Saturday, May 30, 2020

Birthday With the Big G

It's my 64th birthday today, May 30th. After Donna went to bed this evening and left me to celebrate alone, I felt a sudden strong urge to revisit the film that was once known as GODZILLA VS. THE THING. I watched a bit of the English version but then switched to the Japanese, MOSURA TAI GOJIRA. Watching it again, I realized that it was one of my favorite childhood memories - I actually saw it four times in one weekend back in 1964. (I guess I was revisiting 1964 From the new vantage of 64.) The Japanese version is not just the best story of all the Toho films, with arguably the best monster effects of the bunch, it is a reprimand addressed to all politicians, businessmen, and military leaders (not least of all their own) whose decisions betray the common good with selfish, divisive dreams of avarice and conquest. Godzilla here is the incarnation or result of misguided power, while Mothra epitomizes green peace, Mother Nature. I found it not just nostalgic but profoundly moving, due in no small part to the purity of Eiji Tsubaraya’s special effects, Akira Ifukube’s heart-wrenching score, and the sweet duets of the Peanuts.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Big Pink From Third Window

British Blu-ray label Third Window Films has initiated a new series of "pink" double features to bring some of the more interesting examples of Japanese erotic cinema to a broader audience in the west. For those in need of further background, "pink" films were introduced in Japan in the mid 1950s and were so called because they aspired to compete with Scandanavian cinema of the time by featuring incidental nudity. They didn't really flourish until the early 1960s, when they became rougher as well as a Trojan Horse of sorts for exposing radical stylistics and political content to their unsuspecting public.

Third Window's PINK FILMS VOL. 1 + 2 (Region Free) provides inescapable evidence that the "pink" movement was not just about arousing its audience but also challenging them, not only in terms of what it was possible to depict onscreen but also in terms of genre-hopping, wild (even mad) filmic experimentation, and conveying bold political messages. Included in this first set are Atsushi Yamatoya's memorably titled INFLATABLE SEX DOLL OF THE WASTELANDS (Kôya no Dacchi waifu, 1967; listed on the IMDb as DUTCH WIFE IN THE DESERT) and Masao Adachi's GUSHING PRAYER (Funshutsu kigan - 15-sai no baishunfu, 1971 - to which the IMDb adds the subtitle "A 15-YEAR-OLD PROSTITUTE"). Approached simply as films, without predominantly carnal expectations, both films show a noticeable affiliation with the French nouvelle vague, where nudity was also intermittently found; while they both have their moments, they are not sexually arousing so much as wildly inventive and intellectually invigorating.

Yuichi Minato is weaned away from his gun by the amorous Noriko Tatsumi.
Yamatoya's INFLATABLE SEX DOLL OF THE WASTELANDS would make an interesting companion piece to Riccardo Freda's DOUBLE FACE. It's essentially film noir, filmed in B&W scope, and tells the story of Sho (Yuichi Minato), a private detective and expert marksman, who is hired by businessman Naka (Masayoshi Nogami) to rescue his kidnapped fiancée Mina (Miki Watari) from her abductor, gangster Ko - also known as "The Flying Dagger" (Shohei Yamamoto). Ko has been periodically torturing Naka and Mina's aging, gibbering father by sending them 16mm films that show her being manhandled and raped by hooded men. The father has been driven so far around the bend by filial remorse and inadvertent lust that he's become neurotically attached to (not-so-inflatable) department store mannequin he uses as an adult pacifier, or sex doll. Sho's path to Mina - which comes with a next-day deadline of 3:00pm - is barred with danger, obstructed by the seductive ploys of Ko's moll Sae (Noriko Tatsumi), and fraught with increasing delirium leading to erotic fantasies concerning his bond with his possibly-dead quarry.

