Friday, 25 February 2011

Cassandra Cat / Az Prijde Kocour
(Vojtech Jasný, 1963)

A pioneering Czech family/fantasy film that I’m sure is fondly remembered by many people of a certain age in that part of the world, 1963’s “Cassandra Cat”, aka “When the Cat Comes”, confronts the modern viewer with a basic question:

How much whimsical small town life are you prepared to sit through, in order to see a cat wearing new wave sunglasses?

Assuming your answer is “a fair amount, I suppose”, read on!

The film opens with a jovial old geezer who lives in the clock tower in the middle of a small market town. Using a makeshift spy-glass, he observes his neighbours, passing oblique comment on their endearingly eccentric ways. You know the drill: ho ho ho, it’s ten o’clock, and here comes so and so as usual, arsing about in a broadly comedic manner as befits his or her single personality trait, etc etc.

In fairness to Vojtech Jasný and his collaborators, I suppose this stuff wasn’t quite so much of a face-punchingly played out cliché back in 1963, but still, the need certain filmmakers seem to feel to present their fellow countrymen as a bunch of lovable, simple-minded goofballs never really sits well with me.

In particular, we are introduced here to marginally bohemian school teacher Robert, who wears a baggy beatnik sweater and tries to encourage ‘imagination’ and ‘fantasy’ in his young charges (whatta nice guy!). Robert’s opposite number is the smarmy headmaster, who hates fun and enjoys science and taxidermy. We see him shoot a stork out of the sky as a crowd of gawping townsfolk look on (whatta prick!).

The headmaster’s ever-present henchman is the school janitor, who I mention simply to point out the fact that he’s played by the same guy who played the school janitor/friendly vampire guy in Václav Vorlíček’s “Saxana”, nearly ten years later. Looking at actor Vladimír Mensík’s CV on IMDB, he seems to have appeared in just about every Czech film ever made, and has at least a few more janitors, handymen and caretakers to his credit. Talk about typecasting!

When the headmaster has completed his stuffed stork, there is a scene in which the janitor picks up the bird and runs round and round the room at high speed with the camera following him, seemingly in an attempt to make the audience dizzy. So that was kinda cool.

A lot of rather vague faffing around follows, during which I began to seriously question the processes by which I ended up owning a copy of this movie and watching it. Things do eventually look up though, beginning with a scene in which Teacher Robert invites the old clocktower geezer into his classroom to model for the children (I’m all for crazy, creative teaching methods but I’m not sure I can really see the logic of the ‘drawing an old man’ lesson-plan). Asked by the children to regale them with a story from his sea-faring days, the geezer launches into a fine example of the kind of dazzlingly aimless, surrealistic old man story that really does brighten my day.

He tells of how he was once shipwrecked on a foreign shore, where for the lack of anything better to do he wandered into a performance by a travelling theatre show, and fell hopelessly in love with a dancer named Diana, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. So infatuated was he that he proceeded to tag along with the show, helping them out and trying to ingratiate himself with the fair lady. Diana though preferred to lavish her attentions on her pet cat, who wore his own pair of special cat eye-glasses. The travelling show’s primary rule was that the cat’s eye-glasses should never, ever be removed. But, piqued by jealousy and curiosity, our hapless sailor naturally did just that one day, and suddenly, everybody caught in the cat’s gaze changed colour in a way that revealed their true nature – so ‘unfaithful people’ turned yellow, ‘liars’ turned purple, people in love turned red and so on - causing considerable hullabaloo that saw the cat killed by vengeful citizens and sailor-man expelled from the travelling show, after which he never saw Diana again!

Inspired by this curious tale, the under-stimulated Eastern Bloc youth begin drawing pictures of beautiful ladies and visually-impaired cats, and clap along as the old man dances a merry jig and sings a song for them, much to the chagrin of the crusty old headmaster, who is spying through the keyhole.

