Friday, 26 March 2010

The She Beast
(Mike Reeves, 1966)

Pottering about on Amazon recently, ostensibly checking some facts for a previous review (I think I was probably making absolutely sure Michael Reeves’ ‘The Sorcerers’ was still unavailable on DVD before I started clamoring for its re-release), I was surprised to see that Reeves – [who took his own life at the age of 25 shortly after delivering ‘Witchfinder General’ (1968), one of the most uncompromisingly bleak horror films ever made, thus cementing forever his place in cult film mythology] – is also credited as the director of another film I’d never heard of before – something called ‘She-Beast’.

Clicking through to that film’s page, I nearly fell off my seat when I saw that ‘She Beast’ stars none other than Barbara Steele! Yes, THAT Barbara Steele! There’s a big picture of her on the front of the DVD to prove it and everything! Having stilled my beating heart and heading across to IMDB to confirm that it was indeed THAT Mike Reeves in the director’s chair, I immediately got to thinking about why this film is apparently so totally obscure.

As a chance meeting between two such iconic figureheads of all that is mysterious and fascinating and cool in the world of ‘60s horror cinema, you’d think that if ‘She Beast’ isn’t movie dynamite, it would surely at least have done the rounds of the, er, ‘horror community’ as an intriguing/confounding let-down, in the manner of ‘Curse of the Crimson Altar’ or something. I mean, with a plot apparently involving resurrected witches and a heavy-handed political sub-text, surely there’s got to be SOMETHING worth saying about this movie? But no – silence reigns from all of my usual sources of horror info.

What online reviews there are out there would tend to confirm the sad suspicion that, rather than even a grand failure, ‘She Beast’ is generally regarded as a dreary piece of shit that fails to add much to the legacy of either its director or leading lady. But you know what? Fuck that. At this stage there’s no force on earth that’s going to stop me from laying down £3.95 plus postage to see Michael Reeves directing Barbara Steele in some caper about communist witches! ‘She Beast’ is go.

Flash forward a few weeks to me concluding my Friday night encounter with the She-Beast, and what’s the verdict? Well it ain’t no ‘Black Sunday’, that’s for sure. But going in as I was with pretty low expectations, I’ve gotta say I quite enjoyed ‘She Beast’. In fact in its own way I thought it was really rather wonderful – sordid, cheap, stupid, pointless and completely bizarre in the best possible way.

You’ll forgive my rather unwieldy metaphor here, but if we were to see the best examples of ‘60s gothic horror as a collection of grand nobles and learned doctors congregating for a social engagement, ‘She Beast’ is more like the ranting, piss-stained tramp staggering about outside – he may not be exactly what you had in mind when you set out for an evening of stimulating conversation, but he sure ain’t bland company, and he’s got enough salty surprises in store to keep you on your toes.

Of course, it is a sad world that should ever compel a humble reviewer to compare a film featuring the incomparable Ms Steele to a piss-stained tramp, but such was the nature of her undignified trudge through the hinterlands of exploitation following her unforgettable debut in ‘Black Sunday’ and her brief grasp at arthouse cred in Fellini’s ‘81/2’, and if there is one thing that can immediately be said in ‘She Beast’s favour, it’s that at least it doesn’t waste her electrifying presence quite as badly as ‘..Crimson Altar’ or Corman’s ‘Pit & The Pendulum’.

Sure, she’s notable by her absence in the film’s second half, but in the gloriously Barbara-centric opening chapters she’s at least got a character and some lines to work with, some decent(ish) outfits, and the good taste to look faintly disdainful at all times as the avalanche of grunting, irrelevant crap that is ‘She Beast’ piles up around her. According to ‘She Beast’s trivia page at IMDB, Steele was only available for one day’s work on the film, meaning all her scenes had to be shot in a single twelve hour block, which certainly gives us an insight into the haste with which this flick was thrown together, given that she appears in a good half hour’s worth of footage.

Before we get to Barbara though, naturally every witch-movie has to start with a pre-credits flashback witch-destruction scene, and ‘She Beast’ is no exception, and from a purely cinematic point of view, this sequence is probably the movie’s high point. As distinctive as it is crude, the pre-credits sequence here reveals that the bleak, brutal medievalism Reeves would later perfect in ‘Witchfinder General’ was already fully-formed even this early in his short career.

