Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Phantom Ship (1935), by Denison Clift

First of all, I want to apologize for the plethora of clipped title cards I've been using for page images this year. I assure you that when the card appears clipped, I check other versions of the movie (when possible) to see if I can find a better screencap. If a card shows up with bits missing it's because I failed. Film preservation is pretty great, huh?

Benjamin Briggs and Toby Bilson are, respectively, the captain and first mate of the infamous Mary Celeste. We from the future know that in 1872, the Mary Celeste's crew mysteriously disappeared without a trace, but of course these men can't guess that. Briggs is having difficulty finding a crew due to the Celeste's bad name, but he's not averse to shangaiing sailors, despite the fact that he claims to be opposed to such--this will be one of many blatant lies Briggs tells throughout the movie. Word of this reaches a sailor named Anton Lorenzen (Bela Lugosi) who was once shanghaied himself--he practically begs to be let aboard the Mary Celeste for reasons that are assuredly not good. Meanwhile, Captain Briggs is about to marry his sweetheart Sarah, despite the fact that his friend Jim Morehead proposed to Sarah earlier in the day. Despite the fissure this creates between the men Briggs still has the gall to ask Jim to borrow one of his sailors. With this plot thread aboard alongside a seemingly vengeful Lorenzen, the fate of the crew, which now includes Briggs' wife Sarah, seems sealed for sure.

As it turns out--spoiler alert--Lorenzen is the killer. The ship he was shanghaiied aboard six years was the Mary Celeste (despite the fact that, in our world at least, the ship was called the Amazon in 1866 and had a completely different crew), and during that voyage he fell overboard and lost his arm to a shark. As such he wants to avenge himself on Bilson and everyone else aboard the Celeste. This "twist" is "preserved" by the fact that Lorenzen, as we see him throughout the rest of the movie, is a pious and sorrowful man, who weeps in remorse when he has to kill a crewman who tries to rape Sarah. The sincerity of this side to Lorenzen is one thing that makes the characters of this film surprisingly complicated.

I am of the opinion that Lorenzen's piety and empathy are an act, given how intense his hatred is towards Bilson in the end. (I'll touch on that more below because I have to analyze the acting in this, especially Bela's.) However, that doesn't meant that Lorenzen may have once been that sort of man, before his traumatizing, inhumane experiences, and he's drawing on his old character to disguise himself. Bela's best acting is when he tries to put pathos in the character--yes, it's cheesy, but it's leagues better than a lot of his costars. It doesn't really make sense, though, why Lorenzen would find seemingly sincere friendship with Sarah Briggs, only to delight in her murder later.

Then there's Captain Briggs. Briggs ought to be the movie's protagonist. He's dashing, and has a beautiful love interest to protect. However, all his supposed virtue is a lie. He forbids Bilson from kidnapping men to work for him, but immediately turns the other way when Bilson disobeys him in this. He serves maggoty bread to his crew and gets irate when someone questions the quality of such. It's unclear how much wool Bilson, the much more obviously corrupt figure, has pulled over Briggs' eyes, but Briggs deliberately censors information about the murders not only to his crew but to his wife, putting their lives in further danger and squaring him firmly in villain territory for me. Maybe not a willing villain per se, but action is more important than intent. This leaves us rooting for Lorenzen and his quest for vengeance, wherein he kills people who were friendly towards him. This movie has no heroes.

I am impressed with how grungy this is for a '30s horror movie, but it's made by Hammer who would go on to make the particularly gross Frankenstein series. It's relieving, despite the general cheapness of the production, to see a horror movie interested in capturing horror--not just scares but the atmosphere around such. They succeed by capturing the sense of hopelessness that only a grungy 19th Century trading vessel could supply.

I mean, there's also the acting. This is one of the hammiest '30s movies I've seen in a while, coming close to having a full cast of Ptomaine Petes. It's great when a movie opens with a man angrily yelling, in the full presence of a variety of dockhands, "Looks like we're gonna have ta shanghai this scum!!" Said man (Bilson) later gets a moment where he's picking out an alias for himself, and he makes a big deal about calling himself "Captain Abercrombie." But in both quality and lack thereof, Lugosi outperforms them all. His pathos, as I said, is actually very good, but at the end, when he and Bilson are the only survivors and the cards are all on the table, he, uh...well, there's a reason I love ol' Bela. "I didn't forget you...I didn't forget this ship...I HATE IT! And IIII...hate youuu..."

Don't get me wrong--it may sound like this movie is a lot better than it really is. It's still bargain basement, with the most pristine surviving prints looking rather like they were used for toilet paper. Ham does not equal good acting inherently, and there are enough failed premises and bad story notes to make us feel the production's cheapness. However, for purposes of trash-viewing, Phantom Ship is pretty damn great, especially with Lugosi in tow.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Nightmare Never Ends (1980), by Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, and Greg Tallas

Ah, yes. With this, we move one step closer to getting to review Night Train to Terror, the greatest anthology film of all time and "sequel" to Gretta. You know how much I love Gretta and this one is a worthy prequel to this little fucked-up series that Night Train of Terror forces them all into.

