Friday, 24 February 2017

Seijun Suzuki
(1923 – 2017)

It goes without saying that I was very sad this week to hear of the death of one of my favourite Japanese filmmakers – a man whose work I believe exemplifies all the values I would wish this blog to celebrate, in fact – the great Seijun Suzuki.

Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I were discussed Seijun-san, marvelling at how old he must be. Until today I was unsure of the year of his birth, but I recall seeing interviews with him filmed fifteen years ago in which he already looked like an extremely frail, white-bearded elder; apparently though, the lovely photograph reproduced above was taken as early as 1971, so we can safely assume this was a ‘look’ the great man had been cultivating for some time. Regardless, making it to the age of ninety-three is a fine achievement (certainly by Western standards), so, although it is sad to have lost such an inspiring figure, I hope that, instead of mourning, we can celebrate a long, eventful and (here’s hoping) happy life.

Somehow, I seem to have managed to maintain this blog for over eight years without ever publishing a full length review of one of Seijun’s films (as with many of my favourite directors, his stuff can be pretty difficult to write about), so now seems as good a time as any to offer up an admittedly biased, woefully incomplete snapshot of his career, hopefully highlighting some of the things that made him such a unique voice in cinema in the process.

Most writing about Suzuki in English has tended to concentrate on the saga pertaining to ‘Branded To Kill’ (1967) and Seijun’s subsequent sacking from Nikkatsu by studio president Kyusaku Hori – a series of events that made Suzuki a cause célèbre within the emerging Japanese counter-culture and, ironically, cemented the previously humble b-movie director’s reputation as a wild and uncompromising cinematic rebel.

Whilst ‘Branded To Kill’ is undoubtedly one of Suzuki’s most remarkable films however, I’m inclined to think that the attention it has been afforded as a result of the aforementioned controversy has tended to unfairly overshadow some of the other highlights of Suzuki’s career at Nikkatsu.

Even going back to his earliest days as a director, I feel that films such as ‘Voice Without a Shadow’ (1959) and ‘Take Aim at the Police Van’ (1960) – usually dismissed as fairly unremarkable genre pictures by Western critics – reveal a sense of visual imagination and raw energy that really makes them stand out amid the era’s production line Nikkatsu thrillers, and this applies even more so to another early favourite of mine, the youth comedy ‘Fighting Delinquents’ (sometimes referred to under its splendidly translated alternative title, ‘Go To Hell, Hoodlums!’, 1960).

A zany, light-weight affair that would probably have been of little interest to international viewers in the hands of most other directors, Seijun managed to turn this production into an outrageous blast of over-saturated colour, wildly orchestrated crowd scenes, blaring dance music and absolute bloody chaos that leaves the viewer lost for words – an approach that he proceeded to carry over wholesale to the loose trilogy of extraordinary, post-modern yakuza films that really made his name, beginning with the wonderfully named ‘Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell, Bastards!’ (1962) and continuing through ‘Youth of the Beast’ (1963) and, latterly, ‘Tokyo Drifter’ (1966).

In is in these films that Seijun first went completely off the leash, cracking open the uninspiring formula scripts he had been assigned to like a nut under a hammer, and dancing merrily among the pieces, pretty much defining his trademark style in the process.

In all of these films, narrative cohesion takes a definite backseat, as the director instead concentrates his efforts on crafting an eye-popping visual fantasia and a series of outrageous, anarchic set-pieces that seem designed more to deliberately distract viewers’ attention from the rote melodrama and dry exposition necessitated by the scripts than to support or enliven it. (It is this internal conflict, one suspects, that gets to the root of what bugged the studio so much about Suzuki’s films, although their alleged failure to make much money probably didn’t help matters.)

Over the course of these three films, the ‘borderless’ terrain of nightclubs, urban sprawl and scuzzy dock-side locations common to Nikkatsu productions are transformed by Suzuki into a treacherous, artificial wonderland of colour-coded villain lairs, vast, glass-floored multi-leveled dancefloors and maze-like realms of industrial detritus, full of hidden gags and false floors, disorientating back projections and phantasmagorical mood lighting.

Out on the street meanwhile, incongruously huge American cars screech around the cramped streets, their suspension bouncing under the weight of crowds of cigarette-chewing, pastel-suited hoods who, in stark contrast to the moody, lone wolf Yakuza who would take precedence in later years, seem to have burst their way straight out of a ‘30s Warner Bros gangster flick.

Hyper-stylised, knowingly ludicrous and possessed of a broadly self-parodic, often actively surrealist, sense of humour, Suzuki’s approach to (barely) orchestrating the mayhem unfolding before his cameras, and the relentless sense of forward momentum this engenders, seems entirely at odds with the exacting detail he clearly applied to crafting the more outré visual effects seen within his otherworldly set-bound landscapes, wherein the play of unnatural lighting, angular set design, glass, mirrors, disruptive framing devices and contrasting colour schemes creates a series of ever-moving visual tableaus that remain extraordinary to this day – like the expressionist agenda of classic Film Noir refracted through the lens of a candy-coated ‘Charlie & The Chocolate Factory’ nightmare.