Reeves immediately discards the stylised/fantastical approach usually taken by ‘60s gothics, presenting our witch as a drooling, filth-encrusted, bestial hag – a hideous creature who looks like she could well have lived in a cave in the woods eating babies. But as the scarcely less bestial villagers tie her down onto an absurdly complex witch-dunking contraption, piercing her chest with a spike and leaving her to drown in the river, there is no sense of supernatural justice being done. As in his later film, Reeves refuses to soften or fetishise the act of senseless violence he is portraying. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing or ‘fun’ about this sequence at all – it is ugly, abhorrent and unsettling, with none of the good vs evil moralising that makes such spectacles palatable in Hammer or AIP movies – just a straight depiction of some grotesque, ignorant people being horrible to each other.

Fittingly perhaps, the film’s presentation on the Alpha Video DVD I’m watching is about the worst I’ve ever seen on a commercially released disc, the print full-screened and fuzzed out into a morass of sickly greens and browns, and the soundtrack so cavernous I had to crank the volume to about four times the normal level to catch the dialogue. It kinda looks like someone took a battered theatrical print and left it out in the rain for twenty years, and seriously, for a film like this I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s perfect. In all respects, the opening five minutes are just an assault on the senses of any tasteful, rational movie fan: abandon hope all ye who enter here, etc.

Anyway, for better or worse the opening sequence is as close as ‘She-Beast’ ever gets to making a serious point, or to unsettling viewers for the right reasons. As soon as we cut to ‘the present day’, or some weird Eurohorror variation thereof, it’s goof city all the way. Barbara Steele and Ian Oglivy (who else?) are on their honeymoon, and have chosen to spend it in – I kid you not - “the communist republic of Transylvania”. God knows why, as the whole place seems to resemble a post-apocalyptic wasteland of desolate rural poverty. Ian mentions something at one point about the beautiful scenery, but we never get to see any of it in this movie. Barbara radiates disdain on our behalf.

When they flag down a passing peasant and ask him for the lowdown on accommodation in the nearest village, the guy proceeds to deliver one of the most startlingly incoherent peasant-spiels I’ve ever heard in a horror film. He doesn’t warn them about occult peril or anything, as is traditional, instead he just sort of goes; “Yes! No! I mean, yes, places to stay there alright! But you do not want to stop there – keep going! You go to this one hotel, alright! BUT NO, you go there, is only hotel! You have good time there yes!”

Then he shouts “good night”, even though it seems to be the middle of the day, and careers off on his bicycle in classic ‘mad drunkard’ fashion, driving straight into the path of a man leading a donkey and then narrowly avoiding a passing motorbike, in an extended shot that looks like something cut out of an episode of “Last Of The Summer Wine” for being too disturbing. Ian and Barbara exchange the same kind of looks you’ll probably be exchanging back home on the couch, assuming you’re ever fool enough to try watching ‘She Beast’ in polite company. Something is just UP with this movie, and I’m not sure it’s going to be pleasant.

Arriving in said ‘village’ (which seems to consist of an abandoned looking filling station, some outhouses and a few picnic tables), Barbara and Ian are swiftly introduced to the proprietor of the hotel the peasant was blathering on about, as portrayed by the great comic actor Mel Welles. As the appropriately named Groper, Welles gives us an authentically furtive, sweaty sort of character who, seemingly for the lack of any other actors, will be playing a larger role in the forthcoming drama than we might wish. “Welcome, welcome,” he greets the couple, “you’re just in time for tea!”
With his lurching, hunch-backed walk, exaggerated mannerisms and even his own ‘comedy’ theme music, Groper’s presence rather recalls that of Torgo in Manos: The Hands Of Fate (if somewhat less intense).

As Barbara and Ian sit at one of the village picnic tables sipping Groper’s finest English tea (it doesn’t look good), a bizarre, bright yellow old-timey car putters over the horizon and our protagonists soon find themselves in the company of none other than Count Van Helsing (John Karlsen), here reduced to a lonely old coot who seems very excited about having some people who aren’t surly peasants to talk to.

“Do you know the Draculas?”, Barbara asks him. “Know them? Why, my family exorcised them, drove them from this earth, staked their evil hearts!”, Van Helsing replies, before going on to explain that with the vampires out of the way, he’s all about witches these days, and has done much interesting research, blah blah blah. Apparently not relishing the prospect of being lectured on occult lore by some craggy old weirdo for no apparent reason, Barbara and Ian declare themselves tired from their long journey and fuck off, leaving the poor old Count to enjoy the bottle of vodka he’s ordered all on his own.