James and Claire Hansen have only a small shortage of troubles in their life. James has fallen under criticism for the publication of his anti-religion book, God is Dead, and Claire has begun having strange nightmares of "devils and demons." When she goes to see a stage psychic in Vegas, he unlocks visions of Nazi Germany. Around this time, police lieutenant Sterne (Cameron Mitchell) begins having trouble with an elderly Holocaust survivor named Abraham Weiss, who is insistent that a 20-something rich socialite named Olivier is one of the Nazis who killed his family during the War, despite the fact that he's decades too young. Soon Claire and Sterne meet in the middle and begin to find out that they are wrestling with Satan himself. And Satan has his eyes on James Hansen, whom he believes is the perfect vessel for killing God once and for all.

I wrote that introduction based entirely off my memories for this movie, hopeful that it would live up to my expectations. Sure enough, the mental note I tagged to this film--"As weird as if not weirder than Gretta"--turned out to be accurate. The two films are similar but I don't yet know if there was ever any connection between them. Both of them have the same brand of horrible editing and odd cardboard acting that only '80s can provide. Claire in particular is horrible and as such she makes a very strange choice for a protagonist. But then, I've followed movies that featured Chesty Morgan as a protagonist and they turned out okay. The woman playing Claire isn't nearly as bad an actress as Chesty Morgan, but she comes close at times.

The Nazi angle is really jarring in this. To put things in perspective, we have no hints of Nazism until the psychic tells Claire to flash back to her dreams. Then suddenly: "SIEG HEIL! SIEG HEIL! SIEG HEIL!" and we're in the middle of SS Girls all of a sudden! Okay, I should specify that we aren't literally transported to the footage of SS Girls, but it's a party straight out of that film, sans the loads of nudity. The movie manages to handle the Nazi material well, clearly borrowing from Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man in places as far as the Nazi-hunting goes, but once we learn demons are involved, the Nazis are reduced to just being a cog in the wheel. The paranormal elements are also jarring but not quite as much--but still, you wouldn't expect a movie about Nazis and psychic dreams to suddenly feature a fucking xenomorph, would you?

I think this movie may be an anti-atheist film but I'm not sure. We're probably meant to be on Claire the Catholic's side as she spars with her husband over his rejection of religion. However, James' atheism is so ridiculous that it almost seems to be a parody. No serious atheist would use the disproof of Jesus as a historical figure as their sole evidence that all world religions are objectively bullshit--especially when said "disproof" is shockingly lazy! However, his atheism is still used for an intriguing purpose. After all, Olivier and his demons recruit James on the premise that his atheism is a pretense for Satanism. But James doesn't believe in the devil any more than he believes in God, leading to a scene where Olivier becomes something of an Inquisitor in the Christian sense, ordering James to repent his disbelief in Satan! In the end his refusal doesn't save him, however.

It's strange, too, because in this universe belief in God won't save you either. I was left with the impression at the end that this is a godless universe, or has become one, meaning the bad guys win. That's '80s horror for yuh.

The Nightmare Never Ends labors under the prospect that it really means something, or at least it gives the impression of such labor. For that reason, I think it's worthy of multiple viewings, and I know I'll return to it again and again over my life, if nothing else because the rubber monsters in it are amazing. And now that this is taken care of, we can move on to the series finale, with Night Train to Terror. This movie is already pretty weird, but imagine it now with most of its insides cut out!

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ace of Aces (1933), by J. Walter Ruben

By coincidence, this film was the next entry on my to-watch list following The Man from Colorado, a 1948 Western about a former Union officer driven mad by the Civil War. While those movies contrast wildly as far as budget and artistry are concerned, the two films are similar in many ways. Both of them are about good men who War makes into monsters; consequently both films deal thematically with the dark side of humanity that lurks inside everyone, the side that causes Wars to begin with. As such they can both be interpreted as anti-war films, but Ace of Aces is much more directly about protesting conflict. That directness certainly makes it a bit dumber than The Man from Colorado, but that doesn't mean the film's wiping its drool off the floor. What makes Ace of Aces so enjoyable and indeed compelling is its emotional intensity and earnestness about its message.

Rocky Thorne is a sculptor engaged to Nancy, a fellow intellectual. They share rambling, pretentious conversations with each other but generally seem to be good kids. Then America enters World War I, and there's a need for fighter pilots. Nancy turns on Rocky when he dismisses the value of the War, and that's enough to make him enlist. Despite his early hesitance, Rocky faces his duty with honor, and a terrible change begins to occur. It turns out Rocky really likes killing...and he's willing to sacrifice whatever parts of himself don't apply to that. What's more, he becomes secluded, refusing to let anyone else service his plane or guns. Not even Nancy can turn him back, even though her own job as a nurse has taught her how foolish it was to support this war. Is it too late for Rocky, or can some new horror yet reach and change his heart?

