Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Top Ten First Time Viewings, 2014.

I know that non-annotated lists of old things aren’t really worth a damn to anyone, but as a temporary space-filling measure, here is a list I cobbled together over the holidays of the ten films I enjoyed / appreciated the most this year (counting first viewings only). With a bit of luck, I’ll be able to expand on these with a few short(ish) review posts in the coming weeks and months, but for now, everyone likes a fatuous end-of-year list right, even if it is in this case assembled by a man who apparently managed to watch a grand total of ZERO newly released fictional films during 2014.

Even by my usual backward-looking standards, that’s quite an achievement – whether a negative or positive one, I’ll leave you to be the judge. In my defense, it’s certainly been one hell of a year vis-à-vis my personal life, but nonetheless, here’s hoping I find the time to take in at least a *handful* of contemporary motion pictures in 2015.

Until then though, a happy new year to one and all, and here are some of the very best old movies I watched for the first time during 2014.

1. Gate of Flesh (Seijun Suzuki, 1963)
2. White of The Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)
3. Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1984)
4. Classe Tous Risques (Claude Sautet, 1960)
5. Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff, 1968)
6. Neon Maniacs (Joseph Mangine, 1986)
7. Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
8. Southern Comfort (Walter Hill, 1981)
9. Violent Virgin (Koji Wakamatsu, 1970)
10. Death Laid An Egg (Giulio Questi, 1968)

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Orlof in 8mm.

I usually try to avoid “hey, look at this cool thing I found on Ebay” sort of posts, but couldn’t help sharing a few images of this little Christmas present to myself, which I snagged the other day.

A 150ft (approx 12 minute?) digest version of Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr. Orlof, released by British company Mountain Movies under the title ‘Lust For Blood’. Year unknown, but presumably this dates from some point in the ‘60s, when the market for 8mm home movie reels was at its height. Both the title and the rather delightful artwork are unique to this release, as far as I know.

Some interesting reminiscences on Mountain Movies and their business practices can be found in this forum thread from 2010, including a contribution from Latarnia Forum main-man Mirek Lipinski, who notes that Mountain actually extracted no less than FOUR reels from their print of ‘The Awful Dr. Orlof’, each sold under a different title with different box art (the other three titles being ‘The Demon Doctor’, ‘The Woman in the Coffin’ and ‘The Body Snatchers’).

I don’t own an 8mm projector (shocking, I know) so I’m unable to enlighten you as to what is actually on this particular reel, but I’m nonetheless happy to add it to my ever-growing collection of random, little-monetary-value memorabilia.

(The photos in the post are the work of the original ebay seller by the way, as I’ve not had a chance to get this reel near a camera / scanner yet, but he did a pretty good with ‘em, so why not etc.)

Anyway, I’ll take this opportunity to wish all you readers a happy Yuletide / winter solstice / xmas / etc; thanks for sticking around, all the best to you and yours, and I’ll look forward to seeing you in the new year for more, well, you know - this kind of thing.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Songs of Herman Cohen:
Black Zoo
(Robert Gordon, 1963)

Where can you possibly go, after Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga? Forsaking such obvious destinations as ‘prison’, ‘self-imposed exile’ and ‘a career in real estate’, the indomitable Herman Cohen instead added two and two to make five and gave us BLACK ZOO, the grimly unspectacular finale to his Michael-Gough-as-mad-bastard trilogy.

Like its predecessors, ‘Black Zoo’ is a curious film, but it is never “weird” in quite the same way that we might enthusiastically describe a lunatic aberration like ‘Konga’ as “weird”. On the contrary, what we have here is a gloomy and utilitarian bit of sizzle-not-the-steak drive-in schlock, saved from oblivion only by vestige of the fact that, like all good gutter pulp entertainment, it occasionally blunders into situations and concepts that are just so damn peculiar they seem entirely beyond the ken of a well-ordered mind.

Unlike ‘Konga’, ‘Black Zoo’ is not a film that’s ever likely to be revived for any raucous midnight screenings, or championed as some wild, way-out b-movie triumph - basically it’s too cheap and depressing to really make for a fun time for any but the most jaded or dedicated of trash-horror viewers. But nonetheless - to stretch Friedman’s famed maxim to breaking point, you’re not lacking the steak here, so much as you’re getting some pretty strange-looking steak, liberally flavoured with something you can’t quite place and really aren’t too sure about.

