Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray), part of ‘George Romero Between Night and Dawn’ limited edition box-set Release date: 23 October 2017 Distributor: Arrow Video Director: George A. Romero Writer: Rudolph J. Ricci Cast: Raymond Laine, Judith Ridley, Johanna Lawrence
This review of George A. Romero’s atypical counterculture drama is an excerpt from horror luminary Kim Newman’s new book Video Dungeon (Titan), which explores the B-movie basement and digs out unexpected gems.
George A. Romero’s second film, made with many of the creatives who worked on Night of the Living Dead, is the odd man out in his CV: a vaguely counterculture-ish, diffident look at the relationship between smart, directionless, no-longer-a-kid Chris (Raymond Laine) and smart, vulnerable model-actress Lynn (Judith Streiner).
Death Walks on High Heels Writers: Ernesto Gastaldi, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood), Dino Verde
Cast: Frank Wolff, Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu
Original Title:La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Italy, Spain 1971
Death Walks at Midnight Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Ernesto Gastaldi, Guido Leoni, Mahnahén Velasco (as May Flood)
Cast: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Pietro Martellanza
Original Title:La morte cammina con i tacchi alti
Italy, Spain 1972
Hallucinations, deadly mediaeval gloves and make-up fetish are the marks of Luciano Ercoli’s entertaining giallo double bill.
This typically lavish Arrow BluRay/DVD box set collects two gialli from director Luciano Ercoli, following up his genre debut, Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1970) with a matched pair of mysteries built around leading lady Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) and more or less the same supporting cast (though the heroine has a different duplicitous love interest in each film).
In La morte cammina con i tacchi alti (Death Walks on High Heels, 1971), Paris-based stripper Nicole (Scott) suspects her useless layabout lover Michel (Simón Andreu) has donned blue contact lenses and a black ski-mask to terrorise her with a straight razor in an attempt to get his hands on some diamonds everyone thinks her murdered jewel thief father left with her. Nicole hooks up with eye surgeon Dr Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff), a fan-cum-stalker who whisks her off to a strange version of the British seaside with pub gossips (including a one-handed handyman with a secret fetish), an ice-delivering fish vendor (crucial plot point), voyeur neighbours and more murderous attacks.
In La morte accarezza a mezzanotte (Death Walks at Midnight/Cry Out in Terror, 1972), Milan-based model Valentina (Scott), duped into taking hallucinogen HDS by her sleazy photojourno pal Gio (Andreu), has a vision of a girl being murdered with a spiked mediaeval glove in the surreally empty apartment across the way. Later, it turns out she’s described a six-month-old crime which has already been solved. The heroine’s alternately sensitive and vicious sculptor boyfriend (Pietro Martellanza/Peter Martell), a desperate widow (Claudie Lange), another sinister doctor (Ivano Staccioli), some hippies and a pair of nasty drug dealers cloud the issue, and Valentina is further imperilled. In both films, Carlo Gentili plays an affably unconcerned police inspector who turns up after every violent outbreak to puzzle things out – though Ercoli prefers to resolve mysteries with shock revelations, sudden attacks, punch-ups (sound effects make fist-blows sound like planks of wood snapping) and rooftop chases.
As in many gialli, the bizarre trappings – weird weaponry, hallucinations, masked heavy-breathers, burbling lounge music, fabulously garish fashions and decors, bursts of ultra-violence – litter plots which turn out to be indecently fixated on money rather than mania. It’s all about the stolen diamonds… or the smuggled drugs. Except, of course, it’s not: these films are memorable because of everything else, and resemble fractured mash-ups of Edgar Wallace Presents programmers with post-Blow-Up swinging psychedelia. Some of the extraordinary frills are so ludicrous as to be almost transgressive – like Nicole’s black-face stripping act in High Heels, which prompts a fetish sex scene as her boyfriend is turned on by wiping off her body make-up.
The vision of a soulless, exploitative modern world revolving around poor, abused Navarro/Scott is cartoonish. Seemingly every man in these films is useless or evil, and both movies eventually despair of masculinity so much that the guy we initially take to be the most repulsive (played by Andreu) is positioned by default as the hero. The scripts – by Ernesto Gastaldi and May Flood from stories by Dino Verde and Sergio Corbucci – feel like several drafts patched together by collaborators who never met (High Heels has a mid-film twist that At Midnight acknowledges as a misstep by not repeating) but Ercoli ringmasters the material for maximum entertainment. Odd funny touches and lines (‘Inspector, he’s a bit less fuddled now’) alleviate the sourness of the genre’s habitual cynicism – so these are among the jolliest, least downerific gialli. When Bava or Argento batter or slice victims’ faces in close-up, you flinch… when Ercoli does it, you can tell he doesn’t mean any harm, really.