Many of the old cliches are rolled out for this one. Before his enlistment, Rocky compares the marching troops outside his soldier to lemmings--at great length. At such great length, in fact, that I couldn't help but envision an enormous red alarm flashing over the whole screen, shouting "SYMBOLISM" the whole time. Adding to the SYMBOLISM is the fact that Rocky's unit is singing a song to the tune of a funeral march when he enters the bunk. It's moments like this which couple with the occasionally over-flowery dialogue to make the whole thing seem heavy-handed. But I think this hamfistedness comes from a place of caring.

There are a plenty of strange details about this film which make it a joy to watch from the perspective of one who like eccentric movies, while also showing, as those eccentricities often do, a precision and care that went into this movie's forging. When Rocky is meeting his squadron for the first time, each of them have a witty or "witty" introduction/sobriquet. The best being "Tombstone Terry the Tennessee Terror, aka Dracula." I could read 80 years of comics centered on a WWI ace with that name. There's also the fact that each of the pilots has an animal mascot--a dog, a parrot, a monkey, a goat, and Rocky's own lion cub. These animals aren't just for cheap gags--they, too, bring symbolism, because they start fighting around the time that Rocky's violent obsessions start ripping the unit apart.

The film's heart serves it well, as those trips into eccentricity also lead to genuine darkness. Witness Rocky whipping a man with an ammo belt after he failed to load it properly, sending gouts of blood gushing from his crushed skull. Witness Rocky turning Nancy's pro-war arguments on her to convince her to have drunken, sweaty beer sex with him (which is truly skin-crawling by the way). And finally witness Rocky turning straight again after being forced to spend the night with a German teenager he shot down, whom he eventually helps commit suicide when it becomes clear he's got nothing but a slow death ahead of him. War. Is. Hell. It's tough to watch the early scenes where Nancy is trying to justify to Rocky what seems to him to be coldhearted murder, and remember that that was the common attitude of the day. Of course Rocky's arguments, that war is pointless and without true glory in the end, make sense, but when this War broke out people put so much of their pride and fear into their nationalism that relationships really were destroyed over "dishonor," for whatever meaning honor has when you're up against lung-dissolving gas.

Here the movie shines the brightest, because it's ultimately a film concerned with how war happens. The answer I feel it gives to this question is "peer pressure." Rocky is a gentle man largely ruled by his love for Nancy, but Nancy is able to use that to lever him into doing something he's afraid of, by forcing him to face what seems an even greater fear. Once this layer kicks in and pushes him out to the barracks, the encouragement becomes positive: he's rewarded by the comradery and praise of his fellow pilots, who all treat each other like brothers. It's notable that even when his squadron turns on him for his change in behavior, it's not enough to turn him back to good--but he does change his behavior when they turn on him once more after he announces he's leaving to take on a prosperous teaching job instead. In this case, this later scene, where Rocky loses all his friends in the squad for accepting his CO's offer, shows that the positive reinforcement of the squad's brotherhood was really enforced by implicit violence this whole time. The friendship of the armed forces, the film seems to say, only goes as far as one friend is useful to another. That's pretty cold, given that in my experience the military does create sincere friendships as well, but these pilots stand in for the war they fight and the horror it in turn represented, and how entirely without honor and compassion that conflict was. I know this probably makes me seem dumb, but it was really nice to see a movie that flat-out condemned World War I with such vitriol, especially one made in such a precarious era as the inter-war period. All wars are fucking horrible, but that so many of us still rank World War I as one of the top worst points in all of human history shows that it in particular was especially fucking horrible. It deserves to be condemned in big bold letters.

This film was something of a marvel for me; an airplane thriller with some serious war drama. And trauma. Watch it as I did, with The Man from Colorado, or maybe with another airplane thriller, and you've got a good day carved out for yourself.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), by Albert Zugsmith

Just as Fanny Hill was an adaptation of a classic book that echoed and cashed in on the Sexual Revolution, this movie's timing was similarly perfect--and it's probably no coincidence that today's movie's director produced Fanny Hill. While this "adaptation" of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium-Eater preceded much of the heavy drug use that was to come in the West, it doubtlessly had an influence on such as well. If it was possible to screen reels of this you'd better believe hippies were doing that in their basements when they had a chance--hell, it has Vincent Price in it, and hippies loved them some Vincent Price. (Who doesn't?) Promising trippy visuals clipped onto the action scenes that would define the Bond films yet to come, Confessions of an Opium Eater can be viewed as a prototype for many of the trends of the nascent decade it inhabited, a creepy drug-echo of times yet to come mirroring Price's character's own time-warping experiences in the story.

