Wednesday, 27 April 2011
A bit of a strange one, this.
In 1970, Jess Franco, bankrolled by the ubiquitous Harry Alan Towers, made his own version of Dracula, featuring a Euro-cult dream cast of Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda, Jack Taylor, Klaus Kinski and Maria Rohm. If the film that emerged is somewhat less than a classic, I don’t think it’s half as bad as people sometimes make out – it’s an honest attempt to film Bram Stoker’s novel at least, and it certainly has it’s moments.
But anyway - working on Franco’s Dracula in some capacity was a young Catalan documentary maker named Pere Portabella. For reasons best known to himself, Portabella seemingly hi-jacked a bunch of outtake and rehearsal footage from the movie (whether or not he had Franco’s blessing, I’m unsure) and mixed it up with the prodigious amount backstage footage he’d shot himself, processing the whole lot in high contrast black & white to create his own film – ‘Cuadecuc: Vampir’.
The result is difficult to describe. Not quite a documentary and not quite a horror film, it’s more like an avant garde exploration of gothic horror imagery, and perhaps an attempt to capture the underlying spirit of the strange moment in which Franco’s film was created.
When OkOk posted the link to the ‘Cuadecuc’ on Found Objects a while back, they advised that “..this film marvellously evokes the dark, eternal caverns of the unknown. Pure Gothic Ecstasy.” Whilst I can’t claim to have shared this level of reverie during my own viewing of the film, it certainly has much to recommend it to fans of haunted/unheimlich cinema.
The extreme contrast, degraded filmstock and disjointed, unsettling soundtrack all serve to invoke the spirit of Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Dreyer’s “Vampyr”, inviting us to draw comparison between the gothic horrors of the 1920s and their survival into the 1970s, whilst fourth wall breaking interjection revealing the details of lighting, make-up and cheesy cobweb/bat effects provide a silent commentary on how flimsy the barrier separating transcendental gothic splendour from tawdry reality can be. The ‘vampire film within a vampire film’ conceit is fascinating in itself, and the backstage glimpses of the principal actors (minus Kinski, whose scenes were maybe shot by second unit or something?) slipping in and out of character will be worth the entry price alone for some of us weirdos. In particular, candid footage of Soledad Miranda hanging out and preparing for shots will be much treasured by her fans.
Some commentators (by which I mean guys on IMDB) have suggested a political interpretation of the film, implying the Portabella intended to present Franco’s film set as a microcosm of the crumbling regime of the director’s dictatorial namesake. A brief cameo by Jess himself, goofing around in an unfortunate side parting & moustache get-up that makes him look a bit like Hitler, would seem to rather crudely suggest as much. Geographically and temporally removed as I am though from the subtleties of Spanish politics circa 1970, this isn’t really an interpretation I can get much out of.
But whatever; however you choose to read this film, chances are you knew by the end of the second paragraph whether or not it’s the kind of thing you need in your life.
Those noble souls who are nodding affirmatively can stream or download from here.
A reminder of some previous Youtube Film Clubs you might have missed:
Mindbending Russian Animation
Fantomas & Les Vampires
Meshes of the Afternoon
Saturday, 23 April 2011
Given my particular fondness for Hammer’s ‘Plague of the Zombies’ (which you may recall I declared my 13th favourite horror movie of all time), it’s surprising that up until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never seen that film’s companion piece, ‘The Reptile’.
As every fool know, these two films were shot back to back in 1966 as part of some sort of two-for-the-price-of-one economy drive at Hammer, utilising the same director, the same crew, much of the same cast, the same sets, and the same temporal/geographical location (an isolated village in 19th century Cornwall). As a result, the two are generally considered as a peas-from-the-same-pod deal by Hammer fans, and furthermore they tend to receive the same critical thumbs up, being jointly regarded as among the more unusual and successful low-key horror pictures produced by Hammer in the mid-’60s.
Clearly I know all this, so I don’t know why I’d never got around to watching ‘The Reptile’, to be honest. I guess it’s just that age old problem of marketing: when I find myself idly browsing the DVD shelves in some insalubrious second hand shop or desperate high street clear-out sale, and the mood takes me to pick up a few new Hammer titles, this one just kept getting overlooked. I mean - ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’, ‘Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb’ - these sound like things worth five pounds of anyone’s money, right? ‘The Reptile’ - not so much.
I mean, what can you expect is gonna happen in a movie like this, y’know? Guy in a reptile mask wonders around. People are alarmed. Footage of guys exploring some fake swamp sets pads things out, a girl in a nice nighty gets menaced, Michael Ripper serves the drinks, and when the clock hits 78 minutes everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes home. Not that that’s a bad way to spent an evening by any means, and not that I was actually *adverse* to watching ‘The Reptile’, but… you know what I mean. I’ve seen enough second rate ‘50s monster movies to know that a plot synopsis like “there is a reptile – stuff happens” is not exactly a foolproof recipe for cinematic fun-times, and I kind of figured ‘The Reptile’ would probably be the throwaway b-side to ‘Plague..’s heavenly pop hit – something I’d get ‘round to eventually, but I’d wait ‘til I tripped over a copy or saw it on TV (some hope) rather than making a special effort.
Well needless to say, the time to watch ‘The Reptile’ finally arrived, and, as I would surely have realised if I’d thought about the matter for five minutes or paid more attention to the critical consensus on the movie, ‘The Reptile’ is pretty brilliant. I’m ashamed it took me this long to get around to it.
Whilst it apparently doesn’t stop dur-brains like me from selecting their Hammer priorities based on how cool the title is, it has long been acknowledged that by the late ‘60s, the movies Hammer made with marquee stars and recognisable monsters were often cruising by on auto-pilot, whilst their cheaper, more off-beat productions had to try harder to find an audience, and as such more frequently hit the bullseye.
If the Christopher Lee Dracula movies – which locked into a one-a-year treadmill after the character was revived in ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’, also released in ’66 – arguably represent Hammer at it’s most lacklustre (none of them are unwatchably terrible, but at the same time none of them are really all that great), then ‘The Reptile’ is at the other end of the spectrum – a classic example of what you might call ‘Jacques Tourneur Syndrome’.
Taking a tip (whether deliberately or otherwise) from the well-worn playbook of Tourneur classics like ‘Cat People’ and ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘The Reptile’s production team obviously realised that when you’re lumbered with making a horror movie that has no distinctive stars, no attention-grabbing new concept, and a special effects budget that doesn’t stretch much beyond one questionable monster suit, your best bet is to fall back on more old fashioned virtues. Y’know – like tight scripting, solid acting, and that old chestnut… atmosphere.
