Gor [1987]

I am fascinated by the way in which the internet has facilitated the development of various unusual and oddly specific subcultures. Best of all are subcultures that are tiny but distinct subsets of other groups, or subcultures that exist in the intersection of an unlikely Venn diagram, like the overlap between the “SCAdian” circle and the “BDSM” circle where the Goreans exist. That’s a whole bunch of alphabet soup that basically boils down to “Renaissance Festival enthusiasts who enjoy female slavery role-play.” There were folks living the Gorean lifestyle before the rise of Second Life, but it’s hard to debate the fact that this kind of tool is highly useful for people who want an immersive place to safely act out kinky scenarios.

The fact is that I know a lot more about the Gorean lifestyle and how it plays out online than I do about the twenty-nine fantasy adventure novels that inspired this community. Reading a novel requires a commitment of time and brain-space that doesn’t match my mild curiosity. Movies, on the other hand, are a whole ‘nother cup of tea. I frequently find myself with a spare couple of hours to devote to miscellaneous weirdness. It was in just such a fit of curiosity that I found myself dialing up the 1987 film called “Gor” that is handily available on Netflix Instant.
Adapted from the first book in the Gor cycle, John Norman’s 1966 novel “Tarnsman of Gor,” “Gor” follows mild-mannered academic John Cabot (played by Urbano Barberini of Argento’s “Opera”) as he is transported to a magical pantsless wonderland where he has to save an oppressed tribe from an evil warlord played by Oliver Reed.
With the proceeds from this film, I will be able to drink for HOURS!
Allow me to sidebar for a moment, please. Movies that adopt this kind of Good Tribe Versus Bad Tribe structure are problematic. When the outsider is plunked down in medias res, it’s assumed that whatever group saves his bacon in the initial encounter is the Good Tribe and that whatever group is wailing on those people is the Bad Tribe. What if the culture that saves the hero is being eradicated because they make it a habit of sacrificing babies? What if they just got done exterminating and cannibalizing a neighboring group? Think about these movies through this lens and they’ll be forever ruined for you. You’re welcome!
Good thing none of our vital abdominal organs are protected by this armor.
So yes–returning to “Gor.” John Cabot is a truly awful university professor who becomes a successful warrior after the application of a training montage and the off-taking of his trousers in favor of a deerskin loincloth (perhaps that imbued him with the requisite fury). He teams up with a sexy princess and a team of warrior rogues to free the princess’ father from the grips of the wicked Oliver Reed warlord character. Along the way, Cabot learns important lessons about manhood, like “hit stuff with swords until you get your way,” and returns to earth as a newly-en-machoed man (though presumably he’s still a truly awful university professor).
The movie is a ridiculous mess that could have been a ridiculously entertaining mess had it fully embraced its exploitation potential. A not-insignificant portion of the movie focuses on the slaving practices of the evil city-state that Cabot is helping to overthrow, and those practices are predictably kinky. Female slaves sport shackles and skimpy animal-hide bikinis (along with enormous 80s hair and heavy eyeshadow) and wrestle for the entertainment of their masters. There’s branding and flogging and interpretive dance galore, and I’m sure the goings-on were eye-opening to many twelve year old boys, but this is just… not… sexy. Interestingly, co-producer Harry Alan Towers had financed erotic films in the early 70s including Jess Franco’s “Venus in Furs” and Massimo Dallamano’s “Dorian Gray,” so it wouldn’t have been out of line for him to finance a similarly graphic adaptation of what’s essentially an elaborate framework for kinky slavery scenarios. “Gor” is passable enough as a sword-and-sorcery adventure (even if it falls apart in the last scenes in its attempts to set up the sequel, which was given the MST3K treatment), but it seems somehow disingenuous to play it off as such in light of the books’ reputation.
Oh, and did I mention that this movie prominently features “Wandering Around in the Desert?” Well it does. A lot of it, which means the movie is not-sexy as well as frequently-boring.
Sword and sorcery completists will sit through a lot of crap in their search for a “Conan the Barbarian”-like high. A lot of crap like “Gor.” Fortunately, unlike other not-“Conan” movies, “Gor” features the talents of Oliver Reed, who acts the hell out of every role he plays, even when he is wearing silly hats and not permitted the common dignity of trousers.
5:22 PM