Just then, right on cue, a brightly coloured wagon pulls into town, carrying a trad jazz band clad in head-to-foot black bodysuits, a top-hatted magician (played by the same actor as the old man, for reasons that are never entirely made clear – I suppose the implication is that the travelling show has been ‘summoned’ into reality by the children’s imaginations?), and – YES! – this is the reason I’m watching this damn movie! The beautiful Diana and her prophetically attired pussycat!

Indeed, that is literally the case. Whilst browsing the selections at first class rare-movies emporium All Clues No Solutions recently, I happened across some pictures of this trend-setting moggie, saw that they emanated from another one of those reliably stupendous Czech fantasy movies, and thought, well, why the hell not, y’know? This one’s bound to be worth a look.

And sure enough, the arrival of the cat and his crew heralds “Cassandra Cat”s undeniable highlight – the extraordinary set-piece sequence in which the townsfolk fill the town hall to watch the magical travelling show.

The show begins as Mr. Top Hat presents a black-lit puppet show in which animated objects and empty suits of clothes enact strange and beguiling scenarios. The crowd are initially delighted, but then rather perturbed when it becomes clear that the objects on stage represent some of the town’s more prominent citizens, and that the story being enacted sheds light on their shameful secrets and general foolishness. After a few moments of stunned silence, the crowd slowly begins to applaud.

For the second act, the beautiful Diana descends from the rafters on a swing, holding her cat. With a dramatic flourish, she removes the cat’s glasses, and the people of the town find themselves bathed in a bright glow that reveals their true nature. For the next five or ten minutes, everything goes fucking nuts, as people leap from their seats and begin dancing and fighting and running around in a gloriously choreographed display of pseudo-psychedelic abandon. Kenneth Anger-like super-impositions are used to create fuzzy blurs of movement as patterns of brightly coloured human ebb and flow through the darkness of the grand municipal hall, interspersed with close-ups of the all-seeing eyes of the feline oracle, as the cutting and the music speeds up to a frantic, disorientating pace.

It’s pretty darn great.

As a film produced in the heady political climate of ‘60s Czechoslovakia, one might reasonably assume that there is some sort of deeper allegorical meaning to the colour-coded revelation of inner feeling going on here, but if there is, I’m damned if I can figure it out. Given the vague nature the film’s narrative logic, I suspect it’s equally likely that the filmmakers just came up with the idea for the sequence, thought it would look cool, and went with it.

At this point, I should probably draw the readers’ attention to the long-running phenomenon of more imaginative/subversive Czech filmmakers often choosing to work within the realm of children’s films and fantasies during the Communist era, on the basis that such films would be less liable to run afoul of official censorship – a tactic that can maybe be seem as one of the main factors playing into the creation of the playful, surrealistic aesthetic that went on to define much of the country’s best cinema during the later ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It is into this lineage that “Cassandra Cat” can easily be seen to fit perfectly. Though it carries no concrete ‘political’ message as such, the film has a more broadly subversive agenda that is actually quite extreme in its uncompromising anti-adult, pro-fantasy stance. For all the whimsicality on display, it is somewhat shocking to realise that, via the gaze of the cat, Jasný is essentially passing divine judgement on all of his characters, damning them as liars, adulterers, hypocrites and thieves, limiting the audience’s sympathy solely to the select few who are seen to be redeemed by their child-like ‘purity’ or their belief in love. Heady stuff for any movie really, even if it is only an explicit expression of the same ideology that can be found bubbling below the surface of thousands of kid’s stories/movies.

The anarchic spirit, visual splendour and general strangeness of “Cassandra Cat” certainly help secure it a place as a defining early example of the Czech New Wave that would emerge later in the ‘60s - a filmic movement rendered a lot more exciting than it sounds thanks to the participation of such prime celluloid dynamite hurlers as Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jires and Václav Vorlíček (oh, go google them for chrissakes). In particular, it is notable that “Cassandra Cat”s director of photography Jaroslav Kucera went on to work on many of that movement’s defining films, perhaps accounting for the familiarity of the bright, hazy, intoxicating atmospherics that characterise many of the best sequences in this film.

