Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Help From The Baron
by Anthony Morton

(Hodder 1961, originally published 1955)

There are freakin’ hundreds of these ‘Baron’ novels knocking about (see below), but the sharp, cartoon-ish cover art on this one particularly caught my eye.

Probably not what Anthony Morton and his publishers were going for, but seeing these on the shelves always puts me in mind of the Baron that Ross Johnson and the late Alex Chilton were invoking here;

"The Baron was kiddin’ a minute ago, The Baron's gon' get serious with you now!"

Suffer A Witch To Die
by Elizabeth Davis

(Signet, 1969)

I absolutely love this cover illustration – such beautiful, weird symmetry, so resonant of all the imagery surrounding the post-‘Rosemary’s Baby’ witchcraft fad. The strangely gentle effect of the watercolours, those neat bars of colour and the faceless child at the bottom - could almost be something Ghostbox might have come up with in a slightly different world.

The book itself also seems a perfect snapshot of this peculiar moment in popular culture, mixing Ira Levin style suburban witch cult paranoia with a none-more-70s paranormal/new age-inspired approach that freely merges malignant witchery with ESP, meditation and probably reflexology for all I know.

It’s… pretty terrible to be honest, highly reminiscent of that awful Bert I. Gordon / Orson Welles witch movie, but it more than makes up for such failings in historical/aesthetic value.

It seems Signet were pushing “Gothic” pretty heavily back in ’69;

Monday, 30 August 2010

by Shepard Rifkin

(Coronet, 1969)

I’ll be out of the country / away from the internet for a week or so starting next Thursday, but before then I’m gonna do my best to post up a selection of the groovier paperbacks from my recent Hay On Wye haul for you, one or two a day, starting now.

All I have to say about this cover is: sweet.

Judging by the cover illustration, I’m guessing our hero’s self-control didn’t last long.

And yes, you really did just read "..a hungry pair of breasts and a cool contempt for underwear" on the back cover copy.

I tried reading a bit of “Ladyfingers”, but didn’t get far with it I'm afraid. Mr. Rifkin’s prose style is rather bulbous, with a tendency toward over-long sentences that rather undermines the hard-boiled tone he’s going for (I know, I know, people in glass houses..), and his protagonist seems like a bit of self-pitying bozo, spending most of the opening chapter telling us all about his underprivileged childhood, and how his easy-going, golf-playing superiors can never understand his pain. Ho-hum.

Apparently more impressed than I was, Hard Case Crime have recently republished Rifkin’s civil rights movement crime caper The Murder Vine with a cool nouveau-pulp cover by Ken Laager.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

La Vampire Nue / ‘The Nude Vampire’
(Jean Rollin, 1970)

Before we begin, I recommend clicking the image above for a full size look at Phillipe Druillet’s incredible poster artwork for “La Vampire Nue”. If pushed, I’d probably nominate Druillet’s posters for the first three Jean Rollin films as my favourite movie posters of all time, and I was thrilled to find a scan of this one large enough for us to appreciate the detail.

Throughout his life, the great French director and film theorist George Franju (best known to horror fans as director of stonecold classic “Yeux sans Visage”/”Eyes Without A Face” (1959)) seems to have dedicated a great deal of his time to explaining and demonstrating his conception of ‘mystery’ in cinema. Put simply, Franju’s ‘mystery technique’ centres on the narrative filmmaker’s ability to withhold information from his/her audience, introducing striking and irrational imagery and refusing to explain its significance, inspiring the viewer with a delightful mixture of fascination, fear and uncertainty.

When examined shot by shot, Franju’s films are full of subtle variations of this technique, but one of the clearest examples can be seen in one of the early scenes of “Judex” (1963), in which we see groups of masked jazz age aristocrats converging upon the bright lights of a grand hotel, where a costume party is about to begin. The camera focuses in on a tall, elegantly dressed man, and panning from his feet upwards we see that he has the head of a bird of prey, just like a figure from a Max Ernst book. For a few seconds longer than is strictly necessary he stands motionless, looking away from the party, then turns and heads inside.

Who is this bird-headed man? Where did he come from, what does he want? Naturally we get the answers eventually, at the director’s leisure. But, as any mystic or ghost-hunting weirdo knows, the rational explanations are far less memorable than the exquisite frisson of not knowing.

On one level, this very practical use of ‘mystery’ allowed Franju to instantly generate, with a single scene or shot, the kind of audience reaction that old fashioned mystery writers might have spent a whole novel trying to capture, whilst on another level it played directly into the director’s oft-stated dedication to surrealism, tying him into a whole noble pantheon of cinema that revels in withholding ‘explanation’ from its audience, from Bunuel through to David Lynch.

Although they ostensibly found themselves working at the opposite ends of the European film industry, I’ve always felt that George Franju and Jean Rollin have a lot in common. After all, both directors draw deeply from a love of French popular culture, comics and silent movie serials, and produced works rich in beautiful, poetic surrealism, both helping to bridge the gap between art-house and the grind-house with the consummate ease of the truly crazed. I’m not sure whether the two men ever met midway across that bridge, but if they did I’m sure they would have had a lot to talk about.

What I am sure of is that, whether by accident or design, Rollin’s extraordinary second feature “La Vampire Nue” finds him taking hold of Franju’s ‘mystery theory’ and stretching it out to absolute lunatic extremes, opening his film with over half an hour of glorious, beautiful bafflement. I mean, clearly no one who knows anything about Rollin goes into one of his films expecting a clearly defined, linear narrative, but even by his standards, the opening of “..Nue” is pretty singular.

We begin with a masked woman in a transparent knit dress being led into a laboratory by a group of men in lab coats and ceremonial red masks (except from the one who wears an ugly looking black animal mask). The men strip the woman, but leave her mask on, and take a blood sample from her arm. Foreboding, dissonant strings and a torturous dripping tap dominate the soundtrack. Brightly coloured liquids (red, blue, purple, yellow) are decanted into test tubes and beakers, and shaken up in a, um, shaking machine, or something. By this stage, doleful European modal jazz seems to have taken over on the soundtrack and the dripping has ceased.

Three minutes in. Can you picture people walking out of the cinema yet?

Cut to an outdoor location, late at night. A woman with bright red hair (Caroline Cartier), wearing a diaphanous orange gown, sneaks through the gates of a walled town-house as dogs bark loudly. Soon she finds herself pursued by a gang of black-clad men wearing grotesque animal masks (a stag, a pig, a bull, a cockerel). As she flees down a flight of stairs, she encounters a young man (Pierre, played by Olivier Martin), his trusting eyes and square-jawed chump appearance immediately marking him out as our ‘hero’ figure. They stare at each other silently, and the girl touches his face.

The animal men, the stag-man now brandishing a pistol, trap our couple on a railway bridge. With no further ado, the stag-man shoots the girl, who falls down dead. Pierre follows the animal-men as they carry her body back to the entrance of the stately home, and lock the gate behind them. Almost immediately, a group of well dressed socialites approach the gate, and are welcomed inside. Pierre tries to tag along with them, but the doorkeeper tells him to get lost.

In the next scene, we see Pierre sitting in decadent surroundings being ministered to by two identical, black-haired girls (the Castel twins, who went on to feature in most of Rollin’s subsequent vampire films) clad in chainmail skirts and strange arrangements of small, hanging mirrors that cover their breasts. An older man who is apparently Pierre’s father enters. They begin arguing, apparently about what Pierre saw last night. “Do you want money, women? You can have plenty – but stay out of my business”, the father tells his son.

Here the mood breaks slightly for a sequence in which Pierre’s father and his two ‘business associates’ appear to be auditioning some Jess Franco-style erotic nightclub acts in their basement. Well, why not? Backstage, a girl in clown make-up and a ring bearing a prominent red-on-black “A” symbol is on the phone, covertly reporting back to her spymasters.

Next we return to Pierre, who is again trying to infiltrate the well-dressed partygoers who seem to solemnly arrive at the gates to his father’s townhouse each evening. Once inside, Pierre finds himself apparently taking part in a silent, mystifying suicide ritual, wherein one of the attendees sees his or her photograph projected on a small screen, whereupon s/he walks to the front of the room and is handed a pistol with which s/he blows his/her brains out. At this point, the attendees don their blue ceremonial hoods (just like the one the woman was wearing in the opening lab scene), and the curtains at the front of the room rise, revealing a fully functional gothic parlour and staircase from which the girl in the orange gown emerges, apparently resurrected, accompanied by the now-robed animal men, and proceeds to consume the blood of the deceased, vampire style.

And so it goes on. Other things happen. Pierre is rescued from the animal-men by a sword-wielding Asian woman who promptly disappears. Shortly after the twenty minute mark, he bumps into the film’s distinctly unwell looking head-vampire-guy, played by Rollin regular Michel Delahaye. “You will find your father in his office my son”, says head-vampire guy, “you must go there at once, other mysteries await you”.

By this point, there will be two kinds of viewers: those who are aggravated beyond words by the film’s bloodyminded refusal to make any sense, and those who are instead overwhelmed with joy, enthralled by the staggering, inspired confusion they are witnessing. If you’re still reading this blog, I’ll take a guess and assume for your own sake that you fall within the latter category.

Key to the success of the ‘mystery technique’ Rollin is running wild with here is the implied promise that a fixed meaning lies beneath the perplexing imagery. Any filmmaker can throw together a hallucinatory stew of abstract, personal imagery, and the result, more often than not, will be boredom rather than fascination. To engage an audience used to following a story, a director must imbue his/her images with a surety of purpose, a thread of continuity, that lets us know there IS meaning in there somewhere, that clarity and understanding are close by, just around the next corner. It is only by keeping the audience thinking, by firing their imagination as they struggle to make sense of the events unfolding before them, that the mystery can be realised. One only need look at Lynch’s “Lost Highway” or “Mulholland Drive” for a masterful demonstration of this principle at work.

Of course, whether or not the long-promised explanation actually emerges is entirely down to the whims of the filmmaker. Lynch prefers to simply pull the rug from under us, hammering us into submission with terrifying audio-visual overload whenever dark secrets look set to be revealed, but Rollin, like Franju, is more of an old fashioned gentleman in regard to such matters, and usually seems to feel a responsibility to stitch the excesses of his imagination together into some semblance of logical cohesion for us.

It’s no secret that Rollin essentially works backwards when planning his films, beginning with a collection of shots, images, characters and locations that strike a chord with him, and gradually trying to scrape together a narrative that will allow him to realise his ideas, often after shooting has already begun. And in “La Vampire Nue”, we can see this process at work more transparently than ever. When Pierre’s father gets around to explaining the film’s bizarrely convoluted storyline about halfway through the film, the sheer vagueness and twisted logic of his schemes seems wonderfully, naively absurd – clearly little more than an elaborate ruse by Rollin to justify the fevered outbursts of dream-imagery that begin the film. But all the same, it’s sweet that he made the effort.

Why, the more logically minded viewer will want to scream, do Dad and his cronies say that they insist that everyone must wear masks in the presence of the vampire girl so that she will never see another human being and realise how different she is, when.. (pauses for breath).. when she herself looks exactly like a human being, and a very attractive specimen of one at that? What kind of sense does that make? That and about a hundred other questions.

BUT STOP! This is a Jean Rollin movie. We are asking questions. That is the wrong approach. Just let it go. When the end comes, you’ll be happy. I mean, everyone likes the beach, right?

Since Rollin went on to establish himself as a reliable purveyor of horror and sex films (if admittedly pretty eccentric ones) during the ‘70s, it’s easy for fans to forget that his early work veered far closer to the spirit of France’s ‘60s avant garde than even the man himself (who claims to have had little time for the nouvelle vague) would care to admit.

Filmed essentially as a kind of semi-improvised lark by Rollin and a gang of his art world / counter-culture pals, “..Nue”s predecessor “Le Viol du Vampire” (“Rape of the Vampire”) was famously greeted with violent outrage by cinemagoers when a shortage of new films in Paris due to the May ’68 protests led to it opening as a standalone feature. Playing to a wider audience than Rollin probably ever imagined, it made the young director a divisive and notorious figure.

And indeed, it’s easy to see how a contemporary crowd expecting a horror film would be shocked and enraged having something like “Le Viol..” thrust upon them. For one thing, it is surprising how much Rollin's first film keeps sex and horror content to a minimum (although a few touches of matter of fact nudity might have scandalised a 1968 audience even more), concentrating instead on a giddy mixture of disjointed experimentation, gallic cool, frantic, chaotic action and free jazz that in another world could have gone down a storm with the era’s agitated hipsters, coming across more like the work of a stoned Godard getting frisky in the graveyard than something you’d file alongside the ‘70s sleaze-mongers who are usually seen as Rollin’s contemporaries.

Sadly though, the hypocrisy of contemporary film culture put a brisk stop to that idea, with critics systematically ignoring the film’s obvious artistry and innovation – qualities that surely would have been foremost in reviewers’ minds if the picture had been marketed as an ‘art’ rather than horror film. Instead, “Le Viol..” was universally dismissed as incoherent, amateurish garbage, a circumstance that, combined with the film’s unexpected infamy, doomed Rollin to a marginal career that is dictated to this day by the whims of the few people who actually liked his movie: exploitation producers and weirdo sex/horror fans.

As such, “Nue” is very much a transitory work for Rollin. If not his first film funded by an established producer (“Viol” was made with backing from the eccentric Sam Selsky), it was nonetheless his first film as a professional director, his first with professional actors, his first in colour, and, most importantly, the first that he knew would be marketed as an erotic horror movie.

Nonetheless, much of the free-wheeling artistry of “Viol..” remains, insofar as it would remain in even the least palatable entires on Rollin’s subsequent CV; in the sheer, daring insanity of the imagery, in the head-scratching excuse for a ‘story’, and in Yvon Gerault’s experimental score, which mixes Ligetti-esque strings, AMM-like electro-acousitc burbling and menacing low-end feedback.

But “Nue..” is also much more consciously horror film and a sex film than “Viol”. For the first time in Rollin, we have voyeuristic stripping/nudity footage, gratuitous boob close-ups and peek-a-boo full frontal shots, together with a profusion of wonderfully bizarre erotic dance routines and ambiguous dom/sub characters that serve to take the film on a joyride deep into the heart of Jess Franco territory – all a deliberate nod to the sex hungry audiences whose appetites were starting to monopolise European b-movie production by the end of the ‘60s.

The role of sex in Rollin films has always been an uneasy one; scene-by-scene breakdowns of his stories can easily make them sound like works of grotesque, lunatic sleaze, but fans (myself included) have long tried to argue that his films are in fact remarkable for the extent to which they lack the offputtingly lurid atmosphere of most European sexploitation. It’s difficult to define how or why, but Rollin is one of the only directors in cinema who is somehow able to film this sort of gratuitous, fetishistic smut without seeming sleazy.

Perhaps it has something to do with the way Rollin’s lens seems to approach sexual content from a gentle, naïve point of view, or the way that his actors perform these scenes with the same slow, ritualistic, expressionist style that they often adopt for other scenes in the movies?

It would be wrong to try to claim Rollin had no interest in the more prurient aspects of soft porn aesthetics, but, even in the sleaziest of the films he made under his own name (from his ‘70s output, I’d vote this one and “Les Démoniaques”), there is a kind of happy, humanistic approach at work that makes even the most ridiculous and exploitative situations seem strangely palatable. I’m really at a loss to explain it in fact… the way that some directors in the horror/exploitation field seem unable to film a woman getting on a bus without making themselves seem to slavering pervs, whereas Rollin can film two teenagers being chained up and whipped in a castle basement and make the whole thing feel quite innocent and relaxed..? Just one of life’s mysteries I suppose.

The central erotic focus of “La Vampire Nue” is undoubtedly the Castel twins. As the Pierre's father’s weird personal maid servants/human pets, their presence is completely incidental to the, er, ‘story’, but Rollin’s camera just can’t get enough of them.

Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the twins, and the shifting characters they embody, went on to become a huge part of Rollin’s personal mythos, taking an increasingly central (and less overtly sexual) role in his films and stories, until we reach later, more self-reflexive works such as “Lost in New York” (1989) and “Two Orphan Vampires”(1997), that make it clear that the nameless twins have in fact always been the central characters of the strange, kaleidoscopic story Rollin has been telling all his life.

Whilst the twins might not be granted much in the way of character development or independent existence in “La Vampire Nue”, it is nonetheless the first time that Rollin’s more general fascination with the visual possibilities of identical twins comes to the fore, as the Castels become the catalyst for a playful obsession with capturing moments of complete symmetry in the mise en scene that seems to continue throughout the film, aided to a large degree by the pleasantly symmetrical architecture of the chateau in which the second half of the film takes place.

At one point, we see the twins emerge simultaneously from identical doors on the left and right of the screen, and slowly descend two identical staircases in perfect harmony – a shot utterly devoid of narrative purpose, but one that captures such a wonderfully perfect symmetry it almost looks as if one side of the frame has been mirrored.

For another shot earlier in the film meanwhile, we see the twins posed in a hilariously unnatural silent tableaux at the feet of their ‘master’, their heads bowed, with the head of a tiger-skin rug between them. Maybe it’s stretching things too far to see this as a conscious wink in the direction of William Blake’s ‘fearful symmetry’...? Either way, it’s a wonderful image, yet another of the endless moments of beautiful, ridiculous self-indulgence that make Rollin’s cinema such a constant joy.

Of course, Rollin would go on to explore all of this sort of thing at length in his subsequent career, but another thing that helps make “Nue..” unique in his filmography is it’s revelation of the vast influence of old French pulp serials on his work. Sadly, I can’t claim to be much of an expert on the Gallic ideal of le fantastique that stretches from Allain & Souvestre’s Fantomas stories through Louis Feuillade’s silent film serials to the extraordinary French comics artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I am at least familiar enough with their comings and goings to surmise that criminal secret societies, corporate skulduggery, weird aristocratic villains, theatrical decadence, nocturnal chases, undertones of kinky eroticism, and above all, guys wearing hoods, are all common aspects of the fantastique aesthetic, and all are dutifully incorporated into “La Vampire Nue”.

Even Rollin’s use here of spotlight lighting, heavy shadow and painstakingly symmetrical longshots seems to recall the style of the Feuillade serials, and, as befits this submersion in the imagery of serial fantasy, “Nue” is also the only one of his vampire films that really incoprorates a wider, more detailed kind of vampire mythology into it's structure.

Very much the polar opposite of the stark, existential approach to vampirism that Rollin would later develop in films like “Fascination” (1979) and “Living Dead Girl” (1982), “Nue” rewards us with an insight into a whole garbled universe of vampiric lore, with ambiguous figures of unknown provenance popping in and out of the narrative to pay homage to each other and make veiled declarations of great import, as we slowly learn of the secret order of vampires, and of their powers and methods and goals, and of the strange origins underlying their existence.

It’s a wonderful contradiction, the way that while “La Vampire Nue” presents Rollin at his most abstract and confounding, it’s also perhaps his most plot-heavy, conceptually involved effort, widening the range of his usual gothic horror tropes to take in elements of grand fantasy, conspiracy theory and science fiction, all of it coming to a head in the astonishingly strange, heart-felt metaphysical lecture that Delahaye’s character delivers at the film’s conclusion.

And, this being a Jean Rollin movie, I probably don’t need to tell you the said conclusion takes place AT THE BEACH, a circumstance which in this case actually requires some teleportation to pull off, but hey…. what of it? With blue-skinned, red-haired vampire children, questionably translated talk of mutations and alternate dimensions and a vampire lady emerging from a magic wardrobe amid the rock pools, it is one of the strangest and most unaccountably moving of the cathartic climaxes Rollin has staged against the cliffs and crashing waves of his favourite location in almost every film of his career. You’ve gotta love a guy who sticks to his story, and in Rollin’s case, what a story it is.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

SAS: Al-Qaida Attaque! # 1
by Gerard De Villiers

(Editions Gerard De Villiers, 2008)

Walking to Brockley one morning last month, I found a whole stack of these things, piled outside somebody’s front gate next to the bins.

I would have snagged the lot, only I was with some new friends from Denmark who were staying with me at the time, and thought I’d best spare them that awkward feeling you get when you’ve arrived in a foreign country for a week and your host suddenly starts scooping armfuls of sleazy abandoned paperbacks off the pavement. I grabbed the top one off the pile and made a mental note to head back later and investigate, but alas, by that evening they’d all vanished.

Most of the books had far more salacious cover designs than this one, all featuring variations on the theme of sexy Muslim ladies with machine guns.

Not being a French speaker, I have no further clue what the hell this is all about (beyond the obvious), but it sure is nice to find the spirit of lurid girls n’ guns pulp cover design alive and well outside the English speaking world.

Astonishingly, the inside cover reveals that when this volume was published in 2008, there were no less than 170 books in this “SAS” series, all bearing the Gerard De Villiers name. So if I felt a vague twinge of unease just now using the phrase “sexy Muslim ladies with machine guns” on my blog, imagine the balls it must take for these guys to churn out books on the subject at the speed of something like ten a month, helpfully leaving the address of their Paris office on the opening page.

Actually though, googling up some more of these covers, I note that relatively few of them seem to go in for obvious Muslim/terrorist imagery; perhaps the cover photo on the one I’ve posted above is unusually restrained for precisely that reason..?

Thankfully, such issues of cultural sensitivity don’t seem to have stopped ‘Editions Gerard De Villiers’ from scouring the world in search of other instances of violent conflict that can be explored via the medium of sexy ladies with machine guns;

Man, I *love* that “Furie a Belfast” cover. Is she supposed to be a swinging, catsuit-clad Catholic nun-assassin or something? What wonderful, ridiculous stuff.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


It has come to my attention that over the past forty eight hours, this blog’s number of followers has nearly tripled. Which is… cool. Apparently Blogger has selected me as a ‘blog of note’. That was nice of them – cheers to whoever was responsible.

I hope that some of you new readers like what I’m doing enough to stick around. It’s all fairly self-explanatory I suppose. There are films, which I watch, and talk about. There are books, which are mainly things I’ve found in charity shops that appeal to me because they have striking/exciting/weird cover designs, although recently I’ve started writing short pieces about authors whose work I’ve actually been reading too (in a genre fiction context at least). Sometimes I might post videos of short films or trailers of note; sometimes I may do other things, who knows. But that’s basically yr lot. Music I do on my other blog.

Anyway, the point of this post was initially going to be to draw people’s attention to the banner above, which I initially saw on Celluloid Highway the other day. I can't be bothered to figure out how to make the image link to the petition as stated, but here's a link.

I guess it’s fair to say it’s probably something like the 500, 000th most important issue one could conceivably sign a petition about, but still, when it comes to causes I can whole-heartedly get behind, “getting old horror movies shown on the BBC again” probably ranks up there with eliminating world hunger, restricting international arms trading and letting the children boogie.

Because, well… I won’t launch into my standard diatribe about how TV’s become so worthless I don’t even own one anymore, but man, up until a few years ago, the BBC used to show some GREAT stuff late on Saturday nights. In fact, it’s stuff I first saw in that magic slot after Newsnight Review that is perhaps chiefly responsible for turning me into an active fan of horror/cult films, rather than just a passive ‘yeah, they’re pretty cool’ consumer. It was on late night TV that I first saw “Psychomania”, Michael Reeves’ “The Sorcerers”, John Gilling’s “The Night Caller”, Anthony Balch’s “Horror Hospital”, “Incense For The Damned”, “Plague Of The Zombies”, the list goes on – all fantastic films, many of which are unavailable on domestic DVD to this day. And even when nothing especially mind-blowing turned up, the opportunity take in as much of “Lust For A Vampire” or “Scream And Scream Again” as I could before I drifted off to sleep is one that all lonely, penniless young people should be able to avail themselves of after the pubs close on a weekend.

Despite the subsequent digital TV ‘revolution’, there’s now nowhere that shows this stuff, or anything remotely comparable re: worthwhile old movies. Surely digging ‘em out of the vaults can’t be any more expensive than buying in more shitty made-for-TV thrillers from America? How else will our children learn about ritual decapitation, the occult properties of graveyard toads and whether or not Joan Collins stands a chance against a psychopathic Santa Claus?

So, er, yeah. You get the picture.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

(Sandy Harbutt, 1974)

“All law is based on violence, man, and any cat who breaks the law gets clobbered. Only difference is, our law only applies to us. Your law sends young blokes to somebody else’s country, to fight people they know nothing about. As long as you keep on shootin’ em, they hang medals on you. When you won’t shoot ‘em any more, they shut you in jail. And now somebody’s knocking off our mates, and you tell us we’re not supposed to do anything about it? That’s bullshit man.”
- The Undertaker

“Stone is a trip”, the ads promised, and for once they weren’t kidding.

I watched ‘Stone’ for the first time last month, at the end of a pretty exhausting day spent lugging a heavy backpack & guitar-case around the outskirts of Cambridge in relentless mid-summer sunshine and making my way home via rush hour public transport.

After dinner and a much-needed shower, I still had a couple of hours of the evening left for a movie, and figured something pretty fun and easy-going with just a bit of a kick to it to keep me interested was the way to go. What’s that you say? Cult Australian biker flick from the early ‘70s? Sounds like just the ticket! So I poured myself a tumbler of whisky for slow sipping, and settled down for some quality time with “Stone”.

The movie opens, in hilariously literal fashion, with a close-up of a stone – a boulder engraved with a plaque commemorating the founding of New South Wales. An eerie, high pitched vocal drone plays as the camera shakily pans out, revealing an over-saturated, hyper-real landscape as two kids on bicycles cycle past in background. Panning close to 180 degrees across a deserted, windswept bay, the camera hones in on a bright, red sign reading “NO SWIMMING – EXTREME POLLUTION”, and stays there, as ear-splitting electronic feedback floods the soundtrack. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Twenty minutes later, I paused the movie, went to the kitchen and got the rest of the bottle. It was gonna be that kind of night.

In those twenty minutes, I had witnessed:

• Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter from ‘Mad Max’) freaking out on LSD (trippy camera-work on overdrive) amid a maze of brutalist imperial architecture and stumbling upon a sniper preparing to make a hit.

• Said sniper bloodily gunning down an environmental campaigner as he addresses a rally – slo mo, screaming faces of fleeing hippies as the body falls.

• A classic wire-stretched-across-the-road biker decapitation, like the one in HG Lewis’s ‘She Devils On Wheels’.

• The most extrordinary piece of driving-over-cliff-edge stuntwork I’ve seen in my life.

• An awe-inspiring biker funeral procession, in which about one hundred riders in mirror-visor helmets ride in precision down a deserted highway, following a specially converted low-rider/sidecar thing bearing the coffin… with the dead man’s helmet sitting on top of it.

• A funeral service in a bucolic cemetery full of bright yellow poppies, that begins with a bikie priest in a top hat, cape and an eye patch yelling “SAAAATAAAN!!!” at the top of his lungs…

• …. before he explains that they’re burying the poor guy upright, “so that ya won’t have to take anything from the evil one lying down”!

• All of the above accompanied by the wildest, most disjointed collection of noise-saturated acid rock-meets-avant garde soundtrack music I’ve ever heard.

Clearly, one shot director Sandy Harbutt must have approached ‘Stone’ in either complete ignorance or conscious denial of David Friedman’s famous ‘sizzle not the steak’ maxim for exploitation filmmaking. Instead, he seems to have been determined to make a meteor-strike sized impression on the nascent Australian film industry by any means necessary, delivering a movie so loaded with hyperkinetic action, raging counter-cultural fury and audio-visual overload that it not only lives up to the hyperbole of it’s ‘70s drive-in style publicity campaign, but actually surpasses it, roaring off into unknown vistas of two-fisted lunacy, leaving the poster designers standing.

I probably won’t be mortally offending many movie fans if I suggest that the glut of American biker movies that emerged in the genre’s golden age in the late ‘60s were, by and large, pretty crappy. That’s not to say I don’t still find them endlessly entertaining and wouldn't happily watch pretty much any of them at a moment’s notice of course, but y’know what I mean. Even the best ones were pretty bottom-of-the-barrel fare in the wider scheme of things, and god help anyone who sits down to watch ‘Hells Angels On Wheels’ or something with high expectations.

We can probably safely assume that whoever it was who once declared Al Adamson’s “Satan’s Sadists” to be “the Citizen Kane of biker movies” (see: every DVD release of that movie ever) must have been either an abject simpleton or stoned out of their freakin’ mind, but nonetheless, the fact that an Al Adamson movie could ever conceivably be hailed as the Citizen Kane of ANYTHING probably tells you something about the overall level of quality within the biker sub-genre.

If there is to be a “Citizen Kane of biker movies” though, then fuck it – I vote ‘Stone’. It may have been made a few years too late on the other side of the world, but if the aforementioned critic is still out there somewhere searching for a film that applies the audacity, innovation and artistic vision of a young Orson Welles to the tale of a bunch of unwashed guys in leather riding around and getting wasted… well this is about as close as you could hope to get. Throw in the fact that ‘Stone’ is also just plain mad as a bag of snakes, and we have a movie that almost challenges Don Sharp’s immortal ‘Psychomania’ for the coveted position of the Number # 1 All Time Weirdo Biker Movie.

Which means I should try to tell you more about it I suppose, but where to begin…?

