As part of our ‘convoluted titles’ theme, Dan Lester reviews Roger Corman’s amazingly titled 1957 Vikingsploitation B-movie The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.
Kirk Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a born ‘newspaperman’, who used to have desks in New York and Washington, but is now reduced to filing copy for the Albuquerque Sun Bulletin, biding his time, waiting for the story that will get him back in the big leagues. His chance arrives in the form of luckless shmoe Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), trapped by a cave-in while trying to excavate Indian artefacts to sell at his struggling tourist trap cafe in Esquedero (nowhere, New Mexico). Tatum inveigles himself into the centre of the action by force of will and personality, and creates a media sensation with this victim of the ‘curse of the mountain of seven vultures’. The crowds begin to swarm to Esquedero, the rest of the media descend, (there is a literal ‘media circus’ when the carnival rides move in) and Tatum has to do all he can to keep his story exclusive and ongoing, and should that include getting a corrupt sheriff (Ray Teal) re-elected, and interfering with the rescue plans to draw out the ‘human interest’ drama… Well, so be it.
Co-writer/director/producer Billy Wilder’s scabrous broadside against the mentality of the yellow press should really have dated horribly in the age of blogging, twitter and tumbling print sales. Made in 1951, it’s set in a world of manual typewriters and smoky workplaces, where newspapers and radios rule and TV is the new kid on the block. That it still enthrals is largely down to the fact that it’s as lean and mean as a rattlesnake, a bitter parable of hubris and horror with no room for romance or sentiment. It knows what it wants to say and moves relentlessly towards that conclusion. Appropriately enough it has the virtues of a good tabloid hack, quickly establishing the who/what/where of the characters with minimal fuss and an eye for the telling detail. So we quickly get the measure of Lorraine (Jan Sterling), Leo’s wife, sharp of tongue and blonde of bottle, and she quickly gets the measure of Tatum: ‘I’ve met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time but you…you’re 20 minutes’. Lorraine is allowed a complexity denied your regulation dumb blonde or femme fatale: she’s disloyal, and mercenary, but it’s hard not to feel something for a smart woman trapped in this ‘sun-baked Siberia’. Wilder was once a journalist himself, and this is a writer’s film, carried by crackling dialogue and in thrall to the logic of story rather than box office. The media landscape may have changed but the tale still rings true.
It’s a film of well-used (mainly dusty) locations and well-cast (mainly sweaty) faces, filled with character actors rather than stars. The exception, of course, being Kirk Douglas, who’s another large part of why the film still plays. Chuck Tatum is an extraordinary creation; from the moment he appears on screen reading the Sun Bulletin in a convertible being towed by a truck, he exudes a dynamic energy, a kind of poisonous charisma that sucks the rest of the cast down with him. He looks fantastic in black shirt, braces and Steve Ditko trousers, striking matches from typewriter carriages or one-handed against a thumbnail, monologuing endlessly, pacing rooms that barely contain him. We feel his frustration at his reduced status and watch his eyes light up at the scent of the tragedy that will set him free. Tatum does awful things, but he’s never a monster, and Douglas gives us moments of insecurity underneath the bluster. This is the bilious flipside to the standard American myth, where a man with the right ‘moxie’ and determination can achieve his dreams. The film ends in nightmare, but the dynamic remains the same.
The Eureka release comes with a booklet, original trailer, an informative featurette on the film with Wilder biographer Neil Sinyard, and a great little hour-long 1982 documentary Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man made by Michel Ciment and Annie Tresgott, with Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, and a mischievous Wilder, on the cusp of nothing much, chatting about his life and work.
