Thursday, March 15, 2018

Night Train to Terror (1985), by John Carr, Philip Marsak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Gregg G. Tallas

With this review, I have now reviewed this movie three times over--and we're not done yet. When I was talking about Gretta and The Nightmare Never Ends, I may have alluded to the fact that the third piece of this anthology was never finished or released. Well, I was wrong. When I made that statement I knew that third movie as Scream Your Head Off, with a 1981 production date. A meager amount of research on my part would have unearthed that Scream Your Head Off was released eleven years after it began production, under the rather odd title of Marilyn: Alive and Behind Bars. But that movie is for another day; we're here to talk about Night Train to Terror, the primary reason why any of the three movies it was slashed out from are remembered.

God, Satan, and a mysterious third party who may be Death, are aboard a train. Also aboard is a REALLY shitty '80s pop band, whose lives are on the line: the train is due to crash at midnight, and God and Satan are here to debate the nature of humanity in order to determine whether the band will go to Heaven or Hell when they die. In order to convince God that humanity isn't worth saving, Satan tells God three stories, each of which supposedly prove humanity's evil. In "The Case of Harry Billings" (aka Scream Your Head Off), the titular Harry Billings kills his wife with drunk driving and ends up in a weird mental institution which chains up naked women for the purposes of rape (I think?) and organ harvesting. The main doctor there turns Harry into his drugged/hypnotic agent to abduct women for this purpose. The head nurse is also banging Harry and plans to have him help her lobotomize the head doctor so she can take over the hospital. It's pretty fucking weird.

Next is "The Case of Gretta Connors," aka Gretta. Things are kept pretty much the same, but they try to make Gretta seem more like a victim and George seem more evil; the primary focus is on the Death Wish Club. The main oddity of this segment is that they never explain why Gretta becomes Charlie White--she just suddenly looks like a guy for some reason. While they prominently feature the beetle scene, they also add on new footage of the beetle (rendered with claymation) escaping the room and killing a random makeout couple in a scene that totally doesn't have different video quality. By kill them, I mean it stings them, and this makes their faces explode.

Finally, we have "The Case of Claire Hansen," cleaved from the meat of The Nightmare Never Ends. I saw very few differences here and it actually told the story much more efficiently than the original film did. However, there are some scenes which appear to be of the same type of tacked-on claymation gore as that which appeared in the Gretta segment. I suspect similar sequences were added to the Scream Your Head Off bits, but we'll find out when I finally get around to Marilyn: Alive and Behind Bars.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to watch Night Train to Terror without context, aside from the obvious fact that it would be a headrush of unparalleled vertigo. Even with context, Night Train is a heady brew of Doris Wishman-esque cuts, unexplained plot threads, and hidden surprises. Every segment is discombobulated, with traces of subplots floating here and there and yet meaning nothing. This includes the new footage shot for the film. They try to make the pop band on the train into actual characters, despite the fact that all they do is sing the same songs over and over and over again; there's a mention of, "Oh, man, it's too bad our van broke down and we had to take this train!"--as if we could possibly care. How does that even make sense? Trains have to go to very specific places, and even if one was going to where I was headed I'd still worry about leaving my van behind to jump one! To me, that's like saying, "Shit, my motorcycle is out of gas. Might as well charter a cruise ship home then." It's ditching one line of vehicle for another. But I'm getting off-track: again, we're supposed to believe that there's an actual story to this frame story besides the God-Satan thing, and one line is supposed to cover the whole depth of that story. That's a perfect synecdoche for the entire movie. That line is patchwork and so is the rest of the film.

Perhaps I'll have more of a chance in the future to delve into this genre of patchwork remakes, which has existed since forever. For now, both Night Train to Terror and The White Gorilla are fine additions to my A-List, and I'll be returning to their uniquely Burroughsian madness time and time again. In regards to Night Train specifically, I will be returning to it in a stranger sense, when at last the time comes to review the third movie from its twisted catalogue.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The White Gorilla (1945), by Harry L. Fraser and Jack Nelson

Just. One. More. Gorilla film.

