Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Schlock and Aww: BC BUTCHER and the Kansas Bowling Miracle



Could our current Alt-Right Hype-Bart macho backwash moment be the last gasp of a drowning buffalo? If so, it's a comfort that what is best in man, his ability to celebrate and pay tribute to strong women, should be remembered and absorbed by the nation's upstart young things. The mighty masterpieces of switchblades and eye liner from Russ Meyer, Jack Hill, Ed Wood, Corman, Del Tenney, Waters, Arthur Marks, Sarno, and the like will live on long past that buffalo's panicked squealing, ennobling a new breed of female filmmakers like Anne Biller (THE LOVE WITCH) and most recently to my bemused, even grandfatherly eye, precocious maniac Kansas Bowling, whose entry in the burgeoning prehistoric slasher-beach party genre, BC BUTCHER, was begun when she was a mere prat, i.e. 17. Shot on bright and lovely 16mm, it's been released through Troma, and available on Amazon Prime screaming und soon ze vorld. Or not. As with so many of her favorite films (she even like Herschel Gordon Lewis! Doris Wishman! Eww!) the BUTCHER ain't exactly CITIZEN KANE, or even ONE MILLION BC or even CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. But who wants them? Where da art der?


The shirt, sez it all
Instead Bowling wisely jams in all the shit she wants, including anachronistic punk rock interludes, a THING THAT WOULDN'T DIE-style romance between hulking prehistoric monster BC (Dwayne Johnson) and the vengeful spirit of the fierce amazonian tribal leader's (Leilani Fideler) slain rival. It's a matriarchy with boys way way to the side. Only a few get any lines, and even then they come off as gay (Kaelin) or outside-time-and-space. Instead Bowling's rolled a perfect 'j' of A+ on the Bechdel Test herbal nonsense. At 52 minutes long, BUTCHER bravely dares you to dismiss it as too short for a feature, as little more than a home movie made by some bonkers hottie of the type you probably swooned after in high school - cuz she was cute and liked all the shit the nerdy boys liked, so you helped with the camera and editing, but now you're grown up, and you like big boy stuff. Sure you do. It's only because she walked away.

We need girls like Kansas, they elevate the nerds and incorporate the jocks --even the bullies (like Max in RUSHMORE with that thug Scottish tosser). The Joan of Arc savior of geek kind, Bowling's arrival on the scene is like a nascent Hill-Waters-Meyer version of John Connor, with the Terminator foe being the cookie cutter indie horror with its endless deluge of two-hander captivity dramas, torture-revenge cycles, and washed-out, wan HD video patinas. The rows of Prime streaming are choked with such things. Seek it not!

Look at her there, at left - a kind of Fiona Apple of the post-Psychotronica future, a groovy schlockmeister Joan of Arc. Blossoming natural charisma when harnessed to democratic creativity (instead of the deadening 'bubble' effect) tends to rally the troops, so your response is natural. Whole cliques and tribes rise up around such figures, leading to the question of why and when will Bowling act in her own films as, just like CITIZEN KANE is really as much about Orson as it is about Hearst, it's clear how her own charisma and cool has made a slight fan bubble around what is essentially a home movie almost lampooning her own mania for carnage. She turns the audience into somewhere between an adoring and slightly senile grandfather, and the French troops besieging 1429 Orléans we follow her into the flames, but then find her licking the walls and babbling about tiny monsters inside her skin or worse, giggling conspiratorially with her punkette peers and looking in your direction. Just be cool, man.

We see it a little bit in SUPER 8, when the boys get Elle Fanning to co-star in their sci-fi opus. Girls like Kansas are the balm of a wounded nerd soul. If they can avoid doing something stupid, liking trying to get romantic, they can ride in her crew to destiny. There's always the one, like that bassist in No Doubt, and the more they whine and try to grab the ingenue's camera gaze, the more unsightly they become. Then they just... fade... away. It's the rule. No boy should ever be so dumb - for in just asking her out he dooms the entire project. Either she says yes and now you and she alienates everyone else in the cast and crew or she says no and you sulk for the rest of the shoot, deliberately sabotage her sound mix, and otherwise darkening your once sunny resolve. These facts are inescapable, my young friend! Bowling must be free to roll. The Bowling breaks, cradles falling, all that. Joan would have lost all her powers if she started shagging some young buck in the ranks. Maybe she did anyway, but if so - she picked one who could keep his mouth shut.

If you have Prime, may I suggest you cradle BUTCHER betwixt the also-on-Prime QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS, CAVE GIRL, ADAM AND EVE MEET THE CANNIBALS, HUNDRA, etc. then it suddenly seems rather amazing. Contrast, she is surely 20/20.

As for other films by women, it would also make a good triple bill with THE LOVE WITCH and #HORROR.  Like them it's a film that bravely does what it wants, far outside the normal patriachal linear structure. For a 'prehistoric slasher film' BUCHER is not scary and, for a mostly-female cast, not sexy. It's not even very funny. In fact, it's probably somewhere between an annoying slumber party your younger sister is having upstairs, and if you fell asleep flipping back and forth between TEENAGE CAVEMAN and BEACH BLANKET BINGO after a night getting drunk outside the City Gardens All-Ages punk rock show. If that ain't your bag, Jimson, just move along. If your sister is bothering you, put on your headphones and play your stupid game.

Bowling - center - a worker among workers
TRIBAL SLEDDING: THE CITIZEN KANE CAVE

The issue revealed within BUTCHER that makes it valuable is the deep resemblance girls at a slumber party or Girl Scout camping trip have with prehistoric tribes. Packs of girlfriends going through puberty, endangered by sleazy hormonal boys hide in the shadows of the fronds like sabre tooth tigers; strength in numbers as a large order of cockblockers and final girls run routine patrols in search of stragglers keeps the group secure. The cockblocking DUFF, hated by the boys in the dead of night, but thanked the next afternoon when no one's pregnant. Despite the undercutting and man-stealing what we do see throughout BC is a kind of monkey-grooming tribal togetherness very hard to capture on film. Here the tribal fire is a kind of safety-in-numbers, but going off to be with Rex or even to look for the last girl who vanished, is to risk never coming back. In the thick woods, 20 yards away could be like a different planet. But a lot of female-helmed work seems to really overdo the victimization - as if these women were dropped into a hostile male-dominated world from out of the sky, utterly defenseless, open to attack. Nearly every movie made about some  girl involves an abusive male, father or other, as if all women warriors are molded for better or worse from the hands of men, rather than each other. Bowling's movie is way beyond that. A boy or two might play a part either as monster or object of desire tussled over between tribal girls, but in the end the men are little more than objects as seen by a 15-18 year-old girl with a pack of friends, they might stab each other in the back, but they make up as fast as they squabble.

The key difference is that, precocious or not, Bowling writes like a 16-17 year-old girl rather than beyond her years as some super genius Paul Thomas Anderson-Richard Kelly type or 19 year-old who writes like a 33 year-old, the kind where high literature seems to underwrite even the expletives, a howl of sacral chakra hunger, the airbrushed-ELO van-driving older brother cinema vs. Bowling's punk rock little sister cinema. And that's what BC is, make no mistake. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation. The things that would please BUTCHER's detractors (breasts, gore, scares, terrible jokes) would knock it back into just another topless dancer. So the average Troma-fan may heave trollish comment indignantly upon its imdb user comments just as higher-brow critics climbed over themselves with loathing for  #HORROR  and before that, TWILIGHT, or any other film that explores female psyche in its menstrual blood-drenched fury, to suggest a man isn't a woman's whole reason for existence, to show, as so few do, the interaction of women with women in ways other than competing over a man or talking about a man (re: The Bechdel Test). Despite its problems #HORROR is film I'll defend any time, its great EMA score, its chilly post-modernist art design, the privileged ennui and evil wild child pack mentality-- the whirlwind mini-lynching the kids regularly engage in as they turn en masse against each other in turn before passing the pariah badge onwards like a hot potato, it all reminds me of listening to "The Shoes of the Fisherman's Daughter are some Jive Ass Slippers" in sync with a light-sound machine while on Salvia Divinorum, and that's not easy to do. I'd rather see and hear that kind of organic madness, cohering and dissolving like salt pool eddies in an incoming or outgoing tide, rather than some white elephant 'story' any day. With Bowling it's the same as in #HORROR only different, with more love and less tech. Her characters are united against exterior threats, they might kill each other and step on each other's turn to pick the activity for 'evening theater' but they make up too. It's the kind of clique-based insecurity round-robin so intrinsic to adolescence, depending on the group leader even as they undermine her authority and steal her man' with lots of little fights and making up ebb and flow of the 'pack mind'. Phrases are repeated and expanded on as if everyone is making declarative statements for the first time, then going back over them as if to remind themselves of their character notes. Chief Neandra (Fideler) for example keeps reiterating she already killed "the beast" so there can't be a real external threat (a split second flashback shows super fast that she killed a stuffed animal).