Watch the trailer:
Initially conceived as the third entry in Nikkatsu’s Rising Dragon series of films, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (Kaidan nobori ryû, aka The Tattooed Swordswoman, 1970) ended up being a very different beast from its predecessors. What was to be a relatively straightforward and somewhat sexed-up ninkyo (yakuza chivalry) flick quickly turned into a kaidan eiga hybrid featuring a bakeneko (a supernatural cat), a change instigated at the behest of studio execs whilst filming was in progress. Not content to merely acquiesce, Ishii took things even further by including elements of ero-guro, the erotic grotesque, a pre-war art and literary movement focusing on sexual and corporeal corruption, destruction and decadence. As censorship continued to relax throughout the 1960s and 70s, ero-guro enjoyed something of a renaissance on the silver screen, as studios were needing new, sensationalist ways to keep people in theatres. This on the fly inclusion of seemingly unrelated elements, coupled with Ishii’s predilection towards an eccentric, iconoclastic filmmaking style, has meant that Blind Woman’s Curse has garnered a reputation for being the most nonsensical and outlandish offering by the Japanese ‘King of Cult’.
In her first major leading role, Meiko Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, leader of the Tachibana gang. During an opening credits fight scene with an enemy gang, she zones in on the rival boss with sword unsheathed but, in the throes of combat, accidentally slashes the eyes of her target’s young sister (Hoki Tokuda), rendering the poor girl blind. Spending the next three years in prison, Akemi returns to the fold in time to take on a new threat, the Dobashi clan, who are intent on advancing on Tachibana turf. A third gang, led by the peculiar Aozora (Ryôhei Uchida) – wearing a curious combination of bowler hat, yellow waistcoat and red fundoshi (loincloth) – is introduced to further complicate the gangland politics of the story.
But in the background of all this, Akio, the blind girl from the opening scene, has also returned and is seeking revenge. She picks off members of Akemi’s retinue, flaying the dragon tattoos that distinguish the gang off their backs, with the aid of two unlikely accomplices: Ushimatsu (played by Butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata), a hunchback companion from the travelling circus where she performs a knife-throwing act; and a black cat, which mysteriously appeared the day she lost her eyesight, keenly lapping up the blood from her wound. Ishii blends this all together into a volatile cocktail that is in part violent, spooky, irrational, intentionally humorous, unintentionally humorous, and borderline hallucinogenic.
Although the film makes more sense than it is often given credit for (but not by much), Blind Woman’s Curse is indeed a wildly uneven work, one that ebbs and flows depending on which mode it’s in, but therein lies a certain appeal. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the film lie in its ero-guro midsection. The circus entrance is adorned with semi-naked dancers and an old man cooking up a wok of wax limbs, and a performance inside involves simulated coitus between a young woman and a dog wrapped in a Japanese military flag. Delving further into the oneiric is a feverish butoh sequence performed by Hijikata, which plays more like an intermission segment than as a scene of any narrative purpose. But it’s when the film turns toward the grotesque and dreamlike that Ishii appears to be most at home. He had just that previous year helmed the delirious Edogawa Rampo mishmash Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), also featuring Hijikata, which possibly makes for a more appropriate companion piece to Blind Woman’s Curse than either of the other Rising Dragon films.
Ishii compensates for the film’s lack of coherence by conjuring a hodgepodge of gaudy yet stimulating visuals. The Fujicolor process lends a garish, funhouse quality to the cinematography, which is further embellished by some of the film’s production design. The Dobashi headquarters is fashioned from perspective-confounding mirrors, cages, trap doors, hidden rooms and torture chambers. The Tachibana, by contrast, operate from a more traditional abode, but this and the nearby market square, which forms part of their territory, offer plenty of design flourishes to feast upon. Ishii is also enterprising when it comes to camera technique. The rain-swept opening credits scene utilises slow motion to emphasise the tumbling of bodies and spurts of blood from blades (presumably) too quick for regular motion to do justice to them. Conversely, other parts of the same sequence are freeze-framed, presenting tableaux of death-in-progress that gleefully mingle the hanging blood sprays with the red kanji that lists the culprits behind this work of madness.