The unlikely mix of black magic, undead bikers and Safeway makes this 70s British oddity endurably appealing.
‘Deep shame,’ was how Nicky Henson characterised his feelings about this suis generis exploitation weirdie, when quizzed by Matthew Sweet, but really, though the lovable thespian has obviously had great moments on stage, this is the one he’ll be remembered for. Witchfinder General is the superior film, but it’s not really a Nicky Henson film. Psychomania, God bless it, despite top-lining oldsters George Sanders and Beryl Reid, is Nicky Henson’s film, whether he wants it or not.
As if cobbled together from a fever dream about The Wild One and Polanski’s Macbeth, the film combines black magic and biker gangs, stone circles and juvenile delinquency. The script is by the same duo of blacklisted Americans who wrote Horror Express, and it has the same rather appealing mixture of strange, vaguely clever ideas, goofball nonsense and bizarrely naive exploitation elements. I wish the pair had written a whole bunch more horror films: they had a unique sensibility.
Genre specialist / all-rounder Don Sharp directs ably, starting the film rather brilliantly with slomo cyclists roving round a set of papier mâché megaliths on a misty morning, with John Cameron’s sonorous wacka-wacka score adding a kind of camp solemnity. Sharp had an affinity for overcranking, opening his Curse of the Fly (1965), a belated sequel to the Hollywood teleportation horror, with a surprisingly atmospheric, oneiric nocturnal chase, shot at around 48 fps. He’d also made Witchcraft (1964) with Lon Chaney Jnr. as an unlikely English warlock, and Hammer romps Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), as well as the first two of Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu outings.
Henson plays the biker son of medium Beryl Reid who acquires the power to come back from the dead through a mysterious ritual involving a frog (don’t ask). Sanders plays a butler who might be Satan, or something (I wasn’t totally clear: see what you think). Soon, Henson, looking damned good in his leather trousers, is converting his whole gang to an afterlife of mayhem, running amok in a Walton-on-Thames branch of Safeway.
The film’s take on youth culture is wonderfully peculiar: the bikers bury their leader on his bike in the stone circle to the tune of a folk song strummed on acoustic guitar; the gang wear crocheted waistcoats; nobody smokes (the producers were afraid they wouldn’t be able to sell the film to TV); nobody swears. But they run over a baby in a pram, and that was considered perfectly OK.
The violence and criminality is still slightly shocking, maybe because all the surrounding action is so absurd. The bikers are the main characters, and they will keep killing people. Elsewhere, there is amusing dialogue: ‘Abby’s dead.’ ‘You must be very happy.’ ‘I’ve always fancied driving through a brick wall.’ But then the movie will alternate pathetic, puerile hi-jinks (spanking a young mother in a hot-pants one-piece) with cold-blooded murder. The two tones only come together as black comedy during the impressive stunt sequences where the bikers commit suicide in order to rise again.
Rumours that old pro Sanders killed himself in response to seeing a print of this, his final movie, are doubtless false. The old rogue had gotten himself involved in a crooked business venture, hilariously called Cadco, and was facing possible financial ruin and legal proceedings, a likelier motivation for suicide than either a bizarre horror film or boredom, the cause cited in his note. And after all, the man had already worked for Jess Franco.
Scattered throughout Psychomania are familiar faces from TV shows like All Creatures Great and Small, Eastenders and Dad’s Army, with everyone managing to appear perfectly earnest and, in Henson’s case, actually cool, even though his character is a colossal jerk. The leftist writers appear to have had some kind of critique of youth culture in mind: Henson’s undead cyclist espouses a plan to kill every policeman, judge and teacher in the land, but once back on his bike, he always seems to gravitate back to Safeway.
Much love for Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s deliriously libidinous all-girl rock band melodrama.
***** out of *****
‘This is my happening and it freaks me out,’ declares rock impresario Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar) during his berserker Hollywood party replete with live performances by The Strawberry Alarm Clark, a bevy of boobilicious babes, all manner of fornication and bucket-loads of booze/drug consumption.