We see some of this girl pack mentality in Biller's LOVE WITCH where Elaine tends to go for men who belong to other women, even that of her first new friend in town, or the vicious feeding frenzy of popularity hot potato chasing in #HORROR, but Bowling's script, and the charmingly amateur but naturalistic and sincere performances from the mostly all-female cast lend it a unique warmth, where the leader, Leilani, might be a little too chest-thumpingly insecure and needy, she also can check herself and make up with girls she wronged; she knows when to take credit for killing a monster before or after it's dead, but also doesn't run from the fight. She knows instinctively that the one way to beat a monster in a cave fight is to pick the fruit off his girlfriend's dead body. For his beloved is none other than the girl Leilana killed and partially devoured in the opening scene, gussied up in a weird Vorhees mom and son FRIDAY 13th PART 2-style operation. In other words, it's true love between hulking monster and vengeance-crazed corpse/ghost (laughing in black and white nightmare flashbacks in ways shockingly similar to the girl laughing at William Campbell from inside his wet canvas in BLOOD BATH).


When one of their tribe gets killed they can only look so far in these thick woods  -- the corpse could be mere feet away and there's just too many distractions. Characters kind of riff on their own insecurity like the tribe leader who's so possessive and needy of her man, unbearably fey Rex (Kato Kaelin) a seemingly mostly-gay weirdo more playful and giggly than sexy; or the anachronistic touches like Rodney 'the Mayor of the Sunset Strip' Bingenheimer and his friend Duck-Duck appearing on a rock in full 'modern' hipster clothes to introduce 'the Ugly Kids' a proto-punk band air-banding their latest hit on watermelons during the tribe's nightly story time, replete with slow mo jumps in the air like a Monkees music interlude. The costumes are all clearly cut from the fabric store by jagged scissors the way a mom might whip up a Halloween costume never meant to survive the night. And the group is regularly endangered by their tribal leader's adolescent insecurity.

The primitive milieu certainly serves the juvenilia, as does the Troma label. In other words, though I find Troma's puerile sense of humor generally nauseating, I do support its inlawful unalienable right to exist, I only lament the socker loom smell that comes from (in my mind) unlaid white guys making films so they can make girls take their tops off without it being weird, a sort of parenthetical misogyny and objectification barely held in check by the guiding hand of cool Lloyd Kaufman. A lot of that might be my own imagination, maybe mixing up Troma films with Fred Olen Ray's snarky half-assed silicone and Casio pre-programmed drum tracks. Video makes me depressed so how nice that a whole past era was shot on 16mm and 35mm film, when this shit had to be hunted down in the loathsome part of town, where underground nights would pack 'em in on weekend midnight shows to see stuff like John Waters' MULTIPLE MANIACS (recently out on a great Blu-ray from Criterion) or some Warhol or Richard Kern shock litany you literally couldn't see anywhere else. A young princess of the post-Psychotronic generation, Bowling shares that perfect Michael Weldon mix of punk rock and grindhouse influences so DIY and FU as to inspire generations to pick up cameras and guitars and start bands before they even know how to play or films before they know how to shoot.


Thus here we have colorful dialogue fusing classic caveman epics with modern feminism, so the girls have evening entertainment with Anaconda (Natasha Halevi  - with the best long hair I've seen in centuries) noting, "I've been waiting for two moons for my turn in the evening theater" and then wanting to play charades, and then Leilani cutting the game after one guess. Oh the nascent humanity! Is it the movie #HORROR so desperately wanted to be, in a way, the KIDS of darkness? No. It is what it is, and for that alone it deserves to stand next to LOVE WITCH, DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT, and AMER as mach 7 feminist retro-throwbacks to the days of AIP beach movies and Italian Eurosleaze imports making strange double features.

Bowling is way beyond that kind of thing, and that's why she's so important - she's the antidote, in a sense, to the self-important narcissism of Brit Marling's self-important 'intellectual' sci-fi films. There's no way Marling likes Hill-Meyer-Corman style primitivist drive-in fare. She's too busy cooing over SOLARIS and 2001. But us, the male rows of eye stalks, who escaped into the movies back in nursery school and have been on the run ever since, we're delighted. Shit, son, Bowling even likes shit I do not, such as the Troma films. I respect Lloyd Kaufman, he's a true original and like Charles Band has his own gonzo flavor, the kind of 'sub-Corman post-Corman' entrepreneurs who carved their own niche with creativity born of poverty-necessitated improvisation. But for those of us who actually were teens in the 80s, taking first girlfriends to see BREAKFAST CLUB at the local Bijou, ugh, etc. it's something we're not always anxious to revisit. Nostalgia tends to drop off a steep shelf with puberty. But the movies that recapture the giddy thrill of making movies, back in the era before affordable video cameras, when a reel or two of super 8mm film could be shut and 'edited in the can' by weekend nutcases like my friend Alan and I, then dubbed, mixed, gunshots scratched on, and ready to show the grandparents by the following Saturday, those will always be in tune with the moment, for they're not trying to 'take us away for 90 minutes' but rather show us how to actually escape altogether. Movies like BUTCHER are the missing rung in the ladder, where a girl and a big 16mm camera in her father's Topanga Canyon backyard can be the Joan of Arc torch that awakens you from your Topps gum-stick slumber and into the Steadicam harness. Hurrah for Bowling then, for insisting on using 16mm, for bravely making a teenager-by-teen movie (rather than a precocious look at adulthood from outside it), for reveling in her own punk rock can-do aesthetic. Bowling may have a ways to go but she's already herself, and that's something. May she now join Biller, Amirpour, Xan Cassavettes, and Helene Cattet, to stand with elders Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, a not only more female-helmed horror future but a true kind of female horror, where men are neither the focus nor the demographic... My male gaze stands ready for its reverse gender co-option, let the scissors fall through the center of my evening paper. The ancient past is now rewritten in Panic hair dye. It is in good hands. The hands it is in are smeared in fake blood and they are attached to a real girl. She might be named Kansas Bowling, but she's not trying to be coy or Lolita-ish or otherwise conforming to some masculine gaze or nerd ideal, but she actually loves this shit - she worked all summer to make sure it was shot on 16mm instead of video. Her love of the trash classics is palpable in every junky frame.  I love that I don't even like it. It's the end of the free period. The dawn of the non.


RELEVANT:
"It is the waving of her Heavenly Hair!' The Sanctiomonious Sci-Fi of Marvy Brit Marling
Let the Darionioni Nuovo Entrain your Dissonance: AMER (2009)
Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon: THE LOVE WITCH (2016)
Take out the Kids and Tuck in the Trash: #HORROR
Prepare for the Coming of the Hillary Matriarchy: DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT
Babes of Wrath: Dangerous Women of the New Depression vs. American Dogma
America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
CinemArchetype 23: The Wild Child
The Beautiful and the Darned: Avenging TWILIGHT

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Warren William's Moveable Feast: The Perry Mason Edition


Now more than ever, and you know why, we need to examine the pre-code films of Warren William. Expert as a cruel capitalist, he's got plenty of moxy and wit and though way more charismatic than a certain president, shares his mercenary capitalist spirit, the sort that has billions in assets and billions in debt at the same time and you wonder if he's a jagged knife in capitalism's heart or its resuscitating defibrillator. My old art dealer embezzler boss was like that (I found out I wasn't getting paid for my last month of work when I saw he'd made the front page of the NY Post), and another example is William Powell as Flo in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. History is full of such men, but the movies often don't know how to portray them and so wind up on the either/or dichotomy, either a Daddy Warbucks or a Scrooge, an embezzling market crasher or a hardworking tentpole of American industry. But Williams' titans are always more than either a champ or a villain. And in playing we in the audience as easily as he plays boardrooms full of filthy investors, Warren William straddles that / between either and or and rides it like a ripsnortin' stallion. If it throws him in the end, well, the credits were coming anyway, so let the 'little people' have their day.

If, in films like SKYSCRAPER SOULS and THE MATCH KING, he falters on account of some woman screwing up his circuits, it's always late enough in the film that we've enjoyed at least a few uninterrupted reels of pure Williams' champagne-and-cocaine trouble-ducking, the way he charms and disarms a constant stream of alimony-hungry ex-wives, bank examiners, potential investors, mistresses, and CEOS, having a great time doing it all too, until some innocent hick girl, a ballet dancer, a loyal secretary, or the sister of a man he ruined in s semi-crooked deal, undoes him, and he sacrifices it all so she can ride into the sunset with some dimwit rube of acute moral integrityzzz.

I've covered my love of WW last year in Warren William: Titan o'Vitaphone, but this time I want to take a closer look at his 'series's - for he's played Philo Vance (once - rather lacklusterly) Perry Mason (four times - brilliantly), and The Lone Wolf (eight trillion, averagely).


