Friday, 27 July 2018

Gothic Originals:
Lady Frankenstein
(Mel Welles, 1971)

PLEASE NOTE: As a result of the fact that I am still unable to take screengrabs from blu-ray discs, readers should be aware that the images above are taken from an old DVD edition of this film, and *NOT* from the recent restoration carried out by Nucleus Films, which was viewed for the purposes of this review, and which I can confirm looks *absolutely magnificent*. Please buy that one with confidence.

If you’re in the mood for a classic Euro-horror film, full of wild n’ woolly erotically-charged bloodshed, daring, stylised direction and mind-bending hallucinogenic weirdness, well, I’m afraid ‘Lady Frankenstein’ is not the film for you.

Indeed, the first time I watched it I found it pretty underwhelming, broadly concurring with critic Jonathan Rigby, who writes it off in his Euro Gothic compendium as “a rhythmless, atmosphere-free bore”. (1)

What a difference a few years – and a beautiful new transfer with fifteen reinstated minutes – can make. Returning to the film with expectations appropriately adjusted and (I hope) a bit more of an appreciation of the more, uh, ambient pleasures of the horror genre, I found ‘Lady Frankenstein’ quite delightful.

Before I try to sell you on this nigh-on Frankensteinian change of heart however, perhaps a bit of background might be in order. (IMDB was running hot as I checked up on all the salty characters who played a role in this film’s genesis, so I hope you appreciate my efforts.)

Though he is probably doomed to forever accept second place when the subject of rotund, deep-voiced Americans named Welles who were hanging around in the ‘60s European film industry arises, Mel Welles (1924-2005) can nonetheless claim a certain degree of cult movie immortality via his performance as the kvetching flower shop owner Gravis Mushnick in Roger Corman’s 1960 ‘Little Shop of Horrors’. (His turn as the rhyme-talking gravedigger in The Undead meanwhile… not so much.)

After relocating to Rome in the early 1960s, Welles carved out a niche for himself as a cornerstone of the dubbing industry, overseeing the Anglicisation of countless continental features whilst also using his contacts to occasionally scrape together funds for some small independent productions of his own. A self-professed devotee of gothic horror and fantasy cinema, Welles' first foray into the genre was 1967’s ‘Island of The Doomed’ (aka ‘Maneater of Hydra’), a sort of killer tree yarn starring Cameron Mitchell, on which he served triple duty as writer, director and producer.

By Welles's account, the project that became ‘Lady Frankenstein’ began when an aspiring producer (identified elsewhere as former Hollywood playboy and heir to the Vanderbilt fortune Harry C. Cushing IV) dropped out of the sky with a confirmed production budget and asked him to direct a script named ‘Lady Dracula’, intended as a vehicle for actress Rosalba Neri. (Allegedly, Cushing was trying to seduce Neri at the time, and figured that the offer of a leading role might help his chances; whatever the case, it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt them, given that the pair were married (briefly) a few years later.)

Somehow however, this initial deal fell through, the rights to the script – written by none other than former Peplum muscleman and ‘Kommissar X’ star Brad Harris - were lost, and Cushing was (seemingly) out of the picture, leaving Welles with a crew and studio time already booked in, but nothing to shoot. (2)

At this point, globe-trotting exploitation producer Dick Randall pops up for cameo, telling Welles “hell, so you can’t make ‘Lady Dracula’, make ‘Lady Frankenstein instead”, and earning himself a generous “original story” credit in the process. Decamping to London, Welles next hooked up with credited writer Edward Di Lorenzo, and after a few weeks of woodshedding, ‘Lady Frankenstein’ was up and running. (3)

In view of the film that eventually resulted, it is instructive I think to consider that ‘Lady Frankenstein’ was written in England, by two Americans. For better or for worse, Welles and Di Lorenzo’s script takes the picture in a very different direction from most early ‘70s continental horrors, rejecting the usual melange of errant craziness and random exploitable elements, and instead telling a story that, though stodgy, conventional and loaded with cliché, is at least coherent and thematically unified, even throwing in a few literary and historical allusions alongside its more obvious borrowings from the Universal canon.

In other words, it is exactly the kind of script Hammer might have filmed for their own Frankenstein series, had they taken a more traditionally gothic direction. This is no bad thing if you’re prepared to take it on its own terms, and indeed, Welles’ solid but unspectacular direction follows suit, as does the careful, moody lighting and the painstaking attention to detail intermittently evident in the production design.

One thing Hammer probably wouldn’t have done however is hire Morricone and Nicolai’s avant garde-leaning right hand man Alessandro Alessandroni to provide a soundtrack, and happily the composer makes his presence felt from the film’s very first second, opening proceedings with a bracing sting of his trademark fuzz guitar, as some thoroughly routine Burke & Hare type business is conducted in a particularly squalid looking graveyard. (4)

The lead grave robber is played by Austrian actor Herbert Fuchs (often credited as Herbert Fux), a possessor of a face-you-won’t-forget whom you’ll probably recall stealing the show in Adrian Hoven’s ‘Mark of the Devil’ (1970). Fuchs makes for a lovably sleazy ne’erdowell here too, aided by the unusual amount of detail the script provides regarding his lifestyle and dwellings, which momentarily reminded me of Jonh Gilling’s excellent The Flesh & The Fiends. (5)

After Fuchs and his boys drag their insalubrious cargo across the foreground of a splendidly ominous establishing shot of the Umbrian castle within which much of the film takes place, we are promptly introduced to Baron Frankenstein himself, embodied here by no less a personage than Joseph Cotten. (6)

In contemplating the circumstances that led to Cotton getting mixed up in a film like ‘Lady Frankenstein’, I’ve often entertained the possibility that perhaps he heard that some American blowhard named Welles was directing, and the ink was already dry on his contract by the time he realised his terrible mistake. Amusing as this thought may be however, the more prosaic truth seems to be that Cotten had enjoyed making ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ in England the preceding year, and, taking inspiration from his friend Vincent Price, thought he’d stay on in Europe and have a bash at becoming a “horror star”.

‘Lady Frankenstein’ represents the first fruit of Cotten’s brief flirtation with this new career path (Bava’s ‘Baron Blood’ would soon follow, after which he seems to have given up on it), and it was perhaps this fleeting sense of enthusiasm that accounts for the fact that he actually delivers something approaching a performance here, rather than just looking disgusted and cheesed off, as per every other film I’ve seen him in post-1960.

Playing opposite Cotton in many of the film’s early scenes meanwhile is the aforementioned Rosalba Neri in the film’s title role as Tania, the Baron’s daughter, who has just returned from university as a fully qualified surgeon (no mean feat for a woman in the 1820s) and is keen to get stuck in at the business end of her beloved father’s experiments.

In later interviews about the film, Mel Welles liked to declare himself as a feminist (“twenty years before my wife”, he endearingly insisted), and although applying such ideological intent to ‘Lady Frankenstein’ will seem a stretch for most modern viewers, the very idea of female character willing to step up to the plate as a fully-fledged mad scientist must in itself have been a novelty within the none-more-patriarchal environment of a ‘70s Italian gothic horror movie [a fact that was certainly not lost on whoever designed the comically salacious poster for the film’s US release via Corman’s New World Pictures – see below].

Though it is difficult to gain a full appreciation of Neri’s performance given that, like everybody else in the film besides Cotton, she is dubbed in both English and Italian versions, insofar as we can tell she seems to considerably upped her game here, perhaps appreciative of a part that took her beyond her usual sex kitten/shameless hussy roles.

Though demure to a fault through the opening half of the movie, Neri nonetheless manages to imbue all of her scenes with a sense of mature, self-confident kinkiness, and, when she eventually gets to let loose in the laboratory, she is very much in charge, reducing her father’s assistant Charles (the ubiquitous Paul Muller) to an even more subservient role than he took when working with the Baron.

Though stiff and mannered as the material demands, the performances by this central trio within the castle are actually all very good. The hawk-featured Muller – who surely needs no introduction to readers who have seen a handful of Spanish horrors or Jess Franco films - is solid as ever here, shouldering an epic quantity of screen time in a pretty thankless role, whilst, all things considered, Cotten gives us a surprisingly subtle and melancholic take on the aging Baron. There’s definitely a touch of Price in his dialogue delivery I think, but he wisely plays it straight, conveying both his resigned reaction to the apparent failure of his climatic experiment and his evident love for his daughter quite convincingly. It’s a shame that -- uh, SPOILER ALERT -- he gets unceremoniously clobbered by his own monster less than halfway through the picture.

