Friday, 28 December 2012

The Gorgon
(Terrence Fisher, 1964)


Contrary to the grand narrative that sees Hammer going from strength to strength following the establishment of their horror brand in the late ‘50s, the early ‘60s actually proved a pretty tempestuous time for the studio, and for their star director Terrence Fisher in particular. After a series of commercially misguided Fisher-helmed projects bombed at the box office in ’61-‘62, Hammer’s American partners were getting cagey, the BBFC were taking a stricter approach to the perceived excesses of the studio’s horror subjects, and both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, apparently uneasy about their typecasting as horror stars, were cutting down their Hammer commitments and seeking work elsewhere.

As a result, many were predicting that the studio’s run of international success would run out of steam entirely during ’63-’64, and this atmosphere can very much be felt in their biggest 1964 prospect, ‘The Gorgon’ - one of those movies that seems to be indelibly marked by turmoil and bad blood behind the scenes, all the more so given the assorted disagreements that resulted from the convoluted scripting process, which saw a three way tug of war between original writer J. Llewellyn Devine, Hammer writer/director John Gilling and producer Anthony Nelson Keys, none of whom came away satisfied with the finished product.

Although ‘The Gorgon’ marked the much-heralded return of Fisher, Cushing and Lee (together for the first time since 1959’s ‘The Mummy’), the resulting film hardly seems a likely candidate to revive studio’s fortunes, being perhaps the most troubling, uncertain and generally weird entry in all of Hammer’s ‘60s output, replicating the inexplicable decision-making that helped make ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ such financial disasters, but with arguably even less on hand to help win over a hostile audience.

Quite what possessed Hammer to green-light inexperienced screenwriter Devine’s tale of a two thousand year old Greek gorgon roaming around a turn of the century Germanic castle is anyone’s guess, but, on the surface at least, it leads to a inherently absurd, underdeveloped b-movie premise that seems to simply hang in the void, disconnected from any of the more storied gothic traditions that provided Hammer with a readymade background and familiar dramatic arc for their other horror films.

As perhaps befits this peculiar storyline, ‘The Gorgon’ is chiefly notable to fans as one of the most ambiguous and oddly existential of Hammer’s ‘60s films – a kind of brooding, bad tempered fairytale that seems to hark back more to the gothic of Goethe or Ludwig Tieck than Bram Stoker - and as an odd diversion in Fisher’s filmography, in which the strict Christian duality and comforting sense of cosmic balance with which his work is often credited seems to break down completely, leaving an unsettling absence in its wake.

Our first clue that this is some slightly unusual Hammer business comes via Cushing’s character, Dr Namaroff. Given enough screen time to suggest him as a protagonist of sorts, Namaroff is a reticent and secretive sort of fellow who seems to bully and mislead those around him whilst concealing some greater purpose, and his inconsistent behaviour will initially have those used to the simplistic dynamics of pulp storytelling performing mental cartwheels trying to decide whether he’s the hero or the villain of the piece. Seemingly spending most of the movie brusquely dismissing people from his presence, denying knowledge and refusing to answer questions, Cushing’s performance owes a lot to his similarly forceful, manipulative portrayals of Baron Frankenstein, but with the central goal of that character's single-minded pursuit replaced with, well… what? We don’t know, and he’s certainly not telling anybody.

Normally Hammer’s scripts were tight as a drum, with logical plot progression and linear motivations kept paramount, however daft the initial premise might be. Here though, things seem to have been left to unravel, as if an unseemly sense of continental randomness has been allowed to contaminate the rational imperial brew.

With a basic storyline that sees the father, and subsequently the brother, of a bohemian artist who came to a bad end during the pre-credits sequence travelling to the inhospitable village of Vandorf to investigate matters, proceedings swiftly become rather drawn out and repetitive, with little action (none that makes much sense, anyway) to help lift the overall feeling of narrative inertia. The precise nature of how the hell this gorgon business came about remains frustratingly vague, as, more pointedly, does the extent and significance of Dr. Namaroff’s apparent relationship with his young assistant Barbara Shelley. An entire sub-plot about a mad woman Namaroff keeps locked up in his surgery, and the strange autopsy he carries out after her death, fades away halfway through, having served no narrative purpose whatsoever, and… so on.

The root of all this uncertainty perhaps goes back to the aforementioned conflicts over the film’s script, and it seems likely that Fisher and the cast might have been left to patch up the results on set as they went along. Fisher seems to have realised how flimsy the Gorgon premise is, and wisely uses it primarily as a metaphor to frame the film’s actual drama – that of a rather anaemic love triangle between two weak, troubled men and a lonely, isolated woman, all trying to seek happiness in a stifling, repressive world where the admission of love or affection seems tantamount to death, resulting in an emotional as well as physical process of petrification.