The Lone Wolf is one of those Boston Blackie-style things ala TO CATCH A THIEF where a prominent but reformed jewel thief is regularly swept up in daring robberies he initially had nothing to do with but since he was seen in the same time zone, lazy detectives just assume they should round him up, forcing our antihero-hero to lead them to the real thief or killer. Eventually the lazy cops accuse him of murder and put out a warrant just so they can get him on the phone. They know if they just chase him around the bends long enough he'll unearth the culprits just so he can go back to his life of uninterrupted leisure unharried. A lot of times it all depends on his sidekick, who has to do most of the heavy lifting. Eric Blore's a peach of course, but I've never felt a palpable zim and zoom between William's Wolf and Blore's criminal manservant and at times, such as Blore's bored ex-criminal determination to break the law (speeding to escape rather than pulling over when chased by the cops, even though they're innocent and hasn't been a crime yet), and habit of nicking random goods and drawing heat down upon himself--he's down right irritating. Add the relentless ambling of the cops who have merely to see the Wolf walk down the street past a newsstand's jewel robbery headline to be sure he did it, and it all gets annoying fast. When he's tangling with Axis spies, snaking through B-budgeted hookah bars and leading the cops like he's the hounds in a fox hunt, William can sometimes resonate. Other times, it becomes harder to care who's got the button, or the stamp collection, or the diamond or the fake diamond.

But what I like most of all Williams' series are his four Perry Masons, because he gets the chance to play someone who actually belongs at the scene of a crime, and who isn't the first person suspected, but rather he's defending the guilty-seeming party; overall, he's positively giddy in these films; his encyclopedic grasp of the law granting him an almost holy ghost power. Some critics decry the Williams of this era, the WB post-code / pre-war zone, but to me this semi-shady version of Mason is a delight. In the long-running TV series, Raymond Burr starts out more like William's Mason, ever a legal precedent ahead of disbarment or incarceration as he sets up deliberate dodges to discredit witnesses before the cops know there's even been a crime committed. By the third or fourth season Burr's Mason had become more of a saint, but in the four Mason movies William made for Warners in the mid-to-late 30s, he's definitely at least 70% unmitigated rascal.

In his giddiest films, the spirit of William seems to affect the movies he's in so that the entire cast joins into a kind of specialized mania. The quips fly a bit faster, the dialogue becomes a tad racier and more sophisticated when he's around, and, if you can keep up with him, the fluidity of persona and shifting interpersonal relationship power ratios becomes its own kind of Shiva flame dance reward. With William, it's all about the hustle and charm, the act, the moment, the liquidity with which he eats his way through a scene. It's Williams's 'nitrous' phase as I call it, for it's like he exhales laughing gas or his contract dictates a nitrous tank is always just off camera. In his Perry Mason roles, for example, the movie around him is ever trying to find its footing, actors and actresses either get on board the train (Owlin Howlin and Virginia Bruce are stand-outs in this regard, and--most surprisingly--Porter Hall) or get left behind. If you're a big fan of the long-running TV series you won't cotton to William's flippancy in the role, but there's no denying his momentum. Some of the Spudsy Drake stuff can get a little dumb and shrill (he manages to start on some mail order weight lifting program and actually graduate with his 'tiger skin' by the end of what is supposed to be one long night, as if the school's whole semester went by from midnight to two AM).

Let's look see at the best two of the four:


THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS
(1935) Dir. Archie Mayo
***
THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS is a fine example of Warner mystery 'product' at its post-code peak. William's office is shown as being quite plush, with Della Street a bemused Genevieve Tobin, regularly fighting off vast arrays of clients, and detectives with their own office within his. When William's Mason stumbles onto a murder scene he never judges, just regularly evades the cops, determined to protect his clients from prosecution (by sequestering them out of town). Porter Hall catches onto the witty madness in a unique way as the smitten department store owner who hires Mason to get justice done for his dizzy object of counter girl affection (Patricia Ellis) after she's rooked out of her prize money in a gigolo's traveling scam (he sets up big leg contests that promote the height of objectification, then absconds with the prize money, leading to a lot of girls and their possessive boyfriends [like possibly stalker-ish suspect Lyle Talbot] in the suspect pool after said gigolo's inevitable murder. There's an exciting scene where Mason gets Talbot out of a jam by helping one of the girls escape a watched hotel by pretending she's very sick and he's the doctor (their chartered plane takes off just as the cops (who include Barton MacLane) have driven onto the airfield. What a con artist! Owlin Howland is 'Dr. Croker' here, whose office is on the same floor and who declares Perry has to stop drinking all alcohols, which leads to some tiresome business with milk. Minus ten demeirt! Was the censor watching or something? 

THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE
(1935) Dir. Michael Curtiz
***

In the CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, Williams' Mason is suddenly an amateur master chef, ever taking over kitchens to whip up some impromptu ten course meal; a bemused gourmand tags along in the form of the NYC coroner (Owlin Howlind) who thinks nothing of bringing the entire gang back to the morgue for a quick autopsy over after-crab coffee. The whole thing seems to devolve into a happy party, a moveable feast ala the writing of Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Robert Altman's NASHVILLE. From personal experience, I do love that feeling, of running into all your friends wherever you go, and just constantly eating and drinking from location to location, breakfast to brunch through to late night after-hours drinks. Here the feast moves from murder scene to morgue to DA's office and the inner circle includes a reporter who's name is 'Toots' (Thomas E. Jackson), so we can enjoy dialogue like Howlin (clearly having a ball being a William wingman) saying "help yourself, Toots." But generally here are actors and sets that would never be so giddy and Altman-ish without William as the inspiration.

Ever the center of attention, the more irritating moments involve the big climaxes, such as the need for a medical examination to be going on during the big climactic denouement in LEGS, or the night court fronting of Virginia Bruce in CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1936), with Della demanding a divorce mere hours after getting married because Mason gets  highjacked by a beautiful damsel-- after insisting he do no more criminal cases, which is a bad faith streak going around in the mystery sets at the time, as each sleuth or crime doctor needed a fiancee making him swear to stop doing the things we're watching the movie to see, and we're left to wonder do the writers think this just badly-dated misogynist subtext ('good' women want to tie you down and stop you from having fun), a nervous producer's idea on how to placate the censor, a censor demand/request, or the writer's sly ribbing of the censors and their memos on how maybe these crime movies could have less crime in them.

At some of these we balked. I still have a hard time watching the first few FALCON movies from RKO, with the bitchy fiancee determined to usher Tom Lawrence into a life of bond trading rather than crime solving (except clearly the writers know nothing about bond trading), and his pained evasion (especially considering the few weariness of George Sanders, which conveys the kind of isolated anguish of a closeted actor being pressured by the studio into marrying some bossy nag he barely knows).

One subtextual aspect of the Masons, and this holds true with the TV show too-- is how murder benefits the world. The set-up is to of course make a lot of suspects for Mason to sort through: more than one person may have tried to kill our victim that fateful night, or actually thought they did; the one who delivered the last blow is--upon being exposed to light--revealed as evil (or else Mason immediately changes his approach upon dismissal of the charges to defend the person he just convicted as a clear case of self defense). It's as if the poker or vase was a hot potato, so it's okay to smash a guy on the sconce if he falls and doesn't die, and then if the next person comes along, and while said guy is prostrate on the floor shoots him, then the last guy goes to jail BUT if he dies from the fall, then the first guy goes to jail. In addition to the suspect pool, this murder is also very cathartic, the victim's evil is excised from the social order. It's as if this person is a straw dog soaking up all the venal odium our era needs to shed, then being slaughtered by a collective urge within the texture of reality, after which Mason eventually focuses and solves (as in the opposite of dis-solves), like rain putting out the blazing wicker man pyre. Lawyers with a lot of oratory, confidence, and grinning wolf delight were Williams' specialty - and with Mason he crafts a lawyer whose high wire technicality-skimming leave us bedazzled, even while we're in no great hurry to nail the culprit.  If the murderer of our sins who must be punished is named Jesus, whom else is William's giddy Mason but the Pontius pilot of Steamship Satan!?


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Ten Strange Films you should maybe Tape (April on TCM)


This being their first month without dear Robert (who died March 6th), I extend special love and encouragement to the TCM. So here's my culling of ten films worth taping. When I was a youth all the best, weirdest stuff came on in the wee small hours; I would get up in the dead of night and slink downstairs without waking my parents, in order to tape them (via ye old VHS), just so I could pause during commercials (and because our timer didn't always work). TCM still keeps this art alive by showing odd stuff at odd hours, but lucky you - your DVR or TIVO need never miss a trick. And TCM still, knock on wood, daily, is still commercial-free. (PS - Avoid QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE, Weds. night - for it will make you so frustrated to consider its written by Charles Beaumont and Ben Hecht. I never thought I'd say this, but Zsa Zsa Gabor is the best part. She almost provides some centrifugal center around which the terrible dialogue and hokey line readings can keep within orbit of some kind of soul. But the rest of the time there's not much to do except note that the FORBIDDEN PLANET costume box must have been stored next to a window - for they are truly faded and tattered).

Weds. April 5, 2017


6AM - PRESTIGE
(1931) Dir. Tay Garnett

Melvyn Douglas dissolves before our eyes as a French officer put in charge of French Vietnam's most sweltering prison camp. Adolphe Menjou is the scheming major with designs on Douglas' new wife, Ann Harding; he probably sent Douglas off to the camp in the first place, hoping she'd stay behind so he can get his dirty little hobbit hands on her, as he's fond of doing in these sorts of triangle films, but who can prove it? Harding's dad says she shouldn't follow Douglas into this jungle hell, but if she does she already has the only thing that can save her there, the 'prestige' of being white. She must never slacken her grip or lose her superior breeding! Never! The natives are a mix of African-American extras, genuine Asians, and ugly white dudes in a lot of make-up, all depicted as little more than untamed animals in comparison with the staunch white man and his wife. As with all the Commonwealth-set pre-codes, the specter of miscegenation hangs throughout!

