Friday, September 18, 2020

CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH reviewed

IM SCHLOSS DER BLUTIGEN BEGIERDE ("In the Castle of Bloody Lust" 1969, Subkulture German import): Directed by German actor Adrian Hoven under the alias "Percy G. Parker," this Aquila Film production (co-produced by Hoven and co-star Pier M. Caminnecci and eventually released in English countries as CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH) was the fourth film in a series initiated with three Jess Franco films featuring much the same cast and crew: NECRONOMICON aka SUCCUBUS, RED LIPS - SADISTEROTICA aka TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS, and KISS ME MONSTER. By the time Franco had completed those three, NECRONOMICON had caught the attention and admiration of producer Harry Alan Towers, who invited Franco to step up to the experience of working with real stars and guaranteed international distribution on a series of films for him. (I suspect that Mr. Towers may have had something to do with bringing NECRONOMICON to the attention of American International, as they distributed his Commonwealth United releases and subsequently released it as SUCCUBUS through their adult subsidiary, Trans American Pictures.) Franco gladly took the bait and made 10 films for Towers over the next two years, only to discover at the end of his tether than he much preferred making films in a less expensive, freer way. Meanwhile, his former partners in Munich were left there to make the most out of their own success with this bizarre contemporary Gothic thriller, which doesn't credit Franco but certainly recycles the "mad scientist tries to revive half-dead daughter" scenario he introduced in THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF (1962), with Howard Vernon reprising the lead role - here reduced to supporting player prominence. 

Janine Reynaud and Howard Vernon.


Filmed in Austria at Burg Kreuzenstein, the same castle where Caminnecci would produce his last film (Freddie Francis' THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING, 1971) and where Mario Bava would later lens his splendidly atmospheric BARON BLOOD (1972), the story begins with a decadent bourgeois party thrown by playboy Roger de la Valière (Caminnecci, very much playing himself) where the aristocratic Baron Brack (Michel Lemoine) invites Vera Legrange (Janine Reynaud) and two other couples (including her sister Elena, played by Elvira Berndorff) to spend the weekend at his country home. Brack and Elvira arrive before the others and he takes advantage of their solitude to rape her, after which she flees to the nearest neighboring property, the castle owned by the present Count Saxon (Howard Vernon), who ends up playing host to the whole crowd when they come looking for her. The Count - the only living descendant of the original Graf Saxon, who was a notorious alchemist - is conducting experiments toward the reanimation of his long-dead daughter Katharina (Claudia Butenuth) and is shocked to see her living likeness among his young visitors. The film jumps back and forth in time, with ancient history sometimes inhabiting the same plane as the contemporary characters (who are shown as having played important past life roles in certain legends), and the sometimes soft-focus lensing shows that this distinct style introduced in SUCCUBUS may have had more to do with co-cameraman Jorge Herrero than Jess Franco.

Michel Lemoine and Reynaud. 


Married in real life in the most open way, Lemoine and Reynaud have a fascinating onscreen chemistry; it's not exactly a mutual attraction so much as a mutual fascination, and we can't help sharing it too. Lemoine (a true devotée of the fantastique who made his screen debut in a couple of José Benazeraf pictures and ended up directing French porn) had one of the most uncanny faces in Euro exploitation; he is handsome, but so extremely handsome that he borders on becoming another, more Satanic species. (In an ideal world, he would have played Prince Namor.) Reynaud is at once elegance incarnate but also has something unclassifiable about her, an insistently sexual yet ambivalent vibe that makes us wonder if she might be transexual or so attuned the female and the male within herself that she's asexual. Directors tended to keep them apart and in the arms of other actors (or adventurous producers), but when you see them together, one on one as it were, when they turn their eyes on other characters, you feel a distinct chill in the blood, a regal chill, that you sense might enjoy the power of deciding, with a mere gesture, whether you live or die - that they would laugh as you breathed your last. Here they both demonstrate their horseback-riding prowess, and Reynaud so dominates the early part of the film with her energy and her dancing, it's a bit disappointing that Vera becomes such a dishrag toward the third act. The same goes for Lemoine, who is so believable as the aristo libertine rapist, and yet he's knocked off his pedestal in the most humiliating fashion - by a woebegone actor in a moth-eaten bear suit. A mad bear is said to be haunting the mad scientist's neighborhood.  

Lemoine finds out there really is a crazy bear in the woods.