Price plays Gilbert de Quincey, a thug-for-hire and descendant of Thomas de Quincey. Gilbert finds himself caught up in the San Francisco Tong Wars of 1902, specifically a showdown between anti-human trafficking editor George Wah and the ancient, never-seen slaver of women Ling Tang. Ling Tang, through his officer Ruby Lo, hires Gilbert to bring back a prize slave girl who originally wanted to come to America to marry George Wah. Gilbert decides to rescue the girl from Ling Tang, bringing the full force of the Tong down on him. At some point in the chase, in order to hide out, Gilbert must smoke opium. Much of the film's reality has been dubious so far--but now Gilbert can't trust his senses, and consequently, neither can we.

This film is well-made, but it's not really until the end that everything "clicked" for me. It's lit by plenty of fun moments but only when viewed holistically does it become truly wonderful. Let's focus on the little details first. First of all Angelo Rossito shows up and he and Vincent Price are onscreen together, though they share no lines. Rossito is probably foreshadowing for another little person who shows up, the unnamed Chinese little person who helps Price in his quest, and whose death possibly foreshadows Price's own. Then, there's something I caught at the beginning, where one of the slave-girls aboard the ship tries to appeal to the ship's captain, who silently rolls his eyes and gestures her away. To me that hinted at something bigger. Was there a relationship between this girl and the captain, an attempt by the former to save her life? Is this all that tryst led to? I don't know if that was intentional but in the heat of the moment I read it that way, and it was heartbreaking.

Even as early as these opening sequences on the slave-ships, there are psychedelic hints which help suggest that Gilbert's trip travels back from the future to touch on all of his experiences. When the captured women are transported from ship to ship, their bodies falling to the deck are rendered in claymation, which looks out of place in the rest of the shots. Similarly, when one of the slave-ships is destroyed the explosion is a cartoon. This ends up leading into a scene where Gilbert, ostensibly sober at this point, hallucinates that a dragon-kite is a real dragon. Add in some weird geography/architecture (why does George Wah's office have an elevator into the sewers?) and you've got a world which is weird to start with. One which probably doesn't need opium's touch.

The actual psychedelics of the film are rather disappointing, but this was in an age where filmmakers rarely ever had even secondhand experiences with these substances. We get plenty of distorted shots of faces, skulls, and Chinese masks, however, which make up for things. There's also a spooky sequence where everything is silent and in slow-mo--a more realistic psychedelic terror. Zugsmith understands at least in some capacity that psychedelia and the horror therein thrives on altered sensation and a feeling of dissociation from time and other aspects of reality we take for granted--this slow-mo sequence captures that feeling nicely.

Then there's the dialogue. The runtime is populated with stretches of Price (supposedly) quoting de Quincey, Confucius, or the Bible...I couldn't be bothered to check all the quotes. But in between this pretentious quoting, Price also gets lines like, "I'm not a side'a beef in a butcher shop" which help bring you back to reality. Similarly, the aforementioned Chinese little person is a delight, as she often finds herself married to husbands she doesn't like--but only because they bore her. She often runs away or dissolves the marriage herself just so she can move onto a new experience. She actually probably has the best-defined character in the movie.

Despite the pretension of the dialogue, the ending does feel emotionally resonant--the movie does feel like the end of a journey, like a trip winding down. At the last, Gilbert has embraced the distorted reality opium has given him, and I will say that there is no more appropriate Vincent Price ending than this. As he is carried to his presumed death by the grungy waters of a dank sewer, he asks the audience: "Were these the whitening waters of death...or the gates of Paradise?" You gotta wonder, but the visuals don't let you wonder far...

Confessions of an Opium Eater is probably a love-it or hate-it, or rather a like-it or meh-it. It never dares too much, but it is pretty great for what it sets out to do. I felt like Vincent Price was slumming it a bit with these Zugsmithian conditions, but Price is never wasted--with him, you're in good hands.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Fanny Hill (1964), by Russ Meyer

John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure has a history to it which I must confess I am somewhat ill-equipped to encapsulate. Suffice it to say that it is one of the earliest erotic novels in English, at least one of the earliest to achieve and sustain notice both during and after its own time. Telling the tale of young Fanny Hill, and her indoctrination into the world of prostitution, Memoirs set the stage for a tradition of Western pornography that saw various revivals after the commencement of the trend in the mid 18th Century, with perhaps the biggest revival in recent memory being the book's influence on the Sexual Revolution of the '60s and '70s. As a reflection of that reminiscence, none other than Russ Meyer himself set his usual crew of busty ladies to the task of adapting Cleland's two-century-old novel to film--it was likely not the first such adaptation of its kind, and it was certainly not the last. It is perhaps most appropriate that Meyer handled the production of Fanny Hill, as he would become one of the exploitation filmmakers with recognized mainstream cred. He ended making Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Roger Ebert, after all. To make a comedy of manners based around a fetishized classed-up version of the 18th Century, adapting one of the most famous pieces of erotic literature ever written, could hardly have been in better hands than Meyer's.