A product of the relatively rough-edged RKO-Pathe studio, PRESTIGE has strong expressionist touches and excellent tracking shots: fire dances, cockfights, guillotines, whips, chains, and general white-on-black brutality, it's like John Ford on bad acid and malaria. Simultaneously racist and anti-colonialist, PRESTIGE should be shown in every college class about Vietnam, as a horrific underbelly of colonialism. As the screwed-over 'hero,' Douglas starts out wanting to be nice, but gets a fever, sweats, collapses, shakes and turns sadistic, chaining up prisoners, guillotining rebel leaders while devolving into a hate-filled drunk. Harding is her usual lovely, wistful self. Her soft voice ever crackling with dignity and emotion, as befits her 'white prestige,' she does what she can, but they won't even let her hang curtains. And the ending is intense, lurid, and nihilistic. 

7:30 DANGEROUS CORNER
(1934) Dir Phil Rosen

Melvyn Douglas stars as a bit of a rogue in a publishing concern that--and this would be considered verboten by the early code--is co-ed-owned and operated by a group of men and women who share duties and power equally, mixing business and pleasure and turning it all into a kind of cocktails and ritzy MAD MEN-style bestselling author-seducing moveable feast. The women don't have to choose between career and romance as it's all seamlessly interwoven, noted with some interest by their star acquisition, an Agatha Christie-type who's visiting New York to sign a contract. A blown radio tube leads to conversation about a missing chunk of cash meant to be a retainer for a different author, but the cash disappeared awhile ago and they've been avoiding dealing with it. Eventually the truth comes out but maybe sleeping dogs should lie, and maybe they still can, or did, but with whom?

One wonders, though, in the end, what the point of it all is. Did playwright J.B. Priestley need to subtextually validate why he stayed in the closet or chose not to public with his mistress? Either way it's all very mature. The idea of women being totally men's equal in every facet of their shared business is marvelously progressive, and the romantic roundelay of everyone married to the wrong person all comes to the fore pretty fast. Luckily the cast is up for the challenge and then there are numerous twists and the ending is a gotcha of the sort I normally don't approve of, but which works here as a kind of suggestion that killing yourself might just involve 'skipping' into alternate dimensions, gradually becoming immortal by living several variants of your own life all at the same time, and death just shrinking the number of available dimensional planes down farther and farther, until one's next lives have already begun so you can let the last one of the old ones go, i.e. quantum suicide. (My apologies to anyone who read my initial misdiagnosis this was THE NARROW CORNER, a totally different film - its CORNER threw me).


Thurs. April 6th 2017
9:30 AM - KONGO 
(1932) Dir William Cowen

Infamous for his tight control of a vast 80 mile section of the Congo, wheelchair-bound sadist Flint (a rabid Walter Huston) hoards ivory, sleeps with a chimp, and controls the local tribes via displays of magic tricks all while planning his OLDBOY-style revenge against the guy who carved up his face and left him crippled to die. This plan involves Flint taking custody of his enemy's daughter and putting her through an all girls convent school, only to pull her out on her 18th birthday and throw her into a Zanzibar brothel for a year or two of degradation. After she's sufficiently debauched he drags her out to his godforsaken corner of the jungle, gives her "black fever" and strings her along on booze and beatings (and god knows what else  -even the pre-code had its limits). Meanwhile, a white doctor (Conrad Nagel) in the throes of addiction to some kind of local opiate root shows up, and Flint tries to get him clean (via leeches!) so he can operate on Flint's back. But Lupe Velez secretly risks having her tongue cut out in order to bring the doc all the root he can handle in exchange for sex. And that's not all! A parade of sadistic horrors are either narrowly escaped from and/or inflicted offstage while Huston roars in sadistic laughter; and what about the native practice of burning women alive on their dead husband's funeral pyre? GOOD GOD! This was made in 1932!? It's almost too sordid to handle even today. With all the physical abuse, vile racist caricature, and sexual degradation it would deservedly get an NC-17. (more)
Friday, April 7th
6PM THE GODDESS 
(1958) Dir. John Cromwell

I've never seen it, it's almost never been seen by anyone (no one's proud of it) but hmm mmm mmm heard such bad things about this Monroe roman a-clef I can hardly wait. All TCM offers by way of synopsis is "Booze, pills and loneliness mark a young actress' rise to stardom." Well whose doesn't, honey? Paddy Chayefsky wrote the script and from afar it seems to be one of the bridges between his early kitchen sink blue-collah period (MARTY, A CATERED AFFAIR) and his later loquacious satire period (NETWORK, THE HOSPITAL).  Kim Stanley--a stage actress whose roles were 'few and far between'--plays the goddess. Don't confuse her with Kim Hunter, as I did for the longest time (since Kim Hunter was married to Stanley in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE). Sure, THE GODDESS is supposed to be a stilted mess ("Ponderous" raves Eric Fry), but even at its worst, Chayefsky's dialogue is worth enduring. I'm hoping. There seems to be--even from this distance--a lot wrong with GODDESS. Looking at the pics above, Stanley is clearly miscast in the MM role; she could play Marilyn's abusive psycho mom maybe, but no matter how breathy and mannered her delivery may be, she just ain't a convincing sex symbol. That said, I'm excited to see if she can act as ferociously as they say and to attempt to savor what's sure to be an excruciating slog through the VALLEY OF THE DOLLS WHO'LL CRY TOMORROW, DEAREST. (PS - I tried to watch this, coming in around the middle, but it was like five endless minutes of a screaming baby while Stanley made half-assed attempts to be maternal and longed to escape. It's like we get it, we go to movies to escape crying babies, though, frickin' hell, and the idea that Stanley could be a bombshell is absurd -Carroll Baker might have saved it, but she'd done HARLOW already and I'd hate to put her through it all again).

Saturday - April 8th
7:30 AM: THE BLACK CAT
(1934) Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Most people know the 'monsters' of classic Universal horror, Drac, Frank, Wolfman, and the Mummy. But only one ever had 'the devil -- and this is it. Hear Boris reciting extempore Latin hazily remembered from school while conducting the only devil worship / Satanic ceremony Hollywood's lurid pre-code era could produce before the censors clamped down (later the same year). They were afraid to even speak the horned one's cursed name! There's so much more, too: crazy Art Deco sets, Karloff and Lugosi (playing chess to decide who 'gets' newlywed Jacqueline Welles, or skinning each other alive, they have fun), sexually uninhibited states brought about by powerful narcotics; David Manners as an alleged writer who can't describe Poelzig's architecture better than "tricky," and "interesting", allusions to massive carnage of WWI (15 bodies deep piled in the trenches!), betrayal, loss, dead wives mounted in trophy cases and lit up as if in a carny spook house or museum, creepy floating tracking shots with OS conversation, the original use of the term 'undermined,' Lugosi as a medical doctor cautioning Manners about dismissing the supernatural as "baloney," or trying to couple with his new wife on their honeymoon despite her sexually uninhibited state; a complete and all consuming horror of cats getting in the way of revenge plans, and an ominously Wagnerian score from Heinz Roemheld. Once seen, THE BLACK CAT is not easily forgotten. Seen again, it is as if brand new. Let it inspire you to also track down MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE RAVEN and WEREWOLF OF LONDON (both 1935), all of them lesser-known Universal classics deserving to stand tall with the 'big boys,' taller even.  

2:30 AM ZODIAC KILLER 
(1971) Dir. Tom Hansen

I've never seen it, but as with THE GODDESS above, I've heard bad things. So let me turn it over to one of my few trustworthy sources, Bleeding Skull, and the Astounding Ziemba:
"The Zodiac Killer is, first and foremost, a true-crime expose which attempts to provide a theoretical rationale for San Francisco’s famed late-60s Zodiac murders. Accordingly-yet-surprisingly, the film sticks close to the facts. That is, it perceives Truth as a bent thumb-tack with which to (barely) hang all sorts of unbelievable ridiculousness. But that’s the contradiction which guarantees Zodiac‘s success. For example, The Zodiac guns down a teenage couple with frightening, vérité-lite zest. Sixty seconds later, a hilariously misogynist man named Grover wears a green polyester suit and hairsprays his poignant toupee while stating, “Yep. I’m a good lookin’ sonuvagun.” This is before he attempts to kidnap his daughter. With a saw. 
"It would be easy for me to relay ten pages of details regarding the strange vortex that this film creates for itself. Because that’s what it’s all about — details. Tons of them. Every crevice, every SECOND, is teeming with some sort of absurd declaration (“Why are evil people allowed to live, but innocent rabbits must die?”), technical levity (Did you know that The Zodiac occasionally wore Groucho glasses?), or grim, unnerving violence (the lakeside attack scene Will Get You). To reveal anything further would be a disservice to you and your first viewing. And nobody wants that." -Joseph Ziemba

Monday Morning - April 10th
6 AM - OUR BETTERS
(1933) Dir. George Cukor

One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping, especially when its just gigolo changing hands between two ladies of title, the American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett) and Dutchess Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper). Pepi (Gilbert Roland) is the gigolo. A weekend at the Grayston country estate is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston gets it on in the poolside bath house with Pepi and placates Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest, the "hardest to get" houseguest in the whole of upper crust London. Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, aghast. We'd not see such liberal display of continental minds again until Tennessee Williams' 1961 opus, THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE. 

