Friday, July 31, 2009


All work and no play makes Samuel a dull boy, so I've taken a brief break from my current preoccupation with The Canon to look for something a bit more wild. It didn't take long to find that something. What I found was this trippy bit of hippie horror from a then-still-rare female director, and what kept me watching was an obvious directorial enthusiasm that transcended and nearly made a virtue of the film's budgetary limitations -- and a relentless tide of female nudity.

One detail that gives Blood Sabbath a bit of historical interest, for historians of trash pop culture, is the star turn by Tony Geary, later to be daytime television's most popular rapist. Here he's David, a young man with a guitar wandering the countryside. He's a classic American loner and isolato, so much an outsider that hippies pick on him. Does he want a beer, they ask him from their hippie van, only to spray the can in his face and flash boobs at him as they drive away.

Those damn hippies. A body can't sleep in the forest without them making noise with their wild parties and all that loud nudity. They won't even leave a man alone! Four naked women pounce upon the reposing David; his response is, basically: "What the hell? Ow! Leave me alone!" Now, many reviewers on IMDB have questioned why this young man should recoil so when presented with such a bounty, but I have to say that the critics are absolutely right. But we can't stop David from running away like it was Sadie Hawkins Day, tripping on a rock, and falling into a river. "Is he dead?" the hippie girls ask, but they lose interest before reaching a decision.

David (Tony Geary) fights his way free of a nubile wall of flesh in Blood Sabbath. Idiot.

David comes to on the riverbank and finds another woman, a clothed woman, bending over him. This he likes, whether because she's clothed or because there's just one of her. Indeed, he's smitten and wants her to keep him company. She'd like to, she says, but she can't stay, and into the water she goes. The next thing Dave knows, he's looking into the grizzled face of Lonzo, a local codger, who asks our hero where he's from. "I'm from Vietnam," David answers. So we know that he has issues. Indeed, these issues will manifest themselves a few times more later in the film. So he's a troubled Vietnam vet, but that's okay, because the clothed girl, Yyala, happens to be a water-nymph. So what we have shaping up here, in high-concept terms, is something like Jacob's Ladder meets Splash.

So she's a nymph. You could do worse. There are witches in the vicinity you see, and you know David wouldn't like them because those evil, attractive young women go about butt naked most of the time. But hanging with the nymph has its own complications.

Yyala: You are of the land, and I am of the sea. You have a soul, David, and I do not. I may not love anyone who has a soul.

David: I can't just give up my soul....Even if I wanted to get rid of my soul I wouldn't know how. But you must know a way!

Yyala: The danger is too great.

Dave's determination to be rid of his soul (you know, the better to love somebody) grows stronger with time, but advice is hard to come by. "Don't ask me about souls!" an irate Lonzo protests, "What do I know about souls?" "Well, who else can I ask?" David complains. Well, what makes him think Lonzo would know anything about the subject. Might it be that Lonzo annually collects a girl child from his village and leaves it up on the mountain for the witches to collect? And what has that to do with Dave's flashback to 'Nam, where he apparently killed a child?

As Blood Sabbath shows, one of the reasons the U.S. lost in Vietnam was because brave warriors like David often had to fight without any visible support. The war effort probably had hardly more budget than this movie did.

During a visit to the village festival, Dave plays a hunch and strikes up a conversation with the local Padre. "You know all about souls, don't you, and how to save them?" he inquires, "Would you know how to go about losing one?" The Padre (I capitalize it because this is all the name he gets in the movie) replies wisely, "Has the tequila gone to your head?" When David persists, the man of God has himself a little conniption fit, calling our hero a freak (well?) and driving him out of the cantina. Like he has a right to be righteous. It turns out that he has some sort of modus vivendi with Alotta, Queen of Witches. There's something about Dyanne Thorne, I guess, that makes a mere name inadequate. She needs a good epithet like "Queen of Witches" or "Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks." She has naked witches on call to entertain the Padre, but he's not in the mood tonight. "Are you resuming the BLOOD SACRIFICE!?" he challenges.

Alotta, Queen of Witches (Dyanne Thorne) knows how to treat guests, but one of the peculiarities of Blood Sabbath is the fact that no one, apparently, likes to be surrounded by horny, naked women.

You see, this sacrifice thing normally isn't as bad as it may have first sounded. As Lonzo finally explains it to David, he leaves the girl on the mountain, the witches pick her up, remove her soul, and raise her to be one of them. Where's the harm --but let's backtrack a moment. "Remove her soul?" Why, I think that's a little light bulb buzzing to life above our hero's head. Why couldn't he take the place of this year's little girl and get a free soul-ectomy. Then he and Yyala could be together forever and ever and ever and ever.