Thankfully, the central cast all to their best inject some life into the material, and must be praised for managing to invest this rather vague and inconsequential story with a believable emotional clout. Richard Pasco in particular is excellent as a far more interesting and conflicted protagonist/juvenile lead figure than you’d expect to find in a Hammer hammer – a strange man for a strange film - whilst Barbara Shelley excels in a role that allows her to get stuck into creating a real character for once. Cushing, of course, owns, seeming to enjoy the challenges presented by his ambiguous and guilt-wracked character, and the only weak link is Lee, blundering in for the final act as a kind of ersatz Van Helsing figure whose sole function seems to be to propel the story towards a conclusion. (Still, at least it hopefully stopped him moaning about how he never gets to play the hero for a few years.)

Also very much in the film’s favour is the fact that it is perhaps the most beautiful film Hammer ever made, with Bernard Robinson’s production design returning to the near Pre-Raphaelite sense of visual splendour achieved by his best moments in earlier films, and maintaining it throughout. The exquisitely detailed matte paintings and models used to establish the landscape around the village and the derelict, neo-classical interior of the hilltop castle are absolutely stunning, as is the hillside cemetery set where Pasco digs up the petrified body of his father and (rather disconcertingly under the circumstances) shares a tender moment with Shelley. Never has Hammer’s much-remarked upon debt to the Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s been clearer than it is in these lush, technicolour romantic interludes, of which the film boasts several.

Classic-era Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher may have left the company by this point, but Michael Reed does a fine job picking up where his predecessor left off, and even James Bernard’s music is at its best here, easing back slightly on his usual orchestral bombast and instead synchronising the voice of a lone female soprano with the sound of an early electronic instrument called the Novachord to beguiling and otherworldly effect, resulting in one of the only Hammer soundtracks that I might actually consider listening to outside the context of the movie. In all technical departments in fact, the film is impeccable in its creation of a rich, brooding atmosphere, exemplifying all of the expertise and attention to detail that makes the production design of Bray-era Hammer such a joy. Utterly unreal though it may be, the world of ‘The Gorgon’ is one of the studio’s most complete aesthetic creations – a confined, threatening landscape in which human warmth is just another mystery, lurking forever out of reach.

With its temporarily transformed human monster, its concentration on lunar cycles and incessant shots of the full moon, ‘The Gorgon’ could easily have been a werewolf movie, an idea furthered by its repetition of transgressive nocturnal journeys through the dark, dark woods, leading, inevitably, to the forbidden castle, where death or love or transformation awaits – a notion that connects the film on a near-subconscious level to a tradition of imagery that links everything from Grimm’s fairytales to 1941’s ‘The Wolfman’ to ‘Twin Peaks’.

At this point, it’s probably my duty to note that when Prudence Hyman’s Gorgon is finally encountered, the effects used in realising the monster are, shall we say, a little less effective than might be hoped. “The only thing wrong with ‘The Gorgon’ is the gorgon”, Lee was quoted as saying, but whatever consternation such drawbacks might have provoked at the time, hopefully by this stage we can at least appreciate the costume as an honest attempt to realise a creature who really only plays an incidental or allegorical role in the story Fisher and his cast are telling, making her failure to convince seem oddly appropriate (as well as continuing the noble tradition of lovably rubbish Hammer monsters that was to continue through ‘The Reptile’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and beyond).

As much as we might enjoy its assorted ambiguities and eccentricities though, there is still something frustratingly incomplete at the heart of ‘The Gorgon’. In the midst of its behind-the-scenes wrangling and disagreements over tone, content and commercial possibilities, it is a film that often ends up merely hinting at its possibilites rather than fully embodying them. Whilst it's certainly not one of the studio’s most immediately satisfying productions though, Hammer aficionados and fans of slow, strange horror films in general will nonetheless find plenty of finer points to appreciate within.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Embalmer
(Dino Tavella, 1965)

Of the relatively few places on earth I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years, Venice is one of my favourites, and as such, I’ve always found films set there to be a dead cert in terms of watchability. Such is the city’s unique presence, some half-decent location shooting can help invest any old rubbish with a palpable sense of grand, shadowy antiquity. And such proves to be the case with ‘The Embalmer’, a barrel-scraping low budget programmer that would likely have proved a total snooze were it not for the inspired decision to shoot most of it within spitting distance of St Marks Square, seemingly off-season, and at the dead of night.

Initially, Tavella’s film doesn’t really seem to fit the bill as a gothic horror. It’s more one of those “a bit from column A, a bit from column B” type ‘60s b-horrors (think Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory or The Awful Dr Orlof) that seems to mix up a few elements from the gothics, a bit of an Edgar Wallace Krimi type mystery, some cynical proto-giallo / bodycount business and just a pinch of post-‘Eyes Without A Face’ mad science, all to make…. well, a right bloody mess in this case. For a film that touches on so many potentially exciting generic tropes, it must take some effort to come up with a picture quite as flat and uninvolving as this one.

Basically it’s that age old story: some guy with a set of scuba gear in lurking in the canals, snatching beautiful girls and dragging them back to his subterranean lair, where he moons about in a monk’s cowl, subjecting his victims to some (off screen) taxidermy before adding them to his gallery of waxy, incorruptible beauties.

Anyone hoping for some further clarification regarding the motivation and elaborate methodology behind this character’s depredations will be waiting in vain, but fear not – whilst the cops flounder impotently, Venice’s resident hotshot investigative reporter is on the case, in the shape of singularly named actor Gin Mart, portraying a perfect example of the kind of smug, dislikeable jerk that producers of ‘60s genre movies for some reason seemed to think audiences would relate to as a hero. Within minutes on-screen, Gin has established himself a nice little sideline as unofficial tour guide to a party of rather grown-up looking school girls, and proceeds to spend much of the next hour shepherding them around like a gaggle of mindless, giggling animals, his face perpetually fixed on a kind of Connery-esque smirk/eyebrow arch as he tediously romances their teacher (nominal leading lady Maureen Brown).

As you might assume from such a set up, the girls gradually begin falling victim to our nefarious frogman, and it’s up to our intrepid reporter to blah blah blah, etc. Thus far, I’m sad to report that pacing is lumpen, with writing, performances and direction all lacklustre at best, but thankfully there are a few sundry eccentricities on hand to keep our attention simmering through the interminable yammering and faffing. I for one particularly enjoyed the scene in which a man who looks like DH Lawrence engages in a bit of unbelievably awkward jive dancing with his elderly maiden aunt, and there are a few surprisingly sleazy bits of business going on too, including a sub-plot about a creepy hotel clerk who installs two-way mirrors in the rooms so as to furtively watch ladies taking off their stockings – a pursuit he indulges at length in one sordid, borderline sexploitation type interlude.

In fact, everything about the hotel is kinda weird, including the floor show, in which the lights go down and an Elvis-alike guitar-strumming rock n’ roller emerges from a coffin – another relative highlight, especially when of course on the next evening the coffin turns out to contain one of the killer’s victims, impaled with a knife through his heart. Good pulpy fun.

Mostly though, it’s Venice itself that saves the day. Locations are well chosen and -insofar as we can judge from the beat-up public domain print under review - well used, the thick, inky blacks of the chiaroscuro photography bringing an appropriately threatening, night-haunted aspect to the city’s streets and squares, contributing greatly to the success of the film’s intermittent ‘good bits’.

And, after an hour or so of mildly diverting time-wasting, we do finally get a satisfying pay-off as the movie really revs things up for the final reel, cementing its status as a worthy addition to the Italian Gothic canon with a tremendously atmospheric conclusion that sees Maureen venturing into the soggy crypt beneath the hotel, concealed behind a secret passage, for a climatic showdown with our embalming fluid-happy villain.

Sometimes, all it takes to win me over is a good candelabra walk, and whilst Brown certainly isn’t up there with Barbara Steele in her mastery of the art, the one in ‘The Embalmer’ is still a winner. Filmed in what I can only assume were genuine Venetian catacombs of some description, the shots are tightly framed, with rough, handheld camerawork that works very well, as she descends the seemingly endless stone steps toward pitch black doom.

The inky, slimy, lightless feel of the subterranean world she find herself in is conveyed with an eerie realism borne from the use of real locations, and only intensified by the distancing of the fuzzy, VHS-derived print. And when the villain makes his entrance, striding through the echoing chambers in a hooded cowl and an honest-to-goodness leering skull mask(!), he is suddenly a genuinely terrifying presence, making up for all the drab lack of menace in the film’s earlier horror scenes – literally the last thing you’d ever want to encounter in a dark alley, never mind a blackened medieval crypt full of ossified skeletal monks(?!). Unexpectedly violent, visceral and shockingly morbid, this finale is almost good enough to completely outweigh the preceding hour of faff. It’s a shame things have to wrap up so quickly once they’ve finally got going, but with the 75 minute mark approaching, wrap up they must, and…. shall I spoil the ending for you? Oh go on then. [Skip the next paragraph if you actually care.]

Turns out the villain is none other than…. some guy who for turned up for one scene earlier in the film and neither said nor did anything of particular note! Can you believe it? And there we all were thinking it was the creepy guy from the hotel! *palm-face* Nice one Dino, next time maybe let someone else have a go at the script, huh?

