Thursday, October 19, 2017

RIP Umberto Lenzi (1931-2017)

I was very sorry to awaken this morning to the news of director Umberto Lenzi’s passing at the age of 86. He seldom received the critical respect due to someone like himself, who had done so much heavy lifting to keep the Italian cinema going, but though he had not made a film since 1992, there is a great sense of much more than himself coming to a stop with this news. Lenzi loved the cinema and was one of a handful of early fans and critics who muscled their way into the business, becoming its first generation of postmodernist grindhouse directors. 

Most serious discussions of the Italian popular cinema in English tend to focus on horror films and thrillers, which tended to place Lenzi’s passionate, tireless, industrious work among the also-rans - if not in other categories altogether. From a historian’s perspective, he was usually making the wrong kind of film at the wrong time to stand out. At the height of the Italian gothics, he was focusing on sword and sandal pictures, costume pictures; his KRIMINAL anticipated Bava’s DIABOLIK: he also anticipated the return of the giallo into fashion with his series of Carroll Baker thrillers (PARANOIA, SO SWEET... SO PERVERSE, A QUIET PLACE TO KILL) but they didn’t exploit the sense of style that defined such films; and then, at the height of the giallo, he was making some of the best poliziotesschi of the day (ALMOST HUMAN, VIOLENT NAPLES, THE TOUGH ONES, THE CYNIC THE RAT AND THE FIST), hard-hitting films that took awhile to find their international following. Several of his best thrillers were scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi.

In the end, he left us a lot of fun, memorable, unpretentious pictures including SANDOKAN THE GREAT and its sequel THE PIRATES OF MALYSIA, the SuperSeven spy adventures starring Roger Browne, SPASMO, EYEBALL, SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS, OASIS OF FEAR, and those unforgettable doozies THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, NIGHTMARE CITY, and CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY).

Grazie per l’intrattenimento, Maestro.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 30 is... Hammerween!



It was now 60 years ago that Hammer Films released their first color horror film, Terence Fisher's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) - and, in commemoration of this important anniversary, some major activity is afoot in the UK. Indicator - the company responsible for two recent very impressive Ray Harryhausen sets (with a third on the way) - will be releasing a box set called HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING, which will collect four of Hammer's Columbia co-productions from the 1960s: MANIAC, THE GORGON, CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB and FANATIC (aka DIE! DIE, MY DARLING!). There is another set due in the first quarter of next year, that will likely contain the balance of Hammer's Columbia titles.

VOLUME ONE will include Blu-ray and DVD discs of all titles and be released on October 30, just in time for Halloween. The discs - which I'm told will likely repeat the previous Indicator release format of being in PAL but otherwise region-free - will contain a wealth of extras for each title, mostly of the featurette/video essay variety, with a full audio commentary for THE GORGON by DIABOLIQUE's Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, and 32-page booklets for each title with essays by Kim Newman and others. The set will be priced at 42.99 GBP and is available via amazon.co.uk.


Studio Canal also have four coveted Hammer titles in store for October 30 release as "doubleplay" BD/DVD sets (RB and R2), with four more to follow on January 29, 2018 but theirs are being released individually with a cover price of 14.99 GBP. The first four titles are SCARS OF DRACULA, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, FEAR IN THE NIGHT and DEMONS OF THE MIND; the next grouping will offer HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, and TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. None of the titles have commentaries, but each is supported by an entertaining featurette (18m, roughly) produced and directed by Marcus Hearn in which various Hammer historians (Jonathan Rigby, etc) and even some stars (Valerie Leon, Jenny Hanley) offer memories and notes concerning the various films. I've been able to preview the first four Studio Canal titles and they have never been more beautifully presented on home video: crisp, colorful, loaded with depth, spotless.

Klove (Patrick Troughton) models the SCARS OF DRACULA.
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), directed by Roy Ward Baker, was the fifth film in Hammer's Dracula franchise starring Christopher Lee (omitting 1960's BRIDES OF DRACULA, which didn't) and also the first in the series to be produced solely by British funding. The script by "John Elder" (longtime Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) is a compendium of familiar series situations, kicked-up with a new emphasis on bloodletting, sadism and bawdiness. Jenny Hanley plays the female lead, Sarah, whose attraction to two brothers - responsible lawyer-to-be Simon (Dennis Waterman) and the bedroom adventurer Paul (Christopher Matthews) - brings her to the attention of Count Dracula (Lee) and his mortal manservant/enabler Klove (former DOCTOR WHO Patrick Troughton). Lee has some impressively fierce scenes but nothing much is done to permeate the film with dread of him, as Terence Fisher did so ably in his early series entries; here, he's a bit too approachable and available. It's Troughton who steals the film as the almost subhuman Klove, who finds redemption for the past crimes he's committed in service by a photograph of Sarah and finally by closer contact with the woman herself. SCARS is more cheaply made than other films in the series, but DP Moray Grant invests it with color and ripe Gothic atmosphere that is a revelation here, in contrast to earlier releases and particularly the turgid-looking US theatrical release prints. I did notice some "day for night" anomalies though, with the sequence of Simon and Sarah's flight from the castle flickering between night and daylight, and Dracula himself resurrected at the outset to look upon an exterior that transitions to daytime.

Valerie Leon.
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971), based on Bram Stoker's 1903 Egyptian thriller THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS, was something of a cursed production having lost its star Peter Cushing after three days of filming (he was called away by his wife's terminal illness, and replaced by Andrew Kier), a crew member (who perished in a motorcycle accident), and finally its director Seth Holt (to a heart attack) all before its last week of shooting. Executive producer Michael Carreras stepped in to direct, and the result is a fascinating hodge-podge - without question one of the more potent Hammer films of the 1970s, but one that always gives me the feeling of having been poorly (or at least incorrectly) assembled at the editing stage.