But to return to the distinctly out-of-time appearance of our Devo pussycat (the English sub-titles simply call him “Tabby”, although perhaps he had a more exciting name in Czech?), my guess is that that these glasses were simply the only shape of frame that the art department could manage to balance properly on the cat’s head. Furthermore, I would theorise that the cat was still less than co-operative, as direct shots of him wearing his glasses are frustratingly rare, despite being the film’s most distinctive image, and the one used on just about all posters and publicity materials.

Anyway, in case you were wondering, Diana falls madly in love with Robert the teacher, and is distracted to the extent that she leaves town without her cat, who is left wandering around town. Naturally the adults, led by the headmaster, want to do away with the embarrassing truth-revealing varmint, and try to lock him in a bird cage with a stocking on his head. The town’s children though are very much taken with the multi-coloured chaos wrought by the cat, and begin to treat him with cult-like veneration, plastering the town with delightful cat-based artwork, and at one stage liberating the moggie and marching through the streets holding him up before them, pointing the animal in the direction of grown-ups, who flee from his transformative gaze.

How will this generational conflict resolve itself? Well…. pretty inconclusively to be honest. One problem with “Cassandra Cat” as a film is that it’s various themes and story ideas are sketched out so haphazardly that they never really manage to coalesce into anything much. As mentioned, Robert and Diana ‘fall in love’, but whilst they have a lovely time going for a boat-ride and playing checkers with wine glasses, giving much exposure to Kucera’s exquisite cinematography in the process, we are never given any inkling of what they actually see in each other. In fact Diana is never really assigned any kind of personality at all, beyond being beautiful and owning a magic cat.

On second thought though, it’s worth remembering that this IS meant to be a magical fantasy romance or whatever, and so maybe that’s exactly what her character represents – the personification of romance, as defined by our male protagonist’s imagination, with a red dress and a big, easy smile. Shallow and fleeting as you like, their scenes together have a certain apprehensive, ‘fairy gold’ quality to them, and it is by employing this kind of fantasy vs. reality logic that one can maybe get the most of what is on some levels a pretty infuriating film.

Still though: how is life in the town affected by the arrival of the cat and its aftermath? Does anything change permanently, or do things remain the same after his departure? Does the film even have a happy ending, or a sad ending? Again, I’m not really sure. Everything is so under-developed that it is often difficult to really become engaged by the film’s story beyond the level of “well.. some stuff happened”.

True, many of our favourite strange films make up for such narrative deficiencies by simply throwing so much demented chaos at us that logic ceases to matter, but sadly “Cassandra Cat” is not one of those films. In fact it is very sparing in its use of fantastic imagery, emerging instead as a faintly perplexing experience in which the viewer’s attention is directed toward a somewhat meandering story that, just like the tale told by the old man, doesn’t seem terribly concerned with making much of a point about anything. And who knows, maybe the message of the film is simply that: that telling a wacky story that fires peoples imaginations and pisses off the grown ups is its own reward, and the hell with anyone who demands some kind of contrived ‘significance’.

Half-baked scripting and anti-authoritarian magical feline antics are not usually the sort of things that endear a film to the critical establishment, but nonetheless, “Cassandra Cat” apparently made sufficient headway to see it winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in the same year that Fellini’s “8 1/2” and Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” were released. And if it is less well known to fans of European cinema these days than such an achievement may suggest, “Cassandra Cat” is still rich in weird and singular imagery, and an important stepping stone on the path that led a few years later to glorious, otherwordly mayhem of “Daisies”, “Valerie..” and “Saxana”. If you can stomach all the whimsical peasant stuff, it certainly makes for an interesting evening’s viewing, and if you can’t, well… I guess it really does just come back to how badly you want to see the cat wearing new wave sunglasses.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Teens on the Rampage!
A JD Paperback Special

I recently acquired a stash (well, if three can be said to constitute a ‘stash’) of classic Juvenile Delinquent paperbacks, so, uh, here goes…

The first one I had a bash at is “Savage Delinquents” by Alan Bennett (not that Alan Bennett, I’m assuming), copyrighted 1959, although this awesome looking McFadden Books edition dates from 1968.