Boiled down to humble plot synopsis level, ‘Stone’ doesn’t really differ that much from yr average biker flick, I suppose. Our protagonists here are The Grave Diggers. Led by Harbutt himself as formidable leader The Undertaker, the gang also includes Keays-Byrne as loose cannon Toad, Vincent Gil as ‘spiritual advisor’ Dr. Death (he was the one conducting the funeral), and a whole troop of other salty dogs from weirdo central casting (ozzie division) portraying such lovable rogues as ‘Stinkfinger’, ‘Zonk’, ‘Pinball’ and ‘Captain Midnight’. And in essence, The Grave Diggers basically spend most of the movie doing what convention dictates biker gangs are supposed to do - riding around aimlessly, hassling squares, giving the cops the runaround, starting brawls, getting high, carousing with their ‘mamas’ and waxing lyrical about the outlaw lifestyle and the freedom of the road.

It appears that, for reasons that still kinda elude me after two viewings of the movie, some high-powered bad guys are trying to kill off The Grave Diggers. I’m not sure whether they’re sorta gangster property developers who want to claim the gang’s hideout, or whether it’s got something to do with the members of the gang who witnessed the assassination of the environmental campaigner in the opening sequence, or a little bit of both? Anyway, as a result of all this, the local cops send Stone (Ken Shorter), their resident suave, maverick man of action guy, to infiltrate the gang and find out what’s going on. Surprisingly, the Diggers decide to let Stone ride with them after he saves some of their lives during an explosive-tipped cross-bow attack (?!), and he soon finds himself learning the ways of the outlaw bikie.

We know Stone must be a suave, maverick man of action guy, partly because he’s a cop with long hair in 1974, and partly because he lives in a beach house with a hot international supermodel who expresses her displeasure at his “always pissing off on these boy scout adventures”. But sadly, Shorter lets the film down pretty badly, sleepwalking through his scenes and appearing utterly devoid of the charisma his character demands. (It’s just as well the rest of the cast cover for him by going so overboard it scarcely matters.) And as it turns out, I’m not sure Stone really ever DOES find out what’s going on, as from this point on the film more or less degenerates into a long series of disjointed escapades and violent showdowns with coherent plotting but a distant memory… but everybody has a wild old time, and that’s what matters, right? It’s hard to get too hung up on plot deficiencies when watching a movie in which the entire cast get stoned and go skinny-dipping together at dawn, with the director, co-writer and composer leading the pack.

Probably not the most enthralling plot synopsis you’ve ever read I’m guessing, but beyond that, what can I say…. every detail of “Stone” is just so different, so much more lively, crazy, ENGAGED (mm, good adjective) than any other biker movie I’ve seen. Beyond Sandy Harbutt’s obvious dedication to the cause of making a fucking good movie, perhaps the key to ‘Stone’s singularity lies its emergence from a culture and set of circumstances far removed from the other entries in the genre.

I mean, is it just me, or has Australia always fostered a certain element of eccentricity and extremity in it’s manifestations of youth sub-culture? Maybe it’s something to do with the harshness of the landscape, the relative isolation, I dunno, but just watch this footage of Melbourne ‘Sharpies’ hanging out the same year ‘Stone’ was being filmed over in Sydney, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see movements like that as a precursor to the random punkoid lunatic gangs seen in ‘Mad Max’ and the subsequent rash of dystopian desert flicks, and even Richard Lowenstein’s celebrated Melbourne punk scene drama “Dogs in Space” gives a distinctly post-apocalyptic air to the lifestyles of its teen drop-out characters.

‘Stone’ fits proudly into this outsider lineage, presenting its own unique take on the biker – sorry, BIKIE – mythos. Unlike the uniform Harleys and unprotected heads of their American counterparts, the bikies in ‘Stone’ ride sleeker, more modern Kawasakis (hey, cheaper to import I guess) painted in bright primary colours, and wear black, mirror-visored helmets, giving them a menacing, anonymous look that would go on to be echoed by whole legions of warriors and bad-asses in subsequent action and sci-fi movies.

Within the limited visual palette of the biker movie, these minor aesthetic differences play a huge role in creating ‘Stone’s visual impact, instantly setting the movie apart from its genre contemporaries, just as much as the art-damaged directorial style and lunatic soundtrack.

Speaking of which, I can’t go any further without a few words on the soundtrack, which is… how best to put this? ‘Absolutely fucking bananas’ just about covers it, I think. Queasy, assaultive assemblages of multi-layered noise and howling echo chamber mentalism that sound more like a ‘90s Japanese noise record than a ‘70s movie soundtrack; blazing, jazz-infected heavy psyche blowouts; sweeter, more biker-flick appropriate bar-room rock grooving; swirling, psychedelicised folk guitar picking; utterly indescrible mixtures of shuddering bass feedback, lurching electronic farting and droning didgeridoo; a deranged hard rock reworking of Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle"; you name it, ‘Stone’s got it.

Music credits are limited (rather awesomely) to “rock n’ roll by Billy Green”, but assuming Mr. Green was indeed responsible for all the noises herein, he certainly expanded on his stated remit pretty considerably, even given the widest possible definition of ‘rock n’ roll’. In addition to all of the above, there are even moments (such as the funeral procession) where he changes tack entirely, laying down some beautifully austere, modernist string pieces and faux-classical vamps, each time letting them gradually slide back into the realm of whacked out rock, as bass and drums slowly cleave into the mix – a neat trick that’s utilised several times over.

To think that all this madness is the work of one man frankly boggles the mind, but hey: rock n’ roll is by Billy Green. Who are we to argue? (Green also turns up in the movie, playing ‘69’, the silent biker who is often seen strumming a guitar, and sleeps next to his amp.) To call this soundtrack - recently reissued on the endlessly amazing Finders Keepers label - ‘innovative’ or ‘eclectic’ would be something of an understatement, and the music’s unhinged bravado matches Harbutt’s style of film-making perfectly.

Whereas most American biker flicks pay lip service to an ‘outlaw’ philosophy whilst simultaneously portraying their characters as simpleminded stoners and layabouts, Undertaker’s gang are a little more, well, committed to their chosen lifestyle. Sure, the Grave Diggers do their fair share of getting stoned and lazing around, but rather than just roaming around aimlessly and avoiding the fuzz, these guys are more actively concerned with maintaining a situation that allows them to exist on their own terms.

The gang live together in a fortress – some kind of ex-military clifftop bunker? – and keep armed guards on duty. In fact, they seem to have a pretty formidable arsenal, and a willingness to use it when threatened. They live communally under the joint guidance of Undertaker’s strict anti-authoritarian philosophy and Dr. Death’s semi-serious Satanic rituals, and, as they repeatedly state, they’re not going to take any shit from the pigs, gangers or anyone else. A more can-do bunch of post-‘60s radicals you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in movies, let alone in real life; Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair would be proud.

Actually though, there’s something slightly uncomfortable about the film’s relentless idealisation of the bikie lifestyle. This idealisation continues even as they give people a hard time, casually man-handle their ladies, beat the shit out of complete strangers etc, and at several points even sees the gang’s victims/enemies grudgingly admit that they’re ‘cool guys’, denying the film even a routine b-movie level of conflict or ideological question-raising.

Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Sandy Harbutt himself was a dedicated bikie, and that ‘Stone’ can be seen at least in part as a wildly exaggerated celebration of the lifestyle he was immersed in at the time. I mean, I’m assuming that Harbutt and his mates probably didn’t actually go around trashing bars, worshipping Satan, staging elaborate funeral processions and orchestrating climatic machine gun battles with criminal gangs, but the real key to what makes “Stone” such exhilarating viewing I think is Harbutt’s unique, almost contradictory, mixture of bizarre pop art excess and ground level realism.

The former aspect we’ve already covered in detail, but how often do we find a film in which such garish and outlandish situations are presented in such a no bullshit, shot-from-the-hip fashion?

Obviously most of the film’s principals (Shorter, Keays-Byrne, Gil) are professional actors, but when we get to the second tier bikies and assorted extras, it’s pretty hard to tell who’s a professional and who’s.. y’know, just a dude essentially playing him/herself. In the excellent Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood, interviewees recall that for the ‘Wild One’-esque sequence in which the Grave Diggers scuffle with a rival bikie gang, Harbutt did actually get members of two rival gangs together, waited until they got juiced up, and had his crew filming as things naturally kicked off.

All of the stunt and bike-racing footage meanwhile has a brilliant, unfakeable seat-of-yr-pants quality to it that speaks of cameras wedged on dashboards, wielded by passengers, swung across the road etc, as guys genuinely speed around like loons.

You know that incredible bike stunt I mentioned earlier, in which we see a guy driving a bike over the edge of a hundred foot high cliff straight into the ocean at top speed? Well there’s no dummy or trick editing there. What we’re seeing is legendary Australian stuntman Peter Armstrong, driving a bike over the edge of a hundred foot high cliff straight into the ocean at top speed.

Interviewed in ‘Not Quite Hollywood’, he says he passed out on impact with the water and nearly broke his back, but he reckons the shot was worth it. And not that I’m any cheerleader for reckless endangerment of life, but I’m inclined to agree – the result is more jaw-dropping than any amount of CGI-heavy action movie goonery.

I probably don’t even need to point out what a vast impact this combination of wild n’ woolly automotive carnage and bright, flawless cinematography had on Australian cinema in the decade following ‘Stone’s release, and on George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ in particular. (Perhaps there was even more crossover between the two films than merely sharing a visual style and a few actors – I couldn’t help but notice that ‘Stone’ features a character called “Bad Max” who’s referred to several times but never appears on screen..?)

Action scenes aside though, EVERYTHING in Harbutt’s film is shot with a try-and-fucking-stop-me intensity that speaks of a genuinely driven director, from crowd scenes and brawls that play out like extracts from one of Peter Watkin’s quasi-documentaries to mind-raping psychedelic freakouts, to vistas of the kind of serene, terrifying beauty that directors like Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir have also been able to capture in the Australian landscape.

However vague and unsatisfying ‘Stone’ may be on an intellectual or narrative level, you won’t notice whilst watching it. As a piece of pure cinema, it’s an absolute knock-out - self-defined, punk rock film-making at its finest.