The Keep: Film, Book–Frustration In Two Mediums

I’m not sure what I expected to feel after watching “The Keep,” a movie that is widely noted to be a cinematic misfire. Unkle Lancifer recently did a beautiful job of capturing the attract-repulse appeal of this movie over at Kindertrauma, and my interest had been piqued by his article. After watching Michael Mann’s 1983 supernatural horror film and feeling as unfulfilled as Unk, I was still interested enough in its story of Nazis pitted against an elemental evil that I figured the source novel by F. Paul Wilson would clarify some of the muddled mess of the movie. As it turns out, I was right, but the clarity provided by the book didn’t improve the story. Now I’m in the unenviable situation of feeling frustrated as a viewer and as a reader.

Friends, this is going to get spoilery, so keep that in mind if you choose to continue reading.

Watching Mann’s 1983 version of “The Keep,” it becomes clear that the production was plagued by typical horror-movie issues: budgetary strictures, wonky FX, and the pressure to stick to a 90-minute run time. Viewing the movie without having read the book makes the story feel pretty incomprehensible after a certain point. In the film, a group of Wermacht soldiers arrive at an ancient fortress in Romania, having been told to hold this position to enforce the Eastern front. After some treasure-hungry soldiers pry a protective sigil off the wall of the building, a series of gruesome killings begin to occur as the result of the unleashed evil. A squad of SS einsatzkommandos arrive as reinforcements, but their brutal methods put the two groups of Germans at each others’ throats. Jewish historian Theodor Cuza and his daughter Eva are brought in to investigate the causes of the deaths, and they soon come in contact with the supernatural entity behind the killings. When a mysterious stranger shows up in the little village, it soon becomes clear that there are Evils Greater Than Man at work. Then everything deteriorates into a hott mess of rubbery creature FX, unclear timelines, half-baked mythology, romantic-entanglement-outta-nowhere and lasers.
The Keep
It would be easy to dismiss the movie entirely if there weren’t flashes of very real awesomeness in there. The locations and set design are gorgeously atmospheric. Right from the first frames, it’s clear that the setting is going to play a large role in the tone of the film. As the troops roll through a fairytale Romanian village, the black stone structure of the keep emerges from the mist. The scale of the keep is emphasized from its first appearance–it’s a daunting, black stone structure that towers over the surrounding village. The film finds its chilling high point early on, when the soldiers pry a silver cross from the wall. Lensed using slow motion, billowing fog, and glowing lighting, this sequence builds suspense that leads to a satisfyingly gruesome payoff.
The Keep
Much of “The Keep’s” cult appeal has been laid at the doorstep of the synth soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Fans of Michael Mann’s work will be unsurprised at the pitch-perfect matching of movie to music, and this effort is no exception. I’ll confess that I’m partial to the pairing of moody synth with supernatural themes and this is another instance where the music track enhances the on-screen content.
The Keep
The cast includes a number of notable names. J├╝rgen Prochnow is perfectly cast as Wermacht Captain Klaus Woermann and Gabriel Byrne puts in a performance that has moments of both over-puffed camp and genuine creepiness as SS Major Kaempffer. The scenes that focus on the tension between these characters (and the soldiers they control) are the best in the film. This conflict between the officers deftly sketches the larger-scale conflict within the German war machine during WWII. It’s interesting to see the way these men cope with the deaths within the keep and the revelation of the otherworldly forces at work.
The Keep
The depictions of the “good guy” characters are significantly less engaging, and that’s a real problem when the audience is meant to root for them as they battle against charismatic evil-doers and a timeless supernatural killer. Ian McKellen’s turn as Professor Cuza is actively awful, to the point where I kept thinking that the actor in this role was some terrible unknown actor who happened to look a lot like Sir McKellen. Alberta Watson’s Eva is mainly “pretty” and Scott Glenn focuses on “aloof” with a single-minded intensity in his portrayal of the mysterious visitor.
Then there’s that plot. There are large chunks of character development that have been left out, and there’s no explanation of where the monster in the keep comes from. Being that this is a horror film, I can overlook a certain degree of that, but the last half hour goes so far off the rails that I just gave up trying to understand anything. It’s fortunate that I wasn’t alone when I watched “The Keep,” because otherwise I’d have assumed that I was the victim of alien-abduction-induced Missing Time.
The Keep
Working under the theory that Really Cool Stuff had been excised from the movie in order to accommodate a shorter run time and curious to check out what I’d missed, I grabbed a copy of F. Paul Wilson’s novel of the same name and set to reading it.
There are some key differences in Wilson’s novel that work in its favor. Woermann and Kaempffer are more richly depicted, and they are given a backstory that begins in the trenches of the first World War and traces their diverging military careers. The monster in the keep initially convinces the humans that he is a vampire before his true nature is revealed. Professor Cuza is kind of a selfish, traditionalist dick instead of just the victim of bad acting. His daughter Eva is less-sexily named Magda and is nearly-raped several times, rather than just once in the film. And yes, much of the stuff that didn’t make any sense in the movie is explained, though not necessarily for the better.
The Keep

