over thirty seconds. Then Joe makes John get up onstage, and John rants like someone deep in grief--which he is, having been forced to endure the premature funerals of his friends. It culminates with John dragging out empty chairs to represent not just the dead, but "the living dead" (!!!)--that is, one person who was blinded by an accident, and another who was apparently confined to bed permanently by one. Ableism: the secret to safety. Because when you're blind or quadriplegic, you might at well be dead, right? Blehhh.

I wanted to set out in this review to dissect the forces that create films like this, but I can't help but wonder if we're witnessing a line of progression here. This movie turns It's a Wonderful Life into a PSA--which in turn may have mutated into A Case of Spring Fever. Doesn't that make a perverse kind of sense? I don't know if It's a Wonderful Life can be cited as the forerunner of this strange undercurrent/pseudogenre of "angelsploitation" but these stories are ultimately compressed and twisted versions of tales like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, wherein supernatural forces do the good which is beyond the reach of man. At least, that's the premise of Dickens' tale and It's a Wonderful Life; Scrooge will never listen to any mortal man when it comes to letting go of his miserhood, and George Bailey's values make it too hard for anyone to negotiate him out of his suicidal emotional state. Here, though, John and his friends are just kind of idiots. They could avoid using large open containers of kerosene in close proximity to burning stoves, but they're apparently just overconfident jackasses. At this point, analysis dies, because we must presume laziness propelled these emergent themes rather than intent.

I do feel rather like I'm cheating here by reviewing this, just as I did with Cyberon. But I want to say here that this movie is pretty hilarious, and while I tried to analyze it, I more wanted to recommend it. At 40 minutes, it's a frightening little chunk of fantasy ripoff that manages to imply more graphic violence than a lot of horror films. Sweet!

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Samurai Cop (1991), by Amir Shervan



Samurai Cop starts off pretty normal. Two cops, Joe and Frank, are going after some cocaine smugglers, aided by Peggy, their eye in the sky. Everything is straightforward and by the book. And then the car chase begins.

It's a familiar thing, in a way, though I can cite no other movies off the top of my head that do it. There are actions films just like this that have a few scenes right near the start that mimic "real" movies almost perfectly. Perhaps this is the footage they shot first, and showed to investors, to trick them into thinking they were getting anything other than Samurai Cop. And then, once they had their budget secured and squared away, they filmed that car chase scene. And Amir Shervan's apparent desire to be the world's biggest ten year old began.

Joe is a samurai as well as a cop, and with Frank he chases these coke dealers through the requisite City of Boxes, all of which are smashed. Yes, it's one of those car chases. At this point in cinematic history, it's not a true car chase if there aren't some conspicuously-placed boxes (fruits and veggies optional) for everyone to smash into. Anyway, once they arrest/slaughter the coke dealers, Joe and Frank start going after the Katana Gang, controlled by the mulleted Mr. Fujiyama. Aiding Fujiyama in his drug empire are martial arts master Okamura (a creatively named character played by Gerald Okamura) and evil samurai Yamashita. Yamashita must be a codename of some kind, because he's played by Robert Z'Dar, who, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is as white as a sheet of printer paper. He turns in a legitimately great performance here, which easily rises over what most of his colleagues turned in. Fujiyama commands him to kill one of the hospitalized victims of Joe and Frank's coke bust: "I want his head! And I want it right here, on this piano!" "I will take his head, and I will place it on your piano," Yamashita replies.

Joe ends up getting involved with Jennifer, whose family owns a restaurant that Fujiyama helped raise out of debt. This angers Fujiyama, who wanted Jennifer all for himself. The war between the Katanas and the Samurai Cop heats up until Fujiyama is torturing Joe's friends--threatening to castrate Frank, burning Peggy with hot grease, and killing a cop he worked with on raids, along with his wife. But this is an action movie, so you better believe all the bad guys end up dead, one way or another.

There is so much that is just done wrong in this movie. The sex scenes are astonishingly bad, even by the usual "sex through the undies" standards. We get many scenes of men in Speedos with full cock outlines visible, and none of it is welcome, especially if it comes from Joe. Joe is perfect, though. His beyond-shoulders hair and ludicrously intense face make him seem like the opposite of someone who should be a cop. The fact that he runs around shooting wantonly and chopping people's limbs off doesn't help matters. This is yet another movie where laws are more like guidelines, along which those in authority may impose their own moral beliefs rather than following those that might be "popular" or "ethically acceptable." I think there are a few moments though where it questions its own stance on police brutality (which is that it's okay as long as the people you're dismembering are bona fide evil). There's an amazing bit were Joe is making full of Chief for "not wanting no more dead bodies," plus a later bit where he says, "If it's Okamura [at this house] we'll arrest him; if it's the wrong house we'll apologize the owner, standard police procedure." They don't go in guns blazing for this scene but it's easy to imagine them doing so. In this universe, unarmed civilians are shunted to a pocket dimension for safekeeping when fights break out, unless they're romantically involved with the main characters--then they can be used as hostages.

