Friday, December 30, 2005

Impressions of a Nyquil Eater

Though my year-end head cold continues to linger, I thought I would keep my promise and blog a little about some of the extra-curricular stuff from the attic I've been re-viewing, as opposed to reviewing.

SOULS FOR SALE aka CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: I taped this 1962 Albert Zugsmith film off of a local television station maybe fifteen years ago, and if ever a film was made to watch on Nyquil, this is it. With Vincent Price starring in eerie films based on the public domain literary writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zugsmith cast him in this loosey-goosey adaptation of Thomas De Quincey's fever dream writings.

Narrating as De Quincey and playing a descendant of the writer, Price is a merchant seaman -- at least he's dressed that way -- who becomes involved in liberating some Asian women who have been abducted by slave traders aiming to sell them for opium. There are scenes where the tall, lanky Price is required to participate in action scenes better suited for Indiana Jones, and his undercover work requires him to take an opium pipe, which leads to dreams of imagery from various AIP films like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN and VOODOO WOMAN! The De Quincey narration is enticing, and the dialogue contributed by Robert Hill (SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF) is equally steeped in philosophy and hard-boiled crime clichés, granting the film the verbal character of a William S. Burroughs novel, at times.

Zugsmith's direction, given hazy and byzantine setting by slumming art director Eugene Lourie and cameraman Joe Biroc, is appropriately druggy, off-kilter and mysterious. There is also a delightful supporting performance by Yvonne Moray (a Lullaby League dancer from THE WIZARD OF OZ) as a teasing Chinese midget who develops a maternal attachment for Price. Genuinely strange and worth seeing, but its slippery quality resists lodging in the memory.

THE COUCH and THE PSYCHOPATH: Two Robert Bloch-scripted films, recorded in the old days off of WOR-TV and the USA Network, respectively.

The only fright flick of forgotten director Owen Crump, and sporting a creepy Vic Mizzy-like score by Frank Perkins, THE COUCH holds up better than any other Bloch-sourced film, short of PSYCHO. Grant Williams stars as a serial killer who times his murders to coincide with his psychiatric appointments, and who forms a dangerous attachment for his psychiatrist's receptionist (Shirley Knight -- when is someone going to pay this outstanding, overlooked actress her due in an essay?). I saw this movie several times as a child (probably not a good idea!) and it still works for me now as it did then; there is a disturbing moment when Williams fantasizes giving his belligerent father some comeuppance, portrayed with apparent stop-motion work of a fist slamming repeatedly into the man's increasingly blood-spattered mouth. There is also a scene of a maniac infiltrating a hospital operating theater more than ten years before RABID. This excellent thriller is owned by Warner Bros., and considering that it's in B&W and has no big names in the cast, there probably isn't much chance of an official release.

THE PSYCHOPATH, an Amicus production from about four years later, is very slow going about the investigation of a series of murders in which the corpses are found in the company of dolls in the deceased's own likeness. Patrick Wymark makes a surly protagonist and the murders are filmed elliptically by director Freddie Francis. It might work somewhat better when viewed in its proper screen ratio, but not enough to save it. It builds to a very nice final reel, though, with Margaret Johnston (BURN WITCH BURN) -- cast as a wheelchair-ridden biddy who lives with her adult son (John Standing) in a Bavian house of dolls -- belatedly rising to the occasion by going completely off the rails.

CHARLOTTE - LA JEUNE FILLE ASSASSINÉE: This is an obscure 1974 film directed by, and starring, Roger Vadim, which I first saw in theatrical release in its native French with English subtitles. I was completely taken with it and saw it two or three times in one week. Those viewings magically coincided with my discovery of the French writer André Gide, who is not only mentioned/quoted in the dialogue, but the film itself follows the same general pattern as Gide's great novel THE COUNTERFEITERS (being about the writing of a novel that shares the same title of the work at hand) and is dedicated to Gide's close friend Marc Allegrét.

Vadim plays a bourgeois, prize-winning author who sets aside his current work-in-progress to research a book about the murder of a young girl (Sirpa Lane) whose virginity he took some years earlier. He soon interviews a wealthy young decadent (Matthiew Carriére) who claims to have been the murderer, and who entices him into a web of mystery, mind games, and gambles with life and death. Antonio de Teffé appears briefly in a bit part. Made in the wake of EMMANUELLE, CHARLOTTE was released to US theaters with an X rating and features, among other things, scenes of masturbation, incest, necrophilia, and glimpses of male and female genitalia.

This film is very hard to see; the only source I've ever found is Video Search of Miami, whose overly dark, English-dubbed VHS release I reviewed in VIDEO WATCHDOG #29, page 8. The English version plays significantly worse than the French one, whose sybilline dialogue becomes more concretely, unbearably pretentious when Anglicized. The young characters in the film are meant to be pretentious, hellbound in a sense, in their determination to make works of art out of their lives, ultimately confusing destruction with creation, rather than complement normal and happy lives with the creation of art. There is a wonderfully surreal sequence in which Vadim tests an experimental machine that visualizes/projects people's dreams, and Michel Duchaussoy (who bears a strong resemblance to the young Curtis Harrington) gives a moving performance as a gay film critic who recounts his brief marriage to the object of Vadim's reawakened obsession. All of the film's music was taken from Mike Oldfield's still-new TUBULAR BELLS album (Vadim carefully avoids the passage made famous by THE EXORCIST) and I've heard it was shot in 16mm, which -- coupled with the fact that Vadim plays the lead himself -- indicates an unusually personal dedication to the material. I remain very fond of this movie, and would love to find a better copy of it -- can anyone out there help?

I also saw a couple of interesting films recently for the first time.

A friendly reader of this blog, knowing of my enthusiasm for the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, wrote to suggest that I track down Tom Tykwer's films THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR and HEAVEN, the latter of which was based on Kieslowski's final script (co-written with his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz). I was able to find affordable used copies of these DVDs on eBay, and found both to be very worthwhile. PRINCESS is a beautifully sustained piece of magic realism about a sanitorium worker (Franka Potente) who becomes obsessed with the strange and dangerous man (Benno Fürmann) who saved her life after she was hit by a truck with an on-the-spot tracheotomy... and HEAVEN stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi (pictured above) in the story of a terrorist bomber who is helped to escape her Italian prison by a young carabiniere who falls in love with her. Blanchett, one of the most exceptional actresses of her generation, gives an impressive performance even by her usual standards, while Ribisi, whom I've always found to be something of a lightweight (hard to tell otherwise given his mostly lightweight roles), gives a well-shaded, fully nuanced, mature portrayal; their mutual success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that both speak most of their lines in Italian.

Seeing Tom Tykwer direct a Kieslowski script is not the same as seeing Kieslowski do the same thing; Kieslowski was known to impose a lot of creative changes on his original scripts in the cutting room, and Tykwer was likely obliged to follow the HEAVEN script with respectful deference. I liked both of these movies, HEAVEN somewhat more than PRINCESS, but neither of them spoke to me on the same level as the better Kieslowski films.

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