Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye Ann Savage, Renegade Girl (1946)

"And suddenly she turned to face me." It's hard to shake that indelible image of Ann Savage as Vera in Detour waking from sleep and turning her head toward the camera with a feral glare. That look begs me to run my hand through that greasy hair while she scratches out my eyes. Can't blame Tom Neal for acting like a pussy-whipped sucker around this cat. She's scary. This is one of the greatest B-movie performances ever. Ms. Savage died on Christmas day 2008 at the age of 87. I commend Guy Maddin for getting one last performance from her in My Winnipeg---I'd love to see this. Till then, I'm watching Screen Guild Productions' western Renegade Girl, released December 25th of 1946, a fine showcase for Ms. Savage.

Confederate Jean Shelby (Savage) is torn by a desire to kill her brother's murderer, Chief White Cloud, and to marry the man she loves, who happens to be a Union officer. Separated from her love, she becomes hellbent on vengeance, making a deal to marry the man in her group of bandits who kills White Cloud. While she has the horny raiders under her spell, she has made herself the Yankee's most wanted woman.

There's a kinkiness to this film, most pronounced in a scene where Jean is giving a pep talk to her marauders. As she pulls open her blouse to show them the knife scar White Cloud gave her, it cuts to a reverse shot of the grubby men edging in for a look. Jean is tougher than the men, wide-eyed psychotic on the trail of vengeance, but also a quivering mass of regret. "Everything I touch dies...dies," she repeats stumbling through the woods.

Her death, in the arms of her love, is heartbreaking. "I would have wrecked your life," she tells her man in a moment of clarity far removed from Detour's Vera. I almost feel like replying, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Running Woman (1998)

Art restorationist Emily Russo (Theresa Russell) is framed for the murder of her young son, throwing her into a vast conspiracy involving the LAPD and a prominent philanthropist with a shady Government defense contract. Russo goes from being a grieving mother to a fugitive with a suitcase of disguises in no time flat. With the help of a secret brotherhood of Mexican priests, she can perhaps find peace and freedom.

A bit too polite, Running Woman is a chase thriller that should've been turned up a few notches. Theresa Russell's undercover investigation into the Latino gang banger scene never reaches the level of danger it deserves. Andrew Robinson as a LAPD detective is slimy and smarmy, but his über-fascist rants seem cut short. If you're going to spray the nerve gas Sarin into someone's face, please show the victim convulsing, foaming at the mouth, and turning green. In a film punctuated with boat chases, car chases, and helicopter explosions, restraint should be tossed out of the nearest window.

The reason to buy a ticket to this show is Theresa Russell, who is so cool that she can make the ridiculous character arc seem effortless. Her sly smile and naivety, particularly in her scene amongst the Latino low-rider enthusiasts, is adorably incongruous to the paranoid proceedings.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

L'Enfer sur la plage (1965)

Jose Bénazeraf's take on the espionage film may at first seem typical of the genre---a sun-baked setting, beautiful women, raucous action, and a Sylvie Vartan song over the opening credits. But the actors (all unknowns) and direction ranges from understated to detached. The story---as far as I can tell---concerns the head of a gunrunning ring hiding out in his yacht with his wife and younger partner. They are being targeted by the MI5 and a terrorist organization. This is all a contrivance for Bénazeraf's camera to study women's faces. The two female leads are diametrically opposed, one a coquettish blond pixie, the other a more serious woman with darker complexion and thin nose.

The supporting actresses further the film's cool aura.

There is only one brief flash of nudity in this film, but several scenes of slow-burn eroticism. It's not the best introduction to Bénazeraf, but this rarely-seen early work is pleasantly diverting.