Even though she is regularly sidelined to facilitate the film’s many strands, it was Kaji who perhaps saw the greatest dividend from her involvement (both as lead actress and singer of the film’s theme song), as she would quickly become the queen of this kind of exploitation-soaked cinema throughout the 1970s. Her iconic, murderous glare, would go on to emblemise cult hits such as the Female Prisoner series (1972-73) and, most famously, Lady Snowblood (1973) and its 1974 sequel. For Kaji and/or Ishii fans, or for admirers of this particularly sensationalist period of Japanese cinema, Blind Woman’s Curse will likely sate your thirst. Just prepare to be puzzled whilst you imbibe.
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone, some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.
The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him.
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For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.
There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug.
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After the cult obscurity of Spider Baby (1968), and the even weirder art-house porno trip film Mondo Keyhole (1966), director Jack Hill’s career was sufficiently vegetative to make a drag racing movie offer from Roger Corman look good, and Hill hated drag racing. But inspired by the theme of a man who wins the race but loses his soul, he set out to make an art movie in exploitation guise (again), and succeeded admirably.
The plot is simple: moody racer Dick Davalos succeeds through sheer ruthlessness, wrecking or discarding everyone around him. This morality tale unfolds against the background of figure 8 racing, a stock car race with a lethal intersection in the track. Hill filmed the collisions and, even more scarily, the near-misses, for six weekends and then staged action with his leads to blend in with the most exciting footage, capturing a weird subculture of American sport.
As an action movie, Pit Stop is imperfect, or at any rate highly individual: the dodgem-car violence is abstracted into a series of smashes, interspersed with intense close-ups of drivers. There’s no way to follow who is where, except when a face rotates upside down and we cut to a car rolling belly-up. This is montage as percussion, anticipating the New Incoherence of Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass, in which the violence is not in front of the camera, it is produced by the camera and Moviola bashing fenders.
Hill keeps the energy up between collisions with zestful performances from his rogue’s gallery of cheap players. Davalos was a second-string method guy best known for having played James Dean’s brother. He invests totally in his unsympathetic role, astonishing with his callousness rather than trying to steal our respect. From Spider Baby, Hill borrows two of his beautiful freaks. Her eyes sparkling with a pixilated innocence, Beverley Washburn chews gum nonstop with her huge, smushy lips wriggling all over her face. When she grins, her mouth threatens to separate the top of her head from her body altogether, like a South Park Canadian – for an instant, the cranium seems to dangle upwards on a thread of gristle like a helium balloon on a string.
Sid Haig essays the role of Hawk Sidney, Davalos’s arch-rival and ‘the dingiest driver’ of them all. It’s a role for which the eccentric player is well equipped. Another huge grinner, his crescent moonful of mouth seeming to extend beyond the edges of his face as if he had back teeth made of vacuum, Haig has a vast, long visage made of wet clay, with jagged pores and pockmarks apparently put in with an awl. His lanky body proves unexpectedly adept at quasi-obscene dancing, and surprising subtleties of performance writhe out between his bouts of furious grimacing. He is an original.
Hill also drafted in Hollywood legend Brian Donlevy, or as I call him, Quatermass McGinty, for his last role. Aged, in trouble with the taxman, and at times visibly struggling to get his lines out, Donlevy seems to be either drunk much of the time or else very tired, which is possible since all his scenes were concentrated into three days of shooting. It could have been a sorry swan song, but as with Lon Chaney Jnr’s memorable turn in Spider Baby, the broken-down old relic is afforded respect as a broken-down old relic. The movie doesn’t try to pretend he’s young, a star, or particularly appealing. He’s just happy to be working, and just about able to pull it off. Donlevy was always best as a loud-mouthed jerk, strapped into a corset, teetering on elevator shoes and wrapped in a hairpiece. The corset seems to be gone, and the expanded waistband relaxes him. He’s playing the embodiment of capitalist evil, but we kind of like having him around. We just hope he doesn’t keel over in mid-take.
These pictures are where talent on the way down brushes shoulders with that on the way up, and Donlevy shares screen time with Ellen McRae, a TV actress with a couple movies to her credit, soon to find fame under a new name, Ellen Burstyn. She’s alert, pert and winning: only in a couple of shots does she seem uncertain what to do, when the script has her stand around while the men try to impress each other, and Hill evidently hasn’t had time to either supply her with motivation or frame her out. But when she’s properly on, you can tell she’s the one in this cast who’s going places: the other actors are great, but too bizarre for mainstream success.
Arrow’s disc captures the source material’s sometimes shaky, sometimes graceful cinematography: the blackness of night appears alternately crushed and milky, or pulses between the two in a single shot; there are occasional scratches and variable grain. But the white desert sands, the imperfect skin textures and the flaring lights are sensually beautiful.
Pit Stop has the modest virtues you’d want from a Corman production: pace and aggression. It also has a point, which most racing movies don’t bother with: it takes a political view, and demonstrates the dangerous allure of winning, without getting preachy or po-faced. It makes its points by showing you rottenness and letting you vicariously enjoy it and then retract from it as if from a rattlesnake. Its impact is testimony to Hill’s smart approach, one too few exploitation filmmakers (or filmmakers generally), have taken: ask the question, ‘how can this junkyard thing become the best version of itself possible?’
Watch an interview with Jack Hill on the new restoration of Pit Stop:
Virginie Sélavy and Sean Hogan share their views on the eagerly awaited sequel to The Raid – the 2012 Indonesian action stunner, written and directed by Welsh-born Gareth Evans.
The Raid took everybody by surprise in 2012: a lean and mean, hyper-kinetic, brutal Indonesian martial arts film shot by a Welshman, this unlikely proposition giddily renewed the genre and showed tired Asia and stale Hollywood how it was done. The Raid 2 ups the ante still, not just in relation to the first film, but to action film generally. A prodigious amount of energy has gone into devising super-dynamic, brilliantly inventive fight scenes, choreographed to exhilarating perfection and expertly filmed, with Gareth Evans able to handle elegant wide angles and tightly confined spaces with the same dexterity. The film is one seriously jaw-dropping, breath-taking, gasp-inducing set-piece after another: the toilet cubicle melee, the mud brawl, the car chase to top all car chases, the savage kitchen fight where anything goes, with side distractions courtesy of hired assassins Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man (the latter recalling the enigmatic assailant in Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent). The violence is not only superbly imaginative but full of humorous touches too: Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man in particular have assassination scenes that are as funny as they are vicious, involving claw hammers and a baseball as weapons respectively.
This second helping of 100% freshly squeezed action is, however, slightly adulterated by its narrative ambitions. Where the plot of The Raid was threadbare and fiercely functional, its follow-up attempts to develop a grand crime saga with colourful rival gangs fighting over control of the city, a deadly father-son conflict, and a taciturn hero caught in a hopeless situation (Iko Uwais reprising his role and taking up where the first film left off). Melancholy assassin Prakoso adds to the misguided and tepid efforts at tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, his fate underlined by a particularly distracting use of Handel’s ‘Saraband’. (He is played by Yayan Ruhian, who was terrific as Mad Dog in the previous film, but whose talents are sadly not best used here.)
These, however, are minor gripes, simply because the action is what truly matters here – and what action! Admittedly the radical economy of The Raid had a ruthless perfection that is missing here, but this is not a film that you choose to watch for its story. Despite its flaws, it is impossible not to enjoy this new furious assault on the senses. The whole 150 minutes are a full-on riot of orgiastic violence and preposterous fun: you will be grinning all the way home. Virginie Sélavy
Proof that you can have entirely too much of a good thing, Gareth Evans’s The Raid 2 stands as a curious artefact of what happens when indie filmmaking meets the modern franchise mentality. For whilst feted by grassroots genre audiences as a gritty, no-holds-barred alternative to Hollywood CGI action pablum, The Raid 2 actually bears all the hallmarks of any committee-made studio sequel you’d care to mention: the wearying insistence that bigger equals better; a paper-thin how-can-the-same-shit-happen-to-the-same-guy-twice narrative (along with the obligatory insistence that this is now going to be a trilogy and was always intended as one, honest); and a general unwillingness to realise when one has outstayed one’s welcome.
Opening a short time after the climax of The Raid, the sequel picks up hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) as he agrees to go undercover in a bid to bring down the criminal power structure of the city. The plan requires him to be declared dead, just another faceless victim of the events of the previous film. So leaving his pregnant wife, off Rama goes to prison for two years in a bid to bolster the underworld cred of his new identity, before coming out and immediately infiltrating his way to the heart of the criminal organisation.
What hurts The Raid 2 is not so much this sort of by-the-numbers plotting – The Raid was similarly slight on story – but its pretensions towards being some sort of The Godfather-with-roundhouse-kicks crime epic. Whereas The Raid understood that its slender narrative was merely the means by which it got from Kickass Setpiece A to Kickass Setpiece B, and thus wasted as little time on it as necessary, the sequel deludes itself into thinking that audiences are keen to learn more about its sprawling cast of cut-out characters, rather than simply wanting to watch them kick seven shades of shit out of each other at the earliest given opportunity.
Thus we have such digressions as the return of Yayan Ruhian (antagonist Mad Dog in the first Raid), this time around playing a contract assassin who unwittingly gets caught up in the creaking gears of the plot. We first witness him taking out a gang of hoods who have absolutely nothing to do with the story, then are forced to sit through an interminable dinner scene with him and his ex-wife (the curse of backstory strikes again), before the film finally remembers what it’s good at and throws him into an epic nightclub brawl. But as the fight nears its tragic climax (complete with Handel on the soundtrack for added pathos), you’re forced to consider that all of this has been in the service of a character who’s nothing more than a plot device, and that no amount of hamfisted scripting can make him anything more than that. It’s at times like these that The Raid 2 resembles a rambling old codger reminiscing in the pub, forever talking in circles and never getting to the payoff.
Nevertheless, whilst the film’s timing of punchlines may be slipshod, it is of course the punches that people have really paid to see. And in this regard The Raid 2 definitely justifies the hype, more than surpassing the action beats of the original. Several moments – a combination car chase/fight, a climactic faceoff in a restaurant kitchen – drew admiring applause from the audience, Evans’s grasp of his craft truly demonstrating just how turgid and lazy most modern action movies are. The choreography and stunt work are stunning, often jaw-dropping (one suspects the reason Hollywood doesn’t make films like this is partly because modern health and safety standards preclude it), and these set pieces are certainly enough to recommend The Raid 2 in and of themselves.
It’s just a shame that the film surrounding them is so flabby and shapeless, really only kicking fully into life in the second half. Gareth Evans may very well be the Second Coming of action films, but even Jesus needed a hand occasionally. And The Raid 2 would certainly have benefited from the input of another writer and editor. If (as seems likely) Evans parlays the success of these films into a US directing career, the fervent wish of his hardcore support seems to be that he might bring some much-needed balls to the complacency of modern corporate Hollywood. Fair enough. But what the Hollywood studio system always stood for was discipline and the art of delegation, and The Raid 2 serves as notice of the fact that there are lessons to be learned there for indie filmmakers too. Sean Hogan
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As gorgeous as it is oppressive, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest neo-giallo is an ultra-sensuous, hypnotic trip through dark desires and the disturbing, delicious lines between pleasure and pain, madness and sanity, dream and reality. With a title that riffs on the wonderfully convoluted names of the films that inspired it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears strengthens the potent aesthetic vision of the directing duo’s 2009 feature debut Amer, focusing entirely on pure sensation. In this hallucinatory, obsessive psychosexual dream, every shot is a marvel of composition, every object and texture is fetishized: leather, gloves, boots, jewels, blood, mirrors, blades. Male and female bodies are repeatedly penetrated, skull wounds are shaped like sexual organs, broken mirror shards enter flesh, as sensual ecstasy becomes deadly and lovers turn assailants.