In the marvelous and English-friendly extras included with this Blu-ray disc, Hoven's widow Joyce and son Percy (who played one of the child roles in his MARK OF THE DEVIL, 1970) give us some interesting and quite necessary information about him, such as the fact that he grew tired of the popular leading man roles he played in the 1950s and once went to the extent of shaving his head to declare his independence from public expectations of him. He wanted to play offbeat characters and make equally offbeat films, but he also suffered from a weak heart and this played hob with the fact that he could only get the roles he wanted when he was also producing and directing, resulting in a workload that overtaxed his heart and eventually claimed his life at the age of 58 in 1981. Before that, he'd suffered many strokes and more than one heart attack - and we see the fear he lived with take literal form in this film in the shape of inserted surgical footage of a pacemaker being implanted in a human heart. It is also intercut with an extended sex scene between Reynaud and Caminnecci, who were in fact involved in an open extramarital affair at the time, which lends the footage a sense of sexual dread, if not outright sexual panic. (It should be noted that the nudity here is noticeably more prolonged and explicit than in SUCCUBUS, which has a somewhat bewildering reputation as a bold, erotic film.) There is also a hectic, antic quality about the filmmaking here, which is quite uneven and subject to peculiar jolts of changing mood, the one constant being the about interpolations of lush, syrupy arrangements of classical themes by Chopin and others, which we learn were ripped from the vinyl copies in Hoven's own record collection. So, whatever we may think of the film overall - and I think it's an enjoyable wedge of stinky cheese, the kind that goes well with the right wine and the right company - it can't be said that it was impersonally made. It's actually very consistent with the later films we know to be Hoven's, such as the two MARK OF THE DEVIL films. (His family explain in detail that the first film was only briefly directed by Michael Armstrong and that Hoven replaced him after the first few days, though Armstrong retained credit by contract.) They are all marked, so to speak, with contrasts of horror and schmaltzy Bavarian beauty, episodic structure, and a tendency to overstatement. 

The extras include half-hour Q&A with the Hovens conducted by Uwe Huber at a screening of MARK OF THE DEVIL, an additional private interview with them strictly concerning this film, a tour of the film's locations, Percy Hoven's introduction to the film, German and English trailers, an optional alternative title sequence, and a choice of English or German soundtracks with optional English subtitles. I believe this disc was released as much as five years ago, but I just found out about it - by accidentally acquiring what appears to be a BD-R bootleg from an eBay seller. It didn't include the locations tour.  

   

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

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Jess Franco's SHINING SEX reviewed


SHINING SEX (1975, Severin Films):
Behind this brazen exploitation title is one of Jess Franco's few forays into science fiction and a study in what we would now term "body horror" surprisingly contemporaneous with David Cronenberg's feature directorial debut SHIVERS aka THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (1975).

Made back-to-back with MIDNIGHT PARTY, a fourth-wall breaking spoof of the autobiographical porn star films being made at the time, this one stars Lina Romay in the similar role of Cynthia, an exotic dancer whose personal services are procured for a private party by a mysterious couple named Alpha and Andros (Evelyne Stewart, Ramón Ardíd), who turn out to be a visiting alien and a human under her hypnotic control who functions as her "Morpho," or servant. In an eerily clinical blending of storylines from THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z (1966) and SUCCUBUS (1968), after experiencing earthly sex with her captive (whose steep learning curve for the alien woman provides most of its dramatic interest), Alpha applies an otherworldly lotion to Cynthia's shaved genitals (observed in loving close-ups), then turns her loose on the three known people who have been psychically sensitive enough to discover her presence on Earth, who happen to be a female mystic (Monica Swinn), anthropologist Dr. Kallmann (Olivier Mathot, who has taken to hiding somewhere remote, "maybe Africa"), and the wheelchair-bound scholar Professor Seward (Franco himself), a wheelchair-bound scholar. 

Though not technically hardcore, SHINING SEX will pose certain problems for those viewers who shy away from gynecological detail, which is fairly persistent and in a strange way actually enhances Romay's character's sense of innocence and vulnerability. While the film has its ups and downs (the latter including a lengthy portion of the film that documents Cynthia's pursuit of Dallmann on a boat that essentially circles a small harbor before returning to the exact same spot!), there are moments when an inexplicable and stunning magic suddenly takes hold. In Cynthia's death tryst with the mystic Madame Pécame, the imagery suddenly locks in a perfect and uncanny iconography, and in the long, silent penthouse scenes involving Cynthia and her two captors, Franco achieves a sustained mood from no-budget elements which evokes memories of the more costly alien scenes shot for Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (released the year after, 1976). The title is derived from a side-effect of Cynthia's bodily contamination, which gradually causes her nubile form to erupt in sparkling cells of disease and contagion, what a character in Val Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE called "the glitter of putrescence"- as arresting an image of lethal contagion as you can imagine. As ever, Romay gives herself body and soul to Franco's camera, and sometimes, at the dramatic height of a moment, you can believe you see her eyes searching out his. It's said that it was during the making of this film that their professional relationship took its fateful, more personal turn.  

Madame Pécame makes Cynthia more comfortable.


Severin's Blu-ray disc (2:39:1, English mono) is far better-looking than the various grey-market sources that have been kicking around, but the source element has its limitations, including a little too much cyan in its color grading which turns the pure reds ever so slightly purple. The audio is limited to a cheesy English-dubbed option (previously available only on a Japanese VHS release), which is rare but undoubtedly less ideal than French with English subtitles would be; that said, the disc does offer English-speaking fans the opportunity to focus solely on the images, which are a sometimes fascinating mélange of the spellbinding and the uncomfortable. The extras include the third in an illuminating series of locations visits with Franco expert Stephen Thrower (who goes to Madrid, visits actor Antonio Mayans, and gets to cradle the urn holding Jess' cremains), who also lectures on the film in a separate featurette; interviews with French filmmaker Gerard Kikoïne (who edited several Franco films without ever meeting the man); Eurociné producer Daniel Lesoeur; and BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF director Christophe Gans, who speaks at length and with great passion about how and why he became an admirer of Franco's work. There is also an audio commentary provided by I'm In A Jess Franco State of Mind blogger Robert Monell and Naschycast host Rod Barnett, which makes this bounty of supplements a pleasurable evening of its own.

The cover makes erroneous mention of an included audio CD of Daniel J. White soundtrack music that was actually included solely as part of a pre-order package (if you missed this, check eBay and pay dearly), but this is nevertheless a great and nutritious bounty of content added to one of Franco's most notable later films. I remain hopeful of an English-friendly French release some day, but even if you're half the Franco fan I am, this is an essential and rewarding package.        

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

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Friday, September 04, 2020

For Her Book Only

Circa 1967, Sean Connery's then-wife, actress Diane Cilento, published her first novel, THE MANIPULATOR. I remember seeing her on a talk show at that time, and that the interviewer mentioned that the cover painting was the work of a certain notable artist, prompting her to reveal that it was the work of her husband, Sean Connery - who was still James Bond at that time. This memory just came back to me after 50+ years and I have no idea how generally well-known this information may be. That said, should this be news to you, here are two views of Sean's original artwork. The book is supposed to be a kind of exposé of the movie business and is actually dedicated to Connery. I think it would make a nifty conversation piece in any Bond collection.


.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2020

More Notes on GUNSMOKE: From Season 5


I've seen some other memorable GUNSMOKE episodes lately from Season 5, none better than "Odd Man Out" (d. Andrew V. McLaglen), a truly Poe-like story about a strange little man (well cast with Elisha Cook Jr.) living on the edge of town who hasn't been doing so well since his wife went to visit her sister. It later comes out in a confession to Marshal Dillon that she left him, after more than 30 years of marriage. As his bachelor behavior becomes more and more noticeably unhinged, he's noticed selling his wife's old clothes to a local merchant... and then someone reports seeing him digging behind his house, a hole the average size of a grave. There turns out to be a reasonable explanation for everything, but the bulk of the episode has macabre intonations. 

"Thick 'n' Thin" (d. Stuart Heisler) was the story of what to all appearances is the series' first gay couple (Percy Helton! Robert Emhardt!), who share a ranch house just outside Dodge and initiate a murderous drama feud because they can no longer bear to eat each others' cooking!


I was also especially fond of "The Boots" (d. Jesse Hibbs), in which John Larch plays a former gunfighter turned alcoholic who spirals into a complete breakdown when the umpteenth young pretender shows up to take him on. Little Richard Eyer (the genie from 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD) plays an orphaned boy that the gunfighter has taken under his wing, who stands to lose everything if he can't rouse himself out of this nosedive. This kid could act when he had to.

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