The lead character, Margaret (Valerie Leon), is introduced while tossing and turning in a nightmare that is repeated midway through the film, and no explanation is ever given for what appears to be the scar of an attempted suicide on one of her wrists. The scenes of the archaeological expedition resulting in the curse of the Egyptian Queen Tera (also Leon) are presented as flashbacks but I suspect these were meant to open the film, and that the miraculously bleeding stump of the Queen was meant to resonate with a later shot revealing Margaret's scar (we get in zoom-in, though we've already seen it). Leon, though dubbed by another actress, has considerable presence and the story (scripted by Christopher Wicking) is compelling for the many ways in which it echoes Stoker's DRACULA: a foreign source of evil transported into the heart of London, the relationship of the story to a madman in an asylum, the forces of good and evil being arranged in two houses within view of each other, the patriarchal governing of the women by older male characters who live to see the women empowered by supernatural evil, and so forth. For reasons well beyond my understanding, someone thought it would be amusing to arrange a two-shot of Margaret and her boyfriend Tod Browning (!) on a bed, Tod on his back with his legs apart, with Margaret in an inverted position facing the camera while eating a banana.

Peter Cushing as the menacing Headmaster in FEAR IN THE NIGHT.
FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972), written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, is a minor psychological thrillers, a project that dated back to a Sangster script originally submitted in 1963, when he was cranking these out with regularity. It sounds like a joke but it's the story of a young woman repeatedly attacked by someone with a prosthetic limb - and her name is Peg! 

A high-strung young Londoner, Peg (Judy Geeson) - we're told she suffered a nervous breakdown six months earlier - is attacked in her apartment, after which she readily agrees to marry her boyfriend Robert (Ralph Bates) and move to the countryside. He's been hired to relocate to a 12-acre estate where he's to look after the aging former headmaster (Peter Cushing) of a private school which now serves as his private residence. Somewhat expectedly, he has a prosthetic arm - and he also has a much younger and not particularly likeable wife (Joan Collins, sporting the same striped vest sweater she wore the same year in TALES FROM THE CRYPT). The premises is full of sheeted furniture and rigged with recordings of past school assemblies, lending to its ghostly ambiance, but what is really going on here has a very rational explanation. About 20 minutes before the end of the picture, it seems to lose all its energy when a major character is excused, but the postscript accrues its own interest and the story resolves in an interestingly ambiguous sort of way. Okay, if a bit on the dull side, mostly due to a preponderance of drab colors and an utter lack of concern for visual atmosphere. A bit hard to believe, considering that the cameraman was Arthur Grant (THE GORGON, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA - and, incidentally, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB).

Gillian Hills and Robert Hardy in DEMONS OF THE MIND.
DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972), directed by Peter Sykes, was also photographed by Arthur Grant and it is here that we see his work at its latter-day best. Of all the Hammer films in this group, this is the one that actually looks like a classic Hammer film, and there is never any hint of budgetary constraints though they must have been there. Nevertheless, this is a controversial entry among fans, with several of the commentators in the accompanying featurette taken aback by its graphic violence and full-frontal nudity, describing it as "sick" and "unfocused," though the film itself is actually about mental illness and admittedly qualifies as marginal horror at best. 

The life of this film began, we're told, as a script called BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD, a kind of post-werewolf film about a nobleman who either was or imagined himself to be a former lycanthrope and his twisted attempts to stifle this accursed strain in his deeply inbred bloodline. By the time Sykes and screenwriter Christopher Wicking got through with it, nearly all its references to lycanthropy were discarded. As I see it, what remained may have left the film without a clear relationship to Hammer horror but the end product is an aggressive attempt to share barracks, as it were, with Michael Reeves' highly influential WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM, 1968), as a study of how the lives of young people were perverted and destroyed by a literally insane patriarchal society. 

The film, which chronicles the extreme attempts of one Count Zorn (Robert Hardy) - supported by dubious figureheads of science (Patrick Magee) and religion (Michael Hordern) - to keep apart his incestuously inclined son (Shane Briant, his impressive debut) and daughter (BEAT GIRL's Gillian Hills, remote yet ravishing), even ends with a freeze-frame of a woman's scream to emphasize its debt to Reeves. (The casting shows a similar debt to Stanley Kubrick with several members of the cast being recruited from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: Magee, Hills, Virginia Wetherell and Jan Adair.) Some of the performances are admittedly over-the-top but perhaps in the same way that Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971) is over-the-top, to make the lesson we are being taught about the abuses of power and authority impossible to miss. An ambitious Gothic that falls somewhat sort of its presumed mark, this is nevertheless one of Hammer's most authentic and interesting films of the 1970s. 

The individual titles are handsomely packaged and presented, but the supportive content feels minimal. It feels a missed opportunity that Studio Canal did not commission feature-length commentaries - or to include extant ones, as in the case of SCARS OF DRACULA, whose Anchor Bay (USA) and EMI (UK DVDs included a commentary by Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker, both now deceased. Take care to preserve your old copy for future reference!

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.       


Monday, October 16, 2017

LOST HORIZON - Now With More Found Horizons

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt star in LOST HORIZON (1937).
I watched Sony's newly 4K-restored 80th Anniversary Blu-ray presentation of Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON last night, which is now only 6m shy of its initial preview length. While I continue to enjoy the film a good deal, I find myself increasingly unsure of whether the continued effort to restore this early cut is doing the overall work more damage than service. Though the newly uncovered footage is undeniably interesting, it generally only lengthens scenes already doing their duty, so that the film feels more rambling, unfocused and frankly self-enamored than the last time I saw it (probably the very reason prompting the cuts in the first place).

It's easy to see how Capra could have been seduced into the prospect of making the most of what he had, because few directors before him had been more indulged. The budget, including the construction of the dazzling Shangri-La, reportedly ran to $1.5 million (equal to more than $25,000,000 today), and Capra's initial rough cut is said to have run six hours. There is much about it that could not possibly be bettered (Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt particularly), but even if those six minutes (represented here by surviving soundtrack and production photos) were recovered, the film would still be lacking answers to some aggravating questions - like why the Russian woman character played by Margo wants so desperately to escape an apparent Paradise.

Shangri-La, designed by Stephen Goossen.
Among the various extras, the disc includes two further deleted scenes not added to the main feature for lack of audio, but the commentator does a remarkably good job of looping them. There is additional footage of a funeral ceremony culled from the only surviving camera negative - which, despite the commentator's heightened endorsement, looked no better to me than anything in the 4K restoration. But it was all too easy to see how Capra and his cinematographer Joseph Walker could have fallen in love with the visual options at hand and gone completely overboard. There is a wonderful Busby Berkeley-type shot of the torch bearers ascending a spiral staircase, seen from below - and it's eye-popping until you realize, my God, this shot is going to need at least three minutes to complete its design!

Also restored is the Harry Cohn-demanded alternate ending, which was in place for most of the film's theatrical release but has not been generally available for somewhere north of 60 years. The two endings pose a difficult choice; the familiar one supports the film's conception of Shangri-La as a form of faith, while the alternate one makes it more tangible and unambiguous and gives the audience exactly what it wants. I like them both, but only one really supports the ideas carefully woven into the story. 

Another thing about the ending: are we sure that the actor in protagonist Robert Conway's final closeup is actually Ronald Colman? It doesn't look like him to me, and the uncertainty of this - especially coming after so much stock footage of snowy mountainsides - may be the real reason we respond to having Jane Wyatt brought back there.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Claude Sautet's DICTATOR'S GUNS reviewed

DICTATOR'S GUNS
L'arme à gauche 
1965, Something Weird Video
100m 41s, $10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Reviewed by Special Request! 
While it's probably not the first thing that crosses anyone's mind when they think of Something Weird Video, the SWV catalogue is arguably the best resource around when it comes to finding English-friendly copies of European crime pictures. Eddie Constantine! Alain Delon! Jean-Paul Belmondo! Peter van Eyck! Roger Hanin! Giorgio Ardisson! They've got 'em all - just go to their online catalogue and browse the section called "Spies, Thighs and Private Eyes."

One of the very best examples of this genre, and one of the legitimately best films carried by SWV, DICTATOR'S GUNS is a French adaptation of an American novel called AGROUND, written by Charles Williams - whose hardboiled fiction has also been filmed by the likes of Orson Welles (THE DEEP, 1969; based on DEAD CALM - a suspenseful sequel to AGROUND revisiting the two principals), François Truffaut (CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS, 1983; based on THE LONG SATURDAY NIGHT) and Dennis Hopper (THE HOT SPOT, 1990; based on HELL HATH NO FURY). This is the English-dubbed version, which was never released theatrically in the United States, so it had to be culled from a cropped 16mm television syndication print. (The English version was theatrically released in Great Britain as GUNS FOR THE DICTATOR.)

 
If this film is ever properly rediscovered and accorded an official release by Criterion or some other arthouse label (which could well happen, as its director Claude Sautet also helmed such pictures as CÉSAR AND ROSALIE and Un Coeur en Hiver), it would almost certainly be issued only in French with English subtitles - which would be a tragedy, because this version is the only place to hear and savor the robust villainy of American actor Leo Gordon, who receives what may be his finest dramatic showcase in this picture. (As a curious footnote, Sautet also had an important screenwriting career, which included early work on Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE - before Boileau-Narcejac got involved - which places him as one of the likelier suspects to have written the novel of the film credited to "Jean Redon.") This film shares its slowly ratcheting sense of suspense, which Franju likened to twisting the viewer's head off.

 
Lino Ventura plays Jacques Cournot, an out-of-work skipper sarcastically addressed as "Capitan," who is hired in Santa Domingo by a businessman to inspect a boat called "The Dragon," which is up for sale. He returns to the man who hired him, a playboy type named Hugo Hendrix (Alberto de Mendoza), and gives a positive report and recommends that he propose a counter-offer to Mrs. Rae Osborn (Sylva Koscina), the owner of the vessel. Hendrix claims to have sent a check for $65,000 to Mrs. Osborn but she denies receiving it, and Cournot soon finds himself embroiled in police business for his participation in the deal, as Hendrix disappears along with "The Dragon." Rae asks to meet with Cournot and together they decide to track the boat by hired plane. They find it run aground on a small island in the Caribbean, inhabited not only by Hendrix but also a group of armed smugglers led by Art Morrison (Leo Gordon), who stole the ship to transport seven tons of guns, rifles and ammunition. His cohorts include Ruiz (Antonio Martín) and the expert knife-thrower Keefer (played by someone billed in English as Jack Leonard - who is not the American comedian Jack E. Leonard, as the IMDb misreports). 

Once the film's action reaches the boat, it remains limited to the boat and a small island, where the men proceed to laboriously unload more than 30 crates of arms in an effort to lighten the boat and get it back into the water. In the process of this arduous work, some characters die or are injured, and there are also attempts by Cournot and Mrs. Osborn to escape and/or outwit Morrison, who is eventually trapped on the islet in possession of all the weapons and ammunition, which make "The Dragon" something of a shooting gallery that our protagonists must survive while simultaneously brainstorming ways to move the boat to move out of harm's way. It would be wrong to describe what these maneuvers are; it's best to let the film and its nerve-jangling suspense surprise you. That said, the film is equally remarkable for holding one's attention despite being staged with extreme economy, and for braving the elements as its does. The boat setting and the rising tension recalls Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER at times, but this is anything but a psychological drama; think ARGOSY Magazine pulp made with the directorial finesse of a PURPLE NOON. This is a Something Weird title that I can unreservedly recommend to anyone.