Z-Man wasn’t the only one freaking out. When Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Motor Psycho), the king of big-boob cinema extravaganzas, unleashed his first major studio picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls upon an unsuspecting public, audiences, critics and the film’s major backer, Twentieth Century Fox, were freaked out to the max.
For good reason.
The opening few minutes of Meyer’s Roger Ebert-scripted dive into L.A. sleaze pits proceed to bash us in the face with Z-Man and Martin Bormann (Henry Rowland), Z’s loyal bartender, right-hand man and resident Nazi (nom-de-plumed as ‘Otto’), whilst the nutty pair malevolently chase scantily clad babes within a seaside mansion estate. In a climactic moment to end all climactic moments, we cut to a Luger sensually stroking the supple lips of a beauteous-sleeping-big-bosomed-babe until the deadly firearm is inserted erect-penis-like into her mouth, the wet maw eagerly – nay, greedily – accepting the cold-steel schwance-of-death as our dozing dame proceeds to suck it dry.
Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t? (Be freaked out to the max, that is.) (Oh, okay, and suck it dry, too.)
When Meyer and young film critic Ebert were hired by Fox to concoct a vague semi-sequel reboot to Mark Robson’s through-the-roof sex-and-soap-suds adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls, the artistic pursuits of these perfectly matched reprobates flew under the radar of studio executives during the delightful beginnings of the oft-envied, late lamented and much-revered ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ days of American Cinema. The film was so low-budget by studio standards, nobody in the front office paid it much mind, but for Meyer, the budget might as well have been as large as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra.
He did not waste one cent.
Plot wise, things are relatively simple and perfectly in keeping with Susann’s moronically simplistic rags-to-riches-to-rags soap opera. However, the incorrigible lads dole out a cinematic masterpiece of flagrant filth that’s anything but moronic and in its own strangely perverse way is rooted (so to speak) in a queer miasma of morality. If anything the film celebrates perversion to such a deliciously over-the-top degree that the tale cannot help but become a morality play. (That said, the film brilliantly manages to make the morality seem as old-fashioned as it deserves to be – it’s even vaguely derisive.)
So, the film focuses on the buxom Carrie Nations, an all-girl rock band comprised of Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) and Petronella ‘Pet’ Danforth (Marcia McBroom). At first they’re infused with the down-home, corn-fed morals of the mid-western US of A, but in no time, they’re turfing their regular squeezes for a series of libidinous adventures with a variety of partners. One of the cuckolded beaus (David Gurian) even takes up with a porn starlet (Edy Williams) who drains him to such a degree that he eventually can’t even get it up.
Fun and games, for one and all – especially the audience – but as this epic of sin continues, the freedom of youth increasingly morphs beyond the ‘summer of love’ antics, and the evils of both L.A. and show business in general give way to an unholy Walpurgisnacht that unravels during the film’s deeply dark finale. (The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten proclaimed that the film was ‘true to life’. Who are we to argue with this?)
Ebert and Meyer created a work that’s drenched in lurid colour and the colours of sleaze, slime and scum, and we’re allowed to revel in the kaleidoscopic picture with all the giddy laughs it wrenches from us from beginning to end, along with the trademark Meyer montages of rapid-fire cuts – a chiaroscuro of madness and freakishness at its finest. This is sheer sex-drenched melodrama; as a director, Meyer might as well be Douglas Sirk on crack cocaine.
Besides, what other movie features (again, from the highly quotable Z-Man) one of the greatest lines of dialogue in movie history: ‘You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!’
Black sperm, indeed.
Years ago, I met Ebert as a young lad and proceeded to geek him out with my love for the film. He took me for donuts and we spent an hour together talking about it. His final words to me were thus: ‘Never, ever feel ashamed to admit how much you love Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.’
And if you’re listening up there, Mr Ebert, I am not ashamed.
I’m infused with pride to declare my utter, deep passion.
Cast: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson
Alan Clarke’s visionary coming-of-age dream still lingers in the minds of 1970s children.
‘You can tell he’s not a nice man because of his television plays.’