Director Yamatoya is best-remembered as the screenwriter of Seijun Suzuki's gangster masterpiece BRANDED TO KILL, and he made this film in tandem with another, the brazenly titled AMOROUS LIQUID aka LOVE'S MILKY DROPS (Tajo na nyueki, 1967). He was obviously very much under the spell of Godard's ALPHAVILLE when he made this; there are individual shots that could easily be shuffled into the earlier work without detection, and Sho is very much an Eastern Lemmy Caution, gumshoe in a cheap hat, wearing a wrinkled raincoat over a jacket and a necktie dickie. Yamamoto mixes his fictional narrative with documentary shots of his actors moving through documentary street scenes, which exert a quite different fascination of their own, and he reaches for some startling effects concerning the presentation of action and violence. At one point, a suitcase is flung so that it accidentally wings the camera, and the accident is left in; in another moment, a group of thugs bursting through our hero's barricades are shown in different feigned freeze-frame positions, incrementally advanced and adjusted as he sizes up his options for retaliation. The closer Sho comes to finding Mina, the more Yamatoya's technique adopts the technical recklessness of the home movies documenting her abuse. While I can't say the film's story is particularly memorable or even clear, it's a fascinating document and - for all its deliberate ugliness - appealing in the way it subverts its hardboiled drama into a kind of delirious poem about alienation and the need for human contact. Yosuke Yamashita's score adds a lot to the experience, heaping on some splashy, wailing, free jazz very much in the vein of John Coltrane's Quartet.

Aki Sasaki as the tragic heroine of GUSHING PRAYER.
The second feature, GUSHING PRAYER, is very much the other side of the coin. A more serious film, its protagonist Yasuko Aoyagi (Aki Sasaki) is not what we assume from the designation "15 Year Old Prostitute." First of all, she is not at all your typical 15 year old, as the non-stop conversations between her and her three best friends Koichi (Hiroshi Saito), Yoko (Makiko Kim), and Bill (Yuji Aoki) are intellectual, philosophical, and rigorous. In fact, their discourse is so relentless and mutually bullying, especially toward Yasuko (ironically the most sexually experienced of the group) that it attains a kind of abstraction separated from anything warm-blooded. They are also anti-sex, despite a shared sexual obsession induced by their young bodies and inherent friskiness, with the four of them determined to find ways within their rebellious fellowship of "beating" sex (which they perceive as a commercialized invention of predatory adults) and finding a way back in touch with their natural feelings. Yasuko would seem to have little chance of attaining this goal as, at 15, she finds herself pregnant from a covert relationship with one of her teachers (Shiganori Noda). The sometimes conflicting dogma of her fellows, not to mention her elders, makes it difficult for her to decide what her options are for the future.

Director Masao Adachi (still active as of 2016) was one of the more dedicated writers and directors of the pink cinema movement, having written the scripts for Koji Wakamatsu's reasonably well exported THE EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET (1966), VIOLATED ANGELS (1967), and GO, GO, SECOND TIME VIRGIN (1969), sometimes working under the alias "Izuru Deguchi." What he achieves with GUSHING PRAYER is anything but erotic; there is nudity and a few instances of animal rutting between people but we are only made to feel distanced from it and somewhat repelled and confused by it and what unsated greed or curiosity drives those involved.

Like its co-feature, GUSHING PRAYER takes advantage of some documentary locations where we see its characters passing among real people, and the silent spaces between forward jumps in the narrative are filled with quotations - tragic, despairing yet still inquisitive, and sometimes poetic - from the suicide notes of various teenagers, male and female. Filmed in black-and-white scope that occasionally jolts into bold color duotones (again, showing a debt to Godard) and a couple of shifts into full, if somewhat anemic, color, this is very much related to such grim teenage tragedies as Uli Edel's CHRISTIANE F. (1981) - and if its vomiting scenes are comparatively coy, at least one other instance of graphic body horror may serve you more than you're ready to see.

Both films are newly remastered and show just enough faint surface abrasion in places to remind us that these bizarre creations were actually shown to audiences in theaters, once upon a time. There is no commentary or essay material mentioned as part of this set, which would have provided some helpful context; however, Third Window has obtained the indispensable services of BEHIND THE PINK WINDOW author Jasper Sharp for their next round, which streets next week on May 25. VOLUME 3 + 4 will feature Masayuki Suo's ABNORMAL FAMILY (1984) and Kan Asai's BLUE FILM WOMAN - which I hope to write about soon. Here's a promotional image to tide you over, as well as this helpful link to more information.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Misery of Marie Roget

Found a somewhat blurry copy of Phil Rosen's Universal B-picture THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET in my DVD-R collection and decided to give it a spin. I hadn't seen it since childhood and all I could remember of it were shots of a racing horse drawn carriage - which turns out to be because it's virtually the only thing in the film that's not talk. 

