Wednesday, 23 September 2009
To start this overlong review off on an immediate tangent, I know I’ve written here before about my slow but inevitable transition into a Euro-horror fiend, my reservations about becoming such, and about the love/hate conflicts that exploring the murkier depths of this kind of cinema cause within me.
As if to demonstrate this, I recently found myself making a vow: no more Jess Franco movies. Now, clearly this resolution would have any true devotee of The Eurohorror Way spluttering in appalled disbelief, and quite rightly seeking to eject me from their hypothetical clubhouse with an attitude of outraged ferocity. And I know, I know – Franco’s movies certainly have their own strange charm, existing as they do in their own parallel world of surrealistic trash-art wonder etc. etc., and all have elements that are crazed or beautiful or hilarious. But frankly, having sat through about seven or eight of the things, I’ve seen enough. There are better things to do on a quiet Friday night, y’know? Even if it’s just watching Jean Rollin movies.
I’m tired of that empty feeling – that “what the hell was THAT?” feeling, that “can I have my eighty minutes back please?” feeling; the feeling that even his best work engenders to a certain extent, and that his less good work positively revels in. I mean: “Kiss Me Monster”. What the fuck? Billed as some kind of great-sounding horror/spy/comedy caper, it turns out to be some kind of baffling motion picture in which nothing of interest happens at all. Nothing. No plot, no point, no monster, not even much kissing. I remember some shots of planes taking off and landing, a bit where two girls in tuxedos played saxophones in one of those creepy Jess Franco nightclubs, I think I remember some people wandering around some sets…. but aside from that it’s like I got sapped on the back of the head by a cunning burglar and just sort of lost an hour. It was like a porn movie without the porn. Hell, knowing Franco it probably WAS a porn movie without the porn; an hour or so of random footage he cobbled together to meet a deadline for a non-X rated double bill filler or something. By what possible logic has this film been released on VHS and DVD when the majority of Andrzej Zulawski’s films haven’t…? And now I’ve got to look at the damn thing sitting on the shelf for all eternity, reminding me of my folly.
So yeah, the next time I read about another Franco movie, or see one on the shelf at the Music & Video Exchange, and think “hey, that one looks kinda fun, and it’s only a few quid”, I’m just gonna walk away…. I’ll be happier that way. I know I’m selling his films short here, and that each of them has at least a couple of great psychotronic moments to recommend it if you’re in the right frame of mind, but, I think the realization that I’m often not in the right frame of mind neatly demonstrates the fact that I will probably never be able to overcome the obstacles on the path to true Euro-horror enlightenment.
But, Franco-related time-wasting firmly behind me, I nonetheless strode happily onward in my quest this month like a blind, hopeless fool, and promptly crashed into the biggest obstacle yet placed before me: a big, glowing hazard named WEREWOLF WOMAN.
Yes: Werewolf Woman!
Now there’s a title you get your teeth into. None of that “Blood of Ghastly Horror” rubbish to try to cover up the fact your movie’s a load of meandering bullshit about nothing in particular. The people behind Werewolf Woman, you feel, are not in this game to piss around.
Naturally, the film was also released as “Legend of the Wolf Woman” and “Naked Wolf Woman” and as god only knows what else, but that’s just confusing the issue. This ain’t no legend buster: Werewolf Woman is right here, right now! Tacking on extra words just for sake of it isn’t going to do anyone any favours. Werewolf Woman it is, and forever shall be.
I was actually hoping that before I watched it, I’d have the opportunity to take part in a conversation that goes as follows:
Someone else: So, what are you up to this evening?
Me: Oh, I think I’m probably going to watch a movie.
S.E.: What are you gonna watch?
Me: ‘Werewolf Woman’.
S.E.: What’s that about?
Sadly that conversation didn’t happen, and it’s probably just as well actually as, post-viewing, watching Werewolf Woman is certainly not something I’d want to boast about.
Werewolf Woman begins pretty well – in fact, who am I kidding, it begins brilliantly. Straight in, the first scene has a naked woman running into the centre of a circle of flames in a darkened forest clearing and performing a clumsily hypnotic ‘fire dance’ to the accompaniment of freaky voodoo drums. Oh man, I think this is gonna be a good one! Next, she starts skulking around the place, and undergoes a predictably cheap and goofy werewolf transformation, emerging as a truly embarrassing sight, covered in scrappy fur, with whiskers and a fake dog-nose. Less than three minutes into Werewolf Woman, and we’ve already got a werewolf woman – beat THAT, ‘Werewolves on Wheels’!
But wait, some guys with flaming torches in thoroughly unconvincing period costume are out looking for her! She corners one of ‘em, and kills him to death in a ridiculous OTT poster paint gore sequence! Alright! Then his pals catch her, and crucify her in full naked wolf-mode over a blazing bonfire, a scene that must rank pretty highly on any actress’s list of “things I would rather not do”. I mean, Jesus, the werewolf makeup alone was bad enough, how undignified can you get? Do you reckon they never heard about that whole ‘silver bullet’ thing, or did they just decide flaming crucifixion would be more fun?
Anyway: so far, so good! Face it, you’d need to be a pretty demanding horror fan to have any complaints thus far. Only, tragically, the action now departs from this exciting milieu, and we flash forward to the present day / reality (you decide), where a modern-day, non-werewolf woman is reading this tale about her ancestor in a book of ye olde superstitions.
Henceforth, Werewolf Woman will feature no more werewolves. Not one. There is, admittedly, plenty more woman still to come, although sadly not in any sense that could really be construed as positive.
If you want to stop reading now, well… good for you. Go and do something useful.
As for the rest of us:
Daniella is our protagonist, of sorts, and she is it seems a rather damaged individual. Via a series of those inevitable exposition scenes in which concerned doctors blather on to each other about unconvincing psychosexual maladies in deadly serious tones, we learn that Daniella was raped as a teenager and has never fully recovered from the ordeal. She identifies herself with her werewolf ancestor, and every time she’s sexually aroused, she – oh no, I’m afraid so – starts biting and stabbing and killing and so on. Deep sigh.
What follows is a thoroughly sordid softcore/slasher outing, seemingly modeled after similarly themed Franco flicks like “She Killed In Ecstasy” and “The Bare-Breasted Countess”, and invested with the kind of off-hand, cynical nastiness that only Italian horror of the late 70s/80s can muster, with only occasional touches of weirdness to lighten the overall mood of grinding, dehumanizing boredom.
Everything about Werewolf Woman is sleazy. Even its cinematography is kinda unpleasant - fuzzy and dirty with a preponderance of dark browns and reds. Star Annik Borel (hey, apparently she was also in “Blood Orgy of the She-Devils” and an episode of “The Odd Couple”) and the other women who appear in the film all look desperately unappealing too, pale and emaciated, with only garish period hairdos, excessive make up and fake boobs serving to mask their evident deep unhappiness at having to appear in crap like Werewolf Woman. The sex scenes, of which there are many, present some of the grimmest, most awkward on-screen coupling I’ve ever seen. And I mean, I’ve seen “Rock N’ Roll Nightmare” (shudder).
One early scene features Daniella spying on her sister and her hunky new husband getting it on. By ‘spying’, we mean ‘standing in the doorway and just staring’, in that manner common to crappy movies. As she starts to get excited, we get a clumsy, Franco-style zoom in to her hand rubbing her crotch through her nightdress. We clearly see a fly buzz into the frame, and land on her hand. They actually kept that shot in the movie.
And it was here, about fifteen minutes in, that I began to realize what I was dealing with. My dismissal of Jess Franco began to seem increasingly naive and pig-headed, as I was hit full in the face by the realization that there was in fact a substrata of cinema in the ‘70s that actually aspired to Jess Franco levels of competence and sophistication. To the makers of Werewolf Woman, Jess Franco was a real classy guy. And indeed, through the lens of my post-Werewolf Woman reading of European film, HE WAS a real classy guy. I realize that now, and I’m sorry I bad-mouthed him earlier. I take it all back. After all, Franco composes shots with a certain amount of flair. He keeps the colours looking nice and he generally works with actors who look like they actually want to be in the film. And if he were to shoot a close-up of a traumatized woman masturbating, he would almost certainly keep insects out of the frame. He is a classy, classy guy.
Cutting back to the humping couple, we see the sister throw her head back in ‘ecstasy’, giving us a good view of her fillings. They could do with some work.
It was at this point that I cracked.
Why in god’s name am I WATCHING this thing?
Why did I PAY MONEY for it, even?
Shouldn’t I be out having fun, meeting interesting people, making the best of life?
There’s a whole world out there, and I choose THIS?
What have I BECOME?
Say what you like about Ingmar Bergman or Lars Von Trier, they’ve never managed to bring on an existential crisis with quite the ease of Werewolf Woman.
But, steeling myself, I rejected the coward’s way out, put the pistol away, and continued…. maybe salvation will come yet.
And indeed, it’s about now that we also get what’s a shoe-in for this movie’s flat out weirdest moment, when Daniella’s sexual phobias are manifested in the form of….. a giant lizard that slowly crawls over her body as she writhes in some sort of fever dream and eerie, fuzzed out synthesizer drones hiss away in the background..!? Holy cow! I didn’t see that one coming! Is this supposed to actually be happening? Is it a hallucination? I have no idea, other than to confirm that it’s absolutely freaked out and wonderful, briefly exhibiting the sort of random, lunatic inspiration that the rest of Werewolf Woman so sorely lacks. Salvation? Not quite, my friends, not quite…. but surreal, synth-drone lizard writhing is about as close as we’re gonna get here.
The first victim in Daniella’s killing spree is of course the aforementioned hunky husband. In a mildly diverting scene, she hurls his carcass off a ravine at sunrise whilst howling like a beast. That was pretty cool. Most of the other murder scenes in Werewolf Woman though sadly achieve a sort of ‘worst of both worlds’ status, by vestige of being both offensively gratuitous and also too short and dull to convey any tension or cinematic excitement. Argento, this guy ain’t. Hitchcock might as well be a distant, unseen god floating in a whole other order of being.
As to taking an interest in the rest of the plot…. c’mon, don’t make me laugh – we’re talking Italian horror movies here, and this isn’t even a GOOD one for christssake. Although not incoherent enough to actually be surreal or baffling, Werewolf Woman still only makes the vaguest, laziest sort of sense.
One trying scene for our scriptwriters features Daniella’s sister visiting her in hospital, where she’s tied down in the psychiatric ward, and confronting her about the whole suspicious-death-of-my-husband thing. So imagine if you will, a woman having to speak to the mentally ill sister who recently killed her husband, and having to try to force a confession out of her – that’s got to be a pretty tough situation for any film to convey believably, right? How does Werewolf Woman rise to the challenge? – well basically they just go all camp super-bitchy and yell “Whore! Bitch! Slut! I’ll kill you!” etc. at each other until the sister is dragged away. Again, I am stunned. Top marks for use of profanity, but…. oh, what’s the use.
So obviously Daniella escapes from the psychiatric ward, with the help of a raving nymphomaniac, who unties her in expectation of some sapphic slobbering, and promptly gets stabbed to death for her trouble. Now really, consider this: a scene in which a possibly werewolf-possessed mad-woman brutally murders a predatory, sex-crazed lesbian with a pair of scissors…. leaving aside all concerns of ethics and good taste (and if you’ve watched this far, we’ll assume you left them at the door), this should be a pretty dynamite set-piece for a movie like this, right? Something to give the sleaze crowd what they paid for, to stick in people’s memories etc? – Werewolf Woman has the whole thing done & dusted after FIVE SECONDS of bleary jumpcuts. Honestly.
So… I suppose Daniella wanders about aimlessly and kills a bunch of other people, I don’t know, I’m really losing hope by this point, as the film periodically cuts back to her worried father and the psychiatrist who are still earnestly yacking by the pool about what is to be done about this unsavoury state of affairs. Come on guys, less talk more rock! There are sleazy bald men and courting couples dying out there already! Haven’t the police found a handy photographer or bohemian painter they can put in charge of the investigation yet, or – no, hang on, wrong genre.
By this stage I’m feeling so lethargic that it scarcely even registers that Daniella just met a guy who seems to be a trainee stuntman (!!), that they immediately fall in love, complete with a running-along-the-beach-in-slo-mo montage (!?!?), and that the stuntman appears to live in some otherwise deserted Western movie set town in the middle of nowhere (….!?!?!!?...). I guess that’s just the kind of thing that happens in these movies.
And as for all that time she just spent running around sleeping rough in a graveyard and slaughtering people as a result of paranoid psychosis and deep-rooted mental trauma… why, I guess all the poor girl needed to bring her back to perfect health was for a good, upstanding sensitive fella to show her a bit of attention. Always the way, isn’t it? And to think we pay psychiatrists for stuff.
So for a while everything is hunky dory, until Handsome Stuntguy goes off to do whatever he does, and leaves Daniella alone in the eerie Western town, and some Bad Men wander along out of nowhere to rape her. You can tell they’re Bad Men, because they wear leather jackets, and sort of stride around with their fingers in the belt buckles, like cowboys. That and the raping. That’s a dead giveaway too. And…. frankly, I give up; I’ve wasted far too many words on this terrible film already, and it’s not going to get any better, and I can’t even be bothered to remember what happens next, except that it left me feeling as if something important within me had died forever, and its carcass was making a bad smell.
Just to add insult to injury, Werewolf Woman has the nerve to be 100 minutes long too. One hundred minutes! I know that’s only fifteen or twenty more than yr standard exploitation flick, but boy is it ever unneeded it here. According to the blurb on the back of the DVD, the film was originally released in a “butchered” 70 minute cut… one that I really wish I was watching instead. In fact, it’s interesting to try to put yourself in the position of someone charged with editing down a film like this. Really, I mean, where would you start? As with some of the aforementioned Franco masterworks, you feel that if you started trimming footage that seemed ‘unnecessary’, you’d swiftly find yourself entering a zen-like state of mind, emerging with a film with a running time of zero.
Well, ok, maybe you’d keep the opening werewolf scene, and the bit with the lizard, but aside from that…. just, no. There is no reason to subject people to this.
All that, and it turns out that Rino Di Silvestro, the director of this strangely compelling travesty of a farrago, rather than changing his name and hiding under a rock like a decent human being, is actually proud of his achievement, and returns to rub our noses in it in the form of a fifteen minute interview included on the Media Blasters DVD. (I suppose pride must operate on a sliding scale when your CV also includes “Deported Women of the SS Special Section” and “The Erotic Dreams of Cleopatra”.) Herein, he harps on about the ambiguities of demonic possession vs. mental illness and about the fuzzy grey areas within our psyches that make us do bad things, blah blah blah. Personally I’d be more concerned with the fuzzy grey areas that drive a man to fill his werewolf movie with hideously unerotic softcore porn instead of werewolves and not even bother to edit out the flies, but apparently this guy thinks he’s actually made a film with a message.
And you know what? I think he’s right. Werewolf Woman does have a message. LIFE IS CRUEL, burned in flaming, ten foot high letters upon every degraded frame.
Now where’s that copy of “She Killed in Ecstasy”? I need something a bit more upbeat and tasteful to cleanse my palette….
Sunday, 20 September 2009
Whilst my friends were hanging around on the beach during the afternoon, I took the opportunity to take a walk around the town, in search of… well, anything remotely interesting really.
Bognor can boast a pretty impressive collection of blue plaques – apparently James Joyce finished writing ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ here, the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a studio, and no less a personage than William Blake spent some time here too, getting thrown out of a nearby inn for brawling in the process. Aside from that though, wandering the streets of Bognor is not really an experience I can recommend. The town has a certain amount of that eerie, out-of-time South Coast atmosphere that I’ve also enjoyed so much in Hastings, Great Yarmouth etc, but is perhaps unique in managing to combine it with a desolate, nigh-on apocalyptic blandness suggestive of an economic deadzone with scarcely even much tourism to keep it alive. I was hoping it might be kinda creepy, but it was more just sad really – a once notable, historically potent locale, sinking deeper into its sniggersome ‘Crap Towns’ fate. In fairness, the beach is nice, and relatively deserted.
In desperate search of something to kill time, you can perhaps imagine my relief upon spying the Bogner Regis Paperback Exchange – an establishment that seemed less like a shop in the conventional sense, more like a vast depository of mouldering pulp wherein the area’s substantial retirement community can part-exchange their books for new ones on an arcane points-based system for as little as 10p each. Now, I’ve been into hopelessly overstocked second-hand bookshops before, piled high with unwanted volumes that they’re never gonna shift, but this place was ridiculous. The ‘old book smell’ was overpowering. Thank god - time killing mission accomplished. I felt completely at home.
The shop’s front room was stuffed with enough crime and romance and fantasy to see the entire town through several lifetimes, and, as you’d expect, enough Stephen King to crush a man to death. Out the back, a series of airless corridors contained the ‘proper’ literature, biography, non-fiction and the like, shelf space at such a premium that popular authors were simply stuffed into cardboard crates stacked along the floor - a crate of D.H. Lawrence, a crate of Graham Greene, a crate of Daphne DuMaurier etc, each probably yours for about the price of a round of drinks.
As it happens, I didn’t find any ‘proper’ books I wanted to read just at this minute, but it was in the Science Fiction section that I struck gold, picking up the following for a combined total of £3:
(no year on this one - what do you reckon, late 50s/early 60s?)
‘The Leaves of Time’ was hanging on the wall in a ‘collectors item’ type plastic wallet. I asked the man behind the counter how much it was, answer: £1.50. As you can see, it's one of the most beautiful psychedelic SF covers I've ever seen - can anyone identify the artist (no credit is given, but the signature reads "hinge")?
UPDATE: Well that was easy: Mike Hinge (1931 – 2003). His cover to Clifford Simak’s ‘Choice of Gods’, executed in the same style, is similarly awesome.
I also picked this one up:
Full story behind this can be read here. I know it’s likely to be terrible - awful cover too - but as a big Vonnegut fan and a grudging admirer of Philip Jose Farmer, I figured I should at least have a copy on the shelf.
The other business I can recommend in Bogner by the way, is the Mediterranean / Tapas restaurant near the station. It's very good. It’s easy to spot – there aren’t any other restaurants. Didn't some king or other have something unkind to say about this place..?
Monday, 14 September 2009
‘Dance of the Dead’ came to my attention when I happened across a review on Critical Condition, probably whilst idly searching for info on some other film beginning with ‘D’. Now, the reviewers on that site tend to be cynical to say the least, routinely dispatching straight-to-video trash with a couple of sentences of pure disdain, as if they went in expecting a lost Howard Hawks masterwork or something. Which is ok I guess, and certainly makes for an entertaining read. So their write-up of ‘Dance of the Dead’ make an impression on me simply because it presented something almost unprecedented on that site: a positive and good natured assessment of a modern independent horror film, and furthermore one that sounded like good fun too, rather than a more challenging (read: exhausting) exercise in some weird variety of ultra-violence or other.
Believe it or not, this review alone was actually enough to send me over to Amazon to give it a whirl, alongside a bunch of other DVDs I was ordering that day. And yeah, good call Critical Condition – this one’s a keeper! Admittedly, on one level ‘Dance of the Dead’ is film without a single original idea in its entire run time, but it’s still a real breath of fresh air in the current horror landscape, simply by vestige of presenting some solid, enjoyable and uplifting fare.
Plot synopsis: there is a High School. There are zombies. The High School does what High Schools do, the zombies do what zombies do, and it all comes together rather splendidly on the night of the prom (the ‘Dance’ of the title). What more do you need to know?
I mean, I could sketch in some of the major characters and plot points for you, but frankly, assuming you’re conversant with the respective tropes of the genres being crossbred here, you could probably write the thing yourself and get about a 70% match.
Taking a seemingly deliberate decision to eschew shock value, nastiness and disruption of audience expectation, director/producer Gregg Bishop and writer Joe Ballarini set about realising ‘Dance of the Dead’ with a sense of “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” craftsmanship that’s a joy to behold in this era of cynical, sloppy faux-artistic filmmaking. The high school elements are played out as an applaudable approximation of the easy-going pathos and humanism of a John Hughes flick, whilst the zombie stuff largely aspires to the eerie naturalism of Romero, only occasionally giving way to the more campy teen/zombie formula established by ‘Return of the Living Dead’ (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Speaking as a lifelong fan of all those tropes, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Dance of the Dead’ drew me in like a big, warm cinematic comfort blanket.
The teenage cast – who actually ARE all teenagers for once – are great. After all the whacked out 60s/70s trash I’ve been watching recently, it’s nice to see a film where the cast look like they actually wanted to be there, and they’re a pretty damn good bunch of young actors too, launching into their roles with gusto, and bringing a sense of charm and believability that really helps carry the movie.
Add some energetic, excellently staged action sequences, a quietly (not uproariously) funny script, more than enough improvised weaponry and gleeful zombie splatter to satisfy the horror crowd, and a happy ending that actually succeeds in being touching, despite being entirely silly and predictable, and…. well, you’re home safe, gentle viewer. As mentioned above, most genre filmmakers would likely take ‘Return of the Living Dead’ as the benchmark against which a movie like this shall be judged, but actually ‘Dance..’ reminded me more than anything of a prime-era Buffy episode, with its pleasantly off-the-wall tone, genuine character and surprisingly high quality of execution.
If there’s a downside, it perhaps lies in the film’s aforementioned avoidance of novelty, and its decision to stick so rigidly to the conventions of its chosen genres that some may find things a bit stifling. But hey, I’m cool with that – I like genres, after all, and these are some of my favourite ones. It’s like introducing a couple of old friends to each other for the first time or something.
(I wish I did have friends who represented the living embodiments of zombie and teen movies. What times we’d all have! I guess they might look a bit like Sid Haig and Molly Ringwald, respectively. Or maybe Melinda Clarke from ‘Return of the Living Dead III’ and Joey Ramone. Hey, who knows, maybe they’d even hit it off?)
ANYWAY, enough of that, where were we? Oh yeah: it should also be noted that ‘Dance of the Dead’s tone is a little inconsistent at times – after all, its strongest suit is as a naturalistic zombie comedy ala ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (probably the recent film it most closely resembles, although obviously this is less of an out-and-out comedy and focused on a younger age group), which sometimes makes the inclusion of more overtly goofy horror stuff – dark & stormy nights, sinister cadaverous gravedigger, dodgy “I told you they were up to no good in that hastily photoshopped nuclear powerplant on the hill” explanation – seem a little jarring. Maybe that sort of thing might bug you, but again, I could care less – it’s all to the good. Overall, ‘Dance of the Dead’ probably gets my vote as the teen horror movie since ‘Ginger Snaps’ (not that there’s exactly been much competition).
Some may say zombie movies are getting a little tired (they have a point), some never liked teen movies in the first place (goddamn squares), but my god, we could REALLY do with a few more films as enjoyable as ‘Dance of the Dead’ right now, if the soul-crushing parade of omniscient serial killers, clanking chains, drained colour, crappy ‘lightning strike’ montage edits, grimy, stylized basements, rusty barbed wire close-ups and knife sharpening noises that comprise the entirety of the Ghosthouse Underground DVD’s seemingly endless indie horror trailer reel is anything to go by.
So in conclusion: not an all-time classic, not a mind-blower, not an “OMG you gotta see this” movie. But, once the bright lights of the eternal cavalcade of lurid lunatic weirdness that the world of horror movies offer me grinds to a halt for the evening, ‘Dance..’ is the kind of neat, self-contained little movie that will still be there, reminding me why I got into watching them in the first place.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
I’m sure you’d agree, it would take a hard and incurious heart not to bend down and investigate further.
Any onlookers taking stock of my reactions would have seen excitement (hey, wow, it’s some kind of comic book!) swiftly turn to vague disappointment (oh, right, it’s one of THOSE comic books..), as I slipped my discovery into my record bag and continued on my way.
Jack Chick comics are of course the stuff of legend, and a perennial internet time-wasting favourite, but I am faintly amazed to find that Christian groups here in London are still using his hardline fundamentalist diatribes as a tool to win converts.
Beyond the wonderfully unnerving, surreal cover, this particular little number tells the tale of Charlie, an everyday fella who likes nothing better than to hang out with his work buddies and deny the sanctity of Christ’s ministry on earth.
This allows Chick to begin proceedings by pulling some cunning reverse psychology on us:
Of course, it’s not long before Death himself says “Hi There!” to Charlie (I don’t recall the concept of the grim reaper ever playing a big part in Xtian mythos, but whatever), and he finds himself sweating down in Hell, being lorded over by some self-righteous, pain-in-the-ass angel (Lucifer, I suppose).
And it is here of course that Jack Chick’s terrifyingly totalitarian worldview begins to assert itself. I mean, it’s not like Jesus is a being a jerk or anything, as he sits enthroned at the end of days passing down judgement. He’s your best buddy, after all. He doesn’t want to sentence you to an eternity of fiery torment for the unpardonable sin of saying something dumb on 27th September 1972 and not realizing that you should go to church every week, but THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT IS, you dig? Rules is rules, and you can’t expect old Jesus to stick his neck out and, ooh, I dunno, forgive you, after you’ve gone and wasted your time on earth mouthing off in your lunchbreak like a big doofus.
Imagine living in that world, everyday, with the cosmic secret police on your back. You’d probably end up staggering ‘round the streets scattering cheaply printed end-times comics too.
Thursday, 3 September 2009
The Thrill Killers was Ray Dennis Steckler’s third film as writer/director, following the all-round-entertainment classic ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies’, and whatever the hell ‘Rat-Pfink A Boo-Boo’ was supposed to be (a film so cheap they couldn’t be bothered to add the missing ‘nd’ to the title card, amongst other things). This one was also released under the title ‘The Maniacs Are Loose!’, which conveniently saves me having to write a plot synopsis, because that essentially is what ya get. (I love how the poster reproduced above goes so far in its blood-curdling pronouncements, it has to backpedal with that little notice reassuring you that it’s all in good fun.)
Shot in black & white, Thrill Killers is a tighter, darker and more concise picture than Steckler’s previous opuses (seemingly with an even tighter budget too, if you can believe that). No technicolor, dancing girls, rollercoasters, hypno-wheels or rock n’ roll are in evidence here, but, as with most Steckler films, Thrill Killers still manages to be an absolute hoot, transcending its rank stupidity by vestige of good, no nonsense filmmaking and sheer, goofy enthusiasm.
A portentous opening monologue introduces us to some guy who has moved to Hollywood and is trying to further his acting/producing career beneath the disapproving glare of his wife, who thinks he should get a proper job. Why, his life is nothing but a fantasy, we’re sanctimoniously informed by our narrator. He is living in non-reality! By way of contrast, next we meet another guy whose life is very real, you understand - a hardworking salesman with a big family to support, and – hey hey - it’s Steckler’s prematurely aged buddy with the big quiff from ‘Incredibly Strange Creatures..’! He doesn’t get to stick around for long though, as we see him stop his car to pick up a hitchhiker, Steckler’s ubiquitous on-screen alter-ego Cash Flagg, who guns him down for no apparent reason as the film proper begins.
Flagg/Steckler portrays the memorably named Mort ‘Mad Dog’ Click, a guy who… well he just likes to go around killing people, I guess. “But why?”, screams a girl he’s picked up in a bar, shortly before he stabs her to death with a pair of scissors. “People ain’t no good”, Mort reasons with a shrug, inadvertently inspiring one of my favourite Cramps songs in the process. And that’s about as far into the realms of psychological motivation as ‘The Thrill Killers’ ever dares to venture.
Armed as he is with creepy, lizard-like features, a complete lack of charisma, a vacant, bored expression and the same scruffy hoodie he seems to wear in all his movies, Cash Flagg is far more convincing as an nihilistic psychopath than he ever was as a leading man, but surprisingly Mad Dog isn’t even the main focus of our tale this time around. That honour goes to the aforementioned wannabe movie star guy and his long-suffering wife, who are busy scouting locations in the company of the film’s real life producer George Morgan, who is good-humoured enough to play himself. They’re hanging out in the remote desert diner owned by movie-guy’s sister-in-law (Erina Enyo, whom you’ll no doubt recall from her turn as the sultry Carmelita in, oh go on, guess which movie…) when they hear an alert on the radio about three dangerous maniacs who have escaped from a nearby asylum and are, yes, on the loose!
And boy, what a gang these maniacs are! They’re led by this jittery, wise-ass guy who’s rocking that kinda sleazy, early-‘60s beatnik/drug fiend look to perfection – y’know, ill-fitting Hawaiian shirt, shades, receding hairline – admittedly, it’s more of an attitude than a ‘look’, but you get what mean. The other two comprise a big, childlike lummox and a tormented Norman Bates type, and what fun they all have when they get together. We’re introduced to these guys in an extended sequence – potentially disturbing, but actually just kinda funny – in which they do away with a honeymooning couple they’ve cornered in an abandoned building, lopping off heads (off-screen mind you, this isn’t really a gore movie, although it’s pretty damn nasty for 1964) as they bicker and cavort like the three stooges.
It’s shortly after this that our happy maniacs casually stroll into Erina’s diner and order some beers in the most suspicious manner imaginable (one guy is carrying a huge axe that he puts across his knees under the table!). We follow beatnik guy as he cuts out to make a phonecall, and guess what - it turns out he’s Mort ‘Mad Dog’ Click’s brother! You’d have to wonder what kind of family background served to independently produce two separate raving psychopaths, but you can wonder about that in your own time buddy, cos this is only a 75 minute movie and the clock’s ticking.
So Mad Dog reluctantly agrees to head down and help them out (in exchange for hard cash of course – such a fiend is Mort that he won’t even help his brother and fellow maniac out of a tight spot without something to make it worth his while), and inevitably the psychos start getting fresh with our cast of diner-based protagonists, as the rest of the movie flies by in a series of tense confrontations and daring desert showdowns (“an innocent rancher, slaughtered for his horse!”), pretty much acting as a “what NOT to do” guide for any escaped crazies, topped off with a cheesy, heartwarming conclusion and an out-of-nowhere goofball comedy twist to send us all home smiling.
So what did you make of all that, mr. hypothetical ‘60s drive-in patron? Well you paid for Maniacs on the Loose, and you damn well GOT maniacs on the loose, which is more than can be said for that time you went to see Horror of the Blood Monsters. Say what you like about Mr. Steckler’s dubious talents – the dude knew how to deliver! He put in the effort, threw in some character and humour, and even took the time to learn how to direct stuff reasonably well after a fashion, which certainly sets him apart from some of his contemporaries in the field of barrel-scraping trash. In conclusion, Thrill Killers has yucks aplenty, and it’s hard to imagine a low-brow / low expectation audience walking out unsatisfied, then as now.
Much the same can be said of Confessions of a Psycho-Cat, an intriguing (well I found it intriguing anyway) obscurity that also inspired a late-period Cramps song, offered up to us by Something Weird video.
What we have here is basically a bit of a mish-mash. It seems that at some point in the mid-60s, some inspired soul decided to make a totally wigged out version of the old ‘Most Dangerous Game’ scenario, staring Eileen Lord as the cackling, insane sister of a big game hunter, stalking human prey around contemporary New York.
Perhaps that film was never completed, or perhaps it wasn’t deemed eligible for release by some tedious, tinpot distribution company, or perhaps it even WAS released, and was recut into this thing just for the hell of it after the original version sank without trace… who knows. Regardless, the masterminds behind ‘Confessions of a Psycho-Cat’ seem to have taken some chunks of that movie, added some hippie-era nudie inserts (almost certainly shot at a later date but maintaining one of the same actors to establish some shaky continuity), and glued the resulting mess into an almost, but not quite, coherent whole, all brought to us in mono sound and varying degrees of authentic fuzz-o-scope black & white. Magic!
So basically, ‘..Psycho-Cat’ would have us believe that there’s this apartment full of circa ’68 lethargic hippie/junkie types who are waiting around for one of their number – an out of time street-husslin’ hep-cat straight out of ’59-’63 - to return with ‘the stuff’ so they can all get a fix. And in the meantime, they do what comes naturally to such cinematic deviants and start sordidly stripping off and gettin’ it on with each other. Damned beatniks! Dunno when this was filmed, but the ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ poster on the wall pins it down to ’67 or later.
So what’s happened to their man anyways? Well, cue dramatic change in filmstock and sound mix, and it turns out he’s in Central Park, running for his life with a crazed brunette dressed in a foxhunting outfit wielding a crossbow, and her mute manservant, in hot pursuit! Whoa!
(Our hustler friend looks like a total cat by the way – a master of the same kinda look the jittery guy in ‘Thrill Killers’ was going for; skinny, unshaven, receding hairline, and he spends this whole movie clad in tight black jeans, aviator shades and a torn, short-sleeved shirt with the words “THE DEVIL MAKES WORK FOR IDLE HANDS” printed all over it.)
And thus begins the ‘Most Dangerous Game’ part of our tale, as we learn in flashback about how hustler/junkie guy is one day summoned to a fancy uptown residence, where he finds himself waiting in a room full of hunting trophies in the company of a hammy Shakespearean actor, and a champion wrestler by the name of Rocko (played by Jake LaMotta – yes, the ‘Raging Bull’ guy).
What do The Junkie, The Actor and The Champ have in common? – why, they’ve all been chosen by mad Virginia as prey in her urban safari! She tells them that at some point in the near-future, they will each receive a special delivery, a cheque for $100,000 post-dated by one day, and from that moment the chase is on – they can collect the cash if they manage to stay alive in Manhattan for 24 hours. Why have these three been chosen? - because they’ve all committed murder in the past and got away with it!
So that’s our set-up. After cutting back to the love-in for some more beatnik humping, we subsequently get an extraordinary series of flashbacks (basically this whole bloody film is done in flashback) detailing firstly how our unlucky trio came to kill in the first place, and then how Virginia hunts each man down.
And it’s these brief set-piece scenes (along with the initial Central Park chase) that really bring the film to life. They’re brilliantly put together - truly crazed punk rock film-making, full of zooming, free-roaming camcorder work, dramatic and disorientating camera angles, lurching pre-MTV jump cuts, weird lens filters and a cavalcade of demented, OTT imagery. Fantastic stuff, and all soundtracked with a load of warped library music cues that range with mariachi bombast to ‘poignant death scene’ to a great chunk of ‘walkin’ around jazz’ (it sounds a bit like Dolphy’s ‘Hat & Beard’).
It’s this Sam Fuller-via-Russ Meyer mode of operations that brings us such highlights as the scene where The Actor flips out and razors to death the interfering husband who blundered in on him and his married woman (blood and screaming faces in a claustrophobic black tiled bathroom), and the bit where The Junkie accidentally kills a girl he’s shacked up with by administering an overdose of H (desperate, bulging eyeballs, camera circling the ceiling and lurid paperbacks visible under the mattress). Boy oh boy, this is some cinema, right here!
Perhaps the film’s overall high point comes when Virginia lures The Champ back to her lair, and, dressed as a matador, engages him in a full-on bullfight, camera swirling as she howls with laughter, hearing the roar of an auditorium crowd in her head as the poor, washed up boxer crawls across the floor like a stuck pig. Somehow I don’t remember this aspect of LaMotta’s career getting a mention in Scorcese’s movie.
Actually, Jake is served pretty badly by the film, and vice versa. It seems as if they basically didn’t have much footage of the guy, so in good Ed Wood style they just managed to make do. One scene comprises a shot/reverse shot exchange wherein a bored, topless hooker (presumably shot at the same time as the other nudie footage) taunts Rocko for his laziness and lack of manhood, her attempt to make it seem like a conversation aided only by fuzzy, poorly framed cut-in shots of LaMotta saying stuff like “you ged outta here” and “I’m da champ”. Assuming Jake wasn’t actually a comedic big lummox, he’s doing a very good impression of one.
My absolute favourite scene though has to be the bit where, in between being chased through the streets by Virginia, the Junkie finally scores, and locks himself in a toilet cubicle to make his hit. Why is it so great? I have no idea. I mean, it’s just a scene portraying some guy shooting up in a (surprisingly clean and shiny looking) public bathroom. But the way it’s shot, with the weird, menacing angles, the handheld camera zooming around him like an insect, capturing his mixture of fear and euphoria, the constant sense of his death lurking just around the corner – it’s just fucking ace, a lost moment that throws a lasso around that whole Warhol/Morrissey/Fuller/Waters continuum of New York art/trash crossover, like a tentacle of the ‘real’ underworld slithering into the faux-underworld of the exploitation movie and…. er, yeah; sorry, what were we talking about again?
Oh yeah, so Lord actually turns in a great performance as Virginia, charming, mannered and determined, yet clumsy, tense and barmy, she’s like Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffanys’ gone completely nutzoid, cackling with manic glee as she stalks her victims. “Her bed was her lair”, the ads proclaimed; an utterly meaningless tagline given that, surprisingly, Virginia is never sexualized at any point by the film – she’s portrayed more as a single-minded force of nature, much like a Batman villain. And, just like most Batman villains, she ends her days laughing manically in a straightjacket, after her psychiatrist (er… good work fella) and brother team up to put a stop to things.
Oh, and unlike ‘The Thrill Killers’, we get some choice psychological motivation to chew on here too, as it is revealed – in another amazing, fisheye lensed flashback – that Virginia’s problems stem from the trauma of seeing that bastard brother of hers cruelly throw her pet puppy from the top of a skyscraper when they were both kids! Seriously – the camera briefly plunges over the edge too, and we see the poor mutt hurtling to its death! Jeez!
“Daddy knows who’s guilty, Daddy knows who the killer is!”, she yells as they drag her away, whilst Mr. Psychiatrist presumably dusts himself off and congratulates himself on another successful day as a two-fisted kicker out of the Freudian jams, and everyone goes home for tea, or heroin, or whatever. Who knows, maybe next time he’ll even get his psycho in the rubber room before they charge around town killing everyone.
In case it wasn’t clear enough already – man, I love this movie! If it existed in its original form without all the boring naked people, I’m sure it would already have found itself climbing its way up everybody’s list of ‘cult classics’, but even in its current state, it’s a real unique film and an absolute blast for any connoisseur of low budget, high energy weirdness. And I confess, even the nudie scenes have their own sordid charm - there’s a certain sense of honesty and aesthetic/historical interest in watching these tough, angry-looking New York chicks and scruffy street corner slackers slouch through their scenes, almost visibly waiting for someone to shout ‘cut’ so they can bust out with “alright, is that it, do I get my fuckin’ paycheque yet?” In some weird way, this warped sense of authenticity almost serves to counteract the utter sleaze of the endeavor. I mean, hey, at least nobody’s pretending to be anything they’re not here, which is more than can be said for just about any other sexploitation/porno footage ever shot.
History and production details behind this movie may be sketchy to say the least (writing/direction is credited to ‘Eve’), but one thing’s for sure: no archetypal 42nd street patron would have walked out of this cocktail of sex, violence, black humour and outright craziness disappointed, and if anything I’ve described above sounds remotely appealing, neither will you.
Whilst neither ‘Thrill Killers’ or ‘Psycho-Cat’ are quite the same league as a classic like ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ (or indeed ‘Incredibly Strange Creatures’), they’re still happily cruising outside the same psychotronic ballpark – pure stupid/awesome/funny crack-brained entertainment, realized with a flair that places them a fair few rungs above your average sleaze/trash fare.