Wednesday, August 23, 2017

3 in a Towel (1969), by Marty Rackum



And here we have another movie which I only enjoy a small percentage of. Like, the first third or less. And I like that short selection enough to try to do a full review on it, apparently. So, without much further ado, this is 3 in a Towel.

After a psychedelic opening credits sequence that shows off the director's prowess with 15-year-old colored gels, we meet our "protagonist" Romeo Bruno. Romeo, like his namesake, dreams of love, or more properly (both here and in Shakespeare), flesh. Romeo will reference his literary counterpart throughout the movie, though he refers to him as "Romeo Lothario," which I'll abstain from commenting on for now. Anyway, Romeo seeks to make his "dream" of banging multiple women a reality. He picks up a young virgin and brings her down to his yacht, but she's turned off by the fact that there are already three girls aboard. After she leaves Romeo and his three girls set sail and have a lot of sex. Then, they return to the harbor, Romeo uses "thought-waves" to psychically seduce women (no FX utilized), and he brings them back to his apartment, where he bangs them. Indeed, as prophesied, there are three girls who get in a towel together, specifically to give Romeo a (softcore) blowjob.

Doesn't that sound great? Doesn't that sound like a fun and entertaining movie? Well, it's really not, but in the beginning, as we learn the excuse for Mr. Rackum's softcore adventures, it's pure bliss. I'll tread over everything a little bit at a time, starting with what I've already brought up: i.e. "Romeo Lothario." Let's unpack this for a second. Even ignoring the fact that linking Shakespeare's Romeo to sexual promiscuity has its own problems, Romeo's last name wasn't Lothario. It was Montague. I'd say this is fine, but surnames are kind of a huge deal in that particular play. It's sort of about, y'know, a family feud. That would be like if you wanted to compare someone to Devil Anse Hatfield, but changed his name instead to Devil Anse Ethan Edwards. The sad thing is, Lothario as a name doesn't even have a Shakespearian origin--he's a character from a story within the story of Don Quixote. Yes, Shakespeare and Cervantes lived at the same time and share nearly equal fame, but there's no need to get their characters confused.

And then there's that whole thing about how Romeo was romantically and/or sexually successful. Um, what fucking play were you reading? The story opens with him getting rejected by Rosaline, then he shares a few days with Juliet, and then he dies! I can't imagine that his lady-bedding days were great in number prior to that, given that by most accounts of my professors, Romeo is about fourteen. If it wasn't for the fact that this movie absolutely reeks of pot, I would say this was some clever irony on behalf of the cast and crew. No, this movie is Kids Goofing Off at its absolute dumbest.


Yes, this movie is dumber than The Tony Blair Witch Project. This is dumber than A Clockwork Blue. This is dumber than Five Across the Eyes, Psyched by the 4D Witch, and Nosferatu in Brazil combined. But it's pretty easy for even someone like me, Queen of Sticks Up the Ass, to discount the fluff that pads out the majority of this movie. To be honest, whenever I see sex in a movie, I zone out anyway. And usually, if the movie is mostly sex, that means I'm gonna give it a paddlin', critically speaking. But here, I knew I wasn't missing anything in the long gaps wherein I jumped around: just more fake-accented Shakespeare quotes, which appear to come from every one of the Bard's plays except Romeo and Juliet. Some of these quotes I can't even properly source, so they may be made up, for all I know.

On top of all this, all of the dub actors are in their fifties while the actual actors (who appear in sweet silent Super 8) are in their twenties. Post-loops are recorded in bathrooms, because they have to splash water to replicate the sea, you see? This means everyone in the maritime sequences has echoes on their voices as the sound bounces off the shower walls. It's a good time.

3 in a Towel is probably a grievous insult to everyone who watches it, and is usually a tremendous waste of precious celluloid. However, I think it's hilarious, at least for a little while, and when I was trapped in the dark depths of my day job little flashes of this movie kept me going for days afterward. A glimmer of hope for a fallen film? Or a plea from the proletariat? You decide.

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Monday, August 21, 2017

The Ghost of Rashmon Hall (1947), by Denis Kavanagh



Frankly, if I like this, I'm an idiot. Some permutation of that supposition comes up basically every third review at this point, but c'mon. They couldn't even get the name of the house right in the title. Let's just get out of the way, because all the other reviews of this movie (all three of them) all make light of this: the house in the movie is called Rammelsham Hall, not Rashmon Hall. Yes, yes, that's a problem with the U.S. distribution title and the movie is really called Night Comes Too Soon; but this is proof nonetheless that The Ghost of Rashmon Hall starts with idiocy, and ends with idiocy. This is a movie where I like it not for its entertainment value, but for what it makes as a summary statement. I.e. I don't like it as a movie, I like it as the idea of a movie. This is a theme which will repeat in Wednesday's review, too, which is a movie which I only enjoy for the first few minutes! But sometimes, you have to let yourself miss the forests for the trees. Let's find out why exactly Rashmon Hall is a mess even outside of its title.