Monday, December 8, 2008


More clips, photos, and a bio on Bénazeraf can be found here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Jose Bénazeraf and La Nuit la plus longue (1964)

Known as "The Antonioni of Pigalle", Jose Bénazeraf had a very idiosyncratic approach to the fledgling genre of the softcore thriller. Toeing the line between the cool sophistication of contemporary art cinema (Godard probably being a bigger influence than Antonioni) and the tawdry skin flicks that were all the rage, Bénazeraf was the first, and only, hipster pornographer. His slow, deliberate camera movements, minimalist plots, and understated acting made his films a world apart from Russ Meyer, while his lingering views of nubile French chicks relegated his films to the smut market. There's no way around it, Bénazeraf is a tough sell. Seeing his films in the U.S. is not easy. Besides a couple titles in Something Weird Video's catalog, a few import tapes, and one in-print DVD (Night of Lust, a heavily re-edited version of Le concerto de la peur, best avoided), there hasn't been any Bénazeraf revival...until now. K Films in France have just released two box-sets consisting of 7 of the director's films plus a disc of "banned scenes". While the DVDs are NTSC and all-region, they do not contain English subtitles. Fuck subtitles. Crime, sex, existential despair---this is my mother tongue. I will be looking at all these films here.

A poetic realist film told in modernistic shorthand, La nuit la plus longue is one of the best known films from Bénazeraf due to Radley Metzger's Audubon Films releasing it, in slightly edited and embellished form, as Sexus. Driven by a spastic Chet Baker soundtrack, it’s about the kidnapping of a young rich girl who is taken to a remote country estate to wait for the 4 a.m. ransom payment deadline. Within this stagnant summer night the young captive, Virginia, is saved from being raped by the handsome, knife-wielding gang member Blackie. Fearing disloyalty to the gang, Frankie (played by frequent Jean Rollin collaborator Willy Braque) tries to steal Virginia away to the boss in the city, only to be gunned down by the lovelorn Blackie. With the plan in shambles and Blackie’s capture a certainty in the morning, the two lovers spend the night in each other’s arms.

The film's most striking set piece happens to be completely incidental to the plot. It's a well-choreographed lesbian striptease, where a butch woman stalks around a more voluptuous long-haired woman, cracking her with a cat-o-nine-tails. The typically French audience looks on with passing interest.

It's great to finally see this film without the Audubon prologue (where a narrator warns us that Sexus is "a film as unusual as its title") and in much better shape. A cursory comparison look at the VHS from First Run Features, did reveal an extra bit of footage of Virginia reading aloud about the Marquis de Sade that does not appear on the new DVD. The editing at this point (at about the one hour mark) in the French version gets a bit chaotic, with some strange overlay of music and sound effects. I chalk it up to Godardian experimentation.

So far, so good. I'm looking forward to exploring these sets further.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Passport for a Corpse (1962)

The great Paul Muller plays a cohort in crime.

It begins like countless crimes; a group of men sitting around a table illuminated by a single, hot bulb. Outside of their small congregation is pure darkness. They’ve been studying the plans laid out on the table for some time now. You almost choke on the air, thick with smoke trailing up from each of the four men’s cigarettes. The next day, in the blaring sunlight, these men embark on a payroll heist---a blizzard of smoke bombs and gunfire. Time has elapsed, and we see the men’s car now only contains one at the steering wheel (his name is Marco), another bleeding to death in the back seat, and a satchel of cash. The man in the back gasps for air and dies. Marco sees a strangely familiar woman near his hotel room, the same woman he had glimpsed in a park before this nightmarish business began. Back in his room, he informs his wife that he is a wanted man. They make a hasty plan to separately cross the Italian border and meet up in a French café. This is where the film takes a detour from the typical crime story and becomes something darker. Something noir.

Marco (Alberto Lupo) tucks himself into an uncomfortable ride in a coffin.

Hiking through the snow-covered mountains towards the border, Marco eyes a hearse being held over at the checkpoint. While the coffin is under inspection inside the station, Marco removes the corpse, lays the money in the coffin, and seals himself in for a ride. It may have been a ticket to freedom, but the hearse is forced to return to Italy because of some missing paperwork. Marco is deposited in a frozen morgue for the night, alongside the stiff bodies of his partners in crime. His voiceover narration sounds increasingly frenzied, and rightfully so: he’s learning what it’s like to be dead. Burning small piles of money ("Better poor than dead," he says to himself) to keep his hands from freezing, he manages to open the locked door with a makeshift explosive made from his stash of bullets. He wanders into the night like a resurrected corpse. Driving a stolen car, he sees that mysterious, beckoning woman---the same woman that has been following him throughout this crazy ordeal---in the middle of a desolate stretch of road. It’s the last thing he sees before pulling over and falling asleep at the wheel.