The movie opens with a discerning hand plucking a thick hardcover copy of Poe's short story from a piddling display of classic literature. The first thing the 60-minute film shows us is a Paris newspaper headline exclaiming the murder of Marie Roget - a simple perfume salesgirl in the story, but here an exotic music hall singer who is the toast of Paris! "Prefecture of Police BAFFLED!" we are informed. But Maria is soon revealed to be still alive, not the dead disfigured girl dredged up from the Seine. She and her sister's fiancée are plotting to murder her sister, a plan overheard by the grandmother who asks our hero Pierre Dupin to protect her. Dupin, the character Leon Ames (as Leon Waycoff) played in 1932's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, is played by the woefully bland Patric Knowles and he's continually being congratulated on solving that legendary case. The evil Maria's musicality is explained by the fact that Universal cast Maria Montez in the title role; but what is not so easily explained is that Maria is the granddaughter of Maria Ouspenskaya and the sister of Nell O'Day - so the three members of the Roget family living under the same roof have wildly different accents - and not one of them French! 

Nelly O'Day, Lloyd Corrigan, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya and John Litel.
The other French roles are played by those beloved Gallic performers Lloyd Corrigan, John Litel, and (as a zoo keeper) Charles Middleton. Corrigan is the foolish Prefect ("Pre-fey") of Police, who has to be reminded more than once in his impulsive attempts to arrest people that it would help to have an airtight case against the suspects first. He gabs so relentlessly and pointlessly he must have been paid by the word; his fussy, comic, impatient window dressing crowds the film so badly that our hero-genius Dupin is reduced to standing around mixing chemicals and slyly testing theories he confides in neither the Prefect nor the audience, so his general lack of charisma is compounded by the no more than vague sketch we're given of this celebrated detective. The movie lifts whenever Madame Ouspenskaya puts him in his place. At a party, Maria makes everyone swoon by singing an interminable song in Spanish. When someone tries to poison her and Dupin (perhaps a music critic), it looks like Phil Rosen himself stepped up to tap the powder into their untended drinks. In a last act confession of creative bankruptcy, Dupin deduces that the cause of the shared facial disfigurementa of the female murder victims is a common hand garden rake - the very same prop used as the signature weapon of the killers in Universal's THE SCARLET CLAW and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, made around the same time. The film's only persuasive whiff of France comes from a climactic rooftop chase as Dupin and the Prefect chase the skulking shadow figure from HORROR ISLAND over the rooftops of Paris. His defeat doesn't bring us much closure; we're told who this cloaked phantom is by name, but we're not given a shot of his face to confirm which of the cast members he was.

On the very narrow plus side is some occasionally striking photography by Elwood Bredell (THE MUMMY'S HAND, HELLZAPOPPIN!, PHANTOM LADY), which must be even better served by a proper presentation. Entertaining in its general ineptitude, and the inability of the actors to speak either believable English OR French, I'm sure the reason why my childhood memories of THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET are so limited is that it must have driven me to raid the refrigerator.

Having fallen back on my old DVD-R out of mistaken desperation, I now see that it's been available from Universal since 2014 as part of their Vault Series. If my notes have intrigued you, you can find it here.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 11, 2020


Rudolph Schündler, Richard Oswald, and Conrad Veidt.

I had never seen either version before, so I was delighted to find the 1919 silent and 1932 sound versions of Richard Oswald’s seminal horror anthology UNHEIMLICHEN GESCHICHTEN (EERIE TALES) on YouTube. The silent version contains five stories, the sound version three (or four, it's hard to tell), both incorporating Poe’s “The Black Cat” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club.” The 1919 version is quite impressive; I think 1919 feels longer ago in the past because it links us to period films more often than not, but EERIE TALES (while covering different time periods) is surprisingly contemporary in its filmmaking techniques, production design, and the close attention it pays to facial acting. Three archetypal figures - The Flirt, The Devil, and Death (respectively Anita Berber, Rudolph Schündler, and Conrad Veidt) - step out of their portraits, which adorn the walls of a used book store, frightening the owner and taking over the shop, availing themselves of stories in the books on display. 

