Five Dolls for an August Moon [1970]

I love Mario Bava.  LOVE, people–not “like” or “enjoy the films of.”  My passion probably clouds my reason and leads me to view his films with the dewey, wide-pupiled eyes of an awkward high school freshman admiring the soccer team captain (or a sparkly, hairless vampire–whatever; you get the point).  The Bava-ranking scale in my brain is calibrated from “really cool” to “orgasmically fabulous.”
That having been established, I found “5 Dolls for an August Moon,” a film that Bava allegedly began churning out within 48 hours of inking his signature the contract and ultimately claimed to be one of his most disappointing efforts, to be a yummy if nonsensical little mystery that brims with vintage 1970 style.  I know how extraordinarily vexing it can be to have someone claim that a work of yours that you strongly dislike is all kinds of marvy, and Bava himself would likely dispute the review that I’m going to post here, but I do it out of LOVE, which (as we all know) is renowned for its blindness-related potential.

“5 Dolls for an August Moon” blends elements of black comedy, playful narrative and psychedelic fashion into a fun mystery story.  Three wealthy couples have gathered at the isolated island mansion of millionaire George Stark to attempt to convince the Professor Fritz Farrell (who is accompanied by his ice-queen wife Trudy) to sell his industrial resin formula.  When Farrell resists, the murders begin.  Yes, it’s pretty much “Ten Little Indians,” but with gobs and gobs of colorful style substituting for Agatha Christie’s clever plotting.

"5 Dolls for an August Moon" Film Still
The cast is full of recognizable faces, chief among them being that vixen with more hair than any living woman, the fabulous Ms. Edwige Fenech.  Fenech is given an opportunity to play a scheming, adulterous wife, which she plays as flamboyantly as her Woman In Peril roles.  Eurotrash vet William Berger (picture him tenting his fingers and arching an eyebrow–that’s right; it’s Father Vicente from “Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun”) does a creditable job as Professor Ferrell and Ira von Furstenberg is haughty and beautiful as Trudy, whose lesbian desires for George’s wife Jill provide some interesting plot tension (if a disappointing absence of actual girl-kissing).
"5 Dolls for an August Moon" Film Still
These jet-setting millionaires may be a generally oily and unlikable lot, but don’t think for a minute that this means they’re not incredibly well dressed.   The costumes are drool-worthy, from Edwige’s scanty white petal bikini to the slim-cut hep-cat trousers favored by the gents of the cast.  Spangles, gauze, colorful lacey undergarments, and pop art fabrics abound.  The house where much of the action goes down is the seaside equivalent of the Frank-Lloyd-Wright-esque mansion at the end of “North  by Northwest,” with its cliff-side perch and vast expanses of window.  Everything is circa-1970-sumptuous, right down to the rotating round bed and the ritzy glassware.  And yes, in case you were wondering–these folks ARE drinking J&B.
"5 Dolls for an August Moon" Film Still
A riotously jazzy soundtrack sounds like it might be at home in Jess Franco films made during this same time period–there are moments when the amazing music is driving the film perhaps more than the on-screen action.  The music underscores some of the story’s blackly comedic moments, keeping things from getting too serious and enhancing this delicious confection of a film.
"5 Dolls for an August Moon" Film Still
This would not be a proper discussion of a Mario Bava film if the artistry of the cinematography went unaddressed.  I know there are some mixed-at-best opinions towards the use of day-for-night shooting and frequently it’s more comedic than atmospheric, but as used this film it works very well, casting an eerie moon-like light on the outdoor shots.  Adding to my glee is the deployment of the fish-eye lens, which is used to play some clever tricks with perspective.
"5 Dolls for an August Moon" Film Still
I can see why many folks rank this as one of Bava’s lesser efforts–the pacing is iffy at times and, initially, the number of cast members introduced within such a short span of time (nine players, all shown in a party together) gave me a little difficulty in trying to understand what was happening in the story.  The mystery isn’t particularly slickly crafted–OK, it’s not really so much crafted at all.  The tale just sort of unwinds in a “Because I Said So” sort of manner,  leaving logic in the dust like one of Ms. Fenech’s discarded undergarments.  To further this analogy, I don’t really fret about that discarded undergarment because I’m too busy enjoying looking at what’s underneath it.

Black Dynamite [2009]

Making a movie like “Black Dynamite” is a dicey proposition in the Ironic Hipsterism climate of the past several years.  I love a good spoof, but I reserve a special hatey place in my heart for the kind of too-cool-for-school disaffected humor that aims its guns at weird media like an semi-retarded eight-year-old pre-quarterback homing in on the gangly kid in the eyeglasses during dodgeball.  It’s with enormous glee and pleasure that I’m able to report that “Black Dynamite” is a Valentine to the Blaxploitation action subgenre, made by a team of creative folks who love these movies and totally, utterly, absolutely GET what makes them tick.  This isn’t merely an extended in-joke, though–this is a genuinely funny comedy that was able to satisfy a very mixed room at the Tribeca Film Festival this past Friday, eliciting laughter from folks who enjoy the idea of vintage 1970s exploitation films as much as from those who are long-time enthusiasts.

To explain too much of what happens during this movie would be to spoil it for future viewers, so I’ll avoid this pitfall.  I will, however, post the trailer here–I’ll wait while you watch it:
I know a bunch of you have already seen this or one of the other permutations of this trailer.  I also know that a lot of you were probably every bit as skeptical as I was upon watching clips from this film–excited by the potential for a really, audaciously, amazingly hilarious movie, but concerned that all the funny bits had been distilled into those three minutes.  Well, lieblings–allow me to alleviate your fears:
“Black Dynamite” is exactly THAT FUNNY for its entire run-time, which is a really extraordinary achievement.
Whereas the similarly-themed “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” relies on slapstick, intentional wink-wink “get it?!” moments to build comedy, “Black Dynamite” is funny because it’s so close to its source material in visual and acting styles.  Michael Jai White channels legendary African-American tough guys like Fred Williamson and Jim Brown in his portrayal of the titular character, a Vietnam vet and former CIA agent and general “THE BEST THERE IS” brand of straight-shooting hero, infusing his performance with an egotistical brand of charisma that’s nothing short of brilliant.  The supporting cast is equally awesome, from the colorful array of pimps and hustlers that prey upon “The Community” to the militants who support Black Dynamite in his quest to clean up the streets to Tucker Smallwood’s pitch-perfect portrayal of a black congressman who is selling out his people to “The Man.”  No film in the blaxploitation canon is safe from parody, with clear nods to “Dolemite,” “Shaft” and “Three the Hard Way” peppered throughout.
While the film never feels un-fresh, it’s entirely committed to its period feel, outfitting the cast in gaudy just-pre-disco finery and creating admirably immersive sets.  The look and feel of the movie is so well realized that when action footage from a couple of vintage blaxplotation films is worked in, it feels like a cool and subtle sight gag and not a jarring diversion from course.
Adding to the authentic feel of the movie is the hysterically perfect soundtrack, composed with a clear nod to the work of Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.  The songs have a genuine driving funk to them, and first-time soundtrack composer Adrian Younge matches the music to the film flawlessly.  Keep your ears peeled for some giggle-worthy soundtrack moments that I’m not ABOUT to spoil for you here.
The greatest thing about “Black Dynamite” is that it’s exactly the kind of movie that someone whose interest is piqued by the trailer would want to see–and perhaps an even better one than that.  Judging by the audience reaction at Tribeca, look for this film to get some sort of theatrical release in the near future.  Keep your eyes LOCKED on for the latest news!

"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" Tarot Deck

As you guys have probably gathered by now, I have a real problem with exploitation media that doesn’t deliver what it promises.  That’s why it’s so refreshing to receive a link from my uber-pal Joan Arkham under the header “DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN.”

Witness the “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” tarot deck, created by artist Howard Hallis.  Goddamn, I love that groovy-ass mess of a movie–for more Russ Meyer glee, you can read my review of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” here.  This may not be my happening, but it sure is freaking me out, baby!

Spring ’09 Chiller Theatre Post-Mortem

Well, internet–I think the unpossible has happened!  I got sucked into attending this past weekend’s Chiller Theatre convention in beautiful and scenic Parsippany, NJ, and–you can quote me on this–it was awesome.  Granted, the smell of hotel hot dogs still lingered over the hotel lobby Celebrity Pit, but this time it took on an air of pleasant nostalgia as opposed to the sorta-terrifying desperation I perceived last time I ventured out to ye olde Chiller.  I’ve gotta give props to the organizers for putting a cap on Saturday ticket sales and not offering at-the-door entry.  From the bottom of my rotten, black heart, I thank you!

Logistical wisdom aside, the offerings inside the con were well above average, with the highlight for this fangirl being the Italian Invasion/“Zombie” 30th Anniversary Reunion room.  This might just be my favorite convention promo art EVER, by-the-by:
Chiller Theatre Promotional Art
One of the great things about the folks who participated in this event is that each of them totally owned his or her legacy.  I find it a little frown-inducing when actors and directors try to distance themselves from the movies that have brought me so much glee, but it was clear that these people were having a blast interacting with fans and being appreciated for their weird and wonderful work.  Zora Kerowa, who you might better recognize as “the woman with hooks through her breasts” in “Cannibal Ferox,” wore a smile each and every time I saw her, even as she signed her name across photos of her own FX-riddled body.  She also expanded her vocabulary with the help of “Ultra Violent’s” own Art Ettinger, responding with an audible “Ah!” as he explained the word “nunsploitation” to her.  Giovanni Frezza and Silvia Collatina, children at the time of their appearances in the gore classic “House by the Cemetery,” seem to have evolved into well-adjusted, extraordinarily pleasant adults. Stuntman and actor  Ottaviano Dell’acqua was clearly digging the attention during the panel presentation, responding with a hearty “BELLISSIMA” when questioned on his experiences as a young actor.
Italian Invasion Panel
Perhaps my favorite panel moment occurred when a convention guest asked the panel to address whether they felt that horror films today lacked originality.  I found this particularly amusing since earlier questions revolved around “Devil Fish” (a “Jaws” rip-off) and “Zombie” (a “Dawn of the Dead” rip-off)…!  Michael Sopkiw proclaimed with refreshing candor that he felt horror films were just as derivative twenty-five years ago, but that he had lots of fun making them.  And really, at the end of the day–that’s what it’s all about: having a good goddamn time.
Me with Luigi Cozzi
Even so, Luigi Cozzi seemed somewhat baffled at the amount of glee I derive from re-watching “Starcrash.”  Baffled, but happy.
BONUS:  “Ultra Violent” Issue 10, featuring my article on Turkish Exploitation Cinema, is HOT OFF THE PRESSES!  Copies should be available on the website soon:

I Know Who Killed Me [2007]

Dear “I Know Who Killed Me,”

Look, I have a bone to pick with you.  It’s not just your general awfulness that bugs me–it’s the fact that you wasted several perfectly good opportunities to be a fucktastically insane exploitation film.  When you should’ve been flashing me Lindsay Lohan’s nipples, you gave me lingering close-ups on gangrenous flesh.  You set up a gibberingly mad plot
 involving mutilation, mistaken identity, and sex workers that would easily suit a 1973 giallo, but squandered this psychedelic weirdness in favor of teen melodrama and unfun squick shots.
Were I to describe you to potential viewers, you sound like a sleaze goldmine:  teenager wakes up after having her hand and leg amputated by a fiendish murderer, but instead of awaking to her life as a straight-A good girl, she believes herself to be a jailbait stripper.  She sets on a path to find the truth of what happened to her only to arouse the suspicion and hostility of those around her.  Yeah, I know–total Sergio Martino shit, right?
But nay, I say–NAY!  The facts of the case are in your favor, but you are guilty of sucking and sucking HARD.  You did everything you could to make this an unpleasant viewing experience, from the ham-handed use of colors (Blue = good; Red = naughty) to the overly graphic mutilations to the gobsmackingly wooden performances.  I mean, come the fuck ON, “I Know Who Killed Me”–it’s like you exist solely to make me unhappy and leech joy from my existence.
You are quite possibly the least erotic of the erotic thrillers I’ve seen.  During her exotic dance scenes, LiLo’s character wears more clothing than eighty percent of beach-going vacationers.  What the fuck, “I Know Who Killed Me?”  I’m pretty sure I could accidentally see more of her on any given night in Los Angeles.   Seriously–I’m not too proud to confess that I find Lindsay Lohan to be a hott piece of tail (particularly since she appears to be an emotionally damaged and utterly out-of-control bisexual hellcat who wouldn’t be out of place hanging with Varla, Rosie and Billie), and I think that’s part of why I hate you so much, “I Know Who Killed Me.”  You managed to put her in a role where she could appear as batshit krazee and trashy and over-sexed as possible, and yet she merely comes off as unappealing.  
I guess what I mean to say is that you EARNED your Razzies.  You stink.
No love,
Kate, Empress and Girl-Kaiser, Tenebrous Empire

Bloody Ceremony [1973]

The account of Elizabeth Bathory is sort of a perfect storm of Stuff That’s Relevant to the Tenebrous Interests, as you can probably tell by the multitude of tags that are attached to this post.  It’s a tale whose soil is rich enough to support a multitude of interpretations from those focused on class warfare (entitled aristocrat preys on the poor villagers nominally under her care) to a feminist cautionary tale (a woman who finds value only in her appearance is driven to brutal measures) to a blood-soaked kink melodrama (cruel, beautiful mistress takes “abusing the help” to new extremes).  Depending upon the artist’s perspective, the clay of the story allows for a great deal of molding to fit the tastes of the teller.

The Bathory saga is perfectly suited to the kinds of films being made in Spain in the early to mid Seventies.  Paul Naschy has shown a fascination with the Blood Countess, casting her as the heavy against his tragic werewolf hero Waldemar Daninsky on multiple occasions.  The story’s promise of virgins, bloodshed, nudity, and wicked beauty are almost more than the gothicry-fixated Iberians could resist.  While the Hammer studios might have preferred a more playful (not to mention entirely fictional!) brand of lesbonic vampiress, Spanish directors enthusiastically embraced the homicidal Hungarian countess and her added allure of historical reality.
"Bloody Ceremony" Film Still
Jorge Grau’s “Ceremonia Sangrienta” (released in the US under the less-evocative titles “Female Butcher” and “Legend of Blood Castle,” but referred to in the Tenebrous Empire  as “Bloody Ceremony” since that’s an accurate translation and it just sounds a whole heckuva lot better to me) is a semi-retelling of Elizabeth Bathory’s history with a few interesting twists.  This film is set in the early Nineteenth Century, and the Countess Bathory portrayed here is a descendant of the Sixteenth Century murderess whose story parallels that of her progenetrix.  By setting the story in a more modern year, Grau suggests that his countess’ evil is perhaps inherited and that cycles of evil are doomed to repetition.  In spite of the year, the countryside is gripped by hysteria over a supposed vampire plague and doubting nobles attempt to dissuade the villagers of their beliefs, or more cynically capitalize on their superstition in order to disguise their misdeeds.  
"Bloody Ceremony" Film Still
The world of “Bloody Ceremony,” while steeped in gothic trappings of castles, murder, and intrigue, is not a world that allows for the existence of the supernatural.  All the evil portrayed here is that committed by humans towards other humans.  Elizabeth and her husband, Marquis Karl Ziemmer, take advantage of the vampire mania to mask their own ghoulish deeds, going so far as to fake the Marquis’ death so he can murder the young women of the town without arousing suspicion.  There are some interesting scenes that detail the magical beliefs of the peasants, from the use of a virgin boy to discover the grave of an alleged vampire to the courtroom proceedings surrounding the “trial” of that deceased individual, whose body is present in his glass-topped casket.
"Bloody Ceremony" Film Still
Sharing the theme of villainous love with “Horror Rises from the Tomb,” the story brings Elizabeth closer to Karl through the murders of the young women whose blood is used for Elizabeth’s youth-preserving baths.  The murders are perpetrated by Karl and allow him to indulge his vicious passions while sating Elizabeth’s need for beautifying blood.  The affection that had never bloomed between the two is given a new intensity once the path of malice is chosen.  The act of murder becomes the act of marital consummation for this perverse couple.
"Bloody Ceremony" Film Still
Even with such lurid subject matter, the film feels somewhat understated and blackly romantic, deriving much of its tension not from graphic violence (although there are moments of extreme bloodshed), but from the tangled love triangle between Elizabeth, Karl, and Marina, the peasant girl who has a naive crush on the sadistic Marquis.  Watching the beautiful young lady plunge headlong into the arms of the murderous and necrophiliac nobleman, ignoring some serious red flags along the way, adds a sense of fatalism to the storyline.With so many characters driven by such strong and strongly-misguided passions, this is more of a tragedy than a horror film, providing a macabre and downbeat counterpoint to the naughty femme-vamp films being made during the same period.
"Bloody Ceremony" Film Still
This film is full of powerful imagery on both sides of the subtlety spectrum.  From the plush roses of the Countess’ boudoir to the tubs full of steaming grue to the stark shadows of the nighttime scenes, every scene has been carefully staged.  Colors are consistently employed throughout the film, which favors funereal black and saturated red to underscore its ghastly drama.
I am REALLY looking forward to the NTSC DVD release of “Bloody Ceremony” under the “Legend of Blood Castle” moniker next month from Mya Communications.  Like so many horror films of the era, a number of versions of this film exist, from the uncut “Female Butcher” to a less-grisly version known as “Legend of Blood Castle” (please note that I am unsure as to the completeness of the Mya print being offered).  This is a beautifully macabre film that deserves to be seen by more genre fans, and if you just can’t wait, visit Trash Palace, the Tenebrous Empire’s preferred source for collectors’ DVDs, for an uncut print.

Venus in Furs [1970]

To paraphrase a rather inelegant yet evocative verbal chestnut, Jess Franco has thrown a lot of shit at the wall during his decades-long career and, by golly, some of it has stuck, and stuck good.  Made early in his career, “Venus in Furs” might just be the director’s ultimate artistic statement in Style Over Substance, with its warped narrative, evocative use of music (both incidental in in-scene), and luxuriously perverse eye candy.  Franco sets out to make a movie about love, death, and all that jazz and the result is a triumph of haunting beauty and searingly original vision.

Echoes of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s vicious masterpiece of a novel (which can be read online via here) begin and end with the shared title and the name of the central female character in the tale.  Those looking for shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather would be best served elsewhere, but don’t be deterred–there’s plenty to make up for what’s missing in terms of BDSM.  The evocative title was appended to the film during the financing process to latch onto ongoing public fascination with the seminal kink novel, but Franco has made it clear that his intention was to create a film about a jazz musician’s experience of falling in love with a mysterious and ultimately unattainable woman.  Far from undercutting Franco’s vision, the allusions to sadomasochism enrich the film and deepen its impact.  Besides, it’s been scientifically proven again and again that there are few things better suited for cinema-capture than the sight of  a Eurobabe wearing little more than animal pelts.
"Venus in Furs" Film Still
James Darren plays Jimmy Logan, a trumpeter who has wandered the globe playing at swanky parties and smoky nightclubs.  During his tenure in Istanbul, Jimmy witnesses the brutal murder of beautiful Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm) by a banker (the ever-excellent Dennis Price of “Vampyros Lesbos,” “Theatre of Blood” and “Twins of Evil”), a lesbian fashion photographer (Eurotrash vet Margaret Lee, who would go on to appear alongside Rohm in the groovy version of “Dorian Gray”), and a Turkish aristocrat of some stripe (the one and only Klaus Kinski).  He later discovers Wanda’s mutilated body on a beach, seeming to confirm that what he saw actually took place.  When Wanda appears in Rio de Janeiro some time later, Jimmy is smitten with her supernatural beauty and becomes obsessed with uncovering the facts of what happened to her, threatening to destroy his relationship with nightclub singer Rita (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by Barbara McNair).  What could have been a rather straightforward tale of revenge becomes a cinematic exercise that tests the boundaries of waking life and dream state that leaves more questions in its wake than answers.

"Venus in Furs" Film Still
The story is revealed through the heavy use of voice-over, usually in the person of Jimmy–a choice that’s not nearly as aggravating as it sounds.  Dialogue is employed in limited quantities, but is extremely effective, particularly during Jimmy’s exchanges with Rita, who clearly struggles with their open relationship and is wounded by his growing fixation on Wanda.  Much of the story is propelled with visuals and music–gloriously psychedelic visuals and music, might I just say.
"Venus in Furs" Film Still
As a Grooviness Delivery Device, “Venus in Furs” is extraordinarily successful.  The Manfred Mann soundtrack adds rock ‘n’ roll drama and deceptively sweet motifs to its modern jazz base, underscoring the exotic and off-kilter world in which this film takes place.  This is a universe populated by the artists, wealthy nobles, and idle rich of the Late-Sixties Jet Set, and they’ve got the style to prove it.  Wanda is shown in a dazzling array of outfits, from a blood-red knife-pleated minidress to a menswear tuxedo to a watercolor-painted jumpsuit that would overwhelm an actress with less screen presence than Ms. Rohm’s.  The sets are beautiful as well, filmed on location in Istanbul and in a Roman villa.  Franco’s eye for location is pitch-perfect here, once again.

"Venus in Furs" Film Still
After extended exposure to Eurotrash cinema, one comes to develop a rather refined palate when it comes to the showing of weird crap onscreen, and this movie delivers a lot of my personal favorite stuff upon which to gorge my admittedly-rather-jaded eyeballs.  Allow me to elaborate:
  • Lesbian fashion photographer – CHECK (seriously, Fashion Photography must have the Textile Arts of the 1960s)
  • “Garter belt” and “fur” making up the sum total of an outfit – CHECK
  • Gratuitous artistic use of mirrors in shot framing – CHECK
  • Prerequisite “woman crawling on the floor” nightclub number – CHECK
  • Caucasian actor in the garb of the Mysterious Orient – CHECK (Franco coulda scored extra-bonus points here for outfitting Ms. Rohm in the turban, but Klaus Kinski is a very close runner up for this title, and I’m placated by the fact that Ms. Rohm is wearing very little more than elaborate jewelry during this particular sequence)
“Venus in Furs” is a languorous, sexy delight that thoroughly engaged my inner film geek as well as my outer libidinous thrill-seeker.  It’s a hypnotically poetic film that deserves its reputation as one of Jess Franco’s finest moments.
"Venus in Furs" Film Still

Experiments in Terror 3 [2008]

One of the things I enjoy most about the blogs I read is what they reveal about the individual preferences and perspectives of their authors.  I’ll confess that I get a voyeuristic jolt out of learning where an individual writer finds value in a creative work, especially if it’s a particularly loopy creative work.  Professor Jack once told me that, while he’s not a fan of Jean Rollin, he’s a fan of the fact that *I* am a Jean Rollin fan.  I’m psyched to live in a world where there are so many people championing so much bizarre shit–that’s a special brand of excellent!

After viewing “Experiments in Terror 3,” a collection of short subjects linked by their horror themes, I had a similar experience to when I find an extra-awesome blog.  Here is a diverse grouping of weird little films that has been lovingly assembled by curator Noel Lawrence that provides a showcase for independent filmmakers while giving a glimpse into the anthologist’s brain.  An installment in Lawrence’s ongoing “Experiments in Terror” series which has screened in a  variety of venues from indie cinemas to art galleries, the subjects here benefit from being viewed as a group.  With its feet planted equally in the worlds of the horror genre and that of boundary-testing filmmaking, the collection spans almost fifty years of work and shows a distinct appetite for black comedy. 

The compilation starts off on an unsettling note with Carey Burtt’s “The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase,” a recounting of the crimes of serial murderer Richard Chase, the Vampire of Sacramento.  For those unfamiliar with the case (or disinclined to click on the links I oh-so-politely provide you…!), Chase was a profoundly disturbed young man who murdered and cannibalized six people as a result of his belief that his body was decaying and he needed consume blood to survive.  We’re not talking about an “Investigative Reports”-style expose here, though–indeed, “Psychotic Odyssey” prefers hand-painted cardboard sets populated by fashion dolls, children’s drawings and non-documentary found footage to tell its story of gruesome mayhem, somehow making the already-creepy into something creepier-still while eliciting a nervous laugh or two.
From this aggressively off-kilter, low-tech bit of weirdness, there’s yet more evidence of a punk rock aesthetic in effect in J.X. Williams’ 1975 “Satan Claus,” which has one of the best movie-production backstories I’ve ever heard.  Combining footage from Argento’s “Deep Red” with scenes from an untintentionally DEEPLY disturbing kiddie flick from Mexico titled “Santa Claus” (remember that one from MST3K, with the devil…?  Of course you do!) and tossing in music from the Stooges, this is a three minute nugget of pure subversive AWESOMENESS.  According to the description, this film was assembled and screened by its maker at a children’s film matinee after his movie-theatre-owner boss shorted him on wages over the course of several weeks.  If the legend is to be believed (and much like Skunk Ape enthusiasts and UFOlogists, OH how I NEED to believe…!), the theatre owner was smacked with lawsuits and the delectable revenge was complete.
Plunging back into the world of the darkly perverse, the next entry is Jason Bognacki’s 10-minute promotional reel for his upcoming film “Loma Lynda: The Red Door.”  I’m not sure this is going to be fulfilling as a “modern day giallo” (a word I cringe at and sometimes veer away from using myself since it’s been incredibly over-used–we shall remember that this term was bandied about when the first “Saw” film was released), but there’s a definite David Lynch influence in the structure, vintage music and eerie sexuality.  Bognacki’s visuals are striking and I’m curious to see how he works what look like trademark effects work into feature-length piece.  I particularly dug the scratchy block-out that’s superimposed over the actress’ eyes.  As an appetite-whetter, this piece certainly succeeds, because I’ll be checking back on the film’s website at

Devoted nerds will bask in the fanboy glow of Ben Rivers’ “Terror!,” a grin-inducing homage to horror cliches.  Composed of clips plucked from an array of readily recognizable horror films (keep your eyes peeled for “Halloween,” “The Beyond,” “Evil Dead,” and “Tenebre,” to name but a few), Rivers assembles a 24-minute mega-mix montage tracking our hapless victims from the old dark house through their oh-so-untimely and eek-so-graphic demises ending with a meta finale that strikes just the right note.  Perhaps a bit over-long for all but the most gung-ho of horror-film geeks, this particular gung-ho horror geek had a blast playing “name that film” and watching the clever juxtaposition of the tension-building frames.
Mike Kuchar’s “Born of the Wind” is an 8mm silent whose 1961 date sets it ahead of the curve in terms of psychedelic madness.  Telling the story of a scientist who revives and ultimately falls in love with an Ancient Egyptian princess (proving that I need a “sexy mummy” tag after all), this film incorporates matte-painted backgrounds, hand-lettered intertitles, Karo-syrup blood, and stop-motion animation into an almost-transcendent ode to art student ingenuity.  There’s a little Ray Dennis Steckler feeling in the presentation here, with the whole production taking on an endearing kitchen-sink quality by the time the WTF final frames roll.

Rounding out the official presentation is “Manuelle Labor” by Marie Loser and Guy Maddin, an homage to the early days of film that plays a bit like a Dame Darcy comic strip without the lovely illustrations or the high level of wackiness.  I must confess that  I found this to be the weakest entry into the grouping, playing like a film undergrad’s end-of-semester project (“I’m sure they got an A and all, but that didn’t work for me,” quippeth Baron XIII).  I react with great squickitude to themes of childbirth, yet this pregnancy-themed short didn’t resonate with me.  Still–its place in the collection is justified as it does share a similarly kooky worldview with the rest of the shorts.
I think “Manuelle Labor” suffers in the scatological fallout from the also-silent-era-inspired one-reeler bonus, “It Gets Worse” by Clifton Childree.   Now, I’m generally against the use of the words guilty pleasure in conjunction with one another but–dear readers–if ever something could be justly dubbed a guilty pleasure, it’s the work of Clifton Childree.  A visionary whose arsenal of images includes sailors, erotic arcade amusements, oversized genitalia, and excrement, Childree crafts slapstick stories that lower the level of artistic discourse to a probably-flooded and definitely-disused sub-basement of the human experience.  I rarely get to indulge in bathroom humor in my household, so it is with great blushing and discomfort that I confess to the amount of internal giggling I did at this film.  It’s truly must-see stuff for fans of the outrageous.
Seriously, friends–check out this interview with Clifton Childree on the Miami New Times website and prepare to become an instant fan.  If you’re not convinced by THAT, check out the embedded video of “Something Awful” here.  Then trust me when I say “It Gets Worse” does precisely that.
Embracing lowbrow and high-concept with equal joy, Noel Lawrence has created a fascinating collection of films linked by their horror themes, and this is a fascinating curiosity for genre fans.  “Experiments in Terror 3” is available for purchase through Microcinema DVD.

Embodiment of Evil [2008]

I don’t like to play the “Because I Am A Woman” card, but ye gods–the power of Jose Mojica Marins’ “Embodiment of Evil,” with its themes of reproduction, rape, and sexual mutilation, hit me like a sledgehammer when I saw it this weekend.  Rarely does a film come along that makes me squirm in my seat with active discomfort, but this film did precisely that, wrapping its long-nailed claws around my throat and refusing to let up until the final frame had dimmed from the screen.   It’s a film of such demonic malevolence and fierceness of vision that it defies efforts to dismiss it as smut or trash-cinema–with an eye honed on truly disturbing visuals and an artistic sensibility that has steeped in Brazil’s poorest corners, Marins creates a deeply personal, deeply troubling film that is among the most successful translations of idea to screen that I have ever seen.

I took in the afternoon screening of “Embodiment of Evil” that was part of Philadelphia’s CineFest 2009 (semi-related note to self: try to attend more screenings in 2010–this film fest has a GREAT and eclectic lineup) and found myself actively glad that I was walking out into a bright Springtime afternoon.  I’m a fan of Marins’ earlier Coffin Joe films, “At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul” and “This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse,” both of which are triumphs of low-budget visionary filmmaking, but I consider myself to’ve been only partially prepared by these to bear the full brunt of his vision as it appears in “Embodiment of Evil.”  This 2008 film offers a coda to the saga of the Nietzchean undertaker obsessed with passing on his superior legacy to a son, hindered only by his difficulty in finding the superior woman worthy of lending her womb to his fiendish quest.  The earlier films included stark depictions of cruelty (especially as committed on women), but there were characters lurking in the background who elicited our sympathies, taking some of the sting out of the nastiness.  Marins offers no such shelter in this film–not a single character portrayed on screen shows a drop of kindness; from the child-murdering police officers to the gang members that surround Josefel in the favela to the beautiful but arrogant doutora in search of eternal life; forcing the viewer to sympathize with the figure they know the most about.  Who else could that be but the freshly-released-from-prison Josefel Zatanas, a mass-murderer whose perverse ideas have only festered and increased over his decades in confinement.
Laundry-listing the shocking imagery of this movie would do it a disservice–I found the experience of viewing it with moderate expectations to be to my benefit.  How, after all, would a now seventy-three-year-old filmmaker react to a very changed cultural and aesthetic landscape?  The purpose of the movie isn’t to “show gross stuff,” and to approach it from such a perspective is severely undercutting the content–the disturbing visuals are part of Marins’ intentions to unsettle and provoke the audience.  The stark violence employed in earlier films is ratcheted up several notches and displayed in full-color glory.  The effects work is convincing and is depicted unflinchingly to display a horrifying array of mutilations and murders.  Showing his embrace of contemporary alternative culture, Marins uses real-life body modification with grueling effectiveness.
Marins proves himself to be an artist of the grotesque, bringing a distinctive Brazillian flavor to his Grand Guignol by showing slum life, Macumba black magic, and the extreme cultural anxiety that exists between the church, the police, and the poor.  This is a different world from the village life that’s portrayed in his earlier films–this Sao Paolo is a seedy, violent place inhabited by desperate people, many of whom are now eager to hear Josefel’s gospel of supreme willpower and atheism.  This casts Josefel not as the quintessential outsider railing against an ignorant world but as a dark messiah figure.
The most disturbing aspect of the film to my eye was the extremity of the violence to which the female characters are subjected.  It’s explicitly sexualized and depicted with such detail that it’s positively Sadean in its evil creativity.  Since the goal of all this violence is the creation of a new life, it takes on a particularly vicious aspect, and the horror is underscored when it becomes clear that the women are not only complicit, but eager to participate in this torture.  Every sexual act is an inversion of the procreative impulse–Josefel’s need for an heir has driven him to acts that result in the destruction of life.
“Embodiment of Evil” lives up to the promise of its name, splattering its hideously artful bounty on the screen.  Truly a film that must be experienced by fans of subversive cinema. 

Modesty Blaise [1966]

Here’s the scenario: a friend tells you about a woman he knows who is beautiful, charming and shares your interests, but underscores the fact that you will not like her when you get a chance to meet her.  You wonder:  how could I not like her, love her at first sight, even?    Then you meet the Lady In Question, and while she is in fact beautiful, charming, and shares your interests, she’s also vapid beyond the capacity of words to express and has a form of ADD or perhaps Tourette’s that causes her to break off in mid-conversation to spew garbled nonsense at you, making the Herculean effort of dealing with her nonsense far outweigh her positive attributes.
The film adaptation of “Modesty Blaise” is just like that.
"Modesty Blaise" Film Still

I rarely go into a movie deeply, madly desiring to love it more than I did going into my viewing of director Joseph Losey’s uber-groovy 1966 super-thief epic “Modesty Blaise.”  I will cop to an almost-complete ignorance of the Blaise novels and comics, but that type of ignorance has enhanced my enjoyment of other movies of the period (for more info on the O’Donnell comics and novels, check out the amazing web archive atModesty Blaise Ltd. for hours of adventure-story fun).  I’d read Curt Purcell’s recent musings on the Modesty Blaise novels, and should’ve been red-flagged by his sinister allusions to the film. I always want to back an underdog, though, and so I sought out the film for what I hoped was a fluffy bit of fun.  Baron XIII has told me that the only thing worse than a drone job where you can totally turn off your brain and coast is a job where you have to pay just enough attention to what you’re doing that you get a little headachey, and “Modesty Blaise” never let me click the OFF switch in my brain that allows me to coast on a cloud of nonsense-fun.

"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
All the pieces are in play here for a splashy bit of comic book-inspired fun, but there’s just too much going on for this movie’s good and no one aspect of it is given enough time to gel.  Perhaps the biggest hindrance to the film’s success is the fact that the script attempts to cram in too many plot elements into a two-hour run time, leading to confusion and ultimately frustration.   I confess–I stopped trying to follow the plot close to the one-hour mark and just let the imagery wash over me.  In addition to the vexingly complex plot, there are too many experimental elements in the film that are too inconsistently used (meta touches like the repeated appearance of the Modesty Blaise comic books are employed), and it’s difficult to puzzle out whether this is a zany comedy or a musical or an adventure story.  The overall effect is like watching the “Batman” teevee series while on heavy psychedelics.  It doesn’t help matters that the insanely-gorgeous Monica Vitti, who plays Modesty, is… not-so-insanely-great at speaking English and sometimes seems to be speaking her lines phonetically.

"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
The Blaise character is pretty damn cool, make no mistake, but it seems as if she’s just too complicated for a single film.  There’s a nagging In Medias Res feel to the entire proceedings, like we were plunked down midway through a sequel and are racing to catch up to the storyline.

"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
There’s some sunshine in all these clouds, though, and particularly during the first hour of the film, I found myself enjoying certain aspects of what I was seeing on screen.  There’s some entertainingly of-its-time texture, like the astrological imagery (Modesty is a Scorpio, and at one point is shown to have her sign tattooed large-scale on her thigh) and the mid-Sixties haute couture (more about THAT later).  Also, the characters are all really nifty–to the point where I felt they deserved a stronger film.  Modesty’s partner in crime (or not-crime, depending on where you slap your eyeballs) Willie Garvin is played with rakish glee by Terence Stamp (whose cheekbones have never been swoonier) as he loves and leaves a series of delectable Eurobabes.  Dirk Bogarde brings acres of class to his portrayal of arch-nemesis Gabriel (a BAD super-criminal, not to be confused with allegedly-benign super-criminal Modesty).  I’m starting to think that villainous screen legends should all wear white wigs at least once, cos Bogarde’s Gabriel can *work* the white ‘do much like Vincent Price’s Roderick Usher.  Gabriel’s partner Miss Fothergill (Rossella Falk) is a loyal servant as well as a mistress of hand-to-hand combat, and the two make a formidable pair indeed.  It also fills me with enormous glee that Gabriel’s team of henchmen is disguised as a stage magician and his supporting crew.
"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
Violently elbowing out all its human co-stars for on-screen supremacy, the wardrobe of this film reigns as the diva of the day.  Modesty has dozens of costume changes–sometimes in the same scene, and at least once accomplished via jump-cut–that place her in everything from a brunette beehive and a black catsuit to flowing Grecian goddess minis that wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Soho today.  Bonus points for Monica Vitti in sheik-drag that nears Rosalba Neri in a fez level hottness (yes, internet–you are privvy to one of my Special Needs: drag kings in the garb of the Exotic Orient).
"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
The set design is equally impressive, employing gorgeous locations with eye-popping interiors.  Gabriel’s lair is a sun-drenched Mediterranean island mansion with dizzying op-art wall coverings, and a significant portion of the film takes place in Amsterdam, which is portrayed as a bohemian wonderland.  Repeated visual motifs include dangerous-looking modern art, mannequin torsos, and geometric patterns.
"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
This all just looks SO GREAT on paper, I’m drooling all over again, and still really-really wanting this movie to be awesome.  I could even start to overlook the comedic incidental sound effects (slide whistle ahoy!), but by the time Terence Stamp and Monica Vitti warble a pop song to one another it’s just… over for me.  I was punched out long before the quite-literal arrival of the cavalry at the climax of the film that would leave anyone still invested in the story groaning in despair.
"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
By far the best sequence is a chase takes place during a carnival in Amsterdam, using marvelous vintage calliopes and their music as well as a genuinely creepy warehouse whose exterior is covered in decaying dolls.  Style is the focus here, valued over substance to such a degree that its shamelessness gels for about ten delicious minutes.  Modesty employs one of Amsterdam’s famous brothel windows to hide in plain sight when her quick-change routine comes in handy.  One villain is quite literally colorful–a thug with an elaborate facial tattoo–and the almost playful way in which Modesty and Willie battle with the goons strikes just the right notes.  
"Modesty Blaise" Film Still
It’s just a crying shame that there aren’t more moments like this over the course of the film.