The narrative is even more minimal than in its Italian predecessors – a man is looking for his missing wife – and it serves as the pretext for an intense distillation of the visual and sonic motifs of the giallo. Just as its masters effortlessly found stunning decors in beautiful, decadent Italian architecture, Strange Colour makes great use of the Brussels art nouveau building in which it is set. With its exuberance of organic round shapes, flowery motifs, voluptuous naked women, twisted stairs, stained glass and golden curlicues, the building is like a living organism, the figures on its walls breathing and moaning with the rapture and agony of its inhabitants.
A baroque film composed of giallo elements that are themselves baroque, Strange Colour constructs a dizzying, infinite cascade of doubles and repetitions, of stories within stories and structures within structures, where everything is mirrored, multiplied and fragmented. While it pays brilliant homage to its models, it is compellingly alluring in itself, and its meticulously crafted world of lush excess, sumptuous sophistication and opulent illusion is deeply seductive.
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A rambling title is often a reflection of a rambling narrative; it can indicate either ambition or indecisiveness. There is a reason these long-winded titles proliferated in the late 60s and early 70s – things like William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), Ulu Grosbard’s Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me? (1971) and Paul Williams’s Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), not to mention a slew of Italian giallo films. All of these films have a zig-zagging sense of aimlessness and leisure, a cultural urge to ‘be here now’ that can be alternately transcendent or masturbatory, depending on the film (or the viewer). Underground and commercial cinema alike at this time were quilted with countercultural concerns, sensibilities, techniques and aesthetics – the writing of the Beats, the mobilization of protest movements, the ubiquity of pop stars, the street use of LSD, Timothy Leary’s urge to tune in, turn on, drop out (it’s also telling that many of these film titles come in the form of a question). The mainstream increasingly appropriated the signifiers of the avant-garde in an attempt to woo an exploding youth market (as well as that demographic keen to hang on to their youth for dear life), and in this climate, a title like Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion was likely enough to sell a producer on a project. By the 1970s, when even squares lined up to see Deep Throat in the cinema, it was often hard to tell who was the real deal and who was exploiting the convenience of a double standard. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum said in their book Midnight Movies (1983), ‘the counterculture cash-in peaked in 1970’, and the Italian production Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion is one of many films to tap into that zeitgeist.
But for a film whose title references a narcotic trip, it is surprisingly bereft of any real lysergic sensibility; the opening credits (cropped as they were, from a Greek-subtitled ETC bootleg) are among its few moments of visual experimentation, with psychedelic colour splashes, jarring sonic shifts and fish-eyed shots of Eurotrash starlet Ewa Aulin grooving in slow motion to the tone-deaf eponymous theme tune, sung by Ronnie Jones and penned by director John Shadow – a mysterious figure in the cult film pantheon.
Repeated use of oppressive lighting underscores the predatory nature of John, a tenured college professor (Alex Rebar, later to star in The Incredible Melting Man) who feels his school’s reputation is threatened by rampant drug use among its students, namely the delinquent heroin addict Billy (Italian horror staple Carlo De Mejo, almost unrecognizable without his beard). After a fellow teacher leaps to his death, supposedly under the influence of drugs, John enlists the help of nerdy student Henry (Eugene Pomeroy) to lure Billy into isolation at the professor’s Italian villa with a plan to dry him out. John’s young, subservient wife Elizabeth (Ewa Aulin) is not too keen on sharing her vacation with a heroin addict, but the professor reprimands her for being selfish when ‘that boy’s under the grip of a deadly neurosis!’ John relishes his privileged position as the boy’s saviour, to such an extent that he’s willing to subject his impressionable wife to the druggie’s charms; it only has to be merely suggested to her that she try a shot, and she’s immediately a sweaty, shivering addict. So now John and Henry have two addicts on their hands.
