Blood of Fu Manchu [1968]

To approach the two Jess Franco-helmed Fu Manchu films as coherent narratives is to do them a dreadful injustice. Not for nothin’, friends–these movies are hott messes and I’m not about to argue with any critic who judges them thusly. It’s just that one has to get around the idea of their messiness in order to get to the creamy center of joy they conceal. “Blood of Fu Manchu” and “Castle of Fu Manchu” are not so much devalued by their plot holes as they are defined, much like a crocheted doily or a paper snowflake, by these plot holes. Having read several of the Sax Rohmer source novels, I can honestly say these flawed plots don’t really bother me since I don’t think they’re out of line with Rohmer’s vision of a Chinese supervillain, devising schemes that are beyond Western comprehension. It’s meta–roll with me on this.

In “Blood of Fu Manchu,” the insidious doctor (played with the kind of dignity that only Christopher Lee can bring to a deeply ridiculous role) is once again up to his global domination hijinx, this time using an ancient Inca technique to transform a bevy of international babes into poisonous drones of destruction. By placing an adorably diminutive snake next to the bosom of the intended girl bomb (no–wait–wrong movie!), the woman is infected with a venom that she’s immune to but that will strike down any man unfortunate enough to kiss her. Things go all WTF straight away, mainly because it would be a LOT easier to just send the snakes directly to the intended targets (they’re small; shipping would be cheap, quick and simple) instead of having the girls smooch the victims. These ladies don’t so much seduce anyone as they just leap out and facerape Fu Manchu’s enemies. It seems needlessly baroque, but that’s part of that whole “inscrutable” thing the Bad Doctor’s got working for him. Furthermore, the effects of the poison are kind of… well, they’re incredibly unpredictable. At different points in the film, death can follow quickly, or take a few days, or ensue after six weeks of suffering. My personal demand for Teutonic Efficiency balks at all this, lemme just tell you.
"Blood of Fu Manchu" Film Still
Digressions as to the relative efficacy of Fu Manchu’s methods aside, his choice of female assassins provides plentiful shots of beautiful women in bondage and a fair amount of T&A, and the whole “ancient South American” tie-in thang gives an excuse to employ an exotic Brazillian setting. So at the end of the day, I’m not complaining.

"Blood of Fu Manchu" Film Still
Naturally, Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith, British explorer and superspy, is one of the first targets for the girl bombs (damn, damn, DAMN; I keep screwing that up!), and after this Kiss Of Eventual But Non-Specific Death is received, he spends 90% of the movie blind, looking as sweaty and disoriented as Steven Seagal on a semi-reality, law-enforcement-themed television show. This affliction, quite problematically, leads to Dr. Petrie taking center stage in all of the Brit-buffoon majesty that actor Howard Marion-Crawford invests in the character. By the time Dr. Petrie is hanging in chains, begging for hot tea (the third such instance of tea-related humor), I was groaning audibly. Folks say the Fu Manchu character is a symbol of racism against Asians, but I’d posit that this film, at any rate, makes me fear and loathe the British far, far more. Let’s just assume that’s a clever inversion placed into the film by Jess Franco, shall we?
"Blood of Fu Manchu" Film Still
The seams where additional footage has been added for the export market really show here. I’m no film editor, but I could clearly see where the orgiastic raid on the sleepy South American town, the bare-chested snakebites, and the groovy, translucent nighties could easily be excised to create “clean” prints of the movie.
This all sounds like bitching–I realize this. “Blood of Fu Manchu” gives the viewer exactly TWO choices: punch out early due to excessive silliness, or roll with the stupidry and enjoy the over-the-top acting, outfits, plot and sets.
"Blood of Fu Manchu" Film Still
I might’ve been inclined to go with the former choice, had I not stuck in till Sancho Lopez’s vicious gang of Mexi-flavored marauders showed up. Oh yes, friends–that wasn’t a typo up there. This movie has three–THREE–delicious stereotypes where you thought you’d only get the Yellow Peril! Bandit Sancho Lopez, with his tiny hat, his drinking, his raping and his haphazard shooting of stuff, is the spiritual cousin of Speedy Gonzalez, though probably with a nastier meth habit. I’m not even entirely sure why the Sancho Lopez character gets involved in the story at all, since he doesn’t really do much except serve as Local Color, but holy wow am I glad this character got kept in the script. I was fascinated enough by this nugget of “Why” that I almost overlooked Maria Rohm’s country doctor character, clad like the lead in a community theatre production of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
"Blood of Fu Manchu" Film Still
Almost.
Absurd, insensitive, and never boring, “Blood of Fu Manchu” has plenty to recommend it to fans of trash cinema. Folks seeking a sophisticated tale of intrigue should look elsewhere, and those looking to analyze the dreamy, jazz-influenced structure in Franco’s work will be disappointed with this movie. However, if you love crazy action stories as much as I do and get a kick out of … how shall I put this … Cinematic Texts That Are a Product Of Their Respective Times, then “Blood of Fu Manchu” is right up your foggy Limehouse alley.
"Blood of Fu Manchu" Film Still

The Apple [1980]

"The Apple" Film Still

Dear Interpals: this X-Mess, I am re-gifting to you something that was recently gifted upon me. Don’t worry–it’s still got plenty of life in it, and I’ve freshened up the wrapping just for you.

