Friday, 31 August 2012

Penguin Crime Week:
Slow Burner
by William Haggard

(Cover photograph by Peter Laurie.)

This is one of my favourite paperback covers of all time.

A scan of it was posted on Mounds & Circles earlier this year, and it provoked a certain amount of interest when I reblogged it on my Tumblr. Now, finally, I can post it here whilst observing my self-imposed book-blogging rules, as the image above is my own scan, taken from my own recently acquired copy.

So, anyway, yeah - I love this cover. Such a simple piece of design work, but also daring, unconventional, mesmerising. A bit of really sinister aesthetic beauty.

I love the fact that whilst ostensibly this is a cover focusing on the quintessential pulp image of a naked woman with a gun, the framing of Peter Laurie’s photograph rejects any sexual or exploitative interpretation. Instead, there is a certain ‘matter of fact’-ness about the photo – the detail of the model’s toes and her short, cropped hair, the German Luger and the crumpled, monochrome bed sheet – that is startling; about as distant from the old Robert McGinnis style paperback dame as you could possibly get. There is something fascinating and deeply unnerving about her shiny skin and strangely proportioned limbs, the invisibility of her facial features. She looks like a posed mannequin; the erotic implication of her nakedness is completely derailed, given a one-way ticket to uncanny valley. Unheimlich to the max. If Penguin in the ‘60s were looking for any one image to say ‘this is not your father’s crime story’, this is it.

In more prosaic terms, I also like the title, and the fact that the author’s name is only one letter different from my one of my own illustrious ancestors.

As to the book itself, well I’m unfamiliar with the work of William Haggard and the synopsis doesn’t exactly sound too thrilling, but I’ve got a soft spot for grim espionage tales and sinister goings on beneath Whitehall, so ya never know. Is Haggard just another forgotten spy hack, or could he be swinging somewhere toward the Le Carre / Eric Ambler end of the scale..? Only one way to find out – wish me luck, I’m hitting chapter # 1 this evening.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Penguin Crime Week:
The Case of the Sleepwalkers Niece
by Erle Stanley Gardner

(Cover uncredited, but probably the work of Romek Marber.)

I realise I’ve been slacking off my book cover blogging duties recently, but my new acquisitions has been multiplying relentlessly this summer, so time to get back into the swing of things, beginning with a few posts dedicated to those immaculate, green-hued hipsters of the genre fiction shelves, Penguin Crime.

First off, yet another cooler-than-it-likely-has-any-right-to-be Perry Mason cover that gets me wondering whether Penguin’s adoption of the distinctive green colour scheme was inspired in some obscure fashion by the way in which yellow/giallo became so synonymous with the crime genre in Italy. Probably not, but y’know, it’s a thought.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Demons (1972)

AKA: “Les Démons du Sexe”, “Die Nonnen von Clichy”, “She-Demons”, “The Sex Demons”, “Les Novices Perverses”.

Presumably produced for frequent early ‘70s Franco enabler Robert DeNesle (correct me if I’m wrong), and perhaps shot around the same time as ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’ if the shared cast and locations are anything to go by, the intention here seems to have been to cash in on the controversy surrounding Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ by knocking out a less alarming / less demanding softcore variant for the European sex film market. And, well, mission accomplished on that score at least, even if I’m not sure the end result is really a finest hour for anyone concerned.

Decidedly plot-heavy for a Franco effort from this era, the story here veers all over the place, spending much of the run-time spinning its wheels in paint-by-numbers nunsploitation/wrongly-accused-witch mode, before throwing in an unexpected (though sadly underdeveloped) swerve toward genuine supernatural shenanigans, a few scenes apparently torn straight from the script of 1968’s ‘Justine’ (possibly Franco’s worst movie to this date), some random historical intrigue involving William of Orange’s invasion of Britain in 1688, and a final reel diversion into one of the director’s beloved seduce-them-and-kill-them vengeance narratives (cf: ‘Miss Muerte’, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’, ‘Venus in Furs’ and about a hundred others). So, make of that what you will, I guess.

Anne Libert and Britt Nichols are orphan sisters raised in a convent, one of them falsely accused of witchcraft whilst the other finds herself indoctrinated into some genuine witchcraft. Karen Field (Cave of the Living Dead, The Hunchback of Soho) and Alberto Dalbés (a grumpy looking fellow who turned up in no less than eight Franco movies between ’71 and ’73) are witchfinders, French/Turkish actor Cihangir Gaffari is “Lord Justice Jefferies”, and Howard Vernon turns up as an absent-minded astronomer secretly plotting the downfall of the king. A shifty crew, and no mistake.

