Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Woman (2011)

Riding a wave of controversy, including well-publicised screening walk outs at major festivals, Lucky McKee's The Woman is receiving the kind of response that Lars Von Trier's The Antichrist (2009) and the recent A Serbian Film gained.

The film opens as a continuation of  the film Offspring (2009) - also based on Jack Ketchum's novel - with a wild, feral creature (Pollyanna McIntosh - also in Offspring) that has lived all her life, undiscovered, in the deep mountainous areas of America. We then cut to a well to do all American family, father and mother, two daughters and a son. While the son (Zach Rand) is urged to keep practising his basketball skills, the daughters seem largely ignored and the eldest, Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) is becoming more isolated in school, leading her teacher to think she's pregnant. The wife, Belle (Angela Bettis - a veteran of Mckee's films) keeps the house clean but is reticent to allow it to be used to entertain the family friends. Father, Chris (Sean Bridgers) is a successful lawyer whose hobby is hunting.
It's during one of his hunting trips in the woods he comes across the feral woman, bathing her injured stomach in the lake. Using his gun sight as a way to be voyeuristic, and attempting to keep out of sight he is drawn instantly to this untamed woman. After getting the family to pitch in to clean and sort the basement, he heads back out to the lake and captures the woman. Chained to the wall, he quickly learns she is not friendly when she bites the top off of one of his fingers. Punching her several times as a punishment, he just remarks "that is not civilised behaviour"
The family are introduced to their new "pet" and he tells them he will tame her and make her normal.
When Belle questions the ethics of keeping the woman like that, she is slapped across the face in an unflinchingly violent way by Chris.
It is clear the monster here is not the woman, but the man. In his controlling ways and misogyny he is pure evil and before long you are wishing for him to get his comeuppance. When the violence and gore begin - don't worry there's plenty of that - it is so sickening and brutal that it's almost understandable that people walked out, but it is not done just for the sake of it, this is family drama that is played out in many households that no one ever hears about. It's just they don't also have a wild woman in the cellar waiting to rip your insides out and eat them too. Apparently the arguments of many of the walkers were that this was an anti-woman film, if that's true, then they totally missed the point.

The main gripe I had with the film was the often inappropriate music that is played over some of the scenes. Sometimes the alt-rock lyrics complemented the visuals but for the most part it did not, but maybe this was intentional to make the viewing even more uneasy?
It's not a film you could recommend as a "good watch" but it's well made, and the fact it doesn't just go for the easy cliché of family in jeopardy from wild beast is good.
7 out of 10 but approach with caution.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Scala Forever preview : Thundercrack! (1975)

As part of the currently running London festival Scala Forever - a celebration of the infamous Scala Cinema - some of the oddest, greatest and obscure films from cinema history will be screened on a variety of screens and venues across London.Genre standards Russ Meyer, John Waters, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento rub shoulders with cult Euro fare and genuine cinema legends like Alfred Hitchcock, The Marx Brothers and, on the opening night, King Kong. Over the course of the 6 weeks there is so much to see, it makes me wish I could spend even more time in 'that London'. Sadly, It looks like I'm going to be stuck up here in Manchester for the most of it. Big sulk. To make up for it, I'm planning on watching and re-watching some of the films as a mark of solidarity.

One film I'd like to bring to attention (so to speak.. you'll understand in a moment) so you don't miss it, is Curt McDowell's Thundercrack! (1975), a black and white film which almost is indescribable.
What starts off like a old style old dark house film, taking place during a heavy thunderstorm (hence the title) A group of characters take shelter in the house of Mrs. Hammond (Marion Eaton), who looks like the departed angelic songbird Amy Winehouse*  doing an impression of Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,  who is a lonely widow getting drunk,  and before opening the door to her first house guest has to draw on her eyebrows, put on her best wig, force herself to be sick in the toilet, drop the wig in and promptly put it back on.

She is the not the only bizarre character we will meet though, there's a religious fanatic Willene (Maggie Pyle) who, seeing Mrs H's dishevelled state insists on giving her a bath. While doing so, she inadvertently masturbates her. Did I say this wasn't your normal, mainstream film? We find out that Mrs H's husband died, and her son 'no longer exists'. More people reach the house to try ans shelter the relentless storm, one of whom is the husband of a famous girdle manufacturer/retailer, who died in an accident involving her girdle catching fire. From that moment on, whenever he has tried to be with a lady, the fact they all wear his late wife's girdle designs makes him fail to rise to the occasion, shall we say. As the house fills with stranded motorists, the action and perversion is just beginning. I won't attempt to summarise all the inmates of the cinematic madhouse, but be assured you will never see anything of its like again!

