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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Baron Against the Demons (2006)


Director: Ricardo Ribelles
Writer: Ricardo Ribelles
Stars: Juan Carlos Romeu, Helena Lecumberri, Alejandro Ribelles, Xavier Bertran, Irene Belza, Gerardo Arenas, Eva Barceló, Susana Palma and Paulina Gálvez


Much of the joy of my Weird Wednesdays project is in finding movies, watching them and trying to figure out who the filmmakers thought their audiences might be. I really have no idea about this one, because it mixes a few very deliberate approaches that I’m pretty sure I never expected to coincide in a movie. For instance, as the usual English language title, The Baron Against the Demons, suggests, this feels like a tokusatsu picture at heart, with foam latex suits, imaginative monsters and bizarre tale about a futuristic organisation dedicated to fighting evil. That it was made with Spaniards rather than the Japanese is one reason why that doesn’t quite ring true, but there’s also the BDSM comic book aesthetic and the gratuitous gore effects, which suggest that this was never meant for kids, and the most important aspect is the overriding Catholic dogma which drives the whole thing so fundamentally that this can only be a Christian metaphor dressed up for sexual deviants who like the Power Rangers. You know, that sort of film!

Oddly, for a movie so overtly about good and evil, we’re never quite sold on the good and evil bit. Sure, the villain is Satan himself, visiting from the Ninth Planet to witness the birth of the Antichrist, which here means a man in a rubber suit, conceived from seed stolen from a chained hero by a leather clad dominatrix with gigantic knockers, who’s birthed by a hermaphroditic stick monster. We may be relatively safe in assuming that they’re the bad guys! But who represents the side of good? Initially, we might presume that it’s Exorcio Deus Machine, a late 21st century band of Spanish Inquisition commandos sharing their steampunk space satellite with an alien race of muppets, from which lair they combat evil. After all, that’s who our hero, the titular Baron, works for. Yet, if he’s clearly on their side, they’re not quite so clearly on his, as the man in charge, Coronel Doménico, dreams of dropping an atom bomb on his head. What’s wrong with the usual Triumph of the Will inspired awards ceremony for heroes? No, atom bomb it is.
So, are we to see the Baron as our hero or just some rebellious heretic? I have no idea. He certainly appears to be a hero, not least because he saves the day almost single-handedly, the useful contributions of Exorcio Deus Machine comprised of one woman who succeeds in rescuing him from the deviant underworld of Scotland, even though she was only sent because the Coronel wants her vaporised by the same atom bomb as the Baron. However, unlike most sci-fi action films, the phrasing forces us to read it from the standpoint of Catholic theology too and it’s hardly a stretch to see the Baron as a Christ figure, most obviously because he actually describes the quest this picture is for him as his Via Crucis. For those who don’t expect their genre flicks to periodically drift into Latin, that refers to the Stations of the Cross, those fourteen iconic moments which Jesus endured from death sentence to burial. You know, the procession of brutality from The Passion of the Christ. This is just like that but with more biomechanical parasites.

So, if the Baron is really a post-apocalyptic Jesus, what does that make the organisation he thinks he works for but which secretly aims to see him extinguished? Are they true defenders of God’s Word, the New Crusader Legion commanded by the Inquisitorial Committee? Or are they just a sorry bunch of religious fanatics? Frankly, is there even a difference between those options? Well, there lies a dilemma, surrounded by all the invisible detail that writer/director Ricardo Ribelles carefully omitted just to keep us confused. He’s willing and able to craft dynamic dialogue, but he doesn’t appear to grasp that ‘dynamic’ doesn’t have come at the expense of meaning. For instance, when Coronel Doménico tasks Lt. Ira Bowman with rescuing the Baron, we wonder who she is. Well, she’s a human with no special powers, but she has a score of 77 in the Danger Room! Wait a second! What’s a Danger Room and is 77 a good score or a bad one? Is that 77 out of 80 or 77 out of a million? It’s dynamic but it’s also meaningless.
The entire script is so dynamic but so meaningless that I wanted to transcribe every other line of dialogue but couldn’t figure out what was going on for about an hour. I could blame poor subtitles, given that I don’t speak Spanish, but they seem to make sense, as far as the script lets them. I just don’t know where to start. For instance: ‘Justice was the one who had the fetus in her entrails’ should be the title of a black metal album. Justice here may be one of the wildly endowed bondage mutants we find and massacre, but we’re never really introduced. ‘A curious funeral rite for satanic androids’ is enticing. I’m still not sure how androids can find religion but it happens here, just too quickly, so the Baron massacres all his followers before he realises they’re following him. He isn’t too bright, but he’s flamboyant with soliloquy: ‘Blind, Black Faith!’ he shouts at the sky. ‘The faith that moves those who died without washing their souls that resurrects the eyeless dead!’ No, I have no idea what that means either and I watched this movie.

Occasionally, there’s a sliver of explanation. For instance, we first meet the Baron and his sidekick, Lt. Alexander, as they battle an onslaught of Chattering Laughers in northern France, but he vanishes, mysteriously showing back up again in the evil clutches of Doña Pervertvm in her evil lair called Pandemonium, which to space Catholics is apparently located in the Perfidia Caverns below Inverness. Now, I’ve only travelled through Inverness but it seemed to be a nice place, devoid of any ‘sub-world with necromantic roots created under the command of a two-headed leader.’ I’m also very sure I’d have noticed anyone wearing an outfit like Doña Pervertvm’s, given that it appears to be a leather bikini so narrow that it had to have been glued to her labia, with skimpy straps and a massive brass bra that looks like it was crafted from a couple of missiles. Jane Russell, eat your heart out! Then again, Jane Russell wasn’t tough enough to tie her hair back with scavenged intestines. That would have improved The Outlaw considerably!
Doña Pervertvm likes the sound of her own voice just as much as the Baron likes his, so we start to discover some of the details we need to understand the movie here in Pandemonium. She’s keen on extracting the Baron’s blessed sperm so she can use it to make the Ragnarok-Beast pregnant. And time is short; as Sgt. Burkina Fasso explains to the Coronel up on the space satellite, ‘Ragnarok’s still in heat. If this infernal beast doesn’t perpetuate his species before the Winter Angelus, he’ll eat himself as punishment.’ I may not have grasped the point of this, partly because I have no idea what the Winter Angelus is, but it seems like the space inquisition only need to stamp out bestiality underneath Inverness and they’ll be golden. Shame the Baron gets himself captured, huh? Doña Pervertvm interrogates him, rapes him (without actually undressing him first, which is a neat trick), then stabs him in the crotch with a carved dildo so that he can spurt all over her face in a bloody shower. ‘This is my blood,’ I guess, ‘which is given for you.’

Clearly Doña Pervertvm is the mistress and slave of Ragnarok, nesting with him under the Sign of Pluto, and clearly she has a plan. I just wish I understood everything else going on here. For a start, why does she have an army of cackling midget android clowns? Why have they already started to convert to the Baron’s unspoken ideology before he even gets there? Why do they believe that blessing themselves, confining themselves to coffins and throwing those coffins into the ocean is a good way to demonstrate their devotion? It’s no better up on the satellite. For example, why has Dr. Michas, a muppet alien from the utterly unexplained planet of Belfídia and the head of the Revolutionary Prototype Dept., replaced Lt. Alexander’s clown-bitten arm with a prosthetic that is useless except to threaten the satellite? Why do they even have this department? And why does every woman in the film have to dress in a bondage leotard, whether they’re in combat or the lab? Suddenly. chainmail bikinis seem wildly realistic.
Frankly, I gave up trying to figure out the plot. There’s a war, for Pete’s sake, complete with bagpipes and wicked masks and some little general whose body appears to have been removed from the nipples down, which is why he zooms around in an invisible jet pack. And, even if the script is lunacy on acid, these visuals are actually pretty cool, both in how they’re imagined and how they’re animated. That’s especially true, given the date. The Baron Against the Demons was released in 2006 and it incorporated a short film by the same writer/director, Exorcio Deus Machine: La misión, made a full decade earlier. Yet, the majority of the gadgetry, weapons and even spacecraft are notably steampunk in nature, making this aesthetic, surely taken from Jules Verne’s submarines, notably ahead of the curve. I adored the modelwork, which is intricate and ingenious, though some of the other effects work is ridiculous in the extreme, especially the gore effects, which are as wildly enthusiastic as they are utterly inept.

So, is this the story of Jesus? Maybe it’s just one of the Gospels of the New New Testament, to be discovered between now and the end of the century, when this is set. If Ribelles made another three movies, telling the same story from different angles, I’d watch every one of them. Maybe by then it might make sense. This feels like an incomplete tale with much more to tell; there’s so much action that he could double the length of the film without it feeling slow, but there are so many gaps that he’d have to double the length of the film just to fit in all the explanations he needs. In reality, it’s a short film that grew to feature length, but it plays like a twelve episode serial shrunk to a quarter of its size. As far as I’m aware, the international versions are the same movie, just with new, more misleading, titles. Its latest is Star Troopers, which fails to describe this adequately at all. In France, it’s Battleship Pirates, which is even worse. The Baron Against the Demons works best because, never mind just the title, that’s the perfect synopsis too!
And so I wonder what Ricardo Ribelles was trying to do here. What audience was he trying to reach? I can’t help but feel that the logical audiences for its component parts wouldn’t be happy with the others. Tokusatsu fans may love the wild aliens and blissful miniatures, but would probably throw their hands up in despair at all the pontificating on theology while being stabbed. Catholic action fans (is that a genre?) may dig the fact that it has no problem with staging a new crusade a century into the future but I’m not convinced it makes any liturgical sense whatsoever and it suggests that Jesus is cool and all but his church has lost the plot. I have no doubt that the outrageous leather bikinis will appeal to readers of European fetish comics but they only like religion if it means that monks can do unspeakable things to nuns or demons can, well, do unspeakable things to nuns. There aren’t any nuns to be found here, so I have no idea what they’d think of the scenes that don’t feature leather bikinis and/or the Ragnarok-Beast.

