Thursday, 24 January 2013

Wow, I Actually Saw a New Film:
Some Thoughts on ‘Django Unchained’.

This week saw me undertaking my bi-annual trip to the cinema to actually see a new film, and turns out it gave me a whole bunch of stuff to get off my chest, so why not do so right here, I thought to myself, if only to spare my real life friends the hassle of having to listen?


Readers should be aware that there are going to be some fairly extensive spoilers in what follows, so if that’s an issue for you, I’d suggest waiting until you’ve seen the film before reading.


To begin, I should state that I like Quentin Tarantino’s films and offer no apology for it. For all that their thefts from other films can prove irksome at times, they remain ridiculously good fun, technically impeccable, and generally represent the best (only?) chance we currently get to see some of the spirit of 60s/70s low budget filmmaking blown up to 21st century blockbuster proportions. And like all QT pictures,’ Django..’ is indeed hugely entertaining - a defiantly UN-subtle, brightly hued business that’ll have you leaving the auditorium with a swing in your stride and a cool song in your head (hopefully the newly composed Ennio Morricone one, which is bloody stunning – wish it had been allowed to play out for longer in the film).

Moreso than any of his previous films though, the second you start to think more deeply on what just transpired on screen, the illusion collapses, and the gaping, ugly flaws of the project are revealed.

The thing is y’see, for me the success of Tarantino’s previous films rests on the fact that (with possible exception of ‘Jackie Brown’) they have all been entirely cynical, self-absorbed endeavours, wherein characters and situations simply play out as tropes of the various genres and aesthetics he’s riffing on – mechanisms for providing the requisite sights and sensations we expect from films like these, openly rejoicing in the fact that there’s no deeper purpose, no moral imperative at work whatsoever – the cinematic equivalent of the enthusiastic sneer that seems permanently etched on the director’s face. None of which is a criticism; on the contrary, it’s great, and it works very well for him.

‘Django Unchained’ though marks something of a sea-change in his approach. Perhaps tapping a bit too heavily into the underlying sentimentality of the Western genre, this one sees him inexplicably presenting us with what is essentially an earnest melodrama with a fairy tale ending – a film in which the characters speak directly in terms of love and friendship and destiny, rather than just offering barbed comment on the cinematic archetypes they represent, and in which genuine historical/political issues are evoked, and dealt with on a strictly one dimensional good vs evil type level. This new approach brings with it a new set of expectations, one that the director is perhaps not quite so used to meeting.

We’ll get onto that shortly, but first off, a more minor, personal, ranting-outside-the-cinema type gripe. I’ll put these paragraphs in italics so you can easily skip them if you just plain don’t give a shit.

Despite his presumed status as a big fan of Westerns, I felt that QT at several points failed to stay true to the core values of the genre as I understand it. I don’t mean in terms of stuff like shifting the action from the West to the South and pushing back the clock to the pre-civil war era (things that you could at least *imagine* Leone or Peckinpah doing, even if they didn’t actually do them), but more in terms of the way the characters function, and the way that their actions define our sympathies towards them.

In essence, what I’ve always loved about the figure of the archetypal cowboy hero – what makes him so distinct from the often tedious romantic/chivalric heroes of most popular fiction – is that he operates on a purely utilitarian level. In a good Western, making a big show of honour and pontificating about one’s beliefs is left up to the bad guy. The cowboy silently observes, his motives opaque. And when the time comes, he does what needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, then buggers off, leaving the bad guy floundering in his own pomposity and hypocrisy until he meets his inevitable demise. Fucking brilliant! That’s what I want ‘heroism’ within this genre to represent basically, and I was hoping that, given his ingrained cynicism and love of genre tradition, QT would come though with some of that good stuff. Sadly not.

What particularly irked me was the key moment when Christoph Waltz’s character shoots DiCaprio. Waltz’s Dr Schultz very much comes from the ‘canny, educated foreigner / enabler of the primary hero’ tradition of Van Cleef in ‘For a Few Dollars More’, Franco Nero in ‘Companeros’ etc, and if there’s one thing all of those guys would have recognised, it’s that they had a clear chance here to walk away in one piece with their goal (freedom for Django’s wife) achieved, without having to fire a shot… mission accomplished. But instead Schultz gets involved in some sanctimonious puffery about refusing to shake hands with the guy. Any proper, utilitarian cowboy-hero would realise that shaking hands with a bastard means nothing – that both men will be judged by their actions, not some ceremonial gesture – and would have got on with it and got the hell out of there. Even William Holden and the Wild Bunch would have realised that the odds were against them at that point, capitulated and withdrawn to contemplate vengeance at a later date.

Not Tarantino’s beta-hero though – he’s got to beat his chest and refuse to compromise and make his big moral point… even when that guarantees his own death and of a life of continued misery for the friends he’s gone to so much trouble to help out. Schultz is presented to us as a steadfast and noble character, worthy of tribute, but as he dies all we can think is “what an idiot”. Tarantino sets him up as a hero, but in the end he doesn’t make the grade and dies a fool, betraying his ground level goals for some misplaced moment of idealism.

So that pissed me off. And as for Django himself, well his conduct is even more troublesome in the hero stakes. If you were to assemble a panel of great cowboys of yore – Franco Nero’s Django included - and ask them to put themselves in New Django’s shoes during the epic gun battle that immediately follows the deaths of Shultz and Candie, I think their priorities would be clear – the girl (D’s wife) is the pivotal object in this scenario (and as far as the film is concerned, she very much IS an object, but that’s another story..), so keep her in sight, keep her safe and get her out of there. But what does Django do? He abandons her completely, running off to some other part of the mansion and blasting away at everyone in sight, as the remaining baddies casually creep up and put a gun to her head. Again – what an idiot! I don’t care how cool and aspirational you look in your black cowboy get-up Django, you fail cowboy class for that one.