Well as it turns out, there wasn’t a next time, because ‘The Embalmer’ seems to have marked the end of Mr. Tavella’s brief career as a film director. In fact with the exception of one other obscure film released the same year (‘Una Sporca Guerra’, which I think translates as ‘A Dirty War’?), he has no other film credits whatsoever. Trying to research ‘The Embalmer’ a bit via IMDB, it’s interesting to note that almost everyone who worked on it proves a similar dead end, with many of the cast making their only screen appearance. Production company ‘Gondola Films’ followed Tavella into the great unknown after overseeing his two directorial efforts, so reading between the lines, I’m guessing this out-of-nowhere horror effort wasn’t quite the money-spinner they’d hoped.

After a US release alongside Michael Reeves’ The She-Beast (I wonder what audiences made of a double bill in which BOTH features were cranky, zero budget 75 minute oddities?), ‘The Embalmer’ tumbled into what I can only assume to be unremitting obscurity, although apparently it at least made a sufficient impression on Dutch exploitation director Dick Maas for him to effectively remake it in 1988, relocating things to his own canal-centric home town for the self-explanatory ‘Amsterdamned’.

So there ya go. ‘The Embalmer’, everybody. Worth a watch? Probably not, but what can I say, I had fun with it. The good bits were good, Venice played itself beautifully, and even the bad bits (which, I should remind you again, comprise most of the run time) sort of lulled me into submission in comforting bad movie fashion. You could do worse.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Fall of the House of Usher
(Roger Corman, 1960)

Thinking over this latest round of gothic horror reviews, it occurred to me that thus far we’ve not really touched upon American International Pictures’ hugely influential (and more to the point, hugely enjoyable) series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Having previously only previously covered the cycle’s decidedly inglorious swan-song Cry Of The Banshee, now seems as good a time as any to return to the beginning, and marvel at the difference ten years can make.

Reportedly shot by Roger Corman for the princely sum of $200,000 over a marathon (by his standards) fourteen days, it’s safe to assume AIP must have made a pretty good return on their investment, as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ proceeded to kick-start a series of releases that spanned the whole of the following decade, defining the aesthetic of gothic horror cinema to such an extent that, perhaps even more-so than Hammer’s early successes, it is this film that can take responsibility for flooding the world’s screens with a tide of coffins, crypts and candelabras in the years that followed.

Right from its opening moments, ‘House of Usher’ seems intent of defying the limitations imposed by its low budget, as a wide tracking shot across a bleak, mist-laden moor haunted by dead, overhanging branches leads directly to a spectacularly overwrought matte shot of the titular house that remains breath-taking, in spite of its evident unreality. In fact, Daniel Haller’s production design in this opening sequence is so grandiose it suggests a cartoonish, almost ‘disneyfied’ take on gothic horror – diving headfirst into the kind of heady romantic imagery that Hammer hinted at, but were always reluctant to dwell upon, let alone take to the level of garish excess seen here. Such impressions are reinforced by Les Baxter’s quirky, over-bearing score, featuring a preposterous main theme that anticipates Danny Elfman’s oeuvre just as thoroughly as the accompanying visuals succeed in inventing about 90% of the cloying, comfort blanket gothic aesthetic that Tim Burton would later call his own.

As soon as future Italian b-movie stalwart Mark Damon his dismounted and made his entrance to the house however, it becomes clear that this bombastic introduction has overplayed things somewhat, and that, initially at least, we’re in for a drama that is considerably more sombre and low-key than casual viewers might have been anticipating. In fact, lacking any capacity for special effects or rampant supernatural shenanigans, the first half of the movie very much becomes a challenge to see how well the audience’s attention can be held by a cast of only four actors discussing largely abstract concerns within the confines of a few finely adorned sets. Not exactly a recipe for runaway box office success you might think, but when Corman is in the director’s chair, the script is by Richard Matheson and one of the actors in question is Vincent Price, you can rest assured that the viewer’s attention is not going to waver for long.

Price’s smooth-skinned, albino-like appearance will initially come as something of a surprise to those of us used to his more haggard demeanour in later films - but when he begins to speak, all doubts fade. Whilst it’s easy to throw such distinctions at any number of the films he made in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, for my money this is truly a career-best performance from the great man, with the hyper-sensitive recluse Roderick Usher seeming very much like the role he was born to play. The speech in which he describes the “morbid acuteness of the senses” with which his character is afflicted is rightly the stuff of legend, and just hearing his inimitable voice roll across Matheson’s perfectly turned Poe-esque dialogue is an absolute joy (“Two drops of fire… guttering in the vast, consuming darkness..”).

Like the film itself, Price’s art lies in taking things to the very edge of camp, but NEVER stepping over the line, maintaining an old world seriousness of purpose that allows him to invest a line as simple as “believe me sir, I bear you no malice” with a crushing pathos, his delivery alone telling us all we need to know about the dark secrets and untold years of torment that the remainder of the film proceeds to elaborate upon in more colourful detail.