The plot is extremely basic. A group of friends have met up at old Rammelsham Hall and are waiting on the last of their group, Dr. Clinton. When he finally arrives, they begin talking about ghost stories, and Clinton informs them that the very house they are presently sitting in is haunted. He begins to tell the tale of his young friends John and Phyllis, whose story we will follow for the rest of the film, save for occasional interruptions from Dr. Clinton. The young couple are looking for a new home to move into after being married, but there's a significant scarcity of available houses. The world's most poorly-acted real estate agent lets them know that he does have one other property for sale, but he seems very hesitant to send it off. It could have something to do with the fact that the cornerstone of the house not only gives the name of the house's builder and first inhabitant, Rinaldo Sabata (presumably a relative of the Western gunfighter), but it states that the occupation of that same man was "Necromancer"! As Clinton's narration says: "A necromancer is one who draws power from evil"--or, y'know, the dead, but semantics schmemantics. Anyway, the two begin to notice strange phenomenon in the house. Mysterious shadows, auto-kinetic doors, unexplained noises--the usual. It gets so bad that eventually John calls in Dr. Clinton, who helps him learn the house's secret. Rinaldo Sabata's wife took on a sailor as a lover, and Sabata killed them both and chained their ghosts and his own to the house. By destroying a compass (?) the curse is lifted and the spirits can move on. Back in the present, Clinton's guests refuse to believe the tale, until Clinton reveals that he himself is a ghost--

Hang on.

So let me get this straight. A man who has known almost every character in the film for years has been dead this whole time?! How does that make any sort of sense? As far as I remember, John and/or Phyllis were once Clinton's students...was he a ghost back then, too? The only way I feel this can work is if Clinton died on his way to the party at Rammelsham, but there's nothing to imply that in the script except for the fact that he shows up late. And even then, that's such a glancing detail that there was no way for an audience, starved of the ability to rewind and replay things, to pick that up in 1947. Maybe this is supposed to be like a comedy, where the last scene is "non-canon"; it's just meant to be a last "note" before the movie ends. But I can't buy into that because that's lazy filmmaking. Of course, it's not like this film isn't lazy to begin with.

In my Phantom of the Convent review, I briefly touched on the particular brand of mildness found in British horror films from the '30s and '40s. I also talked about how Mexican movies tend to draw on the mythology of Mexico's European heritage in a way that American movies tended to avoid. Ultimately, I feel the same principle applies to many European movies, even beyond the 1940s. Many of them adapt an Old World story with comparatively few embellishments. Consider, for example, the filmography of Britain's foremost horror star, Tod Slaughter. His most famous role is from the 1936 Sweeney Todd adaptation; while his other big roles in movies like Maria Marten and Crimes in the Dark House are based off of lurid true events of the 19th Century or else mid-Victorian literature. Presumably this was to facilitate audience familiarity with the material so they weren't baffled by things like vampire ghost dogs. In British movies, too, there's a sense of theatricality, audience participation, and general "merriment"; the fact that Tod Slaughter's movies are usually described as melodramas rather than horror films, despite their horror elements, is a testament to a difference in how Brits prefer or preferred their ghost stories. One has to remember that until comparatively recently, telling ghost stories was a tradition of Christmas--consider of course the famous Dickens novel, but also the reference to "scary ghost stories" in "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Horror to the Brits was a sign of comfort, perhaps because of its ability to bring people closer together. And thus is Ghost of Rashmon Hall a deliberately straightforward creaky old horror story, with, again, few embellishments beyond basic ghost tropes. It even bills itself as "a plain down-to-Earth" ghost story, such as that written by "Lord Lytton," alias Edward "Dark and stormy night" Bulwer-Lytton. Indeed, this movie is ostensibly adapted from Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunters and the Haunted," with the point of the haunting stemming from an object which must be destroyed to lay the ghosts to rest being one of the story's few points left intact by the movie. Much else is changed: the circumstances of who the ghosts are is different, and the main characters in the film are a married couple instead of the short story's solitary narrator. And of course there are no flashbacks to one of the characters telling the story in the house's parlor in Bulwer-Lytton's piece. But indeed, both tales are very plain ghost stories, such as those which British melodrama audiences would enjoy. At least until the ending, in the film's case.