Obviously these are just my own bugbears with the minutiae of the film’s plotting, based on expectations created by a bunch of old movies I happen to like, and as such might be entirely irrelevant to the casual viewer, but there is also something more seriously wrong with ‘Django Unchained’ that didn’t really occur to me until I was walking home from the cinema, something that put a bad taste in my mouth and proceeded to infest my feelings about just about every part of the movie, and that – and I realise how much of an ass I sound saying this about a Quentin Tarantino film – is the moral message that ‘Django..’ conveys.

As mentioned above, ‘Django..’ is the first film Tarantino has made that, by the very nature of its melodramatic storytelling and emotive subject matter, is forced to embody a social/political message, however simplistic. Ok, so I guess ‘Inglourious Basterds’ spent a long time telling us that Nazis are bad, but hopefully most viewers were smart enough to realise that that movie had more to do with other war movies than it did with the actual war, and treated its goofily superficial ‘message’ accordingly. ‘Django..’s message is similarly blunt, and we get it sorted out nicely in the opening five minutes - “racism is bad, folks – now enjoy the show”. And we do, patting ourselves on the back for being such a good liberal audience as we go along.

But unlike ‘..Basterds’, ‘Django..’ has no post-modern safety-net to fall back on, and, well I don’t quite know how to best put this, but: demonstrating that racism is wrong and that black people are the equals of white people should not exactly be a difficult proposition for a filmmaker to achieve in a one dimensional comic book-style movie in 2013. Issues of fate vs free will, imprisonment vs self-determination, the individual as representative of the masses etc should pretty much write themselves into a story about slavery, with no additional head-thinkin’ required. It’s not like QT is trying to do anything difficult or challenging with this material – it’s straight down the line primary school level ethics, and yet somehow he manages to screw it up royally.

The mess he makes of things might not be immediately obvious on a surface level, but just dig this ok, and see if you can get what I’m talking about:

When Schultz picks out Django to help him at the start of the film, it’s more or less pure chance. It’s not because he’s the toughest or the coolest or the smartest, it’s just because of some random information he happens to possess. Under different circumstances, he could have picked out any other slave in the South, and surely, we assume, this is going to be the point of the movie – that each and every slave can become Django, can break free and define his or her own future.

And yet when we reach the end of the story some two and a half hours later, this fairly elementary point has never been made. Instead the film falls victim to the rather insidious notion of unearned exceptionalism that seems to have become the norm in heroic Hollywood narratives in recent years – a notion that takes on a particularly ugly aspect when mixed up with issues of racism and historical destiny.

Although Candie and the world he represents has been thoroughly shot, castrated, crippled and blown up by the end of the film, his central doctrine of phrenology-guided racism – which he is allowed to fully outline in a lengthy dialogue scene – has never actually been effectively challenged. At the film’s conclusion, Django actually TAKES A LINE from the dead villain’s bullshit, happily describing himself as “the one in ten thousand exceptional n**ger”, whilst the other black characters in the film remain helpless imbeciles, craven traitors or, in the case of the women, so incapable of independent action they might as well be statues.

I mean, I hate to be the one to engage in supercilious “blah blah, so and so’s being vaguely racially insensitive” internet bitching as regards a movie that was generally highly enjoyable, and yes, Spike Lee’s much-publicised dismissal of the film was pompous and self-defeating (pretty much turning his nose up at the idea that a mere genre film could ever address serious issues), but still: honest to god Quentin, what were you THINKING?

Not only does this poorly-managed shift from random everyman to pre-destined superhero make for a lousy bit of screen-writing that even a second-rate spaghetti western director would probably have wanted ironed out before the cameras rolled, it also exposes a failure to responsibly address even the most basic moral/political issues that reflects very badly on a guy who’s been directing pretty good movies for over twenty years now. Hopefully he can chalk this one up to experience and return to what he does best – making superficial, escapist capers about amoral characters with no connection to the real world whatsoever.

Because, on that level at least, ‘Django..’ succeeds pretty well. There are lots of memorable scenes, good gags, fine performances from the supporting cast, great bits of filmmaking etc, all present and correct. It’s a pretty light-hearted affair given the subject matter, but as long as you’re primed to expect something more like one of Robert Rodriquez’ shiny action movie westerns than a work that approaches the great directors mentioned elsewhere in this post, it’s a good time, with a handful of transcendent moments that stir the blood the way a good western should.

For me, the best of these moments comes in the scene in which Django dispatches the Australian gangers who have been charged with delivering him to a hell-on-earth mining operation and high-tails it back to Candie’s plantation for a final showdown. There’s something truly rousing – genuinely heroic - about the way he hitches himself up on an unsaddled horse and roars off over the horizon, rifle in hand, as his fellow slaves stare at him in disbelief, his legend being born behind their eyes – “holy shit, check THAT guy out”. The film could have benefitted hugely from a few more moments like that – moments that give the figure of Django a wider role in the emancipation of black America, rather than just callously writing him off as an “exceptional n**ger”, standing head and shoulders above his fellows.

The western may traditionally be regarded as a genre that celebrates the individual, but as aficionados of the form like Tarantino should be aware, many of the best entries in the canon – and even most lesser-known John Wayne flicks – tend to end with the hero succeeding only thanks to the bonds of trust and compromise he has built with his allies (that utilitarianism again). And in the rare instances in which westerns have engaged with political issues and succeeded in making some kind of point ( I’m thinking particularly of Corbucci’s ‘Companeros’ and Damiano Damiani’s superb ‘Quien Sabe’ /‘A Bullet For The General’), they have done so through an appeal to a basic revolutionary collectivism, ending with the individual hero subsumed into the mass of the people, ready to overthrow the grandiose clowns who oppress them, regardless of personal loss or gain. I think that this approach would have been a perfect fit for Tarantino’s mixture of spaghetti western and slave plantation Southern gothic, and could have really given Django’s story the wings it deserved.

Given the director’s joyous screwing with history in “..Basterds”, what I really wanted to see at the end of this film (and it wouldn’t have taken much of a change of narrative to bring it about) is Django riding back towards the Big House not alone, but at the head of a whole army of freed slaves, fighting the Civil War two years early, with no damn Abraham Lincoln needed to help him out.

Corny and obvious maybe, but then EVERYTHING in this story is corny and obvious, and if you’re going to spell things out for the audience rather than relying on their perceived cultural sophistication (as per QT’s previous ironic mode), you might as well go the whole distance and leave their hearts swelling with cathartic glee, rather than with that faint withering feeling that accompanies yet another tale of a Chosen One stomping all over everybody for the sake of his individual happiness with his plastic fairy tale bride.

And I know, I know – I’ve just spent two thousand words chewing Quentin Tarantino out for making a film that doesn’t *mean anything, man*. I can’t believe it either. What a bore. As I say, the fact that they don’t mean anything is what I LIKED about all his previous films! But like any good cowboy, if he’s going to talk the talk, he needs to walk the walk, and failing to even mosey through a one-dimensional “racism is bad” revenge story without falling on his ass does not bode well for his future career as a proponent of grown-up issues. Sorry dude. But at least the violence was cool, and the one-liners were funny, and the music was good. Roll on ‘Kill Bill Pt. III’.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Panic Over Istanbul:
A Two-Fisted Turkish Triple Bill!

Polite Notice: I’m afraid this is going to be a fairly huge post. As it’s a continuous piece of writing covering three films I watched in a single sitting, I didn’t want to split it up. So you might want to get comfortable, pour a drink.. whatever gets you through the day whilst reading rubbish about old movies on shiny computer screens. It’s gonna be a lot of fun though, honest. You’ll get through it in no time. Pour another drink, that should help.

A phenomenon that flew under the radar of even the most adventurous international film fans until recently, the strange world of Turkish pulp/pop cinema has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence over the past few years, as the remaining artefacts of this apparently wildly prolific popular film industry have finally found their way to the eyes & ears of Western viewers. This is partly down to the pioneering efforts of DVD companies such as Onar Films (now sadly defunct following the death of founder Bill Barounis), and partly due to the slightly more shady means of bootlegging, file-sharing and internet streaming, which has allowed curious layabouts and bored teenagers all over the world to share a laugh and a WTF over such Youtube perennials as ‘Turkish Star Wars’ and ‘Turkish ET’.

There’s more to this tradition than just inept rip-offs of Hollywood hits however, and whilst an admirably carefree approach to the plunder of copyrighted characters, music and sometimes even actual footage seems to have defined Turkey’s b-movie output right from its origins in the early ‘60s, these films are in other respects rather inspired – a form of impoverished, audience-pleasing popular cinema that is funny, fast-moving and hugely entertaining… for those of us who can still appreciate the simple joys of a bunch of guys in outlandish costumes punching each other, at any rate.

To all intents and purposes, these are exactly the kind of films that ten year old boys would make if given the chance, expressing a sense of comic book naivety that makes your average Mexican lucha libre movie look like the lost musings of Pasolini by comparison. Simplistic plotlines, cartoonish violence, thinly veiled imitations of popular characters running around in home-sewn costumes, beautiful ladies in their underclothes, weird Bond-style villains and their assorted low-rent schemes and, most importantly, non-stop action – these are the things that make these movies tick, and tick they do, like the clock on a primitive time-bomb, thrown from the window of an out of control Skoda.

In Turkey, costumed heroes seem to be afflicted neither by the surrealist identity confusion of the French pulp tradition, nor by the angst of post-Stan Lee American superheroes. In a Turkish movie, if a guy wears the mask, then that’s who he is, and you’d better duck cos he’s coming to kick your ass! This is brutishly utilitarian film-making, but it’s also precisely the kind of undemanding, unpretentious entertainment I feel we need more of in these days of tediously contrived, middle-brow ‘cleverness’. Also, these flicks are only about sixty or seventy minutes long, so as long as you can find ‘em*, you can really binge on them – the cinematic equivalent of crunchy, sugar-coated sweets. That’s exactly what I did over Christmas, and I was taking notes too, so without further ado, let’s relocate to some unimaginably dingy flea-pit auditorium in the heart of Istanbul and enjoy three surviving examples of this proud tradition, spread evenly across the decades.

  Based on a now fairly obscure character pilfered from 1940s American comic books and an accompanying Republic Pictures serial**, Casus Kiran [aka Spy Smasher] (Yilman Atadeniz, 1968) concerns the exploits of the titular costumed hero, who, in this Turkish reiteration at least, loves his country and makes sure everybody knows his name. “That damned Spy Smasher,” his opponents are want to exclaim, “he messes up everything!”