Okay, technically two gorilla films. The Intruder was weird in that the gorillas just sort of interrupted the murder mystery we were already investigating. The Monster and the Girl had something of the same problem, but wholeheartedly attempted to tackle a fusion of the gorilla picture with film noir. Human Gorilla and The Gorilla Man weren't even gorilla movies, and House of Mystery was probably ripping off the silent incarnations of The Gorilla, aka the worst comedy ever written. Then we have The White Gorilla--a movie which was praised for its accidental experimental qualities by none other than William K. Everson himself. The White Gorilla in itself isn't really a movie--it's a shambles of a narrative cobbled together from tiny portions of original footage, stapled onto large chunks of footage stolen from the 1927 serial Perils of the Jungle, all held together in turn by shockingly lame narrations and "looking out from the bushes" inserts. It makes an appropriate pairing with this week's second film, also a mess of editing posing as a "movie." If the jaw-droppingly dumb spectacle of that wasn't enough, the footage from Perils of the Jungle is also really, really bizarre--its presence provides the only way at present to see what that serial might have looked like, as it's not in distribution, despite surviving in at least one archive.

The "plot" of The White Gorilla is as follows: Steve Collins, jungle guide, has just returned to Morgan's Trading Post in some part of Africa after escorting an explorer named Bradford on a quest for...something. At present, Collins is badly injured from a brawl with a white gorilla--something his comrade's at the post don't believe in. He has to tell the story of the White Gorilla, however, and thus we enter his flashback. We first Bradford and his assistant Hanley captured by some of the natives but freed by the authority of a five-year-old white boy who can apparently talk to animals. Collins follows Bradford as Bradford follows the jungle boy, leading him to a jungle girl, who is threatened by lions. (These lions are the reason why Collins can't interact with the silent film footage--they have trapped in a tree!) The jungle girl is the daughter (perhaps interracial?) of another explorer who was forced to set up permanent camp in the jungle after he went blind. Hanley ends up killing the old man and causing trouble for the group. This leads to their discovering the Cave of the Cyclops, which is inhabited by the Tiger-Men: Africans dressed as tigers ('cause, y'know, tigers live in Africa) such as those they keep in a pit under the cave ('cause, y'know, tigers live in Africa), who worship a pair of cyclops idols (!). The Cave is full of treasure but is guarded by the Tiger-Men, who are only barely held at bay by the jungle boy's mother, who is feigning insanity to set herself up as the Tiger-Men's priestess, as the tribe believes that insane people are sacred. God, this movie is weird. Anyway, in course of spying on the party as they entered the Cave, Collins was attacked by the White Gorilla and only barely escaped. While Morgan and the others go out in search of Bradford and his companions, the White Gorilla returns, kidnapping first a native child and later a girl who is of significance to the frame story bits (Collins' love interest?). Collins, despite his wounds, goes out after her, and manages to finally kill the gorilla. As for Bradford, Hanley, the jungle boy, the jungle girl, the Tiger-Men, and the priestess lady: "All we found in the tiger pit were the bones." Wow, "how fucking depressing" doesn't even cover how downer of an ending that is.

Whew, that's a lot for 60 minutes. In case you can't tell, there's not a plausible bone in this movie's body. Everything is just ridiculous. I suspect these were the "best cuts" of Perils of the Jungle, but if things were as crazy there as they were here, I really hope one of those archives restores and releases that serial to a wider audience. This is yet another movie where I could really just stop after the synopsis, but I haven't touched on some of the other things, like how they dub dialogue over the silent footage, and how the White Gorilla makes farting/kazoo sounds for some ungodly reason. Collins' narration continues even after he's done telling his story; the inhabitants of Morgan's Trading Post laughingly mock a badly injured man for believing in such a thing as a White Gorilla--and I know people knew what albinism was in 1945. The thing is, there were a fucking lot of these types of movies back in the '30s and '40s, with the infamous 1946 Devil Monster being a recut version of 1936's The Sea Fiend--in term an English-language remake of 1935's El Diablo del Mar! It's important to bring up remakes here because Remake Fever was as much a thing then as it is in our era. Keep in mind that there were two versions of The Unholy Three made within five years of each other, featuring virtually the same cast and virtually the same direction. That instance was part of the movement, however, that saw to the remaking of silent films into more relevant talkie versions...with mixed results at times. It is the same trend that The White Gorilla is a dubiously respectable participator in; at heart, The White Gorilla serves as a pure remake of Perils of the Jungle, which director Harry Fraser wrote after all. But by a combination of a hilariously dated "modernizing" methods (by which I mean they would have seemed horribly dated even by 1945's standards) as well as the sheer strangeness of the original content of Perils of the Jungle, we end up with a movie considerably more like A Night to Dismember than the talkie Unholy Three.

I think that's basically all I can say about this one, besides making the by-now obligatory reference to the fact that the White Gorilla costume was reused that same year for minor B-movie fan favorite White Pongo, of which The White Gorilla is sort of a bizarro version. I definitely cannot recommend The White Gorilla in a traditional sense, but at the same time, it really has to be seen to be believed. A new classic for me.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Horror Express (1972), by Eugenio Martin

We're going to be doing two train movies over the next two weeks, and if you've been keeping up on things here on the A-List, you can guess what the second one is going to be. For now, we'll be covering Horror Express, a legendarily bizarre Spanish-British sci-fi movie starring Hammer greats Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Forever full of unexpected twists, Horror Express brings more than just star power to the table, and while it somehow manages to be boring at times, it's definitely not something horror fans will want to pass on.

In 1906, Dr. Saxton (Lee) is transporting some very precious cargo back to England from Tibet--the frozen mummy of a 2 million year old proto-human creature which may have ties to the yeti. He is irritated by the presence of an old colleague of his, Dr. Wells (Cushing), who is overly curious about the nature of his finding. Before boarding the Transiberian Express, he is additionally irritated by a priest, who tells him his cargo is of the Devil--a statement somewhat easy to believe, given the dead man with the turned-white pupils found mysteriously at the perimeter of the crate; similarly, the priest is unable to draw a cross on the crate with chalk. Saxton, being Christopher Lee, dismisses all of this as rubbish and poppycock and soon he, Wells, and the yeti are aboard the train. Wells eventually pays a porter (VICTOR ISRAEL!!!) to peer inside the crate, but little does he knows that doing so will awaken the yeti's demonic presence. It slowly transpires that the "yeti" was merely the host body for something ancient...and alien. Indeed, by gazing into the retinal images of the dead yeti (in invocation of optography, my favorite pseudoscience) they determine that whatever was wearing the yeti was an extraterrestrial presence left behind on Earth 2 million years prior. All that time, this creature has been waiting for a chance to escape--and it doesn't care who it has to possess or slaughter to leave Earth.

Though there are suggestions of the supernatural--or rather, the super-scientific, for one can assume the alien's powers of possession are merely an evolutionary quirk of its race rather than an employment of magic--from the get-go, I seriously went into this just expecting a yeti-on-a-train movie. That in itself would be pretty fascinating, especially with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Victor Israel, and (though I did not mention him in the synopsis) Telly Savalas in tow. Savalas plays a ruthless Russian cossack who boards the train to investigate the deaths, and mostly ends up manhandling the passengers until he learns too late about the alien. Without the alien, however, this movie probably wouldn't end up in A-List territory. For without the alien, we would not have the climax where Christopher Lee fights off an army of zombies, a feat which he probably never replicated.

I really cannot understate how much subverted expectations help this movie. Even in small ways. I bet you'd never see a movie made in Franco's Spain starring the leads of the infamously-conservative Hammer Horror franchises suggest that there are powers which God Himself can't save us from. The question of faith is a big one in this movie and it is never entirely answered--merely explored. I feel it sort of works better that way, raising chicken-or-egg questions on the nature of mythology. Does the alien resemble a demon because it actually comes from Hell, or is it that ancient humans were inspired to create tales of demonic beings because of encounters with the creature? I've always enjoyed stories like this, and that it tells such a story with a light touch is definitely a high point.

The alien also invokes another expected trope when it tries to convince its human enemies that if they let it live, it will use its superior knowledge to get rid of hunger and disease. It's a trick, of course, and we don't even know if that's something the alien can do. But even if it can't, it's a testament to the alien's psychology that it employs this trick. It has learned to be a demon--and demons tempt people. That's how they get you.

Again, the movie does manage to drag in places, but originality is a mighty queen. Horror Express constantly innovates and deconstructs its own ideas while never coming across as silly or ass-pull-y for such. Alien invasion movies set in the early 1900s are rare anyway, so it's totally worth it to check out this one.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fog Island (1945), by Terry O. Morse

In my review for The Black Raven I mentioned the brief period of joy in my life where I would settle in after a late night shift to watch an hour-long George Zucco thriller. Now that I'm back to reviewing, I've been finding enough Crazy Shit to make me see the weaknesses of these clunky old mysteries, but I didn't want to leave such a significant portion of my life without paying it proper due--though I know there's at least one other piece of Zuccoana I want to get into. The Black Raven and Fog Island are rather similar, in that they feature George Zucco as a noble criminal who ends up both outplaying and being outplayed by the various other criminals who wash up at his mysterious isolated house. The Black Raven didn't have Lionel Atwill or Ian Keith, however, and that makes worlds of difference.

Leo Grainger (Zucco) is an ex-convict whose wife Karma was murdered by one of his former business confederates. In addition to killing Karma they also swindled him out of his money and got him thrown in prison. However, they know they didn't get the whole of the sum they helped him embezzle, and now, on remote Fog Island, where he lives with his stepdaughter Gayle, Leo is in the prime position to use that remaining money as a lure to get revenge on his wife's killer. The assembled goons are Alec Ritchfield (Atwill), John Kavanaugh, phony medium Emiline Bronson, Sylvia, who turned on Leo when he married Karma and not her, and Jeff Kingsley, whose father, the subject of Leo's invitation, has passed away. Also joining them is a prison buddy of Leo's named Lake, who is posing as a doctor to subvert the guests. Then it's on to some pure shenanigans, Old Dark House style.

The acting is great in this. Zucco is wonderful as a calm, sophisticated man nonetheless driven singularly by revenge. His final breakdown before his death, the splintering of his serenity, is hammy but convincing. He also spends most of his time passive-aggressively mocking his guests about their coming demises. Edward G. Robinson he ain't, but he's never as bad as everyone says he is. Then there's Lionel Atwill--sadly close to his premature death, he nonetheless fulfills his usual quota of stuffiness, now accomplished fittingly by the flabby chins which protrude over his collar. He makes lovely faces in this and shows no signs of slowing down even thirteen years after Doctor X. He can say "Tut, tut," to someone and make it seem natural. I love him. Finally, there is Ian "Ormond Murks" Keith--slimy as always, he gets a chance to murder someone (resolving a pointless red herring about Leo's butler being an ex-con in the process), and it's pretty great. I want to see all of Ian Keith's movies. Damn.

The rest of this review will consist of me simply naming the things I liked. There are definitely some oddities here that put flesh on the film's bones.

I have to talk about the character of Jeff. Jeff, like Creepy Guy from Pillow of Death, is a Creepy Guy. He used to date Gayle in college, which is kind of a huge coincidence if you think about it. He's one of those '40s movie "heroes" who continually steps on his "love" interest's toes, ignores her wishes, and then does something unspeakable to her at the end. In this case, he covers up that Gayle's stepfather has been murdered, with the implication being that he will never tell her. Presumably that means they'll share a lifetime of her yearning to return to the man who helped raise her, only for her husband to block her at every turn, until she's forced to conclude that he's died of old age. I extrapolate based on the weird humor that Jeff displays while performing the cover-up.

Then there's the fact that Emiline, who is played as a phony psychic all throughout the movie, accurately predicts her own death. Maybe that wasn't a coincidence that joined Gayle and Jeff--if psychic powers really exist in this universe, then maybe black magic does too, and Jeff cursed Gayle to link her to him. It all makes sense!

I have to comment also on the scene where Emiline and Alec are speaking, and she asks him to get her a book to help her sleep. Kavanaugh recommends "something light" and he picks out Crime and Punishment. Like, I get the joke, but when I think "light reading" Dostoyevsky is not the first guy to come to mind. Just an observation.

Finally, there is an odd scene between Gayle and Sylvia, which I read as being hella gay. Let's just say that when an older woman starts talking to a younger one about the quality of her skin and how she should take care of it, there's some coding involved...even though this certainly isn't positive representation. Fortunately it's not like "lesbians are predatory" is a theme or anything but it's a testament to the lowness the times these movies were made in stooped to at times.

All in all, however, Fog Island is probably the '40s mystery for me--nothing extraordinary by any means, but still a fun, cozy movie to curl up with. Long live Zucco.

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Snake Woman (1961), by Sidney J. Furie

I just have to describe how The Snake Woman starts. It can't maintain its hilarity through its whole runtime but that's okay, because what we get at the beginning more than compensates for a little bit of boredom.

We're in good hands right at the gates when a somber narrator informs us that the tale we are about to hear is a legend passed down "from generation to generation," but one "which the residents of the town would rather forget." In 1890, a snake researcher named Dr. Adderson (sic) is conducting strange experiments. By "strange experiments," I mean he's convinced that snake venom is the cure to mental illness, and therefore he's been injecting his insane wife with snake venom. Did I mention that Mrs. Adderson is pregnant? Curiously, much of the poor woman's protest comes from the fact that "we don't know what all that poison will do to me!" Hmm...I dunno, I think we can make some presumptions. She's also worried that the venom will hurt the baby, but Adderson is convinced that being raised by a madwoman is infinitely worse than being deformed or killed by in-utero toxins. Rather unsurprisingly Mrs. Adderson goes into premature labor (very premature, I should say, given that she doesn't look more than a month pregnant), and Dr. Adderson, whose medical credentials are already in question, has to fetch another doctor to deliver the baby. At first they're sure the girl is dead, because she's as cold as ice. Similarly, she has a weirdly shaped mouth and black, lidless eyes. Despite this, she still breathes, and when she's handed to her mother, she releases a hissing sound. The shock of this is too horrible for Mrs. Adderson and she dies. The midwife on hand, Aggie Harker, is rumored to be something of a witch, and she's convinced now that the baby has the power to kill with a glance. Adderson stops her from murdering the child but the old woman gets a mob that's more curious and weak-willed than angry to go wreck Adderson's laboratory. Cue the scene where the mob smash the glass cages of the snakes while setting the place on fire, releasing a large breeding population of deadly animals into their community when the fire chases them away before they can kill them all. Adderson dies when he tries to grab a snake by the head, causing it to bite his hand. Dr. Murton, the real doctor who delivered Adderson's baby, brings the child to a local hermit, who must keep him for the night while Murton goes to Africa to do...something. (Don't worry, it's not plot related, he just doesn't have the right schedule to pencil in idiots orphaning their own babies.) The idea is that Adderson will seek them out in the morning and retrieve the child but they don't know the dumb idiot is dead. The hermit raises the girl, named "Atheris" (an ancient name for a snake), until she's old enough to embrace her full powers as a weresnake. When Murton finally returns it's been years since Atheris scared away the hermit's animals and eventually vanished into the wilderness. Now the town is plagued by mysterious murders, and some white dude whose name I literally can't remember shows up to learn things we can already figure out until Atheris dies.

If you boil our plot down further, then we get this: maniac creates weresnake at expense of his family and the safety of his community, and then an outside agent kills the monster when said monster turns murderous. It's Frankenstein, people--but with a very strange Dr. Frankenstein at that. I hope I'm not alone in thinking that Adderson is fucking cracked. Now, it is true that snake venom-derived drugs have been effective medicinally. ACE inhibitors, for example, used to control high blood pressure, are derived from the venom of the Brazilian pit viper. Adderson cites a variety of ailments that can be treated with snake venom and some of them are accurate (though I have to wonder if such medicine existed at the turn of the century). Note that I used the word "derived," though; as far as I understand you can't just straight up milk a snake and put that right into somebody's veins. Poisons are more complicated than that. Okay, fine, there's a meta-reason--writer exaggeration (it's not like snake venom would turn someone into a weresnake either; mothers who eat honey while pregnant don't give birth to werebees, or wereflowers for that matter). But consider also that Addison hasn't the faintest idea of how to deliver a baby. I get that he's a herpetologist, but he's also performing medical procedures on someone, implying he does have a degree in medicine. Yet I know people who have undergraduate degrees in medicine who know how to deliver a baby. I'm sure in a doctoral program it comes up at least once. So Adderson is both unethical and incompetent as a doctor, but he's both those things as a herpetologist too, as evidenced by his grabbing a poisonous snake incorrectly, leading to his death. I'd say he was emotionally disturbed and didn't know what he was doing, but the double revelation of his wife's death plus the fact that he fathered a snake-human hybrid doesn't even make him blink. He has a heart of stone, that Horace Adderson.

You cannot possibly hope to salvage a movie after that. Even though it loses inertia The Snake Woman is still haunted by the ghost of that bone-rattlingly awful opening. It just keeps coming, and coming, and coming. More and more bullshit. What we are left with in the second half are two interesting details--the first being that Atheris sheds her skin. The effect for the shed human skin is actually somewhat convincing, though they don't show it in great light. The second detail is more a lesson to storytellers and filmmakers everywhere, embodied perfectly in the quick-stop lurch of focus this second half engages in: don't kill off your primary cast halfway through and expect us to care about who replaces them. It's not like Norman Bates also killed off Sam Loomis in the first part of Psycho.

The Snake Woman is yet another breathtaking exercise in copious incompetence. Profit by the laughs it gives you.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book Club of Desolation #22: Leonox, Monstre des Tenebres (1971), by Paul Bera

Last year I took a look at the first of the French Frankenstein pulps. This year, I figured it would be nice to have the Book Club of Desolation return to similar waters--only this time, the book I read was untranslated. That's why I failed in my promise to have a monthly Book Club review up for January (on top of being sick as shit). It took me quite some time to read my way through Leonox, Monstre des Tenebres, the first of Paul Bera's six-volume series chronicling the eternal war between the avatars of cosmic forces known as Leonox and Lisa, but I found it a fulfilling experience, to say nothing of the wonders it did for restoring my knowledge of French. Even with the language barrier in place, Bera's prose reads smoothly and thrillingly, with enough pulp action and supernaturalism to make me seriously consider tracking down the rest of the series, before all the remaining rare copies are snatched up.

Our protagonist is Lacana, a ten-time serial killer constantly on the run from the police. While hiding out in Paris, he feels a compulsion to enter a building, which seemingly contains more on the inside than it does on the outside. This is the headquarters of the mysterious organization known as "Leonox and Co." headed by, as you may expect, a man named Leonox. But Leonox is less a man than he is a demon; he possesses supernatural powers, and is in fact the embittered slave of what may or may not be the cosmic embodiment of evil, known as "the Master" or "He Who Controls Leonox." In exchange for his service, Leonox offers Lacana a new identity, including a new face and set of fingerprints--he'll accomplish this by giving him a whole new body. The first of many catches in this deal is that in order to get this body, he has to share a coffin with it. The process is a success, however, and Lacana becomes instead Francis Dalvant, a famous journalist killed in Vietnam. As part of his operations, "Dalvant" next comes in contact with the mysterious Lisa, a young woman who claims to be able to see Lacana's soul in Dalvant's body. Lisa has frequent clashes with the police for her strange statements and behavior; they think she's a drug addict. Slowly, however, Lacana/Dalvant will learn that she is Leonox's spiritual opposite, a servant of a more benevolent cosmic force known as "He Who Controls Lisa." (It's worth noting that neither of these cosmic forces are truly good or evil, it's just that Lisa is beautiful and Leonox is monstrous, both in a variety of ways.) His encounters with Lisa "reunite" him with Dalvant's old friend, the Principal of Police Princex. In the end, Lisa and Princex reform Lacana, who ultimately takes on the mental traits of Dalvant, who was an intrinsically good man. He and Lisa go after Leonox and successfully kill him after he takes control of the body of Dr. Satelm, who has the power to unleash a world-destroying plague. Lisa takes the rap for the murder, claiming she was Satelm's jealous mistress, and goes to jail--but to Lacana/Dalvant's delight, she escapes, and he begins traveling the world in search of her.

It's amazing how well Leonox, Monstre des Tenebres fits the formula of English pulp stories, and how well it pulls it off too. It's something of a random events plot, yes--now Lacana is poisoned with curare! Now Leonox is trying to unleash a plague!--but it also taps into the vein of worldbuilding which is so vital to pulp storytelling. So many ideas whiz past us at once. Just pages after revealing that our narrator-protagonist is a serial murderer, we are dragged into a world of the magical and inexplicable with the cosmic distortions of Leonox's headquarters. From there we have body-swapping, celestial war, and living burials. Oftentimes, the descriptions of the spiritual aspects of Leonox and Lisa come across as Lovecraft-lite, or Lovecraft processed through fairy-tales--sparkling and glittering, but also vast, unknowable, and perhaps most properly, incomprehensible. All of this is presented in a style which is both simple and compelling.

I really should say how grateful I am for the simplicity of the style. A lot of key points are repeated again and again, which helped me get through the plot in the case of my translations failing the first time around. (I'm still embarrassingly vulnerable to false cognates.) However, this style is also probably the book's greatest weakness--as compelling as it is, the tendency to repeat does get a little silly at times. "It was incredible that I, Lacana, ten-time killer, could be standing here in the presence of the police!" is a phrase that comes up over time and time again. Yeah, I imagine most serial killers would be shocked at rubbing elbows with the cops after making their faces known, but we don't need to be told that so often. Lacana also has a tendency to forget that he is now Francis Dalvant for too much of the book, and he keeps chanting that he has new fingerprints over and over again. These parts can be glazed over once you get the rhythm of things, though.

I keep thinking about how cool it is to have the main character of the book be a serial killer who slowly redeems himself as pieces of another man merge with his persona. I'm pretty sure that Dalvant's spirit is actually coming back and that's what's causing Lacana to take on his traits--eventually their reference to themselves as two people seems to transcend metaphor. Lacana/Dalvant is thus of dual nature, good and evil--though Dalvant wasn't purely good, nor was Lacana purely evil. Setting up this dichotomy furthers the book's themes of good and evil by making our lead(s?) into parallel(s?) of Leonox and Lisa, albeit with human drives that the reader can understand. Bera seems to believe that Good and Evil are important concepts to mankind, but they also have gray areas and spots where they blend--how very '70s of him! It's notable too that Christianity doesn't enter the picture at all; neither of the forces behind Leonox and Lisa are aligned with God or Satan in any way.

I say this is a book that reflects the '70s, but it's also French in a way that reminds me of why I love French media. It makes sense to title the series after Leonox, and to have the protagonist be a reforming serial killer, when this is a story coming from the same country that created not only the Grand Guignol, but Fantomas, the ultimate villain-pulp protagonist and grandpappy to Diabolik, Killing, Kriminal, and all those other groovy, creepy masked thieves and killers who spread through Europe and the Middle East throughout the middle of the 20th Century. France loves its villains, and Leonox was no exception...even if he's largely forgotten today.

The chronicles of Lisa and Leonox are practically begging for English translations, and I would eagerly snap those up if/when they ever came along. Despite some minor flaws, this was an awesome read and I would love to see what happened next to these characters. Longue vie à Leonox!

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Reincarnation of Sex (1982), by Luiz Castellini

That is the actual title of this Brazilian horror/softcore film, though it also appeared under the title of Mortal Possession, which to me is a much more fitting and rational title. However, The Reincarnation of Sex lets you know up front what you're in for, though reincarnation only arguably occurs. There's a lot of sex. A lot of it is hilarious. Let's dive in.

Patricia is the daughter of a wealthy landowner named Antonio, and she and her father's employee Artur have fallen in love. This means they have a lot of complicated, painful-looking sex. Eventually this starts to disrupt Antonio's sleep and drive him mad. Not only is the sex loud and obnoxious, but someone from a lower class is screwing his daughter, and Antonio is certain Artur just wants Patricia for the family money. Thus, he slaughters Artur with an axe, barely disguising such from his wife and daughter. However, Artur's spirit is infuriated by this and he possesses Patricia to dig up his head, sever his head, and bury his head in a potted plant in the living room. From this vantage point he is free to commence his scheme of making a lot of people have sex in the house, until they all die, usually from sex exhaustion (sexhaustion?) or from the ever-increasing psychoses of their partners.

This movie is about as surreal as its title. (Seriously, how does sex as an act/concept reincarnate?) For most of the first "act," where we follow Patricia, Antonio, and Artur, things are fairly linear, if overdramatic and weirdly-edited at times. Once Patricia is dead, however, things become much more vignette-y. First we follow Celia and Fabio, a married couple who move in. Celia becomes a nymphomaniac, even desiring incest when Fabio suggests calling in her psychiatrist uncle for aid. This culminates in Celia lopping Fabio's head off during sex. Following this we get a much shorter segment following a lesbian named Ligia, whom Artur kills for having straight sex, I guess? (I mean better than the reverse.) There's a wrap-up segment involving Celia's real estate agent and uncle teaming up to investigate the ghosts but it's all over the place and goes nowhere. I'd say it feels like a dream, but at this point I'm old enough to know that no dream is ever as crazy as trash cinema.

The sex scenes are absolutely ridiculous. No one has sex like this, not unless they want to rip their vag, break their dick, dislocate their spine, or all three. Some of these actors must have contortionist training. I mean, it definitely helps that no actual penetration is happening, what with this being softcore-only and all, but still, you'd break your fucking bones doing this. The "lesbian" scenes seem to star straight people, as I've never seen two women less turned on and disinterested in kissing in my life. The only time they're even somewhat convincing is when Ligia is getting a vibrator blowjob--something which sounds completely ungratifying to me, but what do I know, I'm only a gay woman myself. I can't describe the things that pass for "lovemaking" in this flick but I hope there are other movies out there with sex scenes half as entertaining. Making it even better is the fact that director Castellini may have been inspired by none other than Jess fuckin' Franco for some of his work on this, as the patented Franco crotch-zoom is prominently used here. Also, isn't it something of a Franco touch to have a straightjacket-clad mental patient's panties visible?

The acting also gets pretty great. A lot of breathy hamminess, particularly from Antonio, and some wonderful dialogue, also from Antonio. "Has her monthly bleeding come at last?" is something I never expected to hear (or read, given the subtitles) in a movie. Trash keeps hitting me with lines like that. Just the other day I was rewatched Robot Monster and the line "You look like a pooped-out pinwheel!" reentered my sphere of cognizance. I couldn't make this shit up if I tried.

There's not much else I can say about this one. In case this review has not convinced you to check out this movie, I should say here that this movie which is at least half sex originally premiered on television.

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