Although jam-packed with crowd-pleasing nudity and sex scenes, ‘The Demons’ is sadly somewhat lacking in Franco’s special sauce. He does get to indulge his peculiar fetish for nude women tied to X-shaped wooden frames (cf: ‘Necronomicon’, ‘Exorcism’), and for lust-crazed lesbian sex/death encounters (cf: every damn Franco film ever), with his trademark crotch-zoom is much in evidence. Somehow though, it all still comes across as kinda vanilla – rote b-movie sleaze stuff really, and even the occasional moments of flat-out craziness just too daft to really work. The Britt Nichols “Satanic rape” scene in particular is one of most ridiculous things I’ve seen in a while. Anne Libert certainly looks the part in her nominal lead role, but the somnambulant acting style she carries across from ‘Virgin..’ doesn’t really fly in this more dramatic role, and sparks are never quite kicked up the way they should be. 3/5

Similarly, most of the horror elements here seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought. The obligatory torture scenes are fairly half-hearted, neither especially gruesome nor especially involving, and the way that Nichols’ character starts going around magically transforming people into laboratory skeletons towards the end of the film is a bit of LOL-worthy eurotrash guff on a par with the spectral gorilla-suit in ‘Orlof Against the Invisible Man’. You’ve gotta love it really. A brief scene in which Nichols visits to a blind witch in her lair is pretty tripped out (“three serpents guided you here, my child”), and proceedings do take on an agreeably berserk flavour from time to time, but flat direction and bland cinematography prevent the film from ever really accumulating much of an atmosphere. 2/5

Pulp Thrills:
Not much doing really, although if ‘70s era nun / witch trial type imagery floats your boat then naturally you’ll dig it quite a bit. 2/5

Altered States:
Above all, there is a distinct lack of *weirdness* to this film, despite the occasionally out-there subject matter. Technique-wise, it catches Jess on fairly drab and routine form, with only an awesome soundtrack and the temporal/geographic dislocation discussed below really lending it anything approaching an otherworldly feel. 2/5

An accomplished musician, linguist, gourmet, pop culture obsessive and unstoppable autodidact, Franco’s formidable learning apparently didn’t stretch much to the study of history, and his attempts to conjure a periodic setting here are even more off-message than usual, as a story purportedly set in 17th century England delights in a dress-code that veers from the late middle ages to the 18th century, and features styles of architecture and décor that have never been seen on these shores in any era. Outside meanwhile, the olive trees of the English countryside are bathed in glorious Mediterranean sunshine, and Franco & Daniel White’s blinding soundtrack of fuzz-rock jams and flickknife flute-funk evokes that unmistakable post-Cromwellian atmosphere about as well as you’d expect. Not that I’m complaining, you understand – I’d far rather spend time in Jess Franco’s head than in some dour Merchant Ivory period drama, and the director’s heroic disregard for any kind of historical/geographic accuracy is actually one of the things I like best about this film. Elsewhere, the distinctive villa used in ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’ features prominently, as do some nice Spanish castles and such. 4/5

As we shall learn as this survey progresses, period settings and literary source material often seem to have acted as kryptonite for Franco, causing him to rein in his eccentricities in search of a ‘slicker’, more ‘respectable’ style of filmmaking that actually ended up just as sloppy as his weirder, cheaper films, only far less enjoyable. Other films suffered far more severely from this malady than ‘The Demons’ (which certainly doesn’t purport to be slick or respectable by any stretch of the imagination), but it nonetheless seems to have fallen victim to it to a certain extent, as our man largely resists the urge to cut loose, instead turning in an efficient Euro-sleaze picture that only occasionally gets as wild as we might have hoped. Between all the sex and violence and intrigue and diabolism there is at least plenty going on, so if you’re in the mood for a bit of brainless, post-‘Mark of the Devil’ fun, this will probably do the trick, but it doesn’t really strike me as vintage Franco.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Macumba Sexual (1981)

Amazingly, this appears to be a Jess Franco film only ever issued under one name.