This movie does some other stuff wrong besides saying that police brutality is an okay thing to do. It's kind of hella racist? Joe messes up the Japanese characters' names on purpose (calling them "Omaha" and "Yamaha"), brings up their ethnicity for no reason, and calls Jennifer, the white girl in Fujiyama's company, "all-American." There's also an oddly-inserted gay waiter character from Costa Rica whose "comically" long name is brought up for no other reason than to drag Hispanic people. Finally, there's the bizarre incident where, when Frank (a black man) is threatened with castration, his dick is called "a gift--a black gift." I don't even know what to make of that. This movie is fucking weird.

Finally, there's a wonderful cascade of trash besides all this. When sneaking into the hospital to put that guy's head on Fujiyama's piano, Robert D'Zar disguises himself as a doctor--for no reason. This never comes up in any way. While he and his assistant are escaping the hospital, they're confronted by two security people who have the same dub actor. When someone asks Joe what katana means, he translates it as "Japanese sword," which is, um, not exactly correct. Fujiyama sends guys to break Joe's legs twice, because the screenwriter keeps forgetting scenes that have already happened. Then, when we see Robert D'Zar having sex, we have the opposite problem of the sex scene from The Room--here, the woman in question seems to think that Robert Z'Dar's dick is in his belly button! (You fool, everyone knows Robert Z'Dar's dick is in his chin.) Oh, and I can't consider this review complete without quoting this scene--an exchange between Joe and a random nurse.

Nurse: "Do you like what you see?"

Joe: "I love what I see."

"Do you want to touch what you see?"

"Yes. Yes I would."

"Would you like to go out with me?"

"Yes. Yes I would."

"Would you like to fuck me?"

"Bingo."

"Then let's see what you got." *Gropes his pants* "Doesn't interest me. Nothing there."

"Nothing there? What would interest you? Something the size of a jumbo jet?"

"Have you been circumcized? Because the doctor must have cut a big portion of it off."

Both of them deliver these lines like they're kids doing bad impressions of Robby the Robot.

I think that's a good place to end this review.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Bewitched (1945), by Arch Oboler



Aka: We Don't Understand Mental Illness: The Movie. This is a weird one and a bad one. Let's just dive in.

Joan Ellis is a young woman who should to all rights be happy. She has loving and doting parents, and an equally loving and doting boyfriend, Bob, who wants to marry her someday. Her family seems well-liked and affluent. However, she has the rather serious problem of someone else living in her head. This other voice, which sounds like a crabby 40-year-old waitress with emphysema, is Karen, and she actively tries to ruin Joan's life--in essence, her plot is to weaken Joan enough where she can rule over their shared body, thus enabling her life of evil. Eventually, Joan gets the help she needs, but not before Karen forces her to murder Bob after he tracks her down when she runs away from home. But can the doctors save her before she's due to be executed for Bob's slaying?

I shouldn't be quite as hard on this movie as the opening implies. While its views and explanations on dissociative identity disorder are primitive to the point of ableism, and there is virtually no effort put forth to understand the illness at work, the victim of the illness is definitively portrayed as a victim, and consequently there's an effort to sympathize (but not empathize) with her. Perhaps most significantly, it shows the effects of social stigma against mental illness and people who have it, because Joan never feels safe talking to Bob or her family about her problems for fear of them isolating her. In a time where you could be sent to a mental institution for teen rebellion and get a lobotomy for autism, there's a notable chance that her fears would be valid, especially when you consider the Ellises' wealth and social position. Crazy folk in a rich household are Just Not Done. While there is no attempt made to address or correct this possibility that maybe stigma against mental illness just makes the suffering worse, it still presents enough of a threat where audiences at the time could have left the theater thinking. Unfortunately, so much else is done wrong--and the movie itself is so cookie-cutter--that the whole affair barely registers on the synapses at all.