And Earnest steals the show.... in the very last scene no less. George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its the day to go back home and you can barely remember how and when but you're fairly sure you made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection before you're able to remember, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him/her like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as she or he just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful.

Weds. Night - April 12th 

2AM : DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE
(1965) Dir. Norman Taurog 

Speaking of fey aesthetes who enliven any party, don't let its leaden sequel by Mario Bava keep you away from this giddy AIP romp which--amongst other delights--shows Vincent Price having a high time frugging his way through a plot to destroy the UN or something via his coterie of exploding hottie automatons. There's all sorts of wry nods to both AIP's greatest series, the Beach Party films and Corman Poes; Frankie falls below the swinging old pit and pendulum set, and Annette Funicello shows in the stocks), and--between the curvacous gold bikini-clad 'bots and gold smoking-jacketed Price you can forgive it any trespass, even spastic Frankie Avalon as the over-caffeinated FBI man in charge of the investigation. Granted the music is unbearably coy in spots, especially during the wacky chase scene finale, but as long as Price looks like he's having fun, how can we do aught else? And doesn't he always? Zippy the Pinhead's numero uno hombre Norman Taurog directed in his inimitable Tashlin-type style. Save it on the cue for when you need it. And you will.

Friday Night: April 14th 
2:30 AM: THE TARNISHED ANGELS 
(1957) Dir. Douglas Sirk

Like THE THIN MAN was a cross-authorial unofficial sequel to THE BIG SLEEP (i.e. Nick and Nora = if Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge after a few years of blissful marriage), so TARNISHED ANGELS can be imagined as a sequel to those 30s MGM barnstormers like TEST PILOT, with Robert Stack as the Clark Gable daredevil pilot, and Jack Carson as the Spencer Tracy mechanic. Then there's Dorothy Malone in the Loy-cum-Harlow role, so smoking hot and well-lit you join the crew of leering sleazebags that pay to watch her parachute down in a fluttering skirt. It's based on a Faulkner story and you will finally believe Rock Hudson can act as he plays a tipsy reporter smitten by Malone and in quiet awe of Stack's daring, but Stack needs flight "like an alcoholic needs his drink," and when his plane crashes out from under him he pimps out his wife to get a new one. Hmmm, damn right all that's missing is a Bacall for shit to be WRITTEN ON THE WIND in reverse.

If you're worried Sirk is nothing without his Technicolor, fear not. He's a master of black and white, too --images are gorgeous, flight scenes are spectacular (biplanes whizz around poles mere feet off the ground like some gonzo desert drag race) but the best scene occurs with Stack and Malone crashing on Hudson's floor and couch. He comes home a bit drunk, Carson is asleep, and there she is, awake and whispering to him. Sirk's decadent black and white lighting shining through her white nightgown as she spreads herself along the couch, and it's so hot you almost pass the fuck out. Looks like we're... closed for the evening. I'd give Stack a plane too, and so would Rock, if we could have for ourselves the Malone in this film, even for a night; and we hate ourselves for being so vile, and so does she. But that just makes her all the sexier.

Thurs. April 27
4:45 PM PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD
(1933) Dir. J. Walter Reuben

It's got everything I love: it occurs over one afternoon and night, ends at dawn and there's fog, a washed out road, a windy house, murder suspects, death masks, and two of my favorite pre-code actresses: Anita Louise (Titania in the 1935 Reinhardt Midsummer Night's Dream) and Karen Morley (Poppy in Scarface). The latter delivers a scene-swipingly slithery performance as no-bones gold digger Jenny Wren, who's decided to retire and intends blackmailing all her rich ex and present lovers in one fell swoop, gathering them at a remote mansion at midnight, along with their wives, if any, her own shrewd maid (Hilda Vaughn), a colorful drunk, a butch aunt (Pauline Frederick), and gangsters telling snobby hypocrites to cut out their whispering. Jenny's retirement is prompted, we learn, via groundbreaking whirlwind flashbacks, to some naive rich kid college boy leaping from a cliff after she dumped him (she learned his father had cut him off). Then his ghostly face appears unto her on the balcony, and then she's dead.... from a dart.

On hand is Ricardo Cortez as a slickster hired by an unseen party to retrieve some incriminating love letters from her suitcase. He knows the coppers will pin her murder on him so he sets out to solve the mystery before the law can fix the ubiquitous washed-out bridge. The ending, on a foggy cliff with a single engine police plane coming in overhead, and the two guys walking off into the fog, foreshadows Casablanca. The photography is Von Sternbergian level-shadowy, but with (in this case, Spanish-style) old dark house accoutrements -- secret passage, clues, complex motive crosswork -- instead of masochism and feathers, and then-revolutionary whizzing camera flashbacks, it becomes sublime. Vaughn may be the coolest maid in all pre-code, almost a Leporello-level co-conspirator rather than a mere servant. And if the lesbian currents didn't run deep enough, what about Vaughn's butch old aunt who, like Mercedes McCambridge in GIANT--is fond of using horse breeding terminology when scrutinizing potential in-law brides? Even if you're not cuckoo for pre-code old dark house mysteries, and gaga for Louise and Morely, you got to profer props for the lesbian undercurrent where e'r it flows!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

International Hallucinosis Part 1: 12 Cool/Weird Italian Films Streaming Free on Amazon Prime


Amazon Prime just keeps getting better and weirder. Recently a whole plethora of great Japanese and Italian titles have come tumbling forth (just ask.... the Axis). So many it will take many posts to even detail a sliver. So let's start on the Italian side. There's giallo and sometimes Gothic, too many peplums (i.e. biceps and sandals) to count, sex, western, and cop buddy comedies, about a hundred ramshackle adventures of a big slovenly Italian named Bud Spencer and his blonde two-fisted compatriot Terence Fisher; weird Raiders of the Lost Ark action-western-sci-fi imitations, Road Warrior imitations, giallos, Eurocrime (polizetti), spy spoofs, peplum (Hercules, Maciste, Samson, etc.) spaghetti westerns, juvenile comedies, all in such vast array it's like wandering into some never-ending videophile fantasia. It might remind you of the first time you wandered into a mom and pop video rental horror section and thought you'd entered an alternate reality. So forget about Netflix and its 'originals' - Prime is in the midst of its golden age!.

That said, the golden age soon gets ennui-ridden. The best of the Italian genre imports are usually well known, while the dregs are dregs for a reason. Shot quick, cheap and crazy - the best way to consider Italian genre films are as halfway markers between the drive-in and the TV show, for Italian TV of the era was very sparse - barely two channels and two movies a week at the most. So going to the movies was what one did almost every night (I learned this watching EUROCRIME - also on Prime --see below). Many of the titles on Prime have, I'm fairly sure, never been on video in the states, and are probably transferred (incorrectly) from PAL. The widescreen look irregularly thin, or else comes cropped, with colors turned to muddy streaks. Some are in Italian don't have subtitles; some have subtitles burnt-in but are the English dub version. Some are so obscure they have to Amazon reviews at all.

But even eliminating the titles that fall victim to these issues there are still dozens of titles the average American viewer has never heard of or seen that look lovely and beg a visit from the curious traveler. So I've assembled one such dozen, as if donuts - there's around three or four of each genre -- three westerns, three giallos, three weird horror films, one Polizetti, one peplum and one sci-fi action. The juvenile comedies and Bud Spencer/Terence Hill joints I leave to God or whatever devil will have them.

NOTA: Each post details the story as much as can be revealed without undoing the precious WTF? element so key to Italian cinema. The musical scores are so key for Italian cinema, for they use ironic counterpoint, groovy jazz, and layered humor so deftly they put our 'telegraph' composers like John Williams and Howard Shore to deserved shame. I've assembled Spotify playlist with most of the film's scores embedded at end. I don't recommend listening to it while reading this post, I INSIST on it. You belong to us, Faustine! If you don't have Prime or Spotify, well, when some of these a trackable elsewhere I'm sure. Bon fortuna, Jack!

1. THE BLACK CAT 
AKA Demons 6: De Profundus 
(1989) Dir. Luigi Cozzi
**1/2 (Amazon Image: B-)

A parallel program to the Argento-Bava-Soavi school, for this unofficial sequel to Argento's SUSPIRIA (semi-sequel six in the catch-all DEMONS series), the great Luigi Cozzi (STARCRASH, HERCULES) rings in the third of the 'three mothers' trilogy -or at least a post-modern riff thereon. Here screenwriter Marc (Urbano Barberini) has conjured a film about an ancient witch named Lavania, who he doesn't know is real and that she rises from her grave a little farther every time her name is mentioned (ala Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY if media attention was blood); her face and hands that are all grotesque pustules (ala Lamberto Bava's first two DEMONS films) and she begins to take over the mind of Marc's wife, Anne (Florence Guérin), who's keen to play her. A local psychic busts out her original copy of Suspiria de Profundis to encourage Marc to change the name. Argento and Thomas de Quincey are name-checked and there's even some familiar Goblin cues from SUSPIRIA. Meanwhile, without even knowing the story, Marc's wife--busy with their newborn baby--starts to demand to play the role, saying she "is" Lavania, which is not a wise career move. But what about sexy Caroline Munro, luring Marc into the sack for the Lavania part, and Michele Soavi himself as the director! I didn't even mention the shady, possibly undead, financial backer! Confused? Join the club! Still I'd rather go on the wild ride a Luigi Cozzi film offers even if its rickety, campy, confusing and dangerous, than play it safe on some competent piece of junk like STIGMATA or LOST SOULS -hai capito?