So says Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks), possibly the screen’s least hip tortured teenager, referring to a fellow inhabitant of the village of Pinvin, the lefty playwright Arne (Ian Hogg). Stephen is wholly on the side of the Mary Whitehouse-alike figure popping up in the papers in wanting all this 70s permissiveness and insurrection off the air. He prefers Elgar to rock n’ roll, believes in supporting ‘the Aryan national family on its Christian path’ and is, generally, a priggish, self-righteous, eminently slappable sort. But all this is about to change in writer David Rudkin’s utterly unique 1974 Play for Today. The line seems wryly prescient about Alan Clarke, who hadn’t become pegged as the controversial chronicler of Britain’s violent criminal underclass yet – that reputation began in earnest three years later with Scum. Penda’s Fen would appear to be an odd item on his CV:* it’s rural rather than urban, mystical and elliptical rather than plain speaking, and is largely concerned with the kind of Worcestershire villagers that Radio 4 makes dramas about, rather than the working class ne’er-do-wells that would come to dominate his later social realist works. And this most definitely goes beyond the bounds of social realism.
For Stephen, military cadet, church organist and son of a parson, starts to have dreams and visions, and dreams that turn to visions, interfering with his certainties and upsetting the status quo. He has dreams of sweaty heaving rugby scrums that it wouldn’t take an advanced Freudian to interpret (underlining the repressed enthusiasm he has for the saucy milkman). He will see an angel on the riverbank and a demon in his bed, cracks growing in the church floor, and an unsettling image of smiling mutilation in the Elysian grounds of a country mansion. He will see an aged Elgar himself during a rainstorm and chat with him about the secret of the Enigma Variations. Even his village’s identity becomes slippery. Is it Pinvin, Pinfin, Pendefen? Could it be Penda’s Fen, burial place of the last pagan king of England? Already an outcast at school for his grating piety he will be subjected to increasing humiliations that the masters ignore or condone. He is not what he thought he was. Certainties of race, sexuality and religion are stripped from him, leading to his climactic acceptance of his new identity during a strange confrontation in the Malvern Hills.
Penda’s Fen is an odd beast, a coming-of-age drama of sorts laced with elements of folk horror, full of psycho-geographical ruminations about the layers of history and endless meanings contained within the English landscape. The camera seeks out the sacred and arcane, the choir sings William Blake. It wouldn’t be a 1970s TV drama without earnest political arguments in the Parish hall. But here conversation also turns to the heresy of Manichaeism and the fact that the word ‘pagan’ originally meant ‘belonging to the village’. Modern music and media are unseen and unheard. Clarke’s treatment of the weirder elements is deft and physical and unfussy, his demon is a dark gargoyle straddling Stephen as he wakes from his wet dream slumber, like Fuseli’s nightmare, winningly sticking around when the light’s turned on. He drops out the sound for the hazy visionary sequence where children queue to get their hands lopped off save for the noise of the chopper hitting home. The appearance of Graham Leaman as Elgar sticks in the memory, in his dotage and wheelchair-bound, a ghost haunted by memory. But Clarke was always good with actors, and there are a fair few striking performances here.
It’s not perfect, a sub-Quatermass strand about a horribly burned youth and secret military bases underground is unceremoniously shelved after a substantial build-up. The pacing is uneven, dragging in the early stages, going bonkers in the latter, with a penchant for dense theological discussions in the cornfields in a decidedly ‘tell, don’t show’ mode. It’s a tying together of disparate elements into an ungraspable whole, and I doubt even its biggest fans would claim to wholly get what Rudkin’s getting at in places, but the mysterious is part of its DNA and part of its charm. It carries a rare emotional heft, aims for the visionary and actually gets there. Stephen’s ‘I am nothing pure!’ speech at its climax is unexpectedly rousing, a rallying cry for an alternative England. You can see why it lit a spark in the likes of the young Grant Morrison.
The fact that there were only three channels meant that the one-off TV plays of the 70s could draw a sizable audience no matter how abstract or intractable they were. Beamed once or twice into millions of homes and then never seen again they would often linger as a series of singular images and ideas long after the title and tale had been forgotten. Penda’s Fen is a perfect example of this, a film with followers who might not know its name but remember gargoyles in bedrooms and burning men on green hillsides. It’s wonderful that it’s finally getting a decent release 40-odd years after it first came into the world, its themes still resonant, a strange and impure child.
* Then again, this is the man who gave you Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, cinema’s only snooker-based horror musical. Which is an odd item on anybody’s CV.
Penda’s Fen screens at Close-Up Film Centre on 26 June 2016. For more information and to buy tickets visit the Close-Up website.
Cast: Malgorzata Braunek, Leszek Teleszynski, Jan Nowicki, Jerzy Golinski, Anna Milewska
Original title:Trzecia czesc nocy
Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut is a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.