And that, essentially, is our whole dramatic set-up for ‘She-Beast’s unforgettable tale of nothing in particular. In their haste to get away from this tiresome place, Barbara and Ian end up crashing their car straight into the river. Barbara’s body disappears! A murderous witch-monster is on the loose! Only Van Helsing’s occult know-how can save the day! Random, squalid events pad out running time! Yawn! I wish Babara Steele would come back! SHE DOES! And that’s yer lot! Hurray!

Naturally it’s the scattered points of interest along the way that make “She Beast” such a unlikely pleasure, most of them probably stemming from the presence of a headstrong, inexperienced director who seems determined not follow the signposts of gothic horror formula, but who lacks either the commitment or resources to come up with anything better, resulting in barrels of the kind of delightful “well we’ve got to film something – let’s film THAT” anti-inspiration that keeps trash-horror archeologists glued to video-era regional obscurities, but is rarely seen in ‘60s cinema, when producers and distributors had to exhibit their goods in public, in theatres, and thus usually at least TRIED to make sure they weren’t embarrassing themselves too much.

For instance, I loved the bit where Ian catches Groper leering through the keyhole as the couple attempt to get frisky in their room, and instead of merely telling him to push off, our ‘hero’ proceeds to beat the unfortunate landlord’s brains out against the wall, leaving a thick sheen of blood, in an outbreak of senseless violence just as brutal as the crimes perpetrated by the movie’s monster! Another example of Michael Reeves’ peerlessly misanthropic view of human behaviour perhaps, or did the actors and make-up artist just get carried away and no one could be bothered to reshoot..? I’m assuming the latter, as the next time we see Groper, he’s skulking around as usual, rubbing the back of his head and muttering to himself as if he’s just got a bit of a hangover.

I also enjoyed all the comically sped up car chases between Count Van Helsing’s weird car and the local keystone commissars (they literally do prat-falls and say things like “hey boss, somebody done stole our car”) that pad out the film’s final half hour. (You see, they just want to kill the witch, whereas Van Helsing knows that only be keeping her alive can Barbara be resurrected, or, y’know, something.) Watching a sped-up motorcycle guy zipping along the country lanes made for particularly pleasing viewing – such larks! There’s even one bit where the old geezer has to manually crank the car’s engine in order to get back on the road before his pursuers arrive – turn that hand-crank Count, crank for all you’re worth!

Then there’s the bit where the scene abruptly changes, and we see footage of some guys staging a cock fight (largely off-screen thankfully - no animal cruelty footage) while a kid whose sole purpose in the narrative is to briefly get attacked by the witch sneaks out of his bedroom window and assembles a pile of packing crates to watch the action… all of which we are seeing, well, why exactly…? Ten bucks says it’s more spiritually fulfilling that whatever’s on TV right now, so quit yer complaining and chow down.

Although filmed in some authentically grim and hopeless looking place in Yugoslavia, ‘She Beast’ was actually a British/Italian co-production (it went by “La Sorella di Satana” in Italy), and the English language track sounds dubbed, or at least post-synced. And with this process presumably being carried out with the same sense of care and attention that went into the film itself, naturally the result is conversations that sound as if they were written on another planet;

“What am I doing here?”
“You were lying in the middle of the road, you could have been hit by a bus!”
“Why were you in the road?”
“That damned fool hit me with a bottle!”
“I asked to use the telephone.”
“Ah – yes, I see”

And so on.

What I loved most of all about ‘She Beast’ though was the simple, self-contained little world it inadvertently creates. This is something I find fascinating in a lot of low budget horror films actually – the way that, thanks to strict limitations on cast, shooting locations and sets and a sense of narrative background that is hazy at best, these films can seem to take place within a restrictive, Truman Show-like entropy circuit, completely cut off from the real world, and functioning according to their own cracked internal logic.

Of course, many really good films have recognized this dislocated feeling and turned it to their advantage (“The Child”, “Messiah of Evil” or “Phantasm” are all good examples), but I love how in a film like ‘She Beast’ the sense of isolation seems completely accidental – the strange result of a film that seems to have been made with no production values whatsoever, and a script that simply can’t be bothered to anchor any aspect of the story into a real-world context.

As the film concluded, I wasn’t thinking about witches and occult power, or communism, or even about Barbara Steele. Instead I was just trying to picture what day to day life must have been like in the Communist Republic of Transylvania, before those attractive Britishers came along and messed everything up by falling in the lake.

Let’s go there together;

Groper sits in his filthy shack, scratching his belly and looking at porn. Groper’s niece keeps out of his way. Count Van Helsing putters around the hills in his stupid-looking car, desperate for someone to talk to. Flies buzz, meat rots. That’s the whole world. It is certainly not a happy place, but maybe, after a while, we’ll each grow to appreciate its charms.

Maybe we should thank the ill-starred Michael Reeves for giving us a rare window into that world, with only the clunk of the DVD returning itself to the menu screen serving to awake us from our slumber, to save us from a dream-life in which we are trapped there… forever.


Monday, 15 March 2010

Whip And The Body
(Mario Bava, 1963)

Over the past year or so I have been making a concerned effort to watch as many Mario Bava movies as is humanly possible… not that you’d know it from the content of this weblog thus far.

It’s the old problem I guess – I can harp on for pages about some film that’s weird or confounding or terrible, but many of my favourite films – particularly my favourite horror films – cast a spell on the viewer that requires no further explanation: they are what they are. And Bava’s work, even his non-horror films, are a case in point. Great though they are, it is often hard to find anything of substance to say about a given Bava film, beyond “this is great, you should watch it!”

Bava experts (and I’d really like to think that there are recognised Bava experts out there somewhere, who all get together on academic panels to say “this is great, you should watch it” to audiences of eager students) may beg to differ, but I find Bava cheerfully defies the doctrines of the original auteur theorists at every tun, by virtue of making films which are instantly recognisable as his work whilst simultaneously being invested with very little material that relates to the intellectual or emotional concerns of their maker.

I’m sure some writers could be inclined to drag some weighty psychological exegesis out of his work (the sadism, the sensuality etc), but personally I don’t think that’s gonna float. Thematically, there is little in his films which stands out as particularly unusual in the world of ‘60s/’70s European b-movies, even if he was able to express things more powerfully and memorably than most of his contemporaries. And yet…. you can spot a Bava film a mile off – his framing, production design, camera movement – all are utterly unique.

Bava really stands as the preeminent example of the ‘craftsman-director’, casually rolling with whatever genres and story set-ups the weird whims of the producers and studios deemed relevant or saleable at a given moment, humbly positioning himself as just another jobbing director amongst many helping to keep Europe’s screens supplied with regular doses of girls, blood and monsters through the all-important mid-century cinema boom. What really sets him apart though is a) a sense of aesthetic vision and technical talent that puts just about all of his more lauded American counterparts in the shade, and b) a dedication to making sure that whatever today’s movie happened to be, he would do his utmost to make it *really fucking good*, never patronising his audience or succumbing to laziness or cynicism, and always delivering a beautiful, professional, kick-ass movie that really gives us our money’s worth, whether on a grindhouse triple bill in 1965 or on a DVD reissue in 2010.

I guess it must have been recognised even at the time that Bava’s way of doing things gave him a particular affinity with the gothic horror genre, and as such he managed to make a whole bunch (a BUNCH, no less) of films within that milieu, all of them freakin’ amazing to a greater or lesser extent, in the period between his unforgettable directorial debut ‘Black Sunday’ aka ‘Mask of the Devil’ in 1960 and ‘Baron Blood’ at the tail-end of the gothic horror’s viability as a commercial proposition in 1973. But beyond that, whatever brand of ‘60s/’70s popular cinema you’re into, chances are Mario took a bash at it at some point and delivered the goods.

Fancy a wacky space adventure? His astounding 1965 sci-fi/horror hybrid ‘Planet of The Vampires’ goes one better, pretty much providing the blueprint for a whole swathe of American SF cinema, from ‘Alien’ through to ‘Event Horizon’. Does a kick-ass Viking-based sword n’ sandal movie float your boat? They don’t come much better than ‘Knives of The Avenger’ (1963). Or hey, how about the single greatest pop art adventure film / comic book adaptation ever made? I know I won’t have to justify that hyperbole to anyone who’s seen 1967’s endlessly incredible ‘Danger: Diabolik’. Hell, even Bava’s sex comedy, 1972’s ‘Four Times That Night’, is pretty good, making me wish more than ever that I was Italian, born into a country capable of producing something so stylish, witty and genuinely sexy whilst the rest of Europe was busy churning out eight million variations on ‘The Naughty Cheerleader’ and ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’.

Back to the gothic horror though, and today we’re looking at yet another bone fide Bava masterpiece, but one that for a variety of reasons is more rarely screened or referenced than his early classics of the genre or even his early ‘70s weirdo/kitsch blow-outs – 1963’s provocatively titled ‘Whip And The Body’.

It was I suppose sadly inevitable that Bava’s ‘60s classics were often treated pretty shoddily when they found themselves distributed overseas (particularly by AIP in America), falling into a chasm between two eras of horror film-making and not fully emerging until their resurrection as acknowledged classics in the DVD era. Today, Bava’s gothics play out like beautiful reminders of a more elegant era of horror, in which oneiric atmospherics and creeping, devilish unease took precedence over graphic violence and fast-paced thrills. But in the more censorious climate of the early ‘60s, these films’ occasional flashes of lingering sadism and sexuality were deemed beyond the pale by many critics and guardians of decency, a situation probably not helped by AIP’s typically lurid marketing campaigns and English retitling.

All this of course would change only a few years later, when the floodgates of cinematic perversity burst forth into the sleazoid madness of the early ‘70s, but for many of Bava’s best works the tide turned too late, leaving them chopped up, denigrated, critically reviled and all but forgotten in the English-speaking world. As Michael Weldon notes in the entry for ‘Whip And The Body’ in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia, Bava’s films were “treated like cancer” when they appeared in American inner-city theatres, whilst less than ten years later similar but inferior films were regularly being presented as major Hollywood releases.

(Not that the man himself could give a damn by that stage, happy as he was to roll with the new freedoms, upping the ante once more with blood-curdlingly gruesome shockers like ‘Twitch of the Death Nerve’ and ‘Hatchet For The Honeymoon’, still somehow managing to exude pure class even as he pushed the envelope for gratuitous boobs and gore, prefiguring the ‘80s slasher craze by a further decade.)

Anyway, whether by accident or design, ‘Whip And The Body’ seems to have suffered especially badly from the ill-judged hypocrisy of ‘60s distribution. The film’s suggestions of S&M would have seemed tame stuff even by 1972 standards, but in 1963 the very idea that the beautiful Daliah Lavi is maybe reacting with pleasure as her husband’s caddish brother sets about her with a horsewhip was enough to reduce the film to the most lowly obscurity, to the extent that VCI’s Region 0 DVD (yay for Region 0 DVDs, by the way) represents perhaps the first opportunity most Bava fans have had to see the film in its entirety with an acceptable print.

Of course, ‘Whip And The Body’s commercial prospects probably weren’t helped by the fact that it’s also one of Bava’s most austere and old fashioned horror films, featuring very little in the way of violent action or recognizable ‘horror’ thrills, and blessed with an early example of one of those gloriously bong-addled Italian scripts that kinda-sorta-mostly makes sense, but basically drifts around in a stupor for eighty minutes wondering how the hell it ended up being a movie script, as opposed to a dream a minor aristocrat had in 1875 after indulging in too much port and cheese.

The narrative, concerning the return of Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) to the family home which he left under a cloud of scandal several years previously, his rekindling of his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife Nevenka (Lavi) and his subsequent murder, is unapologetically slight – a Poe gothic by numbers, mixing in only a thin veneer of the supernatural and wrapping everything up neatly in the final reel with the same plot twist that would later resurface in seemingly about 80% of ‘70s Giallos. But all this matters not. Frankly ‘Whip And The Body’ could be the heart-warming tale of a rural baker searching for the perfect recipe for scones and it would still be a breathtaking work of haunting cinematic artistry. We’re talking Mario Bava here – that’s just what he does.

It is often said that Bava – whose pre-film background was in painting/sculpture - approached his films with a painter’s eye for texture and composition, and nowhere is this more evident than in ‘Whip and the Body’. Often, Bava took on a triple threat role in his films, working as director, production designer and cinematographer, and looking back over the credits for ‘Whip..’, I was surprised to see that this wasn’t actually the case here: Ottavio Scotti is the designer, and Ubaldo Terzano takes credit as DP. Regardless, the film still manages to attain an aesthetic purity and unity of vision that is rarely achieved in the world of low budget commercial cinema, utilising a highly specific visual palette which, together with the flimsy narrative, help to turn it into what is in effect a vast, moving painting.

If ‘Diabolik’ could be said to be Bava’s great pop-art masterpiece, and ‘Black Sunday’ – at a stretch – his tribute to expressionism, then ‘Whip..’ is more than anything his Pre-Raphaelite showstopper. Full of rich, old world detail and drenched in dense, autumnal colour, it is a film that, appropriate to the gothic tradition, seems to shrug off any suggestion of modernity, drifting instead through a slowly unraveling tableaux of carefully wrought, beautiful things, displayed for us because they are beautiful, and because we, the movie-going connoisseurs of such things, deserve the opportunity to drink them in at our leisure. Acting almost more as a nostalgic memory of unquestioned, aristocratic grace than as a horror movie, ‘Whip And The Body’ often seems like the kind of confection the Prince from Guiseppe Di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’ might have enjoyed, were he to unexpectedly sidle into a 42nd street fleapit one balmy mid-sixties afternoon.

The soft light of the sunset across the bay overlooked by the film’s castle (is it a real location or a miniature? – I’ve honestly got no idea, which tells you something about the quality of the film’s artistry), the loving pans across the details of daggers, candlesticks and chandeliers, the horses galloping across the sand, the gaunt shadows across the faces of the male protagonists, the whole thing flaring up into a Rossetti fever dream whenever Nevenka enters the frame…. what more can I tell you? It’s just bloody marvelous.

In terms of cinematography, Bava is of course best known for his almost psychedelic use of bright and unnatural colour, but here things are tad more subtle than usual, sticking primarily to a palette of blacks, browns and golds, with jarring bolts of lightning flashing the sets bright blue, and violent splashes of red and green only intruding into the frame occasionally, serving as signifiers of more extreme emotional states (green is to LOVE, red is to KILL, if I’m not mistaken, with the two colours groovily entwined on the roses which surround the dagger used to perpetrate the maidservant’s suicide and Kurt’s murder – a motif Bava would return to in ‘Hatchet For The Honeymoon’).

Bava may have later taken pleasure in smashing down the walls of gothic horror convention in the delirious ‘Kill Baby Kill!’ (my all-time favourite Bava) and the bizarro ‘Lisa & The Devil’, but in ‘Whip & The Body’ he seems perfectly happy to embrace the most creaky clichés of the genre, perhaps unconsciously fitting them into his overall aesthetic picture of (literally) fading light and crumbling aristocratic ideals. The film’s fluid and unsettling camera movement and slow, eerie build-ups may speak of Hitchcockian tension, but to anyone who’s watched and enjoyed even a handful of these kinda movies (and let it be said that I could watch ‘em till the cows come home, and frequently do), easy comfort and recognition is assured throughout.

Acting is mannered and theatrical at all times. There’s an aged father, a nervous young bride and a limping, craggy-faced servant. There’s a secret passage behind the fireplace in the master bedroom, leading to unknown subterranean chambers. Waves crash hypnotically against the shore, candles flicker, lightning strikes, and if anybody wants a drink, they’ll have it from a fucking chalice. And hark, is that a ghostly piano, playing itself? Naturally we don’t have to wait around long before someone ends an awkward conversation by saying “come, you must be tired after your long journey”.

It’s all good, in other words. Lavi gives an amazing performance as the film’s central female dynamo, her character acting very much like a lascivious sixties starlet, trying her hardest to assume the corset of a demure gothic heroine as funny, repressed feelings tear her up inside, but her male counterparts (including drippy good guy Tony Kendall and an elderly father who looks about the same age as his children only scruffier) are uniformly stiff as boards, talking around the dinner table as if they’re delivering a report to their sergeant major. Which again is fine by me – stern, emotionless acting suits the genre trappings perfectly, the contrast helping to heighten the implicit fear of ‘feminine’ expressivity and emotion that lurks behind many a gothic yarn.

Even ol’ Christopher Lee tones down his ham-munching considerably here, delivering one of the most low-key performances of his career. Often it seems like he wants nothing more than to fade into the background, in stark contrast to his usual grandstanding, despite portraying a character who could easily have been turned into a bellowing, power-mad villain. Whether Lee was cowed by the films overbearing production design, whether he was uncertain (or pissed off) about appearing in an Italian production, or whether Bava simply kept him in check, who knows, but whatever the case, this is about the only Christopher Lee movie you’ll ever see where you don’t even feel compelled to exclaim “hey, it’s Christopher Lee” when he makes his grand entrance.