Of the numerous films Franco made in the early ‘80s for Spain’s ‘Golden Films Internacional’, many seem to be pretty lightweight softcore flicks, leading me to speculate that they must have been somewhat taken aback when they threw on the reels for this one and discovered that their man had been inspired to deliver something wholly other on this excursion.

In narrative terms a straight rehash of the familiar ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ plot-line, ‘Macumba Sexual’ finds Canary Island-dwelling real estate agent Lina Romay (sporting a blonde wig in her “Candy Coster” alter-ego) being summoned to remote spot that’s either on the North African coast or a fairly large, sparsely inhabited desert island (it’s kind of unclear..?), where she finds herself falling under the psychic and sexual control of a possibly-undead African witch named, I’m afraid, Princess Obongo, played by infamous French sex/sleaze star Ajita Wilson.

Although packed from start to finish with writhing naked bodies and orgasmic sex rites, including a few moments that are bordering on hardcore (I think the BBFC must have been sleeping on the job when they gave this an uncut ‘18’), ‘Macumba Sexual’ is not really the kind of thing that’s liable to get any well-adjusted individual ‘in the mood’, exactly.

Instead, it is one of a select handful of Franco films (his best ones, usually) in which sex is treated not just as fun and games, but as something far more dangerous and unsettling – as a means of attaining psychic domination over others, as a kind of hysterical compulsion, or a gateway by which dark forces might enter. Touching on all of these troubling notions to some extent, ‘Macumba Sexual’ is a pretty heavy trip through the darkest corners of Franco’s erotic imagination - not just a horror film with sex, or a sex film with horror, but a film in which the sex IS the horror.

Also, you get to see Antonio Mayans’ wang, and Lina walking around in some denim and lace-based outfits that present a significant challenge to the notion of ‘acceptable public apparel’. 4/5

Presented by Franco as stifling, claustrophobic fever-dream where unchecked sexual dementia blurs into the menacing, repetitive trance of a folk-magick hex, the whole film has the feel of a series of hallucinations brought on by extreme heat and dehydration. The use of ‘sinister’ African imagery and fertility charms only occasionally borders on the goofy, and you can practically feel the deadening tropical heat oozing from the screen.

Often described as an “alleged transsexual”, whatever that’s supposed to imply, Ajita Wilson simply looks fucking terrifying here, and the blurry, sun-damaged footage of her striding through the sand of Lina’s dreams with her two drooling, dog-walking human slaves is truly the stuff of nightmares.

For any viewers still trying to hang on to the idea that they’re watching a conventional sex film even after all that business, the fearful mood is further enhanced by a soundtrack of droning electronic feedback and echoed faux-hoodoo vocal chants that is altogether more menacing than the kitschy fare that usually predominates in these kinda things, and Franco ups the ante further by busting out some impulsive moments of startlingly disorientating, near avant-garde filmmaking technique. 4/5

Pulp Thrills:
Nada. With the stylistic excesses of the ‘60s and ‘70s behind him, Jess is jamming econo here, and the film’s dark tone leaves little room for any genre-bending frivolity. Whether Princess Obongo’s assorted black magick fetishes and rites have any legitimacy beyond Franco’s warped imaginings and the handful of ropey props he picked up down the local tourist market is doubtful, but nonetheless the film’s magical/supernatural elements are played out in a surprisingly naturalistic and believable manner. 1/5

Altered States:
What…? Where am I? Did that just… happen? I don’t feel too good… there are sexy pictures in my mind, but they’re all kind of frightening. I think I’m going to go curl up in the corner, until it goes away. Can you open the windows, please? 5/5

Of all the jarring modernist edifices and brutalist hotel blocks that Franco’s keen eye discovered knocking about in the Mediterranean during the ‘70s, the location used for Princess Obongo’s residence is definitely one of the most memorable – a complex of visionary Afro-futurist buildings overlooking a shimmering desert coastline, it lends an even more sinister and otherworldly quality to the events that transpire within. Elsewhere, long camel rides across the windswept desert, scruffy North African(?) harbour towns and footage of Lina travelling between islands on what appears to be an old fashioned sailing ship all combine to make ‘Macumba..’ feel somewhat like a holiday brochure put together by the Marquis DeSade. 5/5

When Jess and the gang cruised out to some exotic locale to make a cheap porno in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, most of the time they just came back with a cheap porno. But the fact that occasionally, when the stars were right, he could still knock out something as haunting and unhinged as ‘Macumba Sexual’ stands as a testament to the man’s unique talent, and as a welcome reminder of the reasons why some of us are driven to spend so much time to watching, reading and writing about his films, despite their often-pretty-questionable nature.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962)

AKA: “Gritos en la Noche”, “Cries in the Night”, “The Demon Doctor”, “The Horrible Dr. Orloff”, “The Diabolical Dr Satan”.