The professor uses every opportunity to torment Billy, and also manipulates Henry, appealing to his loyalty by referring to him as ‘a peer’. But eventually the tables are turned on John as the doped-up Billy mocks his masculinity: ‘Elizabeth, have you ever seen your husband’s penis?’ Under the influence of freshly administered heroin, Elizabeth is liberated, theatrical and aggressive. But while in her stateside breakout film Candy (1968) Aulin’s vacuity was perfectly suited to the part of angelic naïf, here it just seems an embarrassing put-on. The stoic professor’s motto – ‘no emotion!’ – will be tested throughout the film as his experiment veers out of control.
Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion posits itself as a counterculture film, thinking that its parade of non-sequiturs somehow aligns it with the existential kookiness of Bob Rafelson’s Head (1968), the swingin’ free love space-out of Joe Massot’s Wonderwall (1968), the inverted suspense of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Volker Schlöndorff’s A Degree of Murder (1967) as well as various AIP youth-in-revolt and drug films. Unfortunately it succeeds at assimilating none of the qualities that make these films stand out, and instead seems a schizophrenic, somewhat inept cadavre exquis. There is a great sense of temporal dislocation (which is not helped by an unexplored subplot involving some hippies camped out nearby). But as Jonny Redman of cult film site lovelockandload.com has suggested, there is the distinct impression that the film was unfinished.
Aside from its tongue-twisting title, one thing that keeps Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion in the history books is the ongoing mystery about who directed it, and where (and if) it was ever widely released. Although it is credited to John W. Shadow on screen, some have maintained that this is a pseudonym of producer Roberto Loyola, whose eclectic roster also included Sergio Corbucci’s goofy Western Sonny and Jed, Mario Bava’s claustrophobic crime film Rabid Dogs, and the Decamerotic sex comedy Canterbury No 2. The latter (which also stars Microscopic Liquid Subway to Oblivion’s Alex Rebar) is credited to director John Shadow, but it has been argued that the name was a pseudonym for Aristide Massacesi, best known as Joe D’Amato. The name John Shadow resurfaces again as the screenwriter of Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces, also long assumed to be Joe D’Amato.
But a look through the newspapers surrounding Ewa Aulin’s brief fling with fame following the sensational Candy reveals John Shadow to be not only a real person, but married to Aulin from approximately 1968 to 1972. Actor Eugene Pomeroy, one of many young British expats working in Italian cinema at the time, remembers calling the director ‘John’ on set, although he too was confused about whether this John Shadow and producer Roberto Loyola were the same person . Without being able to pinpoint who John Shadow was, it is difficult to discern what may have happened to the film – which appears to have only ever been released on Greek video – and why the narrative’s many tangents are left dangling.
Despite featuring no murder set-pieces, the film nevertheless wound up in the giallo files by association; the giallo tended to be a playpen for all manner of visual and moral excess, and not only was drug abuse one of its staples, but Aulin had appeared in Giulio Questi’s head-scratching 1968 art-giallo Death Laid an Egg (and would later appear in Romolo Guerrieri’s 1971 The Double). Ultimately, the film defies categorization, living on only through its superficial ties to other various sensational subgenres, refusing to follow through on any single element – drugs, music, sexual liberation – that would make its content live up to the countercultural promise of its spectacular title.
(who adores interminable sentences and whose catalogue boasts a convoluted title of its own: House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012). For more information and to pre-order a special limited edition hardback published in May 2014, visit the Fab press website.
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the jukeboxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…
The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be.
Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Waters’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis as a janitor, for Christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.
Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and über-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes that must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next.
Watch the trailer: