Thursday, 24 July 2014

Penguin Crime Time / Weird Tales:
The Dain Curse
by Dashiell Hammett
(Penguin, 1966 / originally published 1929)

In general, I feel that the design policy on Penguin Crime paperbacks became far less aesthetically interesting when they began moving toward photo covers from the mid ‘60s onwards. Anyone who has spent time pulling green spines off shelves in British bookshops over the years will no doubt be familiar with those woeful ‘70s editions that just feature ‘still life’ arrangements of handguns, wedding rings, wrist watches and so on posed on somebody’s bedside table.

(Just personal preference I suppose, but god, I hate those covers so much - just looking at them makes me drift into a state of utter boredom, despairing at the tiresome litany of stock detective story props. Such a total contrast to the thrill and mystery generated by the earlier, more modernist / abstract artwork covers I’ve previously shared on this blog…)

Before that nadir though, some of the earlier forerunners of the photo cover were extremely good. William Haggard’s Slow Burner is one of my all-time favourites, and I’ll also make an exception for this startlingly lurid presentation of Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Dain Curse’, wherein Penguin quite uncharacteristically seem to be going all out to sell it as a horror story, complete with bloody knife, thinly veiled boobs and the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth back cover copy you’d be more likely to find on a New English Library horror cheapie from a decade later.

For whatever reason, I skipped over ‘The Dain Curse’ when I made my way through Hammett’s novels in my youth, so when I picked up this edition and learned that it allegedly features the father of hard-boiled fiction mixing up “slaughter” and “hoodoo” in “bizarre, cult-riddled shapes”, I had no choice but to drop everything and read it straight away. Mission accomplished for the ’66 Penguin design team then, And I mean, even if the promises of the cover turn out to be complete hooey, Hammett is always worth reading, right?

And, well… what a peculiar book this is. I was unaware of its episodic publication history when I began reading, so I’ll admit that it came as something of a surprise when the story boiled over into a blood-curdling melodramatic conclusion on about page 45, then promptly started again from scratch in the next chapter following a dry, expositional wrap-up. After this, it swiftly became obvious that, though presented as a continuous novel, ‘The Dain Curse’ actually consists of a number of interlinked short stories, following the same group of core characters through a series of black-hearted capers and genre exercises, with the bad-ass first person narration of Hammett’s nameless Continental Op character holding things together whenever the inter-story continuity gets a bit frayed around the edges (because when that guy tells you what’s what, you tend to believe him, if you want your jaw to remain intact).

Thus, it proves no surprise therefore to discover that ‘The Dain Curse’ was originally published in four monthly instalments in Black Mask magazine, from November 1928 to February 1929. The earlier ‘Red Harvest’ was also published this way of course, but whereas that story functioned well as a self-contained novel (insofar as I remember anyway – it’s been a while since I read it), the connecting tissue linking the stories in ‘The Dain Curse’ is much sketchier, leading to a rather rambling, uneven feel, with a pulpier tone than that found in Hammett’s other full length works.

Heading straight for the index in my long unread copy of Diane Johnson’s ‘The Life of Dashiell Hammett’ (Hogarth Press, 1984), I learn that Hammett himself didn’t seem to hold a high opinion of ‘The Dain Curse’, later describing it as his “silly story”, and losing interest in it almost immediately when he began working concurrently on what became ‘The Maltese Falcon’. It also seems that the book only saw print as a stand-alone volume after editor Harry C. Block had repeatedly pleaded with Hammett to further revise his manuscript, politely presenting the author with a list of ‘recommendations’ that included increasing coherence between the different episodes, eliminating minor characters and digressions entirely and significantly reworking the character of the heroine. To be honest, all of these issues remain pretty problematic in the version that was eventually published, so god knows what kind of a mess things must have been in when Hammett initially submitted his manuscript three revisions earlier.

This all goes some way toward explaining why ‘The Dain Curse’ is by far the least celebrated and least widely read of Hammett’s five novels, I suppose, but it also goes without saying that the book’s awkward narrative flow, which renders it quite hap-hazard and unsatisfying as a detective story, still allows for frequent outbursts of exceptional writing and sheer strangeness that led me to enjoy it quite a bit.

Predictably enough, my favourite part of the book was the second quarter, originally published in Black Mask in December 1928 as ‘The Hollow Temple’. To my surprise, this segment, which seems to have inspired the entirety of Penguin’s design for the book, does indeed see Hammett taking a detour into full-blown horror territory, delivering on the promise of the back cover copy in spades (if only for the space of twenty-something pages).

So, simply put, pages 63 to 98 of ‘The Dain Curse’ represent the most awe-inspiring chunk of weird/pulp prose I’ve read in years, incorporating a reclusive religious cult who pump narcotics through the air-con in their guests’ rooms, secret passages and encounters in the darkness with both sap-wielding thugs and terrifying spectres, a bullet-proof Satanic messiah presiding over a sacrificial altar, and yes, a hypnotised, bloody knife-cradling heroine in a diaphanous nightgown.

Despite the more esoteric subject matter, Hammett’s prose is, as ever, full-blooded and razor-sharp (more literally so here than usual), and the fact that he suddenly begins ploughing through all this in the midst of what is ostensibly a detective story makes it all the more remarkable and unexpected. The passage in which the Continental Op finds himself apparently wrestling with an amorphous, shape-shifting ghost, taking chunks out of the fucker ‘til it *bleeds*, is absolutely staggering – as perfect a realisation of somebody’s “hey, imagine if Dashiell Hammett wrote for ‘Weird Tales’” daydream as could be wished for, rendered with a James/Blackwood-esque descriptive power that no amount of “it was all just knock-out drops and a light show” back-pedalling can sufficiently account for.

It is intriguing to realise that Hammett was clearly an admirer of the genre he is wading into here – he even throws in a cheeky name-check for Arthur Machen - and not even ‘The Hollow Temple’s concluding chapter, in which the rational explanation for everything that transpired is rather awkwardly and tediously outlined, can dampen the memory of the blood-splattered, opium-frazzled power of these pages.

Whilst I’ve always been a fan of Hammett’s work, not to mention the brave stands he took on his beliefs in later life, discovering this full strength detour into weirdsville increases my admiration for him even further. So if, like me, you’ve previously skipped ‘The Dain Curse’ on the basis that it sounds like some kind of fuddy-duddy missing jewels stately home whodunit that nobody seems to rate as much as his other books, now might be as good a time as any to correct that omission, especially if you can track it down with one of the numerous great covers it has inspired over the years.

To that end, let’s conclude with a few I grabbed off the internet; apologies for the low res of some of the images – apparently the standing of this novel remains so low that no one has even much bothered with any decent cover scans. (And yes, James Coburn played the Op in a 1978 TV version – good casting.)


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Nippon Horrors:
Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
(Yoshihiro Ishikawa, 1960)

Thus far in this ‘Nippon Horrors’ strand, we’ve been looking at movies that are either modern style, Western-influenced horror films, or else just lunatic one-offs of one kind or another, but it is of course impossible to gain an understanding of Japanese horror without examining the more traditional k(w)aidan tales that comprised by far the most prolific category within the genre prior to 1970. And if we’re talking kaidan, then before long, we’ll be talking kaibyo, aka bakeneko, aka GHOST-CATS - a subject that the movie-going public in Japan apparently couldn’t get enough of, with a catalogue of titles stretching right back to the dawn of cinema.

If I started trying to run down the folkloric roots of these ‘ghost-cat’ stories, we’d be here all day, but needless to say, specific ghost-cat legends pertaining to such locales as Okazaki, Arima and (most pertinently in this case, perhaps) Kasane Swamp go back at least a few hundred years, and formed a cornerstone of the canon of supernatural kabuki plays, woodcuts and novels that fed straight into the earliest Japanese fantastic films.

Although most of Japan’s silent-era films are now lost, surviving records indicate that the Okazaki ghost-cat legend alone was filmed three times prior to 1917, once by the esteemed “father of Japanese cinema” Shozo Makino no less, whilst the first example of the ‘cursed wall’ variant, which appears to incorporate elements taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ into the mix, appeared as early as 1918.

I have heard Kiyohiko Ushihara’s 1938 production ‘Ghost Cat: Haunted Shamisen’ referred to as the earliest surviving Japanese film to include fantastical elements, and, after the war, the 1950s seem to have heralded an unprecedented boom in ghost-cat pictures, with a few representative examples including ‘Ghost Cat: Cursed Wall’ (Kenji Misumi, 1958), ‘Cat Monster of Ouma Cross’ (Bin Kato, 1954) and ‘Ghost Cat of Yonaki Swamp’ (Katsukiko Tazaka, 1957), as picked from a list comprising many, many more titles.

Given all this, it is slightly ironic that by far the best-known ghost-cat movie in the West is Kaneto Shindô’s arthouse-horror classic ‘Kuroneko’ (‘Black Cat’, 1968), a film that domestic audiences must have seen as a nostalgic summation of a set of clichés endlessly reiterated over the course of the preceding fifty years, rather than the wild novelty it may have appeared to foreign viewers.

So, the Japanese like their ghost-cats – this much we know. Insofar as I can tell from online reading, the plots of these movies seem standardised to the point of complete uniformity, but I probably shouldn’t draw too many generalisations until I’ve at least seen a few more of them. So as such, let’s jump in entirely at random with ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’, selected for no other reason than that I happen to have a copy, and watched it last week.

A relatively late entry in the ghost-cat cycle, this 1960 Shintoho production was the directorial debut of one Yoshihiro Ishikawa, striking out on his own for the first time after a lengthy spell working as assistant and co-writer to horror specialist Nobuo Nakagawa, on such films as ‘Black Cat Mansion’ (1958), ‘The Woman Vampire’ (1959) and ‘The Ghost of Yotsuya’ (1959) (hopefully we’ll get around to those here at some point). Like Nakagawa’s films, ‘..Otama Pond’ seems notable for combining a traditional kaidan storyline with techniques borrowed from contemporary Western horror films, and, unusually for a 1960 genre picture from the cash-strapped Shintoho, it makes great use of colour photography too.*

Things begin in the present day, where we join a neatly-attired couple in western dress who are in the process of getting lost amid a network of narrow, woodland paths in an area we later learn is “known for its thick fog”. They are en route to the man’s parental home, to seek his father’s blessing prior to their marriage, but unknown forces seem to be endlessly drawing them back to the same swampy-looking pond. “If we arrive after dark, my father won’t let us marry”, the man says. A curious notion, but, well.. let’s move on.

Right from the outset here, the atmosphere is incredibly spooky, with massively ominous, droning music (composed by Chumei Watanabe) and authentically muddy-looking, claustrophobic sets used to represent the woodland locale. It is difficult to pin-point quite how the film succeeds so well in creating a genuinely unnerving effect from such stock elements, but nonetheless, it does. Even the thunder-claps seem scary, and when was the last time you felt that whilst watching a horror film?

Of course, frequent cutaway shots to a mewling black cat lurking in the trees help, and when the couple eventually take shelter in a derelict house, despairing of finding their way out of this nightmare before morning, the woman drifts off into a tormented fever after encountering a terrifying vision of a white-haired witch archetype who will need no introduction to those familiar with Kurosawa’s heavily kaidan-inspired ‘Throne of Blood’. (The shot in which the witch appears to ‘reel in’ her fainting victim in slow motion is wonderfully sinister.)

Extensive use is made here of anti-naturalistic, Bava-esque gel lighting, with inexplicable green and red glows lurking around every corner, and indeed, just like the protagonists of a Western gothic horror film, this couple – their clothes and behavior coding them as ‘modern’ and ‘rational’ – seem to have found themselves trapped in a world that is entirely ruled by the more macabre elements of antiquity. (Even the doctor they track down the next morning immediately starts rabbiting on about ancient curses, and chooses to treat the lady’s fever by means of an elaborate Buddhist exorcism.)

Also recalling a Western gothic, it is our characters’ previously obscure family history that eventually proves responsible for subjecting them to such a weird fate… as gradually becomes clear when the doctor begins narrating the story which, via flashback, will comprise the majority of the movie’s remaining run-time.

Back to the days of the Shogunate then, where we find a pretty standard star-crossed lovers vengeance story unfolding, played out in a rigidly formal yet beguilingly beautiful manner. The lovers’ final meeting is a particular highlight in this regard, taking place against a nigh-on apocalyptic sunset in a desolate wasteland, creating a suitably expressionistic backdrop to their doomed farewell.

Interestingly, the in-fighting between the lovers’ rival clans here adds a slight twist of populist politics to the mix – something that seems to be a reoccurring theme within ‘ghost-cat’ stories. Viewers of ‘Kuroneko’ will recall that that film incorporates a pretty strident critique of those who propagate conflict to line their own pockets, and here, the catalyst for the destruction of the benevolent family comes when their patriarch publically speaks out against unfair taxes leveled by the corrupt local magistrate - thus prompting said magistrate and his evil brood of cronies to do away with him and his family in as disproportionately violent and generally dastardly a fashion as can be imagined.

As soon as the good family’s martially gifted son (the male portion of the star-crossed lovers) departs to pursue a career in Edo, the vultures descend, and, as is standard procedure in these supernatural vengeance stories, the family home is set ablaze and the patriarch and elderly grandmother cruelly murdered, whilst the noble daughter/sister chooses to kill herself with a hairpin (that ever-useful accessory of the virtuous Japanese maiden) when kidnapped and threatened with rape by the intruders.**

All of this is already somewhat grimmer business than you’d be liable to see in a Western film from 1960 not entitled ‘Black Sunday’, and, when the noble son returns home to learn of the destruction of his family, he meets his downfall by way of an unusually intense and sinister sword-fighting set-piece, full of bloody wounds, bulging eyes and jagged, kabuki-like choreography.

With ominous, post-massacre shots of blood red skies (echoing both the house-fire and the blood spreading across the waters of the pond where the bodies are dumped), and unspeakably eerie, metal-scraping fiddle music, the combined consequences of all of this villainy amount to strong stuff indeed, designed to have us almost crying out for the ghostly retribution we know is on its way.

And thankfully, it’s not wasting any time getting here, either. Following their crimes, the clan of baddies is almost immediately subjected to such a tirade of hair-raising supernatural phenomena, it’s a wonder they don't immediately go insane and flee straight for the nearest fortified town. Nocturnal visits from reanimated corpses, bleeding walls, ghostly tolling bells, sake turning to blood, giant cat silhouettes and unearthly red glows projected against screen-doors, sleep-walking possessed daughters, gory-lock shaking Macbeth-like phantoms, and even a floating yokai fireball pitching in for the conclusion.

Of course, we all know from the outset that it’s curtains for the villains, but the filmmakers have a heck of a lot of fun getting us to that point, realizing all of the above with a great deal of ghoulish skill and visual imagination, and even managing to generate some surface level tension, despite the fateful inevitability of the scenario now in play.

As seen in ‘Kuroneko’, but perhaps not in earlier versions of this story (or so I would imagine), the vengeful ghost-cat actually takes on solid, humanoid form here too, appearing as a werewolf-clawed half-woman, half-cat monster who turns up in one memorable scene to chomp the head off a passing snake and generally put the wind up the surviving characters even further. Curiously though, this furry cat-monster appears only briefly, and fails to return for the film’s finale, so I can only assume that the filmmakers must have decided that the costume just looked too silly, and minimized its use. It IS pretty silly, to be fair, but speaking as a lifelong fan of outlandish horror movie nonsense, I was still disappointed that we were denied any scenes of full-on, Paul Naschy-esque werecat mayhem. Oh well, you can’t have everything I suppose.

Lacking though at may be in furry-clawed grappling however, the conclusion here is certainly anything but underwhelming – in fact it is an desperate maelstrom of blood-letting, cat-hissing, limb-hacking carnage, incorporating strobe speed cutting, all kinds of goofy spook manifestations and howling super-imposed cat-faces. Whilst it may be far more orderly than the equivalent scenes of madness in Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s legendary ‘Hausu’ (1977), we’re definitely somewhere in the same ballpark here, tonally speaking.

I many ways, ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’ seems poised at a transitional moment in the development of Japanese horror. From 1960 onwards, the popularity of kaidan films seemed seems to have plummeted (at least if we can judge from the quantity of films produced in the genre), with only Shindô’s more prestige productions really flying the flag for the form by the second half of the decade, leaving Japanese horror flailing around in a bit of a no man’s land, mainly resulting in the kind of occasional one-offs and stylistic cross-overs that we’ve looked at previously in this review strand.

As such, a film like ‘..Otama Pond’ can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to keep the kaidan train rolling by adopting something of an east-meets-west approach, grafting Western techniques and aesthetics (lightning flashes, gel lighting, hairy monsters) onto a highly traditional, folkloric narrative. The extravagant use of colour is interesting in this regard, with the concentration on deep reds and luminous greens causing ‘..Otama Pond’ to completely lose the trademark ‘bone-chilling cold’ evoked by many older kaidan films, instead moving toward a kind of sweaty, hot-house fecundity that prefigures the kind of colour horror films that would begin to emerge from Italy just a few years later.

Given its era, I was also surprised how thickly the film lays on the horror business. At a time when many Asian (and indeed European) ghost stories were more inclined to go for the ‘softly, softly’ approach, padding out a few minutes-worth of spooky goings on with acres of convoluted plotting and dialogue, Ishikawa really goes all out for scares, throwing everything at his disposal into trying to freak his audience out, and dedicating probably about two thirds of the eventual run time to supernatural creepery of one kind of another. (Needless to say, I approve.)

The stiff presentation of the story here may feel more like a formalised re-enactment of an ancient legend than an engaging piece of human drama, but nonetheless, the extraordinary variety of macabre visuals and the general sense of marauding, out of control terror help make ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’ a hugely rewarding experience for fans of early ‘60s horror, presenting a cocktail of thrills, weird imagery and atmosphere that matches up to the very best of the Italian gothics. By which I mean, I really liked it. A definite two paws up in the cat-related horror movie sweepstakes.


* Less than a year after this film was released, Shintoho – a studio initially founded by renegade Toho staff following an industrial dispute, and renowned for the creative freedom it allowed its filmmakers – declared bankruptcy and promptly ceased to exist, the earliest casualty of the slow decline of the Japanese studio system through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Notably, the commercial failure of Nakagawa’s ambitious horror epic ‘Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell’ (1960) is often seen as a key factor in the studio’s demise.

** Whilst it is of no importance to the film’s narrative, those of you who, like me, enjoy shouting “NINJA!” at your TV sets at every opportunity may wish to note that the baddies initially creep up on the good family dressed in traditional ninja outfits. So there ya go. NINJA!

Friday, 11 July 2014

Franco Files:
Mädchen im Nachtverkehr /
‘Girls of the Night Traffic’

Of the innumerable sex comedies and caged women exploitation pics produced by Erwin C. Dietrich’s Switzerland-based Ascot/Elite productions during the 1970s, most prove fairly dismal viewing (to my tastes at least). The presence of Jess Franco and Lina Romay on the payroll did at least lead to Dietrich’s company names appearing on a handful of masterpieces and the occasional slice of out-of-nowhere weirdness though – and in the latter category, 1976’s ‘Mädchen im Nachtverkehr’, rather awkwardly translated as ‘Girls of the Night Traffic’, proves a case in point.

This certainly wasn’t one of Franco’s more personal projects for Dietrich – indeed, there seems to be some controversy over how much of it he was actually responsible for, with Dietrich taking credit as writer and co-director on IMDB – but I think that the oddball humour and general garish surrealism found within makes Jess’s contribution clear, adding interest and a sense of campy enjoyment to what would otherwise be a pretty forgettable shot-in-a-week softcore(ish) quickie.

Taking place in a bouncy comic-book world of guilt-free sex and commerce, the story here is thin bordering on non-existent, and centres upon three happy hookers (the only one of whom I recognise is Franco regular Kali Hansa), who lounge around naked on a big bed in their shared flat, recalling stories of adventures with their more unusual clients. I can’t speak for the way the girls’ banter scans in the original German, but the English fan-subs on my copy have them spouting some of the most mystifyingly overwrought double-entendres I’ve ever encountered in a motion picture;

“He rooted around in the belltower. It was sensational.”

“He modestly asked me if I would perform the trumpet angel for him. Why not?”

“I won’t do shock treatment with you. I’ll do ‘shell-seeking’, that’s easy.”

What does it all mean? Don’t tell me, I think I’m happier not knowing.

One brief vignette sees Hansa servicing a Dr. Hichcock-like character who has her reclining in a coffin previously occupied by his late wife, on what looks like an empty, black-draped sound stage, whilst funereal music drones on in the background. The sheer unexpectedness of all this renders it quite fun, and things take a further turn taking a turn toward the bizarre when the man appears to introduce his penis as “mein gondola” and begins shouting “gondola! gondola!” as he thrusts away once the inevitable action commences. Inadequately translated German slang, or just random weirdness? Again, I think I’m happier not knowing.

Meanwhile, another of the girls makes a date with the always slightly terrifying Eric Falk, who here presents an even more unwholesome presence than usual as a sexually inexperienced and apparently mentally deficient foreigner, who says things like “if it not cost too much, I make love, yes?” This is not quite so much fun, but, um…. ok.

Back at the shack, a lengthy sequence of sexy banana eating and sapphic frolics ensues (“honestly, we never get bored”, says someone), until the film suddenly plunges headfirst into the depths of Franco’s erotic-fantastique imagination for a positively dream-like sequence in which one of the girls suddenly finds herself trapped in a bamboo cage amid a set-bound jungle, before the other two approach in military uniforms (presumably recycled from Barbed Wire Dolls, or some similar picture), and things proceed in much the kind of direction you’d expect... until the scope of the scene widens out to reveal that this is actually a stage act being performed in some totally bizarre jungle-themed neon nightclub!

A trademark Franco trick of course, but used to maximum reality-trashing effect here, giving the impression that we’re suddenly adrift in the void, roaming through one of the innumerable such rooms that must be continually operating in the director’s mind.

In a subsequent flashback demonstrating how the girls fell into their current occupation, one of them is seen tootling away on a saxophone, practicing in the hope that she won’t lose her current job in a brass band – another self-referential wink to the mere handful of weirdoes whom one assumes might have been following Jess Franco’s career back in 1976 – before Hansa’s character barges in on the pretext that she’s a burglar trying to rob the place!

Introducing the third member of the trio, we cut to yet another thoroughly goofy vignette in an artist’s studio, where girl # 1 is trying her luck as an artist’s model and attracts the attention of the artist’s daughter/lover (her precise role is deliberately left a bit vague, as if the filmmakers hit on the icky incest theme but didn’t quite want to go all the way with it, or else just forgot or something).

 “It’s nice painting her thighs, when one is used to yours”, says the leery, pencil-moustached artist at one point, and once again, an avalanche of questionable euphemisms add a whole extra layer of strangeness here. “One always looks forward to the opening of a theatre”, says one of the girls when the fella unzips his pants, “but be gentle on the hero, he’s suffering from stage fright”. The camp factor is pushed even further by cut-away close ups to the guy’s paintings, which are absolutely HIDEOUS – air-brushed monstrosities full of fawns and dewy eyed sheep… just wonderfully absurd.

Toward the end of the film, a rather unsavory storyline emerges that kinda anticipates scenarios which were re-used for 1977’s superior ‘Die Sklavinnen’ (aka ‘Swedish Nympho Slaves’), in which the girls are kidnapped one by one by a swinging couple and sold on to Eric Falk’s character (see, I TOLD you he wasn’t to be trusted!), who is working for a cadre of Islamic white slavers who hang out in a smoky Turkish restaurant where some intense-looking musicians choogle away day and night on sitar and tablas (because India, Turkey – close enough, right?).

Here, in a turn of events that ranks pretty high on the list of “scenes you’d be unlikely to see in a motion picture nowadays”, the malevolent, fez-wearing Turks pound away doggy-style at their bored captives whilst yelling allegedly comedic variations on Muslim prayer mantras. The whole thing is so stunningly tasteless it’s kind of extraordinary, to be honest. Indefensible, undoubtedly, but at the same time, the knowingly ludicrous, slapstick presentation leaves it only a stone’s throw away from the kind of outrages a young John Waters was perpetrating at around the same time on the other side of the Atlantic.

If you’ve got a strong enough exploitation-stomach to shrug off a few light-hearted Islamophobic rape scenes though, the rest of ‘Girls of the Night Traffic’ remains 60-something minutes of utterly stupid, frivolous fun – the kind of sex flick that constantly objectifies the female body (that sort of being its core purpose, after all), but without ever feeling the need to get cruel or gross about it, and that slings random elements and jarring, inexplicable diversions together seemingly at random, with no apparent rhyme or reason, leaving us completely in the dark re: what’s coming next.

Though in essence the film is perhaps only marginally sillier than the innumerable hours of Germanic softcore nonsense that emerged from the ‘70s, we can assume that Franco at least was fully aware of the ridiculousness of the project he was involved in, and my guess is that he was deliberately ramping up the camp factor here as far as he possibly could, leading to the kind of movie where you can almost hear the cast & crew cracking up off-screen at the kind of nonsense they’re being paid to create.

On the downside, Francophiles should note that the film suffers from an absolutely chronic lack of Lina, which immediately loses it a point or two in the ‘Kink’ category (who knows, maybe she was visiting family or something on the week they made this one?), but that aside, if you are the kind of person who would even contemplate acquiring and watching a film like this in the 21st century, then god knows, you will probably enjoy it.

Kink – 3/5 
Creepitude – 1/5 
Pulp Thrills – 3/5 
Altered States – 2/5 
Sight-seeing – 0/5

Friday, 4 July 2014

Franco Files:
La Muerte Silba un Blues /
‘Death Whistles a Blues’

NOTE TO READERS: having recently posted several truly epic Jess Franco reviews that ended up sprawling across a fairly untenable word-count, and with over thirty Franco films potentially awaiting review (god help me), I thought I’d best shake things up a bit, in an effort to present a greater variety of the director’s work, before I (and more to point, YOU) start to lose interest entirely. As such, I’ve decided to go to work on what will hopefully be some shorter reviews, sticking the section-headers and ratings I’ve previously been using at the bottom of the post, in order to instead present a single block of (hopefully slightly more concise) text. Hope that’s ok with everyone?

Though often dated to 1964 (or even 1966, when it was re-released in France under the title ‘O77: Opération Sexy’, in a dubious attempt to jump onboard the Eurospy craze), ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’ (‘Death Whistles a Blues’) actually dates back to 1962, and it appears to have been Jess Franco’s immediate follow-up to his first breakthrough in the international movie market, The Awful Dr. Orlof.

Largely unseen in the modern era prior to the emergence of a fan-subbed Spanish TV-rip I found floating around on the internet last week (and seriously, GOD BLESS the hard-working, multilingual movie obsessives who are able to anonymously bring us this sort of treasure on a semi-regular basis these days), this modest crime thriller has been rather overlooked by Franco fans, and is usually only mentioned in reference to the oft-repeated anecdote about how Franco got the job working as assistant director to Orson Welles, when the latter arrived in Spain to shoot ‘Falstaff’ (aka ‘Chimes at Midnight’) in 1965.

The story goes that Welles had somehow got hold of Franco’s name, and asked his Spanish backers whether he might make a good assistant. They attempted to dissuade Welles, telling him that Franco was a useless hack (a reputation that apparently proceeded him even this early in his career), and, just to prove their point, they arranged to screen one of his films. Unfortunately for them, the film they chose was ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’, which contains a number of stylistic nods to Welles’ own work. His ego perhaps tickled by this, Orson apparently liked the film so much that he immediately offered Franco the job, and invited him on a memorable “getting to know each other” location-scouting road trip, much to the chagrin of his producers.

The way that that working relationship ended is another story for another day, but, returning to the film at hand, it is easy to see why Welles might have been impressed. ‘La Muerte..’s script may be forgettable b-picture nonsense, and its performances strictly average,* but there is nonetheless a real sense of visual style at work here, with striking compositions, fine black & white photography and smooth, gliding camera movements in evidence throughout. In purely technical terms, it finds Franco at the absolute top of his game, working on a level that will prove quite a shock to those who know him primarily for his sloppier ‘70s and ‘80s work.

Following a sketchy opening that sees a pair of bohemian gun smugglers meeting a sticky end at a police check-point on their way into a city that purports to be New Orleans, we are ushered into a Golden Age Hollywood style nightclub scene that really takes off once Franco's camera begins to concentrate on the band (including Jess himself on sax, if I’m not mistaken), who are playing some pretty rollicking ‘50s style be-bop.

The way this sequence is edited, intercutting tight shots of the musicians with expressionless close-ups of glamorous onlookers making eyes at each other, strongly recalls similar scenes in Venus In Furs, a film that seems to have benefited from the use of more than a few re-fried riffs from this one. (I mean, if you’re taking notes here, ‘La Muerte..’s opening credits play over the image of a lonesome trumpet player laying (apparently) dead on a beach, even though the events pertaining to this circumstance subsequently move us forward, rather than backward, in time.)

Next we move to a bird-like aerial crane-shot panning in over a swimming pool towards a man reclining on top of a diving board – just a few seconds of the film, and of zero narrative import, but a pretty breath-taking bit of stylistic extravagance in terms of what you’d expect from a low budget film in 1962, and it’s hard to imagine Orson sitting through it without immediately deciding that he’d found his man.

Much of what follows is the kind of standard Euro-decadence business that was big at the time in the wake of ‘Le Dolce Vita’, with yachts, swimming pools, nightclubs, beautiful ladies, endless parties, and travelogue shots of places that REALLY don’t look like anywhere within easy reach of New Orleans. The details of the plot-line are fairly standard programmer stuff really, so I shan’t bore you with the specifics.

As usual in his thrillers, Franco is having a lot of fun here with genre tropes, but without hitting the pastiche too heavily. The scene in which the trumpet-player (who survived his earlier scrape on the beach, it transpires) is run-down by a car outside the night-club, his smashed horn at his side, has a wonderful sense of pulp poetry to it, and some shots later in the movie perfectly capture the ‘beach houses & Venetian blinds’ essence of ‘40s L.A. noir, without ever rubbing it in our faces or turning it into a joke. I get the feeling that homages to specific shots from movies of that era are frequent, but I’m too dumb and scatter-brained to definitively place any of them, so instead I’ll just sit back and enjoy.

The most welcome surprise in ‘La Muerte..’ though isn’t its technical acumen, but its pacing. Somehow or other, this one manages to almost completely avoid the stretches of procedural padding and ‘down time’ that weighed heavily on just about every subsequent thriller or detective story Franco attempted. So whilst we might not really give a hoot about the story or characters here, it’s hard to deny that there is always *something* happening on screen to maintain our interest - and furthermore, it’s often happening at great speed too! (Some of the action sequences and car chases are even under-cranked to lend them extra velocity – a pretty startling occurrence, given the sort of languorous drift we’ve learned to expect from later Franco productions.)

Events frequently veer off into totally random digressions, showcasing a great deal of garrulous, somewhat charming humour. But, rather than serving merely to pad out screen-time (as might have been the case in a later film), some of these sequences, such as the one in which the hero engages in an arm-wrestling showdown with a couple of guys in a waterfront bar, absolutely explode with life – exhilarating bits of romantic-realist cinematic business that momentarily take the film completely outside its hum-drum generic trappings, recalling the kind of thing you might see in a ‘50s Fellini movie, and suggesting the presence of a young, live-wire director straining at the leash to make ANY kind of film.

For the finale, Franco even stages a chaotic masked ball in a vast, baroque ballroom, as the gun-toting characters fight their way to a showdown through a haze of streamers and confetti, elbowing aside throngs of outlandishly costumed revellers – an overwhelming visual spectacle that the director would recreate almost exactly a few years later in his decidedly strange eurospy effort ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’ (1967).**

The presence of a much remarked upon “Lina” amongst the central characters (the other cast members say her name a lot) initially seems positively eerie, coming a full decade before Franco began working with the much-missed Ms. Romay… until that is, we remember that it was Franco who chose Romay’s screen-name for her in the first place, stealing it from a slightly known Mexican actress and jazz singer, no less. Given this movie’s jazz theme, the pre-existing Lina Romay may have already been on the director’s mind when he threw the script together, and so, as is ever the case in the endlessly self-referential and culturally aware world of Franco, things come full circle in the end.

Francophiles will be equally unsurprised to learn that the millionaire bad guy in ‘La Muerte Silba un Blues’ is named Radeck, or that, in a final reel twist, the heroic undercover police detective turns out to be none other than one Alfred Periera (perhaps making his first screen appearance?).

Despite lacking just about all of the surface level trademarks of the Franco’s later oeuvre (no sex, no horror, no dreamy weirdness), those in the know will instantly recognise ‘La Muerte..’ as a Jess Franco film. Not just the character names, but also the scene set-ups, plot developments and camera angles - even the hair & make-up choices - all seem to cast uncanny echoes into the future, reminding us of tropes that would turn up again and again in his later career, their origin(?) in this film lost or barely acknowledged. Even the ‘Roof Blues’ itself, which plays a significant part in the film’s storyline, will sound distantly familiar to Franco fans; though perhaps not instantly recognisable, it is a melancholy melody that I’m sure I remember reappearing in some form on the soundtrack to many of his other movies.

Overall, I found ‘Death Whistles a Blues’ to be a wonderful surprise. Though its boilerplate script and self-consciously ‘minor’ ambitions stop it from ever attaining the level of a capital letters GREAT MOVIE, it is nonetheless one of the most technically impressive and unpretentiously entertaining films Franco made during the ‘60s, and probably one of the best thrillers or crime films he *ever* made, so it is a shame that circumstances have seen it more or less lost to history as a footnote to a footnote in the big book of obscure movie-making anecdotes. Given the film’s aforementioned lack of sex, horror and strangeness, the low-ish scores awarded to it below do not really reflect the extent to which I enjoyed it, and I would certainly encourage curious fans, or those who enjoy off-beat ‘60s genre movies in general, to track it down.

Kink – 2/5
Creepitude – 2/5
Pulp Thrills – 4/5
Altered States – 1/5
Sight-seeing – 3/5

* No big names or Franco favourites are present in the cast, but some IMDB clicking reminds us that much of the supporting cast from ‘..Dr. Orlof’ reappears here, including Perla Cristal, Conrado San Martín and María Silva, thus lending weight to the idea that the films were made at around the same time.

** And there was me thinking that 'Lucky..' ripped off the opening to George Franju's 'Judex', released a year after this film...

Saturday, 28 June 2014

This Month’s Zatoichi:
Zatoichi on the Road
(Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1963)

A brief pre-credit sequence in this fifth Zatoichi instalment has Ichi performing a bit of a ‘greatest hits’ set – using his hearing to identify the sound of a crooked dice, splitting candles in two and effortlessly slaughtering a bunch of random guys. “Help, it’s Zatoichi!” shouts one of them, signalling the start of the first entry in the series in which our hero seems to have become a widely known (and widely feared) celebrity within the films’ world.

As the story proper begins, Ichi is already being courted by the emissary of a nearby gang boss who wants a word with the famous swordsman. “I won’t fight or perform sword tricks… but I do appreciate fancy meals”, he says, apparently enjoying the attention.

Not everyone is yet aware of his unbeatable rep though, and Z is soon involved in a skirmish with a gang of sword-for-hire samurai goons who have been hired to kill him for a rival gang. When the bodies have fallen to earth a few seconds later, the emissary Ichi was accompanying is dead, and he is instead left facing Ohisa (Reiko Fujiwara) - the wife of one of the slain men, and an independent and cynical woman who appears suspiciously unmoved by the death of her husband. Allowed to depart unharmed by the ever-courteous Zatoichi, she is soon in cahoots with the lower level fixer who hired the Samurai, intent on getting one over on Ichi and making some cash in the process.

Meanwhile, our hero soon has his sword out yet again, after his path is blocked by a dying elderly man who begs him to find and protect a young girl entrusted to his care. Discovering the girl in question (Shiho Fujimura) cowering in a shack in the woods, Ichi is incensed when he learns that she has incurred the wrath of a local daimyo by stabbing him with a hairpin when he tried to rape her. “There’s no one worse than a samurai”, spits our favourite mass-murdering yakuza, before he commences cutting a path through numerous of the lord’s retainers on his way to deliver the girl – who is the daughter of a wealthy Edo merchant, it transpires - to safety.

By now, the patterns that will presumably define future Zatoichi films are beginning to solidify, and this one is the first that feels like a mere routine genre caper, rather than functioning as an independently compelling drama. Rather than managing to become an engaging character in her own right (as previous female leads have, however conservative the role of women in these stories may be), the fugitive girl never amounts to much more than a pure macguffin, being passed back forth between the squabbling factions like a bag of gold.

And, rather than the conflicted and anguished character we’ve encountered in previous instalments, Zatoichi here spends most of his screen time as the confident, invincible good guy, wading into a mess of contrived potboiler plotlines and efficiently sorting them all out in a satisfactory and morally upright manner. A simpler vision of the archetypal pulp hero, with his moments of rage and weakness emerging more from Shintaro Katsu’s characteristically intense performance than from any prompting in the script.

Much as Kenji Misumi’s original Tale of Zatoichi riffed heavily on ‘Yojimbo’, so ‘Zatoichi on the Road’ seems to return to Kurosawa for inspiration, as scenes in which Ichi traverses hostile territory with the girl in tow can’t help but recall similar moments in ‘Hidden Fortress’, whilst the conclusion offers another fairly obvious variation on that of ‘Yojimbo’, with Ichi playing back-and-forth games with two rival gangs on the long, narrow main street of a seemingly empty town.

For the first time since ‘Tale..’, Ichi can also be seen here bargaining for his martial services (his price is 30 gold coins in case you were wondering – perhaps another nod to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro?), and at times here he seems to be actively enjoying the yakuza conflicts he is embroiled in – a contrast to the disdain and disinterest his character usually expresses for such fussing and feuding.

More interestingly, ‘..on the Road’ also gives us the first instance in the series of a female villain, with an enjoyably ballsy performance from Fujiwara, whose scheming and acquisitive Ohisa offers a refreshing contrast to the gentle paragons of virtue who have made up the female cast in previous instalments. (I also found it amusing that Ichi doesn’t seem quite sure how to deal with this turns of events; his self-imposed code of honour forbids him from killing a woman, so instead he has to content himself with just shouting at her and shoving her around a bit in the hope she’ll go away.)

The visuals here tend to fall back a bit on the gloomy, slightly unconvincing sets of film #3, and the production generally lacks the vibrant colours of film #4, but nonetheless, these Zatoichi films are always nice to look at, and Akira Ifukube again raises our spirits with some excellent music, using themes that are perhaps more dissonant and shamisen-heavy than his earlier Zatoichi scores. The supporting cast is extremely likeable in this one too, with a fine array of craggy faces and cackling cronies livening up the ranks of yakuza, and the simpler, more stream-lined action movie plotting rattles along nicely, providing a welcome break from the more convoluted digressions that occasionally bogged down the preceding films.

Unfortunately though, a chambara film lives or dies by the quality of its final battle, and the one here proves a bit of a damp squib, especially in comparison to the spectacular climax of ‘Zatoichi the Fugitive’, which immediately preceded it. I mean…. it’s still an *ok* samurai showdown, with Ichi indulging in almost as much mass slaughter as in the previous film, but it just feels a bit static and unexceptional. Despite aping ‘Yojimbo’, Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s functional direction never really rises to the challenge, and the backlot ‘main street’ set looks conspicuously clean and artificial, lending a bit of a hokey “b-western” feel to proceedings - a world away from the mud, blood and dust of the Kurosawa set-pieces that so obviously inspired it, or indeed the rich and detailed production design seen in ‘Tale of Zatoichi’s concluding gang war.*

Whilst ‘..on the Road’ may be the weakest Zatoichi we’ve encountered thus far though, it should be stressed that it’s the loser in an extremely strong field, and that it still stands tall as an effortlessly entertaining genre movie with verve and character to spare, even if, unlike its predecessors, nothing in it really lingers long in the mind after viewing.

Looking forward to films #6, #7, #8 and beyond, I find myself wondering to what extent the series will tend to follow the pattern set by this one, drifting into a rut of formula pictures, and if so, how long it will take before some more enterprising writer or director steps up to kick things back into gear. Well, if you’ve bothered reading these reviews up to this point, I’ll assume you’re in for the ride along with me, and, given that even a comparatively minor entry like this one still provides a thoroughly satisfying evening’s viewing, I don’t anticipate *too many* bumps on the road ahead. ‘Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold’ hit screens in March 1964; it will hit my eyes soon, and should hit this blog sometime in July, gods willing.


* A pretty ubiquitous director at Daiei through the ‘60s up to the studio’s bankruptcy in 1971, Yasuda helmed, amongst other things, both sequels to Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s The Great Yokai War, the studio’s historical kaiju movie ‘Daimajin’ (1966), four more Zatoichi films, two ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ pictures, and another Katsu vehicle, ‘Hoodlum Priest’ (1969). As such, I think it’s probably safe to say we’ll be meeting him again on this blog before too long.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Nippon Horrors:
The Bloodthirsty Roses /
‘Evil of Dracula’
(Michio Yamamoto, 1974)

Having reviewed the first two installments in Michio Yamamoto’s trilogy of Japanese vampire movies, I feel duty-bound to take a crack at the final film, although to be honest I don’t have a great deal to say about 1974’s Chi O-Suu Bara (rough translation: ‘The Bloodthirsty Roses’), which reached American shores under the fittingly generic title ‘Evil of Dracula’.

Whereas the first of Yamamoto’s films was creepy and touched interestingly upon past and future J-horror tropes, and the second one had a memorably hypnotic and dream-like feel to it, ‘Roses..’/’Evil..’ offers no such points of interest, instead telling a by-the-book vampire story in a wholly predictable fashion, as if deliberately trying not to draw too much attention to itself amid the avalanche of Western gothic horror product that was finally spluttering to a halt around the time of its release.

The set up – in which a handsome young teacher (Toshio Kurosawa) travels to ‘the remote North’ to take up a post in an isolated private school – begins with yet another reiteration of the “Harker arrives at Castle Dracula” opening, as filtered through Universal, Hammer and innumerable parodies/imitations thereof. Thus the teacher arrives in an otherwise deserted Western-style cobwebbed mansion, and is greeted by Shin Kishida, playing the reclusive, daylight-shunning principal (GUESS WHO?). After this, the Girls’ School setting shifts things more toward a pattern reminiscent of Hammer’s ‘Lust for a Vampire’, released a year or two earlier, whilst some business with white roses turning red as the vampires feed seems to reflect the influence of Roger Vadim’s ‘Blood & Roses’ (1960).

Although the summer holidays begin shortly after the teacher’s arrival, a bunch of pupils continue to hang around on the slightly flimsy pretext that one of their fellows is bed-ridden with a mysterious ailment (GUESS WHAT?), and they have stayed on to keep her company. Thereafter, things proceed like clockwork. Some of the girls get bitten, some don’t. None of them have any personality or defining attributes, so it doesn’t really matter either way. Teacher meets a friendly doctor who clues him in on the ways of the supernatural, then ums and ahhs for about forty minutes of screen time before eventually venturing into the crypt to stake the undead fiend and his bride…. and that’s about it, plot-wise.

It is ironic that ‘Evil..’ should take its cue from ‘Lust For a Vampire’, as, in stark contrast to that film, Yamamoto maintains a grimly serious tone throughout, completely refusing to give in to the kind of humour and sex appeal that added a spark to many an uninspired vampire movie in the early ‘70s. Whilst few would want a Japanese remake of the fairly woeful ‘Lust..’ (though ask me again after a few beers and I might change my mind), the opposite approach taken here proves just as unsatisfactory, and, lacking as it is in the kind of dramatic engagement that would justify such dour solemnity, the film swiftly drifts toward tedium.

In keeping with Yamamoto’s earlier horror films, there is almost no reference to Japanese culture here at all, and the notion of a European gothic horror story taking place in the mountains of Hokkaido (or wherever), complete with genre-appropriate clothes, architecture, food and so on, seems more ridiculous than ever. Perhaps looking to offset this incongruity, the film’s sole concession to originality comes via its explanation of how vampirism came to Japan in the first place. Naturally enough, it seems it grew from a foreign / Christian source, an idea that was touched upon in ‘Lake..’. Thus a legend is recounted explaining how a European shipwrecked in Japan during the 17th century was tortured by the Shogunate until he rejected his Christian fatih and spat upon the cross, thus damning himself and apparently succumbing to vampirism.

“The white man lost his god and went mad,” the exposition-spouting doctor succinctly observes, before a drained colour flashback shows us this biblical-looking pilgrim fleeing across a conveniently placed desert, as he develops a taste for blood and vampirises a young girl, thus establishing the lineage of which our present-day Principal Dracula is a direct descendent.

Unfortunately, Kishida, who was pretty cool as Dracula in ‘Lake..’, seems a bit under the weather here, and, whilst he looks the part, his screams and growls (a highlight of the earlier film) are slightly lacking in conviction. A shame. A moody, Baudelaire-quoting teacher in the film’s Renfield role briefly adds a touch of interest, but he soon wanders out of the story for some reason, and with the rest of the cast too bland to carry a plywood coffin, let alone a movie, there is little left after the aforementioned flashback to hold our interest on the human side.

Generic as it is though, ‘Evil..’ is at least quite stylishly executed, suggesting that Yamamoto’s technical chops as a director have grown a little in the three years since ‘Lake..’, even as his apparent disinterest in narrative momentum has remained a constant. The sets from the previous movies have been scrubbed up and rebuilt a little, looking a bit grander as a result, and, more noticeably, the mountain setting allows for some very fetching rural location photography that helps create some richly atmospheric moments; a couple of spooky woodland scenes with fog rolling in off the lake prove particular highlights.

Vampire stalk/attack sequences are both more frequent and more skilfully realised than in the earlier films, with Yamamoto’s penchant for slow-moving, dead-eyed, marble-skinned vampire girls very much coming to the fore, and there are a few fairly gory moments to enjoy. Within the walls of the school, there are some good corridor walks and prototype jump-scares, and the special effects used for the final vamp disintegration scene (yes, another one) are quite impressive.

Riichirô Manabe’s score is excellent too, probably my favourite thing about this movie in fact, and definitely the best work Manabe did on this trilogy, with ‘Bitches Brew’-esque jazz squiggles accompanying the opening train station sequences, and waves of dissonant electronics, tremoloed synth pulses and distorted wah-wah guitar later doing a great deal to liven up the vampire sequences. Really great stuff.

But again – despite a higher quantity of vampire business realised with a greater degree of cinematic skill, there is nothing here that will make much of an impression on anyone who has seen more than a handful of Western vampire films, with no imagery that lingers in the mind after viewing and little to save us from mere clock-watching as Yamamoto’s characteristically sluggish pacing becomes increasingly trying through the long trudge of the middle half hour.

I don’t want to rag on ‘Evil..’ too hard, because as noted, it’s a reasonably well made and atmospheric gothic horror film with some effective moments. So instead, let’s just sum up by saying that there is absolutely nothing here to make horror fans jump out of their seats to track down a copy, but, if you’ve got the candles lit and the curtains flapping one dark night, and feel the need for a wholly conventional, soporifically paced vampire film with a certain amount of style, Yamamoto’s got your number.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Penguin Crime Time:
Gun Before Butter (1963)
& Because of the Cats (1963)
by Nicolas Freeling

Cover design and photograph by Denise York.

Cover design by Denise York, photographs by Resnais.*

Like the Arthur Upfield book featured here back in April, the words and imagery on Nicolas Freeling’s trilogy of Amsterdam-set crime books have an intriguing sort of vibe about them that encourages me to actually sit down and try reading them (and the gratuitous Simenon comparisons in the back cover blurb certainly don’t hurt either). I will report back, perhaps.

Those with frighteningly long memories may recall that I posted the cover for ‘Because of the Cats’ a few years back, but it’s always worth seeing again right?

Hopefully one day I’ll find a copy of ‘Love in Amsterdam’ to complete the trilogy (I trust it has a matching cover design utilising nifty red and blue target motif), and all will be right with the world.

(Oh, and as a final note, I like the look of the supremely disreputable looking ‘Rembrandt’ club captured on the front of ‘Gun Before Butter’...)

* Not THAT Resnais, surely…? [Yes, that Resnais -- see comments. - Ed.]

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Songs of Herman Cohen:
(John Lemont, 1961)

Having started work on a series of posts earlier this year examining the British-made films of American ex-pat producer Herman Cohen, I confess I’ve found myself repeatedly staggering to a halt when it comes to writing about the very film that inspired me to undertake such a questionable venture in the first place. I’m sure those who have seen the film will know where I’m coming from when I say: what can you possibly write about ‘Konga’? If any motion picture justifies the text equivalent of a stunned, awkward silence, it is this one.

In common with many people who actually *like* genre films, I’m often reluctant to engage with the ubiquitous “so bad it’s good” mentality, not only because I have an increasingly low tolerance for the accompanying snark and the unpleasant attitudes of cultural superiority that underlie it, but also because, as has frequently been pointed out elsewhere, that formula as commonly used is a something of an oxymoron. More often than not, it is applied to films that are imaginative and entertaining on their own terms, and thus successful and to some degree ‘good’, with no qualifiers needed, whilst the vast majority of genuinely ‘bad’ films remain on the shelf unwatched, for the simple reason that they’re too dull to attract anyone’s interest. (To avoid a similar fate, I will save the rest of my diatribe on this subject for another day.)

Sometimes though, you get a film like ‘Konga’ that practically stands up and demands to be counted in the “so bad it’s good” category, meaning that writing about it without falling into the attendant critical pitfalls becomes a tough gig indeed. In fact, one of my first thoughts after viewing the film was something along the lines of “could this be the closest British cinema ever got to a ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’?” On further reflection though, I suspect that the circumstances that led to ‘Konga’s creation are very much the opposite of those that produced Ed Wood Jr’s magnum opus, even if the results are similar vis-a-vis their unprovoked assaults on normal cinematic protocol.

You see, whereas Wood’s best-known films become fascinating and engaging as a result of the poignant discrepancy between their creator’s earnest ambitions and the resources and skill needed to realise them, ‘Konga’ by contrast is a professionally funded (if admittedly low budget) movie put together by experienced film industry professionals. It is far too competent to qualify as a work of Uncinema, in spite of its frequent craziness, but it is rendered unintentionally extraordinary by vestige of the filmmakers’ sheer cynicism, laziness and disdain for their audience.

Case in point: all you need to know about ‘Konga’, really, is that it is a film in which a chimpanzee who is fed growth hormones grows up to be a gorilla, whilst a world-renowned biologist looks on without batting an eyelid.

That an incident of such obvious stupidity can have made it to the production stage without anyone pointing it out seems inconceivable, and thus we must look at the producers’ rationale for including it. The fact is, obtaining the use of both a trained chimp and a moth-eaten gorilla suit was probably easy enough for a low budget movie production. Trying to factor in either a real gorilla, or else some sort of giant-sized chimp costume, would have proven a lot more costly and difficult. So, they just went with the path of least resistance.

I don’t know anything about Herman Cohen’s manner or personality – for all I know, he might have been an erudite man of letters and a great humanitarian. But, solely from watching his movies, it’s hard not to imagine him, chomping on a cigar at this particular production meeting, saying; “For chrissakes, just shoot it already! Chimp, gorilla… the kids who go to these movies, they won’t give a FUCK.”

Well, I give a fuck, Mr. Cohen – in fact I’ve just spent the best part of half an hour pondering and writing about the whole chimp/gorilla issue, and I’m a busy man (ahem). But nonetheless, I’m not here to criticise. In fact, I’m really glad that things worked out the way they did. After all, if Cohen and his collaborators had just made a logical and carefully considered reworking of the old King Kong formula, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be talking about it here today. It is the sheer, couldn’t-give-a-fuck sloppiness that lies behind just about every creative decision in ‘Konga’ that helps make it such a deliriously joyful experience.

Things are frankly absurd right from the outset, as a fateful plane crash in the jungles of Uganda is represented by some plane flight footage that looks like it was probably filmed on a bit of scrubland near an amateur airstrip in the South-East of England, with canned “jungle noises” dubbed in over the top. Cue a post-production ‘explosion’ effect just as unconvincing as the kind of CGI nonsense you might see in a 21st century straight-to-cable movie (so I suppose ‘ Konga’ was ahead of it’s time in that respect at least?), and we cut straight to a radio studio, where an announcer informs us that a private plane bearing Professor Charles Decker, the famous English botanist, has been lost during “an exploratory trip to Africa”, leaving the Professor missing presumed dead. Cut again to a newspaper stand, as the seller barks, “read all about it, Professor Decker, crash survivor, returns after year in jungle”, and, having got that bit of initial set up out of the way in admirably concise fashion, we now meet the man himself, addressing the nation’s journalists (all three of them) upon his return to London airport.

The presence of Michael Gough in full ‘sombre & imperious’ horror movie mode bearing an inquisitive chimpanzee in his arms is a strange sight to take in, and if the ladies & gentlemen of the press are understandably a bit taken aback by the Professor’s new-found best buddy (“Konga has a name and a place in my heart.. we’ve grown rather attached to each other”), wait until they hear what else he has to say for himself.

“You mean what YOU CHOOSE TO CALL civilisation?” he immediately throw in when questioned about his delayed return to the developed world, and if that alone wasn’t enough to get your Mad Scientist Alert buzzing, his vague exclamations about “a new species of insectivorous plants”, “a revolutionary link between plant and animal life” and the necessity of “tearing up a lot of text books” should make things fairly clear.

“That little chimp is the first in a long line of kings, kings of the earth!”, Decker shortly thereafter announces to his all-purpose assistant, secretary, cook, housekeeper and lover Margaret (Margo Johns), and we can pretty much seal the deal.

Soon after that, Decker is busy tearing up the flowers Margaret has lovingly tended for him in the greenhouse, declaring that they have ‘outlived their usefulness’ (a phrase that Gough manages to turn into something of a catchphrase through the rest of the film) and will go on to serve as mulch for the crazy new carnivorous plants he’s brought back from Africa. By the time we find him inspecting the conspicuously gigantic cage he has ordered to be installed laboratory (not to mention shooting his pet cat in an outburst of fevered, egotistical rage), you might think that the rest of the movie pretty much writes itself, but, lazy and cynical though it may be, ‘Konga’ is nothing if not imaginative.

Where it could easily have just gone for another tedious “man finds a big ape, brings to city” story, the decision to mix things up with a Frankenstein mad scientist yarn, complete with a dose of horror/slasher business in the middle section and a decidedly queasy side order of poorly written domestic abuse drama, proves a heady brew indeed, and the screenplay that’s supposed to pull it all together (credited to Cohen and his regular co-writer Aben Kandel) offers up such a relentless tirade of barely thought out rubbish and questionably-inspired, cheap-jack buffoonery that even the most notorious b-movie trainwrecks that the USA produced in the previous decade start to look like sombre works of scientific speculation by comparison.

For a start, Decker’s man-eating plants are wonderful. Absolutely foul creations, they consist of veiny black phallic shafts with lolling red tongues that sway back and forth, chomping at anything that comes near them. Really the stuff of nightmares, and one pities the poor sods on the special effects crew who had to crouch underneath operating them through lengthy scenes of heated melodrama that take place in the greenhouse. (There are also carnivorous venus fly-traps, and what looks like a brood of killer avocados.)

Meanwhile, the aforementioned chimp / gorilla transformations are accomplished via the age-old horror movie means of “wobbly screen” effect plus some dodgy green-screen ‘enlargement’, but when Konga assumes his final (or at least, normal gorilla sized) form, I’m confident that all true connoisseurs of the man-in-a-suit gorilla will agree, the suit used in ‘Konga’ is truly a thing of beauty.

Fitted out with shag-carpet fur, permanently smirking facial features, wild, independently mobile eyes and ill-fitting hind-quarters that cause him to lumber about rather in the manner of a toddler who’s filled his nappy, Konga is an icon of everything that’s great about low budget monster movies, sharing the slightly unhinged charisma of classic-era Godzilla as he effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, providing a happy, grinning contrast to what seems like hours of Michael Gough doing his “biggest-bastard-in-the-world” thing.

Before moving on, I think it is worth quoting verbatim the following anonymous contribution to ‘Konga’s trivia page on IMDB:

“Producer Herman Cohen first considered using "ape" actor Steve Calvert, who had worked with Cohen on Bride of the Gorilla (1951) and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), but Calvert had retired from performing in his gorilla suit. Cohen turned to another renowned "ape" actor George Barrows, but only hired Barrows' gorilla costume, not Barrows himself. The actor Paul Stockman was instead chosen, based primarily on being a good fit for Barrows' costume. Barrows was annoyed when his gorilla costume was returned from England in bad shape.”

So now you know. As an aside, I’m absolutely thrilled by the suggestion in this factoid that not only was being a ‘gorilla suit performer’ a valid career choice in this era, but that said performers actually owned and maintained their own personal suits. There’s a lot of fun to be had for someone researching that whole milieu, I’m sure.

Having acquired his own hypnotically suggestible, English speaking gorilla in record time, and with a good forty minutes or so still to go before the film’s finale gets underway, Decker does what any self-respecting paranoid psychopath would do, ‘testing’ his creature’s ‘obedience’ by means of murdering those whom he perceives as standing in his way. This he accomplishes largely by means of driving his creepy and highly recognisable black van to the home of his victims, before letting Konga out of the back and ordering him to go in and KILL, KILL, KILL, whilst the doctor lurks about somewhere nearby.