And sure enough, ‘The Reptile’ has atmos by the bucketload, pushing the fecund, mist-shrouded Cornish backwater feel of ‘Plague of the Zombies’ to even greater heights of decrepit eeriness, adding additional location shots of barren moors and bogs to the mix and working with an extra smaller cast to create a locale that feels so isolated and bypassed by civilisation, the village in ‘Plague..’ starts to seem almost cosmopolitan by comparison.
Like ‘Plague..’, ‘Reptile’s storyline involves a form of ‘evil’ migrating from an exotic foreign location and taking root with worrying ease in this benighted corner of England, and both films convey a heavy, strangely tropical atmosphere that makes this transition seem entirely plausible. How they manage to make it seem tropical and freezing at the same time, I’m not sure, but somehow that’s the idea that comes across. Rather like the weirdly tainted rural locales in some of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, a different, rather unhealthy, sort of climate seems to apply here.
Plot-wise, ‘The Reptile’ seems to owe a certain debt to Bram Stoker’s sublimely weird ‘Lair of the White Worm’, but you probably wouldn’t guess as much from the first two thirds of film, which concentrate instead on building a sense of mystery and vague unease that is rare indeed in a Hammer production. Pity they had to give the game away with a clunking title like ‘The Reptile’.
Usually I very much appreciate Hammer’s “does exactly what it says on the tin” approach to naming their movies. Barring a few vague ‘Curse of..’s and ‘Evil of..’s, they were steadfast in their dedication to giving you what you paid for – ‘Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb’ does actually feature blood coming from a mummy’s tomb, and even with those aforementioned Frankenstein sequels, you kind of get the feeling that was just the marketing department dusting up scripts called ‘More Frankenstein’ or ‘Frankenstein Again’ or something.
For ‘The Reptile’ though, I kind of wish they’d taken a chance with a different approach. If this film had been made on the continent, they’d probably have called it something like ‘Seven Scales on the Neck of Venus’ (in Italy), or maybe just ‘Bloodbath of the Sorceress’ (in Spain), and we’d have had a gloriously creepy opening hour, in which assorted items of strangeness – an unidentified plague, a rumoured killer on the loose, a suspicious and aggressive doctor and his largely unseen daughter – are woven together into a fabric of mysterious creepery. But no, ‘The Reptile’ it is, no doubt prompting cries of “where the god damn hell is this reptile, anyway? I’m bored!” throughout the civilised world.
Another thing that serves to push ‘The Reptile’ closer to the realm of European horror is the ambiguity of the character relationships in the film. In yr average Hammer film, characters’ actions are determined almost entirely by their social or familial position. Be they the protective husband, obedient wife, devoted servant, philanthropic scientist, ignorant working class lunkhead or whatever, even the villains usually seem to at least acknowledge this sense of social propriety.
The power relationships which hold sway in the country estate where most of the action in ‘The Reptile’ takes place though remain somewhat uncertain, right up to the film’s conclusion. Is the silent Malay man-servant working as an enforcer for the shifty Dr Franklyn, who is attempting to scare off outsiders and keep his daughter Anna locked away from the world? Or is Anna actually exercising control over her unstable father, slowly driving him crazy as the servant implacably looks on? Or, is the servant dominating both of them, silently keeping them in line using dark powers or threats, as they squirm like rats in a trap? It is this kind of ambiguity – like a very, very distant echo of Pinter and Losey’s ‘The Servant’ – that helps make ‘The Reptile’ such compelling viewing.
In my favourite scene in the movie (which I dedicate a paragraph to for no other reason than that I think it’s really great), Dr Franklyn (played with perfect twitchy obstinacy by Noel Willman) suddenly decrees that Anna (Jacqueline “OMG, Jacqueline Pierce from ‘Plague of the Zombies’!” Pierce) shall play some music for their guests (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel as our straight/normal protagonists). In keeping with her father’s apparent preoccupation with Eastern culture, Anna sits before the fire and proceeds to let rip on a sitar.
(This in itself is a surprisingly timely inclusion and rare example of a Hammer film giving a nod to contemporary pop culture – The Beatles ‘Norwegian Wood’ and The ‘Stones ‘Paint It Black’ had both charted in the year prior to ‘The Reptile’s release, making the previously little known instrument flavour of the month in the popular consciousness.)
As the tempo and intensity of Anna’s fiery raga increases, she fixes her father with a burning stare, the editing hitting montage-speed in time with the music until, in an absolutely extraordinary outburst, the doctor leaps from his chair, cries “ENOUGH!”, and grabs the instrument from his daughter’s hands, smashing it to pieces and throwing the remains into the fire! I may be spoiling the moment for any readers who’ve not seen the film, but if you ask me the internet is somewhat lacking in images of enraged Victorian patriarchs destroying sitars, so here’s a quick visual summation;
Fantastic. If not quite on a par with the spine-shivering erotic dread of Pierce’s emergence from the grave in ‘Plague..’, this is still a scene I don’t think anyone’s going to forget in a hurry.
Perhaps even more subversive within the Hammer universe though is the prominence ‘The Reptile’ assigns to good ol’ Michael Ripper. After working solidly for years as Hammer’s resident barkeep/mortuary attendant/police constable, ‘The Reptile’ is one of the only films in which Ripper’s character is actually allowed take a more significant role in proceedings. This alone is reason for celebration for Hammer fans who have learned to appreciate Ripper’s distinctive presence, and the obvious relish with which he has delivered his few lines in innumerable movies. But Ripper’s role in ‘The Reptile’ is noteworthy for more than just giving some much-deserved screen-time to a consistently underappreciated actor – it’s an implicit blow to the status-quo of the Hammer class system.
As usual, Ripper plays the pub landlord, and as usual, he’s the only local to act courteously toward our protagonist Captain Spalding (Ray Barrett) after the superstitious locals shun him by deserting Ripper’s pub en masse. Unlike previous movies however - in which Ripper would probably have said “take my advice, get out of here before sunset mister” and turned his attention to giving his pots a thorough scrubbing - here the landlord actually establishes a pretty good rapport with Spalding, and insists he call him by his first name, Tom, giving every sign of being ready to help the Captain and his wife out, should they ignore the vague warnings of ‘trouble’ from all and sundry and persist in their attempt to set up home in Spalding’s late brother’s cottage.
When the weirdness does start to hit the fan, so to speak, the Spaldings seem to be practically crying out for assistance from the contractually obligated Van Helsing/noble doctor character, to reassure them, explain what the hell is going on, and help them fight back against whatever evil turns out to be afoot. Initially they turn to the aforementioned Dr Franklyn, dragging him down from his mansion to examine a vagrant who is dying from the mysterious ‘black death’ in their cottage. Franklyn though turns out to be grouchy and rude – not a very helpful character at all in fact - and leaves the couple feeling even more helpless than they did before. Seeing their plight, and apparently realising that there’s no Peter Cushing on the horizon to take care of things this time around, the rural working class innkeep finds himself stepping up to the plate and reluctantly taking on the Van Helsing role, at least to a certain extent.
Ripper is superb in the role of Tom, building him into a far more rounded character than he has ever been allotted before, and Barrett too makes for a far more interesting leading man than the usual forgettable dolts who constitute Hammer’s ‘straight men’, his pock-marked face, cauliflower ears and slightly pugnacious military demeanour lending him a welcome dose of personality.
One of the movie’s best scenes is the one in which Tom and Spalding meet on a stormy night to discuss their predicament over a glass of brandy. Neither of them are scientists or experts in the occult or whatever, but both give the impression of being men whose military service has taken them to ‘far off lands’ where they have seen ‘many strange things’ - including the fate of a man bitten by a King Cobra. Broadly speaking, they've got an inkling of what's going on here, and what needs to be done about it. Even when faced with a scenario as patently ridiculous as a village being menaced by a blood-thirsty cobra-monster, Ripper brings a real gravitas to his character’s situation, as he reflects that having finally come home from a lifetime at sea, he doesn't want to risk the future of his cozy pub, and confesses to Barrett that “..for the first time in my life, I’m frightened”.
As mentioned, this is really where the pleasures of ‘The Reptile’ lie – slow-building atmosphere, convincing character scenes and some extremely good acting (John Laurie – Frazer from ‘Dad’s Army’ - is a good laugh too as the ill-fated hobo Mad Peter). If I say that the film’s denouement / obligatory reptile rampage is perfectly satisfactory, that doesn’t sound like much of it compliment, but it is – it’s exactly what is expected of a film like this, and it’s fine – nothing special, but because by this stage we’re committed to the characters, deeply immersed in the story and it’s peculiar atmosphere, it is all very effective.
Plus: no trekking-through-the-swamps padding, no lady in a nighty being menaced, no pitchfork n’ shotgun wielding villagers. What lingers in the mind after ‘The Reptile’ is a disquieting mixture of Asian splendour and overgrown English hedgerows, jewelled tiaras and grey corpse mud; roaring fires, caged birds and plywood coffins; mugs of cocoa and bubbling subterranean geysers – a strange and rich palette of jarring imagery, quietly reflecting the underlying angst of colonialism and imperial decline that informs so many British horror and adventure stories.
Solid as a ship’s biscuit, rousing as an Irish Coffee, but with a welcome strain of woozy, taboo-breaking European weirdness clawing up from beneath the surface, ‘The Reptile’ is as high quality a piece of idiosyncratic mid-century British horror as you could hope to find.
Saturday, 16 April 2011
Guaranteed to provoke “whaaat, he didn’t write ‘Bladerunner’…?!?” reactions from moody, trenchcoat-clad adolescents the world over, this slim volume from Berkeley’s Blue Wind Press doesn’t really go to great lengths to try to explain it’s existence.
My initial assumption was that sometime during pre-production for the film that became Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner’, some bright spark asked Burroughs to write a treatment for a possible screenplay, with predictably unfilmable results that eventually ended up here.
As you might expect from Old Bill, the text herein has nothing whatsoever in common with Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. But in fact it was never supposed to; a brief note on the copyrights/ISBN page reads; “the author wishes to thank Alan E. Nourse, upon whose book ‘The Blade Runner' characters and situation in this book are based”.
I’d never heard of Alan E. Nourse, but turns out he was a fairly prolific science fiction writer, and did indeed publish a novel entitled ‘The Blade Runner’ in 1974. For some obscure reason, the Ridley Scott film ended up stealing the title of Nourse’s book, despite having no other connection to it, whilst this Burroughs treatment dates from an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to adapt that book for the screen.
Reading ‘Bladerunner, a Movie’ prior to researching this, I would have sworn blind that the storylines and ideas within it, with their unmistakable mixture of vicious social satire, weird science, post-apocalyptic utopianism and gay sex, were pure uncut Burroughs, but reading the plot synopsis of Nourse’s novel, it sounds like it was a pretty Burroughs-esque venture to begin with:
“The novel's protagonist is Billy Gimp, a man with a club foot who runs "blades" for Doc (Doctor John Long) as part of an illegal black market for medical services. The setting is a society where free, comprehensive medical treatment is available for anyone so long as they qualify for treatment under the Eugenics Laws. Preconditions for medical care include sterilization, and no legitimate medical care is available for anyone who does not qualify or does not wish to undergo the sterilization procedure (including children over the age of five). These conditions have created illegal medical services in which bladerunners supply black market medical supplies for underground practitioners, who generally go out at night to see patients and perform surgery. As an epidemic breaks out among the underclass, Billy must save the city from the plague hitting the rest of the city as well.”
Working within this structure, Burroughs uses the screen treatment as an excuse to rattle off a non-linear series of scene ideas and situations that take in some of the more familiar tropes of his own work, as Billy Gimp and his fellow bladerunners are reimagined as feral, homosexual ‘wild boys’, the black market medical facilities are used to revive the stoned surgery nightmares of Dr. Benway et al, and the idea of an economy based around the illicit supply of drugs and medical equipment naturally gives Burroughs much space to hold forth on his ideas regarding the supply and demand of narcotics and the forces of social control that lurk beneath them.
Whilst the random sprawl of Burroughs’ novels can get a bit much even for his fans, I’ve often thought that his writing works best when applied to shorter projects; the posthumous novelette ‘Ghost of Chance’ is a strong enough work to win over folk who’d rather eat glass than try to wade through ‘Naked Lunch’ again, whilst the unfinished ‘Queer’ is probably the most direct, emotionally affecting work of his career, complete with an essential introduction that basically functions as a key to understanding all of his cut up era work. ‘Bladerunner’ can easily be filed alongside these slim volumes – picking it up after keeping Burroughs at arms length for a few years, it was a refreshing and slyly funny read – a welcome reminder of what a unique and (no other word for it I’m afraid) visionary voice in the wilderness he was.
I still have no idea who the hippie guy pictured on the front of this book is, by the way.
Sunday, 10 April 2011
The first piece of advice for anyone setting out to watch ‘La Nuit des Traquees’: forget any expectations you may have about ‘a Jean Rollin film’.
A unique and deeply upsetting piece of cinema practically clawing its way into existence from the most marginal circumstances imaginable, ‘La Nuit..’ is a real shock to the senses for Rollin fans – a film so far removed from the otherworldly atmosphere and hazy, fairytale logic of his previous work that it seems as if the director is deliberately plunging himself toward the opposite extreme, in a desperate attempt to confront head-on the kind of dismal, post-industrial ‘reality’ that his films had always sought so poignantly to escape from.
Rollin’s earlier films were moving and sad, of course, but their sadness was always of a slightly wistful, mythical variety. In ‘La Nuit..’, he takes the same kind of themes that have always resonated with him (memory, mystery, childhood friendship etc.) and drags them kicking and screaming from the realm of shadowed ruins and diaphanous gowns into a space of clinical, late 20th century misery, where basic dignity is impossible, where bright strip-lighting forbids any hope of escape. It’s a pretty brutal transition.
The film begins when Robert (Vincent Gardère), driving alone late at night, encounters Elisabeth (Brigitte Lahaie), who flees from the woods in her nightgown. Véronique (Dominique Journet) follows some way behind, stark naked. So far, so Rollin, but there is no psychedelic kinkiness afoot here – these women’s distress seems very real.
It quickly becomes clear that Elisabeth is suffering from a form of extremely severe amnesia, and that her short term memory is disintegrating at a frightening rate. By the time Robert picks her up, she can’t remember who she is fleeing from, or where she lives. She remembers the name Véronique, but soon forgets her friend’s existence, telling Robert that she thinks she is probably alone. By the time they arrive back at Robert’s flat at dawn (he having apparently deciding that alerting the authorities is not the best course of action at this point), Elisabeth has already forgotten who he is and where he is taking her.
A pretty intriguing opening for any movie, no doubt. But if there has been a whole glut of movies in the past ten or fifteen years that have explored similar variations on the theme of memory loss, all the ones I remember seeing (Christopher Nolan’s “Momento” and that godawful Tom Cruise “Vanilla Sky” movie spring to mind) have essentially treated the subject as a jumping off point for convoluted thriller plotlines and logic puzzles. None have really set out to achieve what Rollin’s humble film does in emphasizing the emotional impact of amnesia, or in communicating the notion of how completely crippling this condition would be to a sufferer’s ability to function as a human being.
Elisabeth, and her fellow sufferers in the secure unit from which she has escaped, live in a constant state of anxiety and confusion, unable to anchor themselves to even the most basic certainties or personal identities. Seeing the damage wrought on these characters, who drift like catatonics in-between occasional flashes of intelligence and defiance, unable to tell whether a child they distantly recall is their own or a fake memory made up by a friend to comfort them, is extremely harrowing. The scene in which Elizabeth’s roommate Catherine (Catherine Greiner) attempts to feed herself, her motor skills malfunctioning as her condition becomes more severe, is incredibly uncomfortable to watch – an expression of pain and futility more like something you’d expect to see in a gruelling docu-drama about living with disability than in a supposed ‘exploitation’ film. And if the opening scenes between Lahaie and Gardère are somewhat stilted, the performances Rollin later manages to coax out of his cast (largely comprised of non-professionals and performers recruited from the porno industry) in portraying this condition is often little short of extraordinary – an instant refutation of anyone who has ever laughed at the exaggerated, gestural acting in his vampire movies.
Which brings us neatly to my second piece of advice for anyone setting out to watch ‘Le Nuit des Traquees’: please try to understand the circumstances under which it was made.
As a film, ‘La Nuit..’ is compromised from the outset – an ‘almost masterpiece’, as broken and defiled as it’s characters. It is a film whose emotional power and originality deserves to be taken seriously. But the damage wrought by both the production’s miniscule budget and cruelly tight schedule, and the jarring mixture of footage Rollin was forced to include to secure a release, mean that it never will be.
By all accounts, ‘La Nuit des Traquees’ was a film that almost didn’t exist at all. The dawn of the ‘80s found Jean Rollin’s career (and presumably his spirits) at an all-time low. Despite receiving a boost from the modest success of ‘Grapes of Death’ in ’78, the fact remained that the three films Rollin had really put his heart and soul into over the preceding decade – ‘Le Rose de Fer’, ‘Levres de Sang’ and ‘Fascination’ – had all been crushing commercial failures. Given Rollin’s regular practice of ploughing all the money he had after one film straight into the production of the next one, his opportunities to work on his own material were naturally moving in ever-decreasing circles after such a series of perceived ‘disasters’, and when ‘Fascination’ – one of the first films of his career to actually gain some positive critical notices – was unaccountably withdrawn from distribution with all of his future production cash still tied up in it, his last chance to direct anything other than cheapo fuck movies seemed to have disappeared for good.
As Jeremy Richey notes in his review of ‘La Nuit..’ for the Fascination blog:
‘The quite stunning Fascination should have served as a major turning point for Jean Rollin, but the film’s botched release sent him back into the adult film industry he was trying so hard to escape from. He shot three additional Robert Xavier films between Fascination and The Night of the Hunted, and indeed the latter was supposed to have been just another cheap adult feature for Rollin. Rollin recalls on the [Encore DVD] commentary track, “I was tired of X-Films”, and he told his producer, “If you want a horror film for the same cost”, then, “I can make it in 9 days.”’
Et voila. Shot on a porno budget, on a schedule that works out at about a quarter of the shooting time usually allowed for even the lowest budget feature film in the ‘70s, and further compromised by copious quantities of producer-enforced sex and gore footage, to call ‘Le Nuit des Traquees’ ‘threadbare’ would be something of an understatement. I don’t want to labour the point, but the net result is the kind of movie where when a scene calls for two cars, you’re kind of surprised that the production team still had access to two cars.
Most of the film’s interiors were shot on one floor of a recently constructed office block outside Paris, with shooting restricted to the hours between when the workers left in the evening and when the cleaners turned up the next morning – a circumstance that Tohill & Tombs, in their rather dismissive overview of ‘La Nuit..’ in ‘Immoral Tales’, credit with inspiring the film’s “somnambulant” quality.
Setting and landscape has always of course been extremely important to low budget filmmakers deprived of the luxuries of studio time and set construction, and Rollin in particular has always proved himself a master of moulding the atmosphere of his films to fit the spirit of the locations available to him. His technique worked splendidly with desolate chateaus, clifftops and cemeteries, but, perhaps surprisingly, he adapts himself equally well here to the obvious limitations of a bare, pre-fabricated office block.
The strip lighting, the uniform grey carpet and utilitarian plastic fixtures, the windows looking out onto a desolate hinterland of overpasses, industrial estates and weird, doomed new-build skyscrapers - the kind of landscape from which shopping malls and warehouse stores would no doubt begin to sprout only a few years after ‘La Nuit..’ was made – all of this makes for a more authentically spirit-crushing location for the film’s dubious ‘containment ward’ than a more typical slopbucket-gothic ‘prison hell’ set ever could have provided.
For exterior shots, Rollin frames the fragmentary, brutalist architecture of the surroundings in the most menacing way possible, making the concrete and steel edifices around the tower-block seem almost futuristic – the same methodology patented for all time by Godard in ‘Alphaville’ nearly twenty years beforehand. Whilst Godard arguably saw a futurist beauty in these buildings though, Rollin seems to treat them as symptomatic of utter dread, accompanying almost all his exterior shots with dissonant synth stabs and never missing a chance to utilise haunted, oppressive angles. Admittedly this is supposed to be a ‘horror movie’, so this is broadly in line with what might be expected, but it’s probably still not too much of a leap to suggest the dread Rollin feels emanating from these surroundings, and the challenge they present to the more romantic culture he represents, is very genuine. It is this fearful, Ballardian atmosphere above all which has probably led to the frequent comparisons between ‘La Nuit des Traquees’ and David Cronenberg’s early films.
As an intelligent, genuinely disturbing horror movie set against a clinical modernist aesthetic in the entropic malaise of the late 1970s, ‘La Nuit..’ would certainly seem to invite comparison to ‘Shivers’ or ‘Rabid’… if only Rollin had been able here to utilise violence and sexuality even remotely as effectively as his Canadian counterpart.
The biggest stumbling block to an appreciation of ‘La Nuit des Traquess’ – especially for viewers unsympathetic to the strange ways of lower tier Euro exploitation films – is the jarring inclusion of a lot of utterly gratuitous sex/violence footage. The finished film is full of sequences that seem so bizarrely out of place when placed next to unbearably fragile tone of the inter-character scenes that I think Hans of the Quiet Cool blog is spot-on when in his review of the film he talks about the ‘tender scenes’ and ‘exploitative scenes’ “standing together like bullies and victims, forced uncomfortably together for a school photo”.
It doesn’t help that much of the exploitative material is poor staged, weirdly paced and sometimes astoundingly stupid. About eight minutes of the film’s opening half hour are taken up with a seemingly never-ending softcore sex scene between Lahaie and Gardère, a sequence that, whilst it is relevant to the narrative insofar as it establishes the characters’ strong bond with each other, nonetheless goes on for so long that curious viewers drawn in by the film’s opening scenes might be forgiven for thinking they’ve been fooled into watching an extremely tedious soft porn flick, and turn their attention elsewhere.
Even more misguided is the fate allotted to the aforementioned Catherine, whom we are supposed to believe commits suicide by stabbing herself in the eyes with a pair of scissors(!). If the resulting mess is by far the film’s most enduring image for gore fans, the physical circumstances of the act itself are completely absurd, and the lingering shots of her naked corpse seem like an unforgivably cheap and sleazy way to end the life of a character who in her few short scenes had established herself deeply in our affections. It’s like the bully of the film’s dark side just punched us in the gut and stood over us laughing.
(Actually, lingering shots of corpses seem to be a pretty consistent motif in ‘La Nuit des Traquees’… I dunno why, but god knows, it certainly doesn’t help make the film any more cheery.)
As several more ugly scenes of sexualised violence grind by, the film, at it’s worst moments, starts to slip slightly toward the familiar rut of one of the innumerable Women In Prison movies that were such an inescapable feature of late 70s/early 80s exploitation, with the ward’s amoral doctor/overlord and his female second in command inflicting sundry indignities on the remaining cast of dazed, near-naked women, and so forth.
As this dispiriting middle section continues, we can maybe start to detect a certain meta-commentary from Rollin on the tiredness and waste of exploitation industry in which he was enmeshed. Pretty much all the women in the film dutifully get naked, and all the men get enraged and commit acts of violence; but all of it is staged with such dead-eyed, confused incomprehension, all of it carefully calculated not to titillate or excite anybody in the slightest, that the gruelling crap-ness of these scenes almost begins to seem like a rebellious gesture from Rollin – “you want this stuff ? Well here it fucking is – can I get on with my movie now?”
The film’s casting is both key to its overall power and, I would like to think, another facet of Rollin’s quiet rebellion against the exploitation industry. Many of the players are familiar faces from exploitation and porno movies, but the leading actresses - Lahaie, Journet and Greiner – are all women who I can’t imagine ever having been fully comfortable in those roles, regardless of their bodily ‘assets’. All of them have strong, distinctive faces, and are possessed of a certain haunted, deeply troubled look too unmistakable to ever really let a hetero-male audience feel fully comfortable as they get down to the nitty-gritty (or, uh, so I would imagine). Rollin’s masterstroke in casting ‘La Nuit..’ was to recognise this unsettling quality, and to allow these actresses the space and framework they needed to express some of their true feelings on screen, allowing them to deliver intense and upsetting performances that live on in the memory long after the gore and nastiness has faded away.
If we imagine taking some stereotypical snotty cineaste to see ‘La Nuit des Traquees’ then, yes - they would have every right to be repulsed, confused, bored and offended by what they see. Clearly I’m hugely sympathetic to Jean Rollin, and I’m always liable to try to view his work in the best possible light. I’ve taken the time to read up on the background of this film and to see how it fits into his career, and so on. But even I would cop that 'La Nuit..'s failings are pretty substantial, and that it is really not what the vast majority of viewers would consider a ‘good film’. Really it is more of a broken shell, with the essence of a great film dying somewhere inside it… and I understand that that’s not the kind of thing everyone’s gonna want to make time for in their lives.
When our hypothetical cineaste gets to the ending though, when s/he sees the long, excruciating walk along the trainlines, as Elisabeth and Robert pull themselves along, step by step, as the life drains out of them and they slowly become dead to the world… well I’d hope that by that point there is no way anyone could deny that, whatever the cruel shortcomings fate imposed on this film, we are still looking at the work of a filmmaker with a soul and a vision, and an unshakable faith in human dignity.
Sorry to end on such a pompous note, but it’s just gotta be said.
As Hans concludes his review; “La nuit des traquées is an obscure film in an obscure film maker’s filmography. There are no castles, no Castel twins, and no beach scenes. It’s a beautiful and sad film full of fragments, where perhaps, all its beauty and sadness reside.”
Amen to that.
Saturday, 2 April 2011
When assessing the work of the select group who comprise cinema’s pre-eminent purveyors of absolute, grade-A blood-curdling lunacy, certain trends quickly become clear.
For some directors – Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jose Morica Marins, Ken Russell say – filmic lunacy functions as a kind of grand ego trip, through which they seek to forcefully impress their strength of character upon the viewer, bludgeoning us with their singular worldview until we cry surrender. And if others in the top tier of weirdness - Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, Takashi Miike, H. Tjut Djalil or Andrzej Zulawski say – are less centrally present in their own work, their MO is equally clear: in one way or another, they seek to freak the audience out, to sicken and terrify us, overload us with information and generally provoke an extreme reaction.
What I think sets Fredric Hobbs – truly a dark horse in the insane-cinema race – apart from his competitors is that he refuses to employ any of these intimidation tactics, yet still makes a powerful run on the great WTF finishing line.
Outside of the handful of feature films he directed in the early ‘70s, Hobbs is best known for his work as a sculptor and designer, and is a frequent recipient of the much-disputed “outsider artist” tag. I’m not going to enter into the debate regarding the correct interpretation of that thorny piece of phraseology, but I will state that the thought-processes at work behind a film like “Alabama’s Ghost” come about as close to defining my own understanding of the term as any other piece of human self-expression I’ve thus far encountered.
In ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, Hobbs – who wrote, directed and produced – makes no attempt to position himself as an artistic visionary or philosophical superman, and I don’t believe that he was seeking to deliberately freak anybody out either. On the contrary, it seems that he was merely trying to tell an interesting story he’d thought up, in a way he thought viewers might find enjoyable. Good for him.
The crucial problem is though: we are not Fredric Hobbs. Every creative decision made during the creation of ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ is different from the one you or I would have made, and when placed within the context of consensus reality, what Hobbs perhaps intended as an easy-going supernatural comedy emerges as one of the most puzzling outbursts of chaotic, inexplicable bru-ha-ha ever committed to celluloid.
Given my morbid preoccupation with trying to reiterate every single noteworthy thing about a given film when writing about it here, I’m afraid that the following review may turn out to be a pretty gruelling experience for both of us. But nonetheless, “Alabama’s Ghost” was a real pinnacle of the kind of stuff I look for in a film, and I owe it to you to give it my best shot. Are we ready? Well ok, let’s go.
“Alabama’s Ghost” begins with an echo-laden monologue, narrated over footage of a darkened cityscape swathed in artificial mist. The monologue is quite lengthy, and packs in a tremendous amount of detail, beginning with a recap of the life and career of an Edwardian magician known as Carter the Great who died in Calcutta in 1935. This much is almost true - Charles Joseph Carter, stage-name Carter the Great, was indeed a legendary California-based magician who died in 1936. The narration then widens its scope to tell us about a female Nazi scientist called ‘Dr. Kirsten Caligula’, who created a substance called “raw zeta” which “when introduced into the human body through Chinese acupuncture techniques” could be transformed into the more malign “deadly zeta”, and could in turn be used as “..a broadcasting catalyst to enslave all humans within the sound of one's voice”. This bit is almost certainly not true.
Eventually, we cut to the film’s opening credits, which take place in a nightclub.
Quintessential Hobbs Moment # 1: Naturally this sequence couldn’t take place in just any old nightclub, so welcome to the end-of-season party at Earthquake McGoons, an Irish(?) bar, in which Mr. McGoon himself leads the festivities backed up by a Dixieland jazz band, singing the film’s somewhat less than melodious theme song as the credits scroll past over his sweaty, former-tough-guy features.
And what credits they are! The cast list promises us groupies, vampires, a sailor, a monkey (played by a human?!), witches, a ‘voodoo drummer’, and one actor who is credited as portraying “Granny/Moxie/Gault”. Plus music from The Loading Zone and The Turk Murphy Jazz Band, and a special appearance by Neena the Elephant! Are you psyched? I AM PSYCHED.
Watching from the bar is Alabama, a hep-cat jazz musician who seems to have been reduced to working as a handyman and general dogsbody at Earthquake McGoons. “Yeah man, that was smooth… like a hundred yellow pussycats dancing on jade”, he says in sarcastic appraisal of Mr. McGoon’s performance, before heading down to the basement to tidy everything away (I’ll skip over questioning what kind of bar-room jazz band needs to store its accruements in heavy storage chests in a vast basement equipped with a forklift truck). Whilst ruing his sorry position in life and expressing his wish to “quit this gig, write my own tunes, blow these cats back into the dark ages”, Alabama accidentally manoeuvres his forklift into a partition wall, revealing a hidden chamber containing… the stage props and possessions of Carter the Great!
As someone who has apparently always harboured dreams of becoming a stage magician, Alabama is overjoyed at this find, and when he discovers a Sausalito contact address for Carter’s family in a box also containing the magician’s personal stash of hashish and ‘Khartoum khaki’ (no, me neither), he decides to check it out.
Cut to the Sausalito sea-front, and Quintessential Hobbs Moment # 2, as Alabama momentarily walks past what looks like the frontage of a gigantic, expressionist cathedral made out of driftwood! This building is only visible for a few seconds and plays no part in the film whatsoever, but, well… what the hell? Was this a Hobbs creation that he just thought he’d throw in? Did it originally play a bigger part in the film? Or was it just THERE when they turned up to film, for some inexplicable reason? I mean, is there actually a giant, weird junk cathedral on the Sausalito sea-front? And more to the point, what kind of filmmaker puts an establishing shot of such a breathtakingly extravagant building into their film, then has their protagonist walk straight past it and go somewhere else..? Fredric Hobbs: I’m only about ten minutes into your film and already I love you.
But anyway: when Alabama makes his way to the Carter residence, where he is introduced to Carter’s elderly, bed-ridden sister, who insists on being addressed as “Granny”. Granny is initially fairly hostile to Alabama’s plans to take on the mantle of Carter the Great, reviving his stage-show for a new era. But after a few puffs of ‘Khartoum Khaki’ she lightens up, and instructs her granddaughter to take Alabama to “Moxie’s Museum”. Moxie, it turns out, is a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound former magician who inhabits a dusty museum of mystic paraphernalia, and who reluctantly agrees to school Alabama in the lost arts of magic.
(Oh, and did I fail to mention that after Alabama leaves, Granny pulls off her wig, unveils her vampire fangs and starts cackling like a wrong ‘un? Well I’ve mentioned it now.)
“Hey, this Iron Maiden of Nuremburg would sure look good backed up with a sound-system… yeah, we’d scare the hell out of them… I’d rattle that cage and make the whole act levitate… then I’d turn all the little chicks into a box an’ make ‘em disappear.. until they turned up in my motel room later on..” enthuses Alabama as he looks over Moxie’s exhibits – another fine example of the nonsensical, stream of consciousness diatribes that seem to comprise our jovial hero’s main way of communicating with the world.
Frankly this Moxie guy (played by the same actor as Granny) seems like a pretty dull customer, so it’s a relief that we’re spared the inevitable ‘training montage’, instead cutting directly to Alabama’s debut performance, billing himself rather immodestly as “Alabama, King of the Cosmos” as he takes the stage at (where else?) Earthquake McGoons.
Alabama wears a Napoleonic frock-coat and tricorn hat, and Granny’s granddaughter (I never did catch her name) is his glamorous assistant. As part of the show, Alabama picks a Hispanic man named “Domingo Burrito” out of the audience, and startles him with accurate facts about his ancestry. Mr. Burrito is then asked to stare into the panels on Carter the Great’s spirit cabinet, behind which he sees a vision of his great-grandfather, a Spanish Admiral, suffering in the flames of hell!
Also in the audience is big-time rock promoter Otto Max, who speaks with a completely unrecognisable accent (part Liverpudlian, part Jamaican, part Indian?), and is apparently greatly impressed with this disquieting, racially uncomfortable performance. Max approaches Alabama as he is chilling backstage on a golden throne, surrounded by adoring groupies (jeez, who knew that an off-season gig at Earthquake Macgoons could bring in that kind of action?) and offers to manage him, giving him the opportunity to expand his magic act into a spectacular touring psychedelic stage-show, and to use Max’s connections in the rock world to catapult himself into the big-time.
Little time is wasted as we cut to a montage of Alabama the Great’s Otto Max supported Psychedelic Spirit Show as it takes America by storm with its irresistible combination of dancing hippie chicks, vaudeville magic tricks, Alabama’s patented blather and the funk-rock fusion sounds of second wave San Fran group The Loading Zone!
To digress briefly, it occurs to me that this ‘psychedelic magic show’ sequence is, oddly, one of the only points at which “Alabama’s Ghost” touches on something approaching the reality of life in California in the early ‘70s. The live music/rock festival circuit in the USA really WAS becoming big business in the later hippie era, and concert promoters in the Otto Max mould really WERE making big bucks and getting big ideas. As a cursory viewing of ‘Woodstock’ or ‘Festival Express’ will attest, this era gave rise to a vast, nomadic audience of field hippies, bikers and miscellaneous drop-outs, all willing to lay down cash to nod out en masse in the open air, being entertained by, well… just about anything really it seems, so long as it involved psychedelic clap-trap and ‘good vibes’. Given the turgid and repetitive nature of much of the era’s bong-addled blues-rock, I’m surprised that some bright spark DIDN’T come up with the idea of presenting a rock n’ roll magic show like the one seen here, if only to liven things up a little.
Recordings I’ve heard in the past by The Loading Zone have never really grabbed me, but, as presented in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, they’re a pretty tight outfit, noteworthy for a ethnic and gender diversity that is extremely rare for the period. Along with yer standard complement of moustachioed white dudes on drums and guitar, they’ve got a female organist, a female singer (who is oddly never seen on-screen), and a middle-aged black woman who is initially seen playing some wicked soul power style flute, but can later be spotted centre stage, laying down some fuckin’ killer low-end on a battle-scarred Fender bass, as the Alabama-show’s hippie dancing girls gyrate wildly on either side of her. Rock n’ roll!
Anyway, after the completion of Alabama’s first big tour, we cut to another Quintessential Hobbs Moment, as Alabama and Otto Max demonstrate their newfound fame and riches by cruising ‘round town in what can only be described as an elaborate paper mache monster-wagon. It’s the direct analogue of a scene in a more ‘normal’ film when our character might be shown driving around in a brand new Cadillac to signify that he’s ‘made it’, only Hobbs seems to have thought, well, if I was rich and famous, I’d probably prefer to drive an elaborate paper mache monster-wagon… so here we go! This incredible vehicle – a mobile Hobbs sculpture I’m assuming? – is given ample screen time throughout the rest of the movie, but no explanation of its existence is ever offered, and no one seems to consider it unusual, as if celebrity status in this film’s world automatically confers the right to hit the highway in a thing that looks like a parade float built by Clark Ashton Smith! The fact that Alabama and Otto seem to be cruising through an eerily deserted San Francisco suburb that looks like a location from “The Last Man on Earth” only adds to the inherent surrealism of the situation.
The two of them are busy brainstorming plans for Alabama’s next tour, the grand finale of which will be an appearance at a festival at Dune Crest on the California coast, organised by global media mogul Jerry Gault, during which Alabama will for the first time perform Carter the Great’s famed vanishing elephant trick.
Now, making an elephant disappear is a pretty cool trick for a stage magician, don’t get me wrong, but the way people talk about it in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, you’d think it was some singular spiritual breakthrough for the whole human race – this film’s equivalent of ‘immanentizing the eschaton’ or whatever.
Take for instance the following dialogue exchange with takes place as Alabama and Otto speed toward the nearest hospital in a big, red ambulance carrying a girl who has been injured when one of Alabama’s tricks went wrong;
“I got spooked out there, something happened to me… I’m scared man, what’s gonna happen to me?”
“Shut up Alabama – now you just listen to me will you – shut up and calm down; nothing’s gonna happen to you – the girl’s alright, she won’t talk – she works for me and I’m booking her into a private sanatorium for rich freaks! D’you think I’m gonna blow the deal with the Jerry Gault Worldwide Special just because some chick got a little cut up? You keep working on that vanishing elephant act ‘til you’ve got it down pat like I told ya!”
“But I told you – I’m getting spooked – I promised Moxie I wouldn’t mess around with this elephant stuff, and now weird things’re startin’ to happen to me, like sometimes I think Carter’s ghost is floatin’ around my head… keepin’ a fish-eye on me, some evil fish-eye.. sending bad vibes down around my act..”
“Look, Alabama – if Carter ever shows up, I’ll book him into Miami for the squares, ok?”
Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that the mental and physical strain of preparing himself for the elephant trick has caused Alabama to ‘crack up’ and start seeing visions of Carter the Great’s ghost ordering him around? Well, uh, yeah, that’s happened. The ghost warns Alabama to “beware the vampire’s bloody contract, written in the hand of Gault,” which you’d think would be a pretty clear indication that he should take a second look at the deal with Gault, but Alabama doesn’t seem willing to take the hint.
Maybe this is simply because the ghost is rendered in such classic ‘gory locks’ style – flash of lightning and white face and booming, echoed voice and so on – making it pretty hard to take him seriously. At one point he refers to Alabama as “black man”, prompting our hero to retort, “I ain’t gonna take no shit from no white, racist ghost!” Rumours that this scene provided inspiration for Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters theme until the producers persuaded him to tone it down a little are entirely unfounded, but should start here.
Anyway, between this supernatural hassle, the stress of preparation for the elephant disappearance and the discovery that his glamorous assistant/girlfriend is a flesh-eating vampire, the anxious Alabama eventually suffers some kind of mental collapse, at which point the film finally surrenders it’s last grasp at linear plotting, allowing fantasy and reality to merge into one squelching, boggle-eyed Frederic Hobbs-flavoured mush-swamp…
Alabama is running through some kind of dustball dream landscape, pursued by vampires, chanting “mamma, dadda, mamma dadda” to himself. Eventually he find his way back to his mother, who is rather uncharitably portrayed as living in some kinda derelict, depression-era shack. “Why, there ain’t no vampires living in this town no more,” Mama curiously remarks, trying to calm her son down, “the only vampires I know about moved to the city after prohibition”.
Seeing what a sorry state Alabama is in, Mama takes him to see Doc, the local voodoo witchdoctor guy, who performs a lengthy psychedelic exorcism upon him, calling upon the Loa to rid him of the torment of Carter’s ghost. Perhaps a somewhat less than accurate depiction of voudoun practice, but quite an imaginative one nonetheless, this exorcism involves ‘red Halloween stew’, a strange blue egg, shout outs to “the spooksies, the spooksies!”, and Doc sewing the carcass of a toad over Alabama’s heart.
All this seems to perk Alabama up, and so he, Mama and Doc pile into the monster-wagon and head on down to the festival for the elephant trick.
BUT – as well as a global media mogul, Jerry Gault turns out to be the same vampiric creepo who was pretending to be granny and Moxie earlier on! He has a Bond villain-esque secret lab from which he can monitor all terrestrial communications and beam a live broadcast of the elephant disappearance around the world via satelitte! And not only is he the head of a subterranean vampire cult, but he also fancies himself as some kind of global fascist overlord, and is in league with Dr. Kirsten Caligula (remember her?)!
Terrible, disturbing things happen as Hobbs’ camera spends time probing into Gault’s operations. One genuinely horrifying sequence shows an underground ‘vampire production line’ wherein screaming, naked innocents are tied down on a conveyer belt and chomped upon by hungry, black-hooded ghouls, as gigantic Eraserhead-like industrial machinery wheezes and churns in the background. It really is the stuff of nightmares, operated on a large-scale set with a complement of props and extras that seems far more elaborate that anything that was really required for a quick shock-scene in a movie like this - a more spine-chilling variation on the “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing this” moments that ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ seems to specialise in.
Meanwhile, hippies are converging on the site from miles around, and The Loading Zone are rocking the crowd (I’m assuming Hobbs took crowd footage from some genuine hippie festival and edited in tighter shots of the band playing to a smaller crowd – however it was done, the gathering certainly succeeds in looking impressively huge and pretty authentic).
Once again, Alabama is freaking out – somewhere along the line, he seems to have acquired a ‘proper’ girlfriend, called Midnight, to replace his previous treacherous neck-biting one. She is first seen escaping from the vampire production line, but then just seems to hang out with everybody as if she’s known them all for years…? Anyway, as some other people start to lead a rather sickly looking elephant toward the stage, she’s getting worried that Alabama won’t be able to perform the trick…
“Never mind that,” says Doc, “help me unpack this robot”.
It was there I think that I just gave up. The rest of the movie’s finale is just a blur.
See! An army of dirt-bikes crest the hill like an echo of Charlie Manson’s mythical dune buggy attack squad, only to be blasted to pieces by lasers from Robot-Alabama’s fingers!
See! Neena the Elephant beat Vampira to death with her trunk!
See! Alabama’s Mama make a daring escape as the monster-wagon careens into oblivion with the nazi-vampire overlord at the wheel!
See! The desert landscape strewn with vampire-hippie corpses, as the human attendees flee for their lives!
A right weirdo-movie hootenanny, basically.
The only thing that could have made it better would’ve been if the film ended with Alabama making a dismissive hand gesture, going “shee-it”, and walking off-screen.
In the tormented paragraphs above, I have tried to communicate the thoughts and feelings that accompanied my initial viewing of ‘Alabama’s Ghost’. But in concentrating wholly on trying to make sense of the events of the film, I don’t think I’ve quite succeeded.
I’ve not told you about the fact that, despite the wealth of extraordinary imagery on display, the film is composed in an extremely plain, matter of fact fashion, almost completely devoid of the kind of stylistic flourishes and audacious psychedelic tomfoolery you might have expected from far-out material like this. As a director, Frederic Hobbs is broadly competent, but never really shows his hand. Like a TV guy, just telling the story seems to be his main concern – a curious approach for a man clearly blessed with such a prodigiously beserk imagination.
Similarly, for a film so stuffed to bursting with unnecessary characters, absurd situations and insane ideas, ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ has an oddly slow-moving, lapsidaisical feel to it, wondering absent-mindedly from scene to scene with no particular hurry. The acting sticks closely to the declamatory, ‘local theatre group’ style that I so love in oddball low budget movies – an almost surreal mixture of careful intonation and exaggerated gesture that it’s hard not to warm to… well, if you’re me, at least. In the role of Alabama, Christopher Brooks (who scored an ultra-weirdo double-whammy by also appearing in Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place”) acts like a one-joke jazzbo beatnik caricature from a sit-com episode who somehow ended up starring in his own movie, and if I say I found him a hugely likeable and engaging protagonist, well, that should probably be measured against the fact that I’d happily watch a three hour movie about life and times of Maynard G. Krebs.
As some of the extracts I’ve quoted above will demonstrate, the dialogue in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ is long-winded and discursive in the extreme. To give one example, whilst explaining the workings of her robot-Alabama, Dr. Caligula somehow ends up sharing her thoughts on the lifelike nature of the Abraham Lincoln dummy in Disneyland. In fact, all the characters tend to communicate in a kind of vague, repetitive babble that, if it’s not actually THAT far removed from actual human conversation, certainly makes for an odd experience when combined with the unnatural performance style favoured by the cast.
The orchestral score used in ‘Alabama’s Ghost’, by the way, largely sounds like a bunch of crackly, bombastic music cues that could have been pulled straight from an overwrought ‘40s b-movie.
Needless to say, none of the above should be taken as criticisms.
It’s probably redundant to say as much by this point, but ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ really is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in my life. That it manages to touch the very highest echelons of weirdness whilst also maintaining a good-natured, utilitarian earnestness, a simple desire to enthral and entertain, is pretty remarkable.
Frederic Hobbs’ other directorial efforts are “Roseland” (1971), “Godmonster of the Indian Flats” (1973) and the impossibly obscure experimental opus “Trioka” (1969).
God willing, they will all pass before my eyes before too long.