When dealing with monsters on film, a nugget of wisdom holds that one should reveal the creature at a strategic point in the narrative in order to maintain suspense for as long as possible. Not knowing what is going on in the keep provides a large portion of the story’s eeriness. So when it comes to light that the creature is an evil being from pre-human times who is being hunted by a good being also from pre-human times, it’s kind of hard to care. It would’ve been impossible to explain the monster and still have it hold the same degree of fright. If anything, the novel over-explains the supernatural elements, making their magic evaporate.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to watch Nazis getting killed by an elemental evil–that sort of monster-on-monster action is pretty great in any manifestation. I could even overlook the kinda-triteness of the inherently-decent Jewish academics. But when a superpowered dude fighting on the side of light has to show up and pull everybody’s muffins out of the oven like a muscley deus ex machina… that’s just not interesting. Villains fighting worse-villains, or regular people fighting villains AND worse-villains both make for interesting setups because they’re working against overwhelming odds. When somebody shows up with a magic demon-bopping stick and then GAME OVER’s the whole damn thing, it feels like a ripoff. It’s as boring as a Superman story. He’s fucking Supermanhe’s going to be fine because he’s impossibly good and damn near invulnerable, and who the hell cares about that?
At the end of the day, the positive message one can take from “The Keep” is that the ultimate Nazis versus Things That Are A Lot Like Vampires story has yet to be told. Book and film have some intriguing elements, but each is too flawed to be considered a classic of horror storytelling. The real tragedy of “The Keep” is that in straddling the line between EC Comics weirdness and epic myth-making, it manages to miss the boat on both.

Willard [1971 and 2003]

I was invited over to the Strange Kids Club for a little Valentine’s Day celebration. Rather than dirtying my hands at the Tenebrous Scrapbooking Station in hand-gluing macaroni to pink doilies, I opted to bring a movie review to this little horror blogging potluck. What better way to mark a holiday noted for making lonely people feel crummier than by discussing the boy-meets-rat love story “Willard” in both its 1971 and 2003 incarnations?

The “Willard” movies have an awful lot for me to love, so this is a veritable strudel of cinematic affection for me–there’s layer upon layer of stuff to get excited over. Between skin-crawly rats, inspired production design, and some of my all time favorite actors delivering over-the-top performances (Ernest Borgnine and Elsa Lanchester appear in the ’71 production, and Crispin Glover and R. Lee Ermey are incredible in the ’03 version), these movies are swell almost beyond my capacity to express swellness.
Of course, I had a whole mess of leftover images from these movies, so consider this the extra materials to complement the main action taking place over at the Strange Kids’ place:
Willard 1971
Ernest Borgnine has had just about enough of your bullshit.
Willard 1971
Willard 1971
Nightmare fodder.
Willard 2003
My attract and repulse instincts are fighting so incredibly hard right now.
Willard 2003
Crispin Glover approaches grocery shopping with characteristic intensity.
Willard 2003
R. Lee Ermey has also had just about enough of your bullshit.

Cinematic Pop Art, Pro-Wrestling, and Playwriting: Rosalyn Drexler

Rosalyn Drexler is a creative person who is so accomplished that I find her presence in the world to be incredibly inspiring and humbling all at the same time. This is a woman who, at various points in her life, performed as a professional wrestler, exhibited paintings alongside some of the most famous names in Pop Art (including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein), and published multiple novels inspired by her colorful life experiences.

The reason I think her artwork is especially relevant to discuss here is that she appropriates images from cinema stills and movie posters and re-contextualizes them to evoke new layers of meaning. I see a lot of people creating similar work with found images all the time on Tumblr (Negative Pleasure comes to mind), so it’s interesting to see a similar approach to out-of-context movie stills in an analog medium.
Rather than attempting to unpack her place within the art world, I’ll let her images speak for themselves. I have a feeling many of my fellow genre movie fans will find a lot to love in her art!

Here’s a sampling of online articles about Rosalyn Drexler:

Tura Satana: 1938 – 2011

One of the little tragedies about being a movie fan whose chief decades of interest are the 1960s and 1970s is that we’re reaching the time when the filmmakers, actors, and behind-the-scenes geniuses who made these movies so special are passing away. I don’t want to turn the Love Train into the Maudlin Obituary Death Train, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a couple of remarks on the passing of Tura Satana.

While she had a remarkable life that included a burlesque career, glamour modeling, and several genre film appearances, it’s her role as girl gang leader Varla in Russ Meyer’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” that earned her icon status. A juicy role made unforgettable by Satana’s snarling delivery and imposing physical presence, Varla is the ultimate busty, black-leather-clad bitch goddess. She’s an Eric Stanton drawing come to life, and her unrelenting pursuit of pleasure, danger and power leave a trail of chaos in her wake.
Varla–and by extension Tura Satana–is one of the most indelible images of female strength on film. She’s not a delicate actress putting on a tough face or a fashion model decked out with a gun as a sop to “girl power.” Varla looks and behaves like she could kick your ass–like she wants to kick your ass–an explosive fury created from centuries of pent-up female aggression. She’s not sexy *and* dangerous, her sexiness is borne of her dangerousness.
Tura Satana faced adversity throughout her life, from internment at the hands of the US government at Manzanar to her pre-pubescent rape to her real-life involvement in gang activity as a teenager. By all accounts, Tura Satana was no one’s victim and her life’s narrative was not that of a woman driven to exploit her body through sad circumstances. Rather than this, she was a capable individual whose bravado and strength of character are as memorable as her outrageous figure.
I can’t quite separate Varla from Tura, and I think that’s the magic a lot of her fans feel. It’s a rarity to see a female screen figure that is so unrepentantly powerful embodied by an actress who so fully embraced her legacy.
Thank you, Tura Satana, for being a one-of-a-kind inspiration. You will live on as an icon for tough broads everywhere.

Count Dracula [1970]

I maintain that every actor who has portrayed Dracula on screen or stage since 1931 has had to act around Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance. While purists may take issue with the Todd Browning-directed film’s faithfulness to the Bram Stoker novel, there’s no denying that Lugosi’s Eastern European accent, intense stare, and elegant carriage have defined the modern image of the vampire. A close second in the Dracula Stakes* is Christopher Lee, who first appeared in the role in the 1958 Hammer production, “Horror of Dracula,” portraying a more monstrous, physically intimidating version of the Count.