I was fascinated by how this movie reminded me of other movies. The basic premise, of course, is a prototype for The Amityville Horror, which serves to remind me how truly lazy the Amityville story was. However, its use and overuse of shadow, plus some legitimately spooky imagery--and the fact that I liked it--reminded me of Ghosts of Hanley House. I feel the two would make a pretty solid double-feature. But weirdly, one movie which it reminded me of in particular is Byron Quisenberry's The Outing, which I'll review at some point. That's another movie which is almost needlessly slow, that refuses to innovate or stand out no matter what. Yet, it manages to generate genuine creepiness, and is unexplained in a way that leaves you wanting to rewatch it. In particular, the final shot, where we pan slowly to a wine glass just before it shatters under an invisible force, reminds me of the weird final shot of The Outing where we slowly pan over to the painting which may or may not reveal who the killer is. I plan on rewatching Ghost of Rashmon Hall a few more times to see if there's anything I missed. I strongly doubt it, but we'll see.

Unfortunately, the key to that bizarro ending may be lost forever. Supposedly the film originally ran 57 minutes, but it was cut down to 49 minutes for American release, and the original British version was subsequently lost. Lost films will always bug me, no matter how insignificant they are. The Ghost of Rashmon Hall is as insignificant as it gets, but I fully believe those eight minutes probably had something good on them.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), by George Barry



Hey, I reviewed Troll 2 and Manos. It can't hurt to take a look at Death Bed too.

A couple is hiking through the woods to get to an old abandoned house. There's a bed in there that they want to fuck on. Well, that the dude wants to fuck on--this is an awkward sort of relationship. Judging from douchedude's letterman jacket they might be meant to be high school students. There's a man who's been trapped behind a painting in the bedroom for sixty years, who is unable to speak to the other characters but narrates the film. He watches as the bed first eats their food--extruding a foamy yellow stomach acid to do so--and then the lovers themselves. The rest of the film follows the misadventures of the various people who stumble across and are eaten by the Death Bed. Slowly, the narrator reveals the Bed's story: long ago, a demon fell in love with a human woman and created a bed to seduce her in. However, because he was a demon she died during their encounter, and in his grief for her he cried tears of blood, which animated the bed with a ceaseless hunger. Eventually, the narrator is able to speak to a girl who is the reincarnation of the bed's "mother," and with some good ol' ceremonial magic the bed is put to rest.

If a movie with the title Death Bed: The Bed That Eats was made today, you can bet it would be some sort of zany Troma-esque comedy. And while Death Bed is certainly a comedy, it's not really "zany." Or disgusting. Or stupid. That being said, it's not particularly smart, either. It just has style. I've tagged it as "artsy" but in terms of theme and universal questions and whatnot, it's not particularly strong. But it adopts a strange dignity unto itself. Close-up shots show blood droplets snuffing out candle-flames. Statues cry sanguinary tears. Old-timey sepia stock footage plays. And, there is a lady who sleeps in the bed reading a magazine called Oral Lesbians.

Yeah, this movie is pretty goofy. One of the prolonged flashbacks in the history of the Death Bed--surely the most essential of all of them--tells the tale of "Dr." Graham and his wife, who turned the mansion of the Death Bed's residence into a sexual healing clinic; i.e. an orgy club. The narrator speaks of the Death Bed's "one true feast" of six orgy practitioners, including the good doctor and his wife, one sunlit afternoon. I seem to remember this subplot taking up around ten minutes of the movie. It feels like that in any case. They could've done a whole movie with just that in my mind, but I need to be careful what I wish for.

Probably my favorite detail about this movie's weird sideways humor is the fact that the narrator, based on his appearance, on the style of his art, and on the fact that he died of tuberculosis before being trapped behind his painting, is 19th Century artist Aubrey Beardsley. I can think of no reason as to why they would choose Beardsley of all people to fulfill this role aside from that George Barry was a fan of his (and not without reason). The fact that they don't even say his name in the credits makes this a fun inside joke to catch. They even get to joke around with some of his famous quotes, paraphrasing them somewhat: "You have one aim--the grotesque. You are nothing if not grotesque. Except hungry." It's something for snobs and gorehounds alike.

And indeed, this is a pretty gory movie--a lighter H.G. Lewis, I would say. This gore is accompanied wonderfully by a plethora of bad acting. The two go so well together. I would say this is a Kids Goofing Off sort of deal but the people involved are in their 40s, so it's Director's Friends Goofing Off instead. Performances range from sincere to intoxicated. Try to strain out some of the dialogue and guffaw endlessly at the inanity of some of the deliveries. To say nothing of the material itself.