I’d argue that there’s certainly an audience for this sort of insanity, but it’s mostly people like me who are looking for this sort of insanity. It’s full of bizarre and engaging imagery but I honestly think I’d have got as much out of it if I’d turned the subtitles off and attempted to figure out the foreign language dialogue. Perhaps that would have been my better option, because I’d have had to conjure up my own story to explain what I saw and that can’t have made any less sense than the one Ribelles actually wrote. I would have failed to rustle up the levels of Catholic guilt and inevitability of self-sacrifice that Ribelles seems to bathe in, but I’d have imagined the Baron as a wild escapee from a live action anime, an old school knight who wants everyone and everything to fight him. I don’t think the rules of journalism would allow me to review the movie that would have played in my head had I had the foresight to switch the subtitles off, but, by Doña Pervertvm’s brass bazongas, I was greatly tempted to do so.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Black Friday (1940)

Director: Arthur Lubin
Writers: Kurt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

It’s 1940 and Boris and Bela face the worst horror of their careers: camping outside Walmart the day after Thanksgiving to bag one of them there big screen TVs! Well, not quite. This isn’t that Black Friday, it’s just another Friday the 13th which looms heavy on a calendar behind the opening credits. Once they’re done, we visit Boris Karloff in his prison cell as he readies to start his procession to the electric chair. He’s Dr. Ernest Sovac, though most of the characters seem to call him Ernst, and he appears to be a pleasant old man. It’s surely telling that he’s dressed in white and everyone else is in black. Even the guards seem to respect him and allow him to hand his notes to one of the journalists present; the only one who was fair to him, he explains. And, as he walks off screen to his death, that journalist opens them to read and we launch into a feature length flashback to explain why the good doctor is about to be executed. And, whether it’s Friday the 13th in the prison or not, it certainly is when we leap into the flashback.

Dr. Sovac’s notes are titled Notes on the Case of George Kingsley and it’s Prof. Kingsley teaching poetry at the University of Newcastle. It happens to be the end of the semester and he explains to his avid students that he may not return the next year, though that has precisely nothing to do with the doggerel he quotes from Sir Joshua Peachtree, who I believe was invented for this film. ‘Thou who breakest glass will find Fate can be, oh, most unkind: under ladder walkest thee, most unlucky thou wilt be; each dread Friday do take care, else thou fallest down the stair.’ It’s supposed to be because a ‘very large university in the east’ is interested in him, but we can’t ignore all these superstitions, right? It’s Friday the 13th and Kingsley is tempting fate with poetry in a movie called Black Friday. We shouldn’t forget that it’s Karloff the Uncanny who’s going to drop him at the train station because he doesn’t drive; the Sovacs are family friends; Dr. Sovac’s daughter, Jean, is even one of Kingsley’s students.
I liked all these little hints that something’s going to go horribly wrong, only for everything to be perfectly fine. The best is when Margaret Kingsley warns her husband to watch the traffic; halfway across the road, he drops his umbrella, bends down to retrieve it, turns round to wave at her through the passing cars but still makes it safely over. I also liked the stuntwork when he gets his, as we knew he always would. There’s a gun battle between two cars, barrelling along together, and one knocks Dr. Kingsley over as it ploughs into the building behind him. It’s very capable stuff indeed. And, with that relatively fast disaster done with, we promptly set up the next, much slower one, which regular viewers of Universal horror movies will find to be rather odd in its approach and for two reasons: one because of how the central idea affects the story and the other because of whose story this is. While the stars are Karloff and Lugosi, almost a decade into their horror careers, all this really revolves around Stanley Ridges.

Who is Stanley Ridges, you might ask? Well, he was a British actor, like Karloff, who had taken his career to the States. Beginning on Broadway as a song and dance man, he became a capable romantic lead but struggled to translate a stage career to the screen. He found his place as a character actor in the late thirties, knocking out eight films in Hollywood’s golden year of 1939, including Union Pacific, Each Dawn I Die and Espionage Agent. He’d do even better in the forties, with memorable roles in Sergeant York, To Be or Not to Be and The Suspect, not to mention the 1943 B-movie, False Faces, in which he played what may be his one and only lead role, but, arguably, the two parts for which he’ll be best remembered are the two that he plays in this movie: absent-minded professor, George Kingsley, and vicious gangster, Red Cannon. How come he gets two roles? Well, Dr. Sovac is a brain surgeon and he’s eager to save his friend’s life; he does so by transplanting the brain of the gangster who ploughed into him into Kingsley’s body.
And here we pause, because most of you are going to be questioning that. If we’ve learned anything from a hundred horror flicks built around brain transplantation, it’s that everything that makes a man is stored in his brain and that doesn’t change even if you transplant that brain into another body. When Dr. Frankenstein placed a criminal’s brain into his nascent monster, it directed the creature’s actions in an aberrant fashion. So, when Dr. Sovac moves the brain of Red Cannon into the body of George Kingsley, it must be Cannon who wakes up from the surgery? Well, not here! It’s Kingsley in control with Cannon lurking somewhere behind him, ready to come out when needed. We rail against this for most of the picture until we’re let in on the fact that only part of Red Cannon’s brain was transplanted. That’s not what it says in Dr. Sovac’s notes so I wonder if they ‘fixed’ it later and hoped nobody would notice such an obvious problem. Maybe that’s why co-writer Curt Siodmak would revisit the idea with Donovan’s Brain.

Of course, the oddest thing here is the casting. According to Glenn Erickson’s review for DVD Savant, Karloff was supposed to play the double role of Kingsley and Cannon, while Lugosi was to be Dr. Sovac. I can see that, and it would have made more sense at the time than bringing in someone like Stanley Ridges who wasn’t known for the horror genre in the slightest. However, Karloff was unconvinced that he could do justice to two quintessentially American characters, a small town professor and a fiery gangster, and so decided to play the doctor instead. He’s great as Dr. Sovac, of course, but it’s hardly a stretch for him and Lugosi, even less likely to be believable in that prominent double role, was relegated to the much smaller and less important one of Eric Marnay, who had worked for Cannon but then orchestrated his murder so he could take over his gang instead. We’re never given a reason why this New York gangster should have an eastern European accent, but then Lugosi ran into that problem in at least half of his films!
What stood out most to me was that the morals are different from the norm. Usually, it’s the act of transplantation that prompts us to see a character as the bad guy because this whole subgenre of horror came from Frankenstein, a pre-Victorian gothic novel with a religious subtext that pits science against religion. Sure, many of us know people who have benefitted from kidney or even heart transplants, but back then it was surely beyond the pale because Man shouldn’t be playing God! That mentality lasted in the horror movie genre for decades and still hasn’t quite vanished, but Siodmak’s script, written with Eric Taylor, never judges Dr. Sovac for transplanting a brain. It’s illegal, that’s for sure, but we never really get into the morality of it and it’s certainly not why he’s on death row. The suggestion is that he performs this surgery for the best of reasons, to save his friend, but only later discovers that Red Cannon has half a million dollars hidden away somewhere and that discovery sets him on an inevitable path to his downfall.

You see, this is really an unwitting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, with Prof. Kingsley playing a much loved Jekyll and Red Cannon taking the villainous Hyde half of that personality. The two battle for dominance, of course, with Cannon taking firm advantage of his new disguise to get revenge on those who attempted to murder him; Kingsley just gets more and more confused at the whole thing, because he keeps losing time and can’t figure out why. The why of it all is Dr. Sovac, of course, because he’s dazzled enough by the prospect of a fortune to further his work to put his friend at serious risk. When he realises that Kingsley is exhibiting signs of Cannon coming through, he pushes that hard. He takes his friend to New York and books them into Cannon’s regular rooms at the Midtown Hotel, where he throws pointed questions at him as Kingsley falls into sleep, so that he’ll wake up with the gangster in control, whom he believes he can blackmail into sharing the location of that money. So his downfall is greed, not playing God.
I enjoyed Karloff’s performance here, though Lugosi’s is far from his best. I won’t spoil his worst moment, but the man who played Count Dracula pleading in a broken voice is a pitiful thing indeed. He does try, but he can’t find his feet as a New York gangster the way that his cohorts can. William Kane is Paul Fix, the marshal from The Rifleman, who was just as good in villainous roles as he was in heroic ones; Frank Miller is Edmund MacDonald, well known for film noir roles with dark sides; even Raymond Bailey does what he needs to do as Louis Devore, even if we don’t recognise him as Milburn Drysdale a few decades later. Lugosi could look tough in his sleep, but that thick accent hurts him here and we never buy into him taking over the gang from Cannon, who Ridges plays so well that we have trouble initially believing that it’s the same actor we’ve been watching as the gentle Prof. Kingsley. Perhaps he’s aided by the make-up needs being for Kingsley rather than Cannon, but most of it his him; it’s a superb contrasting performance.

And, frankly, Ridges steals the film, which is no small feat for someone tasked with acting with both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; it has to be mentioned that the latter two don’t share a single scene. I utterly bought into Ridges’ confidence as Cannon; there are some wonderful scenes where he visits his old flame, a singer called Sunny Rogers, and carries on with her as if nothing had ever changed, even though he’s literally in a completely new body that she fails to recognise. Siodmak handles all the little details that confirm him as Cannon superbly. I also utterly bought into Ridges’ absent-minded act as Kingsley, who’s well established with the audience before Ridges ever becomes Cannon. The best scenes are ones where he blurs the boundaries between the two. Cannon has a favourite bellhop at the Midtown, for instance, who uses the distinctive knock he’s mandated. When Kingsley uses it too, he starts to leave, realises what happened, pauses, starts again and almost walks into Boris Karloff. That’s an awesome combination!
Karloff and Lugosi made seven features together, eight if you count Gift of Gab, but this isn’t the double act that we know from Son of Frankenstein, The Raven or The Black Cat. It’s well worth watching for Karloff and it’s interesting for Lugosi but, of all of their films together, this is the one to watch for someone else. I wonder if Universal ever asked Stanley Ridges back for another horror; they wouldn’t cut their output until later in the decade and could easily have used someone with the skills he ably demonstrates here. From what I can tell, the only other horror movie he made was a Republic picture called The Phantom Speaks in 1945, in which he plays a doctor whose body is taken over by a murderer; it’s a different story but with obvious similarities. These old horror movies work because they were cast from quality actors who happened to be playing horror; Ridges is another Claude Rains, who could do The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, then switch to Casablanca and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Sadly he didn’t have as much opportunity.

Happy Friday the 13th, folks! And, remember, there are two Friday the 13ths in 2017, so come on back for another one in October which also doesn’t feature Jason Voorhees.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Edge of Eternity (1959)

Director: Donald Siegel
Writers: Knut Swenson and Richard Collins, from a story by Ben Markson and Knut Swenson
Stars: Cornel Wilde, Victoria Shaw and Mickey Shaughnessy

I’ve been wanting to get my teeth into a project I call Dry Heat Obscurities for quite some time now and here’s where I get going with it. I’ll be alternating it going forward with my Weird Wednesdays project, so expect one review from each of those projects every other Wednesday. This one grew out of a conversation with local Arizona film critic Bill Pierce at the Haunted Hamburger, during the first year of the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, and it revolves around all those other films that were shot here in Arizona over the decades, that weren’t the westerns that everyone expects. The spark for the conversation was my viewing of an obscure 1968 thriller called The Name of the Game is Kill!, which had been shot in Jerome, Clarkdale and Sedona, with Jack Lord and Susan Strasberg. I knew there were others, as I’d already reviewed Violent Saturday, a Richard Fleischer picture shot in Bisbee in 1955 with Victor Mature and Lee Marvin, but how many? Well, Bill threw out some intriguing titles and research led to more.

This picture is a great example of what I was hoping to discover through this project. For a start, I’d never heard of the film, even though it was a big deal. It was released by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, in 1959. It had a famous director, Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, credited here as Donald Siegel. It starred actors I knew, though I’m talking less about Cornel Wilde, Victoria Shaw and Mickey Shaughnessy in the lead roles and more about character actors like Edgar Buchanan and Jack Elam; the latter is a local boy, born in Miami, a small town near Globe that’s been getting smaller since the thirties (it’s the location of the short film, Black Gulch). It’s an interesting, though flawed, thriller which becomes all the more interesting because of a strong use of Arizona scenery. The opening credits highlight that it was, ‘filmed at one of the Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon, in CinemaScope’. It puts the towns of Kingman and Oatman to good use too, in which Clark Gable and Carole Lombard married and honeymooned respectively.
In fact, it goes further than merely using Arizona scenery to use real Arizona history, not least the short lived exploitation of the Bat Cave guano mine by the US Guano Corporation. The cave was discovered back in the thirties by someone who was boating the Colorado river. Guano is bat shit, but it’s valuable as fertiliser because it’s rich in nitrogen. A mining engineer estimated a deposit of 100,000 tons, much less than the 500,000 tons that Jack Elam’s character suggests in this film but much more than there turned out to be in reality. Most of the cave was actually filled with limestone rubble, with a mere 1,000 tons of guano. US Guano bought the cave in 1957 and spent 14 months building a cableway to carry the guano 7,500 feet across the river and 2,500 feet upwards. Columbia shot a number of key scenes on the ‘dancing bucket’ tram car, including the finalé, but the mine closed a year later. At $100 a ton, US Guano could only earn $100,000 of their $3.5m investment back, making it a loss as a mine but a gain as a location.

We take a while to get there, because we kick things off by running a car off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Burnett Guffey, Siegel’s cinematographer, had already been showing us just how vast the Grand Canyon is by panning his CinemaScope camera around as the opening credits rolled. Once they wrap up, Siegel introduces a couple of actors. One of them stops his car to look over the rim with binoculars, while the other sneaks out of nowhere, releases the handbrake and pushes the car right at him. Surprisingly, it’s the prospective victim who survives, albeit not for long. He’s soon found hanged in the old Kendon Mining Company office up in Oatman. Police Deputy Les Martin might have stopped the murder if he’d listened to old Eli’s ranting about someone up there, but old Eli tells these tales all the time and so Martin chases the speeding Janice Kendon down the winding roads to the bottom of the mountain instead. This works well to kill off our mystery man, set Martin up for future trouble and introduce the leading lady.
In fact, Edge of Eternity starts very well across the board. The scenery is amazing, especially in colour and a format as widescreen as CinemaScope. Cornel Wilde is a laid back but clearly capable deputy and the small town feel only builds as he starts to investigate in Kingman. A description gets him a name, R. E. Wallace, and a hotel, the El Trovatore; Wallace’s room has been ransacked. The El Trovatore still operates today, located on historic Route 66 which at this point is known as Andy Devine Avenue, because the actor, who was born in Flagstaff, was brought up in Kingman from the age of one; the town also holds an annual Andy Devine Days rodeo and parade, the latter of which is usually over two miles long. The early scenes use Kingman magnificently, with other prominent locations such as the Mohave County Court House (there’s a later goof when this is referenced as the more expected ‘Mojave’, the Spanish spelling) and a few local businesses that may or may not still exist.

Best of all, of course, is the US Guano cableway, for a whole slew of reasons. It’s awesomely cinematic, for one, and it actually looks like Cornel Wilde and Jack Elam are right there on the edge, watching the tram car slowly rise towards them. The biggest problem with the early scenes is the rear projection work, mostly during the ‘high speed’ car chase, which on these winding roads means a blistering 45mph (even if the speedos say twenty). That problem isn’t apparent up on the rim looking down at the Bat Cave mine and the tension we feel that high up is exactly what we should feel. Elam is young here, not to mention tall and rangy, surprisingly so as he’d already reached the second half of his career, by film count. Comparing him here to The Night of the Grizzly, a mere seven years later, is unreal; he’s exactly as we expect him in the latter film but nothing like it here. He gets a decent amount of time too, which he puts to good use. I mentioned in my review of The Villain that he deserved bigger roles; this certainly backs that up.
The problem is that the story takes its sweet time to move forward. We almost feel for Sam Houghton, the County Attorney, when he excoriates Deputy Martin on the stand for getting nowhere, partly because he’s right and partly because there are three bodies at this point in the story, but Houghton’s too much of an ass and Martin is too much of an honest man. I think we’re supposed to be more on his side than we actually are, but it’s really his burgeoning romantic interest, Janice Kendon, who breaks the case in a few different scenes. Some synopses suggest that they team up, but that never really happens; it’s just that Martin rarely progresses in scenes that don’t revolve around her explaining something important. She’s Victoria Shaw, an Australian actress who also starred in The Crimson Kimono the same year for Sam Fuller. She’s flighty here, especially compared to Martin, and we wonder if he’d liven up or she’d settle down if the relationship continued. She’s good at flighty but it’s hard to get a grip on her because of that.

