Tuesday, May 3, 2016

DOLEMITE

D'Urville Martin, 1975
Starring: Rudy Ray Moore, D'Urville Martin, Lady Reed, Hy Pyke
Comedian Rudy Ray Moore’s notorious first film, Dolemite (1975), which he produced, wrote, and starred in, has recently been given the treatment it so richly deserves by cult label Vinegar Syndrome. While I’ve primarily associated the company with obscure sexploitation releases like The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon LewisThe Telephone Book(1971), and Bijou (1972), they’ve also given some attention to forgotten horror titles likeRunaway Nightmare (1982) and Night Train to Terror (1985). However, their release of Dolemite — which includes both a Blu-ray disc and a DVD — has really gone above and beyond, sporting a brand new transfer and a solid lineup of special features.
After being framed by the gangster Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, also the film’s director), Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore) has spent a few years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s released in order to help the authorities capture Green and he teams up with the madam Queen Bee (Lady Reed), who runs his whorehouse. She’s been busy while Dolemite has been in prison, informing him, “When you were doing your time, I put your girls through karate school.” Thanks to their training and Dolemite’s repossession of his nightclub, The Total Experience, Dolemite will soon be ready to take on Green and his silent partner, the corrupt Mayor Daley (Hy Pyke).
Grindhouse at its finest, Dolemite is one of those films with a level of appeal that probably shouldn’t make sense, but is somehow undeniable. Moore, ever a comedian, basically made one of the greatest blaxploitation films of all time that also happens to be a successful spoof of the genre. It would be easy to dismiss Dolemite as half-assed — replete with low production values, ridiculously jumpy editing, questionable acting, and hilarious dialogue — but you would be a fool to do so, because this is surely one of the most enjoyable films of the ‘70s. As one of Dolemite’s girls in the movie quips, “Look for yourself motherfucker.”
Blaxploitation is one of those genres that I love with a very genuine sense of devotion, but don’t write about as much as I should, because it’s perhaps a little difficult to explain in today’s culture of social justice warriors and hysterical trigger warnings. If you’re offended by profanity, racism, or any sort of non-PC language, rest assured that Dolemite himself is an equal opportunity offender. A corrupt cop — who happens to have cocaine smeared on his upper lip — says to him, “You’ve got all them black bitches working for you.” Dolemite responds, “You forgot about the white ones.” And sure, he’s a pimp, but his girls can defend themselves with lethal force, and he’s clearly both a lover and a fighter. He finds out his former girlfriend has turned on him — which would warrant at minimum a slap across the face if not a beating or even a death sentence in many other exploitation titles — but he simply tells her, “I’m going to give you a fucking you’ll never forget,” a promise on which he then delivers.
Dolemite has a number of batshit elements, almost too many to list. Of course there is a fair amount of nudity and the requisite sex scenes, but don’t miss the blaxploitation’s most horrific butt massage, kung fu, dance scenes, someone shooting up heroin, prison sequences, and some of the wildest outfits in American cinema. There are also plenty of instances where Dolemite does nothing more than wax poetic (often rhyming), which was actually part of Moore’s early standup as the character. I have an inexplicable love for any movie that has its own theme song — for instance, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen The Mutilator (1984)which thoroughly does not deserve its own song — and this one has a predictably enjoyable score from Arthur Wright, also of Savage! (1973) andThe Human Tornado (1976).
The dialogue is perhaps the crown jewel of the film. Dolemite’s most famous and frequently quoted line is “Can you dig it?” but this is really only scraping the bottom of the barrel of verbal gold that Dolemite has to offer. My favorite line is his motto (“Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game”), but he comments on everything from fashion (“I don’t want to get in my car with this shit on”) to spirituality (“If you ever see a ghost, cut the motherfucker”) and even comes up with some great nicknames, exclaiming, “Well, if it isn’t the hamburger pimp,” when he sees an old friend. It’s Moore’s sheer charisma that propels this movie forward and, almost more than Shaft (1971) or Foxy Brown (1974), or even my favorite blaxploitation western, Boss Nigger (1975), this might just be the coolest movie ever made.
Vinegar Syndrome has really delivered with the Dolemite special features and if I haven’t already given you enough reasons to pick up this release, they are definitely the icing on the cake. In addition to the aforementioned two discs and a great-looking new transfer, you can choose from two framing options. One of which is a more conventional presentation and the other, original ratio allows you to see boom mics and other things that don’t necessarily belong in the frame, but add to the charm. Also included is an informative, entertaining audio commentary from Rudy Ray Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray, as well as a roughly 20-minute documentary, ”I, Dolemite,” on Moore with input from Murray.
There are also two featurettes, “Locations: Then and Now” and “Lady Reed Uncut,” the latter of which looks at Moore’s primary female collaborator, as well as trailers and some spectacular reversible cover art. Vinegar Syndrome will also be remastering and releasing Dolemite’s sequel, The Human Tornado (1976) — due out in a few weeks — and allegedly other Moore titles like Petey Wheatstraw (1977) and Disco Godfather(1979). If the Dolemite Blu-ray is any indication, these will collectively be some of the best releases of the year. If you disagree, all I can say is, “What the shit is this,” a line that Dolemite delivers more like a statement than a question.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Monday, May 2, 2016

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)

Freddie Francis, 1972
Starring: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ralph Richardson

This marks director Freddie Francis’s return to Amicus after a couple of films off and it’s known as one of their classics for a reason. Tales from the Crypt is the studio’s fourth anthology film and it’s an improvement in almost every way over their earlier portmanteau efforts like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Torture Garden. Genuinely scary at times, with a bleak and downright nasty tone throughout, much of the source material is pulled from EC Comics series like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a title they would borrow for their fifth anthology film, which can be seen as a loose sequel. For those of you who only know the title Tales from the Crypt from the US TV show, this is an obvious precursor and is similar in tone.

In the framing story, five tourists find themselves separated from their group while in a series of catacomb tunnels. A man known as the Crypt Keeper offers to tell all of them their fortunes, which generally end with grisly horrors. The first story, “And All Through the House,” is by far the best and is still genuinely terrifying. On Christmas Eve, a woman (Joan Collins at her bitchiest) murders her husband while her daughters is upstairs, in bed, waiting for Santa to arrive. Unfortunately the woman learns that a homicidal maniac has escaped in a Santa costume and may be heading right for her house. I absolutely love Christmas horror (and just Christmas in general) and, perhaps thanks to its brevity, this is one of the best examples. Collins is great as a murderous spouse who whacks her husband with obvious relief, but her just desserts are, if anything, even more spectacular.

The second story, “Reflection of Death,” has the same mean spirited tone and also follows another unhappy spouse, but sadly does not measure up to the first episode. Carl Maitland (Ian Hendry of Theatre of Blood) is leaving his wife for his girlfriend, but when they are on the road, he has a horrifying dream. In it, they crash the car and have a terrible accident. Months later, he returns from the dead disfigured and deformed and seeks out his wife and then his girlfriend, who recoil in horror. He wakes whole and alive, but his screams alarm his girlfriend, who is behind the wheel… This one is probably my least favorite of the whole film and I think Hendry is wasted. He’s great at being a smug horse’s ass, which he is a little bit here, but he really should be given a bit more scenery to chew.

“Poetic Justice,” the third episode, is one of the best, though it’s really going to tug at your heartstrings. Peter Cushing stars as Arthur Grimsdyke, a lonely old man who lives in a ragged house, much to the chagrin of his uppity neighbors, who want to purchase his valuable property. Grimsdyke repairs old toys and gives them to the neighborhood children, who are his only friends since his wife passed away. (Sadly, Cushing’s beloved wife Helen passed away the year before and Grumsdyke refers to deceased wife by the same name in what is either completely heart-wrenching or a touching, brief tribute.) His neighbor (Robin Philips) decides to drive Grimsdyke out. He has his beloved dogs taken away, convinces the neighborhood that he’s a pedophile, and drives the poor man to suicide, on Valentine’s Day no less, with a series of nasty (rhyming) greeting cards. But Grimsdyke will of course get the last laugh…

The fourth tale, “Wish You Were Here,” is a demented twist on the classic horror tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” A businessman (Richard Greene) goes bankrupt, but he and his wife (Barbara Murray) realize they have a strange statue in their home that promises to grant them wishes. Suffice to say that they are not careful enough for what they wish for and the sequence ends with the wife bringing her husband back from the dead, having cursed him to living eternally while suffering the horrific pain of being embalmed alive. The last tale, “Blind Alleys,” is another one of the best and features the horrible Major Rogers (Nigel Patrick) stingily running a home for the blind. When he scrimps on their food, bedding, medical care, and heat during the winter, they rise up against him (led by the always terrifying Patrick Magee).

Like all of these Amicus portmanteau films, the characters learn that they are already dead and are destined to suffer an eternity of torment to pay for their misdeeds. I’ve heard other people describe the film as schlocky or heavy-handed, which I can’t really say is wrong, but this is the type of movie that you’re either really going to enjoy or that’s going to make you groan and roll your eyes. There are some decent performances, particularly from Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper, who borrows a bit from Burgess Meredith’s ringmaster in Torture Garden and isn’t the desiccated skeleton of the ‘90s Tales from the Crypt television series, but is a sardonic man wearing a cloak who gives each character a pert, “I told you so” look as they inevitably learn of their fates. There’s some nice make-up from Hammer’s Roy Ashton, though anyone only interested in explicit sex or gore will want to pass this up. But if you found the earlier anthology films too silly, there is some humor here, but it’s not the campy, tongue-in-cheek tone of their earlier films and is much grimmer and more adult-themed. Pick it up on Blu-ray as a double feature with Vault of Horror!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

L'IMPORTANT C'EST D'AIMER

After the reception of The Devil (1972) drove director Andrzej Zuławski out of Poland and into France, he didn’t make another feature film for three years, apparently filling his days in Paris with work as a writer. And though he spent a significant amount of time in the country as a student, his first French feature, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), feels more like a generally European film and less specifically like a French one. Perhaps this is due to the melting pot of cast and crew members, namely the involvement of Austrian arthouse star Romy Schneider, Italian action and crime film star Fabio Testi, the incomparable Klaus Kinski in one of his greatest performances, and Zuławski’s genius camera operator (and frequent cinematographer) Andrzej Jaroszewicz. Perhaps this — along with the film’s central themes of love and longing — is also due to the fact that L’important c’est d’aimer was made by an exile, a man separated from his wife and young child.

While I don’t necessarily think it’s his most accomplished work from a technical perspective, against the odds L’important c’est d’aimer — which is generally translated as The Most Important Thing: Love or The Most Important Thing is to Love — seems to be my favorite of all Zuławski’s films. I say against the odds because by all rights my favorite should be The Third Part of the Night (1971), an absurdist horror drama set during the apocalyptic Nazi occupation of Poland. (To be fair, that’s my second favorite, and you can read my worshipful essay on it here.)

In many ways, L’important c’est d’aimer is the complete opposite of The Third Part of the Night: Zuławski’s first film with a contemporary setting, at its heart it’s a melodrama. And unlike the majority of his films, it has a straightforward narrative. It’s arguably the most accessible film of the first 20 years of his career as a filmmaker, a definite outlier up until maybe 1991’s La note bleue (another of my favorites, of course).

Loosely based on Christopher Frank’s novel La nuit américaine (renamed to avoid being confused with Truffaut’s La nuit américaine from 1973), the film follows the seemingly ill-fated relationship between a photographer, Servais (Testi), and a down on her luck actress, Nadine (Schneider). Though she longs for a legitimate acting career, she is forced to support herself by appearing in cheap sexploitation films because her immature husband, Jacques (French pop star Jacques Dutronc), spends all his time and money collecting photographs of famous actresses. Servais, who occasionally works as a photographer on porn shoots for a lower-level gangster, borrows money from his employer to partially bankroll an avant garde production of Richard III, with the guarantee that Nadine will be cast in the lead female role. Tensions between Servais, Nadine, and Jacques soon come to a head, setting in motion tragic events.

Among cult film circles — whether we’re talking arthouse, exploitation, or horror films — “melodrama” often feels like a dirty word and has essentially become a pejorative describing a work as shallow or frivolous. But in Thomas Elsaesser’s seminal essay, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” he argues that melodrama possesses a “radical ambiguity” and the ability to be powerfully subversive. My background is actually in theater history (due to a perhaps ill-advised obsession with both Georg Büchner and August Strindberg) and I’d love to launch into a discussion of the origins of melodrama in the 18th and 19th centuries, all the way from The Beggar’s Opera (1728) to The Bells (1871), but suffice it to say that Merriam Webster defines melodrama as “drama in which many exciting events happen and the characters have very strong or exaggerated emotions.” Additionally, whether we’re talking about film, drama, or literature, these two constants are joined by a tendency towards somewhat unbelievable coincidence in terms of plot and a sense of strongly polarized morals.

Zuławski was never one for black and white views of morality, preferring a level of greyscale that I think is what makes him so uncomfortable for so many viewers and thus so overlooked. Like many of the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, arguably the greatest melodramatist of his generation, L’important c’est d’aimer’s chief strength lies in the fact that it is at once an exceptional work of melodrama — for instance, the heart-wrenching score from prolific French composer George Delerue is the only thing in existence that can make me cry on command — and also a masterful subversion of the genre. The film’s primary romantic act is a suicide and there is a certain irony to the fact that its central romantic relationship is never consummated, despite the fact that both members of the couple work in pornography and there is frequent sex and nudity throughout the film.

Elsaesser writes that, “what is typical of this form of melodrama is that the characters’ behavior is often pathetically at variance with the real objectives they want to achieve. A sequence of substitute actions creates a kind of vicious circle in which the close nexus of cause and effect is somehow broken and-in an often overtly Freudian sense-displaced” (79). This sentiment particularly applies to Nadine, who is trapped between an unfulfilling marriage and a disappointing career, neither allowing her to escape from the other. Schneider, whose performance revitalized her career and won her the inaugural César for Best Actress, looks truly exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown. Nadine’s husband, so obsessed with starlets, prefers the fantasy presented by his posters and film stills to living with a real actress and is unable to provide her with emotional, sexual, or financial support.

This stalemate is broken by the appearance of Servais in one of Zuławski’s many great “love at first sight” scenes, where a character is instantly transformed by the simple act of viewing a second character, a moment that will permanently alter the course of events. In his essay “The Sacred Conspiracy,” Georges Bataille wrote, “Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, but it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love” (Visions of Excess, 179). Ecstasy in this case does not merely mean a sense of euphoria or bliss, but is akin to a religious or mystical experience, one in which the subject enters a trancelike state and the self is, even temporarily, transcended.

If Zuławski’s films have any sort of consistent moral message, it seems to be that people are unhappy, but they don’t deserve to be — something he says almost verbatim in the commentary for Possession — and his plots often loosely follow a metaphorical ascent from the underworld. While some of his later films show characters escaping this misery and attempting to transform themselves through art — cinema in La femme publique, writing and music in La note bleue, photography in La fidélité, and so on — love seems to be the purest, though most painful, means to complete this alchemical process.

In the case of the melodramatic, or even conventional, hero, Servais is a curious, subversive example. Elsaesser explains that, “one of the typical features of the classical Hollywood movie has been that the hero was defined dynamically, as the centre of a continuous movement” (80). Servais, on the other hand, is almost pathologically passive for such a stereotypically macho male lead, a part for which Fabio Testi was perfectly cast, despite the unlikeliness of him starring in an arthouse melodrama. He is a pornographer (if perhaps reluctantly) and something of a lothario, but is unwilling to or incapable of pursuing a loveless sexual relationship with Nadine.

As a photographer, he records life rather than encountering it directly (much like the lead character of Zuławski’s later La fidélité), and spends much of the film spectating the action from empty theater seats, inspiring Nadine to call him the “Phantom.” Pygmalion-type relationships exist frequently in Zuławski’s films and though Servais encourages Nadine in her career — seemingly more than anyone else ever has — he resists forming this type of bond, generally remaining a mute witness rather than a motivational force. His intervention in her life is actually one of the ways in which the book and film differ. In Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin’s Shakespeare on Screen, she writes, “In the book, he himself writes the script; in the film, he agrees to bankroll Laurent Messala’s production of Richard III because he will cast Nadine as Lady Anne, ‘one of the best female roles ever” (81). This primarily financial participation is connected with one of the film’s main themes of moral and artistic prostitution.

While all the characters prostitute themselves to varying degrees, Servais seems to genuinely want nothing in exchange from Nadine. He effectively ends the film in a parallel to his opening scene where he first snuck onto the softcore set to photograph Nadine, had to bribe a member of the crew, and was beaten for his troubles. At the end of the film he is effectively bankrupted by financing Richard III for her and – in a traditionally melodramatic coincidence – is badly beaten by his former mob associates. Though by all rights they should have killed him, he is left alive, bleeding and crying on the floor.

There is something fundamentally childlike and naive about both Servais and Nadine, which heightens the contrast between innocent romantic love and sexual exploitation that is at the core of the film. Nadine’s real drive is not just a struggle to find a fulfilling love, but an almost existential struggle to comprehend love itself. At one point she breaks down in a café, smashing a glass (one of Zuławski’s often used visual tropes), and telling Jacques that “I love you means nothing.” Out of all the characters of L’important c’est d’aimer, her personal journey is perhaps the most profound, and, unlikely the majority of Zuławski’s heroines, she is even given a completely unexpected happy ending.

As with Servais, her actions in the opening and closing scenes have a direct parallel to each other. In the beginning of the film, Servais encounters her on a film set, in the middle of a scene where she is straddling a bleeding man. She is commanded to deliver her dialogue, “I love you,” but cannot bring herself to convincingly do so and begins to cry when Servais’ takes her picture. By the end of the film, she is leaning over a bloody, beaten Servais and is able to say, without hesitation and with much genuine depth of meaning, “I love you.”

A major change that Zuławski made from Christopher Frank’s novel is actually the role of Jacques, her husband, and the weight of the love triangle, Zuławski’s favorite dramatic structure. While Jacques is barely present in the novel, he has a greatly elevated importance here and the dynamic between photographer, model/actress, and cinephile/photograph collector is an elegant one that places a nearly equal emphasis on the twin themes of art and love. Of course, they are not trafficking in the “high” art of La femme publique or La note bleue, or the commercial world of La fidélité. In a sense, L’important c’est d’aimer is so subversive because it inserts the trappings of a conventional, bourgeois melodrama into the squalid world of pornography.

It’s likely that Zuławski was slyly commenting on some of the changes in French cinema during this period. The recently relaxed censorship laws allowed filmmakers to include increased amounts of nudity and softcore sex, resulting in titles like Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (1974) and Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974) and The Story of O (1975). These ushered in dozens of imitators that veered further and further from arthouse sensibilities and closer to low budget pornography. One of the film’s most shocking, unexpected moments actually occurs when Servais leaves the exploitation set where he first spies Nadine, and finds his way to a hardcore porn shoot, where it is revealed that he is actually late for work. Later, some of Nadine’s films are discussed – the titled bandied about the most is Nymphocula – and Nadine’s soon-to-be costar on Richard III (Kinski) enthusiastically recognizes the title and describes the plot as, “Two dykes in a castle with a dwarf!” He asserts that Nadine is “great” in the film.

Zuławski – who himself featured a liveried, Jew’s harp-playing dwarf in The Devil – seems less to be taking a pot shot at exploitation cinema and more the cult of obsession and fascination that surrounds actresses in general. He makes no distinction between Nymphocula and the exploitative power of mainstream cinema as represented by Jacques’ picture collection and his slavish devotion to fantasy over reality. This jab at the cult of the actress is almost ironic – and is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek – considering that Zuławski’s prowess as a director is largely bound up in his relationships with lead actresses, causing several of them to win major European filmmaking awards.

The hysterical, liberating, and almost physically unbelievable performances he wrenched from many of his lead actresses – such as his first wife Małgorzata Braunek, Isabelle Adjani, Valerie Kaprisky, longtime partner Sophie Marceau, and Iwona Petry – is perhaps more subtly expressed by Schneider, though she is no less impactful. In interviews, Zuławski occasionally spoke about how he convinced actresses to physically transform themselves, to shed conventional notions of beauty in favor of raw emotion that often made them appear ugly: Braunek’s horrible contortions, Adjani’s ecstatic vomiting, and Marceau’s snotty, swollen, and tear-streaked face. While Schneider escaped many of these physical injustices, he convinced her to abandon the thick layers of makeup that she felt preserved her youthful appearance (she was in her mid-‘30s during filming, though Nadine claims to be 30). In some sense, Nadine is ugly and despicable because she is so helpless, utterly adrift in a world where she is unable to either find a solid mooring or take responsibility for herself.

This provides a tangible link with her character in Richard III, Lady Anne. Historically, Anne is one of England’s more ignored queens, given shockingly little agency compared to women like Margaret of Anjou or Elizabeth Woodville. In Richard III, Anne is seduced by Richard over a corpse; not that of her husband, as is widely misunderstood, but over her father-in-law, though her husband is also recently dead. Despite being physically deformed, Richard undertakes a seduction of Anne defined by mannered speech, as he is a brilliant orator, and surprising sexual excess in Act 1, Scene 2. He says beautiful things to her, such as “Your beauty, that did haunt me in my sleep/ To undertake the death of all the world,/ So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.” For Richard, this seduction is essentially another social mask — a favorite theme of Zuławski’s — one that allows him to exceed his vision of himself as “deformed, unfinished.”

While there are notable parallels between L’important c’est d’aimer and Richard III, Servais’s seduction of Nadine could not be more different than Richard’s seduction of Anne. Instead of providing a parallel between the two male leads, Zuławski uses the theatrical production — and the play that it so flamboyantly adapts, with a performance from Kinski that must be seen to be believed — as an important contrast. The use of theater that began in The Devil with Hamlet would figure strongly into all Zuławski’s films for at least the next decade.

Here Richard III seems primarily to function as a way to foreshadow the death of a husband and the subsequent seduction of his wife. Jacques’ ultimate sacrifice — a romantic act of suicide, rather than murder as in Shakespeare — is referenced several times before it actually occurs. Upon meeting Servais for the first time, Jacques mutters into Nadine’s ear, “I dreamt you were pouring Coca Cola in my ear. A nasty death!” This Hamlet reference indicates not only his impending death by poison, but also the central love triangle, as, like Richard III, Hamlet features a subplot about a man killing another man and then seducing his widow. During rehearsals for Richard III, the director of the play, Messala (Guy Mairesse), is unable to get the performance he wants out of Nadine and convinces Jacques, who happens to be on set, to lay in the coffin in the hope that it will inspire her.

Jacques’ actual death — agonizingly painful suicide by rat poison in a public bathroom — is not an act of violence or tragedy, but one of intense love. Suicide is a recurring theme in Zuławski’s films and it is often represented as a pathway to liberation. In this case, Jacques frees Nadine from self-imposed but steadfast bonds. In Bataille’s Guilty, he wrote, “Eroticism is the brink of the abyss. I’m leaning out over deranged horror (at this point my eyes roll back in my head). The abyss is the foundation of the possible. We’re brought to the edge of the same abyss by uncontrolled laughter or ecstasy. From this comes a ‘questioning’ of everything possible. This is the stage of rupture, of letting go of things, of looking forward to death” (109). L’important c’est d’aimer concludes with this great letting go, perhaps an unconventional but unequivocally happy ending, one that would not see its like in any of Zuławski’s film until Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), his love letter to Sophie Marceau that ends with the suicide of a couple.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?

Bill Bain, 1972
Starring: Vanessa Howard, Mona Washbourne, Paul Nicholas

A horrible young man, John, tries to rob his grandmother of her fortune and home… by scaring her to death. He enlists his sociopathic girlfriend Jill to help him convince Granny that a dangerous, ageist gang is kidnapping and murdering the elderly throughout England. Through the use of fake or purposefully misinterpreted news and TV broadcasts, as well as “secret” conversations she’s not meant to overhear and strange phone calls, they successfully goad her into a fatal heart attack, not suspecting that Granny might have some surprises of her own.

Bizarrely PG-rated, this film is probably the most obscure of all Amicus’s horror film titles, though I can’t quite figure out why. Based on Laurence Moody’s novel The Ruthless Ones, it’s actually a coproduction with Palomar Pictures, a US company, and is one of several examples of the US chipping in funds to British genre films in the early ‘70s. Part of its obscurity is almost certainly due to the fact that it was completely ignored by British theaters, though it was marketed as an exploitation film in the US. It certainly lacks the fun, breezy, and often tongue-in-cheek tone of Amicus’s anthology films and has more in common with the stark yet restrained rash of chillers that Hammer made in 1972, like Demons of the Mind, Fear in the Night, and Straight on Till Morning. There is a decidedly nasty tone – it’s definitely Amicus’s most nihilistic film – and does have a little bit of an exploitation movie feel, as John and Jill’s plan to do away with his grandmother is almost absurdly complex and incredibly mean-spirited. 

At its heart, this is actually quite a conservative morality tale. Unlike Hammer or Tigon, Amicus is actually full of stories about unlikable people being hoisted on their own petards and though this is a more unusual example, it fits in with various segments from portmanteau films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden, and The House That Dripped Blood, where nefarious protagonists are served up Grand Guignol-style punishments. This is also essentially a gas-lighting film — where one character is slowly, subtly driven insane by one or more perpetrators — but it is one of the most atypical examples of this subgenre, beaten in the utter weirdness category only by something like Vittorio De Sica’s The Condemned of Altona (1962).

What Became of Jack and Jill? actually skirts a number of subgenres. In addition to being a gas-lighting film, it’s an interesting twist on the “evil child” subgenre. Though its characters are more or less adults – and engage in some off-screen sexual activity — they have the selfishness and emotional maturity of much younger children. But it has nothing on either Hammer’s Demons of the Mind, where two similarly aged and equally childlike young adults are trapped in mental prisons of their family’s doing, or the excellent Straight on Till Morning, another film about maladjusted dreamers so firmly entrenched in their respective fantasy worlds that violence is inevitable. 

This is also one of many disgruntled British films from the period about out of control youth, which you can find in everything from Dracula A.D. 1972 and Psychomania to These are the Damned. Clearly made by some unsympathetic adults, this is a scathing attack on England’s youthful citizens, the backlash of the hippie movement, and the widespread crusades of social rebellion that took hold in the late ‘60s all across Europe and the US. It’s also interesting to watch this film in a time when so many people complain about entitled youth, as the villains of What Became of Jack and Jill? are motivated purely by parasitic greed.

Though it has some fantasy elements, almost in a cheap rip off of Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) — including a weird Nazi death squad fantasy and another where John imagines himself gunning down his grandmother — this is firmly entrenched in reality. SPOILERS: Gran gets the last laugh, though John and Jill manage to drive her to her death. It is revealed that merely weeks ago, she added a provision to her will that in order for John to fully inherit her estate, he must be married… but to someone other than Jill. John and Jill try to stay together and survive in near poverty despite this, but the tension drives them to violence.

What a strange film. I can’t recommend it without some reservations, mostly because it’s hard for me to think of What Became of Jack and Jill? without continually wishing I was watching Straight on Till Morning, the latter of which is one of my favorite films. With that said, it’s worth watching at least once, though you’re going to have a time finding it on DVD. Until its eventual release (and hopefully remastering, since the available prints look like total garbage), it’s fairly easy to find on Youtube or in bootleg form online.

Monday, April 25, 2016

MEDOUSA

While many genre cinema and cult movie fans are familiar with the wealth of titles coming out of European countries like France, Italy, and Spain, Greece is certainly one of the more neglected cinematic locales on the continent. But thanks to the great Mondo Macabro, lovers of weird movies can add a new entry to what it is admittedly a short, but fascinating list with this release of writer-director George Lazopoulos' Μέδουσα or Medousa (1998), a surprisingly contemporary entry in the label’s roster of obscure but indispensable cult films. A blend of horror, fantasy, and crime drama, Medousa is a dreamlike thriller that nearly defies description and richly deserves a wider audience.

A knife-throwing enthusiast with a complicated past, the young Perseas (Thanos Amorginos) is the leader of a small band of thieves in Athens who habitually rob empty homes when their wealthy owners are temporarily away. His frequently rebuffed girlfriend Katia (Vana Rambota) learns that he is determined to discover what happened to his mother (the mesmerizing though only briefly seen Eleni Filini), who disappeared when he was a young teen. He is disturbed by strange memories of a faceless woman with beautiful black hair and soon locates the countryside home she has been occupying, leading his gang there at the same time that local police discover the apparently petrified bodies of missing men, who all seem to have been turned to stone…

 Greek mythology is a fertile ground for genre cinema — replete with monsters, gods, strange supernatural beings, family trauma, and often horrific acts of violence — but it’s sadly underrepresented outside fantasy films. Though there are some fantastic arthouse examples, such as Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) or Pasolini’s Medea (1969), there are few horror films that mine similar territory. Those that do exist, like the underrated The Gorgon (1964) from Britain's Hammer Studios, bear very little relationship to actual Greek myths. Medousa, on the other hand, attempts a modernized retelling of the myth that pits Perseus, Greek mythology’s greatest early hero, against the Gorgon Medusa. Hideously ugly, winged, and with writhing serpents for hair, she is one of three sisters, underworld beings whose purpose changed throughout the centuries. Later Greeks, such as Ovid, described her as beautiful and wove in a rape-revenge aspect to the tale, while Freud described her as the physical manifestation of castration anxiety.

Medousa’s chief strength is perhaps that it makes the most of its strange, surreal tone and striking visuals. The film has a compelling sense of mystery and even — like I assume most people are — you know the mythic story, it’s often not clear what will unfold and the film’s plot is generally hard to get a solid grasp on. As a child, Perseas’s father figure seems to be a knife thrower in a cabaret-like carnival and as an adult, he takes up this practice, throwing blades at poster reproductions of famous paintings. In addition to a number of distractingly beautiful women, Perseas’s relationship with them is often fraught. His memories of his mother are tinged with erotic longing, while his girlfriend is coldly neglected for much of the running time.

Admittedly, it is quite different from other Greek genre cinema, in the sense that it makes it hard to place within a specific national tradition. It’s (thankfully) a far cry from Kostas Karagiannis’s Land of the Minotaur (1976), a Greek production shot in English with British actors like Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence, which is essentially a campy riff on British folk horror with a cult of minotaur worshippers instead of Satanists. It’s similarly unlike Nico Mastorakis’s spin on Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Island of Death (1976), an exploitation film also shot in English about British tourists who travel to the Greek isles to indulge in an orgy of torture and violence. If it has any loose contemporaries, a film like Crystal Nights (1992) — a WWII-set surreal drama-romance with themes of telepathy and reincarnation — comes closest.

Like Crystal Nights, Medousa is short on exposition and there is plenty about the film that will frustrate viewers looking for a more straightforward plot and conclusion. Some things are never explained — such as the origin of the creature — and characters come and go with little resolution. A woman whose face is never seen keeps masks hanging in her closet, a young girl obsessed with taking Polaroids leaves Perseas the only keepsake of his mother, and the knife thrower who helped raise him are barely sketched out in the script. But this is the source of much of the film’s charm and it’s rare to come across a genre film that’s so delightfully difficult to define.

And if Medousa reminds me of any other horror films at all, it’s actually the small wave of strange, surreal, occult-themed movies from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, several of which involved Clive Barker, titles like Angel Heart (1987), Nightbreed (1990), Candyman (1992), Nadja (1994), or Lord of Illusions (1995). Like a lot of those films, there are so many leather jackets on display and the characters tend to be young adults existing in a subculture and/or on the fringes of society. The collection of misfits that surround Perseas are strangely fascinating, despite the fact that they have little dialogue or screen time, and director George Lazopoulos builds a convincing, if shadowy world that seems to exist just beneath the surface of our own.

Medousa comes highly recommended and though it won’t be for everyone, I’ve really fallen in love with it. Mondo Macabro have done a wonderful job rescuing it from obscurity, though it was made a bit later than their typical fare, and I hope they manage to unearth more unusual Greek cinema in the future. There are some nice special features included, such as an interview on the making of the film with Lazopoulos and another with lead actor Thanos Amorginos, who is a musician that Lazopoulos discovered in a bar and convinced to star in the film. Despite his obvious lack of experience, he’s strangely perfect for the role. Also included is a trailer for the film.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 4

The fourth episode of the podcast I'm co-hosting is now up!

From the Diabolique site:

In the fourth episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm begin a four-part discussion of the career of Polish director Andrzej Zuławski. Meant to be a celebration of his life and incredible work, the episode begins with a brief discussion of his early years, particularly his training as an assistant director under Andrzej Wajda. This is followed by a discussion of his two short films for Polish television, The Story of Triumphant Love (1969) and Pavoncello (1969), two lesser seen and perhaps more conventional works, where he established a number of the themes he would use throughout his career: love triangles, troubled romance, hysterical women, literary source material, and dizzying staircase sequences.

This is followed by a lengthy exploration of his first feature-length film, The Third Part of the Night (1971), which was co-written by Zuławski’s father, Mirosław, and is loosely based on the elder Zuławski’s experiences working in a typhus lab during the Nazi occupation. The episode wraps up with a look at The Devil (1972), Zuławski’s unhinged second feature, a film that was promptly banned by the communist government and resulted in Zuławski’s departure from Poland and relocation to France. Set during the period of German occupation in Poland in the late eighteenth century, the film follows the homeward odyssey of a troubled young man who is released from prison by a mysterious stranger.

Andrzej Zuławski's Short Films

About a month ago, I began what was supposed to be a short retrospective on the recently restored early Polish films of Andrzej Zuławski – The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and On the Silver Globe, followed by an essay on his recent, final film, Cosmos – but in light of the director’s recent passing, I realized (and was perhaps persuaded) that I couldn’t stop there, as the majority of his films have received such little critical attention. Therefore, welcome to the continuation of my retrospective on Zuławski’s films. This week I’m going to go all the way back to his early years, specifically his first two works as a director, the roughly 30-minute short films Piesn triumfujacej milosci (1969) aka The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello (1969).

These films were made in the wake of a number of years working as an assistant to Polish director Andrzej Wajda, a role that he held for much of the ‘60s. Zuławski served as assistant director on Samson (1961), where he also had a small acting role, as second unit director on Wajda’s contribution to the anthology film Love at 20 (1962), titled “Warsaw,” and assistant director on The Ashes (1965). It’s also worth noting that he went on to assistant direct Anatole Litvak’s UK-French coproduction, The Night of the Generals (1967), a crime film about the murder of a prostitute set during WWII. While it starred big name actors like Peter O’Toole, Omar Shariff, and Donald Pleasence, the film was shot in Warsaw, which seems a curious choice for the Cold War years.

After putting in his time as an assistant, it was perhaps inevitable that – like so many other fledging arthouse directors – Zuławski would make at least one short film before progressing to feature length works. Both shorts were actually commissioned for Polish television, apparently as part of a series adapting works of classic literature. According to Zuławski scholar Daniel Bird, they were shot in 35mm color, but then broadcast in black and white for television, which explains why they appear to be black and white films (and are even listed as such on IMDB). At first glance, neither The Story of Triumphant Love nor Pavoncello feel particularly like they belong in Zuławski’s distinctive canon, as they exhibit a decidedly more conventional approach to filmmaking. But both films contain a number of the thematic and visual tropes that would reappear throughout his career and deserve to be rediscovered. 


The Story of Triumphant Love features Zuławski’s most constant dramatic structure, the love triangle, as it follows the melancholic reunion of three friends. Mucjusz (Piotr Wysocki of Wajda’s The Ashes) travels to the mansion of his old friend, Fabiusz (Andrzej May). There is tension between the two men, because years ago Mucjusz was in love with the beautiful Waleria (Beata Tyszkiewicz, also of The Ashes), who ultimately married Fabiusz. Despite Mucjusz’s claims that he has found love with many women during his international adventures, it is obvious that passion remains between he and Waleria. During a dinner party celebrating Mucjusz’s return, he and his servant Malaj (Jerzy Jogalla) perform “The Song of Love,” a tune that Mucjusz claims can make a lover capable of seemingly impossible feats.

The Story of Triumphant Love is based on a story by 19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, which actually bears more in common with the work of Turgenev’s close friend, French writer Gustav Flaubert, to whom it is dedicated. Unusually for Turgenev, it lacks a Russian setting and instead takes place in a fairytale-like interpretation of medieval Italy, complete with elements of Gothic literature: troubled romance, erotic nightmares, manipulative male characters preying on weak female ones, and hints of the supernatural. Over the years, Zuławski frequently turned to works of literature as the inspiration for his feature films and he remains one of the most accomplished literary adapters in all of cinema, often turning to texts that other directors might consider unapproachable (like Dostoyevsky’s Demons or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos).

His adaptation of The Story of Triumphant Love is perhaps surprisingly conventional and even wistfully romantic, compared to his later films. It has more in common with some of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations from the ‘60s and even something like Fellini’s Poe adaptation Toby Dammit, made for the anthology film Histoires extraordinares (1968) aka Spirits of the Dead. Though the cinematography – from The Saragossa Manuscript’s Mieczyslaw Jahoda – was not intentionally black and white, this adds to the Gothic mood, which is also enhanced by one of my favorite pieces of music from Zuławski’s lifelong collaborator, composer Andrzej Korzynski. The central musical theme highlights a reoccurring sequence where Waleria rises from bed, seemingly in a trance, and walks through the moonlit garden to find Mucjusz. Korzynski uses mournful violins and subtle, if unusual percussion, and includes vocals that first sounds like howling wolves but soon transition into a woman singing.

Like Zuławski’s later horror-tinged films such as The Devil (1972) or Possession (1981), The Story of Triumphant Love could not actually be described as a genre film, but includes themes of sleepwalking, nightmares, sudden acts of violence, and inexplicable events. In Turgenev’s story, it is implied that Muzzio (as he is originally known) has not just returned with exotic treasures and enchanting tales, but has actually acquired some sort of mystical or supernatural power and that he is trying to cast a spell on Waleria. Turgenev writes, “Valeria did not quickly fall asleep; there was a faint and languid fever in her blood and a slight ringing in her ears … from that strange wine, as she supposed, and perhaps too from Muzzio’s stories, from his playing on the violin … towards morning she did at last fall asleep, and she had an extraordinary dream.” It is implied that in the dream she is raped by Muzzio and she becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses. Later she describes another dream about “a sort of monster which was trying to tear me to pieces.”

The major divergence between Turgenev’s story and Zuławski’s film lies in this issue of romantic intention and sexual consent. While Turgenev describes the attempted supernatural seduction of an unwilling woman, Zuławski’s Waleria appears to want to run away with Mucjusz, despite also loving her husband, but is prevented from doing so because he reveals that he is dying of leprosy. The film concludes with Mucjusz’s “death,” where he manipulates a jealous Fabiusz into fatally stabbing him after Waleria wanders, in yet another trance, to his bedside. But, as Mucjusz promised earlier, “The Song of Love” has unexpected powers and he rises, seemingly changed, to mount his horse and have his servant lead him far from Fabiusz’s country estate.

While Pavoncello, his follow up, has an equally desolate ending as well as other thematic similarities, it is remarkably different in tone. Also set in a romantic, fictionalized Italy – albeit during the turn of the century – Pavoncello follows the fortunes of the titular violinist (Stefan Friedmann of Wajda’s Landscape After Battle), who is fired from his position as musical accompanist at a local cinema when he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, Zinayda (Joanna Kasperska). Taking pity on him, she hires him on the spot to give her violin lessons, though she insists that they must take place that night. To his surprise, he is forced to perform at the dinner party of her wealthy husband (Mieczyslaw Milecki), an important diplomat who is ill and confined to a wheelchair, and who seems displeased with the violinist’s presence.

While The Story of Triumphant Love is quite faithful to its source material, Pavoncello is a bit of a departure from Stefan Zeromski’s short story of the same name. Though he may not be familiar to English-speaking audiences, Zeromski was an important Romantic novelist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His works have been adapted by other Polish directors, namely in Wajda’s Popioły (1965) aka The Ashes andWalerian Borowczyk’s Dzieje grzechu (1975) aka Story of Sin. Pavoncello is a bit more mean-spirited than Zuławski’s films typically are, but he also made the protagonist considerably more down-to-earth than the preening peacock of Zeromski’s tale, who is widely regarded as one of the most handsome men in all of Rome.

Zuławski’s musical protagonist, named Ernesto but nicknamed Pavoncello, is far more of an every-man figure whose main function seems to be struggling with love, linking him with the lead characters of films like The Third Part of the Night, L’important c’est d’aimer, Possession, and La fidélité. The real centerpiece of the film is Joanna Kasperska’s Zinayda, who is arguably the first of Zuławski’s hysterical female characters. Unlike Waleria of The Story of Triumphant Love, who wanders through much of the film as if in a trance, Zinayda is alluring, coquettish, and a force of (ultimately destructive) nature. She’s so moved by Ernesto’s violin music that she smashes a glass on the floor — a trope repeated several times throughout Zuławski’s films — and dances rather inappropriately. She insists that he dance with her, right under her husband’s nose, and then winds up spinning in circles in the middle of a very tightly-laced, upper class party full of disapproving diplomats in tuxedos. She actually forces a number of them to follow behind her in a sort of insane conga line as well laughs hysterically — none of which bodes well for the poor violinist.

The film’s twist is actually quite nasty and — though you could make a possible case for Szamanka or maybe even L’amour braque — this is by far the most mean-spirited of Zuławski’s films. After a melodramatic, “love at first sight” moment (another of Zuławski’s often used scenes), Ernesto falls in love with Zinayda, believing that she feels the same way about him. He sneaks back to the estate to reunite with her and, after claiming that she is a virgin because of her husband’s infirmity, they have sex. Ernesto plans for them to run away together, but then learns that Zinayda’s plan all along has been to get pregnant and thus ensure that she will inherit her husband’s fortune. Zuławski cruelly implies that Ernesto is only one of many men who has been used in the same scheme, though he seems to be taking it particularly badly.

While both of these short films may seem more conventional and melodramatic than Zuławski’s features, they’re important starting off points that give an indication of the themes that he would return to throughout his career. In addition to love triangles, literary source material, hysterical women, and doomed love, also featured is my favorite of all Zuławski’s visual tropes: the use of a winding staircase to establish a frantic sense of motion and often emotional turmoil. Apparently Zuławski was inspired by a similar scene in Wajda’s Pokolenie (1955) aka A Generation, and it’s interesting (though perhaps a bit unfair) to consider just how far outstripped the senior director. Though these two films are not yet available in any home release, you can find both The Story of Triumphant Love and Pavoncello on Youtube with English subtitles, though hopefully that will be rectified sooner rather than later. 


Originally written for Diabolique.