That monster, by the way, is probably the reason for a lot of the bad press ‘Lady Frankenstein’ has received over the years. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to deny that he’s pretty damned goofy. The corduroy trousers and woollen smock he’s given to wear are rather charming, but his bulbous head / mutilated eye make-up job was never going to win any prizes, despite the prominence it took in the film’s marketing, and it’s difficult to find an explanation for the traditional, monster-stompin’ platform boots he is already wearing when he first slides off the operating table.

Blandly over-lit and rendered in artless, point n’ shoot fashion, the subsequent scenes in which the monster strolls around the countryside causing trouble have a crude, second unit feel to them that seems a world away from the more classy material with the principals in the castle. But, the bit where he throws a stark naked girl in a very shallow river is pretty funny, so… there’s that.

Most of the scenes dealing with the local townsfolk and the investigation of the monster’s crimes meanwhile feel similarly slapdash. Mickey “Crimson Executioner” Hargitay is given little to work with as the police chief (there’s certainly no hint here of the kind of dementia he exhibited in his better known horror roles), whilst many of the costumes and set dressing seem to have been recycled from the waning Spaghetti Western boom. Combined with some distinctly 1970s-style male grooming, this serves to rather make a mockery of the more carefully rendered period detail of the castle scenes.

Despite all this silliness however, Welles seems to have been in earnest in his love for old school gothic horror, and, like his cast, he plays it straight. A great deal of effort was clearly invested in the film’s laboratory sequences, which (aided no doubt by Carlo Rambaldi’s effects work) are an absolute treat for connoisseurs of mad scientist movies, incorporating some of the finest fizzing electrical arcs, byzantine glassware and bubbling beakers of blood seen on-screen since the glory days of the 1930s, with some first class ‘pulsing organs in jars’ thrown in to appease the gorier tastes of early ‘70s viewers.

Clearly somewhat of an enthusiast for such business, Welles allows time for both of his Frankensteins to describe their experimental processes in quite some detail, including a discussion of how the recent discoveries of Volta and Galvani have been incorporated into their work. I’m fairly certain too that this must be the only Frankenstein film in history that actually took the time to design and construct period appropriate surgical lamps and dry-cell batteries in the name of historical verisimilitude – a detail of which Welles seems to have been particularly proud, on the basis of his later interviews.

The scale of the De Paolis soundstage on which the lab set was constructed is also impressive, as is vast, stained glass skylight seen opening during resurrection of first monster. It’s little wonder that the whole shebang was repurposed in its entirety by Paul Morrissey’s ‘Flesh For Frankenstein’ a year later – a movie that, to a significant extent, basically plays like an exaggerated spoof of this one, I should note.

Indeed, whilst the approach Welles took in directing ‘Lady Frankenstein’ was innately conservative, the central ‘high concept’ that provided the impetus for the film’s script – namely, the idea that Tania plans to create the perfect lover for herself by transplanting Dr Charles’s “brilliant” brain into the body of Thomas, the castle’s beautiful but simple-minded handyman – is actually fairly startling. (7)

Although this notion is not given as much screen-time as more sensation hungry viewers might have wished, when the movie does finally get around to it, it certainly doesn’t flinch, especially as regards Tania’s decision to seduce both of her experimental subjects prior to the big operation - a development that certainly lends itself to some queasily Freudian interpretations, suggesting that she needs to copulate with these two ‘fathers’ in order to ‘conceive’ the new monster that will replace her own recently departed father in her affections. (Not, you will note, exactly the most feminist twist on the Frankenstein mythos that could be imagined.)

Anyway – after using her wiles to ensure the cooperation of the hopelessly devoted Charles, Tania next takes poor Thomas to bed, just in order to, I dunno, test out the merchandise, I suppose. This latter scene culminates in what is far and away ‘Lady Frankenstein’s most transgressive moment, when Charles, who has been discreetly observing Tania’s tryst with Thomas, emerges at the climactic moment to smother him to death with a pillow.

Though reminiscent of a number of ‘erotic asphyxiation’ scenes that had already made their way into Jess Franco’s filmography by this point, this is still genuinely shocking stuff, jolting us out of the ‘ersatz Hammer’ mindset and into the realms of full-on Italio-exploitation. The film’s straight-laced dramatic context renders it more disturbing than any of the tongue-in-cheek outrages Morrissey would soon perpetrate on the same sets, and the scene gains a particularly sinister sex-horror frisson from Rosalba’s reaction shots, which see her biting her wrist in orgasmic ecstasy as her lover expires beneath her.

Whilst there is a touch of ‘House of Frankenstein’s “whose brain goes where” farce to the proceedings that follow, the fact that Tania and Charles seem so casually disinterested in the travails of their first monster – who is still throttling peasants at a steady rate - speaks eloquently both of the growing madness that is consuming them and of the thoughtless cruelty that naturally accompanies their aristocratic background, as does the fact that poor old Thomas’s brain has presumably been tossed in the bin, declared ‘worthless’ in typical proto-fascist fashion, even as his devoted sister frantically searches for him, haranguing various members of the cast about her brother’s disappearance.

All of this is standard issue Frankenstein movie stuff of course, but it is nicely done here, quietly drawing our attention to the moral (and mental) degradation of the characters we are ostensibly following whilst avoiding the need for any ‘message’ speeches or hand-wringing moralising.

Despite its infusion of (moderate) sex and (mild) gore however, ‘Lady Frankenstein’ must nonetheless have seemed ponderous and old fashioned to many of its contemporary viewers. In terms of its pacing and atmosphere, it is very much of a piece with the somewhat patience-testing gothics that Italy largely phased out when Barbara Steele disappeared from screens in 1966, whilst its director’s inspirations were clearly still rooted three decades before that.

Although many gothic horror films were still being produced in the early ‘70s – more than ever before, probably – by the time ‘Lady Frankenstein’ hit screens, just about all of its competitors were in some way reinventing themselves, adding either softcore erotica, psychedelic freak-outs, self-conscious genre deconstruction or goofy comedy to the mix, and even Hammer had almost entirely moved away from their more traditional period pieces by this point.

Though there were a few stragglers in the following years, ‘Lady Frankenstein’ thus stands as one of the very last gothic horror films made anywhere in the world that plays things totally straight. Respectfully abiding by the established conventions of the genre, it never offers the audience a wink or nudge, withholds the easy wins of sex n’ violence from all but its most crucial moments, and tries instead to ensnare its viewers through the simple pleasures of a hoary old yarn, adequately told.

The extent to which Welles and his collaborators succeeded even in this modest goal might be debatable, but it is difficult not to admire the earnestness of their intent on some level, and, for those of us so jaded we can take pleasure in seeing the bones of these old gothic tropes dug out of the closet and paraded around one last time, there remains much here to enjoy.
Also, this movie had a lot of great posters.


(1) ‘Euro Gothic: Classics of Continental Horror Cinema’ (Signum Books, 2016), p. 295

(2) For anyone keeping track here, Harris’s ‘Lady Dracula’ script was eventually filmed as a comedy in Germany in 1977. It looks terrible.

(3) Perhaps stung by being shut out of the production of ‘Lady Frankenstein’, Randall went on to pretty much corner the market in shoddy Italian Frankenstein movies in the year that followed, covertly masterminding ‘Frankenstein ‘80’ and directing ‘Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks’, both in 1972. Of the latter, Rigby accurately notes that “..the childishly nonsensical result makes ‘Lady Frankenstein’ look like an unsung masterpiece”. (ibid.)

(4) For what it’s worth, I get the feeling that ‘Lady Frankenstein’s soundtrack was probably a bit of a mix n’ match affair, much in the manner of contemporary Jess Franco or Paul Naschy films. Although Alessandroni gets sole credit, and was presumably responsible for all the weird, atonal laboratory music and the occasional fuzz-drenched transition cue, the far more conventional orchestral music that accompanies the monster’s rampages and other ‘action’-based moments definitely sounds canned, perhaps pulled off some ancient library disc or something?

(5) Just for laughs, I feel like noting that Fuchs/Fux’s other credits for 1970 include ‘Secrets of a Vice Cop's Wife’, ‘Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion’, ‘The Naked Wytche’, ‘Gentlemen in White Vests’, ‘The Amorous Adventures of a Young Postman’ and ‘Strogoff’, an Italian swashbuckler in which he makes an uncredited appearance as The Pope. What a year!