If there was any sort of theme to the movie, it would be one of awkwardness. The couple at the beginning is awkward. The group who shows up at the house at the beginning are all awkward coworkers. A man has his hands eaten down to the bones by the bed, and his response is one of feeling awkward. The demon who was the bed's "father" fucked the love of his life to death Edward Cullen-style, which is awkward. I don't know what the director was trying to say with this, if anything. Perhaps just that life is awkward, even when you are being digested by demonically-possessed furniture. Truer words, never spoken.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Club of Desolation #17: Jason X: Death Moon (2005), by Alex S. Johnson



I've been trying to finish this book for over five years. I still didn't finish it in time for this review.

But even though I did not read every single page of it, I think I get the general gist of things in Jason X: Death Moon. I heard of this long, long ago on TV Tropes, which listed it on its So Bad It's Horrible / Literature page. It is almost certainly the worst of the Jason X tie-in novels, which I can't imagine being stellar to begin with. It is also one of the most self-assuredly delirious novels I've read, and for perspective, my current reading is Tristram Shandy. I guess I have my limits--there is such a thing as excessive absurdity. While I can give Jason X: Death Moon points for trying something I've always dreamed of doing, I do have to condemn the book for being an overall waste of time, a Jodorowsky film in prose--an eager start, followed by a thoroughly pretentious and obnoxious string of disappointments.

Let's start with the plot. Jason Voorhees is still a superhuman cyborg in the mid 25th Century, as seen in the "classic" film Jason X. A bunch of scientists who may worship him/be sexually fascinated by him (?) resurrect him and send him to the Moon (?) just in time for a bunch of horny, drug-crazed teenagers to arrive in time for their summer at Moon Camp Americana, whose awful, awful name is written out way too many times. Then, Jason kills a bunch of them, before being defeated (?).

That's it.

I am told by other reviews that the conclusion features Jason being sent back in time to fight his past self, or something similar to that, but having skimmed the last few pages as much as my brain will allow doesn't indicate that, plus, there are other books in this series that are still set in the future. The plot details are unimportant, and the author makes it clear that we don't have to pay attention to them because we meet a new set of characters every few pages. The novel was seemingly written in blocks, usually following one vague "plot" motion before jumping into a chunk of rambling nonsense, then jumping into our next "plot" bit, which has almost nothing to do with what we've already seen. This patches up any sort of leaving-behind I'd surely ordinarily experience as a result of not having seen Jason X. This is a standalone work!

Now, I need to clarify my reference to "rambling nonsense," because that is essentially what this book is all about. I could turn to literally any page in this and pull out a quote which defines the entire thing. Here, I'll demonstrate:

At first he thought it was a routine hard-drive swipe--an archaic, lo-fi term the Tribes still used to refer to cerebellar cleaning. That was when they took your brain, dumped its contents into the core of an artificial person; blew your brains out out in some dark alley. That's what happened sometimes if you lurked on Cityofdiss.com, as JJ was doing. Fucking head cleaners will pay for this, thought JJ, a little edge of anger pushing his usual poise to the edge of chaos. But JJ held it steady. If they wanted a firefight, he would give 'em a firefight. The mother of all flame wars.

Note that almost none of this is explained. The setting of this book is some sort of cyberpunk anarchist dystopia, where Internet technology can not only manipulate reality to some extent, but there are no regulations on the power of such, and everyone lives a sort of pseudo-illegal libertine existence in a desperate desire to end boredom. Like if everyone in Neuromancer was a Tessier-Ashpool and Earth was basically Gallifrey from Doctor Who in terms of technological achievement. I don't really know how much this clinches with the world we see in Jason X, but most of that film is set on a spaceship bound for an Earth colony, so anything's possible.

The point around which I gave up involved a tangent several dozen pages long about, I think, a mad scientist trying to use advanced video manipulation to make Bride of Frankenstein into Elsa Lanchester porn. I considered quoting from this part, too, but it's not worth it.

Much of this book tries very much to cash in on the things that make Cool Hipster Books Cool and Hipstery. To be more specific, it tries to be controversial. Egregious cursing, sex, porn, drugs, gore, and video games are set hand-in-hand with Hemingway and philosophically-reworked Marx Brothers quotes, plus a plethora of flowery adjectives that even the Romantics would have turned from in disgust. It is the last thing you'd expect to see in a book based on a movie where Jason Voorhees kills people on a future spaceship. But for that, I sort of low-key love this book? Sure, it may not function in terms of a conventional novel, but one thing I've always wanted to do is write a tie-in novel that completely fucks with the thing it ties in with. A surreal, postmodern Star Wars novel; a Dune novel that has a secret code in it; a Warcraft novel that's incomprehensible unless you've read the complete works of Jane Austen. I think that writing a bizarro Friday the 13th novel shows I'm not alone in having that impulse. I wonder if Alex Johnson laughed the whole time writing this. If he wasn't laughing I get the impression it was because his mouth was being used for bong hits instead. (I joke. It looks like Mr. Johnson has found a reasonably successful career as a bizarro writer, and I'm actually thinking of grabbing a couple of his other titles, if anything for the sake of the Book Club of Desolation. After all, it would be entirely against my ethics to ignore a book called Doom Hippies.)