"The Apple" Film Still
Pal of the Tenebrous Empire Kevin Maher pitched a fascinating movie to me a few weeks back. He told me about this dystopian science fiction flick produced by schlockmeistros Menahem Golan (who also directed) and Yoram Globus* that’s a Biblical allegory as well as a disco musical. This movie is called “The Apple,” and it more than delivers on its promise of vintage weirdness.
*Remember the sweet, sweet Cannon Group logo and its promise of tacky magnificence? I do–ever so fondly.
"The Apple" Film Still
Set in a deceptively glittery 1994, “The Apple” tells the tale of Alphie and Bibi, a pair of saccharine songwriters who achieve overnight fame following their appearance on the World Vision Song Festival**. The sinister Mister Boogalow (played by Vladek Sheybal, whose oily Eurotrash panache charmed me from his first heavily-accented lines–this character should be in EVERY MOVIE), head of Boogalow’s International Music (BIM) drives a wedge between these sickly-sweet naifs when Bibi (driven, no doubt, by typical womanly greed and hysteria–WIMMIN, AMIRITE?) signs Boogalow’s dubious contract even though Alphie (what with his steadfast French-Canuckian wiles and morals) refuses. In case one didn’t get hip to the Satanerrific temptation subtext here, this movie generously shifts into some Satanerrific temptation TEXT with a song-and-dance number set in Hell. It’s right around this moment; in which Alphie and Bibi appear dressed as (be-thonged) Adam and Eve, Boogalow appears as the devil, and his right-hand man appears as a serpent offering Bibi-Eve a GIANT PLASTIC APPLE; that I realized I was watching something really, really special.
**It’s exactly like Eurovision Song Contest, only I assume performances by Lordi and DJ Bobo wound up on the cutting room floor.
"The Apple" Film Still
I didn’t realize that things would get so overwhelmingly odd that I’d have to take a break an hour in, but trust me, THINGS GOT THAT WEIRD. Car-crashing Genesis into Revelations using the force of shiny, shiny late-70s dance music, the story includes cave-dwelling hippies, drag queens, remorseful sluts, beard glitter***, and at least one prosthetic nose. This movie’s firm belief is that nothing should be spoken that cannot be sung, repetitively and at length, with backup dancers in homoerotic outfits. You’d think a sex scene could be conducted simply between the two parties in question, but you’d be wrong–in the world of “The Apple,” that sex scene should have at least FOUR couples, three of whom are dancing, and all of whom are filmed through a Just Jaeckin Vasoline Lens.
***Was beard glitter ever in style? Movies filmed in 1978 lead me to believe it was.
"The Apple" Film Still
The message of “The Apple” is, on its surface, very heteronormative. Leave your awesome, perverse nightclub lifestyle behind, live in a cave with hippies and make some babies, and a magical sky daddy will whisk you away somewhere that suave, evil Devilman won’t be able to touch you****. I have a hard time buying this message as being anything APPROACHING sincere, because the majority of the movie is spent showing drug-fueled, lame-clad masses of dancers grooving it up while under the protection of Mr. Boogalow*****, and getting to spend eternity in this state of disco bliss. Frankly put: I’m not seeing a down side to this. In fact, it seems to me that the movie is subversively PRO-DEBAUCHERY. By making Boogalow and the rest of the BIM crew seem so very posh and fabulous (in spite of the whole “oppressing the populace by forcing them to buy BIM products and listen exclusively to BIM-produced music”), it’s like “The Apple” is forcing my hand and telling me to help bring about the Rapture so I can get rid of all the party poopers who AREN’T interested in stuff like “fun” and “fashion” and “hott gay sex.”
****This is not a spoiler if you are familiar with the Bible, and since the Bible came out more than ten years ago (the scientifically-appointed time of expiration on spoiler-alerted discussions), I am not obligated to give you a spoiler alert.
*****It’s a good thing I’m not having kids, because the temptation to name one of them Waldemar Daninsky Boogalow would be more than I could resist.
"The Apple" Film Still
Admittedly, I’m no authority on weird musicals, but it shocked me that I’d never heard of this film. I assumed it was one of those poignantly lost-to-time movies that I’d have to track down through gray-market sources. But no–it’s totally available on Netflix RIGHT NOW and it just finished a run on digital cable On Demand. I recommend avoiding your respective families, acquiring a supply of your mind-altering substance of choice, and sitting down to enjoy “The Apple” this holiday weekend. It’s relevant cos it’s Biblical.
And for those demanding instant gratification, here’s the trailer for “The Apple:”

Ludwig [1972]


I watch an awful lot of movies that, were they translated into the written word, would overflow with exclamation points and be rendered entirely in capital letters. “Subtlety” is not usually the order of the day in the Tenebrous Empire, where loud screaming, eyeball-assaulting surrealism, and explosions of things that ordinarily would not explode are standard menu items. Based on his performances in films like “Salon Kitty,” “Beast with a Gun,” and “Faceless,” it’s easy to see why I’ve crowned Helmut Berger as King of Pitching a Fit. It brings me no small measure of joy to watch Berger chew the scenery in the way only an extremely gifted actor can–I can imagine that many folks reading this derive similar delight from performances by George C. Scott and Michael Caine at their most unhinged.