The most immediately notable difference between ‘Black Zoo’ and the two previous Cohen/Gough collaborations is that this one is shot, and apparently set, in America rather than the UK. Southern California to be precise, although you wouldn’t know it from the bare sets and featureless suburban exteriors on display.

It is here that we find Gough’s by now thoroughly familiar villainous, egomaniacal bastard character (this time named Michael Conrad) operating a small zoo, ‘Conrad’s Animal Kingdom’, wherein members of the public can gawp at his prized collection of caged big cats, delight at the antics of the performing chimpanzees trained by Conrad’s wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper), and attempt to spot the seams on the costume of a rather familiar looking moth-eaten gorilla. All this assuming that visitors can duck the constant threat of being cornered by the smarmy, faux-aristocratic proprietor himself and regaled with patronising homilies about the beauty of the natural world (“don’t forget, animals have feelings, just like you or me”), his obvious psychopathic streak just barely concealed beneath his philanthropic posturing.

Even more so than in his earlier horror roles, Gough presents a abominably hateful presence here – truly one of the nastiest, most cringingly dislikable protagonists ever to grace the screen, with the threadbare nature of the ‘Black Zoo’s production values placing the emphasis almost entirely upon his performance, thus driving him on to unprecedented and frankly quite upsetting outbursts of spittle-flecked, lip-curling mania. Harsh vibes, to say the least.

Given the baronial, ubermensch-like self-regard with which Gough’s character carries himself, I kept waiting for him to draw our attention to his renowned scientific expertise, the results of his ground-breaking research, his cursed aristocratic ancestry or his unrivalled academic prowess. But no – apparently Michael Conrad is just some bloke who runs a zoo and thinks a lot of himself. This is a Crazy Zookeeper Movie, take it or leave it, and when a highly strung Michael Gough starts gnashing his teeth in fits of paranoid rage as he fingers the keys to the leopard cages, you can probably more or less guess where such a disappointingly reductionist plot set-up is headed.

I say ‘more or less’, because as mentioned, Cohen & Aben Kandel’s script throws in some otherly inspired curveballs that are arguably worth sticking around for. Before that though, things initially proceed in thoroughly dispiriting fashion, rehashing many elements of the two earlier films with no great enthusiasm but plenty of mean-spirited zeal, as Conrad stomps around treating his wife like shit, treating their mute servant/adopted son Carl (Rod Lauren) like his own personal slave, and exploding with ill-founded jealousy when Edna dares suggest that Carl might appreciate being treated like a human being once in a while, eventually culminating in Herman Cohen’s ultimate expression of gruesome domestic dysfunction, as a red-faced Gough hurls a foul-looking dish of casserole straight at the kitchen lino.

Little known actress Cooper just about manages to retain her dignity, putting in a pretty good turn as Edna, though she might as well be carrying a sign reading “you just try getting work in this industry as a middle-aged woman”, such is the feel of grim, get-the-job-done professionalism her presence conveys.

Meanwhile of course, Conrad, reveling in hypocrisy wherever he can, goes into ‘lecherous creep’ mode at warp-speed as soon as spies some busty, be-sweatered art students (one played by Marianna Hill, who went on to appear in BITR favourites like ‘Messiah of Evil’, ‘Blood Beach’, and, oh yeah, something called ‘The Godfather: Part II’) making sketches of his prized tiger, sparking a contrived courtship just as hellish as the one he cooked up with Claire Gordon in ‘Konga’. Add a “big shot property developer” trying to muscle in on the zoo’s real estate into the mix, a show biz friend of Edna’s trying to persuade her to ditch her husband and take her performing chimp act back on the road(!), and, yeah, here we go again, etc.

Bullying people, leering at college girls and murder are really only sidelines for Conrad though. What he loves most in life is animals, and specifically HIS animals. Quite how, why and where he acquired this obsession fixation with wild beasts is never really explored, but then, neither is his justification for worshipping his feline chums like living gods whilst remaining largely indifferent to their day-to-day discomfort as they prowl around their sad, bare cages being gawped at by gangs of insultingly cartoonish American holiday-makers.

As in ‘..Black Museum’, Cohen & Kandel have come up with the potential for a pretty interesting “insight into the mind of a psychopath” character study here, but once again they seem completely uninterested in building upon it in any meaningful fashion. “He’s just NUTS,” seems to be about as far as their thought process deigns to venture. Pay attention though, because this is where things start to get weird, with the lack of anything resembling a conventional back story / psychological justification for our anti-hero’s antics rendering things stranger still.

‘Black Zoo’s first real “rub your eyes and shake your head” moment arrives once business at Conrad’s Animal Kingdom is concluded for the day, when, his daily quota of snarling and belittling presumably met, Conrad strides over to the pipe organ installed in the corner of his living room (never a good sign, let’s face it), and begins to play a slow, lonesome fugue.

Carl opens the study door, and one by one the zoo’s big cats are ushered in, where they deposit themselves on a selection of moth-eaten furniture to listen to the conclusion of their master’s recital. “My children,” he addresses the animals after the music is concluded, “I brought you here because we have to face to problem..”. Evil, scheming men out in “the so-called world of humans” are out to destroy their home, Conrad tells his ‘children’.

No prizes for guessing what Conrad’s proposed solution to this problem is, but let’s just say that, as in ‘Konga’, I’m driven to wonder how visiting your perceived enemy’s home and throwing a wild animal in their face is in any way less conspicuous than visiting their home and just, say, killing them using more conventional means – especially given the speed which you’d assume even the most incompetent police force might join the dots between a case of murder-by-tiger and a local zoo managed by an egotistical nutcase.

As a jaded 21st Century viewer, I may not share the simplistic “Wow, zoo animals!” shuck upon which much of this ‘Black Zoo’s presumed entertainment value seems to rest (as ever, Cohen’s sheer disdain for his audience knows no bounds), but even I’ve got to admit – the sight of Michael Gough delivering a lecture to a room full of docile big cats, speaking to them much in the manner of a condescending school headmaster before treating them to another demonstration of his baleful organ mastery, is a somewhat peculiar bit of business to say the least.

The best (by which I mean ‘weirdest’) scenes in ‘Black Zoo’ are yet to come however, and the next obvious stand-out as the funeral Conrad holds for his prize tiger, Baron, who has regrettably been shot by ill-fated junior zookeeper Elisha Cook Jr (for more on him, see below).

This solemn ceremony takes place in a beautiful, fog-shrouded forest grove that seems to belong to a completely different world from the cramped interiors and concrete car parks seen elsewhere in the film. Carl even pulls the tiger’s coffin to its final resting place on a kind of antiquated wooden cart that seems to have been stolen from the set of some period Euro-horror film, and as the other animals file one by one through drifting banks of bright blue fog and past neo-classical statues and gnarled tree-roots, silently observing the burial from their apparently purpose-built, rock-carved seats in a forest clearing, ‘Black Zoo’ briefly becomes an utterly phantasmagorical experience, temporarily assuming the aspect of a Corman/AIP Poe adaptation that’s gone slightly insane.

(This is perhaps not an entirely unexpected development, given that ‘Black Zoo’s Director of Photography Floyd Crosby had overseen pretty much all of the best entries in the AIP gothic horror cycle up to 1963. Considering the uniqueness and popularity of the atmosphere he helped create on those pictures, it’s possible that the entire funeral sequence here might have been developed as an excuse for him to strut his stuff.)

Whilst we’re still trying to get our heads around this sylvan gothic tiger funeral, Cohen & co. ratchet up the weirdness up even further, as we’re suddenly dropped into a meeting of what appears to be some kind of illicit cult of animal worshippers of which Conrad is a member (the “True Believers”, as led by “The Great Radoo”, he tells us). I really don’t know where the script-writers are going with this, or how in the hell they came up with such a bizarre notion, but the results seem like some ill-thought out mixture of Christian snake-handlers, a Wheatley-esque satanic coven and one of those eerie Hollywood huckster cults that Phillip Marlowe and The Continental Op used to tangle with back in the day.

‘The Great Radoo’, it turns out, is a chap with a bit of a Lenin-esque look about him, who begins to lead the ceremony after an attendant ritualistically places a mangy-looking tiger-skin rug on his head(!). Radoo then calls upon his brethren (including of course several white-pearled society ladies, several swarthy ‘foreign’ looking gentlemen and a cheery fellow in a turban) to console Conrad on the tragic loss of his beautiful feline soul-mate.

“The soul of Baron, expelled before its time, is now adrift”, Radoo announces, as he and Conrad begin a bizarre fire ritual aimed at guiding Baron’s soul to its reincarnation in a new body. Right on cue, some dinner-jacketed voodoo guys begin beating their drums, and the congregation begin chanting a half-hearted litany of some kind (“enter, enter, enter”). Then, another attendant appears and hands Conrad a whole new tiger-cub – the recipient of Baron’s soul! How’s that for generosity? I mean, I don’t know what kind of subscription fees this animal cult charges, but on the basis of this exchange I certainly can’t fault the benefits.

Where did all this animal cult stuff come from? What does it all mean? I’ve never heard of anything like it before. Really one for the psychotronic brain-wrong hall of fame, I think – one of those prime moments of unintentional surrealism that can be found in all three of these Cohen/Gough collaborations, irrespective of their other merits as motion pictures or works of creative expression. Needless to say, the greater implications of Conrad’s association with this strange group are never really explored, and subsequent to the meeting scene, they are scarcely mentioned again.

As far as other stuff worth a mention in ‘Black Zoo’ goes, well, as mentioned above, there’s good old Elisha Cook Jr to look out for - one of my favourite old time Hollywood character actors, and no doubt yours too. Branching out ever so slightly from his stock “pitiful loser” persona (see the If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger blog’s Elisha Cook Jr Gets the Shaft Again strand), Cook’s character here is a rather more surly, dim-witted sort of brute, who, as discussed, incurs Conrad’s psychopathic wrath by cruelly doing away with Baron Mk. I.

Though it’s always a pleasure to see him in action, it’s also kind of sad to see Cook’s stand-in being unconvincingly chomped by a lion midway through ‘Black Zoo’, just a few years after his definitive performance in Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ – a career slump that perhaps suggests Cook’s real life luck might have been just as lousy as that of the characters he played, at least if the kind of thankless roles he was taking at this point were anything to go by. (For a further connection to the AIP/Poe cycle, look out for Cook’s touching portrayal of a deformed wretch in ‘The Haunted Palace’ the same year. He also of course reunited with Marianna Hill in ‘Messiah of Evil’ a few years later.)

Thus far, we haven’t mentioned the credited director of this particular farrago, and, as with the previous films, Cohen seems here to have gone for his usual MO of hiring a washed up has-been in need of a quick pay cheque, and guiding the poor sap’s career straight to an undignified full-stop. Robert Gordon (not to be confused with much-loved British horror producer Richard Gordon) began directing with a series of low budget boxing pictures in the ‘40s, before making probably his biggest impression with ‘It Came From Beneath The Sea’ in 1955. After that he helmed a couple of unheralded western programmers, and was subsequently relegated to TV-land until Cohen brought him back into the world of features for ‘Black Zoo’.

Gordon’s direction here is as flatly competent as you might fear, with static medium shots predominating, and the same ugly framing and uninspired use of the widescreen frame that blighted ‘..Black Museum’. In fairness though, other aspects of ‘Black Zoo’s technical side fare a lot better, even as the film’s production design rarely stretches much beyond a dispiriting ‘filmed in a prison camp’ kind of look.

Floyd Crosby’s photography is actually rather superb, sometimes verging into the kind of over-saturated pastel Technicolor you’d expect of a ‘60s b-movie, but more frequently pulling off a combination of deep, dark shadows and richly muted primary colours very much reminiscent of his work on the Poe films, lending things a painterly feel that ‘Black Zoo’s cheap-jack situations and minimal set-dressing scarcely merit. Music, by b-movie vet and Sam Fuller collaborator Paul Dunlap, is similarly a lot better than this film really deserves – a testament perhaps to Cohen’s ability to pull an unexpected level of talent into his productions when back on his Hollywood home turf.

Though it for the most part remains an unremarkable bit of mean-spirited drive-in filler, there is nonetheless a kernel of utter craziness at the heart of ‘Black Zoo’ that forever guarantees it a place on my shelves, and on the shelves of all those who consider strangeness for its own sake to be one of the highest virtues a movie can attain.