While I didn't necessarily enjoy reading Jason X: Death Moon, I'm glad it exists for its status as an artifact. And, before I read it, I could not make this shit up. Now I can, in fact, make this shit up. Reader beware!

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Monday, August 14, 2017

The Lonely Sex (1959), by Richard Hilliard



Are men really the lonely sex? I suppose if you think about stereotypes, maybe. We think of women as being gregarious social butterflies, and men, in turn, are the stoic, stony lone wolves. Of course anyone with a lick of life experience would understand the truth is more complicated than that. Perhaps the lonely sex, then, is intersex people. If you're reading this, there's a substantial chance you don't know what intersex even means--see? But alas, this movie is not about intersex people, as much as I'd like it to be, just because we don't have enough movies about intersex folk as of yet. Instead, The Lonely Sex is an early sexploitation movie that tries to raise some points about society and its gender roles, with results I can only describe as mixed.

An unnamed man is haunted by the idea of relationships, apparently because of his early sexual experiences. When he was a teenager he was taken in by a--gang? cult?--which forced him to copy sexual diagrams, and later, sleep with a prostitute. He was unable to perform the latter act, so he was kicked out, and when he told his dad he laughed at him. Ever since he's been jobless, homeless, and in and out of jail for various Peeping Tom-related misdemeanors. He resides occasionally in an abandoned tool shed out in the woods, where he draws faces on mirrors with crayons and listens to vaguely sexual radio ads. Eventually he kills a lady for rejecting his plastic rose. All this time, we've also been following the story of Annabelle Greene, the daughter of a psychiatrist who lives with her dad's friend Matt, a Peeping Tom worse than the protagonist who constantly looks like he might really rape someone someday. The unnamed man kidnaps Annabelle and keeps her locked in the shack, which Dr. Greene and Matt eventually learn of. Matt, despite his status as a predator supreme, believes that all perverts should be executed without a trial, so he shoots and kills the man. Father and daughter are reunited, and things end as happily as they can with someone like Matt still around.

Because Russ Meyer hadn't happened yet, this is a sexploitation movie much more concerned with exploitation than sex. There is some nudity, it's true, and the plot is largely about sex, but this is not sexuality which is meant to titillate. This, like a lot of '50s exploitation movies, is meant to make us think, and in particular, it's meant to make us think about the function of society and how that relates to deviance. The '50s were very much about order, and that was reflected in the sociology of the time: the predominant sociological theory in 1950s America was structural functionalism, which was all about that idea of looking at how the parts of society influence one another and create emergent behavior. Structural functionalism is a theory which is ultimately unable to account for social change, and which is grounded in the bigotry of the 1950s. The idea of privilege, for example, and inequalities in power on matters of race, sex, ability, etc. usually come across as unimportant to functionalism, which led to the rise of conflict theory in 1960s. To me, it's interesting to see this account for the popularity of moralizing in exploitation movies. Sure, a lot of movies were pinned to the mat by the Hayes Code, and therefore had to have black-and-white clearcut visions of good and evil. But there was a demand for movies that explored the battle of virtue vs. deviance, due in part to the Cold War and a desire to define the American identity as something more moral than Soviet Communism. (That's why they added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.) The Lonely Sex, in my mind, represents a weird interstitial state between the '50s and '60s. It attempts to consider the functions of privilege and sexual expectations from a conflict theorist point of view while still framing it within a 1950s portrait of deviance. And tellingly, it accuses a privileged portion of society of hypocrisy, blaming them for what's happened.

Matt is very much like those Republican senators who oppose LGBT rights and later turn out to be having same-sex affairs. He appears to have a relatively respectable place in society--he's close friends with a prominent psychiatrist, and he's well-dressed. It's never mentioned what he does, but it must be something good. From a certain perspective, Matt's bloodlust is a little understandable. There's a scene where he asks Dr. Greene, regarding the newspaper headline of the unnamed man's murder, "What do you think happened before the murder?" He seems to be fearful of the idea that perhaps the killer raped his victim before doing her in. I have no pity for rapists; I do not care what their stories are or why they did it, and I believe that they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But I also believe in justice, not citizens running around shooting people (or cops running around shooting people, for that matter). And that's ignoring the biggest elephant in the room, that Matt is still a worse creep than the main character. The protagonist is at least aware of the wrongness of his actions, but if Matt ever did rape or kill someone he'd likely have a convenient excuse. And unlike the protagonist, he is not mentally ill. Mental illness does not excuse one from crime--nor is it a singular cause of it--but Matt lacks motive for what he does. That makes him more despicable than the unnamed man in my eyes.