Schündler, Berber, and Veidt as Literature's arcana of Evil. 

This unholy three appear in each of the stories, as different characters but sometimes within the same archetype, providing the actors with chances to flaunt their dramatic range. Veidt is predictably remarkable, but Schündler is a revelation. His Devil is a clear antecedent of the Lugosi vampire image, with his black cape, pasty face, and widow’s peak; his crazy husband character in the first story is the actual prototype of the aptly-named Cousin Eerie (!); and Peter Lorre clearly had his performance in mind when he essayed the same role on Roger Corman’s TALES OF TERROR almost 50 years later. The closing story, an original by Oswald told in verse, shows the chameleonic Veidt in a performance that serves as a dry run for his celebrated Gwynplaine/Lord Clancharlie in 1928's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. In a surprising early gesture of auteurism, Oswald shares the screen briefly at the outset of the film in celebration of his partnership with the two principal actors. 

Domestic discord as mise en scène in the 1932 version.

The silent version is among the best of its kind, but the 1932 sound version (sometimes called THE LIVING DEAD) may be even better; I think there’s a good case to be made that it’s also the first feature-length surrealist work. Its stroke of genius is that the stories are presented as a single fluid entity; there is no framing device as in the previous version, so the stories flow one into the next like twists in an already delirious tale. It opens with Paul Wegener (THE GOLEM), truly a great and versatile horror star, starring in an adaptation of the subsequently oft-filmed “The Black Cat,” a touchy inventor who murders his wife, whose final scream is overheard by crusading on-the-spot reporter Frank Briggs (Harald Paulsen). Rather than submit to inescapable arrest as in the Poe story, Wegener (whose character is given no name other than Mörder, or Murderer) escapes the police and hides amid the figures in a waxworks. The film is said to consist of only three stories, but this waxworks segment has the feel of an uncredited fourth. Briggs trails Mörder to this shrine to dead criminals and their fistfight culminates in a switch being thrown that activates the figures' mechanical movements. Lots of creaky thrills before our villain wriggles his way out of yet another arrest and inevitable execution by arranging for his commitment to an insane asylum where, as it happens, the inmates have taken over in an adaptation of Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather,” which may be the film’s highlight - it's the sort of thing we would now call Buñuelian. Wegener foils Briggs once again and disappears for six months, when he reappears as the mysterious ringleader of an ultra-sophisticated Suicide Club, in an adaptation of Stevenson’s classic story. The ultra-stylish design of this episode is almost alarming to discover in a 1932 film; its look  anticipates Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 feature version of THE BLACK CAT. The segment also includes a very Lugosi-like performance by Wegener, scenes in which he interacts with fellow GOLEM actor Ferdinand Hart (who would later essay the title role in Julien Duvivier's sound version of 1936), and an actual shot that would be repeated in Lew Landers' THE RAVEN from 1935. 
Paul Wegener - a great horror star. 

Director and co-scripter Oswald - whom I believe was the father of OUTER LIMITS director Gerd Oswald - is an under-appreciated craftsman and early horror specialist. These two films, though dealing to a fair extent with the same material, not only stand uniquely well on their own but they bear favorable comparison to most of the many horror anthologies that followed through the subsequent decades. They are both captivating entertainment, cleverly and stylishly served up, and feel more effectively organic than most of their imitators. We’re very much in need of definitive presentations of both films; they would make a marvelous double feature set.

UPDATE 05/14/2020:
Since posting the above, I have learned that YouTube also has a subtitled presentation of Richard Oswald's 1930 remake of ALRAUNE available for viewing here. Additionally, for those who haven't seen Henrik Galeen's 1927 silent original, that is also uploaded over there at this link. Both versions star Brigitte Helm, the Robotrix from METROPOLIS. The subtitles on the silent version (which also features Paul Wegener) are Russian, but if you go into Settings over there, you can reset them for Auto Translate into any language you wish.
Furthermore, from reader Volker Stieber:
"Hi, Tim - , I read your review of UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN and wanted to let you (and your readership) know that a restoration of the 1919 version was released on German DVD in 2013. It looks very nice and it is estimated to be missing only about 4 minutes. Cheers!" 

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.