Set during the German occupation of Poland in World War II, Andrzej Żuławski’s striking directorial debut opens as Michal, recovering from an illness in the countryside, witnesses the murder of his wife Helena and son Lukasz by soldiers on horseback. Back in the city, he joins the resistance and is wounded when a secret meeting is ambushed by the Gestapo. He is saved when his pursuers mistake a man wearing a similar trench coat and hat for him, shooting him before taking him away. In the captured man’s apartment, Michal finds his distraught, heavily pregnant wife Marta. She suddenly goes into labour, and Michal has no choice but to assist her. Struck by her resemblance to his deceased wife, and seeing this as a second chance, he supports her and the baby by returning to his former employment as a lice feeder at a medical institute working to produce a typhus vaccine. But he is riddled by guilt and attempts to mount a rescue operation to save Marta’s husband from the Gestapo.
The film was inspired by the wartime experiences of Żuławski’s father Miroslaw, who co-wrote the script after collaborating with his son on two literary adaptations for Polish television. Central to the story is Rudolf Weigl’s Institute in Lvov (where Żuławski was born), which fabricated a typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht. Like many Polish intellectuals, Miroslaw was employed there during the war, and involved in a project whereby cages of lice would be attached to the legs to feed on a person’s blood. The insects would then be infected with typhus and their intestines dissected to prepare the vaccine. Many intellectuals and underground resistance fighters worked at this institution on this particular form of research and development because lice feeders were given identity papers, and fear of infection kept the occupying Germans away.
From the opening of The Third Part of the Night, a reading from the Book of Revelations heard over shots of desolate rural landscapes, it is clear that this is not a straightforward war film. The Polish underground is evoked through a few elliptical snapshots, but no significant actions: the gunning down of a man, a pursuit by the Gestapo, and the existential musings of the movement’s blind leader. The dominant dark blue colours bathe the film in an oppressive, eerie glow, and the hand-held camera limits the field of vision and heightens the impression of ominous dread and disorientation. The lice-feeding is both a symbol for the apocalyptic times and an astonishing historical reality, signalling that the world has descended into a surreal nightmare in which people are physically and figuratively drained – one character, for example, is said to have collapsed mentally after being fed on in this manner, as though his very identity had been taken away along with his blood.
The swarming insects represent not just the bewildering horrors of wartime, but also its ambiguities. Lice-feeding is ‘loathsome’ in Michal’s words, yet it also offers protection from the Germans. It is a powerful image for a world where everything has become ambivalent, where certainties, moral but also perceptual, are denied. The idea that the old world has collapsed is expressed by Michal’s father, and it is paralleled by the dissolving of Michal’s grasp on reality, as he is alone in seeing a resemblance between Helena and Marta. And where Helena appeared ruthless and cruel, Marta seems gentle and vulnerable, as if the double incarnation of his lover expressed Michal’s ambivalence towards her, as well as the unreliability of his perceptions.
This loss of moral and perceptual certainty is triggered both by the collective trauma of the German occupation and by Michal’s personal struggle to adjust to fatherhood. His sense of shock is made evident by the scene of Marta’s labour: Żuławski cut footage of a real childbirth into the film, splicing reality and fiction, which, as with the lice-feeding, highlights the unsettling strangeness of life, the weirdness of the real. And while this duplication of the family is seen by Michal as a chance to be a better father, the motif of the double has a fatal circularity. Michal and Marta repeat Michal and Helena’s actions, and in the final sequence Michal faces himself in a dead end prefigured in the earlier escape scene. Michal’s flight from the Gestapo up the spiral staircase in Marta’s building in fact offered no issue – except maybe a passage to another dimension of reality, or death.
Żuławski would replicate this scene 10 years later in the notorious Possession, a film that strongly echoes his debut, similarly charting the disintegration of a couple against a historically charged background – in this case, a divided Berlin – using a central doppelganger motif. In Possession, Żuławski fully embraced his tendency to excess, literally materialising the monstrous, grotesque side of reality more obliquely evoked in The Third Part of the Night, but both films offer a fascinating journey into a shadowy world where the nightmare of history blends with personal nightmares.
Andrzej Żuławski will be the focus of a retrospective at the Kinoteka festival, which runs from 7 to 28 April 2016. Read more about Żuławski’s work in our theme section.
Pam Grier’s third outing as a tough 70s Blaxploitation action lady is fun although not as exhilarating as Coffy and Foxy Brown.