You can order DICTATOR'S GUNS through PayPal by addressing your order information and payment to somethingweirdauctions@gmail.com - or by addressing a check or money order directly to SWV, PO Box 33664, Seattle WA 98133. You'll be glad you did.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Doris Wishman's A TASTE OF FLESH (1967)

A TASTE OF FLESH
1967, Something Weird Video
71m 50s, $10.00 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Despite its title, this is not a further entry in Michael Findlay's Flesh series from the same period but rather a stand-alone Doris Wishman item, written by her as "El Ess" with the direction credited to "L. Silverman" - and it's a very strange thing. Filmed almost entirely inside a single three-room apartment, the picture was shot without live sound, then post-synched by different actors at Titra Sound Corp. and scored with some of the most exciting library tracks imaginable (including the one that has since become legend as "the Something Weird Theme"). The result is a bit like a tawdry crime fotonovela in which the performances we hear were not actually given, where the misleading feel of excitement was laid-in like carpeting, by the yard.

We open with a beautiful woman luxuriating for quite a long time in a bubble bath, until another woman appears in the room and ventures to touch her. The intruder is actually the resident, Bobbi (Layla Peters), who leaves the room when her nymphomaniacal roommate Carol (Darlene Bennet) returns home. After exchanging inane chatter like "You should see the delicious undies I bought!", Carol becomes aware of their third wheel - a foreigner named Hannah (Cleo Nova, aka Peggy Steffans-Sarno - in an unflattering blonde wig), whom Bobbi met at the airport and invited to be her guest upon learning that she needed a place to stay. Two men (Michael Lawrence, Buck Starr) knock at the door, identifying themselves as telephone repairmen, but once inside they begin flashing their handguns.

It seems the apartment Bobbi and Carol share has the ideal vantage for their planned assassination of the visiting Prime Minister of Nedea the following morning. It also transpires that Hannah is a native of "Nedea" (I wonder if that's anywhere near Beldad?); indeed, she is the Prime Minister's mistress, who met Bobbi deliberately after her country's secret service pinpointed her apartment as near - but not too near - "His Majesty's" (sic) hotel suite. The would-be assassins pistol-whip her till she spills the exact time of the Prime Minister's scheduled arrival - 6:00 the following morning.

It sounds like there is a lot going on, but after this convoluted build-up, and enough early spice to let us know that the film could deliver if it cared to - a bubble bath scene (Hannah), a shower scene culminating in a PSYCHO-inspired intrusion (Bobbi), and some full-length mirror self-love (Carol) - the film settles into a holding pattern of sit-around-and-wait, with the exception of a surprisingly non-violent (and mostly non-nude) rape scene. The movie stumbles into its most interesting, unexpectedly charming passage when the voluptuous Bobbi falls asleep on the sofa and has a dream about dating Hannah while dressed as a man. This surprising diversion, treated with sweet naïveté, culminates in the foot fetishism expected of Wishman pictures - which may actually have been more the predilection of the recently deceased C. Davis Smith, who photographed the majority of them.




The complicated reasons that bring these various characters together in the same room is ultimately dismissed quickly and with uproarious ease, before unseen police close-in on one of the men in a hilariously protracted burlesque of suspense.

Today, Peggy Steffans has no recollection of making this film, nor any of the other quickies she made with Michael Findlay or Sande Johnsen between "Cleo Nova's" Joe Sarno assignments. Seeing her transplanted from that more ambitious universe to this one really does show how extraordinary and atypical an artist Sarno was in the context of his own times and milieu, and of course it's impossible to gauge the performance Peggy actually gave onset. There's nothing here to suggest that she received any direction whatsoever, other than "sit here, move your leg there," and one can easily believe that the entire film was improvised in no more than a couple of days. The entire cast was required to over-enunciate their line readings, to make the scenes easier to loop.

A TASTE OF FLESH doesn't share the sense of sheer outrageousness that characterizes Doris Wishman's most memorable work (DEADLY WEAPONS, THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT), but for collectors of such arcana, it's short and quirky enough to tickle your curiosity come the next rainy day. 

You can order A TASTE OF FLESH (or any other Something Weird release ) through PayPal by addressing your order information and payment to somethingweirdauctions@gmail.com - or by addressing a check or money order directly to SWV, PO Box 33664, Seattle WA 98133.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

SWV Week Continues with ALL WOMEN ARE BAD!

ALL WOMEN ARE BAD
1969, Something Weird Video
61 minutes, $10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Larry Crane's mind-boggling ALL WOMEN ARE BAD ("And I ought to know... I'm a man!") - a latter-day release from Stan Borden's prodigiously rough 'n' scuzzy American Film Distributing Corporation - rates as one of the defining titles in the Something Weird Video catalogue. It serves up a little of everything anyone cruising the label could possibly want: it's black-and-white, east coast Adults Only, shot without live sound (the narrator even loops a woman's dialogue), and the storyline - such as it is - is utterly deranged. In roughly ah hour of screen time, it manages to squeeze in something for the voyeur, the S&M freak, the foot fetishist, the ticklers and the tickled, the horror fan, connoisseurs of deliria, and gay gropings on both sides of the gender fence.

Peter Bradford plays our protagonist and narrator John Steele, a Manhattan door-to-door cosmetics salesman who, after a long day of fruitlessly pressing doorbells, takes a walk and somehow finds himself awakening from a nap in the woods. Deciding to return home early for a change, he discovers his wife Leila (Liz Byan, who wears exaggerated, implicitly Satanic eye makeup) in bed with another man. Feeling angry, wounded, and betrayed, but choosing not to make a scene, Steele makes a silent retreat and rents the first cheap furnished room he can find.






While everything up to this moment is acceptable within the bounds of loose storytelling, our narrator/protagonist's entrance into this rooming house catapults the scenario into a long, dark night of the soul in broad daylight, as he begins to slip in and out of time and space, his environs metamorphosing convulsively as if in a dream or a bad trip. He is abruptly transported from his rooming house corridor to a New York ferry, to what appears to be San Francisco's Chinatown where he sees a stripper smoking opium (followed by images of the woman posing under projections of psychedelic graphics), to standing behind a curtain at a hippie orgy, to being a fly on the wall at a gay seduction (grossly overplayed), to being an invisible witness to a monster's attempts to tickle a prostitute with ostrich feathers and a caped madman's indulgence in an act of necrophilia. Everything his greedy eyes observe seems to reinforce his titular philosophy, a fact driven home visually when each of the women - including the defiled corpse and the gay man about to be orally pleasured - assumes the winking likeness of the emasculating temptress, Leila. At the peak of his delirium, Steele's emasculation becomes literal when he fights to free himself from a strait-jacket only to find his torso transformed into that of a female.






There is a sense about this movie that it's something made out of desperation from scraps of unrelated footage; even the musical soundtrack can be heard abruptly shifting from what sounds like a Blues Magoos freak-out jam to equally jarring, schmaltzy strings during the monotonously-shot grope-and-slurp sessions. The aforementioned New York ferry scene, which drags on for several minutes (in a film barely longer than an hour!) as its passengers wait to get off (as we all wait to get off!), is hilariously scored with urgent suspense music, including snippets of familiar Roger Roger cues from the Valentino library like "Spell of the Unknown" and "Toward Discovery." At the same time, there is something perversely ambitious about this runaway mess that begs us to consider that at least some of its spiraling, surrealist achievement was premeditated. Certainly, within the context of other NYC-made adult fare of this period, the approach taken here was at least creative and unusual, yielding more than enough to win it credibility as a gritty, if inescapably silly, horror-fantasy anomaly. As it probes the delicate psyche of its conservative lead character, clearly bombarded by all the varieties of action he's not getting, it shares with other American Film Distributing Corp. titles (like WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN), a conflicting desire to know what is available and a deep-seated, appalled fear of such human diversity.




 
Credited with special effects on the show is its only familiar name: Jerry Damiano - soon to become world-famous as Gerard Damiano, the director of DEEP THROAT (1972). He also plays the uncredited role of Mr. Squire, whom Steele visits in his executive office building in a Manhattan high rise - where a window is covered by what couldn't more obviously be shower curtains unless they had cartoon fish on them. Director Larry Crane can be glimpsed in the film playing both the bartender and the barnstorming necrophile.

The film is followed - at least on our archival copy - by a series of trailers, beginning with one for ALL WOMEN ARE BAD itself, which is surprisingly more explicit in its erotic commingling (and willingness to show female pubic hair) than the main feature itself.

You can order ALL WOMEN ARE BAD or any other Something Weird release from PayPal by addressing your order information and payment to somethingweirdauctions@gmail.com, or by addressing a check or money order directly to SWV, PO Box 33664, Seattle WA 98133.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

BLAZING SAND reviewed


BLAZING SAND
Brennender Sand
1960, Something Weird Video
85m 40s, $10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

At first glance, this dubbed desert adventure might not look too different than any other arid jeeps-and-camels eyesore you might have found playing in a 3:00am slot on one of your local television stations back in the early 1970s. However, there is real historical significance here: directed by Raphael Nussbaum, BLAZING SAND was the first post-war co-production between West Germany and Israel. Think of that: less than fifteen years after the Holocaust, these countries had found a way to move beyond their horrible shared past and embark on hopes toward a more fortunate shared future. Yet, with the passing of time, it has come to be remembered primarily as the acting debut of Daliah Lavi - credited onscreen as "Daliah Lawie."

She plays Dina, a snobbish arrogant Israeli beauty who dances in a nightclub frequented by her "theatrical" friends, four of whom - including her boyfriend, Marco - recently crossed the desert into forbidden, heavily guarded Jordan, where they went to the ancient city of Citra intending to loot an ancient crypt of its fabled scrolls, the originals of actual Biblical texts in the hand of King Solomon. When only one of the men returns, empty-handed, he is shot on sight by Israeli border guards and dies in hospital - but not before telling Dima that Marco is alive and that the scrolls she was hoping would fund their getaway to a better life are in his possession. Dina resolves to mount a rescue mission and approaches Saddik, a slick would-be playboy type of means, and manages to seduce him into financing the expedition without really giving him anything other than empty promises in return. She also turns the charm on local war hero David Rodin (Abraham Eisenberg, a kind of junior league Brad Harris), whose heart belongs to the earnest farm girl Hannah (Gila Almagor); he rejects Dina but accepts her invitation to lead the group, which is filled out by Saddik, a klutzy college boy named Mike (at one point, he tries to start a campfire by rubbing two sticks together when there is a blazing torch right beside him), and Julius (Gert Gunther Hoffmann), the local school's professor of archaeology. They form quite a motley group and comparisons to Doc Savage's "Fabulous Five" would not be far amiss. Posing as a Bedoin caravan, with Dina riding a donkey and cradling a blanketed doll, they manage to reach their destination - "All Shots Have Been Taken On the Original Scene of Action" the credits tell us - but the trouble is in getting out.

For a film with such a weighty historical distinction, and a storyline encompassing so much struggle and tragedy, the overall feeling it projects is surprisingly whimsical, and the dubbing lends a comic dimension that one can't be sure was always present in the original. (While investigating the interior of Cintra's Temple of the High Priests, with everyone examining solid walls for possible secret passages, the torch-bearing Julius suddenly finds a huge hole in one wall and cries "I think I've found the entrance!" Also, Dina is variously addressed during the film as Tina, Nina and even Lina!) In some ways the real storyline is Dina's character arc from a cynical, superior, manipulative person to someone willing to take the ultimate responsibility for others and a common cause. 

Making her debut at age 20, Lavi is somewhat more full-figured here than the lean, lithe-figured star she soon became, and she's made to wear a procession of unflattering outfits, even a singularly ugly bikini. Statuesque and sultry she may be, but she doesn't quite have a firm grip on acting yet - she has a hard time making eye contact with her co-stars - but, especially once the action moves from the general kibbutz setting to the desert, we can see her gaining ease and even some command in relation to the camera.

Considering how lightweight the film really is, it builds to a surprisingly solemn pay-off that philosophizes that maybe  people, like things, belong where God has put them. Though made at a time well before the downbeat endings that would gain favor in Britain and America by the end of the decade, it leaves us with many more characters dead than alive. In its tragic closing shots, BLAZING SAND seems to propose that life is a dangerous game and that mere survival is nothing to sneeze at.
 
This film is an important reminder that Something Weird Video's eye for the oddities of cinema is all-embracing and not strictly limited to grindhouse fare. BLAZING SANDS is not a great film and doesn't clearly adhere to any proper genre that we recognize here; however, it is an international co-production of some historical note, and marks the arrival of an important new star. While the presentation here is hardly definitive, it serves as a valuable bookmark that could well encourage a more definitive restoration someday.

You can order BLAZING SAND or any other Something Weird release from PayPal by addressing your order information and payment to somethingweirdauctions@gmail.com, or by addressing a check or money order directly to SWV, PO Box 33664, Seattle WA 98133.


(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Joe Sarno's THE WALL OF FLESH reviewed

THE WALL OF FLESH
1968, Something Weird Video
88 minutes
$10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

The last of three features filmed back-to-back in the New York City loft apartment of Morris Kaplan (the others were ALL THE SINS OF SODOM and VIBRATIONS - now available in a 2K Blu-ray DVD set from Film Movement),  THE WALL OF FLESH is still more of a minimalist production, one that harkens back to earlier Sarno films such as SIN IN THE SUBURBS (1964, VW 24:23) and RED ROSES OF PASSION (1966, VW 85:15) in that it concerns repressed individuals who join cults, giving themselves over to a collective mentality, as a means of unblocking themselves sexually. 

The film begins almost mid-sentence as married couple Art (Dan Machuen) and Vera Coleman (Maria Lease) are enjoying a post-meal conversation with Vera's office co-worker Nancy Horner (Nina Forster, uncredited) and her sister Lauri (Lita Coleman), an "aspiring" anthropologist recently returned from South America, where she studied the living and mating habits of a primitive native tribe. When she mentions that some of the natives' sexual problems could only be cured by group rituals, Art responds with interest while Vera seems repelled - a response that makes more sense after the guests' departure, when Vera is shown responding coldly and without pleasure to her husband's attempts at lovemaking. Her problem is somehow rooted in her resentment of Art's decision to stay at home to pursue a writing career (for which she secretly doesn't believe he has any talent), while she has been forced into the workaday world to support him.


Maria Lease and Dan Machuen.
In a flurry of appropriately claustrophobic scenes that alternate between only three small, cramped rooms - and which could well be fewer with minor redressing (Art and Vera's living room and bedroom, and the bedroom of the single-room apartment shared by the two sisters) - Vera quickly reaches the point where she can no longer bear Art's touch, even when she guiltily invites it; Nancy - a recovering nymphomaniac who's had to change her ways after a rough illegal abortion - becomes obsessed with Art; and the bisexual Lauri betrays her sister's interest by making a play for Art herself, which he more readily accepts. Lauri also becomes a confidante of Vera, whom she directs to the private therapy sessions of her former lover Jennifer Taggart (Cherie Winters), which turn out to be group sex sessions that addict those participating, not only to group intimacy but also to Jennifer's own dominant persona. Lauri's introductory presence at Vera's early sessions prevents her from making her own intended departure from the city, a knowing gesture of self-sacrifice that sucks her back into a lifestyle and romance she had deliberately fled as far as the jungles of South America.

This film was assembled with conspicuously lesser means than its predecessors. As mentioned, the sets are severely limited, so much so that Lauri has to be shown working on her anthropology thesis in windy public places; when she goes to enter Vera in Jennifer's classes, there is no waiting room set, so she is shown leaning against a wall and reading a magazine in tight close-up, a composition into which Jennifer somehow enters. It frankly doesn't sound like it would work, but the characters and the drama of their situations holds the viewer and the story flows without disruption. Sarno's script, though hampered by the scenic limitations imposed, is innovative for the ways it surprises the familiar viewer's expectations. The outsider here (Lauri) is atypical of such figures in his other work; though she does interfere in a marriage, the sensitive Art's strength of character (a particularly well-played facet of Machuen's performance) doesn't permit her to seduce him until Vera is, to some degree, already lost to him. Lauri doesn't cause the usual divisiveness and destruction common to Sarno's intruder characters but rather sacrifices herself, in order to guide other people, about whom she cares, to a place where they find themselves more fulfilled.

Dan Machuen and Marianne Prevost.
Also remarkable about THE WALL OF FLESH is that Sarno opts not to take any editorial position on the interpersonal dynamics taking place, a problem he subverts by introducing the Colemans' marriage as troubled from the beginning, and by having Art - an unusual Sarno male, in that he's more sensitive than most of the women - repeatedly voice his feeling that he would rather lose Vera than have her live out her life with him unhappily. Sarno typically avoids passing any kind of judgement on his characters as their story is in progress, leaving the viewer as involved in their process as the characters themselves, and reserves any glimpse of judgment for those points where his stories end. This often leads to more conservative conclusions than the bold subject matter or the intensity with which it's pursued might lead us to expect; in this case, however, the film concludes as suddenly and abruptly as it begins, leaving the characters' respective quests for happiness not only ongoing, but, for the viewer, an open question. This seems to me a breakthrough in American erotic cinema, asserting the film's stake in matters of philosophy as well as the sexual, its execution favoring both over the merely erotic.

It should be mentioned in this context that THE WALL OF FLESH was possibly the first of Sarno's American films to break through certain earlier boundaries; there is more oral-erotic contact (not oral-genital) between the actors, pubic hair is shown, and two of the female characters are shown pleasuring themselves (as in the Swedish-made INGA), though not explicitly. The introduction of masturbation as a topic, and the dramatization of women taking responsibility for their own pleasure and fulfillment, would continue in Sarno's imminent series of "vibrator" films, which began with VIBRATIONS but would become more focused in his Florida-made films ODD TRIANGLE and THE LAYOUT [reviewed VW 91:10].

Something Weird's DVD-R presents the film in full frame 1.33:1 with a bold mono track. (The slight widening of the image seen in my video grabs are an aberration of VLC and do not reflect the actual look of the disc.) The feature is accompanied by a theatrical trailer that includes a glimpse of an uncharacteristically joyous sexual encounter between the Colemans that, curiously, does not appear in SWV's print but is mentioned by Art to Lauri as a positive initial result of Vera's therapy. Whether it was cut prior to release or simply missing from this rare surviving print is not presently known.

As mentioned previously, the Something Weird Video website can be found at www.somethingweird.com, which will guide you to this and any number of other wonderful and strange purchases. However, it's not presently possible for them to accept orders there. To order, send payment by PayPal to somethingweirdauctions@gmail.com with an order and your address, or send a check or money order to SWV, PO Box 33664, Seattle WA 98133 - old school!

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


Monday, October 09, 2017

Something Weird Video's BACKWOODS DOUBLE FEATURE Reviewed

Welcome to Something Weird Video Week here on Video WatchBlog! Since the passing of SWV founder Mike Vraney in January 2014, the company responsible for finding, restoring and releasing literally hundreds of once-lost exploitation films has continued under the direction of Mike's widow, artist Lisa Petrucci.  For the last few years, while maintaining the status quo at SWV, Lisa has guided the company into some fruitful new alliances, resulting in such exciting releases as Arrow Video's SHOCK AND GORE/HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS FEAST sets,  Film Movement's Joseph W. Sarno Retrospect Series releases (most recently ALL THE SINS OF SODOM/VIBRATIONS), and the recent AGFA Blu-ray release of THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971), while the company has continued on with business-as-usual.

Something Weird's back catalogue is so richly diverse that they often obscured some of their own releases back in the days when they were releasing new titles by the dozens. And now, focusing as people tend to do on what's new, it seems to me that there's a real danger of taking this abundance of rare product (more than 2,000 titles!) for granted. So I've decided to devote this week to a celebration of Mike & Lisa's great achievement. I'm going to go back and pick out a handful of interesting, worthwhile titles that were overlooked by VIDEO WATCHDOG's print coverage over the years - their Image Entertainment DVD titles as well as their own DVD-Rs/instant downloads. Everything I'm going to write about here over the next several days very much warrants rediscovery - and it's just a fraction of the bounty awaiting you over at www.somethingweird.com.

BACKWOODS DOUBLE FEATURE:
COMMON LAW WIFE, 1963, 76m
JENNIE: WIFE/CHILD, 1968, 82m
MOONSHINE LOVE, 1970, 61m
Something Weird/Image Entertainment, DVD $14.98

"Over 3 1/2 hours of Hillbilly Hokum!"

This 2003 DVD release from Something Weird Video / Image Entertainment is billed as a double feature but actually contains three films: Eric Sayers' COMMON LAW WIFE (1963, which contains the only footage from an unreleased early Larry Buchanan film); JENNIE, WIFE/CHILD (1968), directed by James Landis of THE SADIST and THE FLESH EATERS fame; and - hidden away in the extras - MOONSHINE LOVE (1969), a film by the unknown Lester Williams which is conspicuously more explicit than either of the two main features, and also went by such demure alternate titles as SOD SISTERS and HEAD FOR THE HILLS.

COMMON LAW WIFE is a little-known but classic example of a compromised feature film, reworked for commercial and exploitative purposes. It began as an early film by Texas-based maverick filmmaker Larry Buchanan (THE NAKED WITCH, MARS NEEDS WOMEN, GOODBYE NORMA JEAN) entitled SWAMP ROSE, which had starred the elderly George Edgely and middle-aged Anne MacAdams as Texas oil magnate Shugfoot Rainey and his live-in mistress Linda, whom the millionaire abruptly dumps in favor of New Orleans stripper Baby Doll, played by an attractive young lead named Lacey Kelly. This then compels Linda to assert her hold over Uncle Shug by legally confirming herself as his common law wife. The film had been shot in color back in 1960 but was never released.