As would become the norm with the Poe films, Matheson’s script takes considerable liberties with its literary source, but necessarily so in this case, given that a direct adaptation of Poe’s characteristically peculiar story would probably last about twenty minutes and include a lengthy poetry reading and scenes in which a guy recites quotations from a fictional medieval romance. Nonetheless, I think Matheson captures the feel of Poe’s work excellently, the dialogue-heavy format allowing him to pluck choice phrases from the original text and extrapolate them into icy, tormented soliloquies that – I would contend – stay remarkably true to the author’s pitch black intent.

One of literature’s blunter tales of the conflict between entropy and death and the eternal urge to life, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ of course exemplifies the underlying themes of all classically composed gothic horror, and Matheson’s script very much maintains that focus. “Something crept across the land, and blighted it,” Price intones with chilling relish at one point, as Poe’s central device of allowing psychological malady to assume physical form and transform the world of his characters remains paramount, more-so than the more conventional supernatural hi-jinks that took centre stage in later instalments.

Even the film’s nominal supernatural conceit – that of the house literally becoming possessed by evil as a result the misdeeds of its former inhabitants – remains true to Poe’s original notion of a psychological subjectivity and his understanding of the way a curdled mind can infect its surroundings, even as Price’s descriptions of the “savage degradations” of his ancestors express a wonderful, fairground ghoulishness sure to tingle the spines of a 1960 horror crowd (“Vivian Usher – blackmailer, harlot, murderess… she died in the madhouse..”).

(The portraits themselves incidentally are wonderfully striking, expressionistic works (the tormented canvases seen in Roderick’s study even more so), far more memorable than the usual knocked-up-in-a-few-hours-by-the-set-designer efforts that tend to pass for great art in films like this. Interestingly, the paintings are credited to one Burt Shonberg, a guy who, along with art department credits on several Corman films, is probably best known as co-proprietor and chief decorator of the legendary Laguna Beach beatnik hang-out Café Frankenstein. He subsequently painted murals for other LA counter-culture venues such as The Purple Onion and Pandora’s Box, and created the spectacular cover to Love’s Out Here album in 1969.)

Artwork aside, the design of the film’s interior sets is of course executed in definitive gothic style, with Haller & Corman’s décor and choice of visual motifs exerting a huge influence upon the aesthetic of ‘60s horror in general, and upon the Italian school in particular. For an example, just check out the rusty, wrought-iron gateway to the family crypt, and the way that not only this device itself, but also the decision to frame characters behind it as some kind of broad signpost of mental instability, turned up in all kinds of movies over the next few years (Whip & The Body and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock to name but a few).

In fact, the entirety of the film’s crypt sequence (featuring the revealing of brass name plaques identifying coffins as belonging to the still living, the obligatory disinterment of an uncannily preserved relative, etc etc) was reintegrated so persistently by the Italian directors that it became a cliché almost immediately, making it difficult to really judge the original effectiveness behind what now seems like ‘House of Usher’s most conventional horror movie moment, when a coffin falls open to reveal a dusty skeleton (“shit, they’ve sat through twenty five minutes of this stuff, let’s give ‘em a skeleton”).

With such a limited range of dramatic possibility, things do start to get slightly creaky as the picture creeps toward feature length, but in fact this inadvertently allows ‘House of Usher’ to add another notch to its impressive list of ‘firsts’, as the tradition of the psychedelic dream sequence that would follow through all the AIP/Corman films is hereby established. A characteristically enjoyable blue and purple-tinted fantasia ensues, as Mark Damon’s sleeping spirit is harangued not just by the ghosts of Usher ancestors, but by swatches of coloured mist and sharp, expressionistic frames and shapes… that strange, slightly LA-beatnik tinged strain of modernism shining through again, maybe..?

Anyway, the deftness with which Corman handles the sombre tone of the material here is hugely impressive, given that his most successful directorial efforts up to this point (‘A Bucket of Blood’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’) had been comedies, and that the Poe series itself would veer off into similar territory almost immediately with the knock-about matinee fun of ‘Tales of Terror’ and ‘The Raven’. All of those are great movies, no question, but immeasurably different in tone from this one, in which – despite occasional hints of knowing humour - a genuine feeling of crushing morbidity predominates, evoking a macabre atmosphere that is easily on a par with the grimmest of the Italian epics that followed. Whilst conventional horror ‘shocks’ are few, in Corman’s capable hands the story still builds to a tremendously suspenseful conclusion that, though it would be reiterated a thousand times over the next decade, is still powerful enough to make an indelible impression upon anyone who has allowed themselves to be caught up in the drama.

“At least she has been spared the agonies of trying to escape”, Roderick Usher here proclaims after his sister’s apparent death - a blunt reminder of the unflinching pessimism at the heart of Poe’s universe that few if any subsequent adaptations of his work would dare touch upon.