And I couldn’t finish this review without mentioning the role played by Carlo Rustichelli's excellent and unusual score in enhancing ‘Whip..’s uniquely languid atmosphere. Drifting, sustain-heavy string textures perfectly match the lethargic pace of the on-screen action whilst the central piano motif that cycles through the film manages to pull off the same rare trick as Angelo Badlamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks – somehow soothing and unnerving at the same time, its constant repetition taking on an almost ritualistic quality as the drama it accompanies becomes gradually darker. By the time Nevenka slowly picks it out on the heavily echoed piano in the castle’s great hall as the camera menacing shifts around her and into the air (very Lynchian blurring of the boundaries between music within and without of the film world, wot?), the initially slightly syrupy theme has assumed a breathtaking power. Much like the Twin Peaks theme, I didn’t much care for it at first, but by the time the end credits rolled I was dying to track down a copy of the soundtrack.

And… that’s about all I have to say on the matter, really. Those yearning for violent, event-filled horror certainly won’t get much out of ‘Whip And The Body’ except perhaps a pleasant nap, and the same goes for anyone who likes their cinema to come with a strong central narrative and challenging, thought-provoking themes. But to any lover of dreamy, romantic horror movies and anyone able to appreciate the aesthetic conventions of gothic horror in and of themselves, the film is an absolute banquet, brought to you by one of cinema’s all-time greatest visual artists, cookin’ it up like a bastard. Just dim the lights, crack open a nice bottle of red (or three) and let Mario take the reins; no further explanation required. ‘Whip And The Body’ is good, and you should watch it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Morgue For Venus
by Jonathan Craig

(Flamingo, 1973 / originally published 1956)

Originally published in 1956 if the copyright page is to be believed and apparently deemed worthy of another outing in the '70s, "Morgue For Venus" begins with an incredibly sleazy, sexualised description of a murdered teenage girl and heads steadily downhill from there, mixing tantalising invocations of Greenwich Village's beatnik-era "weirdos" with interminable stretches of what the Columbus Dispatch so rightly calls "an admirable yarn of straight police work". A pretty early example of 'beatsploitation' I suppose, although both author and cops seem to regard the presumed hep-cats as little more than particularly hare-brained new variety of miscreant. Much "Yeah, we get to see all kindsa freaks in this business mister, now tell me who killed her or I'll punch yer face off" type action ensues.

There's a full colour ad for Kent menthol cigarettes in the middle to relieve the monotony.

Oddly, I've seen this one a whole bunch of times in bookshops, but have never encountered any other "Sixth Precinct Thrillers".

I liked this bit from the ads in the back:

..the New York Times correspondent typed out before absent-mindedly lunging at the Sports Editor with a letter-opener.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Always Leave 'Em Dying
by Richard S. Prather

(Gold Medal, year unknown)

Hello, you cats.

When Pop Sensation posted Richard S. Prather’s sensational “Scrambled Yeggs” the other week – second on my list of Most Wanted pulp paperbacks behind the same author’s ‘beatnik thriller’ “Dig That Crazy Grave” (if anyone has a scan of that one, or a lead on where I can get a copy, PLEASE get in touch) - I decided it was about time I introduced the world of Shell Scott to this blog and scanned this one for you. Definitely one of my favourite items in my current pulp collection.

I love how these Prather paperbacks always make absolutely ludicrous claims regarding the author’s popularity (“the best-selling novelist in America today”, “20,000,000 copies sold” etc), safe in the knowledge that no one would ever bother to call them on it.

Anyone still wondering why I hold the works of Mr. Prather in such high esteem, just check this out:


Yes folks, ‘Always Leave ‘em Dying’ is absolute dynamite - the closest we’ll ever get to finding out what might have happened if Mickey Spillane was dosed with acid. In a Hershell Gordon Lewis movie. One full of racketeering new age cultists who inexplicably talk in beatnik lingo, endless fist-fights, sappings, long plunges to oblivion, brain-washed dames and lengthy digressions in which sweaty, well-meaning businessmen get together to discuss the finer points of the California real estate market. Genius.

Oh, you BET I’ll enjoy them.