On the basis of these films, Suzuki is often viewed, like Mario Bava in Europe, as a grand visual stylist who used his gifts merely to liven up the dull subject matter he was forced to work with, rather than as a genuine auteur, capable of infusing his work with his own personal and thematic concerns. Indeed, Seijun was always happy to play up to this reputation, claiming in interviews that his films, and the myriad eccentric gestures within them, hold no meaning and no great importance, claiming that he was just trying stuff out and having fun, with no particular aim in mind.

Whilst firstly stating that I don’t believe this admission should in any way be used as a criticism (if only more filmmakers displayed such honesty), at the same time I feel it overlooks something that plays into the very best of Suzuki’s films -- namely, how well he rose to the challenge on occasions when he actually did get a chance to engage with source material worthy of his talents.

It is easy to imagine that ‘Branded To Kill’ wouldn’t have retained a fraction of the resonance it still holds today but for the ingenious manner in which Suzuki translates the fetishized, death-trip fatalism of the script ideas provided by future avant-pinku directors Atsushi Yamatoya and Chûsei Sone to the screen, and it is was a similarly inspired fusion of the director’s style with legitimately good writing that I believe led to the creation of the film that, for me, stands as his real masterpiece – 1964’s ‘Gate of Flesh’.

Here, the essence of Taijirô Tamura’s source novel is instinctively captured by Suzuki’s bold direction, as he takes Tamura’s tale of a sisterhood of teenaged Tokyo prostitutes struggling for survival in the immediate aftermath of WWII and uses it as raw material for – if you’ll excuse the hyperbole – one of the most astonishing films I’ve seen in my life.

It is a beautiful, unflinching raw wound of a picture, in which a luridly fantastical visual aesthetic whose excesses seem to draw equally from both kabuki / ukiyo-e traditions and the sensory overload of sleaze-pulp cover illustration and German expressionism collides with a surprisingly convincing litany of social/psychological insight, exploring the uncomfortable intersections between survival, commerce, suffering, lust and love as they exist for characters struggling to define themselves in the midst of a world that is in the process of violently destroying itself and reemerging in an as-yet-unknown new form.

Though the film’s English title may sound like a crude double entendre, after viewing it gains a whole new poetic resonance; born into exploitation and struggle, the world of flesh – whether selling it, eating it, cutting it, being smothered by it – is almost literally the gate through which these women must pass in order to forge relationships with other human beings and, by extension, become fully formed human beings themselves.

Heavy stuff perhaps, but, ripped through by Suzuki with a panache that simultaneously seems to prefigure everyone from Sion Sono to Dario Argento, casually establishing the blue-print for the nascent pinky-violence sub-genre in the process, ‘Gate of Flesh’ is a singularly exhilarating experience – a fusion of pulp exploitation and rarefied, truth-speaking artistry that has rarely been equaled.

After the “years in the wilderness” that followed Suzuki’s sacking by Nikkatsu and his subsequent lawsuit for wrongful dismissal, Seijun-san made his return to filmmaking in typically idiosyncratic fashion, reuniting with Jo Shishido for a 1977 Shochiku production whose title translates as ‘A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness’. Apparently some kind of expose of corruption in the world of professional golf (a subject about which the director cheerfully admitted that both he and his cast were completely clueless), Suzuki’s Wikipedia page succinctly states that “the film was met poorly both critically and popularly”.

Following this disaster, Suzuki failed to even secure a distribution deal for his next film, the independently produced ‘Zigeunerweisen’ (1980). Not to be deterred, Suzuki and his producer actually resorted, in defiantly old school fashion, to touring Japan themselves, screening the film for people in a circus tent. In something approaching a feel-good-story-of-the-year, this venture actually proved to be a phenomenal success, and ‘Zigeunerweisen’ eventually went on to sweep the board at the Japanese Academy Awards, also picking up a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

‘Zigeunerweisen’ also represented the first part of what is now informally known as Suzuki’s ‘Taishō trilogy’ – a series of somewhat more sober, conventionally structured films evoking the spirit of Japan’s Taishō era (1912-1926). Although they are rarely screened in the West, it is for these films – which, for the record, I have never seen - that Seijun Suzuki is most fondly remembered by the Japanese public.

Like many ‘cult directors’ buoyed up by the admiration of a new generation of fans, Seijun was back to his old tricks again in the 21st Century, with ‘Pistol Opera’ (2001) – a kind of live-action manga styled semi-sequel to ‘Branded To Kill’ - and ‘Racoon Princess’ (2005) – an utterly bizarre, family-orientated musical fantasy – both proving amazing and maddening in equal measure, frequently outstripping both their meagre budgets and their audience’s patience, but nonetheless overflowing with the kind of wild, risk-taking energy and imagination one might have expected of a director one third of Suzuki’s age.