Well, this is where it all began folks. After directing a few largely unheralded features for the domestic Spanish market, 32 year old Jesus Franco exploded (well, maybe not quite ‘exploded’, but ya know what I mean) onto the world stage with ‘The Awful Dr. Orlof’. This was his first horror film, his first international co-production, his first film with Howard Vernon, and his first collaboration with Paris-based production house Eurocine, whose long reign as Europe’s leading purveyors of barrel-scraping sleazoid nonsense was largely kick-started by the success of Dr. Orlof.

Lik a number of other early ‘60s European horrors, ‘..Dr. Orloff’ unashamedly takes a hefty chunk of its inspiration from George Franju’s ‘Les Yeux Sans Visage’ (1959) (perhaps with a side order of Freda’s contemporaneous ‘..Dr. Hichcock’, and a touch of Giorgio Ferroni’s ‘Mill of the Stone Women’ (1960)), as the eponymous doctor (played by Vernon) stalks the sordid Victorian underworld of..wherever this film is supposed to be set.. in his top hat and opera cape, eyeing up beautiful girls and dispatching his zombie-like servant ‘Morpho’ (Ricardo Valle) to drag them back to his subterranean laboratory in an isolated chateau, where he conducts sinister skin graft experiments with the aim of returning beauty and vitality to his disfigured, comatose daughter. You can probably guess the rest, more or less.

Although Franco’s script is basically little more than a simplistic retelling of a story that was already over-familiar to horror fans by the time the film was released, he nonetheless returned to the scenarios presented in his first ‘hit’ again and again in subsequent years, resurrecting the characters (or sometimes just the names) of Orlof and Morpho on a regular basis, and attempting to remake the film shot for shot on several occasions.

With the exception of a few moments of comparatively risqué footage shot for the film’s Paris release (and not included in the version I’m watching, unfortunately), ‘The Awful Dr. Orlof’ is a pretty chaste affair, conforming (on the surface at least) to the standards of decency expected of a 1962 horror movie. Look deeper however, and there is indeed a streak of weird, voyeuristic perversity bubbling up here and there, anticipating the preoccupations of Franco’s later work. In particular, the short-lived character played by Maria Silva in the film’s opening scenes certainly has the same lascivious presence as later Franco leading ladies, and the director’s particular fixations can be glimpsed both in the vigour with which she repels Morpho’s pursuit (far surpassing the traditional ‘faint & die’ approach of female victims in movies like this, despite her character supposedly being blind drunk), and also in the way that, once the brute has overpowered her and commenced carrying her unconscious body back to the lab, Franco’s camera holds close on her dangling, prone form, his interest concentrating on the motionless lady-carcass rather than the active carrier, to an extent that most filmmakers would have considered irrational and distasteful.

Although most viewers will scarcely even notice it these days, an extremely daring flash of topless nudity from one of the doctor’s unconscious victims has even led some to label ‘The Awful Dr Orlof’ “the first erotic horror film”, a claim refuted by those who point instead to an even more subliminal bit of boobage in the aforementioned ‘Mill of the Stone Women’. Both have a point I guess, but frankly if you find yourself engaged in a heated debate on the issue, it could be time to consider getting some fresh air and taking up a new hobby. 2/5

In essence, ‘The Awful Dr. Orlof’ is an off-beat but well made gothic horror film, and if its plot-line is was never liable to have viewers gasping in disbelief, the fetid nocturnal atmosphere Franco conjures on his stingy sets still impresses, as does the wild vitality of the film’s chase/suspense sequences. Given the extent to which the director would soon become synonymous with a slapdash, improvisational approach to filmmaking, it’s interesting to note how deliberate everything in ‘..Dr Orlof’ seems, with mise en scene, framing and camera movements (slow dollys rather than disorientating zooms, you’ll note) all appearing to have been planned out to the nth degree. Daniel White’s startling, dissonant score helps too, and Vernon’s furtive, menacing performance (goofing slightly on Peter Lorre, not to the extent of outright pastiche) seals the deal, resulting in an overwhelming feeling of slimy, exultant creepiness. 4/5