After the breakout success of Coffy and Foxy Brown, Pam Grier had become hot property in mid-1970s Hollywood, with studios keen to snap up the head-turning Blaxploitation star. She was, after all, the first African-American woman to become a bona fide leading lady – and she kicked serious butt.
Sensing they might lose her, American Independent Pictures (AIP) ensured she retained lead billing status, with this third round of low-budget action pandering to some extent to her request for less sleaze and more story. As a result, it lacks the gritty charm of those previous outings, although Grier still holds her own with ease.
The story, such as it is, pitches Grier as a private investigator out to beat a local crime pin (D’Urville Martin) who is plotting to do in her dad. The action is set in the director’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Helped by her father’s business partner (Austin Stoker), who has a soft eye for her, Sheba’s pursuit of justice ensures car smashes and explosions galore, with some neat gun play between the sexes along the way. It is as one would expect: fast, frothy and funky (Monk Higgins’s score works well).
Although it received mixed reviews upon its original release in 1975, Sheba, Baby marked the peak of Grier’s screen career, prior to her return in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown more than 20 years later. Blaxploitation became increasingly divisive among the black community with its stereotypes and motifs, before being hijacked by the studios in the years that followed, with stories perpetuating sexual violence and slavery (Mandingo and Drum) signaling the death knell for the genre.
Grier, who began her career as a receptionist at AIP, has endured as the popular face of Blaxploitation over the years. Even this relatively lightweight vehicle shows the star in her element, delivering a series of no-nonsense responses to thugs that dare cross her path. It’s a shame that no one has managed to match her on screen in the decades that followed. Even more than that, it’s depressing and familiar to consider that her starring roles all but dried up after her brief flurry of hits – and that her leading lady status never quite materialised as it should have.
Still, as a companion piece to Coffy and Foxy Brown, it’s worth a spin. Grier is always great value and, as Tarantino knows only too well, a hugely underrated talent. This anniversary set comes with a high definition print of the film, plus a commentary and interview with screenwriter-producer David Sheldon, and featurettes on Grier and the film from critics and enthusiasts.
Cast: William Berger, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edwige Fenech
Original title:5 bambole per la luna d’agosto
A stylish but minor entry in the Mario Bava oeuvre with an Agatha Christie-type set-up.
Following a week long Mario Bava marathon, I approached Five Dolls for an August Moon with some trepidation for two reasons. First of all the cost that I and my family personally paid for the marathon had been brutal and bloody. Secondly Mario Bava himself hated the film, considering it one of his worst movies. For a director to be so forceful in his objections makes the potential viewer pause, but it must be done.
The premise is something out of Agatha Christie. On a remote island businessman George Stark (Teodor Corrà) has gathered a group of people together for a weekend of business and pleasure. Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger) is a scientist whose new formula is the secret motive for the gathering and who will inveighed upon to sell it to George or perhaps his treacherous partner Nick (Maurice Poli from Rabid Dogs). Adding to the industrial intrigue, there’s also sexual shenanigans afoot as Farrell and Stark’s wives, Trudy (Ira von Fürstenberg) and Jill (Edith Meloni) are having an affair. Nick’s wife Marie (Edwige Fenech) is openly dallying with the manservant Charles (Mauro Bosco). Among this bohemian mélange only Jack (Renato Rossini) and his wife Peggy (Helene Ronee) are on an even keel, but the ingénue Isabelle (Justine Gall) stalks the house, a wide-eyed voyeur to the goings-on.
Following a jokey satanic ritual – only Bava would attempt such a red herring – the killings begin at a fair clip. There’s nothing particularly inventive about the kills – quite a few of the victims just get shot! – and the pace of the film doesn’t allow for much in the way of atmosphere. With Antonio Rinaldi’s brightly lit camerawork Bava replaces his mist-laced Gothic piles with postmodern kitsch and a swingy careless ease. The blistering rock soundtrack that punctuates proceedings with blaring guitars lends the film a great 70s feel but does little to promote dread in the viewer. If there were a few jokes, the film could almost be taken as a parody of the giallo genre that Bava inadvertently launched. The plot twists in a way that is so confusing as to be not so much surprising as dumbfounding, and some of the production feels genuinely rushed and slapdash. Bloodless bullet wounds and smokeless gunshots, fiendish plots that make very little sense, a title that seems utterly irrelevant and characters who are barely set up before being summarily dispatched. On the plus side, it is short at just over 80 minutes and an occasional shot will impress – glass balls cascade down a staircase like a pram down the Odessa Steps in one particularly well taken sequence. However, if you’ve never seen a Mario Bava film before I would point you towards several other films before arriving at this self-confessedly minor work.