Given that we now know they will prove his final films (despite frequent rumours of new projects during the intervening years), suffice to say that they both make exultant swan songs for a truly remarkable filmmaker – a man who, in his own easy-going, absurdist manner, was as uncompromising, ground-breaking and influential as any of the “serious” big names in world cinema – and a hell of a lot more fun than most of them besides. R.I.P.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A Forgotten Euro-Gothic Double-Bill:
‘Tomb of Torture’ and
‘Cave of the Living Dead’

This month, I’ve been busy reading Jonathan Rigby’s new book ‘Euro Gothic’ – a fairly self-explanatory follow up to the author’s previous surveys of British and American horror - and enjoying it greatly. Whilst fans will no doubt have a few bones to pick vis-à-vis the choices of coverage within, Rigby’s concise and sardonic summation of about eight decades of continental fantastic cinema remains a joy.

From my own point of view, one of the most welcome aspects of the book, and one that I think more than makes up for the author’s occasional omissions, is the extent to which exhaustive research into production and release schedules (matched by an equal dedication to actually tracking down and watching the bloody things) has allowed Rigby to shine a light on numerous films that have been almost entirely forgotten by today’s euro-cult fan base.

Some of these seem to have proved quite rewarding discoveries, and are allotted comparable coverage to the expected ‘classics’ of the genre. Others however… not so much so.

For instance, did you know that, in 1964, noted transatlantic producer and horror enthusiast Richard Gordon acquired the rights to two European productions of the previous year, one Italian (‘Metempsyco’, directed by Antonio Boccaci) and one German (‘Der Fluch der Grünen Augen’ [The Curse of the Green Eyes], directed by Ákos Ráthonyi), and sent them out as a ready-made double-bill in both the US and UK, redubbed for English-speaking audiences and respectively retitled as ‘Tomb of Torture’ and ‘Cave of the Living Dead’?

Until I read about this in Rigby’s book, I had no idea, and knew nothing of either of these films. Frankly, one suspects that Gordon’s offer of two rather threadbare, black & white ‘shockers’ didn’t attract a great deal of interest from cinema owners or sub-distributors during the great push toward colour in the mid-‘60s, and as a result the films have remained little seen and largely unremarked upon in the English-speaking world, even whilst copies of the prints Gordon prepared have circulated in the bootleg/grey market domain for years.

It is by such means that I made the happy discovery that I actually had copies of both films sitting unwatched in my collection. As such, I thought it might be nice to put an evening aside and recreate what audiences venturing into this long-lost double-feature may have experienced back in 1965 (that being the copyright date given on both prints).

Beginning with ‘Tomb of Torture’ then, Rigby actually gives this one an absolute kicking in his book, deeming it “dismal in the extreme”, alongside other bon mots.

As an avowed advocate of ridiculous pulpy nonsense, I believe I enjoyed it at least a *bit* more than Rigby, but nonetheless I’m sad to report that I can offer little evidence to contradict his conclusions.

Following a credits sequence that I’m guessing was thrown together entirely by Gordon – featuring a regrettably anglicised cast list, floating disembodied chess pieces, a nifty ‘spookshow’ font and some close-ups of a rather fetching rotting skull-face with (sadly static) hypno-wheel eyes - Antonio Boccaci’s sole directorial effort actually begins on a pleasantly Jean Rollin-esque note, as two rather heavily made-up “schoolgirls” enter stage left and, with no further ado, decide to go snooping about in the scary castle on the hill (the same one previously used by Renato Polselli in The Vampire and the Ballerina, if I’m not mistaken).

Whereas Rollin’s totemic twins however usually accepted their initiation into the netherworld of vampiric weirdness with a sense of silent, angelic resignation, this pair by contrast make a right fuss about things, adopting a fairly tiresome investigator-vs-scaredy-cat routine that continues even after they’ve bumped into the castle’s apparent owner – a sour-faced, middle-aged lady who understandably instructs them to clear off. For some reason though, she fails to enforce this edict, leaving the girls to continue their wanderings unmolested until they find themselves accosted by some kind of leering, paper-mache-faced hunchback(?) creature.

(In fairness, I’m not sure this creature is actually supposed to be a hunchback, but I’m damned if I can of anything else to call him within the recognised lexicon of horror movie types – I suppose he’s more of a “deformed, dungeon-dwelling psycho” sort of deal really, but that’s a tad long-winded, so henceforth let’s just call him the ‘monster’.)

Anyway, one shriek of terror later, and the brunette half of the schoolgirl duo awakes to find herself – now wearing nowt but a flimsy night-gown – being strapped by the monster onto one of those X-shaped cross-beams last seen in the 1932 ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, down in the castle’s obligatory torture dungeon. (1)

Soon the creature tires of this though, and lugs her over to the rack for a brief but surprisingly intense sequence of mildly-eroticised torment that serves to ensure that those who paid to see ‘Tomb of Torture’ can no longer legitimately ask for their money back, regardless of whatever follows.