I love the moody photo-cover and the font used on the title, and that “GANG GIRL” panel on the back is a stone-cold classic, but despite the enthusiastic seller’s blurb scribbled on the inside cover I’m afraid I found “Savage Delinquents” pretty thin gravy – a by-the-numbers tale of a good girl who goes off the rails cos her parents don’t understand her. A tough guy called ‘Bull’ takes her to ‘the club’, an ahead-of-its-time DIY community space (that’s probably not the idea Mr Bennett intended to convey) in which bad teens give in to their untamed desires, dancing to modern jazz records and indulging in some PG-rated flirting… until midnight that is, when a guy turns up with a box of ‘tea sticks’ to distribute (it’s free until they jack up the price!). Then it’s flashing colours and feelings of ‘ecstasy’ all the way.

This being some strictly “Reefer Madness” style jive, naturally it’s about a week before Lissa is stalking the streets, a wreck of her former self, prepared to sell out her best friend for one sniff of the evil weed.

Stodgy, uninspired prose wrapped around a plot consisting entirely of reheated cliché, I stuck it out for a few more chapters than turned my attention elsewhere. I’m no advocate of teen drug abuse (well, not very often anyway), but the complete failure shown by writers like Bennett to even try to investigate or understand the social, economic or practical realities of drug usage always strikes me as kinda depressing.

Much more enjoyable overall was “The Violent Ones”, edited by Brant House, here presented as a 1958 British edition from Digit Books (the classic cover to the American edition from Ace can be seen here).

“The Violent Ones” is a short story anthology, not that you’d know it from the cover blurb or the lack of any contents page, and actually contains some really killer nuggets of hard-boiled prose from writers like Evan Hunter, Hal Ellson and Murray Wolf, leavened out with a few absolute stinkers from Robert Turner and a rather out of place Robert Silverberg.

The subject matter of the stories is generic and repetitive in the extreme, establishing a formula for the JD story almost as archetypal as that of the western, with the protagonists’ life divided between weak/abusive/misunderstanding parents stuck in the cramped inner city apartment, the ‘good’, trusting girlfriend at the soda foundation, the ‘bad’ kids on the corner, the rival gang from the next block, and so forth.

What they lack in originality though, the best of these stories more than make up for in guts, with Hunter’s “See Him Die” and Wolf’s “Knives in the Street” in particular standing out as tight, violent urban tragedies, vaguely reminiscent of Chester Himes, or of one of my favourites pieces of ‘modern pulp’ writing, Jack Womack’s post-apocalyptic JD update “Random Acts of Senseless Violence”. Highly recommended.

The aforementioned Hal Ellson, author of The Knife, could make a pretty good claim to being the king of JD literature, having seemingly specialised in the genre throughout his career. But by far his best known work is 1952’s “Tomboy”, which had been continuously in print in the UK for twenty years when this 19th printing from Corgi hit the shelves with a new cover design in ’72;

From a distance, this cover could be mistaken for a photo, but it’s actually a painting (uncredited, natch). The early ‘70s date is also given away I think by the exaggerated retro ‘50s font used for the title – a motif that seems to turn up on tons of music/youth culture books through the early/mid ‘70s, perhaps prefiguring the mainstream explosion of baby-boomer teen nostalgia that emerged toward the end of that decade with American Graffiti, Happy Days, Grease et al?

Like previous editions I’m assuming, this “Tomboy” comes complete with an introduction by Dr. Fredric Wertham, the insufferable jackass best known for his 1954 book “The Seduction of the Innocent” and the subsequent moralist witch-hunt that almost destroyed the American comic book industry. Wertham thinks that Ellson’s books bring “truth” to the literature of juvenile delinquency, which we can pretty much take as a guarantee that they do anything but, and indeed, “Tomboy” takes place in a phantasmagorical pulp netherworld that bears very little resemblance to life in 1952, 1972 or any time in between.

Like “The Knife” or his stories in “The Violent Ones”, "Tomboy" is a great bit of vivid, sordid, slightly unhinged pulp, with a style that easily leapfrogs the boilerplate storyline. Any deep social relevance is entirely coincidental as Ellson gives us a rousing tale of a chain-smoking, chain-wielding, sailor’s cap clad “dirty blonde” fifteen year old notably NOT depicted on the above cover, although this US Bantam edition gets a little closer to the action;

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Bloody Pit of Horror
(Massimo Pupillo, 1965)

Yes folks, it’s ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’! You’ve hit ‘play’, and there’s no turning back now! A jewel in the crown of pan-European exploito-horror mulch, this lively ‘shocker’ was allegedly lensed in 1965, but features a cartoonish matinee spirit and winningly naive approach to sleazy thrills that just screams NINETEEN SIXTY ONE to me. Nonetheless, ’65 it is, a year in which director Pupillo seems to have cut a bloody swathe through the world of cheap Italian horror movies, directing Barbara Steele in ‘5 Tombe Per Medium’ (aka ‘Terror Creatures From The Grave’), then knocking out this one and a third gothic horror called ‘La Vendetta di Lady Morgan’ in quick succession, despite having done little of interest either before or since.

To spare.. oh, I dunno, subterranean exploration enthusiasts, maybe?.. from disappointment, it should be noted that ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ features no pits, bloody or otherwise. It does have a castle, and within that castle is a dungeon, which you’d think would have done nicely for an exciting title-noun that was at least vaguely accurate. But no, they had to go with ‘pit’. Whether or not the film inspires ‘horror’, and the extent to which it may be deemed ‘bloody’ are matters for further debate, which we shall perhaps return to.

Original Italian title is the slightly more dashing ‘Il Bioa Scarletto’, and the movie will also answer to ‘A Tale of Torture’, ‘Virgins for the Hangman’ or ‘The Crimson Executioner’, depending on where and when you happen to reside. ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ seems to be the one that stuck though, and why not - that title’s gleeful, boneheaded absurdity suits the film in question perfectly.

Supposedly inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade (presumably in much the same way that ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ takes inspiration from the work of H.G. Wells), goofball levels are off the scale right from the outset here, as we see an unhinged looking gentleman in a bright red KKK hood with attached cape being man-handled into a shockingly cheap looking iron maiden by some guys in sorta Roman Solider-via-Conquistador get up. An echoing PA system voiceover drones on about how this chap’s nefarious deeds will live in infamy.

“Fools, all of you! I am the Crimson Executioner!”, says The Crimson Executioner, shortly before the oversized butter knives glued onto a plywood door descend to end his life. “Ah-hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!”, he adds. “This day shall be written in blood! No man can judge me! I am the supreme law! I shall have my REVENGE!”

But more on The Crimson Executioner later. For now, we cut to the present day, where we join a group of employees from the art department of an Italian publishing house. Split evenly between dashing young photog/design guys and vapid glamour models, they are busy touring the countryside in a fleet of sports cars, in search of the perfect gothic castle in which to shoot some sexy covers for their new range of horror novels.

Whilst that concept sinks in, let us pause a moment while I make a brief appeal to any readers who may have connections in the Italian publishing industry;

I know that I don’t have much experience in photography or design per se, and I realise that my command of Italian is – how to best put it? – entirely non-existent, but all I’m saying is – if you have a vacancy, keep me in mind. After nearly a decade of gainful employment in various sectors, I really feel that your industry is one in which I could truly realise my full potential. If you were to give me a chance, you would not regret it. I understand that there might not be enough space at first for me to tag along on the expenses-paid gothic castle location scouting tours and such, but I’m willing to work my way up. Thank you.

Anyway, as you might expect, this jolly crew do manage to find a castle to fit their (apparently quite specific) needs. When no answer is received to their bangings ‘pon the front door, they assume the place to be uninhabited, and persuade a guy who seems to be the lone male model to utilise his impressive ‘jungle jim’ style skills, scaling a tower and gaining them access.

As you might also expect, the castle turns out to be far from uninhabited. It is actually the home of a reclusive individual named Travis Alexander, played by legendary muscleman and Jayne Mansfield husband Mickey Hargitay, and his… uh… (ok, deep breath) … and his squad of strapping, moustachioed man-servants, all of whom wear identical stripy sailor jerseys and tight white jeans and apparently march around barking orders and stamping their feet like soldiers on parade 24 hours a day, unquestioningly obeying their master’s every command. Many ways to finish this paragraph spring to mind, but I ain’t saying a word.

Upon discovering the intruders in his castle, Mr. Alexander indulges in some Torgo-esque toing and froing, but eventually opts to let them to stay the night, on condition that they leave him alone to enjoy his hermetic isolation, and that they do not enter the dungeon. So, naturally, the next scene sees our gang setting up their photo shoot in the medieval torture dungeon, happily swinging around on some blood-curdling looking implement, girls in bikinis and one guy wearing a skeleton suit! These publishing types, honestly.

I’ll admit that up until this point I had my suspicions that the rationale behind the whole ‘pretty girls cross-country castle tour’ concept might be less than entirely work-related, especially when it became clear that the boss of the publishing house and one of the writers were along for the ride. But in all fairness to these guys, as soon as they’re in situ it’s straight down to business, setting up the gear, ordering the models around, calculating how many rolls of film they can shoot before sunrise, etc. Rarely has the act of shooting pictures of a girl in a sexy pirate outfit being strangled by a skeleton been handled with such consummate professionalism.

Even after the film’s first fatality – which sees the guy in skeleton suit impaled with more butter knives when the rope holding aforementioned torture device in place ‘mysteriously’ snaps – the boss is determined that his team should overcome this tragedy and keep working. After all, he’s got a schedule to keep! Deadlines! I mean, can you imagine a pulp horror novel coming out a bit late, with an imperfect cover photo? It simply wouldn’t do.

So this movie’s been good woozy fun so far, but the next thing I remember is a scene that really raised the stakes big time. A scene that left me speechless, unable to even evoke the holy syllables of Whaa – Thaa – Fugg? A scene, in short, that reminds me why I got into the business of watching movies like this in the first place.

Get this: one of our male characters (who seems to be emerging as the hero of the piece) hears a cry for help from a neighbouring chamber. Rushing in, he finds one of the girls tied by her wrists and ankles in the middle of a huge artificial spider’s web! Don’t come any closer, she warns him, explaining that the killer has rigged up loads of arrows around the chamber’s walls, which are primed to fire as soon as anyone touches the web! And indeed, the walls are lined, not with crossbows and some other kind of practical arrow-firing devices, but actual longbows, mysteriously balanced against the walls somehow! Furthermore, the unfortunate lady continues, there is a poisonous spider slowly making its way towards her, and once bitten, she will die immediately! The spider in questions looks kinda like some furry, mechanical beastie straight out of puppet show, wobbling along on a plainly visible string.

After slapping myself about the face a few times to ensure that I was still awake, and that, yes, this insane spectacle was actually unfolding before me, I saw our hero lie face down on the ground, and proceed to slowly wriggle along the floor like a worm, propelling himself with odd, spasmodic movements, in a tension-building attempt to reach the doomed girl without setting off the arrows! At this point I simply raised my hands in supplication and tearfully offered praises to the gods of WTF b-cinema for showing me this thing.

And really, you could spend a lifetime pondering the whys and wherefores of how the scriptwriters came up with this deranged scenario in the first place, how it ended up actually being realised for the film in such utterly ludicrous fashion, and how the actors felt at being asked to perform in it … I mean, it’s not even clear whether we’re supposed to read the spider and web as being ‘real’, or whether they’re supposed to be mechanisms built by the killer, although frankly either scenario is equally fucking crazy. If you value your sanity, probably best put such questions aside and just let it all wash over you.

What troubled me above all about this incredible sequence though is the fact that the girl apparently seems pretty enthusiastic about the idea of dying in the middle of this spider web contraption, explaining the whole set-up to her would be rescuers in detail, and begging them to abandon her to her singularly weird fate - “Don’t you see? It’s a diabolical trap! It’s impossible for anyone to reach me! Nobody can stop the mechanism!”, etc. The killer must have been a pretty good talker, I suppose – which we can maybe take as foreshadowing of a sort.

I also loved the way that when our worm-crawling hero reaches the centre of the web-maze seconds too late to save to save the girl from the venomous bite, he expresses his frustration by picking up the ‘deadly’ spider and drop-kicking it into the middle of the web, causing a few arrows to half-heartedly flop to the ground posing no danger to anyone! Outstanding.

By this point, my goofball-measuring equipment (it’s sort of a prototype, loosely based on the Rock-o-meter from ‘Rock N’ Roll High School’) had long since overheated and ceased to function, which is just as well, as there is no way its limited capacity could have survived the white hot hurricane of goofery that is Mickey Hargitay as The Crimson Executioner – for naturally it is he who has been perpetuating all this mischief, convinced that he is the reincarnation of the aforementioned medieval torture-monger.

Taking on the guise of The Crimson Executioner, Hargitay sports a get up that makes him look rather like a pro-wrestler who decided to attend a costume party dressed as The Phantom, got drunk, lost his shirt and then decided to go for Flavor Flav instead by adding a huge, clock-like gold medallion to the ensemble. You might have thought it would be difficult for a scene featuring only one man to strictly be termed ‘homoerotic’, but then you presumably haven’t seen Hargitay gazing lovingly into the mirror, oiling his muscular torso as he rants to himself at length about the virtues of his perfect body – claims that are somewhat undermined by the fact that he adopts a slightly hunchbacked ‘gorilla posture’ and hobbles around grunting like a pirate, his features contorted into a kind of snarling mask of perpetual discomfort.

When setting out to assess Mickey Hargitay’s performance here, stock phraseology about how he ‘chews up the scenery’ or somesuch seems woefully inadequate in trying to convey the sheer ham-fisted delight he brings to the role as he capers around his torture dungeon in a state of delirious, childlike glee, accompanied at all times by the incessantly repeated ‘Crimson Executioner’ theme, which sounds a bit like the proud inventor of the world’s first underwater theremin giving a bathtub demonstration (word to composer Gino Peguri for a varied and enjoyable soundtrack all round actually).

Hagitay’s Shatner-esque cadences must be heard to be believed as he sets about tormenting the remaining characters in a manner that might have seemed fairly sadistic in a film that was less… well… y’know - a film that was less like ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’.

“The Crimson Executioner… invented the torture of icy water… for creatures like you!”, he taunts, shaking his fist at a girl who is having icy water dribbled across her back.

“I will punish you for your lechery!”, he promises, spitting in the face of the head of the publishing house, whom he has confined in a comically oversized neck manacle.

“The Crimson Executioner will torture you! Yes… will torture you… until DEATH!”, he announces to nobody in particular, spreading his arms and gazing skyward in joy.

Man, this guy is something else.

Watch entranced, as he straps two of the models onto some kind of rotating wooden contraption and pushes knives through slats in an adjacent screen at boob level, causing the fabric of their brassieres to be veeeery slowly stripped away, and their tender flesh to be cut, just a little bit! I mean, let’s not get carried away here, right? Standards of decency must be upheld. What’s that you say, Crimson Executioner..?

“My vengeance needs blood! The Crimson Executioner... CRIES OUT for blood!”