The quality of the stream is dependent on the source which is pretty good for full screen, probably direct to video entry, since in 1990 the drive-ins were  all but dead and Blockbuster was still a thriving industry. By then, too, the whole 'fiction intrudes on reality' self-reflexive angle was insufferably pretentious, but the colors are nice - when Anne falls into dream worlds the windows glow bright yellows, blues, green, and reds ala Argento. The end goes all MANITOU! There's even an 'inner' child (literally, as in innards) counseling Anne from within/without the TV (see top). Surely the meta-refractive horror levels make this a forebear to THE RING along with FREDDY'S NEW NIGHTMARE.


As for the score, well, even if it's not Goblin level, Vince Tempera's 'shoot for bodacious; settle for bemusing' score is certainly better than Keith Emerson's clueless melange in INFERNO. Still, it begs a question: why in the name of all that's unholy was this film's title changed to THE BLACK CAT? There is a cat it barely figures! This same year also saw the release Argento's own adaptation of Poe's story in TWO EVIL EYES, and then Fulci did a BLACK CAT in 1981. I know Italians love to wall people up, but their obsession with this one story is pretty stupid, and maybe explains why it took me so long to catch up to this as mixed it up with the other two versions. Considering it has the great Caroline Munroe (who worked with Cozzi on the awesome STARCRASH) and doesn't have Marjoe Gortner (the worst part of STARCRASH), I'd say pounce. At the worst, it's just incoherent; at it's best, it's so bonkers--especially once things bounce up to the moon--that it approaches the sublime.

2. RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS
AKA I predatori di Atlantide
(1983) Dir. Ruggero Deodato
*** / Amazon Image - B-

The early 80s indie drive-in / video clamshell box era endures today like an old gold mine with no ore unearthed from the deeper nooks and bowels with every new risky excavation. And no vein is still so rife for tapping than the Italian cross-pollination rip-genre, located in the cross shaft between 1980-82: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE ROAD WARRIOR, BLADE RUNNER, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE WARRIORS and CONAN. Reconfiguring the previous decade's peplum, western and WW2 props, sets and wardrobe with some silver spraypaint and football pads and leather studs, a whole league of retro-punk futuristic gang bikers flowed out anew, and now--years later--the effect isn't scary or ominous, but adorable. It's so non-CGI tactile, we can feel the heat of the fireballs on the asphalt. Let ourselves be swept along and we might think we're catching this on late-night cable back when we were 12-15 with our friend/s, and late-night cable was an exciting, strange, dangerous place (or at the very least, unintentionally hilarious).


Christopher Connolly stars as a mercenary Mike, who-- along with his fellow badass Washington (Tony King)--open the film by abducting (rescuing?) some well-protected hombre in a sequestered beach mansion, the fee for which is $50,000, which they plan to spend wildly after they take their boat down to Trinidad. Meanwhile, Gioai Scola is an ancient symbology expert flown over from Machu Picchu to decode a strange rosetta stone-style relic uncovered by a team (led by a nicely laid-back George Hilton), raising a downed Russian sub from a rickety mid-ocean platform. They raise it all right, but also cause Atlantis, in its protective bubble, to rise as well, creating a tidal displacement that smashes the platform, knocks Washington and Mike's ship off course, freaks everyone out with weird clouds, and activates some trigger in the minds of certain members of the populace, letting them know it's time to put down their knitting, put on their crystal skull masks, get on their tricked-out bikes and jeeps and kill everyone in sight.


At the end there's some INDIANA JONES-style boobytraps (laser eyed pharoah heads, fan blades) but mostly there are great gunfights on top of speeding busses, dangling from helicopters; endless molotov cocktails are tossed out of windows (each given a holy blessing) and each sends at least one hapless stuntman flying. "Good" survivors are picked up along the way and die as fast, one great scene has one fighter realize Marc must be 'okay' when they both fight to reclaim his wad of cash after it falls out of his shirt during their brawl (the Atlantean biker/zombies don't care about money, nor do they talk or fear death). All sorts of great little moments just keep coming, and there's even alcohol and cigarettes.
As with all the best cross-genre Italian films of the 70s-80s, there's the sense they wanted to do more than the budget allowed so the big climax feels kind of undercooked but so what? Don't be difficult. You should have checked your brain at the door long ago, and at any rate how can you not love watching our two macho heroes flinging each other from side to side of the tunnel so they don't sucked through the fan during the climactic Atlantis inner sanctum breech? It all seems so familiar, like some scenario you dreamt up in your imagination one rainy day with your mismatched action figures and indulgent babysitter after you'd just seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at the local theater for thee 10th time.

PS- If you love JC's GHOSTS OF MARS (2001) you should know this has a strangely similar plot, right down to the archaeologist chick, the big daddy Mars type Crystal skull-led planet-reclaiming marauders, and nonstop marauding stuntmen who wave their arms and go "Yaaarhg!" when blown up. One imdb user review (Celluloid Rehab) calls RAIDERS, Assault on Drug Store 13.  Rehab: it's so right, though drugs would have helped - at least the cool chopper pilot smuggled in a flask.

Guido and Morizi de Angelis did the 80s synth score, repetitive and video game-ish but bound to hit that nostalgic pang like a real drug would. The Amazon image is a little faded and blurry but is probably as good as it ever looked outside of whatever theater actually showed it before it went to video and TV. It's never been on DVD but people clearly have seen it and embraced its lovely badness as someone posted copious quotes from the film in imdb - Atlantis bless them. I still won't see Deodato's cannibal movies, but at least here I can report that no animals appear harmed (or at all) in RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS, but man you can bet some stuntmen got un po 'bruciacchiato. 


3. LONG HAIR OF DEATH
AKA I lunghi capelli della morte
(1964) Dir. Antonio Margherita
*** / Image - B+

Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (AKA MASK OF SATAN) made a huge impact in 1960, and never more so, clearly, than with the ever-imitative (but less innovative) peers, like Antonio Margherita, whose CASTLE OF BLOOD is better known but I find quite tedious. But this is--now that there's a good print available for streaming--this is his best work--outside of maybe YOR--clearly. Full of skulking camera movements as devious players weave in and out secret passages, crypts, and tapestry-bedecked boudoirs, there's never a dull moment and Barbara Steele gets to raise the ruckus in a double (kind of) role; even when you don't know what the hell's going on, it's a helluva thing. I started watching halfway through (I recommend this approach to all of life, and especially exploring Prime so you don't need to endure 10 minutes of tags and credits only to find the heads are too thin or the colors too washed or it's in Italian niente sottootitoli), then watched the beginning a few weeks later, which made Steele's enigmatic character that much more ambiguous.

Curiously, Amazon's version actually has burnt-in English subtitles but is dubbed in English and sometimes the words onscreen and dubbed vary in weirdly abstract frisson kind of ways, as if being translated by a nervous diplomat. But Carlo Rusticelli's memorable score (with its eerie theremin, slow ominous bass notes and slow-moving orchestral swells) perfectly situates the onscreen Gothic events. A spoiled baron, Kurt (George Ardisson) poisons all those standing in the way to the title and lugs corpses down masterfully-lit secret passages in order to be with ethereal (and long-haired) strange Barbara Steele. But the wife (Halina Zalewska) he thought poisoned and entombed disappears; does she remember her mother was burnt at the stake by Kurt's father for a crime Kurt himself committed? There's also an outbreak of (offscreen) plague and a WICKER MAN-esque final moment to center it all as a classic of its genre. Above all, both the girls have super long hair and super pale skin, long bare arms and hair down to their waist, wafting in and out of eerily-lit tombs and corridors -- it's everything you'd want in a movie called LONG HAIR OF DEATH, blow-dried to a tomb-y chill.

6. THE ITALIAN CONNECTION
AKA La mala ordina
(1972) Fenando di Leo
*** / Amazon Image - A-

I try to avoid the movies that get too misogynist or cruel to animals (the suffocated kitten in SHOOT FIRST, DIE LATER) so have to applaud the genial bear of a pimp played by German Fassbinder regular Mario Adorf (LOLA) being nice to the junkyard cat in Fernando de Leo's propulsive minor masterwork, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION. Fingered by the local mob boss as the fall guy for their ripping off the New York family's heroin delivery, he finds himself hunted on all sides as two slick American hit men are sent over to make an example of him and rattle the cages of the Milano chapter. Woody Strode and Henry Silva are pretty badass as the New York 'tourists' shepherded through all the seedy pimp haunts by Luciana Paluzzi. She was the hottie SPECTRE agent who got Bond in bed and then chased him through the Nassau parade in THUNDERBALL, that movie's main villain, Largo, Adolfo Celli is also here as the Milan don. Considering he's just one lowly pimp, silencing Luca shouldn't pose such a problem but they don't bet on just what a hard-headed toughass he turns out be, or maybe the local mafia is only good at tormenting women. It's pretty thrilling watching Adorf, this bulky monster of ugly-sexiness, bash his way up the chain, all while being fairly nice and good-natured with his women, even making non-business friendships with girls he's helped out of bad situations, like the sexy Maoist who lets him crash over when he needs to, and whose walls denote the key difference between hippies in Rome and Paris vs. San Francisco, the unrepentant Maoism; jer walls are covered with slogans painted on posters and it all seems to exist mainly for the trailer or for Fernando's Marxist signature ideological interjections.

Highlights include a great long chase scene when he goes after the schmuck who runs down his wife and kid. He chases him from truck to street, to truck to pool to street again, climaxing with Luca using his head as a windshield battering ram to get at the culprit. Eurocrime movies modeled after THE FRENCH CONNECTION were required to have super long furious intense chase sequences, but there's nothing quite like this. There is some unsettling misogynist violence as when the mob roughs up Luca's live-in prostitute girlfriend (Femi Benussi), pinching her and smacking her around, etc. but at least Luca's wife and child are run over cleanly and not tortured. And there's no 'learning curve' by whihc Luca becomes more of a badass. He is one, he'd just rather hang out with his broads, and what's wrong with that if he treats them right? the saddest part is the tawdry club with its low basement roof - and not near enough cigarettes. A great pumping badass 70s cop show funk score from Armando Trovajoli helps it all along, and of course, the requisite auto wrecking yard climax, replete with death by claw machine.

this is a real man - nice-a to animals
Also Recommended: two more good transfers of Fernando de Leo films, SHOOT FIRST DIE LATER, and THE BOSS and for an informative and fun (albeit burdened by a lurid section on misogyny) documentary, EUROCRIME: The Italian Cop and Gangster Films the Ruled the 70s. 


7. MATALO KILL!
AKA ¡Mátalo!
(1970) Dir. Cesare Canavare
**1/2/ Amazon Image: B

One look at the image above of sexy Claudia Gravy, winding up a game of swing-set pit-and-the- pendulum with a tied-up preacher's son (Lou Castel) and you know that this movie came out in 1970, i.e. shortly after the Manson murders made the world realize cute hippie chicks could be more sadistic and violent than even Russ Meyer dared hope. The spaghetti western was beginning to vanish in the acid sunset; anachronistic cool, free-love, women's lib and psychedelic influences were giving it one last blaze of setting sun electric guitar sting glory. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was coloring all the last westerns in Italy with anachronistic pop songs, free love, and cultish druggie youth.

Looking/acting like a rabid Michele Carey (Joey in EL DORADO) fused with Tiffany Bolling, Claudia Gravy as outlaw moll Mary is the best part of MATALO; brimming with lysergic guile and a feral sadistic sunniness, using her wanton wiles to keep the men in her gang trapped in an understandably steamy orbit, sort of like a homicidal version of Grace Slick with the boys in The Jefferson Airplane. Fans of Seijun Suzuki abstractions like BRANDED TO KILL, or existential 'between life and death is better than either life or death' meditations of Boorman (POINT BLANK), Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY) will find much to love, as will anyone who always wanted to see what a spaghetti tripper western would be like if fused to the 'home invasion' framework (of say KITTEN WITH A WHIP) with the peyote western ala EL TOPO (which came out the same year). The story involves a ghost town, some outlaws using it as hiding place, a big gold shipment, and--well, ambience. Weird close-ups, freeze frames, a swing set in bad need of some WD-40, and a harp too close to a billowing curtain rod, wryly tweak the Sergio Leone-style and Antonioni ambiguity while Mario Milgardi's Hendrix-style electric guitar score throws caution to the wind. We've exited Ennio Morricone wah-wah land and entered the post-Manson / Altamont LSD youth scene, where hippie chicks aren't all honey and smiles, but will carve the baby right out of your womb while singing "Look at Your Game Girl." If doesn't really add up to much, at least the druggy use of slow-mo puts us ably in the distorted minds of his crook trio or the dying-of-thirst boomerang guy they torture. W

Corrado Pani is Bart, who begins the film grinning as he's led off to be hung in a small town about to be overrun by Mexican bandits. With his flashing blue eyes and self-adoring grin he cocks his head like he thinks he's Steve McQueen-meets-Adam Roarke, and he almost is, especially in the nice juxtaposition of his relaxed poking around town while all around him his rescuers slaughter everyone (except a confused, oblivious preacher). Antonio Salines is the sullen, lovesick wingman who looks like a mix of Will Forte and John Cazale, wearing--as seems to be the trademark of the gang--a terrible blonde wig. Sulking and scowling, and beating on hapless Lou Castel, due to his lovelorn longing for Claudia Gravy (who's currently in bed with the eldest in the gang, Phil [Luis Davila]). You'll want to beat up Castel too, because Gravy is so fine and so homicidally sexy, and Castel--with his giant forehead and lack of firearms-is just begging for it. Needless to say there's a gun vs. boomerang  finale, luckily the bad guys don't mind waiting for each individual boomerang to weave its way around before returning fire, and Castel has a very supportive and resourceful horse.



4. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?
AKA Cosa avete fatto a Solange?
(1972) Dir. Massimo Dallamano
**1/2 / Image: A
Director Dallamano got his own directorship after garnering notice as cinematographer of the first two films in Leone's big-breaking "Man with No Name" trilogy. He knows his way around a gorgeously composed shot, that's for sure, and What might be a weird-ass misogynist sex murder giallo (with a ripping Ennio Morricone score) turns out to be something quite different in this bizarro murder mystery, as a series of cute girls at a local girl's prep school are murdered with a blade to the uterys, as nasty a misogynist MO as giallo has to offer.



Sexy Fabio Testi as Enrico, the sexy (married) man teacher, as the culprit (he can't admit he saw the first killing as he was with a sexy student on a 'romantic' boat ride). The cops peg him as the main culprit. Was he set up his pissy 'androgynous-sexy' teutonic wife (Karin Baal)? It could certainly be a kinky sex thing as misogyny seems rampant in this cloistered Catholic repressive hothouse, but Testi is way too laid for that, the fox in charge of the henhouse who coughs out feathers at every lecture. Why do girls' schools even hire hot male teachers? Seems like they're asking for trouble, but it sure is fun when it happens, unless you're on the receiving end of the killer's gynophobic knife as an indirect result. If it adds up to little more than a surprising twist, at least you won't likely guess who the killer is. The melancholic Morricone score sounds in parts like a cat fell asleep on a mellotron, and maybe that's what happened; Ennio did over 20 other scores that year alone. Whatever he was on at the time, I want some, as his every note is so recognizably iconic, so perfect, even when whole passages are little more than atonal screeches. Oy, would we even appreciate any of these old pictures without him to lead the way?  The image appears sourced from the recent Arrow Blu-ray (which I have, and is recommended).

5. DEATH WALKS IN HIGH HEELS
(1973) Dir. Luciano Ercoli
*** / Amazon Print - A

Typically complex entry in the Edgar Wallace-Italian style tradition, with the daughter of a jewel thief mixed up in a complicated web of intrigue, jealousy, mistresses, a beach house, fisherman, ice slabs, and the witness to a shooting being a blind man who heard the clickety clack of high heels right before the shots. Kind of on the macho side we alternate between the giallo favorite son, George Hilton slapping around peeping tom sailor witness/suspects as he seeks out who killed his ex-girlfriend, and the homicide detective in the white raincoat and his suspiciously effeminate young sidekick. There's cross dressing afoot and we know an ice vendor is gay because he never stops sniffing a giant flower. The print Amazon streams off is clearly the recent Arrow remastering or something and it looks divine, darling - which is 60% of what makes a great Italian film - the other being Stelvo Cipriano's swanky score --the high female vocals cooing wordlessly along amidst the jazzy drums, pipes, and electric harpsichord; the dresses are all in that peel-away Diana von Furstenberg-esque zone of Euro-rotic comfort and color, though there are only a few women to wear them, still... there's nowhere near the dearth we find in our next entry


8. DAY OF ANGER
AKA I giorni dell'ira 
(1967) Dir. Tonino Valerii 
**1/2 / Image: A

Lee Van Cleef is a tough gunfighter out to get paid some past debt on an old gold robbery or something by killing nearly everyone in a one-woman town. Scott (Giuliano Gemma) is ther handsome young orphan garbage collector/stable boy (the stables must have a great dental plan cuz his teeth are flawless). He winds up Van Cleef's star pupil and eventual rival. Turns out Scott's a quick learner (the stable master is a master gunfighter and together they take over the town, killing all the corrupt heads of state and any amount of henchmen and hit men the heads care to buy and throw at them. But the old gunfighter stable operator plays all holier-than-thou and tries to reign them in. It's a common enough plot in both western and Eurocrime drama, but what counts is the that the the action flows fast and furious. There's probably over 30 dead by the end of movie, and Van Cleef is unusually awake. In fact, he seems to be having a rather good time, more so than usual. The picture has been well restored (I took these screenshots to indicate woodwork and colors, stained glass and door frames that caught my eye) and Riz Ortolani adroitly fuses the flavors of classic Morricone ala THE BIG GUNDOWN and Nelson Riddle's slinky work on EL DORADO (both of which came out the same year).   