In the blinding light of day, Marco stumbles deliriously through bleach-white snow. “I don’t know how to pray, but God forgive me,” he intones. The bag full of money becomes a meaningless burden. Another small figure in this endless landscape emerges, slowly walking closer and closer to Marco. It is the woman. She spreads out her hooded cloak and envelopes the screen in black.

"Help me God, don't let me die like this."

"Destiny...or was it Death?" Linda Christian descends upon the screen.

The economically plotted screenplay is credited to Glen Arenos and Carl Ferrero, with scenario and direction by first-timer Mario Gariazzo (The Bloody Hands of the Law, Play Motel). Its central concept, that of a man smuggling himself in a coffin, is irresistibly squirm inducing. The film's morbid and nightmarish imagery, and its downright condemning tone, make this one a unique ride, a rare combination of horror and noir. The final, icy, scene of divine justice reaches a crescendo with Marcello Giombini's score---a driving, spaghetti western-esque, mix of angelic chorus, organ, xylophone, and electronic stings---mixing with Marco's pleas to God. It's a wonderfully satisfying conclusion.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

With both barrels...

I've gotta catch up with The Lady and the Monster! Can't go wrong with Erich Von Stroheim!

Notes on Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)

Nina: "Bats! Bats!"
Dr. Morris: "It's not a bat, Nina. It's a bird."
Nina: "My father!"

I must remind myself that Devil Bat's Daughter actually exists. Others have seen this sequel to The Devil Bat (William K. Everson briefly discusses it in his essay on Strangler of the Swamp in his seminal Classics of the Horror Film), a few, I'm sure, have appreciated it. I keep coming back to it, just to reaffirm that it is not a fevered dream. The title, though reminiscent of many other horror movie sequels, just doesn't roll off the tongue like Bride of Frankenstein or Dracula's Daughter, nor does it initially make sense. This movie is not about the spawn of a evil flying mammal, as might be expected. Instead, it is about the daughter of a mad scientist whose experiments in cell growth stimulation on bats got the best of him (Bela Lugosi, entirely absent from the sequel, earned the nickname The Devil Bat in the interim between these two films). Familiarity with the more typical earlier film is not required. Devil Bat's Daughter is the film one might dream about while nodding off to a late night viewing of The Devil Bat.

Nina MacCarron is alone in the world. She is taken to the police in a catatonic state after learning of her father's death. Overcome with visions of giant bats, she is given to Dr. Morris, a New York psychiatrist out of place in the small town of Wardsley. Dr. Morris sees Nina as the perfect fall girl for the murder of his wife. Awakened from a drug-induced slumber, Nina finds herself at the bottom of the stairs, a bloody pair of scissors next to her.

And a dead body. This brief shot I find particularly disturbing, the indignity of a completely sympathetic character (Morris' sickly wife) in what looks like a crime scene photo.

Nina's fragile mind is shattered.

This movie has gotten under my skin, its myriad scenes of people sleeping, dreaming, and awaking in the typical B-movie tempo is almost trance-inducing.

Nina has to be one of the most inert heroines of all-time. She is in bed in nearly every scene.

Not quite horror, not quite thriller, certainly not just a sequel, Devil Bat's Daughter is a PRC oddity like no other.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jess Franco in conservative Cincinnati

Cincinnati hosted some first run Jess Franco films, though we were reticent about the titles. Eugenie's journey is stopped short from going "into perversion", while Succubus had no title at all!

8/22/71, the co-feature is directed by Mac Ahlberg.

Who knows what readers of this summer of '69 ad
thought of this mysterious, nameless film?

Frankenstein 2000 (1992)

Donald O'Brien glows green as Frank 2k.

Poorly dubbed, sparsely plotted, and with a tacky commercial tendency, Joe D'Amato's Filmirage productions are rather disreputable affairs. I love them for their cheapness, their community theater histrionics, and all the unusual locations these intrepid Italians filmed. Frankenstein 2000 found Filmirage in Austria, of all places. Donald O' Brien (Dr. Butcher, M.D., himself) plays Ric, an ex-boxer with a soft head and a soft heart for single mom Georgia Danson (Buio Omega's Cinzia Monreale). Ms. Danson, who owns a cool video rental store and possesses telekinetic powers, is plagued by visions of her little moppet, Stefan, dying violent deaths. This does not factor into the plot but does provide a few outrageous moments to liven up the otherwise dry first half. Three young Austrian punks rape and beat Georgia into a coma and use their influence with the town security guards (strangely, this town has security guards as well as police) to frame Ric. To completely smother the case, the security guards kill Ric and make it look like suicide. Re-animated by Georgia's psychic powers, Ric comes back to seek revenge, and the audience is treated to some monster mayhem:

The morgue attendant is killed in eye popping close-up.

Ric rips out an electrical pole to smash some security guards!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

A very special PRC greeting to all you Mad Monsters!

Make it a Strange one!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dangerous Intruder (1945)

Jenny Jackson (Veda Ann Borg) awakes to danger.

Dangerous Intruder is PRC's attempt at a murder-mystery about a strange family à la Guest in the House (1944). Struggling ingenue Jenny Jackson is hitchhiking back to New York from Boston when she is struck by a reckless driver. She wakes up in the the stately home of one Maxwell Ducane. Suspicious movements at night, a bedridden matriarch with a generous will, and Max's ranting about his clay pottery ("Earth and fire, the elements harnessed for use and for beauty! For irreparable and perpetual proof that man is master!") all adds up to trouble.

Mystery be damned! Charles Arnt plays Max
with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Filmed a month prior to Detour, Dangerous Intruder shares a screenwriter (Martin Goldsmith) with that PRC masterpiece but, unfortunately, little else. Despite a few quirky moments, such as the scene where Max is struck in the head with a golf ball and starts babbling sinister confessions, the film never generates much interest. The following dialogue sums up the aimless direction of the movie:

Maxwell: "Your coming here, if I were a superstitious man, would seem like a sign...something in the nature of an omen."
Jenny: "Yes, but what of?"
Maxwell: "I haven't the faintest idea."

Strand/Telenews, Cincinnati

Here's a quartet of irresistible ads from a long-gone theater in the heart of downtown Cincinnati, in the sound era alternately known as either Strand or Telenews. These date from 1944 to 1947.

If I had been around back then, I surely would have been a member of the Crime Club.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Diary of a Nymphomaniac (1972)

Linda Vargas (Montserrat Prous), nymphomaniac.

It begins, in proper Jess Franco fashion, with a strip act. Bathed in a red glow, two women caress each other to a ritualistic, driving rhythm. One woman---the younger looking of the two---stares intently into the audience. After the show, she directly approaches a middle-aged man. Several bottles of champagne later, the drunk and smitten man exits the club with the woman. In a rented room, as they sloppily remove their clothing, the same driving rhythm from her stage performance fades into the soundtrack. This is not a scene of an awkward man fumbling with a prostitute---it's a ritual. Moments after climaxing, the woman carefully pulls a knife and runs it across her throat, collapsing on the spent man.

Murder or suicide?

With a flashback structure reminiscent of Citizen Kane, this melodrama is the tale of a wife's investigation into her husband's alleged murder of a stripper-prostitute named Linda Vargas. What straight-laced Mrs. Ortiz discovers is the life of a damaged soul with too much love to give. Beyond being treated to a garish title, frequent nude scenes, and counter-culture kitsch, Franco also constructs a fully satisfying character arc. The tattered edges of the extremely modest production (far from the most minimal of Franco's oeuvre) only serve to heighten the confessional nature of the story. Like the glimpses of Linda's scrawled diary itself, this film rides on the emotions of humiliation, arousal, and revenge.

The film chronicles Linda's varied sexual relationships from an early molestation on a ferris wheel (perpetrated by Mr. Ortiz from the opening scene), which is filmed like a self-contained experimental film (the fading in and out, and overlapping of music as the carnival ride dips up and down is masterful), to her encounter with a cold, clinical, and dominating doctor (Franco staple and symbol of European decadence Howard Vernon!). Along the way, Linda proves herself too passionate for her lesbian affair with The Countess de Monterey (Anne Libert), while the Countess' boy toy collapses at his wife's feet when he is caught in bed with our protagonist. With each blow dealt to her, Linda develops into more of a nymphomaniac. She outlines her dependence on sex in her writings:
"When I'm depressed, as I often am, I think of an enormous erection or the moist, warm tongue of a young girl. And I feel better when the beautiful little pussy is opened up slowly and grows moist. That's when we really live. Everything else is meaningless and dead."
These explicit ramblings breakdown the chaste Mrs. Ortiz, who in a later scene is seduced by Linda's fellow stripper, Maria. With Linda's voice in her head----"He must pay!"---Mrs. Ortiz disposes of the diary, and with it the evidence to acquit her husband. Justice is served.

Jacqueline Laurent (as Mrs. Ortiz) is much less crabby
here than she would be in the disturbing Lorna, the Exorcist,
which Franco filmed during the same period.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

"An Obscenity of Violence"

On April 20, 1979 Dawn of the Dead came to Cincinnati:

I almost feel like apologizing for dredging up this Cincinnati Enquirer mini-review, but I think it illustrates how shocking the film's violence appeared:

Such wonderfully colorful writing! The version I saw, however, was exciting, uniquely plotted, wryly topical, well-acted, and, well, yes, relentless. I love how the writing and performances are torn apart while the direction, simply, "isn't that good."

And in case you were wondering Love at First Bite got a resounding four stars!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Love Crimes (1992)

"I love your eyebrows and little slender wrists. I love your
little daddy long legs."---the sadist sizes up Ms. Sean Young

Sean Young plays a District Attorney in a performance that, at times, seems to be channelling Joan Crawford. Unfortunately, besides thick eyebrows, these two actresses have very little in common---and herein lies the main problem with Love Crimes. This lead role requires a transformation from assertive, shoulder pad wearing career woman into a male-dominated submissive, and Sean Young misses the mark on the first part of this equation. But don't let this stop you from watching this film, as it offers many smutty delights.

"Maybe what you need in this case is not clear cut evidence
of rape but a proof of perversity."---advice given to Dana Greenway

Dana Greenway (Young) has latched onto a case following a man (Patrick Bergin) who pretends to be a famous fashion photographer, David Hanover, conning women into posing nude for his camera. The problem with the case is that he never clearly commits a crime larger than theft, as he carefully manages to break down the women's will into submitting to his commands. And, as Dana's partner comments while looking at some of the photos in evidence, "They're enjoying the hell out of themselves." Dana is drawn to the man---who never reveals his real name---in an investigation based more on self-discovery than justice.

"David Hanover" picking up a new model.

There is a breaking point in this film where it goes from a rather typical cat and mouse legal thriller into psycho-sexual lunacy. Dana, realizing that her mannish (actually boyish) appearance is giving her away in her pursuit, decides to have a makeover. Amidst blue-tinted flashbacks to a traumatic childhood incident of witnessing her father with a strange woman, Dana starts caking on the makeup till she looks like the slut. Recognizing what she's turning herself into, she smears the makeup off.

It is readily apparent that Dana is preparing herself to be bait for Hanover, with a little too much gusto. She finds Hanover through her new school teacher persona without too much difficulty, and we see how he slowly breaks down her personal space (giving her a supposed palm reading) then taking on her headspace. "We're not strangers, it's only that we just met," his cheesy line is actually entirely correct.

"What were you afraid I'd do? What were you afraid
I wouldn't do?"

But you can't deceive a con man for long. When Hanover discovers who Dana really is, out in his rented country getaway, the situation turns into a sort of S&M summer camp. Through trapping her in a closet, handcuffing, stripping, and, in an unforgettably prolonged scene, spanking her, Dana learns to love her master. Her frigid, blue-tinted neuroses give way to a warmly-toned fantasy of making love to Hanover:

As if their psychic connection was more satisfying than any earthbound coupling, Dana and David never consummate their relationship. After parting ways (well, they don't just separate, but for the sake of brevity I'll move along...), David gets back to his old tricks, but making a wealthy, older woman act like a horse as he smacks her with a riding crop just isn't the same as before. Dana, likewise, has holed up in her apartment, her work no longer meaningful. The film ends like most thrillers end, but Love Crimes is actually a convincing, uncomfortably poignant story of star-crossed lovers.