Pulp Thrills:
Drawing not just upon the contemporary gothic tradition, but also German expressionism, 40s Monogram b-flicks, British Jack the Ripper-style Victoriana and the weird conventions of the Edgar Wallace Krimi cycle, ‘The Awful Dr. Orlof’ is a veritable car crash of mid-century European pulp aesthetics, mixing up elements from many of the popular entertainment forms that would proceed to live, die and reconstitute themselves into new forms over the coming decade. And a totally whacked out weirdo jazz soundtrack certainly doesn’t hurt either! 5/5

Altered States:
There are some who would argue that something about the staring eyes, warped surgical disasters and blaring mono sound of these early ‘60s horror movies is inherently psychotropic, but I don’t know if I’m quite buying it in this case. The wealth of dreary, uninspired investigation scenes that pad things out in between the doctor’s depredations keep dragging things back down to earth, and… well, this will probably be the first and last time I’ll ever have cause to say such a thing about a Jess Franco movie, but basically ‘..Dr. Orlof’ is just too linear and plot-driven for me to really zone out on. 2/5

Back in the early ‘60s, circumstances meant Franco was more inclined toward films with urban settings and purpose-built sets, and as such there’s not a great deal of local colour to be found here (in fact it’s not even clear which country the film is supposed to be set in – a detail perhaps left deliberately vague to aid international sales). That canal that Orlof and Morpho row along to get to the doctor’s lab certainly looks nice though, as does the ruined chateau that’s used for the exterior shots of his hideout. 2/5

Though its impact is dulled somewhat by overbearing influence of the films that came before it and the excess of the years that followed – not to mention the arid stretches of investigative tedium – ‘..Dr. Orlof’s best scenes nonetheless convey a crazy, fast-moving visceral power that marks the film out as the work of a director embarking on a different journey entirely from his gothic/krimi contemporaries.

Sunday, 12 August 2012


Well, it’s been almost a year since I posted my initial reappraisal of Jess Franco’s work and promised to bite the bullet and start writing some reviews of his films. I think the time has come. As I stated in that post, I think trying to do conventional, full length reviews of individual Franco films would be foolish in the extreme. To use a rather pungent film/music metaphor, Franco is less like a guy playing individual ‘songs’ and waiting for applause and more like an avant garde noise musician – sending out a constant roar, twisting dials and pushing buttons to vary the tone and create new effect, regardless of whether you like it or not. This methodology, plus the sheer weight of his output (drawing up a shortlist, I’ve got about twenty five titles sitting here awaiting review, and I’m by no means a dedicated collector), calls for a new approach.

Thus: The Franco Files. My aim here will be to look at each of the available films in turn, outlining context and content, rating how they stack up in terms of the various factors that make for a perfect Franco viewing experience (kinkiness, creepitude, pulp thrills etc) and assessing the way in which they fit into the wider stream of the Franco-verse. I’ll probably do these write ups in fits and starts, as and when I feel like it, but the basic plan will be to do them in batches of three, each consisting of one of the earliest Franco films I have access to, one of the latest (currently I’ve not ventured much beyond the early ‘80s, mind you), and one from somewhere in the middle, thus hopefully allowing us to build up a relatively balanced picture of the innumerable wild tangents he embarked on during his three decades or so of peak productivity.

I’m probably not the first to undertake such a lunatic endeavour, and no doubt I won’t be the last (we await Stephen Thrower’s forthcoming Franco book with something akin to a teeth-grinding frenzy of anticipation), but if it helps in some small way further spread knowledge, inspire discussion - and perhaps even evoke understanding - of the work of the one man cinematic hurricane that is Jesus Franco, then perhaps all those nights when I’ve found myself dazed on the sofa at 1am wondering what in the hell I’m looking at won’t have been wasted.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Belated Deathblog:
Ronald Searle

When the celebrated illustrator and cartoonist Ronald Searle died in December of last year, I wanted to do a tribute post to him here, but felt that that post should consist of some choice examples of his work, rather than just pointless, poorly thought out words. Unfortunately though, my ability to present such examples was compromised by my failure to locate the volume that features all of my favourite Searle drawings, and furthermore represents my main point of connection with his work. Images available online proved generally unsatisfactory, and so, rather than cobble together some half-hearted obit post, I abandoned the idea.