Sexy Christa Linder shows up out of some Suspira-esque brothel doors, as one of the only women characters (though she gets only one or two lines in a single scene, it's still nice to see her)



Also Recommended on Prime: COMPANEROS: Great Ennio score --good looking transfer, though it seems very letterboxed / non-anamorphic. I haven't seen Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE but the Amazon streaming print looks good, as does THE GRAND DUEL, which I've seen and liked but don't remember. I don't remember DAY OF ANGER either, too similar to too many other of the 'older gunfighter + rash young mentee' spaghetti westerns floating around, but I do remember I found nothing in it to dislike, and at my cranky age, that's everything. 


9. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD
AKA Ercole al centro della Terra
(1961) Dir. Mario Bava
*** (Amazon Image - D)

Their quality is generally far below the rest of the Italian films on this list but I couldn't let you go without mentioning at least one 'peplum' film, and naturally it's Mario Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961), available in its old blurred cropped form on Prime, and in a fairly decent anamorphic DVD from Fantoma. Hopefully it will one day have a Tim Lucas commentary Arrow Blu-ray remaster like the great recent BLOOD AND BLACK LACE.

But in the meantime, you can at least follow the story here, and since Bava does make a nice picture, it looks good even in the shitty cropped dupe. See it this way and wonder, if you dare, how we ever managed to watch films that looked this bad, buying duped videocassettes from the horror convention grey market and never thinking twice about the terrible cropping and streaks.

The story finds a (tragically dubbed by someone else) Christopher Lee putting a spell on Hercules' (Reg Park) girlfriend, Princess Deianira  (Leonara Ruffo) while he's out doing his mighty labors. Herc needs a certain golden apple to save her but it's hanging on a lonesome tree in the depths of the Underworld and all sorts of crazy trials, monsters, and hottie temptations await. Herc's buddy Theseus (George Ardisson --LONG HAIR OF DEATH) meets and falls in love with lovely under-underworld denizen Aretusa (Marisa Belli) and smuggles her out in their boat. Her father, Hades (unseen), is pissed. Plagues (unseen) descend upon the land, and Herc realizes he has to return Aretusa to the land down under.  Theseus, I don't want to fight you! You can guess the rest, right down to the tired comic relief (sporting one of the worst haircuts in film history), but along the way there's a big terrible rock monster (who declares Theseus is too short and proceeds to try and stretch him out like rolling dough), a gaggle of imprisoned sirens, Christopher Lee and his skeleton hand dagger trying to sacrifice Deinaira in a groovy graveyard (echoes of Bava's BLACK SUNDAY from the previous year) and great painterly gels. The robust classical score is by ever-reliable Armando Travajoli (who you'll remember from ITALIAN CONNECTION). See this crappy version long enough to realize you must get the DVD and get to praying for Hades to release the rights and negativo unto Arrow.

10. DJANGO
(1966) Dir. Sergio Corbucci
*** / Amazon Print - B

I can't tell if this is slightly cropped, but either  way, Amazon's picture is clear and seems lifted from the Blue Underground DVD, which I watch religiously.... long ago. BUT they only have the English dub option and its very weird hearing this square VO artist's half-assed Clint Eastwood imitation coming out of la bocca del Franco Nero. He matches the lips rather than the mood, so makes Django sound slightly robotic. As we all know Franco Nero can do his own English dubbing in a very sexy accent, it's most annoying. Luckily we can ease our frisson through Corbucci's fetish for lurid sadism: Whippings, mud wrestling, hand-smashing, and a guy being forced to eat his own ear,  Hey, them sadists all get their comeuppance, so no worries. And when they die they all jump in the air and fall backwards in bloodless pirouettes and our hero can wipe out six men at a time in a single quick draw of his revolver; once he gets his Browning machine gun going he can decimate whole armies. There were about 300 'sequels' to this film, almost none with an actual character named Django and certainly not starring Franco Nero, who was pretty busy in an array of other genres and roles (such as the half-breed KEOMA--also on Amazon in a good looking print). Still, DJANGO is the role that made him an international star. And if you don't have an affection for all the hammy unrealistic mass death Django causes while hand-holding a Browning machine gun then you must have had parents who wouldn't let you play war with realistic cap guns in the back yard. And that's a shame, sez I, for in pretending to get shot and die on a regular basis a child loses all fear of death while also understanding its inevitability and social importance. Being able to do a flamboyant death when shot by a cap gun or just a plastic tommy gun or even just a kid making machine gun noise is much more important than playing it safe and living past the credits, as if there really was such a thing.

It's relevant to note DJANGO came out three years before THE WILD BUNCH so one wonders if Peckinpah got the idea for his big balletic Browning decimation climax from this film (he made sure to pay attention to the need for a tripod, and the hassles of belt-loading). The outdoor stuff is muddy and cloudy but there's lots of nice lighting in the cathouse and the girls are all allowed to have unique characters, interesting dialogue, and chutzpah to spare. The memorable theme song is by Luis Bacalov, sung by 'Rocky Roberts', re-used by Quentin Tarantino, of course.




11. OPERA
(1987) Dir. Dario Argento
*** / Image - B

Argento still had some good films in him by 1987, though many people consider OPERA his last great one. Even so, it's got issues: opera diva Betty (Christina Marsillach) is too thin and wan to be a believable opera star (she'd be a believable music student though, like Eleonora Giorgi in INFERNO) but she's great in the horror clinches. Some deranged opera fan is stalking her, killing her friends and forcing her to watch the murders by taping needles to her eyes in a kind of bloody lash Ludivico on the Run live theater format. He's hoping to inspire her performance, or something. Classy! What undoes the very Italian opera aspect is the very dated use of heavy metal during the big murder 'set pieces'. The effect is like watching your classically-trained teenage daughter come home with a big gaudy tattoo and a biker boyfriend. Maybe metal doesn't have the same dirtbag stigma in Italy it does in the States, but to my jaundiced ears it seems like the best thing Dario could do would be to turn all music choices over to Claudio Simonetti and spend less time letting Swedish Metal bands pester him with their demos. Whew! Got that off my chest.

There's some nice Hitchcockian references, and the genius touch to have an unkindness of ravens whooshing around the giant opera house during a live performance of an opera version of MACBETH, though then even that is kind of undone by the tacky whooshing eye-view camera; in other words, Dario's every genius step into the broken mirror has a backwards stagger.



The Amazon stream image isn't the best, kind of blurry, and the photography has the grungy color-drain look that was big in the late 80s-early 90s, but the cold gray is contra-stepped by the film's warmly familiar (to Italian horror fans) cast: Urbano Barnerini is the blonde inspector; Asia Argento's mom, Daria Nocolodi is Betty's best buddy; Barbara Cupisti is the wardrobe mistress, and Ian Charleson as the Argento-ish director. Francesca Cassola is the rescuing Newt / Alice type neighbor girl who spies on all the apartments through a passageway in the vents and helps Betty escape with timely whispers, leading to the scariest and most fairy tale dream-like (and therefore best) segment of the film; When the score's not Verdi (they're doing his adaptation of 'that cursed play,' MACBETH), there's some interesting synth stuff from Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Claudio Simonetti and Bill Wyman! Can't really go wrong, unless you're also using some hair metal Nordic shrieking from a forgotten Swedish metal outfit called Norden Light for the 'kills'. Oh Dario... your dirtbag is showing!

And man, would it ever more.


12. DEATH LAID AN EGG 
AKA La morte ha fatto l'uovo
(1968) Dir. Guilo Questi
*** / Amazon Image - C+

Questi's seemingly benign tale is rife with weird flashbacks, twists, and ragged editing of an almost Bill Gunn-style sideways termite-Eisenstein off-the-cuff brilliance. Bruno Madera's patchwork soundtrack plunges down in the atonal piano mash abyss one scene and sashays up in bossa nova and Anton Karras zither the next, with shoutings in German over Brazilian violins during the lovemaking, adding to the off-kilter vibe. Story has Alain Delon as Bruno, a bitter pretty boy gigolo married to futuristic chicken coop CEO Gabrielle. He does a lot of skulking around the all white henhouse plotting to take over with hottie personal assistant Ewa Aulin and maybe killing prostitutes with Zodiac scarves. There are egg-related objets d'art-decorated offices and plenty of real eggs in rows. Gabrielle and Anna start dressing up like whores and frequenting Bruno's secret haunts to try to get to the bottom of his mysterious tomcatting. Or do they? (more)

AND HERE, THE SCORES ON SPOTIFY, to accompany your deep elbow bending:

SEE ALSO ON PRIME (Vedi anche su Primo):
10/16: 13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime
10/16: Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime: 12 Psychotronic Vampire Films on Amazon Prime
12/16: I never said it wasn't terrible: 10 Sci-Fi Curious worth streaming on Amazon Prime
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