Round III

As temperatures fall toward freezing in the British Isles, as rain hammers our casement windows and bare tree branches groan and shake in the wind, and as the Winter Solstice approaches with its seventeen-ish hours of blackened night per day (not to mention its accompanying warnings of dire apocalypse), what better opportunity to stick two fingers up to the notion of xmas cheer and retreat into the catacombs of gothic horror?

Reviews commencing imminently and continuing, well… beyond the end of the world, at the very least.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Appendum:
More Moorcock

I swear, one day I’m going to panel the walls of my living room with Mayflower Science Fantasy paperbacks. I think the chicks will dig it.

All of these are 1970-72, cover art uncredited, but clearly all the work of the great Bob Haberfield.

More proper movie review type stuff coming up SOON, by the way.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up, part # 2:
The ‘70s

A few more random gems from the golden era of this sorta thing post-1970, including a double-bill from the perennially mindbending Peter Goodfellow.

(Quartet, 1973 [originally published 1957] – cover uncredited)

(Panther, 1972 – cover uncredited)

(Fontana, 1978 – cover illustration: Peter Goodfellow)

(Mayflower, 1978 – cover illustration: Peter Goodfellow)

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Spain Rodriguez
(1940 – 2012)

Sad news filtered through last night about the death from cancer of one of my all-time favourite American underground comix artists, the inimitable Manuel ‘Spain’ Rodriguez.

Like the recently departed Koji Wakamatsu, Spain translated his uncompromising political beliefs into works of hair-raising visual imagination, assuming a perspective that, if it’s a lot more earnest and macho than most of his ‘60s contemporaries (Crumb, Spiegelman, Deitch etc.), is all the more awesome for it.

Contributing to seminal anthologies like ‘Zap! Comix’, and rolling on into such exquisitely named solo ventures as ‘Zodiac Mindwarp’ and ‘Mean Bitch Thrills’, Spain took a heavily EC Comics influenced style and infused it with his experiences as an outlaw biker and Latino street kid, creating a totally brutal, bad-ass, proto-punk approach to comic books – the visual equivalent of listening to some heavy, weed-ravaged biker rock – that is totally unique, and echoes of his work can I think be felt in everything from 2000AD to Charles Burns.

One of my favourite Spain joints is a great Lovecraftian gothic horror strip I’ve got in an old comix anthology somewhere, but since I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment in order to scan, I’m going to have to rely on the good graces of Tumblr to crib some stuff, and, thankfully, it provides.

I think this guy’s mighty talent pretty much speaks for itself, so here without further ado is his EC tribute cover to ‘Skull # 5’ (Last Gasp, 1972), followed by – hey, why not? – his comic book interpretation of Alexandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo”. Just what the doctor ordered.

For further background and interview stuff w/ Spain, see here, or here.

Obit from the SF Chronicle here.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up, part # 1:
The ‘60s

(Tandem, 1968)

(Lancer, 1968)

(Hodder, 1967)

Even more-so than movies or comic-books, you might assume that lower tier sci-fi paperback designers would have been a bit slow in picking up on youth culture trends, but just look at all this bad trip, pop-art madness - merely a taster of the innumerable eye-grabbing volumes that were hitting shelves prior to 1970, all waiting to be harvested from book fairs and charity shops the world over.

All of the above are more or less trad pulp skiffy yarns enlivened by some way-out graphics, but by way of contrast, here’s a rather toe-curlingly try-hard attempt to bring SF to the new youth market. The logic is sound: hippies read sci-fi, and half the people who write it seem to veer in that direction too, so let’s bang out some sci-fi for hippies. The execution however? I think I'll pass. ('She Stripped For Cider' in the author biog made me laugh though.)

Wikipedia reveals that 'The Unicorn Girl' is the middle volume of an apparent 'Greenwich Village Trilogy' published by Pyramid. Characters were shared, but each volume was written by a different author, the other two being respectively credited to underground press luminary and Crawdaddy! editor Chester Anderson, and "professional magician and magic author" T.A. Waters. Presumably any resemblance between "Mike and Chester, fearless hippy explorers of a thousand worlds" and their apparent creators would be wholly coincidental..?


(Pyramid, 1969)

All cover artists and designers featured in this post are uncredited, by the way.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Lady Snowblood
(Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Snow falls like a funeral
For the dead morning
Stray dogs howl in the distance as she walks
The sound of her ‘geta’
Piercing the air
She walks on, weighed down by karma

Justice and mercy
Tears and dreams
Yesterday and tomorrow
Words that have no hold on her now

The woman who has immersed herself in the river of vengeance
Gave herself up long ago

As mentioned in my introduction to the first Think Pink reviews round-up, I always intended to use the heading to take in a number of films that don’t fit at all comfortably under the ‘Pinky Violence’ banner but nonetheless find themselves associated with it in the West – a notion that’s particularly worth bearing in mind in this case, as I’m sure that star Meiko Kaji, director Toshiya Fujita and Toho studios would all spit blood at the thought of their film being described as PV.