The footage was acquired by producer-distributor Michael A. Ripps, best-remembered for acquiring a slimly-released independent item called BAYOU and transforming it into POOR WHITE TRASH, and later sexing-up Roger Corman's THE INTRUDER and pulling it into overdue profit by retitling it I HATE YOUR GUTS. Ripps hired local amateur filmmaker Eric Sayers to make Buchanan's film (apparently focused on the middle-aged angst angle) racier and more exploitable. He proceeded to reshoot large chunks of it - adding an incestuous angle (Baby Doll was now the oil baron's niece, one he sexually corrupted in her childhood), an affair with the town's local sheriff (he's married to Baby Doll's sister), a rape at the hands of a moonshiner, and more. Sayers had nothing of Buchanan's ability, so COMMON LAW WIFE "crosses the line" like crazy, and the old and new footage cuts back-and-forth with absolutely no sense of rhythm - but as an example of what can sometimes happen to a film to make it "more commercial," it's a fascinating diversion for cinephiles. You see, Sayers was able to retain the services of some erstwhile cast members like Anne MacAdams and George Edgely, but Lacey Kelly was no longer available for reshoots. Therefore, the all-important role of "Baby Doll" is played in the final cut, with Buchanan's color footage dumbed-down to grainy black-and-white, by two completely different women. Ms. Kelly's unnamed replacement is disguised in some early shots with sunglasses and a series of preposterous hats, but it's ultimately a fact impossible to cover up.



For all that, I must confess that this impossible-to-conceal fact did nevertheless get by me; while the shots of Baby Doll flouncing around in obvious disguise did seem suspicious, I never cottoned to the fact that the film actually had the gall to present me with two different Baby Dolls in tight facial closeup till I listened to Buchanan's audio commentary, moderated by Nathaniel Thompson. Once I did notice, it was obvious - and I have little doubt that drive-in audiences never caught on. At any rate, someone ought to double-bill this one with Buñuel's THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE someday.


Though I'm unaware of any tales of post-production woe having been passed down to us about James Landis' JENNIE, WIFE/CHILD, it carries some tell-tale markings of a director losing control of his project. Furthermore, the IMDb tells us that two different directors were involved and that neither of them is credited; the other being Robert Carl Cohen - listed only as being "in charge of production." Made in 1968, and therefore more generous in terms of nudity than its companion feature, it's a sometimes startlingly well-made picture, a kind of hillbilly retelling of Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Middle-aged Albert Peckingpaw (Jack Lester) owns a farm and is married to the much-younger Jennie (Beverly Lundsford), who finds herself stifling from loneliness in the domestic cage her husband has made for her. She becomes attracted to the farmhand, the unlikely-named Mario Dingle (Jack Leader), who's stupid but smitten and tender toward her, and lust leads them to commit acts that draw her husband's ire and compel them to still worse acts.  As with Landis' earlier film, the cult favorite THE SADIST (1965), JENNIE: WIFE/CHILD was photographed in black-and-white by Hungarian immigrant Vilmos Zsigmond, who went on to become one of the most justly celebrated cameramen in the world (DELIVERANCE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, BLOW OUT, THE DEER HUNTER) so it looks gorgeous throughout, and it also features a score by Davie Allen and the Arrows (THE WILD ANGELS) as well as their surprise on-screen participation. What is odd about the film as it finally stands is that much of the score feels ill-suited to the American Gothic film Landis made, and the dramatic moods he painstakingly creates are abruptly cut-off with ironic intertitle cards that cast the overall picture into a bizarre Brechtian tense, underscoring the distance between the viewer and the unfolding tragedy. I liked what I saw, but I strongly suspect there is a behind-the-scenes story here, waiting to be told, and a much better film that never saw the light of day. Visually, the film belongs very much in the same category as BABY DOLL and SPIDER BABY:









The bonus third feature in the set, Lester Williams' MOONSHINE LOVE, is a fairly amateurish film that opens with a credit sequence emphasizing its professionalism with an array of behind-the-scenes production shots. It's about a bank heist (staged in a Woolworth's parking lot, no less) that goes awry, leaving the mastermind high and dry while one of the two hired perpetrators (Tim E. Lane) - the one in possession of the stolen money - not only loses it but also his memory when he takes a tumble from the escaping vehicle. He is saved by a couple of mountain women (one of them speaks with a pronounced German accent, without explanation) who live with their moonshining father in the woods, in incestuous abandon. One of the moonshiner's daughters (Lil, played by "Breedge McCoy") speaks with a pronounced German accent, for no more apparent reason than she was agreeable to doing nudity and being manhandled. Neither of the daughters are what you'd call pretty, but Genie Palmer, the probably pseudonymous actress who plays Jeannie, gifts the production with some surprisingly candid eroticism in a scene where, without a hint of self-consciousness or performing to camera, she treats a carrot as a sex toy - and really seems in intimate communication with it. She also has an extended love-making scene with Lane that, while technically softcore, conjures real heat and seems no less than genuine.



This "Backwoods" release is almost 14 years old now, but the disc was very well-mastered and, aside from some unavoidable scratches and splices, the picture quality upscales extremely well on Blu-ray players. (Larry Buchanan is clearly impressed by what he sees in the course of his commentary.) The other extras are limited to an amusing extended trailer for COMMON LAW WIFE that follows the example of Hitchcock's trailer for PSYCHO, with an unnamed announcer telling us about this film - too shocking for him to show any scenes from the actual picture - while standing in a sleazy motel room of the sort wherein, he tells us, the film opens. (The film does no such thing, opening in a New Orleans strip club.) There's also a "gallery of roadshow exploitation art with audio oddities," about eight minutes in length, and this is also a rare release that rewards reading the chapter titles with a few laughs - even before you watch the movies.

Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird Video has asked me to pass along the following info: While the Something Weird website remains available for your perusal, it is presently not possible for place an order directly from it. For the present, the ONLY way people can order from SWV is to send payment by PayPal to somethingweirdauctions@gmail.com with an order and their address, or the old-school way of sending a check or money order to SWV, PO Box 33664, Seattle WA 98133.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.