Such an instantly iconic, endlessly quotable character – I’m surprised that The Crimson Executioner hasn’t cast a wider shadow across subsequent horror history. Surely more than one ‘trash auteur’ must have watched this over the years and thought “this is great, all I need to do is get some theatrical goof-off to run around in a hood, and the rest of the movie writes itself”? One thing’s for sure – nobody who’s ever stumbled across this movie is liable to forget him, and the temptation to spend weeks after viewing wondering around the house in exaggerated wrestler stance, muttering “The Crimson executioner does this, The Crimson executioner does that”, is probably not an uncommon affliction.

Brilliantly, The Crimson Executioner’s reign of terror isn’t ended when he is outwitted or bettered in combat by our hero, as is traditional. I dunno whether I missed an important plot point here, but I’ve watched the film several times now (god help me), and it still appears that he just gets so overwrought about all the evening’s excitement that, after delivering one last fevered monologue about how his beautiful body has been “defiled” by earthly corruption, he simply keels over and dies!

A long tracking shot lingers over the multitude of carcasses that are now strewn around the dungeon floor, and the surviving couple stand in shock, wracking their brains to for some kind of profound closing message they can pull from this thoroughly meaningless outbreak of anachronistic barbarism.

“Well I won’t write any more horror stories, that’s for sure… the man who said truth is stranger than fiction made no mistake!”

You said it buddy! I mean, people in the real world made this movie – beat that, fiction.

‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ has long lurked in the Public Domain, and a splendidly murky, degraded, pixellated print of the film can be streamed/DLed from just about anywhere on the internet, including here or Youtube here. If you’ve got a reliable net connection, why, you could watch it everyday! What a world we live in! In fact, pesky family or relationship responsibilities notwithstanding, I’d go as far as to say you SHOULD watch it everyday! Go on, you know you want to.

Man, Psychovision looks pretty crappy.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Youtube Film Club:
Mindbending Russian Animation

Remember Captain Pr0nin? No? Well anyway, my brother has been busy of recent sending me links to a whole raft of really extraordinary science fiction-themed Russian animation from the ‘80s and ‘90s, that I think need to be shared.

Many of these seem to be loosely based on stories by Ray Bradbury – perhaps part of a series taken from his work? They are quite varied in style, suggesting the work of numerous animators/directors rather than a single mastermind, but all seem united by an overriding aesthetic of desperate, post-industrial pessimism.

The images and techniques used has a very late ‘70s/early ‘80s feel to them I think – it puts me in mind of the kind of stuff used by prog rock bands and the like in the late ‘70s, when they realised the jig was up and started making marginally punk-informed statements against Orwellian oppression and so forth (think Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” in particular), and also of sombre ‘80s stuff like Raymond Briggs’ “When The Wind Blows”.

I realise I may not have exactly sold these to you in the preceding paragraphs, but needless to say, they are full of strange and beautiful sounds and images and are well worth your time. Thanks again to Paul for turning me on to them, and I hope you enjoy.

We’ll start off with one that’s a fairly straightforward SF story, with English sub-titles even, and get more abstract and tripped out from thereon in.

As a bonus, here is something Paul describes as being “the beginning of an episode of a more mainstream sci fi show”. All I can say is, you know your country is suffering from serious “chaotic crumbling of monolithic super-state” type angst when shit like this is considered “more mainstream” in relation to anything. Basically it’s a sorta faux-anime deal, featuring: a man piloting a giant penis, many tentacles, shoggoth beasts, much facial hair and a moustachioed man’s head grafted onto an octopus. Ugly, desperate H.R. Giger type vibes all round. The theme tune is awesome and reminds me of the music from Transformers cartoons.Yikes.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tura Satana

(1938 – 2011)

Well that sure is a drag.

I guess I can't really think of anything more insightful to say than "Tura Satana was awesome! (sadface)", but here's a proper tribute from Tenebrous Kate.

A double-bill of "Faster Pussycat.." and "The Astro-Zombies" beckons at some point I think... wish I didn't have work in the morning...