Though she is often thought of as the definitive Pinky Violence star thanks to her pioneering work in the ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ and ‘Stray Cat Rock’ franchises, it seems that Kaji – by all accounts a lady just as determined and formidable as one of her characters – did everything she could to distance herself from the kind of exploitation typified by the ‘pinky violence’ tag, and the films she made outside of the two aforementioned series during the early ‘70s are all essentially attempts to take a more serious, ‘respectable’ approach to female-led action/revenge movies, largely free from the nudity and cheap sexploitation elements that were becoming increasingly prevalent in Toei and Nikkatsu’s output.

Produced for a subsidiary of the more venerable and up-market Toho studios, ‘Lady Snowblood’ – based on the manga by ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ authors Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura – perfectly typifies this trend in Kaji’s films. Although many of the elements here – the simplistic revenge plotline, ridiculously exaggerated comic book bloodshed and frequent use of the zoom lens as a visual exclamation point – are still pure ‘70s exploitation, ‘Lady Snowblood’ nonetheless adopts a heavier, more self-consciously artistic tone than most of its competitors, fleshing out its central character’s traumatic background in lengthy, harrowing detail, accompanied by much pontificating on the whims of fate and the nature of revenge and so on, set against the muted tones and beautified landscapes of a grand historical drama.

Some may see all this as adding a compelling, atmospheric grandeur to proceedings, helping to elevate the film to a level rarely seen in quick turnover b-movie fare. Others though will no doubt find it as overblown and self-important - an empty attempt to raise the stock of what’s essentially just baseline pulp fiction. Myself, I’m kinda on the fence.

In the film’s favour is the fact that it’s extremely well made, with Fujita clearly making optimum use of the resources at his disposal, revelling in some of the most elaborate production design ever seen in a female action/revenge film. Sets, shooting locations and costumes are all exquisite, with the entire movie giving the impression of being art-designed and colour co-ordinated to the n-th degree, lending its images an ‘iconic’ resonance – a certain, ineffable sense of elegant ‘coolness’ – that would certainly be prove difficult to replicate on a tighter budget & schedule. (In particular, you wonder where Kaji’s character gets her supply of stunningly beautiful outfits, roaming the land with no means of financial support, not to mention the cleaning costs necessitated by all that blood flying everywhere, but… oh yeah, stylised comic book adaptation – we’re not supposed to think about that stuff too deeply.)

The achievements of the art department are also matched by the effort that’s been put into the film’s fight sequences, which again goes way beyond the level normally seen in Japanese exploitation, aspiring more to the high velocity swashbuckling of a prime Hong Kong wuxia flick, with the addition of majestic arcs of gore spurting hither and yon, the effects team seemingly rigging up each victim with a series of hosepipes to aid the beyond parodic celebration of arterial spray.

So, yeah - basically, if you’ve got a thing for absurd fountains of blood soiling pristine white kimonos, this is the movie for you. No opportunity is missed to fill the screen with bright whites and reds, whether represented through actual blood and snow, or costumes, flowers, décor and set dressing, the two colours blaze supernaturally against a stormy, autumnal background - a less than subtle reflection of the imagery of the film’s title of course, but also one that takes on added resonance in view of the story’s rather nebulous political sentiments.

And indeed, much of the time this stuff works brilliantly, delivering precisely the kind of hyper-real bloodshed us post-Argento, post-Tarantino ‘cult film’ fans are supposed to eat for breakfast, whilst also drawing us into the movie with a genuine emotional clout, filling our heads with bold, blazing images that live long in the memory.

Other times though, it doesn’t quite cut it. The film’s ponderous narration swiftly becomes comically tedious (can you remind us that this woman is “a child of the netherworld, living only for vengeance” again, mr. narrator? You haven’t mentioned it for a few minutes, and I’m worried I might forget..), whilst the sporadic attempts to invoke an ‘arthouse’ aesthetic are questionable at best. A good examples is the sequence in which the daughter of one of Kaji’s victims throws her collection of hand-wrought wicker dolls into the ocean as ‘poignant’ music swells on the soundtrack, bringing back unhappy memories of the unbearably pretentious Chinese ‘New Wave’ films I had to watch as part of a college course a few years back. (Honest to god, I mean, I love experiencing cinema from all countries and genres, don’t get me wrong, but sitting through some of those made me wish I’d taken Chemistry instead.)