This sumptuous wuxia classic continues to thrill and enchant.
Somewhere in Ming dynasty China, Gu (Shih Jun) is a sign writer and scroll painter, living with his mum in his 30s and unattached, an embarrassment to her for his lack of ambition. He won’t take the exams that would enhance his status, he hasn’t married, and is far too content to spend his life with ink and paper for her liking. He isn’t lacking for curiosity, though, and observes the arrival of strangers in town closely. Members of the Eastern Group secret police force are turning up in increasing numbers, there’s a blind fortune teller (Ying Bai), and, more alluringly, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), who has moved, late at night, into the creepy house/fort next door. Getting in over his head Gu finds that the latter two are fugitives; he’s a general, named Shi, she’s a warrior whose father has been slain by a corrupt official who has the same fate in mind for her and the rest of her bloodline. Gu is seduced by Yang, by her story, and by the chance to apply the military knowledge he has been acquiring his entire life. But this is not ink and paper, and as the fights, melees and all-out battles ensue, a lot of very real blood is going to be shed.
A classic of the genre, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1970) added an undeniable touch of class to the martial arts movie. It’s long, at an epic 200 minutes, it’s in Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese of the standard Hong Kong chop socky flick, and, whilst fully delivering on wild action, also serves up a fair amount of philosophy and contemplation, ultimately ending up in a decidedly trippy vision of Buddhist salvation that would go down like a lead balloon at a Sonny Chiba all-nighter. Moreover, A Touch of Zen largely eschews the formulaic vengeance dynamics that largely dominates the genre. Its bookish hero fails entirely to undergo training by a master and transform into a death-dealing warrior in order to take out the chief bad guy in the last reel. Instead he is taken on a far less familiar arc, left literally holding the baby as his battles are fought for him, largely disappearing in the third act. This hurts the film a little, because Shih Jun’s Gu is an immensely likeable and engaging character, a 14th-century proto-geek. There’s something child-like about him, dreamy and detached, and overtaken by his enthusiasms. His loss of innocence when confronted by the actual corpses that all of his invention has led to is genuinely distressing. Miss Yang also surprises, less for being so damn kick-ass with a sword or throwing weapon, which must have been unusual in 1970, if less so now, but for her no-nonsense attitude about what she wants and what she’s prepared to do. We can glean her inner turmoil from her furrowed brow, and we understand from the tragic past story what has happened to make her this way, but in her onscreen time she is taciturn and self-contained and, in Hollywood terms, bracingly unsentimental or sympathetic, in a manner that would still be refreshing and novel in modern cinema.
There’s a distinct change of tone for the last act, in a fashion familiar to fans of Eastern cinema. The mystery story with spooky overtones that dominated the narrative gives way to a series of running skirmishes against a new Eastern Group enforcer. Yang and General Shi come to the fore, and are in turn sidelined when the abbot of the monastery to which they are fleeing (Roy Chiao) takes the stage. That the film is not totally derailed by all this gear crunching is mainly down to King Hu’s film-making suss. A Touch of Zen is, if nothing else, an extraordinary piece of visual storytelling. It’s fascinating to see how Leone’s Westerns, themselves inspired by Kurosawa’s samurai films have been absorbed into this Taiwanese concoction’s stylistic bones, but A Touch of Zen is more mystical and multifarious than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and has its eyes on more than gold. The film sets its scene with images of spider webs, moves on to countryside scenes, and shows us around the abandoned fort, with not a single human figure in sight for the first five minutes. Large sections are wordless, where composition, choreography and Wu Dajiang’s impressively expressive score combine to create a fluid whole. It’s about faces and figures moving in and out of shadow, beams of light cutting through smoke, and landscape after landscape. Hu’s restless camera doesn’t merely observe, it aims to bedazzle and concuss and terrify, summoning different moods and atmospheres depending on the demands of the story, progressing through dust and rock and rain through to the final reel’s colour negative and lens flare delirium. It’s a hell of a journey, taking us from, if not Loachian realism, then at least a recognizable domestic world, through increasing levels of stylised bonkers-ness to end up in the ballpark of spiritual transcendence. The latter fight scenes are of the typically gravity-defying, physics-denying kind, which would later be found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its ilk. Wang and Shi leap from forest floor to treetop and treetop to bad guy, dodging daggers along the way, each scene as delineated by setting and style as the musical numbers in a Gene Kelly flick. It’s fucking cinema, baby, and if you don’t get a jolt of sheer delight from such exuberant nonsense then I pity you.
