Apocalypse Later Empire

I also write books, for sale at Amazon and the other usual online stores.
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Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
Filmmakers, submissions for horror and sci-fi shorts are open through Film Freeway.

Please feel free to contact me by e-mail.

IHSFFF and PFF 2017

Check out the Film Festival Coverage section over on the right or click here for the indexes for the these live festivals:

International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival 2017
Phoenix Film Festival 2017

Also check out my daily coverage at Apocalypse Later Now!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Leopard Man (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Ardel Wray, based on the novel, Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich, with additional dialogue by Edward Dein
Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo and Jean Brooks

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Putting my mere four names to shame, María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell was born in Mexico City one hundred years ago today, though she shrank that name down about as far as possible for her screen career. However, as Margo, she didn’t make as many movies as she should have done, as she was blacklisted just as her star was rising. Even her more famous second husband, Eddie Albert, was caught up in that debacle too, and only found abiding fame after his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. That’s a shame, because Margo showed great potential even as a child. At a mere nine years of age, she performed in nightclubs as a specialty dancer for Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra; that bandleader would marry her aunt, Carmen Castillo, when Margo was twelve. At seventeen, she was plucked off the dancefloor to play Claude Rains’s ex-lover in Crime without Passion. It ensured a screen career, which built steadily until her blacklisting, after which her roles became few and far between.

Even with only fourteen feature films to her name, I had a choice for this project. She was well regarded in Winterset in 1936, in a role which she’d originated on stage, in both instances playing the screen girlfriend of Burgess Meredith. She was also notable in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon a year later, as the beautiful young lady who ages and dies rapidly after leaving Shangri-La. However, I went with this one as it’s a personal favourite of mine, even among the works of producer Val Lewton, whose fourteen pictures at RKO during the forties included nine horror movies which revolutionised the genre. At a time when Universal were the only real player in the genre left and their work after The Wolf Man had become a string of sequels, Lewton’s films really filled the gap, with a set of quality pictures that were written well, with deep thematic substance; shot well, with incredible use of light and shadows, as befitted the beginnings of the film noir era; and directed well, by a string of names who would go on to serious fame.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Helter Skelter (1949)

Director: Ralph Thomas
Writer: Patrick Campbell, with additional dialogue by Jan Read and Gerard Bryant
Stars: Carol Marsh and David Tomlinson

Index: 2017 Centennials.

It’s amazing what the passage of time can do to simple words. Nowadays, we might think of 'Helter Skelter' as a Beatles song or as the racial war prophesied by Charles Manson after obsessing over it. Some might think of the manga by Kyoko Okazaki or the live action film it spawned. Some may look much further backwards: Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, published in 1862, over a century before The White Album, includes the phrase, ‘helter skelter, hurry skurry’; Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a poem called Helter Skelter in 1731; and Thomas Nashe beat him by a century and a half by employing the phrase in his Four Letters Confuted, back in 1592. Apparently, it’s an Old English phrase dating back to the middle of the twelfth century, so we should feel no qualms about reappropriating it from the likes of Charles Manson. Sadly, however, when confronted with the phrase, few will think of this surreal comedy, produced by Gainsborough Pictures in 1949.

Of course, words are not the only things to change over time. They change much slower than fame and that’s never more obvious than when looking at comedians. I was born in England and lived there until I was 33, but this film, only a couple of decades older than I am, is like a glimpse into a different century, rather appropriate given that some of these comedians do exactly that at one point in the movie. It’s a Who’s Who of British comedy of the time, with names that I recognise, such as Terry-Thomas and Jimmy Edwards, prominent in the opening credits and a whole slew of others popping in briefly. Reading through the film’s IMDb page, I realise that I even missed a couple, presumably because I blinked, and others never appear on screen. For instance, the script was by Patrick Campbell, the third Baron Glenavy, an Irish humorist who later served as a long-running team captain on Call My Bluff, opposite Frank Muir, one of the few comedians of his day who apparently didn’t appear in this movie.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Cinco de Mayo (2013)