A fool-proof method, I’m sure you’ll agree, and clearly far less likely to arouse suspicion than just doing away with his ‘enemies’ in some more conventional, non-ape related manner. But again: who’d bother watching that movie? The best of these murder sequences features George Pastell, Hammer’s go-to guy for non-specific ‘ethnic’ roles (you can see him portraying swarthy foreigners of one kind of another in ‘The Mummy’, ‘Stranglers of Bombay’ and ‘The Reptile’), as a turbaned rival botanist who ‘threatens’ Decker’s work. The moment when Konga reaches through a set of shelves to strangle him, perfectly on cue, before indulging in some spirited laboratory trashing, is a lot of fun.

Alongside all the monkey business and suggestive rubbery flora though, there is a slightly nastier, more modern edge at work in ‘Konga’ too. All of the Cohen/Gough movies feature this slightly disturbing undercurrent of dysfunctional relationships and emotional abuse (much of it generated by the sheer toxicity of Gough’s beastly characterisations), and ‘Konga’ is no exception.

Margaret is a pitiful creature, and Decker’s treatment of her is comically foul from the outset. “Now Margaret, you know there’s little room for sentiment in the life of a scientist,” he smugly explains to upon his glorious return from the jungle, and things go downhill from there as his barely disguised contempt for her crashes unhappily against her equally mysterious devotion to him.

Johns does her best to portray Margaret as a headstrong & intelligent woman, but the sexist dynamics of the script render it a wasted effort. Given Decker’s singular lack of charm, the curious question of why she puts up with his odious and patronising behaviour in the first place remains unaddressed, and even later in the film, when it becomes obvious that he has been busy sending a giant ape out to cold-bloodedly murder people, she initially keeps quiet and sticks with him. Why? Because the hateful, loveless psychopath has promised to MARRY her if things go well for him, and that would obviously be a happy ending, right?

Though poorly written and camply performed, these power games carry a real fingers-down-the-blackboard discomfort that belies ‘Konga’s status as a quirky throwback to ‘50s monster movies, instead prefiguring the more squalid and upsetting strain of domestic dysfunction that would begin to predominate in British horror during the ‘70s.

Like Hammer’s Baron Frankenstein (to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance), Dr. Decker’s affected scientific coldness certainly doesn’t preclude the potential for sexual lust, and, with Margaret having ‘outlived her usefulness’ in that regard, the second half of the film has him setting his sights on Sandra (Claire Gordon), the top student in his ‘college’ class, as the story’s unsavoury melodrama moves into full swing.

At this point, we might pause to question why a scientist of such high standing that his exploits are recounted on the front page of newspapers still has to hold down a job teaching beginners level biology to a class of disinterested yahoos what looks to be a local Further Education college. Perhaps there is some transatlantic confusion going on here regarding the use of the word ‘college’ as opposed to ‘university’, but that still doesn’t really account for the discrepancy between the Dean sitting in a wood-panelled study earnestly contemplating his institution’s historic reputation, whilst the student body appears to consist mainly of sub-normal 30 year olds who sit sniggering at school desks and leap up for break-time when the bell goes. (“Now as you can see, in addition to leaves and stems, these ferns have roots, which collect water”, Decker tells his class of full-time botany students at one point.)

In my review of Horrors of the Black Museum, we touched upon Cohen’s tendency to put ‘teen’ characters in his movies, “so that the teenagers can relate to someone in the film”, but if these jiving goofballs are his idea of audience-surrogates, the level of contempt he must have had for the people who paid to see his movies is simply staggering.

Anyway, as you might well imagine, Decker’s attempts to seduce Sandra are creepy beyond words. “This may not have anything to do with class work, but I can’t get over how you’ve grown” he says in his mock-gentle voice as he imparts tutory ‘wisdom’ to her after class, and it gets more cringeworthy from thereon in. Urgh.

Despite Sandra’s declaration that she intends to forsake boys to concentrate on her dedication to “chemistry and physics” (so… not biology or botany then?), Claire Gordon’s blank eyes and practiced smile radiate nothing but cue-card reading emptiness – really an astonishingly bad performance, and a reminder that some of acting here hasn’t much improved since ‘..Black Museum’, despite the presence of some stronger players in the supporting cast.

Of course, Decker is determined to have his way with the young hussy whether she likes it or not, even sending Konga out to take care of her equally witless boyfriend, and when he finally gets her alone in the greenhouse, the sight of Gough aggressively pawing this ‘teenager’ is as horribly distasteful as you’d imagine, even as the bizarre, phallic plants waving softly in the background push the whole scene into the realm of utter surrealism. (He also offers her “greater glory than any woman has ever known”, which seems a bit rich coming from a guy whose plan doesn’t seem to extend much beyond living in the jungle with an army of hypnotised gorillas.)

It is this grim scene that of course leads directly to ‘Konga’s inevitable and much celebrated transformation into a proper Big Monster Rampage, as the neglected Margaret finally snaps and shoots Konga up with a huge overdose of the growth formula, setting free and ordering him to KILL, KILL, KILL his sort-of creator.

Bad news for all concerned within the movie, but good news for us the viewing public, as we finally get to see our simian hero strut his stuff, free of Michael Gough’s overbearing influence.

Ar, yeah, that’s the stuff.

“Fantastic,” says the gent pictured below in a manner that delighted Island of Terror and delights me no less, “there’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose on the streets!”

As befits a man with such a clear grasp of the situation, he’s onto the ‘war office’ by ‘radio-telephone’ within seconds, and the official response to Konga’s brief reign of terror takes shape.

Before we finish, it’s only fair that we should throw in a quick word on director John Lemont. He had a pretty short career in film, but in addition to orchestrating the myriad absurdities of ‘Konga’, he also directed, produced and co-wrote two other films – ‘The Shakedown’ (1960) and ‘The Frightened City’ (1961) – neither of which I’ve seen, but they both look like really solid British crime films with great casts. I think we can safely say that these Cohen productions were never really “director’s films”, and, like poor old Arthur Crabtree on ‘..Black Museum’, one suspects that if questioned about ‘Konga’, Lemont’s reaction might well have been along the lines of “It was a cheque, for god’s sake! Why can’t you leave me alone?!”. ‘Konga’ was the last feature film he directed.

In Lemont’s favour, we can at least give credit where its due and say that ‘Konga’ does actually look a lot nicer than ‘..Black Museum’, with better compositions, a more workable aspect ratio, improved use of colour and, for the most part, more lively performances and better pacing. None of which is likely to do much to salve the director’s bruised dignity in the face of a movie in which a red-headed rag-doll is used as a stand-in for the lead actress as her character is waved around by a man in an ill-fitting gorilla suit, but I’m prepared to believe he did his best.

And as to Michael Gough, well let’s just say that if Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were both sometimes upset at the ribbing they got from the snooty British theatrical establishment for their participation in horror films, Gough must have had balls of steel to hold his head high in the West End whilst ‘Konga’ was in the cinemas.

Between his roles for Cohen and his occasional turns for Hammer, Gough was busy with enough TV work to keep ten lesser men in employment, and managed to keep his parallel career in theatre ticking over too, so I’ll assume he approached things in the right spirit and didn’t let the type-casting that resulted from roles like this one get to him too much. After all, if somebody trashes your work in films as worthwhile as ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Gorgon’, you’ve got a right to be annoyed. If they’re gonna give you hard time for hamming it up in ‘Konga’, there’s not much to do except smile and nod and point to the new car that’s driving you to rehearsals for that Ayckbourn play you’re doing next month.

Quite a leap from that to the unedifying fate our favourite love-to-hate thespian meets back in ‘Konga’, as an extremely unconvincing dummy with super-imposed Gough-head is thrown from a hairy paw onto the unforgiving cobbles of Westminster. With Margo Johns unceremoniously chucked into a fire, Claire Gordon apparently eaten by a venus flytrap and only a corpse-stiff Michael Gough pleading for his life with the big ape, there’s no ‘beauty killed the beast’ sting in the tail here – just a few more braces of machine-gun fire, and one of the most poignant closing images even seen in the canon of monkey-related cinema.

What lessons can be draw from this excursion to Herman Cohen’s hideously amoral universe, you may well ask. Well, if you’re going to kill someone in a fit of jealousy or paranoia, probably best just get on with it without getting any giant animals involved - that would seem to be the main one; a doctrine which was followed in word if not in spirit when the Cohen/Gough team reunited once more, to complete their inglorious trilogy with 1963’s singularly odd ‘Black Zoo’. We’ll be getting round to that one soon, so, once again: you have been warned.