And perhaps their umbrage is to some extent justified, as, despite our hero’s well-advertised disdain for espionage, the villains he faces in ‘Casus Kiran’ at no point seem to do anything that really identifies them as spies. On the contrary, they’re the gangsterest bunch of gangsters you ever laid eyes on, right down to their propensity for sporting wide-brimmed hats, pencil moustaches and tommy guns, in addition to the more central business of running crooked nightclubs, overseeing illegal poker games and stockpiling prodigious quantities of cash and gold. Led by a guy called Black Glove (he doesn’t wear a black glove) and an uber-boss known only as The Mask (you better believe he wears a mask), there is admittedly some stuff about them holding a stolen tape recording naming prominent individuals involved in a spy ring, but this particular plot point seems to be forgotten almost immediately, furthering the impression that spying is strictly a sideline for these fellows.

As things rolled on and no evidence of spying emerged, it occurred to me that perhaps Interpol and the Turkish authorities are merely taking advantage of Spy Smasher’s indefatigable enthusiasm for smashing spies, unleashing him instead against some particularly troublesome common criminals, whilst the real business of cold war subterfuge goes on unhindered. Makes sense really. But, with the presumed sequel in which Spy Smasher turns against his masters to uncover corruption and intrigue within the Turkish state sadly lost to history, let’s concentrate instead on the adventure at hand.

Spy Smasher is cool! Decked out in a somewhat Batman-ish costume, he rides around on a motorbike as warped fragments of Davie Allan & The Arrows’ immortal Blue’s Theme plays on the soundtrack. With him is his girlfriend Sevda, and Sevda is even cooler! She carries a Lugar, has nifty flip-up sunglasses and wears go-go boots and a kinda one piece black khaki mini-skirt type ensemble (sexy and practical!).

As they roar off to an abandoned building to have it out with baddies, Sevda and Spy Smasher seem to be really enjoying themselves. Evidently sharing the same passion for unthinking two-fisted justice, they seem to have a real nice, healthy relationship going on, especially considering that one partner never removes his face mask and insists on being addressed by his superhero name.

After an exciting introductory section with shoot-outs, explosions and frantic chases, there’s a bit of a lull as the plot gets underway, but after that the rest of the movie is basically just one extended fight scene, strung together with brief bits of expositive connecting tissue and shots of Spy Smasher cruising around on his bike.

As the man behind all of the legendary Kilink films***, director Yilman Atadeniz certainly knows his onions re: this kind of thing, and the sheer amount of fisticuffs he manages to cram into seventy-something minutes is fairly remarkable. Lacking the ‘drop three henchmen in single blow’ powers of his American counterparts, poor old Spy Smasher is forced to give each goon a thorough going over before moving on to the next one, and often he seems exhausted by the time he finally manages to get near the ‘proper’ villains, just as more goons descend, and another bout of knuckle sandwiches and body-slams begins. It’s hard not to share our hero’s frustration here, as The Mask and Black Glove repeatedly make their cowardly escape, leaving him pounding against a solid wall of thugs.

I’m sure I won’t be spoiling things much by revealing that Sevda and Spy Smasher do eventually catch up with the villains and their sinister operation, following them to their island hideaway via a moderately awesome speed-boat chase across Istanbul harbour. In a brilliant touch, The Mask is apparently so perturbed by Spy Smasher’s activities that he’s decided to cut his losses and leave town entirely, arranging for the gang’s reserves of gold to be melted down and shaped into what looks like the rear seat of a family car, the upholstery apparently stuffed with their remaining stock of cash! Surely this would seem to be setting things up for a wild car chase once the seat is installed in a vehicle, but sadly that never transpires. Maybe they were planning an additional closing chase or something, but as it is, seventy five minutes was in the can, whatever miniscule resources a film like this could command were presumably running low, and so Spy Smasher instead wraps things up using his tried & tested formula – painstakingly beating the shit out of everyone.

Sometimes erroneously known as ‘Turkish Spiderman’, T. Fikret Uçak’s 3 Dev Adam [3 Mighty Men] (1973) begins with a scene that fans of that character certainly won’t forget in a hurry.

On a deserted beach, a woman is buried up to her neck in the sand. Spiderman looks on as his goons lift up a small motorboat and start manoeuvring the churning propeller of the outboard motor toward the woman’s face. The woman screams as the propeller gets closer. Spiderman give the order, and blood is seen splattering across the bare legs of his female consort, as he waves his fists in the air and silently cheers.

Clearly this kind of madness cannot be allowed to continue. But fear not, the combined forces of El Santo and Captain America are on the case. Arriving – sans costumes, surprisingly – at Istanbul airport, the duo and their female companion (Julia, apparently) are greeted by the Turkish police, and head straight for a briefing on the antics of ‘Spider’ and his gang, who are embroiled in some kind of weird racket involving smuggling stolen antiques to the USA and crooked Mexican currency transactions, or something. With flawless attention to detail, Santo here takes the form of a lanky long-haired guy, whilst Captain America looks rather more dandyish than you might have anticipated in his snakeskin jacket, loud yellow shirt and spotted neckerchief.

If ‘Casus Kiran’ only reached the 21st century via a sun-damaged print that could have been rescued from the bottom of an ashtray in an abandoned porno theatre, my copy of ‘3 Dev Adam’ somehow manages to look even worse, adding about ten generations of VHS fuzz to the mix. But we’ve got it, and that’s the main thing. Quality is so poor that it’s often difficult to tell who’s who outside of close-ups, and as such I certainly appreciated it when our heroes finally donned their brightly coloured costumes for the duration of the innumerable fight scenes.

