As mentioned back in October, one unexpected plus point arising from the travails of 2020 is that I have managed to watch more films in the space of a single year than I ever considered possible. I’ve not done the math yet (for indeed, the year hasn’t ended), but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m averaging out at just under one film per day across the past nine months. Imagine that!
As a result, there has, naturally, been a lot of really good First Time Viewing going on. Getting the list down to a mere 45 was tough going, so I’d like to emphasise that, more so than in previous years, the exact numbers assigned to the movies below is pretty arbitrary, and that basically, if a film made it onto this list, that means that I really, really liked it.
Also, I’m going to count down rather than up this year, because, well… that seems like the sensible way to do these things, right? Anyway - let’s get on with it!
In 2020, I watched four Umberto Lenzi-directed gialli for the first time, and four of them are on this list. Nuff said? Anyway, kicking off the director’s second, early/mid ‘70s run of films within the retrospectively ring-fenced genre, ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ actually makes a pretty good case for the giallo aesthetic having been both recognised and consciously exploited by the era’s filmmakers. Sitting at the dead centre of the post-Argento/Martino venn diagram, it delivers pretty much everything a 21st century cult film fan might be liable to expect when they hear the word “GIALLO”, and does so with all the energy, excess and pulpy gusto said fans have no doubt come to expect of the indefatigable Senor Lenzi.
So comprehensively in fact does it lock into the genre’s post-1970 conventions and stylistic tics that, were someone to jump out in front of you and enquire, “so, this giallo thing, what’s it all about?”, passing them a copy of ‘Seven Blood-Stained Orchids’ could provide a far more enjoyable ninety minute answer than launching into that whole dog-tired, “yellow - old crime paperbacks - Krimis - Mario Bava” routine for the umpteenth time. I doubt this one would make many connoisseurs’ top ten lists, but if you’ve already cracked open the chianti and/or J&B of a Friday evening and feel like getting down with some bloody murder in the intoxicatingly exotic environs of mid-century southern Europe, then by jove, it does the business.
AKA, the one in which Boris Karloff is framed for murder, executed, and gets resurrected by a for-once-actually-benevolent scientist, proceeding to take his revenge upon the clique of gangsters who put him down.
The courtroom drama / underworld intrigue plotline which takes up much of the first half is needlessly convoluted, with a ton of fast-talking Warner Bros yakking failing to disguise a hatful of just-plain-ridiculous contrivances, but for a low budget ‘30s programmer, Michael Curtiz’s direction during the more horror-y / less talk-y sequences is extraordinarily stylish, with elaborate, gliding camera moves, dutch angles and expressionistic shadowplay to beat the band.
The scene in which Karloff is led to the electric chair whilst a fellow prisoner plays his favourite piece on the cello remains powerful to this day, whilst the crazy equipment in the brief resurrection sequence does a pretty good job of trying to top ‘Frankenstein’, as indeed does Karloff himself - when he eventually returns as a stuttering, hunched undead avenger, his performance ranks for me as one of the great man’s very best, with his quiet, mannered speech, slow, lumbering movements and icy stare all in full effect.
When the assorted bad guys are invited to witness Karloff performing a piano recital, he glowers at them with such withering intensity that these hard-nosed gangland heavies more or less flee the room in terror, wiping sweat from their brows and pulling at their collar buttons, such is the malignancy of Boris’s evil eye. Amazing stuff.
As I tried my best to convey in my review from October, I was pretty thoroughly entranced by this utterly bizarre esoteric/idiotic SoCal beach-set AIP creature feature. Who may chart the further reaches of its multitudinous aesthetic/cultural tentacles…? Not I!
Wonderful, ultra-sleazoid girls-with-guns mayhem from the great Godfrey Ho, proving once again that he really had the chops to deliver a solid action movie when he was allowed to actually shoot one front-to-back without any of the usual IFD cut-and-paste / day-glo ninja type shenanigans getting in the way.
By “solid” of course, I mean that this is shamelessly trashy, opportunistic brain-breaking nonsense, shot for peanuts in The Philippines, complete with hilariously inept English dubbing, eye-watering late ‘80s sartorial carnage and frankly terrifying interior décor.
Shovelling in masses of utterly gratuitous (fairly strong) sex and nudity in between equally herculean quantities of squib-happy gore and surprisingly high quality action choreography, and including what feels like about 30 solid minutes of of perfectly made up (and no doubt under-paid) sexy assassin ladies firing multiple machine guns at each other in slo-mo in assorted insalubrious locales, this is basically a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Do not watch sober - you’ve been warned.
Are John Alton’s jaw-droppingly beautiful photography and Anthony Mann’s no nonsense tough guy story-telling instincts enough to save this mixed up noir from floundering under its producers’ determination to turn it into a PSA on behalf of the U.S. Treasury Department? Read my review from back in August, and find out!
What the hell is this anyway? A film noir? A romantic melodrama? A treatise on racial integration and post-war combat angst? A downtown L.A. travelogue? The simple answer is, it’s a Sam Fuller movie. As his admirers will be well aware, Fuller was one of those filmmakers possessed of such a unique sensibility that watching one of his films feels more like spending ninety minutes furiously bouncing around inside the writer/director’s brainpan than settling into any more comforting variety of Hollywood genre upholstery. Disorientating and potentially headache-inducing, perhaps, but a richly rewarding experience if you’re if you’re able to leave your expectations at the door and just go with the juddering, out-of-control street trolley flow of the whole thing.
As a movie, ‘The Crimson Kimono’ certainly has its drawbacks - the whodunit / crime story angle is never very well integrated with the tale of a love triangle played out between a Japanese-American cop, his white partner and a quasi-bohemian art teacher, leaving the narrative feeling rushed and disjointed, and performances are variable to say the least, whilst Fuller’s perverse determination to explore the notion of “reverse racism” seems misguided, even as his spirited enthusiasm for documenting Japanese culture on-screen, and for celebrating it’s U.S.-based adherents as his fellow countrymen, is extremely refreshing by the WASP-centric standards of the 1950s.
Despite all this though, the film is still more vibrant, thought-provoking and attention-grabbing than just about anything else bankrolled by a Hollywood studio in 1959. Beginning with the sight of a scantily-clad burlesque dancer getting gunned down in the middle of a busy street, it moves like a rocket, with the subsequent action taking in kendo tournaments, Buddhist temples and alcoholic beatnik lady artistes amongst a wide variety of other off-the-beaten-track, quasi-documentary sights and sounds, whilst the reactions of Fuller’s characters - expressed in explosive bursts of crazed, short-hand jive never actually uttered by any human being, excepting perhaps the writer himself - are never remotely predictable.
Another smash hit from Eddy L. Cahn, this quintessential two-fisted sci-fi slugger not only partially inspired Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script for ‘Alien’, but, somewhat less significantly, also served to cheer me up considerably as I adjusted to the lifestyle changes necessitated by lockdown back in March of this year, reigniting my enthusiasm for ‘50s American SF movies in process. See my review from back in May for more!
The second Lenzi giallo on this year’s list (or the third, depending on which direction you’re counting in), the director’s first collaboration with exiled American star Carroll Baker gets his contribution to the Hitchcock/Clouzot-derived ‘psychological thriller’ era of the loosely-defined genre off to a cracking start, as Baker’s anxious, psychologically scarred and loaded-in-more-ways-than-one divorcee is seduced and subsequently terrorised by a pair of incestuous (or are they?), terrifyingly free-spirited young people, memorably played by Lou Castel and Colette Descombes.
Many directors, faced with this kind of minimal, performance-driven / single location three-hander, may have favoured a subtle, carefully planned slow-burn, but not our Umberto, no sir. Instead, the perennially undervalued prince of cinematic pulp turns the movie into a shrieking, raging maelstrom of crash zooms, screaming faces, blaring music, eye-scorching colours, woozy drunk-o-vision, shocking-for-its-day peekaboo nudity and endearingly low rent psychedelic freak-out effects, battering the audience into submission, even as the double/triple cross heavy plotline gradually runs out of steam.