Now though, the collection ‘Hurrah for St. Trinians’, published in hardback in 1948 by McDonald of London, and eventually purchased by me from a second hand bookshop in Shrewsbury for the princely sum of £2, is back in my hands, and we can proceed apace.

I have very fond memories of finding and buying this book, then sitting in the park with some friends, laughing ourselves stupid as we looked over the cartoons within. Why did we laugh so much? It’s difficult to explain really. After all, most of the ‘gags’ in Searle’s cartoons are pretty weak, bordering on non-existent, but… that’s not really the point. It’s the detail, immediacy and uncanny vitality of his artwork – sort of an unlikely combination of subtlety, precision and absolute dementia - that raises a fair few of them to the level of genius. ‘Mr Eccle Shave’ in particular has lived on in my mind, making me cackle at inappropriate moments, ever since.

As the venerable D.B. Wyndham Lewis puts it more eloquently in his introduction to the book:

“In a Parisian gunsmith’s window a short time ago I saw a delightful little automatic, handbag-size, with a butt of pink-and-blue enamel designed with Cupids and butterflies; just the thing for the Ritz cocktail hour. Encountering the satiric art of Mr. Ronald Searle in due course, it struck me at first glance that the infinite grace and finesse of his method of liquidating the Booboisie was strangely similar, but I was wrong. Mr. Searle is adverse to heat and noise. There is no bang, and his victims do not tumble off their stools in grotesque attitudes, interrupting polite conversation and annoying the barman. They subside quietly and very gently into decorative patterns and don’t know what hit them. It is, so to speak, a fine Florentine blade slipped with regretful courtesy under the fifth rib, and Mr. Searle is all too sadly aware that the Cinquecento engraving on the blade is wasted on those dopes.”

And so, without further ado, here’s the Florentine blade in action.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Scala Beyond.

Just thought I’d write a quick heads up for any London/UK based readers, to alert you to the existence of the Scala Beyond season – sequel to last year’s Scala Forever - which is taking place through August and September. I accidentally found myself wondering into the press launch for the season a couple of weeks back, and my heart swelled with joy to see a line-up of events even more idiosyncratic and crazed that last year – a veritable cornucopia of THE-KINDA-STUFF-WE-LIKE-AROUND-HERE, and a great chance to create/experience a kind of movie-going that’s neither Hollywood blandness nor sniffy arthouse, but just… weird and cool and good, y’know?

Because really, who could say no to the rare opportunity to sit in a public space with other people and watch stuff ranging from ‘The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein’ to ‘Kilink in Istanbul’ to ‘Q: The Winged Serpent’ to ‘Penda’s Fen’? Well… truth be told, I didn’t actually make it to many of last years screenings for various reasons, but I’m damn well going to do my damnedest to get along to as many as possible this year, so if anyone else out there is thinking of attending, by all means give me a shout.

In particular, those who share my belief that Saturday nights are best spent in a haze of whisky and pro-plus powering through stuff like ‘Lady Terminator’, ‘Messiah of Evil’ and ‘Fascination’ are encouraged to check out the listings for Filmbar70’s various all-nighters… could be quite an experience.

Oh, and there are other things happening in other UK cities too – Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham - and even out-of-town events in Cumbria, Northamptonshire etc., if you happen to live near those places.

Anyway, a full line-up of events can be perused via a handy interactive menu on the website. Good luck and god bless, etc.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Devil’s Rain
(Robert Fuest, 1975)

As I found myself preparing to watch ‘The Devil’s Rain’ last week, I thought it might be fun to do something a bit different with this review - kind of a ‘Live Blog’, recording my observations as they occur to me whilst viewing. So, headphones on and VLC Player and Word document open side by side, that’s exactly what I did. Grammar, phrasing and fact checking have subsequently been revised, but aside from that, what follows is an exact record of the transactions that took place on that fateful night, between this 1975 motion picture and my brain.

00:35 Hieronymus Bosch credits sequence. Inspired or lazy? Your call. Either way, something tells me ‘The Devil’s Rain’ is unlikely to be able to live up to magnified details from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ presented here.

01:00 One of those movies where you feel like the casting director (Lea Stalmaster, take a bow) should be driving around in a golden Cadillac. Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, William Shatner and a pre-fame John Travolta – together at least.

01:20 Anton LaVey as ‘Technical Advisor’? Gimme a break. Total mersh Satanist movie.

01:40 Until his credit popped up, I had no idea this was directed by Robert Fuest (‘The Abominable Dr. Phibes’, ‘The Final Programme’). Expectation.. rising.

05:40 “Winds…. knocked the lines down!” – ah, William Shatner. How have I managed all these years, watching films that he’s not in?

07:20 So… Shatner’s father has returned home, cryptically noted that ‘Corbis’ is waiting in the desert, waiting for the book, then promptly melted into a pile of multi-coloured poster-paint goo, right there on the doorstep. Ida Lupino has intoned the words “In nomine Satanis” for presumably the first and last time in her storied career, and Shatner’s reaction shot says it all. So far this is… awesome? Well it depends on your point of view I guess, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are shaping up.

9:00 Grimoire hidden under the carpet. They’ll never find it there! I like how this book is being imbued with such vast metaphysical import. Kinda reminds me of those Lovecraft stories wherein even being in the room as the Necronomicon is enough to drive you to a state of nervous paralysis.

10:00 Shatner’s got a magnum and a cowboy hat. He’s going to fight the devil… on his terms. I can scarcely wait.

11:45 Goddamn. I was going to crack wise about the family’s strange, kindly-old-man servant (I think he’s a servant of some kind? Although he could just as easily be an uncle or something? I don't think it's ever made clear..), but this scene in which Shatner finds him tied to the ceiling by his feet, shrieking like a trapped beast, is actually incredibly upsetting. A very peculiar and unnerving performance from TV actor Woody Chambliss (who also played the kindly old man in Jim McBride’s unusual post-apocalypse movie ‘Glen & Randa’).

14:00 Man, the composer is reeeaaallly pushing that creepy dissonant, scraping glissandro string stuff. It can still be a great effect on soundtracks when done well, but the way he’s hammering it here is just beyond ridiculous, blasting it beyond cliché and out the other side.

16:00 Great, dreamy landscape shots illustrate Shatner’s journey to ‘the desert’. Loving the abandoned chapel set against the sky. For a mainstream(ish) studio picture, ‘The Devil’s Rain’ has a very disconnected, otherworldly atmosphere going on – reminds me slightly of dope-addled hippie era horror movies like ‘Werewolves on Wheels’ and ‘The Velvet Vampire’.

16:30 I love the way that the abandoned settlement where the Satanists dwell is obviously just a backlot Western town; “Be careful stranger, no one’s set foot in that there ghost town since they finished doing second unit work on ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ last month…”

16:59 Tumbleweed!

18:00 Borgnine!

18:20 Borgnine’s water is bitter…but it’s a sweet way to end a thirst. Do I detect a certain fairy tale quality to this story?

20:33 A challenge! Shatner’s faith against Borgnine’s! I don’t know what to think.

21:40 Chanting… altar… pentagram. Job’s a good ‘un.

23:20 “Come forth from the abyss… open wide the gates of hell” – hmm, pretty corny stuff this. Old Anton earning his cheque, no doubt. Awesome stain glass window though, and I appreciate the shots of the dude playing the organ.

27:00 Satanists bleed multi-coloured goo. Protective talisman turns into a snake. Eyeless Lupino (un)stares on, and Shatner’s on the run. This whole sequence is really well shot.

29:00 Whoa, sudden scene change! Ok, so… is everything we’ve seen so far actually taking place in the subconscious of a woman (Mrs Preston? Shatner’s moustachioed brother’s wife?), who is taking part in some kind of ESP experiment in front of a lecture theatre full of students…?

31:30 Well, no, actually. Turns out that was just some kind of inexplicable diversion. Now we’re back down to… well I hesitate to say ‘earth’, but wherever it is the preceding scenes have been taking place…where Moustachioed Bro and his wife have returned home in search of his vanished family. The sheriff says half the county’s been washed away by the floods and he can’t possibly spare any men, but uh, if you guys want to grab some guns and go hunting for yr missing relatives in that old Western backlot town, be my guest – gimme a call in the morning or whatever and let me know how it goes. Now that’s the kind of light touch approach to law enforcement I can get with.

34:00 William Shatner fears not the torments of hell. In case you had any doubts.

37:00 Beautifully symmetrical long-shot of the car pulling up outside the frontier chapel… hokey as all this is, Fuest seems to be doing his best to build a real strong sense of oneiric disorientation…

43:00 Ladies and gentlemen, introducing John Travolta in his debut screen appearance, being kicked down the stairs by a dude with a moustache.

44:45 Red-tinted flashback to the Satanists’ origins as a heretical puritan sect back in colonial days. I’ll admit that my grasp of American history might be a bit shaky in places, but I wasn’t aware that many 17th century puritan sects made it out quite as far as Southern California..?

46:50 Love Ancestor-Borgnine’s faux innocence: oh, tis a mob of flaming torch weilding villagers at the door. What brings you fellows out here so late in the evening?

47:20 “Thou art the one… SLUT!” – another dialogue first for a great actor.

49:00 Ernie pulls some real oomph into his obligatory burned-at-the-stake “I curse you all” speech.

52:00 Ok, so thus far I wouldn’t go as far as to say this movie is ‘good’ exactly, but I certainly respect the filmmakers’ decision to turn in a film for a Hollywood studio that not only goes for a full-on delirious/dreamy fantastique atmosphere, making *no attempt whatsoever* to frame its action in the real world, but also seems to have been scripted by a somnambulant wino who once read a Dennis Wheatley book…

52:30 Holy shit! Maybe it’s just because I’m watching this with headphones on in the dark, but that wholly predictable backseat-of-the-car jump scare really put the wind up me. For all that I dissed the soundtrack above, the sound mix here was fucking murderous.

55:00 I wish I could have been there when they were filming this mass Satanist rally in the desert. Looks like a beautiful evening. All the open flame blowing in the breeze, sackcloth against yr skin… ah, that’s living.

56:15 So, uh… there was just a sudden insert shot of a dynamite explosion and now Ernest Borgnine has turned into a furry-faced, horned goat-man.

58:00 You too may wish to by sprinkled with ‘the waters of forgetfulness’ after watching Goat-Borgnine torture a shirtless William Shatner.

60:00 Goat-Borgnine looks too mischievous and lovable to really be a decent villain. I want him to caper off and lead us to a whimsical fantasy adventure of some kind, not stand here droning on about the doom that awaits our immortal souls.

70:30 This ‘devil’s rain’ vessel full of howling souls thing is a neat special effect. Very much reminds me of the kind of tricks Fuest was pulling off in ‘..Dr. Phibes’.

77:00 Vengeance of Goat-Borgnine forestalled due to melting.

79:30 More inexplicable dynamite blasts, to accompany the melting. You’d think God was some sort of unhinged mining prospector, the amount of bang-sticks he seems to be throwing around the place.

82:00 You know, everything I’ve read about this film over the years has mentioned the ridiculous amount of time dedicated to the melting of the cultists, but now that I come to watch it myself, I’m kinda disappointed. I was expecting a sequence of unparalleled repetitious madness, but actually the time allotted to the melting seems fairly reasonable. I mean, they clearly had a lot of cool melting effects to show off, and nothing much else to offer by way of a finale (give or take a few sticks of dynamite), so four or five minutes of melting doesn’t strike me as particularly excessive. In fact I could easily have gone for some more melting. I wanted a whole endless, senseless psychedelic melting extravaganza, goddamnit!

84:00 Chapel explodes – again, for no reason.

85:00 Well, there we have it folks. ‘The Devil’s Rain’. It is what it is, I suppose. Despite being probably one of the silliest films ever bankrolled by a Hollywood studio, it’s certainly worth a watch for us weirdo horror fans. It has some great ideas and distinctive visuals, and if they’d focused more on the darker aspects of the story and not made the portrayal of black magic so cartoon-ish and OTT, it could have been a pretty effective weirdo horror film. As it is though, the writing is intolerably flimsy (even from a Euro-horror fan’s POV), the acting is jaw-droppingly bad (ditto), the pacing is all over the joint, and the whole thing never quite comes together the way it should. Ah well – I still kinda enjoyed it, and I’m glad they had the guts to make it the way they did, rather than just doing some lifeless Exorcist/Omen knock-off and pleasing the suits. It brought us the sight of Ernest Borgnine turning into a giant goat and melting into a pile of poster paint goo, and for that I am thankful.

And thus ends our survey of '70s Backwoods Satanist Movies That Inexplicably Feature Great, Sam Peckipah-affiliated Actors. If anyone can think of any more that I might have overlooked though, please let me know, and I'll track them down post-haste!