(6) Identified on IMDB as the Castello Piccolomini in the Province of L'Aquila in Southern Italy, the castle used in ‘Lady Frankenstein’ also apparently played host to ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’, ‘The Devil’s Wedding Night’, Radley Metzger’s ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ and Polselli’s ‘Black Magic Rites’ / ‘The Reincarnation of Isobel’. What a line up! I feel a plan for a new holiday forming… (Also: did Mickey Hargitay live down the road or something? Three of the four Italian horror movies he appeared in were filmed in this place!)

(7) Thomas, incidentally, is played – uncredited - by Marino Masé, an actor who enjoyed a rich and varied career far too extensive for me to spend time running down here. (Would you believe that the same man appeared in ‘Lady Frankenstein’, Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ AND an episode of ‘East Enders’? IT HAPPENED.)

Monday, 16 July 2018

Boxing Clever:
Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies
(Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years,
Vol # 1)

(This is a new thing where I’m going to look collectively at the films included on some box sets I’ve recently been working my way through.)

I can’t be the only one out there who sometimes wonders what goes on behind the scenes when independent Blu-ray/DVD labels in the English-speaking world make deals with the big studios and distributors in Asia. Dark rumours (please don’t ask me for sources) suggest that the Japanese studios in particular like to play hard-ball with foreigners when drawing up licensing agreements, and incidents such as Arrow’s disastrous release of the ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ films a few years back (the only explanation for which seems to have been that Toei deliberately provided the company with inferior transfers, for some reason) would certainly seem to suggest that there’s something fishy going on.

Likewise, Arrow’s choice of releases from Nikkatsu’s rich back catalogue has often seemed baffling. Whilst key films with immediate commercial potential, both from the late Seijun Suzuki (Gate of Flesh, ‘Tattooed Life’, ‘Tokyo Drifter’, to name but a few) and from the studio’s other directors (‘Black Tight Killers’, ‘Cruel Gun Story’, ‘Velvet Hustler’, just to skim the top of my favourites list), remain AWOL on blu-ray, Arrow have instead concentrated their resources on putting out collections of the studio’s critically undistinguished “program pictures” of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

By and large, these are films that have always been characterised by English language critics as homogenous, light-weight affairs that adventurous viewers should not trouble themselves with, and writers have usually tended to frame Nikkatsu’s more artistically ambitious directors (Suzuki, Kurahara, Imamura) in direct opposition to them.

Given that such selections lack either the art-house credibility or cultish sex/violence/weirdness that might make them viable prospects for the Western market, one frankly suspects that some kind of “you’ll release what we give you” arrangement must be in operation here, with our disc-pressing heroes holding out in the hope of snagging some more plum titles further down the line.

But – I come not to bury Arrow’s admirably diverse Japanese cinema line, but to praise it. For, personally speaking, I’ve actually quite enjoyed most of the Nikkatsu “program pictures” I’ve happened to see over the years. They have a certain ‘feel’, a certain nostalgic pop art beauty, to them that I like a lot, and I’m always happy to have a few more to get stuck into on a quiet Sunday evening when something comfortable and undemanding is in order.

In particular, new releases of the previously little seen “programmers” directed by Seijun Suzuki before he began to flex his creative muscles in the early/mid 1960s are always welcome. Regarding the vast quantity of product the now revered director turned out for Nikkatsu in the decade prior to his infamous dismissal in 1967, a certain orthodoxy seems to have developed amongst Western critics, separating his exceptional/personally engaged films (largely comprising the stylised yakuza films and edgy, eroticised dramas he made post-1962) from his “routine” genre assignments, the bulk of which are generally dismissed out of hand.

On occasions when items from the latter category have sneaked out in English friendly editions however (cf: ‘Take Aim At The Police Van’ (1960) on Criterion’s ‘Nikkatsu Noir’ set, or ‘Voice Without a Shadow’ (1958) on Arrow’s ‘Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol # 1’), I’ve actually found them to be very good, with scattered examples of the director’s visual ingenuity and anarchic energy often in evidence.

As such, purchasing the first of what promises to be several multi-disc box sets stuffed with such obscure, early works was a no-brainer, even as ‘Volume # 1’ (designated as “The Youth Movies”) promises to demonstrate how this much-loved filmmaker began to develop his chops in an environment entirely devoid of stylised gun battles, blinding primary colours, blood-drenched prostitutes, sneering, hamster-cheeked gangsters or psychedelic butterfly close-ups (definitely no butterfly close-ups).

Proceedings begin with The Boy Who Came Back [Fumihazushita Haru, 1958], Suzuki’s eighth film as director, according to IMDB. As scripted, this is a fairly mundane juvenile delinquent melodrama, centred on an earnest high school girl (Keioko, played by Sachiko Hidari) who works for a voluntary organisation whose members seem to act as mentors / ersatz probation officers for young people who have just been released from juvenile detention centres.

Apparently no one in this film’s world seems to see a problem with placing inexperienced schoolgirls in unsupervised contact with troubled young men with criminal records, and as such Keiko soon finds herself drawn into the chaotic world of Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi), an unrepentant bad boy who is soon dragging her to wild jazz parties, brawling with his old adversaries on the streets, arguing with his family, and generally tearin’ it up in classic JD style, irrespective of her attempts to try to keep him on the straight and narrow.

One thing that immediately makes this film somewhat noteworthy for fans of Japanese cinema is its cast. Kobayashi was already well on his way to earning his stripes as Nikkatsu’s second biggest male star (behind Yûjirô Ishihara) by this point, with over a dozen films under his belt, but more interesting is the early appearance of Hidari, an actress who later went on to genuinely great things, delivering exceptional and challenging lead performances in both Shôhei Imamura’s ‘The Insect Woman’ (1963) and Kinji Fukasaku’s harrowing ‘Under The Flag of the Rising Sun’ (1972), amongst others. (According to Jasper Sharp’s notes accompanying this set, Hidari also holds the distinction of becoming the first Japanese woman to both direct and produce her own feature film, when ‘The Far Road’, a project apparently funded by a rail workers trade union, saw release in 1978.)

Sadly, it must be said that little of this promise is evident from Hidari’s appearance in ‘The Boy Who Came Back’. Though clearly both possessed of a certain amount of charisma, the film’s young leads (who were respectively aged around nineteen and seventeen at the time) flounder dreadfully, desperately in need of guidance that they clearly weren’t receiving from Suzuki, or apparently anyone else on the production.

Hidari in particular overacts horrendously in places, making a mockery of story’s more dramatic moments as she simpers and stomps and, at one point, beats her fists on the floor in a largely unmotivated tantrum. Kobayashi meanwhile seems nervous and gangly, grinning and shrugging as if he just failed a boy band audition, and evidencing little of the easy charm and/or dramatic intensity he brought to productions such as Buichi Saitô’s The Rambling Guitarist (1959) or Toshio Masuda’s low-key yakuza drama ‘Rusty Knife’, released in the same year as this film.

Elsewhere, future Nikkatsu leading lady Ruriko Asaoka is third billed as Kobayashi’s on-off girlfriend, whilst perennial yakuza boss Tôru Abe also puts in an appearance, and there’s a lot of great, energetic stuff with Jô Shishido as the porkpie hat-rockin’ ringleader of a small gang of toughs who live in a tiny room above a night club, harassing Kobayashi and, in a development that would be legitimately shocking in a film from any other country in the world, dragging the gentle Asaoka to their hideout to have their wicked way with her. Shishido’s always welcome presence (his only appearance on this set, sadly) tops off what stands, in retrospective at least, as a remarkably impressive cast for a routine Nikkatsu b-movie.

None of this seems to have impressed Suzuki however, and mirroring his apparent disinterest in his leading players, the director seems to have been equally disengaged from the film’s admittedly run-of-the-mill script, instead leaving the central drama to play out in whatever hap-hazard form it may, whilst he focuses his attention instead on the kind of incidental pleasures more easily accessible to jobbing studio directors.

As with all the films in this set – and most vintage Nikkatsu productions in general, to be honest – the photography here is exceptional, capturing some beautiful vistas of the out-of-the-way corners of Suzuki’s native Tokyo in which the film is set. Incorporating brief snatches of what basically amounts to documentary footage, the film gives us a fascinating and, in this context, rather romantic glimpse of a scrappy, suburban landscape, balanced mid-way between dusty, pre-war malaise and the transformative modernisation Japan’s post-war ‘economic miracle’ (more on which below).

Meanwhile, the jazz club scenes – another common Nikkatsu trope – are absolutely tremendous fun, displaying some of the wild cutting and infectious energy that would come to define Suzuki’s work over the coming decade as Kobayashi guzzles some big, foamy mugs of beer (courteously, he orders some for Hidari too, though she seems less keen) and finally lets rip, frugging wildly to an infectious mixture of big band swing and early doors Asian rock n’ roll. (Look out for the beret and shades-sporting ‘hipsters’ in the background in these scenes – they’re pretty great.)

Elsewhere, an early example of the kind of anarchic spirit that later came to rile Suzuki’s paymasters can be seen in a number of location-shot scenes in which, whilst the leads thrash through their dialogue, the director frames shots in such a way as to draw our attention instead to the crowds of genuine passers-by who have gathered on nearby pavements and bridges, quietly watching the film being shot.

Though the evident weaknesses of its scripting and central performances don’t really allow ‘The Boy Who Came Back’ to pass muster as a ‘good’ film, it is certainly an interesting and entertaining one that – largely due to delightful touches such as those discussed above - is liable to live long in my memory.

“Delightful” also seems a perfect descriptor for the next film in this chronologically-sequenced set, the awkwardly translated The Wind of Youth Group Crosses The Mountain Pass [Tôge o Wataru Wakai Kaze, 1961].

Both a straight-forwardly good-natured coming-of-age comedy and a heart-felt celebration of the traditional festivities and atmosphere that characterise summertime in rural Japan, the tone of this one will be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen Suzuki’s first colour film, the rather more boisterous comedy ‘Fighting Delinquents’ (aka ‘Go To Hell Hoodlums’, 1960), which shared this film’s star, the affable Kôji Wada.

Here, Wada plays a penniless, happy-go-lucky student who has taken some time off to go a-ramblin’ across his homeland with no particular aim in mind. We meet him as he hitches a ride with a bedraggled family magic troupe, joining them as they wind their way up into the mountains in a decidedly uncomfortable looking open-topped truck, midway through a tour of rural summer festivals.

Subsequently, we find Wada pitching up in one of the sprawling fairs/markets that to this day surround Japan’s temples and shrines during festival time. Inexplicably, our feckless hero is trying to raise some cash by flogging a shipment of ladies’ underwear that he somehow ‘acquired’ back in Tokyo, which leads to him learning a few quick lessons on hard sell techniques from his fellow market traders, and also getting friendly with the amiable quasi-yakuza types who are controlling pitches at the fair. (Pretty much everyone in this movie is amiable, it should be noted, even the bad guys.)

(Most notably among the latter, by the way, is Nobuo Kaneko, probably best-known as the cowardly Boss Yamamori in Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Battles Without Honour & Humanity’ saga, who turns up here in an early prototype of the “comedic creep” character he’d go on to portray in dozens of ‘70s Toei productions.)

Meanwhile, Wada’s pals in the magic troupe (who of course include the obligatory contrasting duo of eligible young ladies, as well as a loveable-yet-simple-minded strongman and various other oddballs) are in a quandary. Having lost their star attraction – a stripper! – they are having to face the fact that, without her charms, nobody is very interesting in paying to see their patriarch’s dusty old magic tricks.

As one might well expect, Wada becomes increasingly embroiled in the life of the magic troupe, attempting to help them through their problems by means of various schemes and shenanigans, the exact nature of which need not concern us here. Needless to say though, things work out more or less ok for the vast majority of the film’s extensive cast of characters, and our young protagonist eventually continues on his way through life with happy, sun-dappled memories of life lessons learned and a summer well-spent.

Only a small percentage of Nikkatsu productions enjoyed the luxury of being filmed in colour during this period, and, as with his earlier collaboration with Wada, Suzuki makes the most of the opportunity to do so here. Filmed in beautifully rich, over-saturated faux technicolor, the film’s evocative mountain and forest locations become a vivid riot of reds, greens and wide blue skies, with some footage presumably shot at genuine summer festivals.

Although nothing terribly riotous occurs in the actual storyline to match all this visual excitement, Suzuki nonetheless seems to have been far more engaged with this material than he was with that of the previous film in this set, skilfully weaving together a sometimes dizzying assortment of characters and sub-plots and maintaining a lively, energetic pace that somehow never undercuts the slightly wistful, nostalgic tone of the story, and delivering an entertaining and accomplished movie that it’s hard to believe his paymasters at the studio weren’t pleased with.

One of the things I found most interesting about ‘Wind of Youth Group..’ is that it stands as perhaps the only Nikkatsu film I’ve seen that entirely avoids the studio’s trademark references to Western culture and youthful aspirations toward internationalism. There are no jazz records or Hollywood movie icons here, no US airbases, sharp suits, gleaming new skyscrapers or young hoodlums hanging around the docks, staring wistfully out to sea.

Instead, Suzuki – perhaps surprisingly for viewers who know the director solely for the likes of ‘Branded To Kill’ and ‘Tokyo Drifter’ - seems very much at home with this comforting, inward-looking celebration of the traditions of working class rural life that in part reminds me of the more bucolic entries in the Zatoichi series, produced by the far more conservative Daiei studios.

About the closest the film gets to Nikkatsu’s usual “borderless” agenda is amoment when one of the young girls in the magic troupe admits that she longs to raise enough money to travel to distant Tokyo (one shudders to imagine what other kind of Japanese cinematic narrative she might find herself part of when she finally gets there). I suppose there is a slight suggestion here that the world presented by the film is fading away, moving towards irrelevance as the country moves toward (an implicitly Westernised) modernity. The magic troupe is a relic of the past, the traders in the market all seem pretty destitute, and so on – but the script addresses this sort of thing only in passing.

For the most part, the feeling viewers will end up taking away from ‘Wind of Youth Group..’ is a happy one. Everyone in the film is basically nice and helpful and likeable, and they all have splendid time together in their self-sufficient, nomadic demi-monde. Even when bad things happen – and, without resorting to spoilers, some fairly bad things happen – this film makes summertime in rural Japan feel like a lovely place to be.

For those who experienced this atmosphere first-hand when growing up, there must be a real comfort factor here that could conceivably have made this movie a fixture on the nation’s holiday TV schedules had it had more exposure, and even your humble gaijin correspondent found himself feeling very positive about the prospect of soon paying another visit to Japan and soaking up a few remaining ghosts of this old-timey atmos here and there.

Any perceived dearth of modernity in ‘Wind of Youth Group..’ is more than more up for by the next film in Arrow’s box set, a 1962 item named Teenage Yakuza [Hai Tiin Yakuza]. Very obviously a b-movie, presumably destined for the bottom of some triple bill, this one runs a mere 72 minutes, features none of the studio’s ‘name’ stars and appears to have been thrown together in great haste – all of which, I would suggest, are circumstances that sat pretty well with Suzuki’s directorial muse.

The ostensible narrative here is slight, presenting Tamio Kawaji – a prolific actor who turned up in many key Nikkatsu titles, but more usually only in supporting roles - as a young man in a small mountain town, whose ‘stand up guy’ tendencies and ability with his fists lead him first to fight off the local protection racket praying upon local businesses, and then, inadvertently, to usurp it, naively accepting gifts and freebies from the business owners, and subsequently attracting the attention both of the law, and of some out-of-town toughs with proper sharp suits and shades (and we all know what that means – see title).

The actual story Suzuki seems to be telling here however is an entirely different one, and it is conveyed in part simply by the location – an apparently genuine one, insofar as I can tell – in which the film’s exteriors were shot. A tiny, self-contained community in the process of being hit full force by the effects of Japan’s post-war “economic miracle”, the cramped storefronts and shabby back-rooms occupied by the movie’s primary characters find themselves dwarfed by the shiny new apartment blocks and industrial buildings that seem to be springing up almost organically from the hills around them.

Construction materials lie around everywhere, whilst mechanical diggers churn the earth in the vertiginous quarry/construction site around which both the film’s opening titles and climactic ruckus take place. In the town’s main thoroughfare meanwhile, roaring trucks and phalanxes of bicycles vie for space with strutting gangs of idle teenagers.

Kawaji’s industrious mother (Suzuki regular Kotoe Hatsui) plans to make it big by opening an American style coffee bar, complete with chromium counter, linoleum flooring and high bar stools, which she seems to have bought wholesale from a franchise catalogue, presumably in anticipation of the crowds of hip, Western-orientated professionals who will soon be occupying all those tower blocks. (Modern viewers who have enjoyed the questionable privilege of living in a “revitalised” urban area in recent years may feel a twinge of déjà vu at this point.)

Normally, one would expect a film loaded with such signifiers of aggressive modernisation and economic transformation to cast a cynical or nostalgic eye upon the human cost and cultural homogenisation engendered by such developments, but, despite the yakuza-related plotline’s implicit criticism of the moral corruption underlying such “progress”, Suzuki - in stark contrast to the feeling conveyed by ‘Wind of Youth Group..’ - seems to be all for it. And in a sense, who can blame him?

From start to finish, this film flows by on a tide of pure, giddy energy, just as much so as the post-modern gangster romps the director began making shortly afterwards. Almost every second of ‘Teenage Yakuza’ is filled with noise and action and general hullaballoo, with people shouting, laughing, arguing, running around and dancing. Vehicles roar around the place honking their horns, deals are made, business open and close, money changes hands and – seemingly a Suzuki speciality at this point - there is a great deal of kinetic though good-spirited fisticuffs, with characters retreating on several occasions to the adjacent wasteland in order to beat each other senseless (though they usually seem to get up smiling at the end of it).

Everywhere, music blares (a new stereo system is Kawaji’s pride and joy) and teens congregate in a kind of prototype pachinko parlour or – joy of joys – in another jazz club, where blown up pics of American musicians are plastered on the walls, and kids frug amid decorative signposts emblazoned with such exotic, English language legends as “Don Elliot Play Mellophne”, “Cha-Cha To Haiti” and “To Loui Armstrong in Cicago”. Even the more old fashioned environs of the local noodle shop get forcibly livened up at one point, when a gang of casually-attired young folk burst in to dance and sing along with a jaunty number being played on ukulele and hand drums by the owner’s daughters (Midori Tashiro, looking very cute as Kawaji’s love interest in one of only a handful of screen roles for Nikkatsu, is prominently featured here).

It seems these youngsters can’t stop movin’ for a minute, and all this joy and vitality serves to remind us that, for a nation still emerging from the shadow of authoritarianism, war, austerity and reconstruction, the freedoms and easy rewards offered by all this rampant, untamed capitalism were PRETTY DAMN COOL – a conclusion the director seems, on the surface at least, to share.

Indeed, Suzuki’s framing and cutting is extremely skilful, mirroring the energy of his characters, and compositions are often quite striking in the more dramatic scenes, enhancing the film’s feeling of perpetual movement and constant excitement, at times making things rather like a more punk-ass take on one of those “people on the move!”-type war-time propaganda reels.

Interestingly however, Kawaji’s final confrontation with the out-of-town Yakuza guy sees the antagonists rolling across the top of the hill that overlooks the town, revealing an area of fertile, well-tilled agricultural land facing in the other direction, providing a stark contrast to the dust and concrete in which we’ve spent the preceding seventy minutes, and, momentarily at least, setting up a more conflicted urban-vs-rural / old-vs-new type dichotomy that leaves a question mark hanging over the movie’s ostensibly happy, forward-moving conclusion. Whether or not this was Suzuki’s intention is, strangely, fairly irrelevant – the simple fact that that farm land was THERE, and ended up on-screen, makes the point as clearly as any deliberate act on the part of a writer or director could have done.

Though an admittedly minor effort, details such as this again help turn ‘Teenage Yakuza’ into a unique snapshot of the time and place in which it was made, and of the currents and contradictions that were flowing through certain areas of Japan. Its directorial confidence, unruly energy and refreshing brevity all proved very welcome, and, if pushed, I’d probably nominate it as the film in this set that I enjoyed the most.

Next up, Arrow’s set shifts gears on us quite dramatically, showcasing a pair of films both adapted from similar, semi-autobiographical stories penned by one Kon Tôkô, an author who seems to have enjoyed a considerable literary reputation in mid-century Japan, but has subsequently been largely forgotten. (Critic Jasper Sharp should be commended for his efforts fill in the blanks re: Tôkô’s life and work in his supplements to this box set.)

Suzuki actually completed a loose trilogy of films adapted from Tôkô’s writing during his time at Nikkatsu – indeed, the third, 1966’s ‘Carmen From Kawachi’ (not included here), appears to be very well thought of domestically, where it remains one of the director’s more well-known films. As such, it is probably safe to assume that Seijun was a fan – but, in the top-down, contracted environment of Japan’s studio system, it’s difficult to be too sure. I suppose it’s equally likely that, after Suzuki’s first Tôkô adaptation proved something of a hit, the powers that be at Nikkatsu simply decided that this writer and director made a good pairing, and began planning some follow-ups… but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the former possibility.

Anyway, regardless of how they came about, the two films included here are 1963’s Akutarô, translated by Arrow as The Incorrigible, but known elsewhere as ‘Bad Boy’ or ‘The Bastard’, and 1965’s loose follow up/kind-of-remake Akutarô-den: Warui Hoshi no Shita Demo, which has been dubbed Born Under Crossed Stars by Arrow, although I personally favour the more direct alternative translation, ‘Stories of Bastards: Born Under a Bad Star’.

As well as causing us to ponder the circumstances that led to Suzuki directing so many movies with insults or derogative terms in their titles (to those already referenced in this article, we can add 1963’s magnificently translated ‘Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards!’), these two films serve to introduce us to yet another underappreciated facet of the director’s personality – that of the voracious reader, sympathetic adapter of literary source material and gentle connoisseur of period historical atmosphere.

(Actually, this side of Suzuki can also be glimpsed in several of the more tonally “serious” films he made during his Nikkatsu heyday – ‘The Flower and The Angry Waves’ [Hana to Dotô, 1964] and ‘Fighting Elegy’ [Kenka Erejî, 1966], for example - but it would arguably not fully emerge until much later, when he embarked upon his celebrated ‘Taishō trilogy’ in the 1980s.)

To begin by outlining the similarities between the two films under consideration here - both star the relatively little known Ken Yamauchi as an ambitious young man forced to cool his heels in a picturesque small town in the Kawachi district of Western Japan. Although set in different historical periods (Taishō [1912-1926] and early Shōwa [1926-1989] respectively), both feature Yamauchi’s character getting caught up in a love triangle, see him expounding upon his precocious appreciation of Western literature, and find him rubbing up against the forces of resurgent authoritarian nationalism.

Said forces are represented in both films by uniformed school ‘committees’ (a fairly common feature of Japanese school life throughout the 20th century, at least if manga and exploitation movies are to be believed) whose thuggish members inflict savage beatings upon their fellow students for such heinous crimes as walking with girls, reading novels or failing to address their seniors using the correct honorifics.

Both films, needless to say, also conclude with Yamauchi’s character manfully striding across the bridge that leads out of town, ready to make his way in the big, bad world, older, wiser, lessons learned and all the rest of it.

So similar in fact are the two films that watching them in quick succession can prove a rather confusing and repetitive experience, but nonetheless, they still very much retain their own identities. In Akutarô, Yamauchi’s character (named, uh, Tôgo Konno) is the wilful and self-possessed son of an apparently wealthy and cosmopolitan family. In an attempt to curb his growing arrogance, his mother tricks him into accompanying her on a trip to an onsen resort, but actually dumps him in a small, provincial town along the way, entrusting his well-being to the headmaster of the strict local school.

Initially declining to adopt the school’s drab uniform, Konno instead attracts attention (both positive and negative) by striding around town in an aristocratic kimono, whilst pointedly failing to take any of the advice or instruction proffered to him by anyone.

Given how indolent, conceited and generally obnoxious he is, it is a credit both to Yamauchi and to the film’s production team that they nonetheless manage to make Konno very likeable, winning our sympathies almost straight away, and indeed it is his earnest-yet-naïve persona and mannered, almost theatrical, delivery of dialogue that helps Suzuki pull off the many charming and memorable scenes dotted through the film.

One of the best of these occurs when the members of the aforementioned discipline committee visit Konno in his digs to punish him for ownership of a novel. After stridently arguing his case, Konno invites the proto-fascists to sit down, offers them some chocolate, no less, and delivers a rousing lecture to them on the value of literature, the importance of familiarising oneself with foreign cultures, and the particular qualities of the volume that has aroused their ire (a translation of Strindberg’s early novel ‘The Red Room’). Thoroughly taken aback, and perhaps with a new respect for their non-conformist classmate, the committee members momentarily cease their braying antagonism and quietly leave him be.

Of course, the movie’s narrative demands they’ll be back to their old bullying ways before long, but it is nonetheless a lovely scene, allowing us to feel, for a few moments at least, that our hero has perhaps planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the thugs, potentially inspiring them to rethink their blinkered and puritanical approach to life as they get older; a refreshing change from the variations on the theme of outrageous violence through which heroes usually make their point in Japanese genre cinema.

Equally delightful is the flashback to Konno’s sexual awakening at the hands of a happy-go-lucky geisha named Ponta, who takes a shine to him at another one of those bucolic summer festivals. Though ostensibly as chaste as early ‘60s mainstream entertainment demanded, this erotic encounter is nonetheless presented in admirably matter-of-fact fashion, with a great performance from the little known Chiharu Kuri as the lady in question.

Reminding me somewhat of the realistic, easy-going approach to sexuality later embodied by such films as Tatsumi Kumashiro’s excellent art-house/Roman Porno crossover ‘Street of Joy’ (1974), this again makes for a welcome contrast to the unsettling themes of patriarchy, abuse, fetish and obsession that we cult movie buffs are probably more used to seeing dominate the depiction of such subject matter in Japanese films.

Although it takes an unwelcome – perhaps studio mandated? - diversion into hand-wringing melodrama in its final act, Akutarô is nonetheless an unusual and entertaining addition to the Suzuki canon, making this box set four for four up to this point in the enjoyment stakes.

I wish I could say the same for Akutarô-den / ‘Born Under Crossed Stars’ / ‘Stories of Bastards’ (henceforth, Akutarô-den), but sadly this one didn’t really do a lot for me. Despite sitting right in the middle of Suzuki’s key creative period in the mid-‘60s, it is easy to see why it has failed to attract the kind of attention retrospectively lavished on most of the other films he directed between ’64 and ’67.

In stark contrast to the aristocratic scion he portrayed in Akutarô, Ken Yamauchi’s character here – named Jûkichi – comes from complete the other end of Japan’s social strata. His family reside in a tumble-down rural shack and his father is a shiftless, destitute gambler, whilst his mother a nagging, put-upon housewife whose sole pleasure in life seems to come from upsetting her husband’s doltish activities. Depending on how charitable you feel toward their rather broad antics, hilarity may potentially ensue.

Jûkichi himself meanwhile has a bit more get-up-and-go about him, and supports the family through his part time job, which involves travelling around the local area on his bicycle, selling milk (a distinctly non-Japanese commodity, you’ll note) on behalf of a dairy owner who wears a cowboy hat and never tires of telling people that he used to live in Texas. Inevitably, it is this job – together with his school activities, which more closely resemble those of the earlier film – that serve to draw young Jûkichi into the various encounters and convolutions that comprise the movie’s frustratingly rambling and digressive plotline, and… well, yeah, there ya go really.

Watching Akutarô-den, I momentarily felt a certain sympathy for Nikkatsu studio president Kyusaku Hori vis-à-vis his oft-quoted remark about Suzuki turning in movies that “make no sense, and make no money”. As various comedic grotesques caper about the place and the far-too-large cast tramp about to little discernable purpose, I’ll freely admit that it proved quite difficult for me to even grasp what was going on here during the opening half hour, and even after that, much of what transpired proved difficult to fully engage with.

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem of course if the kind of filmmaking bravado and visual ingenuity that Suzuki’s had mastered by this stage in his career was in evidence – I mean, does anyone know or care what Youth of the Beast was ostensibly ABOUT?- but sadly, give or take a few nice scenes and interesting framing decisions here and there, Akutarô-den is pretty routine stuff. Suzuki’s mise en scene favours cramped long-shots, often letting comedic routines and bits of dramatic business play out at length, and Kazue Nagatsuka’s monochrome photography, though perfectly competent and attractive, is fairly undistinguished, at least by Nikkatsu’s high standard for such things.

Probably the strongest element in Akutarô-den comes from the ‘love triangle’ storyline, with our hero’s romantic entanglements a bit more – if you’ll excuse the pun – convincingly fleshed out than they were in Akutarô. As Jûkichi attempts to bond with demure good girl Masako Izumi – his infatuation inspired he the fact he’s spotted her reading a translation of that cornerstone of love triangle texts, ‘Anna Karenina’ – Suzuki employs some oddball, nouvelle vague style framing to imply their nervousness, showing the two speaking whilst standing with their backs to a wall, staring directly to camera, and suchlike.

Meanwhile, Jûkichi’s parallel relationship with Yumiko Nogawa – an actress who made a striking debut in Suzuki’s ‘Gate Of Flesh’, and subsequently seems to have found herself typed in ‘erotic’ roles – is related in more earthy, naturalistic terms.

Nogawa plays a sexually outgoing local girl who catches a glimpse of Jûkichi when he turns up to berate her previous boyfriend about something or other, and likes what she sees. The vibe here is reminiscent of the scenes with the geisha in the earlier film, and sees Akutarô-den moving into proto-sex comedy territory for a enjoyable scene in which Nogawa lures the uptight and high-minded Jûkichi into a private bathhouse to have her wicked way with him.

Though essentially not much different from the kind of scenario we’d see a hundred times over once this-sort-of-thing became a staple exploitation genre across the world in subsequent decades, it’s very nicely played here, with some near nudity that I would term ‘daring’ were it not for the far more outrageous content Suzuki had already brought to the screen in ‘Gate of Flesh’ a year earlier, to general acceptance and acclaim.

(The best translated English title on Nogawa’s IMDB filmography, by the way, is a tie between ‘Cat Girls Gamblers: Naked Flesh Paid Into the Pot’ and ‘Cat Girls Gamblers: Abandoned Fangs of Triumph’ – both 1965/6 Nikkatsu releases that suggest the company may have already been routinely dipping their toes into steamier waters by this point. Heaven knows what these are all about, but I’d sure buy a blu-ray of ‘em sight unseen, in case anyone from Arrow happens to be reading.)

Basically though, this is all I can really find to recommend in Akutarô-den, a film in which Suzuki’s increasingly lackadaisical approach to narrative seems for once to have tripped him up, resulting in a rather ramshackle and muddled picture that – for me at least – closes an otherwise extremely rewarding set of films offered up by Arrow on a disappointing note.

Never mind though – it’s taken me so damn long to get around to watching and writing about these that I now have the very promising sounding ‘Early Years Vol # 2: The Crime and Action Films’ sitting on the shelf awaiting my attention, ready to further expand my knowledge of the lesser known works of this mercurial and much-missed filmmaker. Will I return one day to torment you with another 5,000+ word review of that one? Only time will tell.

Needless to say, this review is dedicated to the two million plus citizens of Western Japan who have recently had their bucolic summer festival season interrupted by an unprecedented series of highly destructive, weather-related natural disasters. If you’re still reading this far down the page, hopefully you’ve enjoyed my efforts, and will consider making a donation to support the victims by way of thanks.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

You Cannot Fart Around With Love:
A Tribute to Fredric Hobbs


“Even the distributor, who’s a very smart guy, said, ‘Everybody goes nuts at the end! Is that what you always do, Hobbs? In every movie you make everybody always goes nuts at the end!’ I said, ‘No, for chrissakes, listen to the dialogue! It’s in there […] But you know what? The images were so strong that nobody listened. That’s why some of my movies fail, in some things. People say, ‘Oh, the story’s weak, Hobbs doesn’t know how to do stories.’ That’s bullshit! My imagery is so powerful that they can't listen.”
- Fredric Hobbs, interview with Stephen Thrower, 2007

This week, I learned that Fredric Hobbs, a man I’d make a point of including on any list of my favourite American filmmakers, passed away in April at his home in Monterey, California. He was eighty five. (Source.)

As anyone who has read the chapter in Stephen Thrower’s indispensable Nightmare USA devoted to Hobbs and his work will be aware, to describe him as a ‘unique character’ would be something of an understatement.

Throughout his life, Hobbs primarily worked as a visual artist, and, insofar as I’ve been able to view or learn about it, I’ve always found both the theory and practice behind the “Art-Eco” movement of which he was the self-proclaimed founder to be quite appealing.

Mixing ecological / environmental concerns with a distinctly Californian outsider / pioneer aesthetic, much of his earlier work seems to have focussed on ‘moveable’ art of one kind or another, much of which can be seen in his films. Using monolithic “junk” sculptures, parade floats, ritualistic costumed processions and “drivable art”, he aimed to break away from sterile museum and gallery spaces, instead bringing his creations “straight to the people”, infiltrating everyday environments and, presumably, relishing the confusion and surrealism that resulted – a notion that, again, can be strongly felt in his cinematic work.

Assorted Fredric Hobbs art images taken from

In addition to this, Hobbs also seems to have been deeply involved for a time with the preservation and restoration of the historic frontier town of Virginia City, Nevada (coincidentally the same locale in which acid-rock pioneers The Charlatans held their legendary residency at the Red Dog Saloon in 1965 – an event that many historians credit with first solidifying the aesthetic of San Francisco’s psychedelic counter-culture, a scene whose later mutations Hobbs would eventually incorporate into Alabama’s Ghost in 1972).

At one point, Hobbs was apparently the owner of Virginia City’s Silver Dollar Hotel, and he co-authored a history of the area, ‘The Richest Place on Earth: a History of Nevada's Comstock Lode’, with radical journalist and Hunter S. Thompson associate Warren Hinckle in 1978. More significantly for our purposes, he also shot Godmonster of Indian Flats in and around Virginia City in 1973.

Hobbs’ adventures in filmmaking began with an entirely independent production named Troika, which he initially deemed ready for exhibition in 1969. Consisting of three separate segments that may or not have been intended to be screened simultaneously on parallel screens (reports vary), this was a pretty experimental affair, utilising imagery and objects that seem to have arisen largely from Hobbs’ art practice. But, it also appears to have had a self-reflexive narrative of sorts, with the director appearing as himself, waging war in the name of art against a commercially minded Hollywood producer.

According to information unearthed by the Temple of Schlock weblog, ‘Troika’ was picked up for distribution by a company named Emerson Film Enterprises, and was screened at least a few times in both New York and Los Angeles, even gaining a remarkably positive review from Variety in October 1969. As far as I’m aware however, ‘Troika’ has never been released or screened in any form since that date, and no one has subsequently been able to view it without direct access to the materials held by Hobbs.

When Thrower interviewed Hobbs for his book, the director insisted ‘Troika’ was still unfinished(!), but he nonetheless provided Thrower with the means to watch it, thus allowing the writer to give a lengthy, and tantalising, description of its contents, running to what must be several thousand words. To give you but one extract;

“A fantastical biped, its mask-like face nodding within a carapace resembling some wondrous beetle, takes a ride on an old-West train. The creature (end credits refer to it as the Bug-Man; its onscreen name is Rax) disembarks to walk the hills, before being attacked by a savage seen burning a chicken with a blowtorch. Beaten with a stone-axe and left for dead, the Bug-Man staggers to a beach and collapses, twitching feebly, whereupon a deep reddish-orange woman emerges from the sea pushing a sculpture mounted on wheels. She attempts an erotic encounter, caressing the Bug-Man and fingering his wounds, but as he lies there unable to respond, she ends up pleasuring herself instead. Perhaps the encounter was not so one-sided after all; as if rejuvenated, we then see Rax enter an ice cave, where he encounters a black shaman called the Attentuated Man, a seven foot tall giant who speaks in drastically slowed down Arabic.”

And so on. After eventually concluding his description, Thrower observes;

“The version Fredric Hobbs has allowed me to see is still not the ‘final cut’, but it is already apparent to me that this is an important, original work by an artist of genuine vision. While his subsequent movies veer between astounding and frustrating, ‘Troika’ is his masterpiece, and its eventual release on DVD should be awaited with the utmost anticipation.”
- Nightmare USA, pp.358-360

Over a decade later, we are, sadly, still waiting.

Production stills from ‘Troika’, via Lost Media Wiki.

Quite how Hobbs went on from here to become involved in directing more commercial movies – or why anyone ever deemed it a sound investment to give him money to do so – is still not something I fully understand, but hey – it was a strange time, and for the sake of us all, I’m extremely glad that unreason prevailed in this regard, for at least a few years.

Bearing only scant resemblance to the marketable genres into which they were ostensibly supposed to fit, the three features Hobbs wrote and directed between 1971 and 1973 are a world unto themselves. Venturing far beyond the limits of such mild terms as “idiosyncratic” or “eccentric”, they are landmarks of High Weirdness, in which crude cinematic technique and egregiously theatrical performances fail to disguise the lunatic ambition and unrestrained visual imagination of their creator, not to mention his uniquely strange insight into life on earth and the human condition.

Inexplicably marketed as a sexploitation item by notorious producer Harry Novak, Hobbs’ first commercial film, Roseland, remains probably the least seen and most, shall we say, problematic of his three extant works. Perhaps taking the idea of a “sex drama” a bit more literally than anyone had intended, ‘Roseland’ finds Hobbs regular E. Kerrigan Prescott enunciating to the back of the room in the role of a popular operatic singer who has been confined to a psychiatric institute, where an extremely unconventional doctor attempts to cure him of his perceived sexual deviancy, following a scandalous incident that saw him hi-jacking the Ed Sullivan show to perform an allegedly obscene song entitled “You Cannot Fart Around With Love”.

Rebelling against the doctor’s regime, Prescott takes on the alter-ego of “the black bandit” and begins to indulge in nocturnal expeditions to steal prints of pornographic films. Meanwhile, heavily saturated fish-eye footage shows us an army of naked hippie primitives transporting a gigantic, phallic sculpture on a hill, draping it in chains of flowers, and dancing around it, maypole style.

Presumably this is supposed to represent a dream or vision of the kind of paradise that Prescott envisions emerging from his curious new philosophy, the ins and outs of which spends the majority of the film enunciating at length, both to the doctor, and to a black, jive-talking avatar of the artist Hieronymous Bosch (played by future Hobbs MVP Christopher Brooks), who emerges from beneath Prescott’s bed to act as some sort of spirit guide.

Basically playing out like an earnest diatribe on the need for a more progressive approach to human sexuality, as dramatised by an enthusiastic street theatre troupe and injected with industrial quantities of post-psychedelic mind damage, I can’t even begin to imagine what Novak’s usual audience made of all this. I suppose we must assume that, back in the day, punters were willing to sit through an awful lot of footage of strange, bearded men swapping spittle-flecked philosophical infective in order to eventually catch sight of some naked hippies.

Frankly, ‘Roseland’s value to 21st century viewers is equally questionable, but to Hobbs devotees such as myself, every glimpse into his singular creative process is gold, and the key facet of his filmmaking – namely, the idea of never taking the expected route from A to B, and ensuring that every small detail of his productions should in some way be rendered incredibly strange - is certainly in full effect throughout.

I realise of course that celebrating a film simply on the basis that it is “strange” or “weird” is fairly reductive, but it is difficult to know where else to start when considering Hobbs’ next production, the extraordinary Alabama’s Ghost. Sometimes written off as a “Blaxploitation horror film” (a summation that feels akin to describing Godard’s ‘Week End’ as a “comedy of manners”), I would make the case for ‘Alabama..’ being one of the most errant outpourings of unhinged creativity that has ever been placed before the American public in the guise of a narrative entertainment.

I wrote extensively about the film after first watching it back in 2011, but, in summary, ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ concerns the travails of Christopher Brooks as the titular Alabama – a free-wheeling hep-cat who discovers the artefacts and props of real life 1920s magician Carter The Great buried beneath Earthquake McGoon’s Irish pub, and subsequently decides to reinvent himself as a stage magician. This decision catapults him into a sprawling drama whose ever-shifting sands involve sinister Nazi mind control techniques, vampire world domination conspiracies, messianic desert rock festivals, obnoxious racist ghosts, paper-mache enhanced monster cars and – you probably saw this one coming – mind-altering psychoactive snuff. Also featuring voodoo blood-letting rituals, a rampaging elephant, witches, bikers, a robot, many, many hippies and music from The Loading Zone and The Turk Murphy Jazz Band.

Unsurprisingly, this heady brew – which to some extent retained the theatrical performance styles and lengthy, digressive dialogue of its predecessor, in spite of all the hullaballoo outlined above – proved impossible for America’s grindhouse/drive-in audiences to adequately digest, especially when the film was ill-advisedly marketed to inner-city theatres as a straight up blaxploitation item, and it soon sank without trace.

(It’s a real shame I think that no one came up with the idea of resurrecting ‘Alabama..’ as a “midnight movie” ala ‘El Topo’ or ‘Eraserhead’. Something tells me if would be far better remembered today if it had been allowed the chance to establish a similar cult following.)

After ‘Alabama..’, I’d imagine Hobbs probably had to put in a lot of persuasion to secure financial backing for his next project. In the end, I suppose his long-suffering production associates thought, well, the guy loves to build crazy creatures and big, monstrous costumes and stuff… how far wrong can he go with a good, old-fashioned monster movie? Little did they know.

Although Godmonster of Indian Flatswhich I reviewed here in 2012 – may lack the ostentatious freakery of ‘Alabama..’, it is at heart perhaps an even more unique proposition, and a film that I find more compelling and thematically rich each time I return to it.

To recap, ‘Godmonster..’ begins when a simple-minded shepherd, returning from a gambling and drinking binge, collapses amid his beloved flock and experiences what can only be described as a religious visitation. When he awakes, he finds that one of his sheep has given birth to some kind of shapeless, embryonic creature, which is subsequently commandeered and placed in an incubator by the local not-quite-mad-but-probably-getting-there scientist (again played by the irrepressible E. Kerrigan Prescott).

Meanwhile, we find ourselves drawn into the cut-throat world of local Virginia City politics, as a charismatic black cowboy named Barnstable (Brooks once again) arrives in town with the intention of trying to wrestle the city’s mining concessions away from the cabal surrounding the corrupt Mayor Silverdale, and handing them instead to his employer, a reclusive billionaire with the somewhat loaded name of Mr. Reich. (In view of Hobbs’ personal connections to Virginia City, one wonders how much of this storyline may have been inspired by his own experiences.)

How will Barnstable’s story intersect with that of the misshapen beast growing in the doctor’s lab? And what indeed of Madame Alta, the local clairvoyant, who briefs some of our more sympathetic characters on the nature of her connection to the land, and communes with spirits in the derelict, Wild West era cemetery?

Well, I may have watched the film three or four times, but… don’t ask me. What I can tell you however is that these parallel threads allow Hobbs a perfect opportunity to introduce some of the themes and networks of imagery that also informed his art into what might on the surface appear to be little more than a boilerplate monster movie narrative (anti-pollution sub-division).

In particular, Hobbs uses the film to consistently highlight the disjuncture that exists between the spiritual and materialistic impulses underlying American history and culture (even the “Godmonster” of the title hints at this all-consuming contradiction), whilst also exploring notions of environmental degradation, mutation and reclamation that now appear quite prescient.

When the fully grown “Godmonster” – designed by Hobbs himself, of course – eventually emerges meanwhile, it is quite a thing to behold, if not quite in the manner monster fans may have been hoping for. An utterly inexplicable mass of bulbous flesh with a camel-like head and gangly, malformed limbs, it is simultaneously forlorn, pathetic and hilarious. The scene in which it rambles out of the undergrowth to disrupt a children’s picnic has rightly become the stuff of cult movie legend.

Of course, the true horror of this story though lays not with the mild outrages committed by this poor, harmless beast, so misshapen that can barely stand upright, but with the directionless rage, avarice and hysteria exhibited by the confused local populace as they attempt to capture and destroy it.

Even as we may be driven to laughter by the “Godmonster”s lumbering, uncoordinated movements (at times it looks somewhat like a gigantic, hairy flea), we simultaneously feel vast sympathy for it during its traumatic journey through our world. In spite of its inhuman, faceless construction, there is a terrible poignancy to this sad-sack creation that is difficult to put into words.

The film’s final sequence, in which the strangely messianic, caged creature is crucified by proxy, pelted with silver dollars whilst the townspeople shriek and cry and argue beneath it as if descending into collective insanity, is senselessly harrowing – a kind of apocalyptic Golgotha of the Western American soul, and a bleak and genuinely upsetting conclusion to Fredric Hobbs’ brief directorial career. (His recollection of a distributor’s reaction to this divisive ending has been quoted at the start of this post.)

Having taken a bath three times on these basketcase motion pictures, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hobbs’ financial backers pulled the plug at this stage, and, with no other potential revenue sources forthcoming, Hobbs returned his attention to the art world.

Even on the basis of this limited canon, I believe that Hobbs deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as such filmmakers as Alejandro Jodorowsky, José Mojica Marins, David Lynch, Kim Ki-Young or Ken Russell – a true one-off whose personality veritably screams from every frame of his work - and am consistently saddened by the fact that his films remains so misunderstood and under-appreciated by the cult movie fraternity.

Sadly, Hobbs’ reputation is probably not helped by the fact the all currently extant copies of his films look absolutely terrible. ‘Alabama’s Ghost’ in particular is (to my knowledge) only available as a brutally cropped ‘80s-era VHS rip featuring murky, degraded colours that seem to reduce everything to an unsavoury shade of brown.

I’ve often reflected that, should I ever attain the time and finances necessary to enter the film restoration game, attempting to track down whatever elements still survive for ‘Alabama..’ would be my number one priority, but unfortunately, from what I can gather, the film’s legal ownership seems to be lost in some kind of limbo, and, by this stage, when every obscure horror film under the sun seems to be getting a special edition blu-ray, I’m sure others before me must have tried and failed.

Speaking of which, at the time of writing, The American Genre Film Archive are taking pre-orders for their forthcoming blu-ray release of ‘Godmonster of Indian Flats’, and have also helped spread the news of Fredric Hobbs’ passing in recent weeks.

Whilst on the one hand I am absolutely overjoyed at the prospect of soon being able to watch a transfer of a Hobbs film that does not, in the parlance of our times, look like ass, I was initially quite crushed to see that the extras on AGFA’s release offer no context at all on Hobbs or the film’s place within his work, instead filling out the disc with some generic cheesy-monster-movie type stuff.

Now, sadly, the knowledge that the director had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for around five years prior to his recent passing helps to explain why AGFA couldn’t go straight to the source for some background, but I’m still disappointed they were unable to at least reach out to Thrower or someone else who might have been able to properly contextualise the film for first time viewers.

Still, to some extent it is the mystery that surrounds this man and his work that continues to make it so fascinating, and, as long as the films are still out there in some form, we can at least be reassured that sympathetic viewers will be able to recognise them as something special, and will beat their way down the same well-worn Google trail I’ve taken in compiling this article in order to learn more.

In truth though, given both the prolific/obsessive manner in which he went about creating art, and the attention-grabbing nature of his work, I’m amazed at what an obscure figure Hobbs remains. I suppose it is possible that both his disinclination toward self-publicity and his, uh, somewhat extreme personality may not have exactly endeared him to writers or researchers who might have helped to raise his profile during his lifetime, but either way, the sheer dearth of available information about him is remarkable.

For a man who seems to have produced such a vast quantity of paintings, drawings and sculpture, there are very few images of his work online, and, although his capsule biographies speak of work held by major institutions, I can find very little in the way of info regarding exhibitions, auctions and so forth. Frankly, most of the information about him on the internet concerns his films, and, as we’ve established, not many people even seem to like his films. In 1980 he authored a book entitled ‘Eat Your House: An Art Eco Guide to Self-Sufficiency’, but I only know this because it is for sale on Amazon for £0.01 plus postage. (Should I take a chance?)

Just like the unseen content of ‘Troika’, the few scraps of information we do have are fascinating, and the vast gaps in the story remain tantalising.

How did he end up owning the Silver Dollar Hotel, and what did he do with it whilst he was there? How did he go about assembling the several hundred people who took their clothes off and carried his giant penis statue up a hill whilst filming ‘Roseland’, and how did the complaints of outraged locals that are reported in a scanned clipping from the San Mateo Times pan out? Why did he withdraw ‘Troika’ from circulation, and what on earth was he doing to it that rendered it “unfinished” over thirty years later? Why is there so little photographic evidence of the ‘Highway’ exhibition of “drivable art” that he apparently sent roaring across America at some point in the 1960s? What did he do to inspire a snarky, anonymous Youtube commenter to declare that he was “still alive and being obnoxious” in 2010? What was he UP TO through all these invisible years, and will We The People ever be able to benefit from seeing the results?

If I’ve learned anything from watching his films, it’s that the answers to these questions will not be simple.

R.I.P. Fredric Hobbs. Safe to say, we will not see his like again.

A memorial site set up by his friends and family can be visited here.

“Aesthetic communication may stop wars. If a man would build his own chartreuse gargoyle and live in it rather than glass and steel boxes, he could communicate better with his neighbour.”
- Fredric Hobbs, quoted in the San Mateo Times, January 1971