And, despite the increased level of violence compared the equivalent ‘60s movies, the action here still has a wonderfully cartoonish quality to it (as you might reasonably expect, I suppose). Just dig the bit where Captain America repeatedly bangs a goons head into a wall-mounted frying pan, complete with CLANG CLANG CLANG sound effect – this seconds after he’s announced his presence by jumping through a paper wall. Great stuff.

And whilst Spider is escaping from his initial confrontation with Captain America, roaring away through the sand dunes in his Cadillac no less, Santo initially finds himself reduced to a slightly uncharacteristic ‘sneaking around’ type role, breaking into the office of a bad guy-affiliated gym at night, where he stuffs some secret documents into the crotch of his pants before swiftly returning to his natural comfort zone as he tangles with the heavily moustached manager, and, naturally, a posse of nocturnal karate dudes who (as they helpfully explain) sneak in to train after dark. So you can probably guess how all that pans out. You’ll forgive the ignorance of a wrestling novice, but what’s the name of that move where he picks up a guy on his shoulders and spins him round, knocking over all the other guys..? You know the one I mean. I always love that one. Happy times.

As will be clear from the opening scene onwards, ‘Spider’ is, to all intents and purposes, Kilink [see earlier footnote for more on him], returning with a new red and blue body-suit, but a similarly nefarious set of priorities. Obviously fully cogent with his responsibilities in maintaining the noble traditions of masked Turkish villains, he likes to hang out on his yacht with a small harem of mini-dressed girls and a modestly stocked bar, there to cackle and rant to his heart’s content. Aficionados of these kinda movies probably won’t need told that our arch-fiend is just a little too paunchy to really pull off the skin-tight one-piece bodysuit, and has an absolutely tremendous evil laugh.

Naturally he runs a crooked nightclub too, and his resume of evil is soon ramped up even further when he casually steps out to strangle a naked woman to death in the shower for… reasons that rather elude me, plot-wise.. oh, hang on, yeah – he stole a statue from her apartment, that’s right. So clearly the lengthy naked strangulation scene was a simple matter of narrative necessity.

In another wonderfully indefensible shock scene, Spider further demonstrates his badness (like it needed any more demonstrating!) in a sequence that sees Turkish b-cinema achieving new heights and/or depths by ripping off the Room 101 scene from Orwell’s ‘1984’, as a poor disobedient flunky has his face eaten by hungry rats, a process aided by a purpose built rat delivery mechanism. In the unlikely event that Spider is ever brought to trial for his various outrages (rather than merely being blown up, crushed or punched to death), I’d like to imagine there’d be an anguished social worker sitting there thinking, “I knew giving that guy a library card was a bad idea”.

As you might well have guessed, Spider and his psychotic tomfoolery does rather tend to steal the show in ‘3 Dev Adam’, but there’s certainly no shortage of other fun stuff to enjoy, all aided by the film’s wildly over-saturated comic book colour scheme, which achieves near radioactive brightness in its current degraded form. More period-appropriate awesomeness can be found when some great psychedelic rock (no doubt requisitioned from elsewhere) blares during a fashion show that looks like it’s being staged in the producer’s living room, and, back at Spider’s club, we get to enjoy a Jess Franco-worthy op-art striptease act featuring a silhouetted drummer, and a concealed dancer who dramatically breaks through a coloured paper circle to emerge into view at the act’s conclusion. I think that happens shortly before Santo, Julia and Captain America arrive incognito and totally trash the joint, but I might be getting confused.

You wouldn’t think confusion would really figure much in a story this basic, but as events pile atop events and endless brightly-hued goons are hurled hither and yon, soon the whole thing blends into an endless dream of running around and punching, and before you know it things have reached an unparalleled level of dementia when a love scene between Spider and his chief lady is briefly interrupted by footage of some cackling, punch & judy style puppets. (Actually, thinking about it, I’m not sure if that bit was even supposed to be there – it could have just been the result of someone accidentally flipping the channel at some point in the film’s trek through the VHS duping wilderness, but at the same time I wouldn’t put it past a movie like this to throw it in deliberately just for the sheer hell of it.)

Anyway, you get the idea. If ‘3 Dev Adam’ perhaps doesn’t *quite* achieve the same level of non-stop action as ‘Casus Kiran’, the addition of sleaze, graphic violence and flat-out lunacy to the formula serves to make it an even more remarkable effort overall – a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Within their limited field of operation, both of these films are simply tons of fun, with cast and crew evidently putting their all into trying to equal the more expensive action spectaculars seen in ‘professional’ film & TV, and, by vestige of their sheer giddy enthusiasm, pretty much succeeding, emerging with a product that’s still guaranteed to keep aggressive children, simple-minded adults and random weirdoes glued to their seats in a state of stupefied happiness, all these years later.

Of course by the latter half of the ‘70s, things were pretty tough for low budget commercial cinema the world over as blockbuster-era Hollywood tightened its grip on the market, and no doubt the returns from this kind of ultra-marginal, localised fare would have been particularly badly hit. So what choice did it have but to get tough in return? Apparently safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t even register on the radar of big studio lawyers, Turkish b-filmmakers seemed to have decided by this stage that direct, unashamed rip-offs of Hollywood properties were the way to go, resulting in such oddities as former international film festival award-winner Metin Erksan directing ‘Seytan’ (“The Turkish Exorcist”) in 1974, and the final film we’re looking at today, Çetin İnanc’s Vahsi Kan [Wild Blood] (1983), commonly known – with somewhat more justification this time round – as “Turkish Rambo”.