If you thought John Waters pushed the boundaries of taste, then McDowell surely steps over them. Having said that, I wouldn't say Thundercrack! is as shocking as some of Waters' best. (well, when you see the proper uncut versions of Waters' films, not the slightly sanitised UK cuts). Sure, there is full blown (literally) hardcore porn scenes - all performed by the proper actors, not stand ins that were filmed afterwards by some exploitation producer and inserted (I can't help it the puns write themselves) later. Marion Eaton really uses a (very) large peeled cucumber in her hoo harr.. It's worth pointing out she would later appear in mainstream films, the best known being Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat (1990). The director's sister, Melinda is one of the other women. He directs her doing all manor of naughtiness. There are people using toys, dolls, straight and gay sex (maybe the one thing that would put off some of the less open minded sleaze lovers). To top it all off, the films' writer, George Kuchar steals the show as Bing, a circus employee who is driving a truck full of animals (which all escape leading to a brilliant shadow of an elephant passing the front door) and a horrible secret which threatens the motley bunch. Add in the mad Mrs H's husband pickled in various jars in the cellar, and her son who, after a visit to Borneo to add to his collection of sex objects (all tried out by our heroes and heroines), was cursed and as she keeps repeating 'no longer exists'.

Thundercrack! works on many levels, part black comedy, part old dark house spoof, part porno, part Tennessee Williams.The version I managed to find was the 152mins version, (I'm not sure which version is being screened at Scala Forever as the theatrical cut was apparently just 120mins, and a version of 95mins circulate on the grey market) and I can honestly say when it was finished I was surprised that 2 and a half hours had passed. A special remastered version has been promised on DVD for a while - it will only be available through the official website apparently, but that seems to have vanished from the net. You will, however, definitely NEVER see this in your local HMV store.
It certainly is one to check out, so I recommend you get down to the Horse Hospital in London on September 20th yourself and find out what the fuss is about.
9 out of 10
Update: 6th September, Thundercrack! screenwriter and Bing in the film, George Kuchar passed away. R.I.P.

*yes that's sarcasm

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Retro review: Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934)

Dwain Esper is renowned in film history as a poverty row, bad film maker. Maniac is particularly singled out as one of the worst ever made. Now, I'd like to go on record and say that is not true. Not by a long chalk. There are hundreds of films much worse than this.
In order to get round the codes of film conduct imposed at the time, Maniac is presented as an education piece. An introduction tells us about fear, being a psychic disorder and that it is highly contagious and infectious. We live in an age when unhealthy thoughts creates warped attitudes and in turn create criminals and maniacs. Actually quite wise words, especially in this day and age.
Maxwell, pre-dating Henry in Eraserhead by many years...

Dr Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter) is a doctor whose experiments in bringing dead cats back to life is ready to be tested on a human subject - shades of Lovecraft here - so he decides to go to the morgue and collect a subject. He is aided by Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), an ex-vaudeville impressionist who is on the run (we never know what from). Dressed as the coroner, Maxwell and the Dr examine a young female suicide victim, and inject her with the serum the doc has been working on. As she is coming around out of death, they are watched by two embalmers who, it has to be said, are obviously not actors. 
The doc wants Maxwell to find a body for him to transplant the heart he has kept alive in a jar, an idea and vision also used in one of my favourite films of all time - Michael Curtiz's Doctor X (1932). When he fails to bring a body in, the doc suggests Maxwell shoot himself so he could bring him back. He is handed the gun, and promptly shoots the doc. He is interrupted by  visit from a Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller - NOT the famous one, by the way), who is concerned about her husband who is having hallucinations and is convinced he is the orang-utan killer in Murders In The Rue Morgue - the Bela Lugosi version of the story had been released in 1932 and one of many Edgar Allan Poe nods - and insists the doc sees him. Panicking, and spiralling further and further into madness, Maxwell uses his stage skills and takes place of the dead doc. He injects Mr Buckley with 'super adrenalin' by accident, and he goes 'ape' and abducts the re-animated suicide victim, taking her out into the woods and stripping her.
Hays code busting boobage!