Fanny Hill is a young, innocent orphan, and it is clear from the start that "innocent" may be the understatement of her native 18th Century. After basically being robbed by her only friend, she starts looking for a job in London, ending up in the hands of "kindly" Mrs. Brown, whose dead daughter Fanny ostensibly resembles. Brown takes her back to her, well, brothel, where the shenanigans begin. Fanny never assumes that sex is the object of her various interactions, whether it be with her leather-clad, cigarette-smoking lesbian "cousin" (which oh my god it is so hard watching these movies while being gay and single) or with several men who are brought over to enjoy her company. Eventually, she meets a young man nearly as innocent as herself, an ensign named Charles--when Charles endeavors to marry Fanny, Mrs. Brown arranges for him to be kidnapped by pirates. But love, or what passes for it in this tale, sometimes comes back in strange ways. And maybe love is what it'll take to get Fanny of the life she's found for herself.

Most of the charm and humor of the film--as well as a lot of the unintentional horror--comes from the veritable sea of double entendres that populate the runtime. This sort of comedy thrives on the idea of the 18th Century and the Victorian period which followed it being a time of great euphemism, often contrasting an archetypical bawdiness found in the scandal sheets and "low publications" of the time--which included Fanny Hill itself. Consequently, the world of this movie has a dynamic where it's somehow inappropriate to talk about sex directly even though literally everyone except for the title character is a pervert. Now, obviously, the premise that exploits this--that Fanny is unaware of everything because of her inability to navigate the social customs of her time--does definitely have a creepy edge to it. There are more than a few instances where the "joke" is basically that someone is about to take advantage of Fanny's lack of sexual knowledge to rape her. And I have to bring that up because, well--I have to. As the 21st Century continues to define itself, its style and trends will inevitably shift to progress beyond the ethical confines of the 20th Century. Consequently, I always dive into older sex comedies under the presumption that I as a woman will probably feel uncomfortable. After all, these movies were made for men. Comedies directed primarily at women--sexist in themselves for entirely different reasons--became their own thing at a certain point, but their own problems are beyond the limits of this review. What I mean to say is: rape, or at least threatened rape in some form or another, has been seen as funny in a lot of these older movies, especially when it's dolled up under surrounding contexts of eroticism. But I did not feel uncomfortable with Fanny Hill--though I know I can't speak for everyone. I think it's just because no one, not even the most provincial peasant girl of the most remote part of King George's England, could be as naive as Fanny. At some point you're going to figure out that someone wants to have sex with you for money, or at least that your roommates have sex for money.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for stories set in the 1700s, which capture that unique fantastic spirit of that century. After all, I was definitely pulled into the euphemism comedy, even if it is basically the film's only joke. We have rhyming market sellers, slops thrown on people in the streets, and seeming gallons of busty prostitutes dangling giggling out of windows. Not based on reality--not one as pleasant as presented, of course--but an aesthetic which I think is perfect for the sort of "bawdiness" that this movie sets out to achieve. It's the loyalty not only to the appearance of the London of Cleland's time and description, but it's also the loyalty to the tone of Cleland's work, so particularly rooted in the 18th Century, that helps this movie work so well for me.

Some of the humor is in taking the piss out of the formality of the 18th Century. Lines like "Don't tell the others you don't even belong to the Guild" are pretty great, and they help add onto the primary joke of Fanny's copious innocence. Other jokes occasionally prod in, some truly bizarre, like when Charles tells Mrs. Brown, "Topping kidneys, ma'am!" and she says, "My own...the recipe, that is." There's nothing else like that in the rest of the movie, so it made me laugh. A good comedy is like a good soup. You need to have onions to make the chicken taste good, but if you just cram a bunch of fucking onions in everywhere then...yeah. As for charm--part of wit, and thus essential to an 18th Century comedy of manners--that comes from the heart. Russ Meyer had heart, I feel. But then, this is only the second of his movies that I've seen, and I know nothing of the man in real life.