One abrupt cut later, and a coach conveying some kind of doctor and his daughter to the same castle is waylaid by the discovery of the bodies of the two girls, who have been unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road. Incredibly, the local comic relief idiot policeman insists that the girls have died from natural causes, in spite of the blood on their faces and (we must assume) sundry other evidence of the monster’s depredations.

Seemingly unconcerned about this ghastly turn of events, the doctor restricts his disagreement with the policeman’s diagnosis to a bit of disapproving tut-tutting, and otherwise devotes his attentions to chatting with another man on the scene – a chap named Ramon, whose brown-face make-up and turban are presumably supposed to identify him as some kind of Hindu, although, as with every single other character in this film, any further insight into his background is denied to us. (Ramon, incidentally, is played – rather stiffly, it must be said – by the film’s director, in his only screen appearance.)

Apparently, Ramon and the doctor know each other of old, and both used to live in the castle in some context before moving away. Ramon is subsequently astonished to discover that the professor’s daughter (Anna) is the spitting image of the castle’s deceased Countess Irina, to whom he was engaged when she disappeared under mysterious circumstances some twenty years previously. (2)

It seems that Anna’s father is bringing her to the castle on the pretext that the relaxing atmosphere will help her with some bad dreams she has been having(?!), but it soon becomes clear that he harbours a hidden agenda, believing that his daughter’s dreams are in fact some kind of psychic visions which will allow him to discover what happened to the Countess, and, more pertinently, the location of the legendary stash of treasure that may or may not have disappeared along with her.

If all this sounds rather puzzling, well, it is – and it certainly doesn’t become any less so as things go on. Mere sketchy plotting however has nothing on the level of sheer bewilderment soon to be induced by the lengthy dream sequence that follows these events.

As Boccaci wheels out the old “wobbly screen” effect to signal that we’re now entering Anna’s “dream-time”, she finds herself down in the dungeon, reclining on the same torture instrument we saw the monster making enthusiastic use of a few minutes earlier.

In short order, a static, cowled skeleton pops up like some escapee from a ghost train, and a clawed monster with a wispy bearded, clay face somewhat reminiscent of the creature from Cocteau’s ‘Le Belle et la Bete’ (or perhaps one of the denizens of Kenneth Anger’s Pleasuredome?) has extracted itself from a tomb and commenced lumbering about, menacing our heroine in a vague sort of fashion.

Meanwhile, a man in evening dress whom we’ve not met before descends the stairs and begins calling the name of “Countess Irina”, only to find himself bloodily dispatched by an animated suit of armour wielding a broadsword (the horror of his demise is somewhat undermined by some rather comical “oooooh, aaaaaagh” type noises on the English dub). The spectral knight then slices the string holding back the bolt on a giant medieval siege crossbow, causing the projectile to fly free and bloodily impale Anna straight through her chest!

All of this is just as jaw-dropping as it sounds, and once again, if you’re holding out for a rational explanation of some of the more outré elements of Anna’s dream, you will be left disappointed. Up to this point in fact, ‘Tomb of Torture’ has seemed less like a film in its own right, and more like the kind of footage that might have been created for use in a sequence in another film in which the characters go to a cinema to watch a horror movie – if you get my drift. A mindless, near plotless parade of horror-type imagery, devoid of either artifice or artistry, its sheer, cheap preposterousness actually puts me in mind of nothing so much as Andrea Bianchi’s ‘Burial Ground’ (‘Le Notti del Terrore’, 1981), a similarly unglued artefact from the opposite end of Italian horror’s golden age.

At least Bianchi though had the good grace to ensure his film remained uproariously entertaining throughout its duration, whereas Boccaci, having blown his load in opening half hour described above, unfortunately leaves us to fend for ourselves through a further fifty minutes of run time devoid of almost any interest whatsoever.

It pains me to come down so hard on a film this adorably crazy, but seriously folks - as soon as we’re back in the waking world with Ramon, the doctor, the hunchback-monster and the sulky woman who owns the castle, ‘Tomb of Torture’ really is a dead loss.

Little of the crazy/fun stuff from Anna’s dream ever reappears, as assorted characters wander aimlessly, conversing at length on matters that we likely wouldn’t care about even if they made any sense, whilst supposedly ‘suspenseful’ scenes in which the monster chases people around are repeatedly botched by means of amateurish direction that sees the participants trudging through the static long-shots, evidencing very little sign of alarm. A slide trombone soundtracked ‘comedy’ sequence in which Anna is introduced to her made-to-order intrepid journalist boyfriend whilst skinny-dipping meanwhile is simply unspeakable.

I suppose you could say that the moody photography of the closing ten minutes gives us some nice dungeon atmos and a touch of melodramatic grandeur, but the marginally novel idea of having the castle’s rats gradually gnaw their way through the restraining rope on the aforementioned bolt-thrower during the climax is rather ruined by the decision to use hamsters – quite fluffy, cute-looking ones at that – in lieu of actual rats, and regardless, it’s all too little too late for this turkey. (3)

In spite of a few truly bizarre passages and a uniquely eccentric approach to production design, it is difficult to recommend ‘Metempsyco’ / ‘Tomb of Torture’ as anything more than a minor curio for gothic horror completists, and even in that capacity, my word-to-the-wise would be to gleam whatever kicks you can from the opening few reels, then shut it off and do something more useful with your time. Ah well – one down, one to go.

In stark contrast to the wildly uneven, slapdash qualities of the Italian half of tonight’s double-bill, it is difficult not to fall back on national stereotypes as we turn to our German offering, which, as it turns out, takes a similarly hackneyed set of genre elements and somehow fashions them into a thoroughly satisfactory exemplar of accomplished b-movie craftsmanship.

As ‘Der Fluch der Grünen Augen’ / ‘Cave of the Living Dead’ gets underway, we are swiftly introduced to our male lead, in the form of future Jess Franco collaborator and the producer/director of ‘Castle of the Creeping Flesh’ (1968) and ‘Mark of the Devil’ (1969), Mr Adrian Hoven.

After more than a decade playing romantic leads in German features, the forty year old Hoven seems at this point in time to have been transitioning toward character parts, and here we find him essaying the role of a smirking, eyebrow-arching Interpol agent – exactly the kind of off-the-peg protagonists that became ubiquitous in European movies in the wake of the early James Bond films in other words (although in this case, I’d imagine an equal debt is owed to Joachim Fuchsberger’s roles in the early Rialto krimis).

In a set-up reminiscent of Franco’s The Sadistic Baron Von Klaus from a year or so earlier, Hoven’s vacation (spent eyeing up a leggy blonde in a cocktail lounge, naturally) is interrupted when he is called back to base by his superior officer, who informs him that he is being dispatched on an undercover assignment to a remote village (famed for its “grotto”, apparently), where he is ordered to single-handedly crack the case of a series of mysterious slayings of young women that has thus far left local law enforcement baffled.

Upon his arrival at the village’s ramshackle, rustic inn, Hoven doesn’t have to wait long before getting down to business, as, conveniently, the comely maid occupying the room next to his falls victim to the vampiric killer that very night.

Though an almost shot-for-shot quotation from ‘Nosferatu’, this shadow-based nocturnal assault is nonetheless a striking sequence, with the combination of eerie electronic noise on the soundtrack and the fact that the clawed monster appears to be wearing some kind of gauze-shrouded body-suit momentarily creating the impression that the village’s female populace might actually be falling prey to some sort of space-monster.

A Yugoslavian co-production, I’m guessing ‘Cave..’ may also have been shot there too, but wherever it was lensed, ‘sense of place’ is definitely strong here, with the film’s locations conveying a convincing sense of poverty-stricken, rural isolation.

Though the exact location or nationality of the ‘village’ in which the action takes place is never made clear, it is a realm of rough stone interiors, roaring open fires, flickering shadows, mouldering wood piles, freezing fog, and an almost palpable shadow of benighted primitivism just waiting to descend, whenever the locale’s few, shaky signifiers of modernity withdraw.

Speaking of which, one of the most curious aspects of the ‘Cave..’s storyline arises from the fact that, each time the vampires – who are soon revealed to be of a pretty much common or garden variety, incidentally - make an attack, the village’s electricity supply pre-empts their arrival by shorting out, in a manner sufficiently widespread that it apparently affects the battery in Hoven’s car as well as the mains.

Whilst no explanation is ever offered for these power cuts, they nonetheless provide a beautiful metaphor for the film’s central theme of atavistic superstition reasserting its power over scientific rationalism – a theme that, thinking about it, renders the lack of a sign-posted explanation entirely appropriate.

Already hip to the notion that there is something a little peculiar going on here, Hoven’s character begins his investigation in time-honoured fashion by butting into the lives of the locals, revealing them to be as curious and suspicious a bunch as you could hope for.

After acquainting himself with the somewhat Walter Matthau-esque inn-keeper, the surly and uncooperative doctor and a hulking, mute brute who always seems to be hanging around, looking well up for of a strangling or two, Hoven follows up on the suggestion that he should pay a visit to the local witch / wise-woman - referred to in the English dub simply as “Nanny” - to get the low-down on the vampire threat.

What follows is a surprisingly compelling scene whose pungent atmosphere could almost have been pulled from some ‘Haxan’-esque film of the silent era. “Look how enticingly they dance..”, Nanny opines as a super-imposed coven of naked witches are briefly shown shimmying around the flames beneath her cauldron. (Hoven’s “did I really see that?!” reaction shot is a winner.)

After identifying Hoven as the man whose destiny is to put down the evil afflicting her community, Nanny gifts him with a silver crucifix (an artefact whose significance in this film seems curiously detached from Christianity, which otherwise goes entirely unmentioned) and a magical powder for use in reviving victims of a vampire bite, “..ground from the thorns of mountain roses, which on Walpurgis night are in full-bloom, the night when the witches’ fires burn on the mountains”. The English dubbing team did a great job on this scene, needless to say.

Returning to the more down-to-earth side of his investigations, Hoven also calls in on the castle (of course there’s a castle), where he has been invited to take up residence by the reclusive Professor who has recently taken possession of what we are told was formerly a ruin.

That the Professor is played by Wolfgang Preiss – an actor best known to contemporary German audiences for his appearances as Dr Mabuse in the series of updates of the character instigated by Fritz Lang’s ‘The 1,000 Eyes of..’ in 1960, and probably best known to you and I as the go-to-guy for Nazi officers in countless Hollywood WWII movies – suggests that our hunt for the perpetrator of the killings may well have reached a premature conclusion.

And, even if you didn’t pick up Preiss’s background as a sort of honorary German ‘horror man’, the Professor’s nifty array of bad guy accoutrements (skulls on pedestals, circles of gigantic black candles, apparent powers of clairvoyance) should leave viewers in little doubt that any pretense the film entertained toward being a whodunit is very much dead in the water by this point.

Though his screen time is sadly limited (it seems likely the production only had him on board for a couple of days), Preiss brings a quiet, understated menace to what could easily have been played as a fruity ‘master vampire’ role, but, given that he proves as reclusive to viewers of the film as he does to the villagers, it is the members of his staff who ultimately prove more interesting.

A striking looking actress with a New Wave-ish blonde bob, Erika Remberg plays the Professor’s research assistant / Hoven’s obligatory love interest, and, as with most of the characters in this movie, she’s given enough of a twist to transcend blandness. Sick of running pointless experiments for the Prof (she summarises his research interests as “anything and everything to do with blood”), she seems thoroughly bored of the whole remote village/scary schloss business, icily telling Preiss at one point that her three week contract has come to end, leaving him looking rather glum at the realisation that his aristocratic charm has failed to convince her to stay on and become his vampire mistress (or whatever). (4)

Even more noteworthy is the Professor’s black man-servant, John, who, in contrast to the way one might have expected such a character to portrayed in a contemporary British or American horror picture, actually turns out to be quite an agreeable fellow, disassociating himself from his employer once he realises he’s up to no good, and subsequently becoming Hoven’s chief ally in the fight against the vampires.

More pertinently, this character also allows Ráthonyi’s film to open up a sub-plot exposing the prejudice and petty cruelty of the rural villagers, who make no bones about distrusting John purely on the basis of skin colour, covertly blaming him for the murders, and, in one particularly blunt demonstration of small town racism, physically ejecting him from the inn when he naively drops in in search of a drink and some company. (He even offers to buy everyone a round before the pushing and shoving begins, the poor chap.)

You could say that this theme is explored in pretty heavy-handed fashion, and that John Kitzmiller’s performance as John is rather lacking in subtlety (his occasional lapses into Maitland Moreland-esque comedic facial expressions are somewhat regrettable), but nonetheless - even choosing to address such subject matter makes ‘Cave..’ / ‘Der Fluch..’ pretty much unique in my experience of early ‘60s horror films. (5)

By lining up this extensive cast of characters (certainly a more varied bunch than your average gothic horror) and kicking things off as an off-beat murder mystery, ‘Cave..’ seems, almost inevitably for a German genre film of its era, to be drawing to some extent from the krimi template. Indeed, you can see from the German poster reproduced below that the film was sold as such domestically, with no hint that it is actually a supernatural horror movie.

Happily though, such advertising proves to be entirely misleading, and in fact, what I loved most about ‘Cave of the Living Dead’ is that, whereas you might expect a story in this vein to drop hints of supernatural goings-on before wrapping them up into a quasi-scientific explanation, this film instead does precisely the opposite. Early suggestions of a scientific rationale for the vampire threat (the power cuts, the Professor’s ‘experiments’, Hoven’s attempts to take a blood sample from one of the vampires) are never followed up, whilst “Nanny”s witchy profanations are meanwhile revealed to be as solidly reliable as the wooden stakes and mallets that Hoven and his allies eventually use to ‘crack the case’ the old-fashioned way.

Functioning as a no-nonsense vampire movie by the time it hits its final act, ‘Cave..’ doesn’t really bring anything new to the table in this regard, but nonetheless acquits itself rather well, providing enough empty coffins, seductive, fanged beauties and dramatic stakings to satisfy most aficionados of the form, with some eerie, lantern-lit excursions into the appropriately atmospheric caves promised by Gordon’s retitling proving a particular highlight, with the filmmakers even managing to incorporate an apparently genuine swarm of bats at one point.

Though it eventually turns out to be assembled the same sort of loosely bolted together genre clichés that comprised ‘Tomb of Torture’, I for one found ‘Der Fluch..’/ ‘Cave..’ to be quite a rewarding little film, far exceeding my (relatively low) expectations. More detailed and imaginative scripting than most European gothics were graced with lends the story a rare sense of thematic consistency, whilst Ráthonyi keeps the screen stocked with enough interesting stuff to capture our attention throughout, and the uniquely atmospheric setting and unusually good performances from most of the cast seal the deal.

Whilst ‘Der Fluch der Grünen Augen’s unpretentious, programmer level ambitions mean it perhaps doesn’t quite scale the heights achieved by Europe’s very finest gothic horror productions, it nonetheless compares favourably with any of the second tier efforts emerging from Italy or the UK at around the same time, and as such is well worth tracking down. Even after suffering through eighty minutes of turbaned Antonio Boccaci and his hunchback-monster with only an interval ice cream to look forward to, I still think I would have left that cinema in 1965 feeling pretty satisfied.


(1)Interestingly, the next film I recall seeing these iconic X-shaped frames in is Jess Franco’s Necronomicon (1967) -- which was co-produced by Adrian Hoven, star of ‘Cave of the Living Dead’. Pure speculation here of course, but do you think it possible that Hoven could have checked out the Gordon double-bill at some point to see how ‘Cave..’ played out in English, and, noting these cool-looking frames in the co-feature, might have suggested them to Franco when planning his own horror film a few years later...? If so, that could even be ‘Metempsyco’/’Tomb of Torture’s main claim to historical posterity, given the number of erotic/horror films that subsequently used these frames in the ‘70s.

(2) “Countess Irina” of course offers another Franco connection, should you wish to make it. You probably don’t.

(3)I suppose perhaps you could posit ‘Tomb of Torture’s roving hamsters as a knowing tribute to the inexplicable armadillos in Todd Browning’s ‘Dracula’, but… it would be pushing it, to be honest.

(4)Historians of horror movie sleaze may be interested to learn that Remberg also delivers an *almost* nude scene in this film, when, in a shamelessly gratuitous sequence, we see her stripping off to go to bed, with merely her casually raised wrist hiding her nipples from full view. Pretty envelope-pushing stuff for ’63 (although Franco had already gone further with the French cuts of ‘..Dr Orloff’ and ‘..Baron Von Klaus’), and I’m inclined to believe this shot alone could have been responsible for gaining the film the British ‘X’ certificate proudly displayed on the print I watched. (I’m surprised they let it through at all to be honest, given how timid UK censorship was in those days.)

(5)An American actor primarily based in Europe, Kitzmiller also appeared as that-black-guy-who-gets-killed in ‘Dr No’, before playing the title character in the 1965 adaptation of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ – a role which was sadly his last, as he died in Rome the same year.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Two-Fisted Tales:
Cutlass Empire
by F. van Wyck Mason

(Jarrolds, year unknown [1949/50?])

As I have probably mentioned here before, there is a tradition in the area in which I live that sees people, apparently unable or unwilling to pay a visit to the charity shop of their choice, leaving all manner of unwanted objects – furniture, books, children’s toys, random junk – outside their homes, inviting neighbours and passers-by to take what they please.

Usually, the boxes (or merely piles) of books that turn up on an almost weekly basis yield little of interest, but – sometimes – you strike gold.

Sir Henry Morgan (1635-1688) presumably needs no introduction here, but the details of his life and death remain absolutely extraordinary, even before they received the F. van Wyck Mason treatment. (Interestingly, Morgan also provided the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s first novel, ‘Cup of Gold’ (1929), which I’d imagine must make an interesting contrast with the accounts of his exploits found here.)

F. van Wyck Mason (1902-1978) meanwhile was a prolific pulp writer of the 1920s and 30s who seems to have switched his attention to historical novels from the ‘40s onward, penning upward of fifty such volumes prior to his death at the age of 76 – presumed drowned whilst swimming off the coast of Bermuda, apparently.

Wikipedia summarises Mason’s writing style as “colourful though straightforward”, and indeed, this claim is more than borne out by a few random-page-openings of ‘Cutlass Empire’, in the spirit of which, I offer you the following;

pp. 11-12:

“Aware of a powerful and steady growing appetite, Harry turned his steed into a very narrow and dark cobbled street that reeked of manure, sewage and cooking odours. He Smiled. At the other end of this noisome thoroughfare lay the Angel Inn – and Anne. Darkly demure, she should be waiting, eagerly, tenderly.

A wider grin curved the rider’s sun-cracked lips. And then there was always Clarissa to be enjoyed, providing she had not gone a-visiting up-country. Plague take it, he’d far from forgotten the curious golden-white loveliness of her hair and the fresh pink of her complexion.

He urged his mount to a faster walk. No telling when a window might open and, to a cry of ‘Ware slops!’, a bucket of swill, excreta or trash might come raining down upon the greasy cobbles.

In his mind’s eye Harry Considered Anne Pruett. Like most people born in the West Country, she wasn’t tall and her soft, dark brown hair would be caught up by a bow over the nape of her neck; there was something infinitely provocative about her slightly upturned nose and grey-green eyes, and short but vividly tinted features. Heigh-ho! A sturdy, generously built wench was Mistress Pruett’s daughter, and just blossoming into a bountiful maturity. Certes! Anne’s curves seemed designed by nature to fit, ever so comfortably, into a fellow’s arms.

Would three weeks’ separation have softened her resistance? Harry assured himself it must have. A perplexing lass, this Anne Pruett – ‘twasn’t often one came across a tavern keeper’s brat who cried ‘No!’ and seemed to mean it.”

pp. 107-108:

“Enoch Jackman long since had reeled in to sprawl, snoring like a dozen foghorns, across the untidy, earthen floored bedroom, but Captain Achille Tribitor, master of a brigantine just returned from a moderately fortunate cruise off the coast of Cuba, continued singing louder than ever. More than half drunk, he plucked at a Potuguese guitar and happily serenaded the various gecko lizards reposing themselves against the palm thatch roof of Anytime Polly’s ramshackle ordinary.

As for Morgan, he sat glowering at an earthenware jug of fiery rum which had cost him the exorbitant sum of two pistoles; the stuff wasn’t worth even a tenth of that sum, but, in Cayona, one had to expect such brigandage.

The more he considered old Watts’ contemptuous dismissal of his plea for even a small independent command, the more resentful he grew. Not one of the other captains had led his men so successfully that his command had not been reduced by a single casualty.

‘The Devil fly off with that old wrinkle-belly,’he gloomed. ‘If only he wasn’t Susan’s father –-‘


Ready good nature mercurially restored, Morgan bellowed with laughter at the vision of a pagan god perched among the elms shading the old walled farm in Llanrhymny. He remembered now if whom the the ‘Red Rose against the Grey Wall’ reminded him.

Susan! By heavens – was it not utterly amazing that so charming and delicate a maid could thrive on the roistering coast of this barbaric island – like a beautiful flower on a dung heap?

Rose! That’s what Susan was – a rose. Morgan smiled to himself – a wise, private little smile. Dear Susan. After the soul-dulling brutalities, the crass savagery, the unbelievable obscenities he had experienced in the past three years, her presence was like a long cool draught to a sailor perishing of thirst.

Tribitor struck a loud chord on his guitar. ‘One observes,’ he remarked, ‘that you, mon ami, are at heart a poet and a great trouveur. Surely the angels in le bon Dieu’s heaven must be envious.’

‘Aye, I’m a poet,’ Morgan admitted. A rare, a supremely wonderful, inspiration was kindling his imagination. What of that golden rose from the bishop’s palace? True, he had been saving that superb example of the goldsmith’s art for an especially auspicious occasion, but by heavens he wasn’t going to wait! Tonight – yes, this very night, gallantly, humbly and devotedly – he would toss his golden rose through Susan’s window!”


“Hopeful, but not yet satisfied, Morgan watched a gradual change cover over those dark and predatory faces. Tongues slipped out to lick sun-cracked lips for all the world like those of so many cats congregated about a fishmonger’s barrow.

Morgan leaped into the circle of firelight, glared at Gascoigne and shouted him down by sheer lung-power. Out on the ships anchored in the river, crews heard his bellowings and grinned.

‘E Lord! Old ‘Arry’s giving ‘em wot-for tonight.’

‘Do you know what this timorous fugitive from a school for young women is going to say? I do! He’s going to warn you that Porto Bello is guarded by five strong castles--’

Five?’ demanded Harrington. ‘Gods mercy, you can’t be serious.’

‘Aye, there are five, but there’ll be no call to reckon with more than two of ‘em – maybe only one – provided you follow my orders to the letter. From the stone on which he stood Morgan’s large and vivid black eyes flickered from one to another of his captains’ faces.

‘Well, Harry,’ Jackman invited. ‘Speak your mind. I’ll at least listen to ye – ye’re damn seldom mistook in yer tactics.’

‘I intend to attack the city from its rear and so ignore those great forsts at the entrance to the harbour. Now listen.’ Like the skilful speaker he had become, he lowered his voice. ‘Hearken, all of you. I intend to descend to Estera Longa Lemos, land our forces five miles to the north of Porto Bello and then circle inland to gain the city’s rear. Since the greatest part of their batteries point to seawards, and since the Dons have no suspicion of our presence, why, we’ll be into their town before they half wake up!’

‘But, nom d’un chien!’ Gascoigne roared. ‘The Spaniards are commanded by Castellon himself – the best and bravest of their generals!’”

And so on. You get the general idea, I’m sure.

A work of almost incalculable entertainment value, ‘Cutlass Empire’s 422 uninterrupted pages of this-sort-of-thing first saw print in America in 1949, so we can presumably date this British edition to some time shortly thereafter.