The power and deception of being the doc is driving Maxwell more and more insane. He bricks the docs body up in his cellar - more Poe - and, horrified that he is being watched by the doc's cat, Satan, grabs the feline and plucks its eye out - All in view of the camera, I must point out. Then to further cement his madness, eats the eye - "just like an oyster, or a grape!"

Maxwell's wife, on the other hand - a showgirl, who we meet in a changing room with lots of scantily clad girls - has found out the he had a rich uncle who has died and left him a fortune. So she goes to seek him out. Under the heavy influence of paranoia, he believes she wants to him for the money, and that Mrs Buckley wants him to kill her husband. He conspires to get the two women to do away with each other. Trapped in the basement the two women have a screeching cat fight, involving plenty of torn clothes and some quite frankly harsh violence. The police arrive just in time to discover the cackling Maxwell and feuding girls. They are also alerted to the doctor's corpse behind the brick wall by the cat's meow. Maxwell's descent into madness is complete and justice is done. 

An exploitation film far above it's reputation, Maniac is ahead of it's time in its depiction of violence and nudity, and some very questionable animal rights issues but for all it's faults it's a striking early horror film. The ultimate mad doctor film maybe. Reoccurring images of fighting cats are interspersed throughout the film - cats with mice, cats fighting cats and cats fighting dogs - which are paralleled with the girl's fight in the cellar at the end,  and there's even a strange man who lives next door who breeds cats for their coats!  It's worth pointing out for the animal lovers out there the cat that is used in the gouging had already lost it's eye, and is a totally different colour to one used in the scenes leading up to it. However, it does appear that to achieve the cat's 'leaping into frame' shots, they just threw the feline and hoped for the best. Not too bad, I suppose since they are meant to always land on their feet, but doesn't look good to the one that goes into a plate glass display case! Myself, I hate cats (totally allergic to them) but will officially point out I do not condone cruelty to them (but it's fun to watch!)
The film owes more than a nod to Edgar Allan Poe, with at least three of his stories referenced, if inadvertently. The Black Cat is the most obvious, but there are recurring images of eyes, Maxwell becomes convinced the cat, and the women have a 'gleam' in their eyes - a nod maybe to The Tell Tale Heart? - The cat, by the way ends up eating the heart the doctor has beating in the jar! Also, of course the mention of The Murders In The Rue Morgue -a Poe tale. Also, H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West - Re-animator may well have been the inspiration for the doctor's serum.
Maxwell's decent into madness is often overlaid with stolen images from an obscure Italian silent film, Maciste All'inferno (Maciste In Hell) and there's plenty of stock footage of racing police cars. There are several parts however that are genuinely shocking - the gouging of the cat's eye for one - and some just plain shocking - the acting, and the out of focus camera work. Even the over the top dialogue is entertaining. But for all it's faults, it's an enjoyable 50 minutes of film. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It's no Citizen Kane, but it's entertaining, and isn't that what films are meant to be? Esper made movies to make money, like everybody does.Like HG Lewis and the like later, he used exploitation techniques to do so, what's wrong with that? The people wanted to see that sort of thing obviously, and the cheaper he made them, the more he'd make. Good business sense! He also made films exploiting the drug scene (Narcotic, Marihuana - the films spelling, not mine!) and about STDs, Sex Madness (aka They Must Be Told). He is often wrongly assumed to be behind the infamous anti-drug exploitation movie Reefer Madness (originally called Tell Your Children) but he had nothing to do with that, other than being behind it's re-issue - which he also did with Tod Browning's Freaks.
In fact, go over to the internet archive where, as it's public domain, the film is available free.
A fun early exploitation flick, worthy of a better reputation
7 out of 10.
As a footnote, a good warm up for this, and re-create a 1930s grindhouse double bill would be Esper's short "How To Dress In Front Of Your Husband", in which he warns of the perils of peeping toms with cameras as an excuse to watch Elaine Barrie Barrymore (then the wife of screen legend John Barrymore) disrobe. This is contrasted with Trixie Friganza, (who had an uncredited spot in the sound remake of the Lon Chaney classic The Unholy Three) a rather rotund and ungraceful vision, to be fair. Nice and sleazy does it....