During moments like these, I couldn’t help but think of the very different films Norifumi Suzuki was making over at Toei at around the same time, and in particular the incredible Sex & Fury. Although it’s difficult to confidently ascertain which came first given that both films share a 1973 copyright, Suzuki’s epic certainly plays very much like a cheeky sexploitation response to Fujita’s film, verging into the realm of an outright rip-off at its near-identical conclusion. Garish, prurient and opportunistic, a film like that would no doubt have been looked down upon by everyone who worked on this one, but taken out of context 'Sex & Fury' is arguably the more impressive of the two works, weaving together a tapestry that is just as lavish and visually imaginative as ‘Lady Snowblood’, building an altogether more complex and uncertain portrait of Taishō-era corruption and injustice, and doing so in a manner that is often a hell of a lot more entertaining than the dour, formal approach taken by Fujita and his collaborators.

Not that ‘Lady Snowblood’ is exactly lacking in political clout – in fact it’s just as suffused with it as with gore. Despite their slightly abstract period settings, Koike and Kamimura’s manga maintained a strong connection with contemporary left wing issues, and whilst Lady Snowblood’s calling as an all-purpose righter of class-based wrongs is explored in more depth in the film’s sequel, this initial instalment still never misses a chance to characterise her antagonists as representatives of various aspects of the wave of capitalist greed and state-sponsored criminality that was seen to be sweeping Japan in the period in which the story is set.

Straight out of the opening credits, scene-setting historical narration immediately begins criticising the Meiji-era government for their use of a military draft and misguided pursuit of imperialism, zeroing in on the assorted evils wrought by “mercenary businessmen, plutocrats and corrupt officials” – a class which in fiction set in the Meiji and Taishō eras often seems synonymous with those trying to import ‘decadent’ Western values (and, by extension, the subsequent excesses of European-style military imperialism) into Japanese society.

Even if this notion is never broken down in great detail in the film’s script, the subtext becomes hard to miss during the film’s conclusion, in which the Final Villain (who is now an arms dealer, gleefully helping prepare Japan for the ensuing global conflict) explains through a rather clunking chunk of exposition that he runs his operation out of a newly constructed, Western style building ostensibly opened by the government to receive guests from foreign powers, but in reality housing nightly orgies of “self gratification and shameless hedonism” for the country’s corrupt elite.

When Yuki subsequently attends one of these gatherings in the course of instigating a showdown with the rascal in question, her traditional dress sticks out like a sore thumb amid the multi-lingual, Western-garbed chattering classes, and when the bad guy finally gets what’s coming to him, he does so clutching the Japanese flag, as the literal and symbolic applications of the film’s colour scheme combine in one of those tormented moments of fractured national identity that Japanese b-movies can often embody so powerfully – nationalism and socialism, pacifism and bloody murder, all mixed up in a cathartic howl of cinematic confusion.

Despite all this though, the film is first and foremost a personal vengeance narrative, and beyond of any of the other notes filling up our ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ columns, it’s worth noting that Meiko Kaji herself is absolutely superb, delivering probably an even more extreme, single-minded performance than in the Scorpion films, and certainly a more nuanced one. Drawn and ashen- faced, she perfectly embodies the kind of unstoppable, quasi-supernatural force that the role demands, but at the same time manages to bring out a fragility in the character that helps transform her into a genuinely great heroine. However much she may aspire toward becoming a robotic, inhuman avenger, there is something behind her eyes that suggests that any minute now, her mask will crack, her training will fail, and the abused, orphaned child within will be revealed.

Allowing the sometimes melodramatic nature of the story’s presentation to bounce off her as painlessly as the blows of the assorted goons she ploughs through en route to her real targets, she keeps the human calm at the centre of the metaphorical storm solid and touchable at all times. A subtle touch, too fleeting to really explain properly, it is this certain something in Kaji’s performance that really makes the character, and, by extension, makes the film.

If you’ve read anything at all about ‘Lady Snowblood’ then you’ll no doubt be aware that it is the film that ‘inspired’ the central episodic framework (and much more besides) in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’, so I’m contractually obliged to mention that before we finish, but needless to say, it’s easy to see why the film made such an impression on him. For all its affectations and potential missteps, and for all that it might help to perpetuate just about every Japanese cinema cliché in the book, '..Snowblood' remains a landmark tour de force of stylised action film-making, and, in much the same way that Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is often described as “the Citzen Kane of lesbian vampire movies”, I think Kaji and Fujita have a pretty good contender here for “the Citizen Kane of movies about wronged women wreaking bloody vengeance”... with all the positive and negative connotations that might imply.

(Thanks to the machinations of the big QT, ‘Lady Snowblood’s fantastic theme song is of course widely available from your mp3 provider of choice, so, rather than providing a download here, I’ll leave you to track it down via legitimate means, perhaps even helping to earn Meiko Kaji some miniscule amount of royalties in the process.)