*I’m accidentally punning this early in my musings. This can only go downhill from here…
Neither of these depictions of Dracula truly mirror Stoker’s vision, and it would take the polarizing genre director Jess Franco to create what’s arguably one of the more faithful versions of the novel in his 1970 film, “Count Dracula.” Allow me to start out by saying that “Count Dracula” has a dream cast: Christopher Lee appears in the titular role, Klaus Kinski plays Renfield, Herbert Lom plays Van Helsing, Soledad Miranda appears as Lucy, and notable Franco regulars round out the remainder of the roles. Alas, now is the time for administering the harsh smelling salts of reality, as I will tell you that this is a solid film that should have been a transcendently marvelous film–it never really achieves the promise of its potential.
Count Dracula
One of the challenges of a screen adaptation of “Dracula” is the fact that it’s an epistolatory novel (relying on letters, diary entries, and news clippings to construct its story) with a whole mess of characters (there are seven distinctive protagonists without the convenient kind of stalk ‘n’ slash structure that more modern stories of a similar nature usually employ) and a large number of settings (including a castle, a ship, a decrepit abbey, and several distinguished English sitting rooms). The structure just doesn’t lend itself to a ninety-minute horror movie! The trick is finding what can be removed and what’s inherent to the tension of the story. Franco’s “Count Dracula” keeps the number of characters, though he casts them in slightly different functions, and maintains the majority of the settings, but the result is simultaneously cramped and oddly slow.
Count Dracula
The movie starts out at a fine clip, spending its first thirty minutes on Jonathan Harker’s arrival in Transylvania and his subsequent encounters with Dracula. As played by Fred Williams, Harker’s transformation from practical man of the modern age to terror-stricken victim of vampires is one of the best depictions of the character. Harker’s struggle to maintain his propriety in the face of Dracula’s increasingly bizarre behavior works well in this film. Another element that stays true to the source material is Dracula’s appearance–he sports facial hair that evokes woodcut portraits of Vlad Tepes, the historical inspiration for the character. As the film progresses, Dracula looks more hale and hearty (but never once does he sport the infamous “butthead updo” from the Coppola film, a decision for which I think we can all thank Jess Franco). Once Harker winds up back in England (under circumstances that are frankly not explained in the film), the remaining two thirds of the movie are set in the insane asylum run by Dr. Van Helsing and the characters’ growing realization that Harker is not mad, and that vampires are not mythical creatures.
Count Dracula
Significant portions of the movie are filmed on location in Spain, with the beautiful plazas, historical churches, and verdant landscape lending a sumptuous texture to the modest production. Seeing the period-attired characters walk through vaulted lobbies and pass under gothic arches adds a realness to the proceedings that’s in contrast to the stagey (but no less magical) indoor sets of the Hammer and Universal movies. The costuming is adequate, though never stunning, but there are some wonderful surprises in the mise en scene, such as the vintage horse-drawn hearse employed during Lucy’s funeral.
Count Dracula
What’s missing from the execution is the kind of clever camerawork that Franco displayed in his other films from this period. There are some crash-zooms and some fisheye lens, but otherwise the cinematography is straightforward and narrative. The most evocative camerawork occurs in the scenes in which Kinski’s Renfield is shown acting out his largely-silent madness inside of a padded room. And really–you could pretty much just point a camera at Kinski and catch something interesting, so it’s difficult to tell if the effectiveness of these scenes is more due to the skill of the actor or of the director.
Count Dracula
Franco’s Fu Manchu epics go off the rails into craziness, his female vampire tales are overwhelmingly erotic, and his earlier mad science films are stylish and provocative with their sexualize violence. Sadly, Franco’s “Count Dracula” has more raw acting talent in its favor than all of those films combined, and yet it’s not as compelling as any of them individually. It’s just an incredibly literal film, pointing its attention at scenes and stitching them together to make a cohesive narrative. There’s very little of the subversive joy that exists in Franco’s best efforts.
Count Dracula
Don’t get me wrong–“Count Dracula” isn’t a waste of time for vampire fans or for Eurotrash enthusiasts. In addition to the fun of seeing so many familiar faces in a single film, there are some truly bizarro moments. One tidbit not found in Stoker’s novel that’s added here is Dracula’s fondness for taxidermy, and his ability to control said taxidermy with his vampiric brainpower.
It would’ve been great if “Count Dracula” was an unsung classic and I could unconditionally sing its praises. Sadly, though, its flaws outweigh its not-insignificant merits. It’s an interesting take on Bram Stoker’s novel, and makes a nice companion piece to the iconic Universal and Hammer adaptations, but in no way does it dethrone those superior films.
7:50 PM