I present this movie in a somewhat bitter context, as I wrestle with issues of my own sexuality--specifically if/where I fall on the asexual spectrum--and my feelings on how the normative prioritization of sexual relationships in modern society marginalizes asexual and aromatic people. I've never felt comfortable with the '60s notion of "Free Love" since I was educated on how this was actually used frequently as an excuse for rape, but I now feel obligated to warn my fellow progressives that many of the old beliefs on sexuality are no longer keyed to liberal progress, at least as long as they do not shift to fully accommodate people who don't have that sort of attraction. In the '60s this movie probably felt pretty miraculous. The early '60s saw film cast off a great many of its shackles, at least in the underground market. Now, I have to wonder. Not because I'm a prude, because true prudes if they exist want people to feel shame for their sexuality, and what I want instead is for ace people to feel included. Just remember, I guess, that 100 minutes of waggling bosoms and double/triple/quadruple entendres can be fun, but to some of us it also just gets a little tacky. Because that's just not what we're into. And then when you can't get away from it, that's the problem.

But I really enjoyed Fanny Hill, even if it sits precariously now. It's well-written and the sets and costumes are marvelous. It was one of my favorite views of 2017, and I've already rewatched it three times this year. Whether it's harmless to you, or whether its non-harmlessness is a deterrent, is a ball in your court. Proceed with caution, unless you know that sexploitation can offer nothing new to you.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), by Jess Franco

As a Jess Franco fan, I consider She Killed in Ecstasy to perhaps be the film which best summarizes his triumphs as a director--to date, I am unsure which film best represents his failings. It has everything that fits the unique feel that Franco brought to the table as a director, being a distinct vision of trashy weirdness that touches on the tropes and film mechanics which Franco returned to nearly obsessively. Furthermore, it also stars not only Franco himself, but his muse Soledad Miranda and the Awful Dr. Orlof in person, Howard Vernon.

Soledad Miranda plays a young woman (never named) who ends up marrying Dr. Johnson, an ambitious medical researcher who wants to create people with greater disease immunity via in-utero hormone stimulations. For this unethical action, the Medical Council orders him stripped of his license to practice and his experiments destroyed. This drives Johnson insane and he eventually kills himself with a straight razor. Mrs. Johnson sets out for revenge against the four scientists (whose ranks include both Howard Vernon and Jess Franco) whom she holds responsible for her husband's death. She seduces and kidnaps all of them, subjecting them to gruesome deaths, until at last she joins her husband in whatever afterlife awaits him.

Pretty straightforward. There is little pretense in what is transpiring here, but that is where Franco soars. This movie has a fairly high amount of subtext, which actually gets a chance to remain as subtext. The villains of this film--the doctors who destroy Johnson's life--are depicted as what we would identify today as arch-conservatives. They are opposed to hippies, drugs, prostitution, and, as it happens, tampering with human embryos. Now their problems with Johnson's experiments are not that they, y'know, could be perceived as being what the Nazis wanted, but that they kill fetuses. What's more, they say this is not only a medical crime, but also a blasphemy as well. Indeed there's definitely a religious framing to the doctors' motivations, as, while they're not specified to be Christian, they definitely have some sort of religious beliefs which motivate their medical practices. It's easy to read this movie through a feminist, pro-choice lens, a rejection of a social order which values the lives or "lives" of fetuses over those of suffering adults and children. Some of Howard Vernon's talks about the lives of hippies, and "social orders to which [one] must conform," seem to be a genuine meditation on Franco's behalf on the idea of changing social mores and the revealed hypocrisy of the so-called moral guardians in the tide of transformation that took place in the late '60s. In a somewhat predictable twist, Howard Vernon, the most outspoken of the group on matters of ethics, is revealed to be a masochist who hates kissing and other traditional expressions of sexuality--what would have passed as a shortcut "pervert" in the '70s. What's more, the overzealousness of Johnson's opponents mirrors the violence committed by abortion opponents in real life; after all, it doesn't seem very professional scientifically to wreck a rival's lab and assault said rival's wife. That comes from a place of emotion, not cold ethics.

I still don't know how I feel about the idea of in-utero hormone manipulation, however, which is what's at stake here even if it seems to stand in for abortion. Perhaps that's where my generation will be seen as dinosaurs--as science marches on it may indeed be possible to eradicate genetic diseases and birth defects in the womb, and that may be embraced by whoever comes next as a progressive ideal. I'm wary again because to me it recalls eugenics, and indeed I can easily see those with the means to do creating children who are a step beyond, who have unfair physical advantages that will allow them to be born doped athletes, as it were. I also worry about the drugs used being unsafe and causing more harm to the children than good in the long-term, because there's a habit in the United States of refusing to do or ignoring extant research when it comes to the drug industry. I think most significantly, however, I am concerned about our primitive notions of what constitutes a "defect" in regards to how this practice could be applied--that is to say if we can detect autism in the womb, or even homosexuality, there would certainly be parents who would want those traits eradicated, and there would be plenty of doctors willing to do so. In a broader sense this would also affect the rights to bodily independence for intersex individuals as well, who already face nonconsensual "normalizing" surgeries in infancy almost universally. Technology should not serve to narrow diversity and I believe that autistic, queer, and intersex identities and bodies are vital to our society.

But anyway. Now that I've guaranteed some angry messages sent my way, let's talk about how this is a Jess Franco movie. The Franco identity is irrevocably linked to the trash aesthetic. Soledad Miranda shows up with metal pasties that have a third pasty dangling as a pendant between them. Everyone sounds like they recorded their lines in a bathtub or swimming pool, even when the characters are in small rooms or outside. The zoom lens, as ever, is abused, with nary a single shot in the whole not featuring some sort of zoom. (I wonder what the script for this looked like.) Our leads live in a creepy artsy house that makes no sense. There are pretentious poetic divergences that mean absolutely nothing. And of course, there are plenty of characters twitching and sweating in beds as disembodied voices mock them. In this case, Dr. Johnson spends a rather sizable chunk of the movie hearing the Medical Council call him "Ein Tier" (an animal) over and over and over and over again. It's one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen, or rather heard. It's gotten to the point now where whenever I see a movie where someone accuses someone of being a murderer or some such, I always have to join in their shouting with, "Ein Tier! Ein Tier! Ein Tier! Ein Tier!"

Let's talk about Howard Vernon.

First of all, his voice. I am now sure that Vernon did his own dialogue for this one, because it sounds like him from interviews and other movies where he speaks naturally, like Zombie Lake and Ogroff. This indicates to me that Vernon spoke German just as well as he did English, French, and Spanish. I really wish there was a biography of Howard Vernon available because little details like this fascinate me.

Speaking of details...




There's no getting around this one. I don't know who to look to in this case: Howard Vernon, for being willing to show his 57-year-old dick and balls on camera, or Jess Franco, for being able to convince a 57-year-old actor with at least some dignity to his name (he was in a Godard film, after all) to do a sex/murder scene that ends with him showing off his goods. Then he was able to do it again two years later for Countess Perverse. In this movie it becomes doubly incredible--in that I literally could not find it credible that I was seeing this--because this also features Vernon's character being castrated. To have both a favorite actor's junk in a film unexpectedly in addition to a castration scene not only rocketed this movie up onto the A-List for me but also made me severely question myself and whether or not I'll have an audience after including these details.

In all seriousness, it may sound like I'm body-shaming Vernon, poking mean-spirited fun at the body of a man just because said man happens to be aged. In truth, this scene did legitimately deepen my respect for Vernon, and sent me a vivid picture of the connection between Vernon and Jess Franco. Franco wanted to send his cast into the flames and Howard Vernon would follow him to the end. He was an actor true, dedicated to his craft, never turning in a performance he didn't put his heart into it. In truth a lot of my amusement over this comes from the fact that I may have horrified some of you who are familiar with Vernon and who never wanted to imagine that he had a nude scene, much less a full-frontal one. But here is the honest truth: if someone was in a Jess Franco movie, you can guarantee there is another Jess Franco movie where we see their junk. I'm legitimately surprised we didn't see Franco's own balls in this too.

Anyway. Like I said, She Killed in Ecstasy provides what is probably the Jess Franco experience. As we've seen, that's both for the better and for the worse. But of all of Franco's movies I've seen, this one is one of the most lively, and thus, one of the most traditionally entertaining. If you are willing to brave a whole lot of genitalia, this one will not leave you disappointed. I watched in ecstasy.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

House of Mystery (1934), by William Nigh

That the Old Dark House film and the gorilla picture were wedded early on stands to reason. All the time today do we see popular trends welded anxiously onto each other in an attempt to double-dip on certain media markets. I doubt this was the first ODH gorilla movie, but it was far from the last. Indeed, depending on where you look, it seemed almost mandatory for a gorilla to at least be teased as playing a part in the events to come once all the characters were settled in the house. House of Mystery is not a great A-Lister...it's one of the dumb ones. I don't like it for any good reason, and it's perhaps arguable whether I like it at all. This is a rare film where most of my amusement comes from pure gawking, and that probably means it's no good at all.

In one of the weirdest openings I've seen in these films, we start in "Asia, 1913." Archaeologist John Prendergast likes two things here in "Asia": drinking, and dancing girls. When he's cut off from one he turns to the other, in this case seeking out the dancers at the Temple of Kali--pronounced "Kay-LIE" here because white people in the '30s were not great at paying attention to these things. (So we're in India, then, and not just "Asia.") Conspicuously the Temple of Kali features a pair of guys in gorilla suits--they aren't there for nothing, coming to life when Prendergast is brought there after drunkenly killing one of the Temple's sacred monkeys, invoking the curse of Kali when he calls the priests "dogs" and starts whipping them (!!!). Prendergast escapes, taking not only one of the dancing girls with him but also a fortune in jewels. He and the girl seemingly get married, in an amazingly casual subversion of 1910s race relations, and we fast forward to twenty years later. A man named Professor Potter and his wife are looking for Prendergast and believe that he is now living under the name Mr. Pren in a large mansion, having been confined to a wheelchair or pretending such. Alongside an insurance salesman and several other annoying individuals, the Potters go to Pren's house to talk over the terms of finally doling out payments to those who invested in the Prendergast Expedition all those years ago. Unfortunately, it is Pren/Prendergast's belief that the Curse of Kali extends to those who inherit the wealth of the treasure. Thus, all the heirs must stay in his Old Dark House to see the horror of Kali before they can be allowed in on their share. Before long they're all sat down at the seance table, and a gorilla lunges out of the darkness at Mrs. Carfax...