Of course, the fact that the "protagonist" kills someone really fucks up any sort of message this movie could be going for. Still, I'm going to attempt to find my own perspective on this: much of the conflict the unnamed man faces in this movie is a result of 1950s gender roles. His sexual dysfunction comes from his abuse at the hands of the group he attempted to join as a youth as well as the world's blaming him for it. The gang/cult's attempts to force him to have sex with a hooker is a sort of rape by proxy, which his father laughs at, and which the rest of the world says is a failing in his natural male predilection for sex. His friends and family can't understand why he wouldn't want to have sex with a woman, even under forced circumstances. Like many men in patriarchal societies, he feels trapped by obligations he can't or doesn't want to fulfill--even with his privilege, he is a victim of patriarchy just as any women would be. That's an interesting theme for a '50s movie to cover.

But few people seek out movies for their politics, so I will also say that there are also plenty of bad movie things in here to draw you in. It's pretty cheesy to see a character scrawl "HELP" on a wall after killing someone, especially how it's framed here. They also insisted on giving the unnamed man these big balls of makeup under his eyes to make him look more washed out--but they stand out so much that the effect only succeeds in the shadows, being quite hilarious otherwise. Plus, if you're an exploitation fan, especially of the old style, this will probably remind you of a C-list Wishman castoff, which is certainly better than nothing. This was directed by the writer of Horror of Party Beach, too, which is always fun. If you want to see something that's halfway between the anthropological sleaze of one decade and the identity politics of another, or you just want to join fat men in perving on stripping ladies, it's worth a watch. I was certainly surprised by the caliber of its entertainment.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Revenge in the House of Usher (1982), by Jess Franco



The film that introduced me to Howard Vernon, and probably also Jess Franco. I should say here there's no use telling me I have the wrong title card on this one--it's a European horror movie so of course there are a million other titles. At least my copy doesn't go by Zombi 5.

In an ancient castle, Dr. Usher (played by Howard Vernon) directs his servants Morpho and Matthias to begin transfusing blood from a living girl into his comatose daughter Melissa. This appears to revive her, but her vitality does not last long and she soon returns to lifelessness. Shortly thereafter, Usher is visited by his former student Alan Hacker (apparently spelled Harker in the script and original dubbing), whom he initially greets with distrust and a lack of recognition, collapsing in a fit which is soon remedied by the local medecin Dr. Seward. Upon awakening, Usher tells Hacker he is a murderer, and has a story to tell him the next day. Shortly thereafter Hacker discovers a dungeon full of women, who tell Hacker that Usher drains their blood--he also discovers an imprisoned Matthias, and is confronted by a strange vampiric woman, before running across Usher in the middle of a blood transfusion. In trying to escape, Hacker trips, and passes out. The next morning, Usher's maid assures Hacker that what he saw last night was just a symptom of "mountain fever," which he believes despite being a med student. However, Usher proceeds to tell him that what he saw did happen, and reveals the whole of what is happening here in the House of Usher. Melissa is suffering from an ailment that must be cured by blood transfusions, as we've already seen. Usher shows us the process by which he acquired the victims of these transfusions, via lengthy stock footage plundered from The Awful Dr. Orlof. He also explains that his sins have tied him to his castle, and when the castle crumbles, so will he, and vice versa. Usher finally meets his end at the hands of the vampire-lady from earlier, who is actually the ghoul of his dead wife. Hacker barely escapes as the House falls in on itself.

For a movie as straightforward as Revenge in the House of Usher, that was one of the hardest plot synopses I've written in a while. There's somehow a lot that happens, with nothing happening at the same time--things make sense, and yet never follow each other. I may be the only person in the world to say this, but this was a perfect introduction to Franco's body of work. It's a strange thing to say, given that Revenge in the House of Usher is actually very unlike the rest of Franco's films; it was a good introduction in that it was amusing enough for me to want to see more. Indeed, Revenge does so much tremendously wrong that it's hard not to laugh at it relatively frequently.

Characters behave really strangely in this movie. For example, when the actresses who play Usher's transfusion victims read "moan in pain" in the script, they portray it as "moan sexually." Given that this is Jess Franco we're talking about, I don't think that's accidental. It's weird, too, that these girls usually only "scream" when the blood starts leaving their bodies, not when the needle is inserted. As far as I know, the needle part is the painful bit of having your blood drawn. It's strange that the moans of the victims are loud enough to attract Hacker to their cell at night, but he doesn't hear them at all during the day. Then again, Hacker is kind of an idiot.

Everyone is kind of an idiot in this. It takes about two or three sentences more than is necessary for people to comprehend basic things. Sometimes, people will just straight up forget things that characters have previously told them, and they'll rediscover it much later as if they were learning it for the first time. For example, Hacker is still shocked by Usher turning out to be a lunatic after his "mountain fever" dream of ladies being bled to death, which in itself follows Usher confessing to murder! Most of Franco's movies are almost absurdly dream-like--this movie even gives itself an open ending as to whether or not Usher's claims were true--but this never comes across as anything else besides utter cheapness. I sometimes question whether this movie had a script, at least in its English version. Oftentimes it is very obvious what's being done for padding, namely the repeated points and the fact that characters just loaf around. Dr. Usher will tell Morpho to go do something, and he'll have to tell him several times just to get him moving. Also, when Melissa revives for the first time, Morpho stands over whispering, "Melissa...you're alive...", over and over, for several minutes. Franco's other movies frequently share this love of padding, but this goes on so long that it loops around to become funny again--even in context to his other films.

And then there is Howard Vernon.

I've seen enough movies with Vernon in them now, and I've tracked down interviews with him, to be reasonably convinced that he usually dubs his own lines in his movies. I've never been able to find out which languages he spoke, but it's not unlikely for a European actor to speak Spanish, French, English, and possibly German all reasonably well. Vernon's dubs become notably more...dramatic as his career marched on, and his performance here as Dr. Usher is no exception. Vernon is simultaneously amazing and horrible in this. His physical performance is great...he still has a lot of the charm that made him suitably creepy as Dr. Orlof twenty years prior. But his lines are--I honestly can't describe them. He makes a lot of weird gibbering old man noises, and moans the words out with a blend of fury and senility. A lot of it is the script. It's hard for anyone to deliver lines like, "Dr. Smegma and the ghost of Theodore Crejin Maliciamain [?] are after me," and "They're damned, all of them...a plague on both their houses," but Vernon pulls it off beyond his parameters. It's a strange blend of earnestness, unintentional camp, confusion, and fatigue. Every moment that Dr. Usher is onscreen makes it worth it.

Vernon's performance helps cement the fact that this is Franco at his least artsiest, at least from what I've seen. Sure, there's still plenty of zoom lens abuse, and characters staring wistfully into the sky, but there's too much bad dubbing for us to care. Franco then jumps onto his old practice of welding himself to a respected (or semi-respected) literary source. Yes, this is yet another Franco movie where he insists on making a bunch of Dracula references. Dr. Seward...Alan Harker...the enormous, foreboding castle where an evil ageless presence rots away. I've seen probably a dozen-plus Franco movies now and more than half of them shamelessly rip off Dracula, even in incidental and unusual ways. It's so weird that his big chance at directing Dracula, as 1970's Count Dracula with Herbert Lom and Christopher Lee, not only failed at cleansing the story from his system (even twelve years later), but also failed at being a satisfying adaptation of Stoker's story--even if it is one of the most accurate. That film's accuracy may be one of the reasons why it flopped so bad for me. But that's another story for another day.

In sum, this movie will make you a Franco fan and a Vernon fan if you aren't already. And here is where I reveal the ulterior motive of this review. I could not proceed further into Howard Vernon's career without this review under my belt, and now I can move on to the next logical step: the Vernon/Franco revenge thriller She Killed in Ecstasy. Aka: the movie where we get to see a 57-year-old Howard Vernon's junk.

Howard Vernon's junk.

So in further sum: heheheheheheheheh; stay tuned. 

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Massacre Mafia Style (1974), by Duke Mitchell



Careers in art can be tricky things. Sometimes you get your one-hit wonders; sometimes you get people who started out great before they crashed and burned; and sometimes--and I don't think we let this happen enough, because frankly we humans can be cruel people--there are people who start out horrible and rise to greatness. We mythologize our creators, sometimes perhaps a bit needlessly. We forget that they're people. I certainly don't mean to dismiss the trend of mythologizing artists, because in a lot of ways I think our culture needs it. By looking up to our painters, writers, filmmakers, etc. we are looking up to what they create. We're enjoying them and the things they make for us. But, for many of us involved in these fields, our work is also, in a lot of ways, just our job. For most of history, those of us who have faced the possibility of starvation have done what we've had to do to hang on--even if it's always love of what we do that brings us back. Thus, it is not always glamorous, but there's nothing in this world that is. And that means that a lot of us have done crap jobs before. Mistakes have been made, as in any job. Take the career of Duke Mitchell, for instance.

Duke Mitchell was once one half of the "comedy" act Mitchell and Petrillo with Jerry Lewis impersonator/plagiarist Sammy Petrillo, with Mitchell being Martin to Petrillo's Lewis. Together they made the movie Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, which I would seriously consider a contender for the worst movie ever. Seriously, it's nearly as torturous as Disaster Movie. If I compare a movie to Disaster Movie, I am not fucking around. In any case, Mitchell's first "big" movie was an atrocity. But I'm glad he didn't give up a career in film. Without perseverance and a vision which I wish had been possible in the unworkable mess of Brooklyn Gorilla, we would not have Massacre Mafia Style, a decidedly fascinating attempt at aping (heh) The Godfather. There may be no human-ape transformations in this movie, but there's a lot to look at, both good and bad.

Mimi Miceli is the son of a famous old-time gangster; he has followed his father into Sicilian exile, as Miceli Sr. was deported as a result of his criminal activities. We are introduced to Mimi early on as he and his partner Rizzo shoot their way through a corporate office, slaughtering all the employees with a variety of armaments. Slowly, we learn that Mimi has returned to the U.S. to avenge his father's exile, by taking over the pimps and bookmakers of Hollywood. In doing so, he and Rizzo kidnap a Mafia head and cut his finger off, and then visit him at his son's wedding after getting their ransom dough and releasing him. He apparently appreciates their balls so much that he's willing to let the two take on what they want. We then loosely follow Miceli's adventures, which are meshed with subplots like the attempted formation of the Sicilian Defense League, a group apparently dedicated to squashing anti-Mafia voices in the media. In the end, a man loses everything, and there's a twist ending.

So this is actually, structurally and stylistically speaking, a really well put together movie. It's strange; the general critical opinion seems to be that the movie is clumsy and amateurish, and it's the gore that counts. I found the gore disappointing--red paint, as was the style of the time, but nothing featuring organs and whatnot, even when people are getting their guts shot out. Maybe I really am becoming desensitized (I doubt it). The gore actually is the fakest thing in the movie, at least as far as I know.

"As far as I know." Now, there's a trouble with my reviewing this movie: I'm not Italian. I don't know how strong Duke Mitchell's Italian heritage was but I assume he's on the level. This movie is apparently supposed to be some sort of alternate reality biography...my postulations, without facts. Maybe Duke Mitchell/Mimi Miceli really was a gangster. Maybe his father really was in the Mafia. But there are some things here which seem out of place. For example, I haven't been able to find any independence evidence of an Italian wedding ritual wherein money is put in a piece of bread, which is cut and tossed to the father of the groom. There's a strong sense of authentic sentimentality for Italian culture in Mitchell, but I would feel awkward if he was pulling a lot of this out of his ass.

The reason why I'm so suspicious is that this movie has strange attitudes towards race. It is, um. Horribly racist? At least, the characters are, and that's an important distinction. Part of the Italian characters' racial pride involves racism against black people and Jews. There's a long and uncomfortable sequence where Miceli intimidates a black pimp named--sigh--Super Spook, throwing around the n-word a bunch, and squishing his face around. I don't know what Mitchell was going for here. I mean, we are talking about fucking Mafia hitmen. These guys are monsters--they kill a lot of people, in some pretty bad ways, despite some of their likable traits, like their sentimentality and Miceli's love for his son. I think that means their racism is just meant to make them more monstrous. But again, this is a movie that blurs fantasy and reality (ironically invoking a lot of Italian art films coming out at this time in Mitchell's apparent homeland). Miceli and Mitchell are, in a sense, alter egos of each other. So maybe Mitchell really did hate Jews and black people. If so, I don't know how much I can like this movie.

Thematically, the movie is really hard to figure out, and I watched it four times for this review. At the ending, Miceli explains to his father that traditional crime--I assume the Mafia crime of the '30s and '40s--no longer conventionally exists, because racial politics have shifted, and the hippie movement's predilection for free love and drug use have severely damaged the old-school prostitution and drug-pushing markets. And gangster movies have reduced men like Don Miceli to cartoon supervillains, neutered and deprived of their power. This is subverted in a telling way in the movie's final moments. All throughout the film, people keep telling Mimi he can't bring back the old ways. But the old ways never go away; they just change. Crime changes. Immorality changes. There's always some fresh blood ready to step into the dens of thieves and murderers.

In any case, there's enough history to this film, enough quality, and enough graphic violence to make it worth checking out. Someone smarter than me probably has a better solution to the tangled themes. I hope there's even more words said about this film than what I'm saying here. Mitchell made another gangster picture a year later, called Gone with the Pope. Be back with that sometime soon.

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