Director: Paul Ragsdale
Writer: Paul Ragsdale
Stars: Anthony Iava To’omata, Angelica de Alba, Joshua Palafox, Tiawny Ferreira, Christopher Beatty, Lindsay Amaral, Kyle Duval, Tommy Fourre, Ryan Holley, Robert Holloway, Steven Pettit Jr., Pete Magazinovic, Delawna McKinney, Don Gonzalez and Spencer Reza

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Not all holidays are English language, even if half the people getting drunk on Cinco de Mayo have never spent a day in Mexico in their lives and whose command of the Spanish language doesn’t extend past ‘uno mas’ and ‘por favor’. This feature, made because director Paul Ragsdale wanted to shoot a slasher movie, looked at holidays on the calendar and saw that there was a glaring gap on the 5th May just waiting for a Mexican horror feature, can’t hide its tiny budget but it does manage to do far more than I expected it might, especially as it progresses from a cheap beginning to a surprisingly poetic ending. It also veered quickly away from paths that I expected it to follow: while it did start out as a slasher, and it follows some rules from that genre, it feels far more seventies than eighties with a social awareness angle that feels completely out of place in a world epitomised by Freddy and Jason. It’s also predominantly in English, though with a heavy Hispanic focus and a little Spanish dotted here and there for flavour.

I have to say that the beginning is pretty awful, though I must also acknowledge that part of that is by design. Ragsdale decided to present Cinco de Mayo as the first half of a double bill showing on cable TV in a recurring segment called All Nite Long. This is truly embarrassing to my generation but only because it’s so accurate. Eden Trevino does a great job of parodying Rhonda Shear from the Friday edition of USA Up All Night, though in acknowledging that she clearly out-eighties her inspiration, I was shocked to find that Shear didn’t take over the show from Caroline Schlitt until 1991, making this a seventies film in an eighties segment sourced from a nineties show. The rest of the awful is less easy to explain away. Everyone in the cast makes it into the opening credits, in a font bad enough for L to look like I and actors to look like typos. Tlawny Ferrelra? Maybe not. Then, when the movie proper starts, with a brief prologue from a year earlier, it’s really dark and it’s difficult to see what’s going on. Not a good beginning.

Monday, 1 May 2017

5 Fingers (1952)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Michael Wilson, from the book by L. C. Moyzisch
Stars: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux and Michael Rennie

Index: 2017 Centennials.

At what point, I wonder, do spoilers come into play when covering a film based on historical fact? Well, my mindset these days was forged by a theatrical viewing of Public Enemies, at which I was shocked at the audible shock of one audience member when Johnny Depp’s character was killed. Yes, that’s public enemy number one John Dillinger, who was shot and killed by special agents in 1934. If American audience members can be blissfully unaware of such a historic American event, are they likely to know much about, say, espionage in Turkey during World War II? Probably not, so I’ll be careful here, though I have to highlight that this film, while based on a memoir, isn’t remotely as true as the ballsy opening scene might suggest. Rather than merely plaster the usual ‘this is a true story’ onto the screen, we’re also placed inside the House of Commons, as an MP asks if the book, Operation Cicero, is factual. The reply? ‘It must be regretfully admitted that, in substance, the story to which the honourable member refers is a true one.’

In a nutshell, this story involved a man selling a substantial amount of British secrets to the Nazis for cash. In reality, his name was Elyesa Bazna, a Turkish man of Albanian descent, who worked as valet to Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to Turkey. The latter had a habit of taking secret documents home, in a dispatch box, and Bazna’s locksmithing skills allowed him to open this and photograph them. In late 1943, he contacted L. C. Moyzisch at the German Embassy in Ankara, and sold him a first batch of pictures. Given the codename of Cicero, he continued to do this for some months. Eventually the British discovered the leak and investigated, even mounting a sting operation that failed. However, the pressure was mounting and Cicero decided that it was time to quit. He stopped selling information in February 1944 and left the embassy in April. What’s wild is that the Nazis failed to act on any of this important information, not trusting it, and the British failed to catch Bazna.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Chicken Every Sunday (1949)

Director: George Seaton
Writers: George Seaton and Valentine Davies, from the stage play by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, in turn based on the memoir by Rosemary Taylor
Stars: Dan Dailey and Celeste Holm

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Hey look, it’s Tucson! And this isn’t one of my Dry Heat Obscurities reviews, because Tucson here is merely a setting not a location; the film was shot instead in a variety of towns in Nevada with frontier names like Carson City, Silver City or Virginia City. Another more appropriate location was Gardnerville, named for John M. Gardner, on whose land it was founded. Apparently he sold seven acres in 1879 to Lawrence Gilman, who had bought a house ten miles away and wanted to move it, possibly because it was haunted by a ghost highwayman. So the Kent House in Genoa became the Gardnerville Hotel in Gardnerville and the town was born. This is appropriate because this comedy really revolves around a struggle to define accomplishment and it suggests that its leading male character, James C. Hefferan, accomplished much because he gave his name to pretty much everything in Tucson, even if it rarely brought a decent income. The rest has to do with how his family survives this lack of money, which boils down to his wife, Emily.

That’s Emily Hefferan, in the lovely form of Celeste Holm, who owns this film. Dan Dailey isn’t bad as Jim and this came only a year after his Oscar-nomination for When My Baby Smiles at Me, but he’s an odd cross between Jimmy Stewart and Danny Kaye and he’s a lot more of a supporting character, flitting in and out of the story as needed, rather than driving it forward. He certainly drives the town of Tucson forward but not our story. Holm drives that from her standpoint as the grounding of the family, the film and what may well be the entire community as a sort of collective surrogate mother. Holm would have been a hundred years old today and she came pretty close, succumbing to a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 95. Her career wasn’t as prolific as some, but it ran long, the gap between Three Little Girls in Blue in 1946 and College Debts in 2015 being almost seven decades. In fact, many fans remember her for the TV show Promised Land, which ran from 1996 to 1999 as a spin-off from Touched by an Angel. She was 79 as that began.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)

Director: Norman Foster
Writers: Philip MacDonald and Norman Foster, based on the character created by John P. Marquand
Stars: Peter Lorre, Joseph Schildkraut, Lionel Atwill, Virginia Field, john King and Iva Stewart

This review is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy.
The Great Villain Blogathon is in its fourth year, appropriately hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy, given that all those S’s sound rather like a hiss. It has covered villains from silent era Lon Chaney to modern day Pixar with all the usual suspects in between, so I chose a slightly different approach for my entry into year four: a rapid-paced black and white film which paints San Francisco rather like Ben Kenobi’s famous description of Mos Eisley. It’s a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ in which an assassin hovers outside every window, a ne’erdowell skulks in every shadow and the script racks up so many candidates for the role of master thief that we end up sitting back and letting Mr. Moto solve this one for us. This isn’t a film with a single villain, nor even a pair, but three distinct bands of them. Most dangerous among them is Metaxa, a legendary jewel thief believed to be dead. Mr. Moto is not so sure, so he’s taking a fake vacation under the firm expectation that our MacGuffin will draw him out.

That MacGuffin is the crown of Balkis, the Queen of Sheba, which is of such importance that there’s a radio journalist reporting on its excavation live from the back of a truck parked under the ‘pitiless Arabian sun’. It’s utterly priceless, of course, and is promptly whisked out of the country on its vulnerable journey to San Francisco’s Fremont Museum. You won’t be surprised to find that ‘the young and brilliant archaeologist, Howard Stevens’ is a Hollywood leading man take on the real archaeologist, Howard Carter, who, in 1922, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun and, through the effusive prose of journalist H. V. Morton, kickstarted Egyptomania across the western hemisphere. Actor John King gives off a self-effacing Jimmy Stewart sort of vibe as Stevens, a rare character to not rank on the Metaxa possibility chart, so he tends to fade into the background when the villainy commences in earnest. He’s a mild fish out of water here but he found his feet within a year as ‘Dusty’ King in a series of westerns that wrapped up his career.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Resurrection (1999)

Director: Russell Mulcahy
Writers: Brad Mirman and Christopher Lambert, from a story by Brad Mirman
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Robert Joy, Barbara Tyson, Rick Fox and Leland Orser

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

In our modern consumerist culture, it’s easy to see the holiday of Easter like Bill Hicks described it: ‘commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.’ However, to Christians, it’s one of the cornerstones of the liturgical year, the end of one season and the beginning of another, and it’s serious stuff indeed. It follows the season of Lent, during the six weeks of which many Christians prepare for Easter by fasting or giving up something to symbolise sacrifice. Lent ends with Holy Week, which is rich with key events: Palm Sunday marks the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, Maundy Thursday remembers the Last Supper and Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. This all ends with Easter Sunday, which begins Eastertide with a great celebration, because it’s when Jesus rose from the dead after three days in the tomb. After Jesus’s birth, marked at Christmas, his resurrection is the most important event in the Christian year.

In fact, it’s so important that people have been arguing about it for millennia: what theological significance it bears, its tie to the Jewish holiday of Passover and even the date on which it should be celebrated. Controversies over when the correct date should be date back to the second century and trawl in the First Council of Nicaea and the Synod of Whitby. Things only got worse when the western world shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and they’re not even squared away yet. As recently as 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed reform, suggesting that Easter should be celebrated on the ‘first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon following the astronomical vernal equinox, as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem.’ Had that been adopted, it would have taken effect in 2001, a rare year in which the Western and Orthodox dates for Easter coincided. The fact is that it wasn’t adopted and people will continue to argue about it for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

Director: Roy Rowland
Writers: Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott, from a story by Dr. Seuss
Stars: Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’d seen The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T before, but it’s by far the most interesting movie starring Hans Conried, so I knew I had to choose it for his centennial. What I hadn’t realised until a fresh viewing is that this bears some similarity to another cult feature released in 1953, namely Robot Monster. That film unfolds as the fever dream of a young boy, who imagines the entire world destroyed by an alien who appears as a gorilla in a diving helmet, who rules the planet from his cave which is otherwise occupied only by a bubble machine. The remaining survivors are Johnny’s family and a couple of archeologists, so he pairs them off with his mum and sister. When I reviewed Robot Monster, I highlighted how weird it was that a young boy would be dreaming about such perverted ideas as replacing his father, killing one sister and having the other kidnapped by an alien ape with a bondage fetish. This film helps me to realise that it’s just a imaginative boy dealing with his hopes and fears in a dream sequence.

Because that’s exactly what The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is, or at least without the perverted angle. Little Johnny is now Little Bart or, to use his full name, Bartholomew Collins, who we can only assume does not grow up to appear on Dark Shadows. He recently lost his father, to death rather than divorce because this is 1953, and he’s practicing as hard as he can on the piano to take part in a recital in a month’s time. Well, not really. He doesn’t like playing the piano at all and he’s only practicing for two reasons: one is that his mother, Heloise, whom he likes a lot, wants him to; and the other is because his piano teacher doesn’t acknowledge the existence of other instruments. He hates the autocratic Dr. Terwilliker with a passion and imagines him to be a racketeer. As Bart can’t be a blink over ten years old, this is all a lot of pressure for him, so when he falls asleep at the keys, his feature length dream sequence directly addresses his hopes and fears: how he can find a new dad and how he can cope with the recital.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Blanche Fury (1948)

Director: Marc Allégret
Writers: Audrey Lindop and Cecil McGivern, from the novel by Joseph Shearing, with additional dialogue by Hugh Mills
Stars: Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson

Index: 2017 Centennials.

If there was any doubt as to what genre this picture falls under, it vanishes with the title card. A primitive painting of an isolated and foreboding mansion against a sky so dark and tortured that it seems like a tsunami ready to wash over the house. A carefully italicised font that looks like handwriting, coloured the orange of faded blood. A title that at once introduces the leading lady and subtly hints at dark emotions; ‘fury’ meaning destructive rage and ‘blanche’ meaning to turn white, often through abject fear or shock. Yes, these are quintessential components of the gothic and this is a powerful one that perhaps stands up today because of its heady atmosphere of doom. There have been better movies made in this genre, Hitchcock’s Rebecca being merely the obvious choice and Dragonwyck and The Uninvited following in its footsteps, but few contain anything close to the ache for catastrophe the doomed lovers of Blanche Fury exude like sweat. This doomed romance has an unusual emphasis on the first word not the second.

After the title card, we see a skeletal tree and hear the wind, even though the painted clouds aren’t moving. We follow a pair of urgent riders as they exhort their horses through the woods and up the manicured paths of Clare Hall. Oh yes, I’d buy that place for a dollar! It’s a gorgeous, if rather brutal box of a mansion, the external shots being of Wootton Lodge, in Staffordshire, which dates back to 1611; it’s currently owned by the family of Joseph Cyril Bamford, who founded the company named for his initials, now the third largest manufacturer of construction equipment in the world. The internal shots are just as striking, though these were sets back at Pinewood Studios with high ceilings, ornate doorways and a plethora of paintings. As you might expect, there’s also a young lady in bed, clearly ill and those riders are the doctors doing what they can for her. She’s very weak, they say, as we shift into abstract visuals and echoed dialogue as she dies.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Stay Hungry (1976)

Director: Bob Rafelson
Writers: Charles Gaines and Bob Rafelson, from the novel by Charles Gaines
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’m a child of the eighties, which means I grew up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I saw every one of his eighties movies soon after release and that continued on into the nineties until I gave up and tried to avoid things like Jingle All the Way. However, I find that I never consciously went back to the seventies, which surprises me. I’d seen Hercules in New York, because it’s one of those so bad it’s good movies that I can’t resist, and I’d seen The Long Goodbye, in which he isn’t even credited, but I hadn’t seen The Villain until this project last year, watching for Kirk Douglas’s centennial, and I hadn’t seen Stay Hungry until now, watching for R. G. Armstrong’s. I wonder if I’ll find myself reviewing Scavenger Hunt next year, watching for someone else’s! In fact, the entire Stay Hungry cast looks like my childhood: Jeff Bridges from Starman, Sally Field from Smokey and the Bandit, Robert Englund from V (and, later, A Nightmare on Elm Street), Roger E. Mosley from Magnum, P.I. and Scatman Crothers from, well, Hong Kong Phooey (yeah, and The Shining).

What I found from this long overdue catchup was that my idea of what this movie was and what it actually is only just intersected and the maybe ten per cent that did includes duh facts like it’s a feature film and Arnie is a bodybuilder. I think my expectations of Stay Hungry were more like the reality of Pumping Iron, shot months later but not released until 1977, though they do play together well. That’s a docudrama narrated by Charles Gaines and based on his photo-essay about the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, with the Austrian Oak winning the latter. This is a comedy drama adapted by Gaines from his original novel and the title refers only in part to Arnie who, as Joe Santo, a bodybuilder preparing for Mr. Universe, is the one to speak it aloud. He says it to a rather young Jeff Bridges, playing the lead role of Craig Blake, because he’s the one who needs the advice. I’ve seen Bridges a lot younger than this, in The Last Picture Show, Fat City and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but I guess I’ve got used to him being old.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Night Walker (1964)

Director: William Castle
Writer: Robert Bloch
Stars: Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Judith Meredith

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Drop the name of Robert Bloch, who would have been one hundred years old today, in polite company and the likelihood is that you’ll hear the very same word back from everyone around you: ‘psycho’. He wrote the novel of that name in 1959 and it became famous when Alfred Hitchcock adapted it onto film a year later. Bloch wrote two sequels, called Psycho II and Psycho House, though they’re unrelated to any of the subsequent film or TV sequels, prequels and remakes. However, Bloch was nothing like a one trick pony. He was a contributor to Weird Tales magazine, one of the youngest members of H. P. Lovecraft’s literary circle, and his early short stories are great takes on his mentor’s cosmic horror themes. After Lovecraft’s death, he diversified his writing to include a range of horror, science fiction and thrillers. His novels are of consistent quality but include gems like Night-World, American Gothic and Night of the Ripper, the latter two fictionalising real people, the serial killers H. H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper respectively.

Given the success of Psycho, we might expect that film studios would have leapt at the chance to adapt his other work, especially as his bibliography was expansive by that point. However, most of his work on film was as a scriptwriter rather than a source author. Unsurprisingly, many of his scripts were for genre anthology shows like Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with his name on ten episodes of each, but he also wrote three episodes of Star Trek, among many others. His screenplays for films included no less than five features for Amicus, the ‘other’ classic U.K. horror studio, including Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum; an odd couple, The Cat Creature and The Dead Don’t Die for director Curtis Harrington; and, perhaps most interesting, a pair of features for legendary exploitation filmmaker William Castle, both in 1964. The first was Strait-Jacket, which sees Joan Crawford murder a cheating Lee Majors with an axe, and the second is this unjustly neglected gem starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Slaughter High (1986)

Directors: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten
Writers: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten
Stars: Caroline Munro and Simon Scuddamore

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

April Fools’ Day has been associated with pranks since The Canterbury Tales in 1392, so it’s another thing we can blame on Geoffrey Chaucer, if not the Romans, who had a festival called Hilaria about a week later. Of course, there’s an April Fool’s Day horror movie, released in 1986 and well worth watching, but I felt that it was a little too obvious for my Horror Movie Calendar project. Instead, I chose another April Fool’s Day that was released in 1986 but was renamed to Slaughter High to avoid confusion (or a lawsuit from the lawyers of Paramount, a studio with deep pockets). To highlight the magnificent power of irony, this version was clearly shot first, given that its lead actor, Simon Scuddamore, committed suicide in November 1984, right after the film wrapped. It’s very possible that the April Fool’s Day everybody knows wasn’t even started until after that date. Further irony lies in these two slasher movies, a thoroughly American genre, were shot in Canada and the UK respectively. Then again, it did all begin in Italy with A Bay of Blood...

This isn’t a particularly notable slasher, but then the genre isn’t known for its notable films; it’s known for its memorable maniacs and its imaginative deaths. Slaughter High is perhaps the dumbest classic slasher I’ve ever seen, but it has a memorable maniac and it has a few highly imaginative deaths, so it’s built up a minor cult following over the decades. I could even see the film growing in esteem after repeated viewings because, while it aims to be a slasher, it’s perhaps unintentionally also an early and solid example of the urban legend horror movie. It gets at least 100% better if we decide to imagine that this isn’t a real movie with a story we’re intended to believe and decide instead that it’s a YouTube video about an urban legend that makes no sense but people are talking about anyway. After all, in this modern world of alternative facts and perception equalling truth, what’s to say that isn’t what it is. If we believe it, then it’s true, right? What if we want to believe it, because it would be better that way? Does that work?

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

United Trash (1996)

Director: Christoph Schlingensief
Writer: Christoph Schlingensief and Oskar Roehler
Stars: Udo Kier, Kitten Natividad, Joachim Tomaschewsky, Johnny Pfeiffer, Jones Muguse, Miklós Koniger and Thomas Chibwe

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

I’ve brought you some weird movies as part of my Weird Wednesdays project, but perhaps I’ll never be able to bring you another one weirder than this, a 1996 art film from German auteur Christoph Schlingensief, rather appropriately called United Trash. I am sure that the director had a serious purpose, namely to provide a socio-political commentary on the failure of the United Nations in Rwanda, but he chose to do it in an incredibly offhand manner. What he delivered was a sort of screwball comedy, in which no taboo is too low to exploit. It’s what you might get if Luis Buñuel took aim at western political and religious power structures and John Waters rewrote his script. If that sounds schizophrenic, it really is. The entire approach screams for analysis, as if there are deep and meaningful metaphors in every scene, but they’re all smothered in faeces and hurled at us by a chimp tripping on acid. The end result is somehow both aberrant and magnetic; we really don’t want to watch at all but we just can’t look away.

Let me introduce you to the key characters and you’ll get the idea. First up is Werner Brenner, a German general working for the United Nations somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa; we’re never told where, but the film was shot in Zimbabwe, so that’s as good a location as any. Brenner, played by Schlingensief regular Udo Kier, who I now see has been superbly described as the ‘Ron Jeremy of cult movies’ because he’s in so damn many of them, is clearly effete Prussian nobility which, to Schlingensief, translates to poor leader, flagrant queen and scat muncher. His wife, Martha, is Kitten Natividad, voluptuous vixen of many a Russ Meyer film, who’s racking up (pun not intended) quite the cult career of her own. She’s a former American hooker, whose debauched past (a twenty year stretch for exhibitionism) has been inexplicably replaced with a sexless present as a bored housefrau. She begins proceedings heavily pregnant and the baby shows up as black as the ace of spades, so that life change surely didn’t happen the way we’re told.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Writer: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante and Virginia Grey

Index: 2017 Centennials.

One of the most consistently overlooked filmmakers in American movie history is Sam Fuller. I first learned about him on a British TV show called Moviedrome, presented by Alex Cox, the director of cult films like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Cox programmed two of Fuller’s films in a double bill: a western called Run of the Arrow and a war picture called Verboten! Both were low budget, although there were many actors that I recognised. What struck me then was what strikes me now whenever I see another Sam Fuller film, namely that he does a lot with a little and that lot includes things that we aren’t conditioned to expect from American movies. His most controversial pictures came later, like this one, as well as its predecessor, Shock Corridor, also starring Constance Towers, and White Dog, but he stretched taboos early and often in ways that don’t always seem controversial today. For instance, he often wrote films about marginalised characters, such as thieves or prostitutes, and films that featured multicultural casts.

I’d seen The Naked Kiss before and, when I started to look for a good choice to remember the career of Virginia Grey on what would have been her one hundredth birthday, it came quickly to mind. Any opportunity to watch a Sam Fuller picture is a good one and I was keen on taking a second run through this one to see what I’d missed a decade and change ago. One thing I discovered was that Grey isn’t in it anywhere near as much as I remembered her being, but the scenes that she does have are memorable and superbly performed with a great deal of power. She’s easily the best actor in the movie, even if she’s billed fourth after Towers in the lead and Anthony Eisley and Michael Dante in support. She plays a madam called Candy, who runs a cathouse called Candy à la Carte with a selection of Bon Bon Girls. How her part interacts with the film as a whole mirrors its moral progression and the film has no point unless it progresses morally and we notice that.

Devil’s Angels (1967)

Director: Daniel Haller
Writer: Charles B. Griffith
Stars: John Cassevetes, Beverly Adams, Mimsy Farmer and Maurice McEndree

Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

The landscape of American film changed in the late sixties in many ways and not only because American life changed too. Many of the things that the industry was used to and could safely rely on just weren’t the case any longer: the studios didn’t own theatres any more, television was eating heavily into ticket sales and the Production Code, which governed film ‘decency’, was increasingly being ignored. Society was in upheaval, with the civil rights movement and the counterculture, not to mention anti-Vietnam War protests. The studio heads, realising that their pictures were becoming increasingly irrelevant, eventually gave in, admitted that they were now completely out of touch and began to give large sums of money to whoever might possibly be in touch. This led to the New Hollywood of the early seventies, with the most fascinating set of movies seen in America since the pre-code era back in the early thirties. The studios didn’t get their mojo back until Jaws in 1975, arguably the first modern blockbuster.

If the big studios were akin to cruise liners, so couldn’t turn round quickly, indie filmmakers were speedboats and they could turn on a dime. Companies such as American International Pictures (A.I.P.) and filmmakers like Roger Corman, who shot many movies for them to distribute, could leap on every fad and have topical features in drive-ins in no time. To see where New Hollywood got their ideas (not to mention most of their key people), check out the indie films of the sixties. Biker flicks were just one sub-genre of exploitation but they were an important one in the late sixties and early seventies as people wanted to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Many were carbon copies of their predecessors but others took the opportunity to explore themes that the studios weren’t willing to touch yet. Motorpsycho, from Russ Meyer, muses on PTSD; the first Billy Jack film, The Born Losers, adds prejudice against Native Americans; and, of course, Easy Rider became the definition of ‘a generation lost in space’ in 1969.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Maniac Cop (1988)

Director: William Lustig
Writer: Larry Cohen
Stars: Tom Atkins, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon, Richard Roundtree, William Smith, Robert Z’Dar and Sheree North

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

No, this isn’t a politically charged drama about the current state of police violence, even if we have a prominent African American actor in the cast; Richard Roundtree actually plays the police commissioner. Our title character isn’t driven by race, he’s driven by revenge and that places this in an interesting category. It’s a horror movie, first and foremost, but it’s also a revenge flick; that my copy is on the other side of a DVD from The Exterminator isn’t just because James Glickenhaus executive produced this and directed that. And, of course, it’s a product of the late eighties, arguably picking up from RoboCop in 1987 and creating a hilariously surreal trend of mashing up every sub-genre imaginable with cop movies. Every year from this point on brought a fresh new example of Something New and Ridiculous Cop: Psycho Cop in 1989, Vampire Cop and Omega Cop in 1990, Karate Cop and Samurai Cop in 1991, Cyborg Cop in 1993, Scanner Cop in 1994, Gladiator Cop in 1995... and onwards. We’ll ignore Kindergarten Cop, of course, to keep sane.

This certainly looks like a cop movie to begin with, with Officer Cordell putting on his uniform with all its accoutrements in slo-mo as the opening credits roll. We’re in New York, the twin towers very much in evidence in the opening long shot, and Cordell is one of the city’s finest. The problem is that the public’s trust in the boys in blue is being rapidly eroded by a series of brutal murders at the hands of one of them. First up is Cassie Philips, who gets the better of a pair of muggers only to stumble into the wrong cop for help. He promptly lifts her off the ground by her throat and snaps her neck. ‘It was a cop, man,’ the muggers tell the authorities, ‘a big cop!’ And, while there are disbelievers, Frank McCrae, NYPD veteran in the requisite trenchcoat, believes those dumb kids. He doesn’t see how they could have done it and, as the killings continue, he reasons that it’s someone inside the department, not the commissioner’s wishful suggestion that it’s someone merely impersonating a cop in an attempt to discredit the force.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb vs. the Monsters (1962)

Director: Roberto Rodriguez
Writers: Fernando Morales Ortiz and Adolfo Torres Portillo, from a story by Fernando Morales Ortiz and Adolfo Torres Portillo
Stars: María Gracia, Cesario Quezadas, Jose Elias Moreno, Manuel ‘Loco’ Valdes and El Enano ‘Santanon’

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Once upon a time, so long ago that I can’t remember how long, I stumbled onto the surreal joy that is the filmography of K. Gordon Murray. He was an entrepreneur who borrowed a wild combination of children’s movies and horror features from Mexico, dubbed them poorly into English, gave them new, often more outrageous titles, and released them to the American market. I don’t know if I popped my Murray cherry on The Brainiac or The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, but I revelled in these pictures and was rather happy to discover, on moving to the American southwest, that many of them were easily available in dollar stores. However, I’m a strong believer in experiencing films in their original forms and it was only much later that I started to find some of these Mexican films sans the later Murray treatment. Sadly Mexican movies are rarely available in the U.S. with English subtitles, a poor situation that I really hope starts to change, but those that are tend to make a lot more sense than Murray’s bastardised versions.

This is one of Murray’s signature films, under the title of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood. The more recent DVD completes the original Mexican title, as Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los monstruos has more than just our two childhood heroes, it has them facing off against the Monsters, the primary reason why this film is such a blast, in the very title. Let’s have fair advertising, please! If the Mormon family round the corner took their kids to see Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood, they might reasonably think that they would have plumped for a safe family friendly movie, only to be progressively traumatised by the wild array of monsters sprawled across their screen. I would love to be a fly on the wall as they fought for their refunds. Would they be more upset about the Satan-worshipping Queen Witch that they stole from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the paedophile who gets strung up to be used as a piñata? Maybe the monster who looks like Carrot Top if he was a fish man from Innsmouth.