Friday, 12 August 2011

American Grindhouse (2010)

An new documentary on the still in vogue genre of "grindhouse" Over the past few years a few films have come out in the forced 'style' of the grindhouse film, kick started by the Tarrantino/Rodriguez film, which was a brilliant idea, with it's fake trailers and missing reels, but was not a big hit with the cinema paying audience. (hence the release of the two films separately). More and more films are having the style applied, some very good (Hobo With  A Shotgun) and some horrendously bad (the Norwegian I Spit On Your Grave rip off Hora).
A collection of talking heads and film clips that benefits from being a little more in depth than some others I've seen and takes us from the dawn of cinema to the 'usual suspects' of the 70s classics and beyond.

With contributions from two of my favourite directors, John Landis and Joe Dante. American Grindhouse is easy to watch, and very informative. Narrated by Robert (Jackie Brown) Forster in a dry 'obviously just reading it' tone but the input from the academics and directors more than makes up for it. People like Fred Olen Ray, David (Last House) Hess, William (Maniac - also behind Blue Underground DVD) Lustig, Jack (Spider Baby) Hill, the wonderful HG Lewis, blacksploitation star Fred Williamson and in what was probably his last interview before his death in 2009, Ilsa director Don Edmonds, amongst others. The winner of 'tache of the doc goes to the wonderful Ted V. Mikels although Landis' beard always entertains.
One particular section intercuts the shower scene from Psycho with the bath scene in Blood Feast, to show the similarity the two movies, no matter how much of a difference in quality there was. There's plenty to learn, even if you've seen other 'midnight movie' type documentaries, and the DVD is packed full of extras in the shape of trailers and stills galleries. In fact there's so much I haven't gone through them all yet. Its also a great documentary to add films to your shopping list of must see movies! There were at least a dozen I hadn't seen that I must track down!!
Don't be afraid! It's only Don Edmonds director of the Isla films.
Uncle Russ at work.

Very highly recommended. It's available on Region 1 DVD, but also in a double pack with another good documentary Nightmares In Red White And Blue.  
9 out of 10

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

La Herencia Valdemar II : La Sombra Prohibida (2010)

paul naschy valdemar
After a wait that seemed forever, but has only actually been about 11 months, the follow up of the story started in the superb La Herencia Valdemar (The Valdemar Legacy) has hit DVD. (*Spain only again so far...*) For a more in depth look at the first film, check out my Starburst Magazine Column from July/Aug. La Sombra Prohibida (The Forbidden Shadow) starts with a quick re-cap on the first film, then is straight into the story of the missing taxation expert Luisa (Silvia Abascal), who has escaped her captors, only to be almost run over by her boss Eduardo (Rodolfo Sancho), who is en-route to the Valdemar house at the insistence of the company owner, the sinister looking Maximillian (Eusebio Poncela).She takes refuge in an old gypsy woman's caravan, but is soon back in the clutches of the bad guys. Lots of things happen very quickly and sadly, the story telling in this second part is a little too jumbled to recap without having too many spoilers. There is a new character introduced in the shape of Santiago (Santi Prego) who is both creepy and slightly sympathetic. He attempts to help the stricken good guys but things are not always what they seem..

Paul Naschy's role as the servant Jervas is kept to only a small number of scenes, but you can see he is not very well so it's probably fair enough (the film is dedicated to the legendary actor's memory), the 'flashback' scenes as such are kept very brief, basically just to set up the rest of the story.
paul naschy valdemar lovecraft

I was really looking forward to this film, as the first part was such a fantastic little tale and well executed (in my opinion) but I'll be honest, I was very let down. Like I said, the story got kind of puddled, I think they tired to do much in the short time they had, and the much anticipated appearance of Cthulhu (not a spoiler - it's on the poster and was in the "continued..." section at the end of the first film) is spectacular, but far too short. The visual effects don't seem as strong in this part either, which is surprising.
It's certainly not terrible, but coming after such a strong first film, I had hoped the story would have had a better pay off. The modern day part of the story I guess just wasn't as well thought out as it should have been. A shame. A wasted opportunity. 6 out of 10
valdemar cthulhu lovecraft