Particularly interesting in this one I thought was the way that the unbridgeable generation gap which separates Baker (who was 37 years young at the time of filming) from her younger, more uninhibited tormentors is obsessively frayed and worried by Lenzi and his co-writers, eventually raised to a degree of outright hysteria which presumably reflects the fear and resentment actually experienced by slightly older creative/professional types at the tail-end of the 1960s, as the relentlessly youth-fixated counter-culture generation reshaped culture slash n’ burn style around them. Case in point: that f-ing pop song the evil kids use to drive Carroll out of her mind…. goddamn, you will never get that thing out of your head. It’s like garage rock reconstituted as an instrument of psychological warfare or something.
As crass, self-indulgent and OTT as you’d expect of a mid-‘80s John Landis production, this comedy/action/romance type palaver seems oddly pitched, marketing-wise, what with being slightly too slick and commercial to make it as a ‘cult movie’, but too weird and violent to appeal to a mainstream crowd. Nonetheless though, it fights its way onto the side of the angels simply by virtue of being remorselessly, unrelentingly entertaining.
As far as story ideas go, I’ll admit that the concept of an insomniac suburban husband (Jeff Goldblum in this case) deciding one night to jump in his car and set off in search of free-form adventure on the nocturnal streets of L.A. very much appeals to me. This being a Landis movie of course, the frantic, macguffin-chasing adventure Goldblum finds himself embroiled in after Michelle Pfeiffer unexpectedly lands on the hood of his car chiefly involves outbursts of mindless violence and automotive destruction interspersed with a seemingly endless series of outrageous cameos, all soundtracked by sleazoid yuppie blues jammin’ from ‘80s-era B.B. King, but… well, the thing is you see, I like mindless destruction and outrageous cameos, and nocturnal L.A. and sleazoid blues jammin’, so no complaints from this quarter.
I mean, at the end of the day, it’s pretty difficult to prevent one’s critical faculties from short-circuiting when faced with a knife fight between Carl Perkins and David Bowie, even as their characters, along with so much else, subsequently dissolve into a tangled mess of unresolved plot threads and unrealised potential.
Meanwhile, the film also finds Landis taking the old “Hitchcock cameo” concept to frankly absurd extremes, cracking open his phonebook and effectively transforming the picture into a 90 minute ‘Where’s Wally?’ puzzle for movie nerds as he orchestrates walk-ons for something in the region of seventeen different noteworthy film directors, turning the banter from our sofa into a constant litany of, “hey, was that guy in the hotel lobby Brian DePalma? Is that Sam Fuller driving past? OHMYGOD, that guy in the ambulance is Dario Argento!” (A public screening event with complimentary bingo cards and prizes for a full house seems like a must for the post-covid world, methinks.)
Much as I wanted to love Anna Biller’s magnum opus, I must confess, I couldn’t quite get over the sense of cognitive dissonance which seemed to result from mixing what seems to be a heartfelt and rather tragic tale of a woman’s search for empowerment and self-definition with a set of archly mannered performances whose self-parodic dialogue seems to be delivered from behind a Teflon screen of cantilevered eyebrow-level irony.
But - perhaps that’s just my problem. In every other respect, ‘The Love Witch’ is an incredible achievement. The film’s obsessively detailed production design and colour-saturated photography in particular are breath-taking, transcending easily parroted accusations of “kitsch” or “camp” to instead achieve a kind of overpowering totality which I can only really liken to some kind of ultra-feminine, vintage-furniture-market equivalent of the work of Alexandro Jodorowsky. (The Renaissance Fayre sequence in particular nearly sent me over the edge into a state of pre-sugar coma delirium.)
The affectionate send ups of early ‘70s Satanic horror movies, made-for-TV melodramas and suburban occultism meanwhile are all spot-on and frequently hilarious, whilst the thread of fetishistic eroticism running through the film is admirably bold and forthright. Notwithstanding my griping above, Samantha Robinson’s performance as the deeply troubled title character is also superb - ambiguous, disturbing, and ultimately even moving in precisely the way the material demands.
It feels fairly ridiculous to describe Biller as a “bold new voice” or some such, given that she’s been toiling away in the trenches of independent filmmaking for a quarter century at this point, but nonetheless, it’s difficult to overstate just how fresh and unique a film like ‘The Love Witch’ feels within the current genre movie landscape, essentially carving out it’s own niche from scratch amid a marketplace whose ideas of what is and isn’t viable have been defined for decades by the tastes of 30/40-something hetero males such as myself. Well worth tracking down if it passed you by on release.
The most brain-breaking exemplar of WTF Cinema I’ve experienced since chancing upon 1984’s Furious a few years back, I’ve been meaning to write a review of this one all year, but just haven’t quite been able to face the prospect of trying to corral my thoughts into words. It sure as hell wasn’t what I was expecting from James Glickenhaus (future director of ‘The Exterminator’ and ‘Shakedown’), I’ll tell you that much.
I won't go in to too much detail here (otherwise we’ll be here all night), but… trying to make sense of it all, I can only assume that the source novel upon which the film was based (written by Glickenhaus’s father-in-law, no less) must have been some sprawling, new age-y / conspiracy theory-filled airport blockbuster kind of thing. And, in attempting to do it justice, the young and inexperienced filmmakers decided to try to retain all of the various sub-plots and characters for their adaptation. But, being essentially self-financed amateurs at this point, they only managed to get about 50% of the material necessary to tell the story onto the screen, resulting in full spectrum bafflement for anyone who has ever tried to sit through it.
Viewed through this lens, ‘The Astrologer’ can almost be seen as a master-class in how NOT to adapt a book for the screen, full of total non-sequiturs, inexplicable jumps in time and space, characters who serve no purpose, numerous scenes in which people sit around making extraordinary metaphysical pronouncements whose relevance to the wider narrative is never really established, and other bit n’ pieces which seem like meaningless remnants of plot-lines which have otherwise been discarded… all leading up to a “what?! Is that it?!” unresolved ending for the ages.
Strictly in terms of its quote-unquote “quality” and conventionally-defined entertainment value, ‘The Astrologer’ would certainly not merit a place on this list, AND YET, go into it cold (as most viewers picking up Severin’s recent blu-ray will, I suspect) and the sheer, overwhelming sense of WTF-ery you will experience is a rare and wonderful thing - a powerful hit of a strange and exotic draught from an ancient and undisturbed celluloid vault, the like of which I’ve not experienced for quite some time. Pure “weird movie” nirvana, pretty much. Press play and drink it in!
Perhaps swayed by numerous reviews which emphasised their general tedium, I’d never bothered watching any of Baltimore-based indie monster movie specialist Don Dohler’s work prior to 2020 - but more fool me apparently, because this one was absolutely delightful. It basically plays out like a film made by a 12-year-old boy who has read a how-to guide for making a movie (including the basic rudiments of professional lighting, editing and special effects), and has meticulously carried out its instructions step by step, recruiting largely uncomprehending adults from his local area to help out.
As I'm sure other commentators must have noted, the Nightbeast does much of its rampaging during the daytime, so, more of an All Hours Beast really, but I still couldn't help exclaiming “look out - Nightbeast!” each time the inexplicably well-dressed alien marauder popped up to bloodily slaughter somebody - which, happily, was frequently.
Our hero, the local sheriff, resembles Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips if he'd never gone near a controlled substance and instead dedicated his life to law enforcement, and his calm and collected responses to the escalating crisis unfolding around him are truly a thing of beauty (“someone call Bill Perkins, he’s a crack shot”). The scene in which the sheriff fails to convince the town’s venal, drunken mayor to cancel his pool party for the eminently sensible reason that there’s a Nightbeast on the loose is really one for the ages (and pretty topical this year, in particular).
Factor in scenes of sex and nudity which seem to have been co-ordinated by someone who has no idea how these things function within human society (but just knows that they need to be in films), the strangely sad exploits of ‘Drago’, the town’s lone obnoxious biker guy (I guess the budget didn't stretch to giving him a gang), plus *the* best laser gun battles ever (as appreciated by Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough in Mandy), and this really is regional American filmmaking at its strange, life-affirming best. Totally enchanting.
How have I managed to make it through near two decades of adulthood without being aware of this one? An out-of-nowhere ‘80s American portmanteau horror anthology which becomes stranger and more inexplicable with each passing segment, ‘Nightmares’ begins in fairly conventional territory with a suspenseful Topanga Canyon-set take on the old “killer in the back seat” urban myth, but then, before you know it, Black Flag-listening video games junkie Emilio Estevez (a close cousin of Repo Man’s Otto, I’m assuming) is fighting for supremacy against the computer-generated (in 1983!) ‘Bishop of Battle’, angst-ridden desert priest Lance Henriksen has his faith restored after tangling with a Satanic monster truck, and, last but not least, Veronica Cartwright heads up a family attempting to deal with cinema’s most sympathetic (and also quite possible most poorly animated) giant, cat-killing rodent. Will wonders never cease?
Though its reputation may have suffered over the years as a result of its reticence to dish up the kind of immediate sleaze n’ thrills viewers might reasonably expect of a movie named ‘Satanico Pandemonium’, this extremely unusual Mexican nunsploitation picture nonetheless has far more to offer that merely its extraordinary nomenclature.
Beautifully photographed, full of eye-popping primary colours and bucolic, rural landscapes which more resemble central Europe than anyone’s preconceived ideas of Mexico, the film taps into a vein of rustic, fairy-tale magical realism more frequently encountered in Czech or Eastern European cinema, patiently building a picture of day-to-day life within its geographically dislocated, quasi-fantastical convent, only occasionally allowing hints of institutional hypocrisy and racism to upset the placid surface prior to the inevitable arrival of sexy Old Nick himself.
Characterised as a vampiric, gothic seducer, the movie’s spectral Satan duly proceeds to throw a few sparks into the hormonal tinderbox of our previously chaste protagonist-nun, who before we know it has covertly pledged herself to evil, indulging in taboo-breaking acts of gross indecency whose matter-of-fact presentation proves more authentically disturbing than anything encountered in more hysterical/exploitational entries in this most specialised of horror sub-genres, leading eventually to a mind-boggling final act whose far-out imagery seems destined to linger long in the darker reaches of my messed up psyche.
As critics/podcasters Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger discuss at length in their audio commentary (included on Mondo Macabro’s blu-ray reissue of the film), the fact that director Gilberto Martínez Solares, an elderly industry veteran whose earlier work encompassed a brace of Santo movies alongside innumerable popular comedies, decided to throw his weight behind such a daring, transgressive and apparently sincerely intended production seems downright inexplicable. It would indeed be fascinating to get some behind-the-scenes background on how this project came together. Failing that though, all we have is the movie itself, and it’s… quite something.
In cvase you’re wondering, I think we can place this one firmly in the “far better than it has any right to be” category. Nearly four decades after the fact, the sheer audacity of trying to turn Hitchcock’s storied classic into a character-driven, slasher-style franchise may still rankle with cinephiles, but the sheer breadth of the talent behind this one should help win over most doubters.
Having already proved his Hitch-devotion with “Rear Window in a truck” classic ‘Roadgames’ (1981), director Franklin really goes all out here, digging deep into the nuts and bolts of the master’s technique without ever resorting to mere pastiche, whilst Anthony Perkins’ perverse determination to re-invent Norman Bates as an essentially sympathetic protagonist works far better than anyone might have imagined. A strong supporting cast, including Meg Tilly, Dennis Franz, Robert Loggia and Vera Miles (reprising her role in the original) certainly helps in that regard, whilst photography from John Carpenter’s main man Dean Cundey is beautiful, John Corso’s entirely set-bound production design is pitch-perfect, Jerry Goldsmith absolutely nails it on the score…. you get the idea. Even the great Albert Whitlock contributes a few matte paintings here and there, helping to create an autumnal, twilight atmosphere which really works wonders.
Best of all though is ‘Fright Night’ director Tom Holland’s script, which basically spends the best work of two hours pulling audience expectations through the most twisted series of reversals and handbrake turns his apparently devious intellect could come up with. Never quite veering into “too clever” territory, it’s just-clever-enough to keep us hooked, and if the story perhaps doesn’t quite succeed in transcending the project’s cynical origins or achieving any kind of deeper significance, as far as psychological thrillers reimagined as rollercoaster rides go, it’s a pretty smashing time.