I don’t want to spoil the movie, though where it goes is never really surprising. I will say, though, that the story revolves around gold because that’s key to the Arizona setting as well. Janice’s father heads up the Kendon Mining Company, at whose office R. E. Wallace’s body was found hanging, and her brother Bob is a geologist, even though he spends the majority of his time drunk as a skunk down at Scotty O’Brien’s bar. Mining is in the family blood, it seems, and Janice surprises Deputy Martin up at Oatman with an explanation of why the town is empty of people when there’s still $20m of gold under them. I looked this up and she’s talking about War Production Board Limitation Order L-208, which in 1942 restricted the mining of ‘non-essential metals’. Miners moved to copper mines, because that could be used for shells and bullets. The last working gold mine in Arizona shut down in 1998 and it was the Gold Road mine in, you guessed it, Oatman. We see the Gold Road in Edge of Eternity.
I was fascinated by these little historical details, which had extra spice for being outlined by the leading lady rather than her male counterpart. I was less fascinated by the mystery, which is so slow in progressing that we’re likely to forget about it on a number of occasions, like when we puzzle instead about Les and Janice’s date night. After a quick stop at Scotty’s, if I wasn’t hallucinating, they track down what must surely be the world’s only cha-cha dance floor in a Chinese restaurant with a Mexican band. Kingman must have been a hip and happening place back in 1959! There are other diversions too, like the skeleton of an antique car that Eli drives or the periodic trips by plane through the Grand Canyon, which run on far longer than they should but are still glorious to watch anyway. There’s even an amazing scene in which the bad guy, who I won’t name, actually hits exactly what he’s aiming at, holing the engine of the only car that can pursue him and from a moving vehicle too! But at this point, the mystery is solved.

It’s here that we launch instead into our action finalé and it’s a peach. The villain, who has kidnapped Janice, finds that his escape route has been cut off so detours to the US Guano cable head right up there on the rim of the Grand Canyon, so that he can hijack its tram car to carry him across the Colorado river. Deputy Martin catches up right in the nick of time and leaps onto the back as it sets off, no less than 4,750 feet up in the air. Don’t forget the tram car’s nickname: the ‘dancing bucket’. Imagine, if you will, what that translates to when the hero and villain face off over the damsel in distress, while attempting not to fall to their deaths so far below. Like the earlier, much safer, scenes with Wilde and Elam, some of these are obviously real and the product of stuntwork, though the close-ups are still rear projection. IMDb lists Chuck Couch, Rosemary Johnston and Guy Way as stunt performers and I salute them from the safety of my chair, where vertigo is not an option. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like way up there!
It’s hard to imagine what Edge of Eternity would have been like either, had it not been shot in such a spectacular location. We begin and end with the Grand Canyon as our backdrop and, even as we detour into Kingman and Oatman, it’s never far from our minds. Strip it out of the picture and we don’t just lose the finalé, we lose the majesty of the film, leaving just a minor story with a mildly interesting set of characters. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography would have been strong in any other location (he’d had one Oscar already for From Here to Eternity and he’d pick up another for Bonnie and Clyde), but a hole in the ground as big as the Grand Canyon is a gift to someone of his talents. Yet, Wilde plays Deputy Martin like he’s in a B-movie and he doesn’t fit with Shaw’s channeling of Deborah Kerr. Edgar Buchanan and Jack Elam are great in minor roles, but Mickey Shaughnessy doesn’t get enough to justify his third billing and the script by Knut Swenson (Marion Hargrove) and Richard Collins lets them down instead of building them up.

The big winner here is clearly the state of Arizona and its scenic northwest, which I was very happy to see. There were other films shot in Arizona earlier than Violent Saturday and this. Lust for Gold also explored our gold-mining history by pitting Ida Lupino, Gig Young and Glenn Ford against the famous Lost Dutchman Mine in 1949; Edgar Buchanan showed up for that one as well, which saw scenes shot in Apache Junction, Florence and Phoenix, as well as the Superstition Mountains, the Lost Dutchman National Park and the Agua Fria National Monument. As unlikely a candidate for an Arizona shoot as David and Bathsheba, with as unlikely a candidate for King David as Gregory Peck, was shot in Nogales in 1951 with 6’ 8” Lithuanian wrestler Walter Talun as Goliath. I may go back to take a look at those, but I’m mostly going to work forward from the late fifties to my cut-off year of 1987 because Raising Arizona made it kind of obvious that films other than westerns were shot here. See you in two weeks for The Mountain Road!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Blue Veil (1951)

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Writer: Norwan Corwin, based on a story by François Campaux
Stars: Jane Wyman, Charles Laughton, Joan Blondell, Richard Carlson, Agnes Moorehead, Don Taylor, Audrey Totter, Cyril Cusack, Everett Sloane and Natalie Wood

I had a blast last year remembering those born in 1916 who contributed much to the cinematic arts by reviewing interesting films from each of their careers on what would have been (or what actually were) their hundredth birthdays. I recently collated these in book form as A Hundred in 2016, now available in print from Amazon. Only a short while into that project, I knew that I’d continue it on in 2017 and this will be the first of many reviews this year, given that even more cinematic notables were born in 1917 than in 1916. It’s 5th January, which would have been the centennial of Jane Wyman, the only U.S. President’s wife to win an Academy Award, even if she’d been divorced from Ronald Reagan for over thirty years when he was elected to the White House. In fact, he was her third husband and she’d marry and divorce Fred Karger twice after that. I mention her five marriages only because she seemed to play a lot of characters who got married a lot (or almost got married a lot) and this film is a great example.

While she won her Oscar for Johnny Belinda in 1948, she landed her third of four nominations for this picture and a number of her obituaries suggest that it was her personal favourite. I wonder if she ever got to see it again, after its initial release in theatres, as it’s one of those major films that has never seen a release on home video: not on DVD, BluRay, LaserDisc, you name it. Only 16mm film copies are out there and nobody has yet ripped one to digital format, so all we have to go on is a copy recorded on video from an apparently illegal television broadcast on KNXT Los Angeles during The Late Show. The only clip most people today have seen of the film is as footage used as a flashback in Falcon Crest, one of Wyman’s big successes later on in life; she’d retired from films after 1969’s How to Commit Marriage. There are reports online of people asking her about The Blue Veil and her replying that she would be very happy to see it again. I hope she managed to watch one of those 16mm prints at some point before she died in 2007.
It’s easy to see why she’d remember it well. It’s clearly a women’s picture and it ends in notably tearjerking fashion. She’s also not only top-billed above a stellar cast, she’s the only name above the title because she’s the only character who’s in it for more than a few scenes. She’s Louise Mason, a war widow, and, after her child dies in hospital soon after birth, she becomes a nurse who takes on the care of the children of other families. The big picture revolves entirely around Louise and the little pictures around each of the families for whom she works. Only Cyril Cusack, as the crotchetty owner of a toy shop, does more than appear and disappear. Wald/Krasna Productions only made four films, all distributed by RKO, but they clearly had access to great actors and the pockets to hire them. Joan Blondell was also Oscar-nominated for her appearance, but the film also features actors of the calibre of Charles Laughton, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Audrey Totter, Vivian Vance, Harry Morgan and even a young Natalie Wood.

We’re on Louise’s side from the outset, because of how she’s treated in hospital. I was shocked at how the babies were handled and wonder, if this is anything to go on, how many babies went home with the wrong mothers. First thing in the morning, all the brats are wheeled into a maternity ward on a shared trolley, bawling in disharmony, and handed out to their respective mothers. Louise is missed out and has to ask why before a doctor arrives (the first man we see in the film) to explain, without even taking her into a private room, that, ‘We do all we can. Sometimes we just don’t know why it happens.’ That’s a twisted way to kick things off and it could easily send a widowed woman into despair, but Louise is made of tougher stuff and she soon seeks employment, accepting a short-term assignment for Fred Begley, Jr. Yes, I wondered if that was deliberate as well, as Ed Begley, Jr. was two years old at the time but I don’t see that Charles Laughton ever acted alongside Ed Begley, so perhaps this is mere coincidence.
Begley is also widowed, as his wife died in childbirth, and Laughton plays him with the class we’d expect. He’s a good soul, but he’s also lonely and very clearly lost when it comes to bringing up baby. We’re surprised that it takes him a year to get round to asking her to marry him. By the time he turns down the fifth permanent applicant for the job, Louise is almost furniture, knitting on the couch while an odious old woman spouts on about all the demands she’d have once hired. When Alicia, his secretary, comes round with a corset for him to inspect (he runs ‘the fourth largest corset house in the east’), he automatically asks Louise for her opinion. Of course, once she declines his hand, he promptly marries Alicia instead, who already dotes on little Freddie and, as soon as they return from their honeymoon, that’s it for Louise’s employment. She is nicer about it than she needed to be, but it’s a tough scene and Wyman does a great job of keeping her composure while showing us how much it hurts to have to leave Freddie.

That segment sets the stage for more to come. Laughton gets his moment to shine, as does Vivian Vance as Alicia; she would begin her long run as her famous role of Ethel Mertz eleven days before The Blue Veil hit theatres, in the first episode of I Love Lucy. But as the Begleys’ story begins, Louise Mason’s moves on. Next stop is the expansive mansion of Mrs. Fleur Palfrey, portrayed by Agnes Moorehead, hardly a lightweight to follow on from Laughton. Unfortunately, she gets less to do because the proposal this time out doesn’t come from the boss. Louise is tasked with taking care of Robbie, who’s perhaps six or seven years old; we join them as his elder brother, Harrison, returns from school in the company of a tutor because he’s not keeping up. I’m not sure how capably he’s home schooled because Gerald Kean seems much more interested in the nanny. Moorehead’s best scene has her warn Kean about rushing into things with Louise, who fortunately figures that out for herself soon enough and lets him move to Beirut alone.
Family number three are the Rawlins. Joan Blondell is Annie Rawlins, who sings and dances on stage where she’s keeping working even as she ages beyond the costumes which she’s given to wear. She looks good here, still slim a decade before Angel Baby. She’d bloat up in her later years, so Annie’s battles against age here are easily believable. While she’s busy with work, Louise handles her daughter, Stephanie, a precocious twelve year old played by the precocious Natalie Wood, who was thirteen at the time but eight years and seventeen films into her screen career. As the kids get older, the inevitable parting gets harder and this one is difficult for a number of reasons. Both Wood and Blondell do fine, though I was expecting more from the latter. She deserved many Oscar nominations but only ever got this one. Then again, Edward G. Robinson, her co-star in 1966’s The Cincinnati Kid, for which she got her next major nomination (for a Golden Globe) wasn’t Oscar-nominated for any film, surely the Academy’s greatest omission.

On we go, working through what Bosley Crowther described in his New York Times review as, ‘a series of parchedly sunlit episodes, contrived to squeeze the heart and present this lady as a quivering-lipped saint’, to the one that really counts. There is purpose to this form of slow torture for Louise Mason, because it escalates the heartbreak to the point where she could be described as mad as hell and not gonna take it any more, if only she wasn’t so polite. Up until that moment when she breaks, in front of Everett Sloane playing a District Attorney, she really was given a major hagiography. After she lost her husband in World War I and her baby in the hospital, she seems rather determined not to live her own life. She moves in with family after family, taking care of children who aren’t her own and, inevitably, leaving those homes and those families. All she has to show for those many years of service, it seems, is a photo album, which she describes lovingly as containing ‘all my children’.
Of course, this is the point, but it’s hammered home a little hard. The script was written by Norman Corwin, an accomplished radio writer and producer, who also wrote a number of screenplays, notably Lust for Life, the Kirk Douglas biopic of Vincent van Gogh. It was an adaptation, of Irving Stone’s novel and this was also an adaptation, what seems like a relatively close one of a French movie from 1942 called Le voile bleu or The Blue Veil, with Gaby Morlay playing Louise Jarraud. The original script was written by François Campaux, who later wrote a play called Cherie Noire that was adapted to film no less than three times in a single decade. I can’t say whether the saintly aspect of Louise came more from Campaux or Corwin, but it’s probably a combination of both. Things change over time and Louise was surely more believable in 1951 than today, when audiences are more likely to feel sorry for her than to identify with her. Who can afford live-in nannies any more? The Kardashians?

Surely the intent at the time was to showcase the dedication of a woman who selflessly gives her life and service to others. Today, we wonder why she didn’t marry any of the many men who proposed and settle down with them, find another one, or ignore all the useless men and live her own life. Sure, single mothers were a social stigma back then, so neither pregnancy nor adoption are viable options, but even within the sexist standards of the time, she had the possibility of making something of her life. Why waste it bringing up other people’s children? Well, we can’t really say it was a waste, especially when we see the ending, which is classic tearjerker material, but I personally felt sorry for what she lost more than I felt for what she gave. I can say, at least, that it could have been much, much worse had the role been given to someone less able to gift it with power. Jane Wyman is much better than she had any right to be, given the material. She even ages well, though that’s hard to tell given the quality of this copy.
Perhaps she had more of a connection to the material than would initially be obvious. The theme is clearly defined by a supposed quote at the beginning: ‘Who raises a child of his own flesh lives with nature; who raises a child of another’s lives with God.’ Here, that’s exemplified by a nanny or governess; I’m not sure where one becomes the other. However, it carries different meaning for me, as a stepfather of three and a step-grandfather of five. I’d guess it meant something else again for Wyman, because she was a foster child. Born Sarah Jane Mayfield, her parents, Manning and Gladys, divorced when she was four and her father died a year later. Instead, she was fostered by Richard and Emma Fulk, whose surname she took unofficially. Richard died when she was only eleven and she was brought up by Emma, but when she began a singing career on radio, she did so as Jane Durrell. She became a Wyman by marriage at sixteen and kept that name after divorce at eighteen.

Hard as it is to believe now, it took her a while to really find her place in Hollywood. She was uncredited in twenty movies before gaining a credit as a hatcheck girl in Smart Blonde, the first Torchy Blane movie. Eight years later, she’d play the title character in the ninth and last film in the series, Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite. Still, her most notable moment in the thirties was the kiss she shared with Regis Toomey in You’re in the Army Now, which lasted for three minutes and five seconds, the longest kiss in movie history. It was The Lost Weekend in 1945 that really gave her quality material to play with. Her first Oscar nomination came a year later, for The Yearling; two more years and she’d win, for Johnny Belinda, in the process becoming the first person in the sound era to win an Oscar without speaking, as her character was a deaf mute. After that, she had her pick of roles and she took a variety of them, including Stage Fright for Alfred Hitchcock, Here Comes the Groom for Frank Capra and Magnificent Obsession for Douglas Sirk.
I’ve seen her in many films over the years, but mostly those from the late thirties and early forties that didn’t challenge her much at all. I enjoyed her in Larceny, Inc. with Edward G. Robinson, for instance, but it’s hardly her greatest moment. I’ve seen less of her films from the late forties and early fifties, when she did her best and most demanding work. She had a habit of taking roles which our 21st century sense of cynicism would suggest were shoe-ins for Oscar nominations, like a deaf mute rape victim, an alcoholic’s long-suffering girlfriend or a shy crippled sister. They’re heavier pictures, to be sure, but she was able to meet the challenges they brought. And really, it’s that decade of cinema that’s most worthy of being her lasting legacy, rather than a television soap opera or her choice of third husband. I mention him again now because they had three children together, the third of which, Christine, was born premature and died the same day. That was 1947, four years before this film. No wonder it was her favourite.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Marquis (1989)


Director: Henri Xhonneux
Writers: Roland Topor and Henri Xhonneux, based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade
Stars: Bien de Moor, Gabrielle van Damme, Philippe Bizot, Bernard Cogniaux, Olivier Decheveau and Pierre Decuypere


It’s been a while since I’ve written a Weird Wednesdays review but, if Apocalypse Later has become a place of discovery for films you may not know about, it’s the purest Apocalypse Later project there is because these are movies that you may not even believe exist! For instance, would you believe that someone would dare to make a movie about the French revolution with a key focus on the Marquis de Sade, who’s locked up in the Bastille writing pornographic novels? That’s weird but perhaps not weird enough for Weird Wednesdays. How about if all the human actors appear as anthropomorphic animals, aided by freakish masks that journey deep into the Uncanny Valley? Yeah, that’s a little more like Weird Wednesdays territory, but we need something more to seal the deal. I know! What if the most prominent character is Colin, the Marquis’s gigantic penis, with whom he chats at length and depth, their relationship being the most important one in the picture? Yes, now we have Weird Wednesdays material!

I should mention quickly that this is not the outrageous comedy you may expect. There are comedic elements, of course, most of them utterly surreal, but it doesn’t reach for laughs and there’s as much history and tragedy as there is comedy. It’s nothing like we might remember from Spitting Image or Meet the Feebles, to name but two easy comparisons. Also, those are both puppet shows, whereas this is really acted by human beings, merely in masks that completely cover their heads and often parts of their bodies, a sort of un-furry version of the furry community. The story is also full of outrageous topics, but they’re not played exploitatively. If anything, most are underplayed, especially rape, a core plot element that affects a few of the characters. One was raped before the movie begins and is pregnant because of it; for political reasons, scenes are staged to suggest a more palatable rapist to the public. Circumstances prompt the same character to be raped again, during the film, but that isn’t shown on camera.
And while I did just describe the Marquis as ‘a more palatable rapist’, not a description I ever thought I’d type, he’s a philosophical chap here, far from a ravenous beast. Most of the characters are given animal forms to mirror their personalities, like Ambert, the guard who appears rat-like both inside and out. The Marquis is given dog form, looking somewhat like a sedate old spaniel, and he can’t seem to get worked up over anything. Now, I’m no expert on the Marquis de Sade, but I really doubt he was quite so sedate a pervert as he appears here. Sure, he happily writes his twisted erotica, some of which we see brought to life in claymation form: a ram, for instance, which literally splits his naked body in two before one of its horns transforms into a black snake which spits out semen-like venom. But in this film, the Marquis is merely eloquent, whether his words are spoken or written; it’s Colin, his chatty appendage, who wants action. They’re two halves of a single personality, making this a sort of schizophrenic buddy movie.

It’s important that Colin, whom we might see as having the most animalistic nature of any character in the movie, given that he’s always trying to persuade the Marquis to stick him into holes, even they’re slits in the stone walls of his cell, is the only character who looks remotely human. Sure, he’s a huge phallus, jutting from between his master’s legs like a hobby horse, so large that the Marquis could fellate himself without even leaning over, but he has carefully crafted and animated features and a dome that looks like a human brain. And, of course, he wears a turtleneck, because this is a French film and, apparently, the Marquis wasn’t Jewish. It’s hilarious to consider that American audiences might have more issue with the fact that Colin has a foreskin than anything else in the movie, but that’s an aside. What’s important is that the dog-faced Marquis is all about restraint, or at least the channeling of urges into deviant literature, while the human-faced Colin is a real hound dog. Their relationship is deep (no pun intended).
There are other prisoners in the Bastille beyond the Marquis, who has been locked up for a peculiar form of blasphemy (defecating on a crucifix, presumably in a place of worship). There’s Pigonou the Grave, the hog that his name suggests, who was ironically put into prison for circulating bad pork; apparently cutting off his own leg in recompense didn’t go far enough. He apparently shares a cell with Lupino, a member of the Patriotic Citizens who are pledged to revolution, and the owner of much more intellect than his dim-witted cellmate. I’m not sure if he’s really a ram or a goat, but the other prisoner of note is Justine, who is clearly a cow. She’s the lady who was raped and by no less a personage than the king. She’s pregnant with his child and the powers that be are keen to scotch any sort of rumour in these turbulent times. That’s the preening rooster of a governor, Gaetan de Preaubois, and his priest, Dom Pompero, who appears in the form of a camel, presumably for a reason couched in French culture which eludes me.

The cast of characters is small and focused, but not quite that much. Beyond Ambert, the guard rat, who wants nothing more than to be buggered senseless by the Marquis, there’s also Juliette, another Patriotic Citizen, whose attempts to break Lupino out of the Bastille have led her to become the governor’s dominatrix of choice. She’s a horse, or perhaps a mule because she’s single-minded, while her co-conspirators are Jacquot, a parrot, and the boar who runs the Wounded Nightingale where they meet. The financier of the group, whose name I never caught, is a relaxed monkey, who claims to be a cousin of the king. There are so few characters that the filmmakers have time to explore their motivations, but this clearly aims at being a fable, telling a historical story through the use of archetypes represented by the animals they most resemble. In other words, they’re simple characters with little depth. Only the Marquis, as befits the title character, has any real substance and that’s explored through him talking with his penis.
And I can’t highlight how important that is. It sounds like a joke, a skit or (dare I say it) a gag, but it’s the foundation of this picture. Whatever the filmmakers had in mind, it was rooted (yes, I do apologise for the unintentional puns) in a conversation between the head with a brain and the head without. And I can’t help wonder why they thought that it was such a bright idea to create the film. The writers were Roland Topor and the director, Henri Xhonneux. The latter was Belgian and he made a few other films, including a 1970 feature with the suggestive title of Take Me, I’m Old Enough. His most relevant other work, though, is an animated pastiche of TV news that he made with Topor for French television called Téléchat in the mid-eighties, starring a cat and an ostrich. The style is different but not greatly so and at least one of its regular voice actors, Valérie Kling, returned here to voice the lead penis. It aired between 1982 and 1986, running for 234 episodes, so it’s not hard (there I go again) to see this as the next logical step.

Except that that step took them into some rather wild territory. The most outrageous scene involves a crawfish, some mayonnaise and a jailer’s buttocks, because even Colin has to say no sometimes, even if he’s already committed himself. However, this is taken from the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, so even the tame parts aren’t that tame. Justine, who becomes quite the aficionado of his writings, tells him that Hitting Low with Two Dying Nuns is her favourite. One claymation interpretation involves a quartet of monks being pleasured by naked women while another attempts to balance on top of a vast pole, only to fall and die mangled in a conveniently placed pile of thorns. There’s even an orgy scene, in which the governor’s confessor reads the Marquis to the ladies under his cassock and those writhing around him, all wearing outrageous masks carved like spreadeagled women. It’s here that he commits to stealing the prisoner’s work to sell to the fish-faced journalist Willem von Mandarine for publication.
And yet it all comes back to Colin, who complains to the Marquis about how many verbs he uses and, really, this is what’s the most shocking thing. It’s not the torture, suicide or rape. It’s not the BDSM, though a leather-clad horse caning the backside of a rooster is not something I can honestly claim to have seen before. It’s not even the scene where Justine starts to suck the blood off Colin’s previously bandaged head, before Ambert steals her away to milk her on the rack. It’s the fact that this picture ought to play like degenerate pornography but is instead full of history, literature and philosophy. It’s like a porno movie made by the Amish or the Mormons, but with all the porn taken out, so that what remains is a more accessible artistic layer hiding something that was never meant to be family friendly. Beyond the frequent presence of a vast talking penis, who is either erect or hidden from view, this is surprisingly tame for something so decadent and depraved. It’s like the art actually matters.

Xhonneux’s collaborator, both on Téléchat and Marquis, was Roland Topor, a multi-talented Frenchman. I knew his name from the 1964 horror novel he wrote called The Tenant, which was later filmed by Roman Polanski, and as the actor who played Renfield in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu. Others know him as a collaborator with René Laloux on such pictures as Fantastic Planet. His career is full of tantalising moments though; he designed the magic lanterns for Fellini’s Casanova, wrote songs for The Butcher, the Star and the Orphan (among many other roles) and contributed monstrous drawings for the opening credits of Long Live Death. This is the filmography of an artist, someone who wrote, painted, composed, drew, acted, animated and filmed. This film is certainly a creation of artists who have more concerns about critical acclaim than financial reward because, let’s face it, the latter was never going to happen; it still hasn’t seen a Region 1 release and, frankly, probably never well.
It fits much better into the context of gothic novels like The Monk, recently filmed in France by Dominik Moll with Vincent Cassel; The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine, published in France in the second half of the seventeenth century; and, of course, the writings of the Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat who is more relevant today than when he died in 1814 in the Charenton lunatic asylum. I find it fascinating that most people think of de Sade as a sexual deviant, whose works and teachings have found a welcoming home in European exploitation films, but his legacy is just as relevant in philosophical circles, foreshadowing existentialism, surrealism and even psychoanalysis. Perhaps a movie like this, which seems utterly weird to my English eyes and to the American eyes of my better half, might be worthy of family discussion in France, where hardcore pornography has been broadcast on late-night TV for decades. Like the work of de Sade, it will fascinate and repel, often at the same time, but hey, can’t that be said of all the best art?

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

Director: Tom Schiller
Writers: Tom Schiller
Stars: Zach Galligan, Apollonia van Ravenstein, Lauren Tom, Dan Aykroyd, Imogene Coca, Anita Ellis, Eddie Fisher, Sam Jaffe, Bill Murray, Paul Rogers and Mort Sahl

Over the years, Apocalypse Later became a place for me to review the sort of films that most people don’t. I figure that there are a multitude of sites that serve as guides to what’s worth watching at the multiplex, so folk don’t need me for that purpose. Instead, I hope I serve more as a means of discovery, to highlight films that you may not know exist or even believe exist, subjects that may have passed you by and filmmakers, on both sides of the camera, who deserve their turn in the spotlight. Nothing Lasts Forever falls into every single one of those categories. It was made by a man, Tom Schiller, who missed the film career he deserved. It starred a variety of actors, some big at the time and others whose heydays had passed or had yet to arrive. It was a major studio film, made as recently as 1982, that was shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, predominantly in black and white and with mono sound. It has never been released theatrically, let alone on home video, though it has screened occasionally at festivals, retrospectives and on TV.

The lead is Zach Galligan, a high school student in 1982 who actually earned class credit for making this picture. His career at that point was this film and an hour-long educational piece screened on ABC Afterschool Specials about gonorrhea. Two years later, he’d appear on many walls belonging to teenage girls as the lead in Gremlins, his first released picture, before going back to college. He appeared on a few television shows during that time, but returned to theatre screens with Waxwork in 1988. He’s done good work in his time, but this is early on and he was cast to seem lost, not least because of who he was tasked to act with. His leading ladies were as inexperienced as him: a Dutch actress with the glorious name of Apollonia van Ravenstein, had a single film behind her, Seraphita’s Diary, though it was a one-woman feature; and Lauren Tom, who was nobody at the time but is now well known as an actress and voice actress. However, most of the rest of the cast were names before the leads were even born.
The reason they all joined the film is surely the promise that came along with writer/director, Tom Schiller. At this time, he was a gag writer for Saturday Night Live, a job that won him three Primetime Emmys and which gave him access to a wide variety of great talent. Lorne Michaels, another Saturday Night Live writer (with fourteen Primetime Emmys) was willing to produce the movie and he had a development deal at MGM. For whatever reason, the studio ignored the production, so Schiller found that he was able to ‘make a personal film with a studio crew’. Three prominent Saturday Night Live regulars agreed to roles: Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and John Belushi. Sadly, the latter died in March 1982, a mere six weeks before production began in April, and Galligan explained to the Little White Lies website that the shoot felt like a funeral rather than a party. Murray especially was clearly affected by his friend’s death and wasn’t the easiest person to get along with during the shoot.

The picture would feel like an old one, even if it wasn’t shot to appear that way, with considerable use of footage from older films, as the feel matches. Galligan is Adam Beckett, who starts out on the stage at Carnegie Hall playing Chopin. He’s a temperamental pianist, we see, because he rushes off stage in tears after playing his last note. His support team of old faces crowd around him and urge him to return to play his encore. But, as he stumbles, the audience realise that he’s seated in front of a player piano and they rush the stage to wrap him in the paper the device uses to play. He’s a fraud and, next thing we know, he’s on a train in Europe, being asked for his tickets in French. A Swedish architect talks to him about dreams, suggesting that, while he’ll get everything he wants in his lifetime, he won’t get it in the way that he wants. And, as we head into newsreel footage to ground the story, this feels like a Frank Capra movie that plans to run us through an emotional story with an uplifting ending. Capra-corn, they called it.
That feeling never quite goes away, but the newsreels change things notably. Los Angeles has been destroyed in an earthquake. A hundred day strike has crippled New York; the Port Authority is now in charge and there are extra checks for Adam as he returns to his aunt and uncle’s place in Manhattan. What does he do, they ask? He wants to be an artist, he says. Well, he’ll need to visit the Port Authority Artists Testing Center, they reply, within the next couple of days, and, if he can’t prove that he’s an artist of worth, they’ll kick him out of Manhattan. ‘It’s getting to be like Nazi Germany,’ says one relative, and Germany is not the only reason that we conjure up Metropolis. As the film runs on and Adam’s kindness to local tramps leads him to a subterranean world ruled over by Father Knickerbocker, Metropolis, with its dystopian world of those above who have and those below who don’t, becomes more and more applicable as a comparison. The leading lady’s name is Eloy, surely a nod to a similar concept in The Time Machine.

From what we’re told, Nothing Lasts Forever screened once to a test audience, in Seattle, and that didn’t go well. It’s easy to see why, because it’s hard to figure out exactly what this film is doing. It looks like an uplifting throwback to the forties but it’s phrased as a dystopian science fiction film, utterly unlike the sci-fi movies that were doing well in the early eighties. The Empire Strikes Back this emphatically isn’t. And then it turns into an art film, both in style and content. Capra’s films often helped characters become who they could, and probably should, have been all along; Schiller channels this approach into a search for artistic identity with Adam struggling against trends, gimmicks and the sort of Kafka-esque lunacy that Terry Gilliam would master in Brazil. When he checks in to be tested at the Port Authority, they throw him into a cubicle and give him three minutes to draw a nude woman from life, continually interrupting him as if to deliberately mess with his artistic focus.
It’s notable that Adam rarely discovers anything himself; he’s shown everything by other people. Most obviously, Mara Hofmeier, who works with him watching cars inside the Holland Tunnel and becomes his lover and guide, takes him to a wild variety of wild art performances. She’s a dadaist by nature (he has to look it up), so we watch a topless German muscleman walking mechanically on a treadmill while counting to a million and motionless guitar strummers playing noise art. Their favourite bar plays what feels like a remix of the old Doctor Who theme tune while screening Un Chien Andalou on monitors. The epitome of this surreality comes when she interrupts her orgasm because the miniature TV in her apartment is showing the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. No wonder Adam is confused. But others are guiding him too and soon he’ll catch a bus to the moon. Yes, you heard that right and, if we have a villain of the piece, it’s surely Ted Breughel, the steward on this bus, played by Bill Murray.

Schiller clearly created this film out of different eras of cinematic art. It looks like a thirties or forties movie, but it’s riddled with scenes from silent pictures and cast with names from the fifties. Now it leaps into exotica territory, taking it into the sixties. The trip to the moon is nothing like the one we saw from Georges Méliès or even Flash Gordon; it’s a regular city bus (on the outside) but an Alpha Cruiser on the inside, complete with its own lounge bar with Eddie Fisher singing and a Galaxy deck where they can serve dinner. How about a Lunartini, folks? While the style is already late fifties/early sixties, native girls of the Moon underline that, welcoming passengers with a hula dance. The message is all seventies consumerism and eighties conspiracy theory, though, making this a second cousin to They Live, whose aliens could well be running the Moon-o-Rama Carousel of Consumer Values in the Copernicus Consumer Zone, located in the Sea of Tranquillity, just down from the kitschy Apollo exhibit.
Oh, and if you hadn’t figured it out, this is a romance, between two people from different worlds who have never met but whose homes include pictures of the other that were there when they moved in. It’s easy to say that this is schizophrenic, but it’s wildly so and the result is as much of an experience as it is a motion picture. It’s like a trip through the previous sixty years of cinema in some sort of mash-up. It’s a little like Amazon Women on the Moon, but if that had an overarching story to tie all the skits together, and a little like the Firesign Theatre’s J-Men Forever, which re-dubbed unrelated old Republic serials with a new storyline. What’s left is the abiding question of why, and it all comes down to a quest for artistic identity. It’s not hard to see Adam Beckett’s quest representing Tom Schiller’s own quest. Sadly for him, the picture was suppressed by its studio, even when it was accepted twice to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. MGM said no and that was that, for this and, it seems, for Schiller’s big screen career.

Most critics who have suggested that Nothing Lasts Forever was ahead of its time, like Richard Brody of The New Yorker, cite modern filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Guy Maddin and the Coen Brothers as following in Schiller’s cult footsteps. I can’t argue with those three choices, but another picture that sprang to mind while I was watching this was The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, which was a braindump of everything that had influenced Rob Zombie to be a filmmaker. I got the impression here that Schiller was not only creating new art, he was also dumping out of his brain everything that had influenced him. I wonder if some of the people he got to appear in the film, as much as period props as actors, were part of that, people who he had grown up watching or listening to. I knew quite a few but I’m at least a decade younger and hadn’t become aware of all of them. To me, this has value in this cast even beyond what it does with story and ideas, because of the almost historical placement of how they’re put to use.
For instance, Adam’s aunt is Anita Ellis, a singer who provided the voice for Rita Hayworth’s performance of Put the Blame on Mame in Gilda, and his uncle is Mort Sahl, a pioneering comedian: the first entertainer to appear on the cover of Time magazine, the first to record a stand-up comedy album and the first host of the Grammy Awards. These characters are named Aunt Anita and Uncle Mort, as if to deliberately blur the lines between fiction and reality. Father Knickerbocker is portrayed by a charismatic Sam Jaffe, in a role that could be seen as Prof. Barnhardt in an alternate version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where Klaatu failed and it was up to him to find peace in the world. The versatile Imogene Coca, a fifties TV star opposite Sid Caesar, tells secrets to Adam, and her husband is here too. That’s King Donovan, veteran of sci-fi flicks like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Magnetic Monster. There’s even a very brief appearance by Lawrence Tierney, in which he smiles like a Frank Capra Santa.

These are actors and entertainers towards the end of their careers; in the case of King Donovan, he was returning to the screen a couple of decades after his previous picture, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. And, while they all seem to throw themselves into their parts, we can’t help but wonder if they were wondering why they were in a picture like this. Eddie Fisher, playing himself, gives a voice to this, when he asks a steward, ‘How the hell did I wind up singing on a bus to the moon?’ Of course, with this being a highly multi-generational cast, others were just starting out their careers. Most obviously, there’s Lauren Tom, as the moon girl Adam is sent to fall in love with. At this point, she’d just done a couple of episodes of The Facts of Life, but she kept busy till the mid-nineties when she fell into voice acting. Hello Amy Wong from Futurama and Minh from King of the Hill! Howard Shore, David Cronenberg’s composer of choice at the time worked for someone else here and would go on to win three Oscars for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I can’t say that Nothing Lasts Forever is a great movie, but I can say that I enjoyed it. I can also say that it’s a thoroughly original film, a groundbreaking one in many respects and an important one for a number of its cast and crew. It’s a real shame that it’s therefore not available. How many of us grew up watching Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd movies in the eighties and thought we’d seen them all? Well, here’s another one, folks. There’s not a lot of the latter here, but the former has a major part and could easily be seen as Adam Beckett’s nemesis, the last obstacle blocking him from realising his artistic identity, and the world can always benefit from a fresh Bill Murray feature, even if it’s over thirty years old. Murray, more than anyone, has kept this alive, insisting on its inclusion in retrospectives of his work, and there are periodic rumblings that it’ll finally see a release. I wouldn’t count on it, because of the rights issue with the older footage. However, I do hope that you can locate a grey market copy so you can take this trip too.

References:
Richard Brody - A Lost Comedic Masterpiece from 1984 (newyorker.com)
Aisha Harris - Bill Murray’s Unreleased 1984 Sci-Fi Comedy is Now Online (slate.com)
Stephen Saito - Nothing Lasts Forever, Yet This Bill Murray Movie Persists (ifc.com)
Adam Woodward - An Unreleased Bill Murray Sci-fi Comedy from 1984 Has Resurfaced (lwlies.com)

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Life Blood (2009)

Director: Ron Carlson
Writer: Ron Carlson
Stars: Sophie Monk and Anya Lahiri

Every time mankind conjures up a day of celebration, a horror filmmaker introduces a massacre to make it memorable. That trend has held true for a long time, especially at Christmas, which I’ve never quite understood. Why are we so drawn to make Christmas horror movies? Are all horror filmmakers traumatised by elves as much as they’ve persuaded us to be traumatised by clowns? I’m not sure, but we seem to get a dozen new Christmas horror movies each and every year. However, while Christmas does dominate the horror calendar, many other holidays are represented too and I’ve felt like exploring them for quite some time. So, during the coming year, I’m going to celebrate holidays by reviewing the horror movies that are set on them. I’m going to attempt to avoid the obvious choices (though that’s not entirely possible, of course) and include some surprising holidays too. If only Eben McGarr would finish his film, Hanukkah, about the son of the 1983 Hannukiller, before we actually get there.

So here’s the first picture in this new project, because what better way is there to celebrate New Year’s Day than with a couple of lesbian vampires? In this instance, they’re also both models and members of girl groups, which suggests the level of acting that’s going to be on offer. One is Sophie Monk, born in London but raised in Australia, where she made two albums with Bardot, which was created out of the Popstars reality TV show. She won The Celebrity Apprentice Australia in 2015 and served as a judge in 2016 on Australia’s Got Talent. The other is Anya Lahiri, also born in London but of Indian and Finnish heritage. She represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing with the band Precious, who also recorded two top ten singles. More recently, she’s worked as a fitness instructor, working at Barry’s Boot Camp to train celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Natalie Imbruglia. Both are well known as models, Monk being a mainstay in various lists of sexy women in Australia for over a decade.
I can hear you wondering: what sort of horror movie is going to star a couple of ladies with those credentials? Well, you’ll be right a little but wrong a lot, if you’re anything like me. Ron Carlson, who wrote, produced and directed, clearly didn’t want to do what so many other exploitation filmmakers had previously done. I did have a whole slew of problems with this picture, but originality wasn’t one of them. Carlson had some good ideas and he managed to get some of them up onto the screen for us to see. There are sections here that I didn’t just enjoy, I actively felt gratified that someone chose to put them in a film. Now, to be entirely fair, I’m not convinced that all those were due to great judgement on his part, as some of them may tie more to who’s always willing to act in his movies. I’m thinking that some ideas, like the casting of Danny Woodburn as a deputy sheriff, are a combination of both. He is possibly the best actor here, but he’s also four feet tall and surely doesn’t usually expect to play someone in law enforcement.

The most obvious idea, though, revolves around the presence of God, or the character who’s described here as the ‘creator of the universe’. In Carlson’s world, that’s a woman, played by the lovely Angela Lindvall, who emerges from a whirlwind of cloud to be the angel of death for Rhea’s girlfriend. You see, Rhea is pure and honest, so God has plans for her, but her girlfriend Brooke, isn’t, so God disintegrates her on the spot. As a red-blooded male, I’m hardly going to complain about the visuals here, but I’m still not a hundred percent on the theology. Sure, purity and honesty would appear to be good subjects for God and I have no problems with Him being a Her, but I’m not sure how purity applies when we’re staring at her boobs through her flimsy see-through blouse and she’s kissing a lesbian on the lips. Aesthetically, I have no concerns; theologically, I think we’re on rather shaky ground. Purity is something that ought to run a lot deeper than whether you murdered someone in the previous scene or not.
And here’s where New Year comes in. We begin at a New Year’s Eve party in 1968 (even though it says 1969; continuity is not this film’s strong point), as Rhea and Brooke are making out in the bathroom. Topless girls dance to Mellow Yellow and arrogant pricks attempt to convince them into bed. The most arrogant of these pricks is surely Warren James, apparently an important actor. He’s full of himself and guys watching should not copy his pick-up lines. ‘Ladies, don’t let me choose someone else. Who’s it gonna be?’ is not charming, trust me. Fast forward until almost midnight and he has a mostly naked Carrie Lane asking him to ‘Please stop’ as she cowers in the corner. He sounds like Donald Trump in that video. ‘You may suffer some emotional damage,’ he suggests as he places a bar of soap inside a sock, but, ‘Who would believe you?’ That’s when Brooke finds them, sees what’s going on and, right as Auld Lang Syne begins, she stabs him in the throat with one of Carrie’s hairpicks. Eighty-seven times.

That’s why Rhea and Brooke are chasing down the empty Pearblossom Highway in the wee hours of New Year’s Day like a couple of grindhouse heroines. That’s why it feels ominous when other bad things happen, like the possum that comes out of nowhere to be crushed under the wheels. That’s why Rhea insists that Brooke pull over because she doesn’t want any more death. And that’s why scantily-clad God shows up in a personal dust devil, gives Rhea a lingering kiss on the lips to endow her with eternal life and explain how she’s going to become an angel, tasked with destroying the wicked. Being that pure and honest soul, Rhea asks God to bring Brooke back and she does, with the observation that, ‘She ultimately will be your true test.’ Into the ground they both go, to wake from glowing cocoons in the desert forty years on as New Year’s Day continues for them in 2009. Again, I’m for this idea but wonder how their dresses are gone but their lipstick is pristine. Preservatives? And how does Rhea know what year it is?
More than anything, when did angels gain the traditional characteristics of vampires? I’m all for mashups of mythology but that’s an odd one indeed! Rhea and Brooke also figure things out rather quickly. As one of the film’s producers stops his pickup to see if they need any help, out there in the desert in the middle of the night, Brooke quickly feels the urge to bite his throat out. And the hitch-hiker who shows up conveniently at the exact same time? Yeah, him too! That’s when she finds her super-speed. And, once they get to the Murder World convenience store just as the sun’s coming up, they both realise that they should get in there quick and sharpish if they don’t want to turn into crispy critters. And so that’s where they spend New Year’s Day, with the blinds down and the drama threatening to take them with it. This time, I’m sure you’re way ahead of me. I’m all for the concept here. What a great idea to lock us into a single location, but who the heck calls their convenience store Murder World? I mean, what?

I’ll quit running through the synopsis here and introduce you to some of the many recognisable actors who join our story. Who’s that as the chauvinistic local lawman, Sheriff Tillman? Why, that’s Charles Napier, in movie number one hundred and something for him but still not looking too different from the Russ Meyer movies he made forty years earlier like Cherry, Harry & Raquel. His deputy, Felix Shoe, is Danny Woodburn, who is a revelation here, highlighting how he deserves to be remembered for more than just Splinter in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot or Mickey on Seinfeld. Rounding out the department is Jennifer Tung, a well experienced actress who’s one of the least recognisable actors in this film, even if many are faces we know that belong to names that we don’t. The biggest star today is probably Scout Taylor-Compton, who plays Carrie Lane as a very believable rape victim; it isn’t a big part for her, compared to that of Lita Ford in The Runaways or Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes.
At points, watching this movie became a game of, ‘Where do I know him from?’ I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Iranian actor Marshall Manesh, on TV and in film, though I’ve probably never referenced his name until now. He’s one of those character actors who are always reliable, whatever the quality of the material they’re given to work with. Here, he’s married to Gina Gallego, who’s also guested on every TV show known to mankind. They’re a couple who stop off at Murder World (oh, that name) and thus end up in our story. Even the young man arguing with his girlfriend in the middle of the desert at the end of the film is someone I know from a short film called Black Gulch, shot here in Arizona back in 2003, which I’ve screened at a few Apocalypse Later events. He was Stephen Taylor then and he’s Stephen Monroe-Taylor now, but he’s yet another recognisable face. The exception to prove the rule is Patrick Renna, who is really the male lead, as Dan the clerk at Murder World (I so want to see the commercials).

Now, you probably figured out some of where we were going three or four paragraphs ago, right? Rhea’s our heroine and Brooke is our villain. If that’s a spoiler, you should avoid reading the back cover blurbs of DVDs because you’re going to be frequently and sorely disappointed. The value here really doesn’t come from the leads, because they’re far from the greatest actors in the world, probably not even at Murder World (hey, is that trademarked?) and certainly not in this movie. They’re surely here because they have substantial fanbases, for more reasons than because Sophie Monk has fantastic breasts and Anya Lahiri has magnificent eyes. I have to say that I much preferred the acting of the latter in this picture; she really tried and managed to carry much of her part. Monk made Brooke come across as annoying, which I don’t think was what Carlson was going for. Evil? Sure. Seductively twisted? Absolutely. But annoying? I don’t see why he’d go for that. I didn’t need much reason to stay on Rhea’s side but that helped.
Of all things, I left this lesbian vampire movie thinking that Carlson had created a rather refreshing police department. It isn’t just the actors he cast to build this team or the dynamics of pairing a politically incorrect old John Wayne wannabe with a little person for a deputy and and a Chinese American lady for an officer. It’s the sheer routine of their work, even when dealing with a rather unusual crime. Deputy Shoe, in particular, has to spend his New Year in the sun directing Pearblossom Highway traffic around the crime scene we saw Brooke create in the wee hours. I remember Danny Woodburn in comedic roles or in minor parts like Bad Ass or Watchmen. It was great to see him in something more substantial, especially playing a character whose size wasn’t ever brought up. He was great running through police routine out on the road and he’s even better when he finally ends up at Murder World (let's come up with a jingle for this place). No, the police department isn’t the core of this film but they’re arguably its grounding.

So there’s Life Blood, a horror movie set predominantly on New Year’s Day. Its leading ladies, Rhea and Brooke, are ended with the old year and begin the new year as something different, albeit forty years later. It’s a confused picture and one with enough that doesn’t make sense that it won’t take eagle-eyed goof trackers to start constructing mental lists. However, it does aim for a rather different take on a lot of things: God, angels and of course, the exploitation sub-genre of lesbian vampires. I enjoyed it, not just for the glimpse of God’s boobies, and even though I mentally threw my hands up in despair on a number of occasions. What don’t you name a convenience store in the middle of the desert? All together now! Murder World! You also don’t leave the door unlockable just because you never close. At times, Ron Carlson, the director, should have slapped Ron Carlson, the writer. It’s not a good film but it tries and it’s a good way to kick off a new year and a new project together. I hope you enjoy my Horror Movie Calendar!