Basically, whilst watching ‘Black Zoo’, I find myself imagining some middle-aged guy slumped in front of a late night TV screening, suddenly looking incredulous and calling to his wife in the kitchen: “Maude, get out here, you gotta see this! This movie I’m watching, it’s… it’s kinda…strange…”. Then he shivers and rubs his eyes before taking a deep breath and changing the channel. You know – that kind of strange. The kind of strange that has you thoroughly settled into dreary, verge-of-sleep plod, then imperceptibly shifts gears into “is this really happening… where are they going with this?” territory. And, as much as all the out-and-out crazy movies of the world might rant and rave and throw spectral snake-gods and regurgitated robot worms in our faces, isn’t it this more subtle incursion of inexplicable delirium into the midst of an otherwise prosaic time-waster that really represents the strangest strangeness of all..? I dunno. Discuss.

Such a feeling of course offers no excuse for my having used probably the best part of 10,000 words discussing the Cohen/Gough trilogy when I could have been doing something useful instead, but what can I say, at least it’s DONE now, and I can hopefully go a few months without having to contemplate Michael Gough’s smarmy, grinning villain-face… well, until I finally get around to starting my long-awaited Norman J. Warren review thread and get stuck into ‘Satan’s Slave’ at least. As for Cohen, I’ve had quite enough of him for the time being too, and hope I can spend slightly more of 2015 writing about some films that actually deserve such lengthy contemplation. But wait, what’s that you say, IMDB? He moved back to the UK after this one? ‘Trog’, with Joan Crawford? ‘Beserk’, with Joan Crawford AND Michael Gough? ‘Craze’, with Jack Palance? Dear god. Help me, please, I - - [communication ends].

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Bunta Sugawara
(1933 – 2014)

Well, it’s been a bad month for yakuza movie actors, to put it mildly. Just a few weeks after the passing of Ken Takakura, the pre-eminent icon of the ‘60s ninkyo yakuza film, news came through on Monday of the death of the man who effectively took over as the figurehead of the genre when things turned nastier in the mad-dog, jitsuroku ‘70s - the one and only Bunta Sugawara.

Probably better known to Western movie fans than Takakura, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has watched even the thinnest scattering of post-1970 Japanese crime films will be familiar with Bunta-san. Though he began acting in 1956, working at Shintoho and Shochiku before he signed up with Toei in the mid ’60s, Sugawara became pretty damn ubiquitous in the early 1970s, with his unmistakable visage and bullet-stopping forehead looming from what seems like thousands of movie posters, and his extraordinary string of collaborations with director Kinji Fukasaku standing out as arguably an all-time high watermark for Japanese crime cinema, incorporating such highlights as ‘Japanese Organised Crime Boss’ (1969), ‘Bloodstained Clan Honour’ (1970), ‘Street Mobster’ (1972), ‘Outlaw Killers: Three Mad-Dog Brothers’ (1972), and no less than eight films in the epochal ‘Battles Without Honour and Humanity’ series (1973 – 76).

Though Bunta-san often played noble, lone wolf heroes in the Takakura mold, he will be equally remembered for his personification of the kind of amoral, mad-dog maniacs that Fukasaku in particular liked to bring to the forefront in his films – a character type that Sugawara managed to realise with an astonishing level of adrenalin-ripped, kill-crazy intensity.

Despite his on-screen excesses however, Sugawara seems to have been regarded as a pretty chilled out guy, and indeed he undercut his ultra-macho image by simultaneously developing a talent for comedic acting, playing a happy-go-lucky straight man in Sadao Nakajima’s ‘Viper Brothers’ films, and no less than ten entries in Norifumi Suzuki’s phenomenally popular ‘Torakku Yaro’ (“Truck Rascals”) series (1975 – 1980). He also sent up his usual screen persona brilliantly in Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s oddball drama ‘The Man Who Stole The Sun’ (1979), playing a seemingly indestructible, Terminator-like police detective to hilarious effect.

He was also, coincidentally, the only Japanese person I’m aware of whose personal name begins with ‘B’, a fact that makes me peculiarly happy whatever I see his name.

I’m not sure quite what he got up to through the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond, but he continued acting occasionally, popping up in a few Takashi Miike films and lending his voice to a few Studio Ghibli productions. A brief English language obit from Japanese news site Mainichi states that “Later in life Sugawara turned to farming in central Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture, and headed a social justice group”. So that sounds nice. Good for him.

Sayonara Bunta-san, and domo arigato for all the times you acted so hard I felt like I’d actually been punched in the face.

Below is a quickly assembled gallery featuring merely a few of the many awesome posters which featured Bunta’s likeness.