So, I can imagine the first thing you're thinking: are gorillas an actual part of Hinduism? I tried to look into this to see if any sort of research was done on behalf of the screenwriters, and the closest I could come is this: there is a character in a Ramayana named Hanuman who is a monkey-like being in the service of Rama. However, this movie is about the cult of Kali, who, as far as I know, isn't even another avatar of Vishnu, as Rama is. Hindu belief has a less strict sense of orthodoxy than Christianity but as far as I know there has never been an ape cult of Kali in Indian history. This is just the beginning of the movie's many problems.

There's the weird bit where the medium lady's spirit guide is named "Pocahontas," and I'm not sure if she's supposed to be the historical Pocahontas or just a ghost who goes by that name. This is used for a couple of cheap shots equating Indians with American Indians, which is made worse by the fact that the drums that accompany the gorilla attacks are called tom-toms. I found out actually that "tom-tom" comes from Indian and Sri Lankan immigrants to England, where it was adopted by white people as the name for a toy drum and later for part of modern drum kits--so actually this is more accurate than the word's use in the Westerns it's likely to remind audiences of. In the '30s, however, one has to wonder if this is a furtherance of the "Pocahontas" Indian/Indian cross-up.

Regarding the film's racism, then: poor Chanda, Pren's wife, gets treated like shit in this. There's this lovely exchange about her between the girl and the insurance salesman douchebag guy, who--argh--end up together.

Girl: "I don't like the looks of that person."
Asshole: "Person? She looks more like Gandhi's ghost!" (??????)

As far as I know, yes, he is questioning that she's a person. (Also, I'm sure a reference to Gandhi's death won't have a harsh edge to it in fourteen years or so. Asshole.) Now, Chanda came back with Prendergast to become his wife, right? Like...they're married, right? 'Cause we saw them kissing back in India, right? Nooope. It turns out that Lead Gal is the one Prendergast wants, and Chanda is, in the ex-archaeologist's own words, "just [his] housekeeper." JESUS. You can presume from those kissing scenes that he fucked her as soon as he got her back to the homeland, and then proceeded to fuck her in another way by ditching her for other (white) girls. When it turns out that Chanda is the killer, having worked with Prendergast to use trained gorillas to scare off those who are after "his" investment money, you really don't feel bad at all that her last victim is Prendergast himself. When the two of them left India, she was probably about twenty, and so she's in her early forties now, but there's a certain age to her face that would make the film loads better if they decided to do anything with it. Maybe that's why in the end Chanda gets away, with the only assertion that she's caught being a "don't worry about her" from the local cop. Since everyone in this movie is an idiot I'm assuming said cop has no way of catching her and is just trying to cover his ass. Dick.

One has to ask what the makers of this movie thought its appeal was. In order to answer that question, we have to ask what the movie sets out to do. Well, because it's an Old Dark House film, it's basically out to make money off of cheap scares and cheaper laughs. (Seriously, the "comedy" in this is so bad that it nearly becomes good through sheer surrealism.) The slackness of its research suggests that any sort of subtext, including the movie's imperialism (or possible subversion thereof), are probably accidental. Ever since the miracle stories of the days of the writing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the bizarre descriptions of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the West has had an obsession with weird tales, and has primordially linked those tales with the foreign. Whether they be from the forest beyond or the next continent over, people from other lands have been associated with the mystical and monstrous. The trend has only been challenged comparatively recently and it will be a long time yet before the racist aspects of tropes such as it die out completely. Even last year's The Mummy showed that studios at least are still interested in marketing the "exotic" as a source of horror, mystery, and unknown evil. However, to go back and try to answer my own question, I can't imagine a group of filmmakers setting out to make a movie which attempts to make funny the misadventures of abusive, idiotic assholes who--at least in the case of Lead Girl--are punished if they have any trace of redeemability. Oh, wait, never mind, I can imagine such people, because that sort of formula has always been used by movie comedies and is still being used today. Arrrrrggghhhh.

Just gawk, folks. Just gawk at how fucking stupid this movie is, and give it no quarter. You will only find entertainment if you expect nothing and give no fucks about your own well-being.

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