By the time he made this one, İnanc was pulp / action movie veteran, having served time as assistant and screenwriter to the aforementioned Yilman Atadeniz (man, imagine what the SCRIPT for one of those films must look like..) before beginning his own directorial career the terrific sounding ‘Iron Claw The Pirate’ in 1969, and, with ubiquitous Turkish action star Cuneyt Arkin heading up its cast, 'Vahsi Kan' features notably better production values that the earlier films we’ve looked at today, making it the only one that a hapless square might be liable to mistake for a ‘proper’ movie. If they’d had a few drinks. And if they were watching it from a distance. I mean, let’s not go nuts here, but the editing and pacing are pretty decent, and there are some shots that are stylishly done here and there, some great stunt-work, some performers who are allowed to attempt a bit of ‘acting’ rather than just running around punching stuff, and, well, y'know - that sort of thing.

Alongside a slightly upgraded level of technical competency though, the dawn of the VHS era also seems to have ushered in a dramatic increase in the level of gritty, exploitative nastiness, and WHOA THERE, you’ll be tempted to exclaim as the film opens with a montage of crazed thugs delivering savage beatings, living room-trashings and sexual assaults, things sure have gotten NASTY since the costumed hi-jinks that predominated just a few years earlier (and, given the gory highlights of ‘3 Dev Adam’, that’s no mean boast).

After this furious if rather incoherent opening (featuring a mixture of salty looking tough guys, dodgy interior décor and cheesecake dollybirds that rather puts me in mind of Pete Walker’s early crime films), things proceed to get even more furious and incoherent, as we cut to an elderly man who is apparently being driven into town so that he can testify in some sort of unspecified trial, with his teenage daughter at the wheel (the gratuitous upskirt camerawork from the floor of the driver’s seat is an audacious bit of sleazoid cinematic ingenuity), and his young son in the back seat.

Encountering what appears to be a pile of shirtless male corpses in the middle of the road as they pass through a remote forest clearing, the family are understandably astonished when the men appear to return to life sporting gory zombie make-up, and advance upon the car.

As their faux-undead assailants get ahold of them, the car’s occupants are swiftly shot, strangled, burned alive and – in the daughter’s case - raped, the camera leering relentlessly at her legs and red-pantied ass as her attackers manhandle her. Yes, I’m afraid it is all quite horribly distasteful, but thankfully for our sensitive Western eyes, this girl seems to be made of sterner stuff than your average nameless victim, and she dispatches her primary attacker with a sharpened tree branch before making a getaway on foot before things get *too* hard to stomach.

What happens next initially seems entirely nonsensical (and never really becomes wholly sensical, to be honest), but can perhaps best be summarised via the notes I scribbled down whilst viewing;

"White-haired prisoner being escorted on foot by two soldiers turns the corner and wanders into the apparently remote scene of the aforementioned outrage; an exploding car is represented by a shot of a small ground charge going off in an entirely different location and the soldiers go flying; despite the white-haired guy being a handcuffed prisoner, he seems to be giving orders to everyone and is left to roam around unaccompanied as an ambulance takes his captors to the hospital… what the hell is going on!?"

Well he’s a bad-ass, that’s what’s going on. Casually striding through the wilderness like some Turkish version of 80s era Johnny Cash, toothpick between his lips, handcuffs now lost, this silver fox is none other than Cuneyt Arkin – our Turkish Rambo himself. And thus far I think I like him a lot better than the American Rambo. I mean, admittedly Arkin looks to be about twenty years older than Stallone was when he played the equivalent role, but he’s got screen presence to die for, and he’s got the moves too. None of the performers in the earlier movies discussed above really had a chance to make much of an individual impact, but this guy is a *star*, and İnanc’s camera and script treat him accordingly.

Just watch as he stares down and single-handedly beats the shit out of a whole battalion of tooled up biker-thugs - don't mess with this guy! Look, he even jumps off a hundred foot cliff and survives, no bother at all, before making haste into the jungle.

With our central character established, I’m assuming that hereafter things proceed to follow the storyline of ‘First Blood’ pretty closely, as Riza (for that is his name) gets his obligatory bandana sorted out and goes into full throttle mentalist survivalist mode pretty much immediately, lurking under piles of leaves, crawling around in the mud and catching wild crabs for food (warning: nasty crab-slicing shot), glaring around madly, brandishing his Rambo-knife and… hang on, why does he have a bloody great knife? Didn’t he just escape from police custody or something?

Well, whatever. Here things get kinda interesting vis-à-vis this review, because you see, I’ve never actually seen the original ‘First Blood’. I mean, maybe I saw some of it on TV when I was a teenager and it blurred into some of the other Rambo movies, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually sat down and watched it all the way through. Try not to judge me too harshly here - by the time I was old enough to watch violent movies like that I was already a long-haired, Philip K Dick-reading layabout, and wasn’t really into the idea of cheering on this dumb Reaganite muscleman as he went around giving people a hard time, y’know? A proper appreciation of the art of lunkheaded action films would have to wait until, well, now apparently, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. So in short, I’m not really sure how much of what unfolds in ‘Vahsi Kan’ is ripped directly from ‘First Blood’, and how much is original. But I’m sure YOU’VE probably seen the proper ‘First Blood’, so let’s give this a try shall we?

Does ‘First Blood’ have a sub-plot about a psychotic quadriplegic guy who blows people up by leaning back on a detonator built into the back of his wheelchair? If not, chalk one up for the Turks!

How about a Vincent Price lookalike villain who spends most of the movie sitting in his hideout ranting insanely about loyalty and vengeance as he slugs Johnny Walker and ignores his bored & dissolute bikinied girlfriend? (“Most entertaining” according to my notes, and who are you to argue?)

One thing I’m fairly certain ‘First Blood’ doesn’t have is a sexy jungle girl, so three cheers for ‘Vahsi Kan’. Because, yeah, you remember that poor rape victim who fled into the woods about half an hour back? Well inevitably Ram – sorry, Riza – bumps into her fairly sharpish as he’s doing his rounds of the jungle, and, one quickly whipped up jungle girl outfit later (Cuneyt Arkin is so cool, I believe that his skills would actually stretch to such feats of improvised combat zone tailoring), the apparently universal rule that every Turkish movie hero must have a feisty female sidekick remains intact.

Not that the girl is terribly feisty, disappointingly. This is quickly established when the pair bond during a cringingly stupid moment that sees her trying to clamber over what is clearly an easily navigable slope (it’s, like, maybe three feet high), only to fail and call upon Riza’s assistance. Oh, and as was made abundantly clear earlier on, Çetin İnanc’s camera just cannot get enough of this actress, regardless of the dramatic context, so naturally a lengthy topless bathing scene ensues almost immediately. Well if you’re gonna make a thoughtlessly misogynistic macho movie, you might as well go all out, right?

Happily, ‘Vahsi Kan’ carries over all of the relentless energy and non-stop violence of the earlier films, and is just as entertaining and moderately unhinged, in spite of the far grimier exploitational tone. There are occasional outbursts of the kind of goofery that inevitably accompanies such super-quick, super-cheap film making (fatal knife blows that clearly miss their target, carved stone steps suddenly appearing in remote, inaccessible caves etc), but in general the film’s action scenes are vigorous and brutal and fast-moving and hopefully impressive enough to cause anyone watching this movie purely for the sake of mockery to think again.

As with all of these films, there’s certainly a lot to laugh at, but there’s a lot that’s worthy of genuine appreciation too, and a spirit of wild, unpretentious fun that should be cherished and applauded. It’s a shame that resourceful directors like İnanc felt they had to spend their time imitating Hollywood epics rather than filming their own crazy stories, but needless to say, I’d definitely take the kind of mayhem that ensues when guys like this go to work on a property like Rambo over any of the tepid ‘reimagined’ garbage that’s been clogging up ‘proper’ cinemas in recent years. How to conclude, other than just to note that I've got aching eyes and an aching belly, and that the past four hours passed in a blur of more unadulterated FUN than any similar stretch of time in recent memory. Recommended viewing..? You bet.

*‘Casus Kiran’ is available to download with English sub-titles from The Internet Archive. As to the other films featured here, seek and ye shall find.

**Thanks to Todd Stadtman’s review of Casus Kiran at Teleport City for filling me in on the character’s pre-Turkish history.

***Well I think they’re legendary anyway. I saw one screened in public last year, so they must be doing ok. See here and here for the lowdown on Kilink and his convoluted origins.

The posters used in this post are taken from the awesome & informative gallery at

Friday, 11 January 2013


Before we temporarily put the gothic horror theme aside, I thought it might be a good opportunity to throw in a few choice examples of the seemingly never-ending supply of gothic pulp paperbacks that seemed to be flooding the market just as the accompanying cycle of movies was running out of steam in the late 60s/early 70s.

Largely forgotten by critics and collectors (possibly with good reason), these books seem to have been marketed at a presumably female readership lurking somewhere between the ‘horror’ and ‘romance’ sections (not that I’d imagine there was an actual horror section in most bookshops in those days, but y’know what I mean), decades before all that Anne Rice business took off.

Interesting that ‘Satan’s Daughter’ claims to be “in the tradition of ‘Burnt Offerings’”, suggesting that there was once a five minute window in which that was a big selling point. (I saw that movie recently – it was pretty good!)

‘Castle Garac’ author Nicholas Monsarrat is probably better known for his epic WWII novel ‘The Cruel Sea’, which I remember sat on my parents’ bookshelf throughout my childhood, never much tempting me to read it. (I’ve not seen the movie of that one - it looks alright.)

(Macfadden, 1970)

(Pocket Books, 1976)

(Pyramid, 1968)

Friday, 4 January 2013

An Angel For Satan
(Camillo Mastrocinque, 1966)

“This isn’t about witches or curses… this is about criminals and assassins!”

The last of the gothic horror films Barbara Steele made in Italy between 1960 and 1966, Camillo Mastrocinque’s ‘Un Angelo per Satana’ is also perhaps the most obscure (it has never been released in English-speaking countries as far as I’m aware). Happily though, it also turns out to be one of the best - certainly the most unconventional and technically accomplished at any rate.

From the outset, the film has a very different feel from creaky medievalism of ‘Castle of Blood’ or ‘Long Hair of Death’, with smooth camera movements and velvety black & white photography that strives for a more ‘refined’ visual aesthetic, seemingly owing more to Italy’s legacy of auteur-driven arthouse films than its thriving b-movie industry. Were it not for the presence of Steele and the fact that everyone keeps yammering on about ghosts and curses, there are moments here where we could be watching some lesser known Visconti film. An elaborately romantic orchestral score by Francesco de Masi – many worlds away from the funky business of his ‘New York Ripper’ and ‘Escape From The Bronx’ soundtracks – does much to reinforce this impression

Such unexpected ‘sophistication’ is matched by the focus of the film’s narrative, as it soon becomes clear that Mastrocinque apparently has little interest in making a gothic horror film. The story’s vague supernatural overtones seem very much like a pretext for him to make the film he really wants to make, as the tale of a sculptor (spaghetti western star Anthony Steffen) travelling to a remote mansion to restore a cursed statue retrieved from the bottom of a lake swiftly gives way to a very Mediterranean yarn of passion and privilege and beauty and betrayal that’s pitched somewhere between a Roger Vadim style neo-classical erotic fantasy and one of Luis Bunuel’s scabrous deconstructions of bourgeois hypocrisy.

There are some requisite horror elements in place (y’know, a murder here and there, ghostly monologues issuing from portraits of deceased relatives, etc..), but - perhaps understandably - Mastrocinque seems far more interested in the possibilities presented by Barbara Steele’s character. The orphaned niece of the local Count, Harriet has just returned from an English finishing school, and is about to undergo a dramatic transformation from dutiful aristocratic debutante to implacable, black-hearted harlot, launching headfirst into an extraordinary catalogue of seductions, duplicity and nihilistic, sexually charged destruction that, for the period at least, extends to some quite shocking extremes.

Nominally possessed by the vengeful spirit of a tragic ancestor, but actually giving every indication of being very much in control of her actions, Barbara proceeds to lure the local strongman away from his devoted family, to seduce her impressionable maid and to turn her against her fiancé, an earnest school teacher whom she then also seduces, upsetting the couple’s world to the extent that he ends up dead and she eternally heartbroken. Not content with this, she also flirts outrageously with Steffen’s sculptor, eventually accusing him of rape in her uncle’s presence, and torments the family’s mentally handicapped gardener in an unsavoury sadomasochistic fashion, with the eventual result that her assorted depredations eventually lead the whole village community to brink of mania. As fishermen and servant girls start turning up dead and rumours of witchcraft and infamy flourish, all the certainties of this simple, feudal world seem turned upside down by this one-woman invasion of amoral, cosmopolitan cynicism, as chaos, fire and death ensue.

More than simply imitating his presumed inspirations, Mastrocinque’s uncompromising approach to the material here succeeds in doing them proud. Bunuel would surely have rejoiced in the demonstration of the carnage that the personal bug-bears of a few stuck up aristos manages to unleash amongst the long-suffering peasantry, and as for that old horndog Vadim, well… he’d surely have been shivering in boots with sheer delight at the perverse erotic charge that Steele generates in her performance here, as she blazes up the screen to the extent that her more excitable fans are recommended to keep a stock of smelling salts close at hand when viewing, in case of involuntary swooning.

Within the context of a self-consciously ‘refined’, black & white 1966 film, Steele’s character’s assorted outbursts of sexual mania really come out of nowhere. Though of course there’s no explicit nudity or whathaveyou, her open seduction of the maid is pretty censor-baiting stuff for the era, and you probably could have seen my jaw drop from space during the unforgettable scene in which she commands the aforementioned gardener to strip her naked, then proceeds to savagely beat him with a riding crop.

Unforgettable stuff to say the least, and so much more shocking for its unexpectedness, years before this sort of thing became par for the course in all those Walerian Borowczyk / Tinto Brass type movies in the tawdry ‘70s.

Camillo Mastrocinque (who co-scripted as well as directing) is certainly not a household name around these parts, but a brief visit to IMDB reveals that, far from the apple-cart upsetting firebrand you might expect, he was actually a 65 year old veteran when he made ‘Un Angelo..’, having directed his first feature in 1937 and been actively engaged in film-making ever since, with over sixty titles to his name (no mean feat, when you consider the travails suffered by the Italian film industry during and after the war). Most of his CV consists of comedies, with the occasional crime film or melodrama, and his decades of experience perhaps help to explain both his more formalised visual aesthetic and his apparent disinterest in the relative johnny-come-lately horror genre. That said, this film’s concentration on taboo-busting sexual intensity – very much the kind of stuff you’d expect from a young, post-war director – remains a bit of a mystery… but hey, he made a flick called ‘The Call Girl Business’ with Anita Eckberg in 1960, plus an earlier gothic horror in ‘64 (‘Crypt of the Vampire’, a Carmilla/Karnstein picture starring Christopher Lee, no less), so presumably he wasn’t too adverse to moving with the times – and in this case, somewhat beyond them - in his later years.

Thus far, pretty remarkable stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, but ‘Un Angelo..’s biggest flaw is that, in spite of everything, it cops out. Despite setting up its stall with the clear intention of dismissing superficial gothic horror cliché, when it comes time for the pay-off, it can’t close the circle. Why did Barbara *actually* go nuts and start sexing up everyone in sight? Why were the people of the village so easily riled up into a self-destructive frenzy? Well I won’t give things away, but needless to say, Mastrocinque seems unable or unwilling to quite take things to their implied anti-authoritarian conclusions, instead falling back during the final act into workaday penny dreadful daftness that, whilst perfectly acceptable for yr average ‘60s horror film, is a real let down given the potential psycho-social depth of what we’ve previously been shown, making the preceding drama seem like, at best, a misanthropic and heartless demonstration of (wo)man’s inhumanity to man, and, at worst, simply an empty and confounding one.

Still, if it can’t *quite* hit the targets it set out for itself, this film is still one hell of a lot more interesting than the rote gothic horror that viewers may have been anticipating. Not that there’s anything wrong with rote gothic horror mind you – it certainly keeps me contended – but instead, ‘An Angel For Satan’ is one of those movies that kinda makes you want to ring up your higher minded cineaste friends and point them in the direction of a bit of flawed almost-genius that thus far seems to have slipped under everybody’s radar.