The plot is very stereotypical: an ordinary girl is suddenly confronted with the horror of an insidious illness, which leads her to make a fatal mistake, though she is redeemed and cured in the end. She is nearly rescued by one man and fully saved by another. I didn't mention Eric in the synopsis--he's the lawyer who falls in love with Joan when she becomes a cigar stop clerk after running away. He's also kind of creepy, because while it does turn out that Joan's reluctance to go out with him is due to her own anxiety rather than a lack of attraction, he doesn't exactly turn away when she turns him down day after day after day. He also proposes to her on their first date, which is strange even by '40s standards. It's not like Bob is much better though. I was a little glad when Bob died, to be honest. He's one of those dudes who think that lines like "I love you and I don't know why" are romantic. He also introduces Joan to a little girl as his grandmother? "She's very weak, but if you help her along she can come with us to the zoo." It's really not charming, and I don't exactly trust his eagerness to take a strange little girl to the zoo without her parents.

What is interesting about Eric is that his marriage proposal triggers the first instance in which Karen is able to fully use Joan's body, implying her problem is rooted in intimacy. She then proceeds to grope and mack on him pretty hard, suggesting that Karen's primary evil...is that she's a sexually interested woman. This is a problem in itself but a bigger issue is that what Karen does to Joan is strange and not well connected. Her primary form of harassment seems to be mocking Joan about her mere existence, insisting that she run away before her loved ones lock her up. Next, she expresses strong lust for Eric, but this is followed by her killing Bob. She seemingly kills Bob for reasons related to the first bombardment of taunts--she wants to keep Joan isolated from people who will think she's crazy. The lust for Eric comes back but it's not strongly tied to the murder plot. We can only assume that Karen sees Eric as a more ideal partner than the admittedly dreary Bob, though she also uses him as an anchor to carve out the independent life she desires. While Karen seeks to achieve her goals through violence, she desires a sort of independence and sexuality which Joan denies herself in her ordinary life, and which she permanently refuses at the end by accepting a chaste upper-class existence with Eric. No reason is ever given for Karen's existence. The movie seems to legitimately believe that multiple personalities are the product of two minds born in one brain by a fluke of hormones, like some failed conjoined twin where only their immaterial consciousness formed. Joan is never shown to have suffered any sort of trauma in the past that facilitated Karen's manifestation--we're to believe she literally popped in existence one day after years of sleeping. But because Karen appears as Joan's sexuality and desire for life outside her family, maybe that's a sign of how Joan's problem came to be. Maybe she legitimately feels trapped by her upper-class existence, and its curtailment on sexual experimentation. If so, the fact that she goes back to that at the end makes the film's conclusion actually really sad--to say nothing of the fact that she's still hanging under threat of execution as the last title card comes onscreen! 'Cause yeah, even if it was proven that Joan wasn't at fault, and that her alternate personality killed Bob, she's still been convicted. This is kind of a strange thing to consider because admittedly, the movie does suck you into the feeling of Karen's otherness. Whatever Karen represents within or without my interpretation of her, she's still a threat to at least one innocent person, and that's enough for the viewer to coherently separate her from Joan.

The thing is, though, I feel this movie is a cash-in on MGM's behalf more than anything. (Yes, despite having the plot of a Monogram movie, this was put out by MGM.) People say that this movie almost works as an early exorcism movie, because of the final scene with Edmund Gwenn as Joan's psychologist, wherein he employs good ol' fashioned Hollywood Hypnotism. Replace the Jesus stuff with psychiatry and it's beat for beat almost the same. The Good Man talks the Demon to death. However, Karen's frequent reference to "freedom" made me think of Fredrich March's Hyde in the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That movie was remade with Spencer Tracy in 1941, a whole four years before Bewitched...by MGM. Yep, they were ripping off themselves. This isn't anything big, because the big studios did and do that all the fucking time, but the recognition of Bewitched as a de-glorified Jekyll and Hyde clone simultaneously kills and boosts the movie for me. On one hand, it helps explain why it was such a deflated experience, empty of life somehow. On the other, it adds another twist to it that keeps it wedged in my head.

Bewitched is not what I would call a fun film to watch, but it's a fun film to remember. I talk about movies on this site that I love because they're legitimately good, or they're so ridiculous that I can't help but love them. There's also of course the odd movie that I love because they're extremely banal, but their banality makes them exceptional in some way. Bewitched is a movie, though, where it's more a mess to figure out, a puzzle, and while it yields almost nothing in the end, it at least gave me something to say, if I could be said to have said anything. I always relish a chance to talk about mental illness, and how on occasion the great studios of Hollywood's golden years were a bunch of shameless hacks. Watch Bewitched for laughs and a fun Edmund Gwenn performance, but don't expect much else.

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