"Ludwig" Film Still
It would seem that teaming an actor so capable of going so far over the top in his performances with the kind of filmmaker who would dream up a four-hour biopic based on the life of a nineteenth century Bavarian king that popular history remembers as a madman would be a recipe for cinematic insanity. Add to this the fact that Visconti and Berger were romantically involved at the time of this film’s production, thus raising the potential for this movie to be a really really long, really really expensive ego trip of a production motivated more by affection than good sense. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from Luchino Visconti’s 1972 epic “Ludwig,” except that I’d be spending four hours watching Helmut Berger pretend to be a king while wearing fancy historical outfits and therefore an entirely sound investment of MY time.
"Ludwig" Film Still
“Ludwig” is simultaneously sweeping in scale and emotionally intimate; luxurious in its settings and understated in its performances. It’s a story about art, privilege, sexuality, spiritual love, and profound loneliness. The film attempts to portray the reign of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (spanning the years between 1864 and 1886) in a naturalistic, obsessively precise manner. Best known to most people for having the words “THE MAD” appended to his name as a result of his extravagant patronage and general eccentricity, the Ludwig of this film is a man whose devotion to the arts and lack of interest in affairs of state isolate him from his peers. He’s emotionally fragile and has a naive tendency to deify artists (his exuberant financing of composer Richard Wagner is explored at length), but he’s not mad. Ludwig is portrayed as an idealist whose visions of beauty are eroded and ultimately destroyed by forces both profound (obligations to state and family) and banal (Wagner is shown to be a brilliant artist who is also a ruthless profiteer). His love for his cousin Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, (portrayed by Romy Schneider in a return to this role) isn’t motivated by physical desire but rather by his admiration for her independent spirit and empathy with his passions.
"Ludwig" Film Still
This is an incredibly lavish production–filmed on site at Ludwig II’s castles (including Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland), the movie includes some of the most painstakingly detailed costumes and set trappings I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is oftentimes dark, punctuated by rays of sunlight, much like a painting by one of the Dutch Masters. It’s an incredibly beautiful movie populated almost entirely by incredibly beautiful actors.
"Ludwig" Film Still
It would be easy for this kind of mise en scene overwhelm the actors, but that isn’t the case here. Visconti’s film proceeds with a deliberate, slow pace that allows the audience to absorb the grand trappings of each scene before concentrating on the performances.
And yes, this is one heck of a slow-moving film. Make no mistake about it–there are spaces of film where it feels like Ludwig’s 22-year reign is being depicted in Real Time. I’ll admit that I found myself checking out during the long scenes of characters discussing the intricacies of continental European politics of the Nineteenth Century.
"Ludwig" Film Still
But, just as I was starting to question the wisdom of undertaking this particular nugget of Italian art cinema, the beauty of Berger’s performance as the psychologically complex king would come through and I’d be hooked all over again. Beneath some pretty significant makeup (including a pretty squicky-looking set of rotten teeth), Berger conveys an impressive range of emotion , sometimes over the space of only a handful of frames. His reaction to a handsome young actor’s soliloquy shows an ecstatic sadness that’s nothing short of heartbreaking:

"Ludwig" Film Still
"Ludwig" Film Still
"Ludwig" Film Still
I talked last week about Endurance Movie-Watching, and I have a feeling that for many viewers, sitting still for four hours to watch a nuanced tragedy of manners might be more than they could or would want to handle. Sad and beautiful and meticulous, “Ludwig” is the Period Piece taken to an extreme. It’s downright academic in its dedication to creating a fully immersive royal world, and the film suffers as entertainment because of this almost clinical level of detail. At the same time, I can’t imagine watching one of the theatrical cuts of this movie–it would lose its resonance and elegance entirely.
For those of you less enthused about watching interminable arthouse fare, check out the Flickr gallery of stills from Visconti’s “Ludwig” here.

Top 5 Films I’m Avoiding ON PURPOSE


Yellow CAUTION tape–it’s a suggestion. There’s nothing except one’s assumption that there’s something hazardous on the other side of the thin, plastic barrier preventing a person from yanking it loose and proceeding through at will. We’re conditioned to obey the suggestion of the tape because it’s there for our own good. Sometimes we tear the tape and walk down the recommended-against steps and discover a spiffy shortcut that shaves minutes off our daily commute. Other times, we put our foot on a rickety step and take a tumble for the worse, hopefully not resulting in a brain injury that leaves us with a deeply embarrassing mental condition that makes us spew foul language during conference calls.

Pretty much the entire world of films that I enjoy is cordoned off with CAUTION tape, to the point where I’ve pondered adding a TRIGGER WARNING to the top of each review I write. “CAUTION: This review contains frank conversations about rape, mutilation, dreadful haircuts, and disco.” But I’m not nearly that responsible, and honestly I believe that all human beings are, at this point, using a browser with a “Close” function and a computer fully equipped with an “Off” switch.
I’ll confess–I don’t find myself reaching for the “Off” switch very frequently, but there are a few films that I’ve very deliberately avoided. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe that genre film enjoyment turns on an axis of ENDURANCE, and while over-the-top offensive material and splatstick can be fun in their own right, there are some titles that go directly to my Pit Of Ignore. Not because I believe that these movies are “bad” or that they “go too far”–language that bothers me because it’s the language of censorship–but because I know that watching these movies would be like growing a pair of testicles simply for the purpose of being kicked in them, just so I know what it feels like.
I like elements of fantasy and surrealism in my movies–I can deal with quite a bit of graphic and shocking imagery if it’s within this context. In looking at other lists of disturbing films, I was struck by the fact that “El Topo” made it onto several of them. While there are certainly over-the-top elements in this movie (OK, the WHOLE MOVIE is over the top–that’s a fair point), I’m too enchanted by its magical weirdness to be upset by the contents. When the entire purpose of a movie’s existence is to show depictions of horrible real-life situations or to assault the viewer with nauseating material in a naturalistic-if-grotesque setting, that’s generally when I lose interest. I’m just not particularly interested in being HARDCORE for the sake of being HARDCORE.
Pretend that you’re asking yourself “Gee, Tenebrous–what titles DO disturb you?” so I can act like I’m humoring you by listing a few of them below. I will punctuate this post with images of adorable pets and amusing stuff as a sort of the “spoonful of sugar” technique to help the medicine of general unpleasantness go down. You’re welcome. Doubly thank me for specifically finding image-free reviews of the movies below. *mwah*
Dog in Shop Window
1) “Cannibal Holocaust.” The great-granddaddy of found footage horror movies, this exploration of savagery and man’s inhumanity to man is a gore-filled odyssey through the Amazon Rainforest told through film shot by a missing American documentary crew. I really enjoy reading about this movie because it elicits such impassioned responses from viewers. It also sounds like one of the worst things I could assault my eyeballs with–a graphically violent movie driven by cruelty and a true meanness of spirit. I’ve never had anyone tell me that it doesn’t earn its reputation as one of the most soberingly hideous things ever committed to film. I’ll take your collective word for it, folks!
Maggie Cat camoflauged into the area rug
2) “Nekromantik 2.” Just in case Jörg Buttgereit’s jaw-dropping “Nekromantik” didn’t scar me enough, allow me to RETURN to the corpse-fucking concept, this time with a female lead. I’m sure this is a work of twisted genius and all that, but I could barely handle its predecessor, let alone watch something with superior FX technology and production values. I will confess I adore its sometimes-used title “Nekromantik 2: Return of the Loving Dead.”
Weimar Berlin personality Ruth Roellig with pet monkey
3) “Grace.” Awesome. Let me invest 85 minutes I will never get back watching a movie that reinforces my conclusion that contemporary American culture has flipped its collective wig with Baby Madness. I’m sure that to a person who… you know… experiences any kind of normative reproductive urges, this story has resonance, and the movie has been VERY well-received by other horror fans. I have no doubt that it’s quite well-made and that other people will enjoy it (as much as anyone can be said to “enjoy” a movie about an undead, bloodthirsty infant), but I’m decidedly NOT part of this film’s target audience.
Cats in SoHo Shop Window
4) “Requiem for a Dream.” I am convinced that this descent into the horribleness of drug addiction is exquisitely well-crafted. I am also convinced that Real Actual Life is full enough of horribleness that I can skip this film. I don’t like the idea of having to emotionally recover from watching the harrowing destruction of make-believe strangers.

"Night of a Thousand Cats" Film Still
5) Anything with the words “August Underground” in its title. This trilogy, put out by the folks at ToeTag Pictures, is the very distillation of Endurance Cinema–to the point where filmmaker Fred Vogel was detained in a Canadian jail while crossing the border so authorities could further investigate whether or not they wanted to allow his films into the country. I feel kind of guilty putting this on the list, because it’s a little like saying “I don’t enjoy watching porn that doesn’t cater to my sexual orientation”–these movies were created specifically to be prurient, and by golly do they sound successful. Just check out the description of “August Underground’s Mordum” at IGN in their Top 10 Sickest Movies list. That’s an itch even *I* am unlikely to scratch. YIKES.

It’s That Time Again – Kevin Geeks Out!


Achtung, New York City pals! In between your frantic, last-minute holiday shopping (I’ll make this easy for you: I want the Joan Jett Barbie), consider taking a selfish couple of hours to yourself this Friday December 18th and participate in what I’ll GUARANTEE is the best Holiday Grab Bag of 2009. 92YTribeca’s monthly “Kevin Geeks Out” event is celebrating the season with a fragrant potpourri of awesomeness, offering expert presenters who will discuss everything from giant Japanese monsters to shark movies to beloved 1980s cartoon heroes. Also: THERE WILL BE CUPCAKES. It’s better than getting to sit at the cool kids’ table in Junior High–get your tickets in advance for Friday December 18th, 8pm, 92YTribeca.

For those of you unfortunate enough to reside in less enlightened climes, I’ll offer you a virtual grab bag of holiday cheer that I’ve been enjoying recently:
“A Christmas Tale” at Chuck Norris Ate My Baby (props to writers who love unwieldy blog titles as much as *I* do)–I watched this nifty 80s-flavored flick last year and enjoyed it WAY more than I anticipated. Matt makes a great case for why YOU will enjoy this offbeat seasonal chiller as well.
Emily is jumping on a LOT of cinematic grenades in the holiday vein at Deadly Doll’s House of Horror Nonsense. Show her some love, folks–the woman is SELFLESS!
Richard Sala’s cartoon summary of Psycho Santa Movies–I’ve loved Sala’s art since seeing his “Invisible Hands” on MTV’s “Liquid Television” animation showcase.
It’s Krampustime over at Monster Brains–further proof that Christmas is about 400% improved by the addition of Halloween.

Vampire Ecstasy (aka "Veil of Blood") [1973]

The genesis of any exploitation film seems to be fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? A sort of “if you bare it, they will come (IYKWIM)” attitude permeates much of the grindhouse cinema of years past. Give a movie a few exposed nipples and a salaciously tasty tagline, and the raincoat brigade will fork over the necessary currency to get into the theatre. It’s a refreshingly honest exchange, really!
Filmmaking logic like this leads to films such as Joe Sarno’s “Veil of Blood” (re-released as “Vampire Ecstasy” for reasons I can only attribute to a realization that subtlety is lost on perverts). “Vampire Ecstasy” was conceived when American sexploitation director Sarno (guilty of Crimes Against Humanity for foisting “Deep Throat 2” on the world) teamed with producer Chris Nebe to film a movie set at Nebe’s uncle’s Bavarian chateau. Realizing that when life gives you an authentic Black Forest schloss, you make softcore porn, Sarno whipped up a script involving black magic, incest, vampiric resurrection, lesbianism, and general toplessness. With Swedish nymphette Marie Forsa in tow, Sarno went to Germany, hired a cast of unknowns native to the area, and over the next 22 days, “Vampire Ecstasy” just sort of happened, judging by the looks of the finished film. Frankly, I’m amazed that it took 22 days to shoot “Vampire Ecstasy”–unless, of course, that 22 day figure includes the time spent to procure the cast and teach them how to speak English. In which case, that’s a not-insignificant accomplishment!
"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
The story concerns two cousins–super-sexed-up Helga (played with great buxomness by Forsa) and her demure, lesbian foil Monika–who arrive at a castle to claim the inheritance of their deceased aunt. As eerie circumstance and lazy plotting would have it, folklorist Dr. Julia Malenko and her brother Peter appear at the castle after their car breaks down. Cue all sorts of sensual-ish pairings, murmurings about a resurrected vampire, and a lot of boobs. LOTS OF BOOBS. Fully forty-eight percent of the movie can be summarized in the following three screen grabs, portraying a bongo-fueled orgy of what looks like a topless Slave Leia convention:
"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
I know what you’re thinking–already, this is one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of the Twentieth Century, right? But for the discerning trash fan, there’s more beneath the flesh-tone, body-painted surface. Like the dialogue:
Peter Malenko: “Julia, you have looked very uneasy all morning.”
Dr. Julia Malenko: “That is because I am uneasy, Peter.”

I’m 75% convinced that this film is an incisive, brilliant satire of contemporary German social interactions. Sarno has made the unimpeachably fantastic decision to have his German and Swedish cast deliver all their lines in English–thickly-accented, sociopathically-reserved, icily-precise English. Bonus points for the fact that these folks appear to come from wherever Udo Kier’s Dracula came from, with all their talk of wirgins, wampires, and unholy wengeance. I never knew there were that many words with the letter “V” in them in the English language!

"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
Like any fine portrayal of the occult, “Vampire Ecstasy” develops its own mythology. Sure, it SEEMS like it’s just bad plotting, but badness like this can’t just happen in a vacuum–it requires a special breed of insanity. The sometimes-black-clad/oftentimes-topless-beloinclothed coven of witches that wander the castle awaiting the return of their vampire leader employ the loin-enflaming sounds of the bongo drum to lure their victims into their spooky thrall. Perplexingly, they initiate new witches into their group by making them hump a magically oversized dildo. Out comes the yellow-red-and-blue body paint, et voila, une nouvelle sorcière!

"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
The performances range from robotically stiff to Germanically manic. Slutty Helga never lets us forget that she is Slutty Helga (I prefer to think of this as Commitment To The Role as opposed to a one-dimensional character portrayal) and Demure Lesbian Monika is always Demure Lesbian Monika (until, of course, she is Resurrected Vampire Monika). I’m going to sidebar for a moment and discuss her totally hott-tastic girlfriend who dons the most incredible femme menswear this side of Annie Lennox. I don’t remember much about her performance, but by golly does her splendid array of neckties live in my memory…!
"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
In terms of sheer acting chops (?), the dubious honor of Best In Show unequivocally belongs to Nadia Henkowa as Frau Wanda Krock, overseer of the chateau and extreme disrespector of Personal Space. Her array of eye-popping, lip-curling facial expressions had me in stitches to such a degree that I refuse to believe that Henkowa is not a comedienne possessed of a downright preternatural talent.
Aside from the breasts, this movie is a visual disaster. Sloppy, sloppy shot framing, super-dark lighting, and static cameras characterize the cinematography to a degree where it can’t be unintentional. Shots are blocked in such a manner that characters are half-obscured by other characters’ backs; cameras adjust for height while the film rolls; figures are disguised entirely behind burning braziers. The only reason there was no Boom Mic Cameo can only be due to the fact that there was no boom mic.
"Vampire Ecstasy" Film Still
In summary: if you love girlkissing and bongos, THIS is your film. If you love vampires… well… it’s significantly LESS your film. It’s a funky oddity in Sarno’s career, which has largely been marked by Unwatchable Junk–but as Unwatchable Junk goes, you could do an awful lot worse than devoting your 101 minutes to “Vampire Ecstasy.”

Naughty Nuns in Art and Media

The holiday season is once again upon us, and in addition to thoughts of Krampus* and konsumerism, we should all take a moment to put the Christ back in Christmas and append the word “nun” with “sploitation.” Perhaps that last bit sounds dubious to you, but I’ll have you know that in the Tenebrous Empire, the X-Mess Nunsploitation is a time-honored tradition. You have your fruitcake; I’ll have mine.

*My encounter with Krampus got Tumbled (oo err) on the glee-inducingly excellent Santa, NO! Tumblr blog here, in point-o-fact-o.
Nun Pinup by Personality Posters
This fetching lass comes to us from Personality Posters, purveyors of the finest psychedelica and pinuppery. Printed in 1968 on a 42″ x 29″ sheet, the explanatory text tells us that “this poster satirizes the traditional celibacy of religious orders.” Good to know, oh helpful pin-up book!
Glenmont Popes "Naughty Nun" Poster Detail
This second stocking-flashing nun is from my personal collection–the full poster is hanging in my home even now! A detail from a poster illustrated by Liz Carroll for psychobilly band The Glenmont Popes, this nun reminds me a little of notorious Weimar Berlin entertainer and hedonist Anita Berber. It’s probably her green eyeshadow, unruly hair and saucy expression. OH! And the general air of decadent gorgeousness–that helps too.
Dragstrip Nuns
This image poses a quandary, doesn’t it? I really don’t know who to root for. Admittedly, dragstrip Jesus does look like he’s about to lay some serious smackdown on Old Nick, but I hesitate when judging whether I prefer Sexy Brides of Christ over a Sexy Bride of Frankenstein. Also, I imagine Satan has had more drag-racing experience than all three parts of the Trinity combined (who are actually one entity anyway–but surely you catch my drift).
The drawing above is the work of artist Drazen Kozjan, whose style has evolved into something yet-more-wonderful and unique since the 1998 date on that piece. I urge you to check out Kozjan’s gallery website here (the Illustrations Gallery 2 page has some totally relevant-to-spooky-interests and also SAFE FOR WORK [!!!] art to enjoy) and his blog containing some gorgeous recent sketches here.

The Black Belly of the Tarantula [1971]


Ohhhhh “Black Belly of the Tarantula”–you are yet another giallo that has left me with conflicted feelings and a vague sense of disappointment. Why must this happen over and over again as I search for kinky gold in a barrel of things that are not kinky gold? This Italo-thriller offering, directed by “Mondo Cane” creator Paolo Cavara, is a vexing bit of cinema for me. Let’s get this out of the way right up front: there is no denying that it is a thoughtfully-structured, elegantly-lensed, and competently-acted thriller. The murderer’s modus operandi is sufficiently blood-chilling, and there’s some very fine female anatomy on display. Additional genre points are earned through the casting of three Bond Girls (to wit: Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, and Barbara Bach), and the male lead is played by the actually-very-talented genre vet Giancarlo Giannini.

"Black Belly of the Tarantula" Film Still
Police Inspector Tellini (Giannini) is investigating the savage murder of Maria Zani (Bouchet), an adulterous socialite whose fiery relationship with her husband pegs him as a prime suspect. When a second woman turns up killed in an identical fashion to Mrs. Zani, Tellini realizes that something larger and more sinister is afoot. A story of intrigue, blackmail and madness begins to develop that ultimately leads to the unmasking of the killer. The manner of the killings is truly creepy–the murderer (rubber-gloved here instead of black-leather-gloved; genre ingenuity at its finest, folks!) stabs his victim with a poisoned dart and once she is paralyzed, he disembowels and mutilates the still-living woman. In a word: YIKES. Probably for the best, this movie holds back on the graphic grue, emphasizing instead the psychological terror of the murderer’s stalking spree. The murder scenes are among the better-crafted giallo killings I’ve seen, and one setpiece in which a woman working in a dressmaker’s shop, surrounded by mannequins, is particularly spooky. There are some clever shots framed by windows, frosted glass, and in one case the glassed-in side of a building that add a great visual texture to the movie.
"Black Belly of the Tarantula" Film Still
All this sounds pretty interesting. Sooo… what’s my problem?
One of the things I enjoy the most about the giallo form is the emphasis on dark, damaged characters. Something that distinguishes this type of thriller is its relentlessly downbeat view of humanity. In the world of the giallo, all cops can be bought, all husbands will betray their wives, and all women are subject to severe sexual hangups. It’s more than the film noir griminess that’s familiar to American audiences–there’s something twisted about each character in a giallo, and these folks seem to be motivated entirely by their ids. Where a film noir plot might involve an avaricious wife caught staging the elaborate murder of her husband, a giallo murderess would be compelled to kill as a result of the trauma inflicted on her by her wicked mother–and this murderess might possibly turn out to be a man. THAT’S the kind of universe we’re dealing with here, people.
"Black Belly of the Tarantula" Film Still
Since a significant portion of “Black Belly of the Tarantula” is spent with Tellini and his girlfriend Laura (Auger), who seem to be pretty nice people with a pretty nice relationship, it means the distinguishing aspect of the form is missing. SURE, the killer is a perverse madman, and YES, the victims each harbor a socially deviant secret, but relatively little screen time is dedicated to developing those folks. It’s testament to the success of the pervy stuff in this film that whenever scenes are focused on the plot’s antagonists, the movie comes alive. I’d have liked to see the blackmailer characters further developed, and the scenes inside a spa catering to wealthy women just brim with weirdness–it’s a shame that more time wasn’t devoted to these elements. There’s simply too much screen time devoted to Tellini’s police procedures and domestic life and during these scenes, the movie simply drags.
"Black Belly of the Tarantula" Film Still
For Italo-thriller completists, there are certainly worse movies out there than “The Black Belly of the Tarantula,” and I wouldn’t warn against seeing the film. If nothing else, it’s an interesting example of how diminishing a giallo’s perversity diminishes its effectiveness.

Blonde Jungle Goddesses

Can we talk about Blonde Jungle Goddesses for a minute? That’s a trope you just don’t see enough of anymore–although some would argue that this is like saying “they just don’t make Yellow Peril stories the way they used to.” In general, the Blonde Jungle Goddess undergoes her apotheosis as a result of dark-skinned natives being so AWE-STRUCK by her “perfect” white skin and hair that they presume her to possess supernatural powers. Little is done to dissuade them from this notion once the Great White Hunter character (or Tarzan, or both) comes into the picture and falls hopelessly under her sexy, sexy spell. Unsurprisingly, people tend to Take Issue with this kind of story arc, working unsubtly as it does with issues of race and imperialism.
Blonde Jungle Goddesses are part of a bygone era in genre entertainment–these characters play to the (generally male, generally white) viewers’ xenophobic anxieties*, to make no mention of the not-so-under-current of gender wars and the rise of feminism.
*Yeah, I DID bust out TWO words with X’s in them in a row. I want a cookie now, fuckers.
Frankly, all this just makes Blonde Jungle Goddesses sexier by virtue of being more taboo. There’s something that feels really naughty about looking at images of these Amazon creatures with their shameless displays of flesh and implied power-play–a feeling that’s redoubled in the context of the socio-political milieu in which they exist.

Frollo - Jungle Girl
This Leone Frollo** illustration captures the delicious wrongness of the Blonde Jungle Goddess. Bonus points for the fact that the native captors of the Safari Girl kept her shiny, shiny leather boots on while prepping her for the cookpot.
"Khina, Queen of the Jungle" - Saudelli
And as the cherry on top of this oh-so-wrong sundae, here’s a page from “Khina: Queen of the Jungle” as illustrated by Franco Saudelli. Yep–I think that might just be an Asian doctor working with the native queen. Two, two, TWO times the stereotypes in but a single page! And I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Saudelli contrives more ways to tie up his heroines than John Willie. Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Jörg Buttgereit’s "Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" [2009]


Ever have something fly completely under your radar for several years, only to be astonished by its very existence and the potential for perfection inherent in that something? If ever a cinematic document possessed the ingredients that might approach the Tenebrous Ideal*, it would be “Captain Berlin vs. Hitler.” I first caught wind of this film via a Twitter post**, and within five minutes I was on Amazon.de all but screaming NAME YOUR PRICE at my computer screen.

*It’s like the Platonic Ideal, but with more puppets and snappier outfits.
**Whoever says Twitter isn’t useful just isn’t following the right feeds, y0.

Just… watch the trailer:
Yes, it’s a movie about a German superhero battling Dracula and Hitler’s puppet brain, set to an infectious retro-synth soundtrack and envisioned by Jörg Buttgereit. And yes, I AM willing to overlook the whole “necrophilia” issue and declare myself entirely enchanted by Mr. Buttgereit*** at this point.
***Bonus points for his appearance at the end of the film wearing a Monster Squad New York shirt. REPRESENT, Jörg!
The Captain Berlin character was created by Buttgereit in the early 1980s and appeared in a series of short films by the director, one of which appears above. In these short subjects, Buttgereit plays Captain Berlin in a yellow jumpsuit with red briefs worn on the outside, capped off by a Spiderman mask and a repurposed flag worn as a cape. Clearly the product of a punk sensibility slamming head-on into a love of the 1960s “Batman” teevee show, these shorts remind me of… well, of the ill-advised “Crow”-inspired short film I helped a couple of pals of mine make while we were in high school (DON’T JUDGE ME). As such, they’re funny to watch but low on stuff like “production values,” “plot,” and “sense.”
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" Film Still
The movie up for discussion here takes place in 1973 in West Berlin. Captain Berlin (portrayed here by Jürg Plüss), Germany’s first-and-only superhero, originally tasked by the German Resistance to defeat Hitler during World War II, has retired and is working as a journalist while raising his sixteen-year-old daughter, Maria. Elsewhere in the city, Dr. Ilse von Blitzen has revived Hitler’s brain and is plotting to place it into the body of Germanikus (Buttgereit, under a rubber monster mask and about a million yards of gauze–dude is TALL), a creature created from the bodies of top SS men. She has enlisted the aid of Dracula, whose Communist beliefs vex the good doctor, but who is reluctantly working at her side due to the promise of Maria’s virgin blood. Wising up to von Blitzen’s plot and refusing to take part in such anti-socialist activities, Dracula defects to his own castle (in the eastern part of Berlin, of course). Dr. von Blitzen takes matters into her own hands and, after Germanikus’ resurrection goes awry, ultimately seats Hitler’s brain in a giant robot constructed of the strongest Krupp Steel. Will Captain Berlin be able to stop the Communist menace of the vampire and the Fascist threat of Hitlerrobo AND save his daughter from a fate worse than death…? Only a viewing of “Captain Berlin vs. Hitler” will reveal what happens!
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" Film Still
Now that you’ve had a chance to savor the gestalt of this movie, I’m going to have to do a little of what Corporate Overlords like to call “managing expectations.” “Captain Berlin vs. Hitler” is a direct filming of Buttgereit’s 2007 stage production, lensed and edited by German filmmaker Thilo Gosejohann****. Make no mistake–the play is a LOT of fun to watch, but the film is technically clunky as a result. The shots are static and it looks like there are only three or four camera locations that are used. Gosejohann employs some interesting post-production elements (comic book frames, artificial film grain, pleasantly hokey animated effects) that give a bit of a cinematic feel, but this is very much a piece of theatre.
****Director of “Operation Dance Sensation” and “Captain Cosmotic.” Those are trailer links; come prepared for gorgeous insanity, leave satisfied.
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" Film Still
This isn’t to say that there’s not plenty of cool visual stuff to enjoy. Far from it, in fact! The circus-inspired stage set is colorful, and on-set effects like crepe-paper guts and Karo syrup blood are perfectly in keeping with the eccentric world of this production. The Hitler’s Brain Puppet is startlingly expressive, with its eyestalks bending erratically and evoking the mania that accompanied the Furer’s infamous speeches. And–let’s be honest–Hitlerrobo is a show-stopper that’s even more impressive for working in real-time, on-stage.
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" Film Still
“Captain Berlin vs. Hitler”‘s staging is remarkably meta, and I’d argue that it’s more effective in its theatrical form than it would be as a fully-realized film. The pre-War cabaret aesthetic underlies the show’s look and feel, from the circus tent that frames the action to the burlesque-inspired character depictions. The decadent, doomed air of the 1920s performance culture that was snuffed out with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s***** informs much of the production, even though this era of German history is never directly mentioned. Nazi iconography is front and center in this production (an eagle bearing a swastika in a wreath is perched at the apex of the tent, visible throughout the play), but taken in total, this is a parable about the history of Germany in the entirety of the 20th Century, tracing the story of defeat during WWI, followed by period of chaos, then the ensuing defeat during WWII, and the fragmentation of the country into democratic(ish) West Germany and Soviet-run East Germany.
I know, I know–I’m straying perilously close to tl;dr territory (the “Here There Be Dragons” portion of the Internet’s map) with all this talk of Central European history. Allow me to re-route my discussion and get back to the off-kilter kookiness that you WANT to read about!
"Captain Berlin vs. Hitler" Film Still
“Captain Berlin vs. Hitler” is funny, but probably not in the madcap manner you might expect. This movie is German As Fuck, and in keeping with this stereotypical Teutonic Seriousness, its characters don’t acknowledge the humor inherent in their actions. The overstated physicality of the performances is an inheritance from theatrical and silent film traditions, evoking the weirdness of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” rather than the slapstick of Buster Keaton. This mock-serious, surrealist humor is in many ways funnier than a similar story based around obvious gags would be–hell, the title alone is already a punchline! Much of the humor is derived from a certain awkwardness and uncomfortableness rather than from overt winking and nudging in the direction of the audience. There are hilarious moments of speechifying or strange verbal exchanges between the characters. The best dialogue, however, is reserved for Dr. von Blitzen, whose eye-popping, hand-talking rants are things of great beauty. Actress Claudia Steiger is a wonderful comedic presence, and her facial expressions when Hitler mentions his wish to see Eva Braun and his beloved Alsatian hound Goldie convey a sense of panic that is a riot to watch. One has to give extra props to an actress who owns her role even when her male lead is a brain puppet. And YES–Baron XIII and I are both more than a little bit in love with her.
“Captain Berlin vs. Hitler” exemplifies a particular type of movie that I enjoy watching–it’s a unique product of it’s creator’s imagination and its steeped in the culture of its country of origin. This is a movie that couldn’t have been created anywhere BUT Germany, and which would have looked very different in any other filmmakers’ hands. For fans of subversive performing art in all its manifestations, get your filthy mitts on a copy of this DVD, which comes with a gorgeous array of extras (German- and English-language commentaries, Buttgereit’s “Captain Berlin” shorts, behind-the-scenes materials, AND a dog tag).