For all that, it’s not flawless. The tonal shifts are jarring in places, the Scooby gang business of the haunted fort sits uneasily in the same film as the darker past, with its betrayal, torture and murder. And the third act feels like a sequel, of sorts, to the tale we have become invested in. It’s energetic and enthralling stuff, but sidelines characters we know to focus on, the Abbot, who’s pretty much the concept of Deus Ex Machina in person, stepping in to wrap things up where Gu, Wang and Shi have failed. These are quibbles; A Touch of Zen’s status as a classic is thoroughly deserved, it’s a wonderful thing, and looks and sounds fantastic in this Masters of Cinema restoration.
Bonuses include a booklet (including a vintage interview, Hu’s notes on the film from the Cannes 75 press kit, and the original short story that inspired the film), a documentary on King Hu’s cursed and blessed career and a great video essay on the film by David Cairns.
Cast: Kurt Raab, Jeff Roden, Margit Christensen, Ingrid Craven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Produced by R.W. Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel’s take on real-life serial killer Fritz Haarmann is restrained and stylised.
On paper, Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) is an unlikely project, to say the least. The film was produced by legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but bears little similarity to his powerful and astutely observed social dramas; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Fassbinder tackling the story of a prolific German serial killer in one of his own films. It was obviously a very personal project for long-standing Fassbinder associate Kurt Raab, who wrote the script and starred as the vampiric, cannibalistic killer. Another Fassbinder contact took the director’s chair: Ulli Lommel, later known in cult circles as the director of the supernatural slasher flick The Boogey Man (1980).
In the wake of World War Two, Fritz Haarmann lives out a comfortable existence, thanks to a campaign of petty crime: fraud, theft, black-market racketeering. He’s a convicted homosexual with a long rap sheet (homosexuality was illegal in Germany at the time), but the overworked and understaffed police turn a blind eye to his activities because Haarmann is a valuable informant. Haarmann himself exploits his police connections by regularly ‘patrolling’ the local train station, which feeds into his secret career as a brutal serial killer who preys on young men and boys, many of them drifters who take shelter at the station. After each kill, Haarmann always has plenty of fresh meat to sell to his friends and neighbours, and give as presents to his police friends.
Despite the grim subject matter, Tenderness of the Wolves is relatively restrained. Although violent and bloody scenes do feature in the film’s final third, for much of its length it focuses on a stylized representation of Haarmann’s life and his interaction with others. While it’s clear that he is killing people, the acts are not depicted, just the initial meeting and the subsequent distribution of ‘meat’. This is not without interest, but it does rob much of the film of any tension or suspense, leaving Tenderness of the Wolves left to survive mainly on Kurt Raab’s distant, slightly otherworldly performance. Raab is consistently excellent as the shaven-headed monster, but like the film as a whole, he seems to move at a deliberate and stately pace, as if forced to figure out his every move in advance, step by step. How much enjoyment you derive from the film is largely dependent on your tolerance for its slow pacing, but Tenderness of the Wolves is not without its rewards.
Director Ulli Lommel has had a varied career, to say the least. Born into a showbusiness family, Lommel’s father was a prominent stage comedian who appeared in a number of films in the 1920s and 30s. Like his sister, Lommel took to stage early in life. In the mid-60s he formed a friendship with then-theatrical director Fassbinder. When Fassbinder began moving towards cinema, Lommel went with him, first as an actor, then as a scriptwriter and director. By the late 1970s he had moved to New York and become associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, eventually directing films, including Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and Blank Generation (1980), both of which featured Warhol himself. They also brought him into contact with actress Suzanna Love, a wealthy heiress that Lommel would later marry. Lommel and Love made a series of low-budget horror films together, including The Boogey Man, psycho-thriller Olivia (1983) and witchcraft revenge story The Devonsville Terror (1983), all of which are quirky, interesting takes on standard genre frameworks. From there Lommel directed a series of increasingly dull, anonymous action flicks and TV movies. He resurfaced in the 21st century with a string of zero-budget zombie and slasher movies, most of which showed absolutely no evidence of the talent and ability that Lommel’s earlier films demonstrated.
Watch the Arrow Video Story to Tenderness of the Wolves:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews