Index Pages

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.

Sunday 12 March 2017

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Directors: Robert Hamer
Writer: Angus MacPhail, Robert Hamer and Henry Cornelius, based on the novel by Arthur La Bern
Stars: Googie Withers, Jack Warner and John McCallum

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Any opportunity to watch an Ealing movie is a good opportunity and the hundredth birthday of one of that studio’s greatest stars, Googie Withers, is even better. There are plenty of other reasons too. Withers stars with her husband to be, John McCallum; their marriage in 1948 lasted until his death in 2010 and she outlived him by only a year. It also features a number of recognisable faces from the British post-war period: Jack Warner, Hermione Baddeley and Alfie Bass, to name just three (Sid James is uncredited as a bandleader, but I couldn’t find him even with frame advance). The superb cinematography is by the legendary Douglas Slocombe, as he was establishing his name at Ealing; he would go on to win three BAFTAs (from ten nods), be nominated for three Oscars and shoot three Indiana Jones pictures. And, if you still want more, it’s one of the most underrated gems from this era of British film, exploring the complexities and interconnections of one memorable Sunday in Bethnal Green.

I had a further personal reason to watch, namely that, if you take my family back only a few generations, we were bootmakers in the east end of London and many of the births, marriages and deaths that I’ve tracked were filed in Bethnal Green. I’m too young to remember this era myself, but my parents were kids at the time and, while both their families had moved a little further to the east by this point, I’m sure they would both recognise a lot of the reference points from their own childhoods. As the film’s trailer suggests, this was described as a ‘symphony of London’s East End’, long before Eastenders took that further into the world of soap opera, and it’s a fair description. It’s amazing to realise just how much is crammed into an hour and a half and it’s rare for a movie to feel this immersive. Most of us will leave it wondering where we might fit in this world: would we try to escape it by landing a good prospect or settle down to darts and Guinness at the Two Compasses? Hopefully we wouldn’t turn into the inept crooks.

Monday 6 March 2017

The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

Directors: Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat
Writers: Frank Launder and Ivor Herbert, from the story by Frank Launder and Sidney & Leslie Gilliat, inspired by the original drawings of Ronald Searle
Stars: Frankie Howerd and Dora Bryan

Index: 2017 Centennials.

By the time I was born in 1971, the infamous St. Trinian’s boarding school for girls had been shuttered for half a decade, but it had already become enough of a British institution that the name, and what it represented, hadn’t gone away and, in fact, still hasn’t to this day. I saw this feature at some point during my childhood, probably on television, and parts of it were still lounging around in my memory, but it’s less a film now than it was. In 2017, a decade after the franchise was rebooted, to adopt modern terminology, it’s more of a time capsule than a movie, because the writers wrapped up the original series with a wallop by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the script. In fact, this is more of a caper film, a spy picture and a chase flick than it ever is a school story, odd for a series that’s inspired by, named for and set in a school. In short, it highlighted that times had changed and it was surely the right moment for the girls to hang up their hockey sticks and call it a day. Well, at least for a while.

For those who don’t know St. Trinian’s, they began as a set of cartoons created by artist Ronald Searle and published in a magazine called Lilliput. The first was published in 1941, but after Searle had been called up for service and sent to Singapore. It was a polite cartoon without a hint of the brutality and delinquency that would soon come to characterise the school; that change was because of how Searle spent the Second World War. Officially listed as missing, he was confined to the Changi prison camp by the Japanese, then sent to work on the Siam-Burma railway, now famous as the setting for The Bridge on the River Kwai. He suffered from malaria, beri-beri, skin disease and ulcers, he shrank to eighty plus pounds and he was temporarily paralysed at one point by a pick-axe to the spine. Yet he continued to draw throughout this time, mostly documenting his war experiences in drawings that he hid under the mattresses of prisoners dying from cholera. He survived the war and so did three hundred of those drawings.