By normal standards, Dave, being a grown man and all, isn't exactly junior witch material. But Alotta (Q.O.W.) takes the offer anyway, though she doesn't care for the whole running-off-with-the-water-nymph idea. "Yyala is inconstant and short-loving," she warns, while I guess she or any of her subordinates would love him long time. Whatever. Dave will work out the contradictions later. For now, his mighty word is, "Yes, take my soul, damn you!"

It's time for a solemn ritual of the witches: the soul-ectomy. You can tell it's a serious occasion because the witches dress for the occasion in bikini bottoms. So clad, they warm things up with some sacred hoochie-koochie dancing before Alotta brings David to the altar. He is laid out, albeit with a discreet covering over the crotch, and the ladies love him up to the point where his double-exposure self (uncovered) up and leaves the room. From this point, David is "free," as he proves by romping around in the woods until the procession of witches, a bit more clad this time, catches up with him. Now we're really serious, for this is the BLOOD SACRIFICE that the Padre fretted about. It's the turn of one of the witches to be laid out on the altar, but there's no loving up for her (and the lack of witch-on-witch action is a grave omission from this film; the closest we get is another witch straddling the victim on the altar and screaming); only a dagger in the throat. Blood fills a ceremonial goblet for Dave to drink from. Feeling quite soulless now, he dashes off to Yyala. Soulless herself, she is nevertheless quite repulsed by the sight of Dave's bloodstained mouth, and just like any bourgeois square water-nymph she runs away in terror.

Once again our hero needs advice. He turns to Alotta this time, and her advice is that he should kill her enemy the Padre and bring the man's head to her. Then Yyala will be his! This request seems odd because earlier we had seen Alotta cursing the Padre and stabbing at a Padre voodoo doll. For all we knew that had accomplished something, but apparently not. He's in his bedroom staring into space as Dave arrives, and the next thing we know Alotta is the proud owner of a fresh head.

"I knew him, Lonzo, a fellow of...Actually, his jest was pretty damn finite."

Things get just a little complicated from this point. For starters, Dave is in a seriously deranged state in which he can't tell Yyala and Alotta apart. In addition, Lonzo finds out about the head and chastises Alotta about it, only to be told by her that Yyala killed the Padre. Alotta wouldn't lie, of course, so the wrathful Lonzo heads out to kill her. Fortunately, Dave intervenes, and Lonzo turns his pointed attentions his way. Fortunately for Dave, Yyala intervenes and stabs Lonzo in the back. For two soulless people our lovers are rather remorseful about this. Yyala in particular bawls over the deed, while David has another flashback.

At a certain point, there's nothing for a flashback-riddled vet to do but kill the villain. But he can't do it without Alotta getting off a final curse; "I call upon your own people to come and kill you!" At which point comes one final flashback in which Soldier Dave radios HQ to tell them that their planes are bombing "your own people." I foolishly had the idea that we were going to get some kind of Nam zombie climax, but by "your own people" the Queen of Witches meant that the instrument of her revenge would be that van full of hippies from the start of the picture. But will her revenge really be that bad for Dave?...

Brianne Murphy, the director of Blood Sabbath, helmed only one other film, spending most of her career as a cinematographer for television. The other film, To Die, To Sleep, was made 22 years later and sounds about as opposite to Blood Sabbath as you can get, but I guess a lot of people grew out of that period in their lives. Still, on the strength of this movie the fact that Murphy didn't work more in the Seventies is regrettable. She knew how to keep a cheap film looking busy with frantic activity and regular outbursts of mass female nudity. As the story gets nuttier, she rose to the occasion in portraying David's delirium. For this she had Tony Geary to thank for bringing the enthusiasm of youth to his role. Like many of the actors, he tends to shout his lines, but this is the sort of film that needs to be hysterical, so there was no point holding him back. Had he more craft at this point in his career, the film would probably have been less entertaining. The only performer who really drops the ball in this regard is Susan Damante, making her movie debut as Yyala. It didn't exactly shock me to learn that she went on to star in the Wilderness Family movies, since those sound better suited to her. For an exotic creature, she was much too mundane, though according to the film's odd logic that seemed to be what attracted David to her. I suppose your traditional woodland sprites or pixies really couldn't compete with hippies for pure exoticism in those days. It's ironic that we regard hippies themselves today as little more than simple woodland creatures. Actually, that makes the combination of hippies and nymphs and witches a better fit than it may have seemed at the time.

I can't really comment on the cinematography because I saw a crappy print, but where this film really punches above its weight is on the musical side. IMDB informs me that the "BAX" to whom the score is credited is none other than Les Baxter of AIP fame, and he nails the notes to match the stark yet wacky imagery throughout the film, from hippie ballads to psycho-syntho trip music. I'd almost say that the film is more worth a listen than a viewing, except that the lavish nudity, quasi-supernatural violence and over-the-top acting, at the very least, makes it very watchable for citizens of the wild world of cinema.

Blood Sabbath can be viewed online on membership sites like Movieflix or Veoh, and can probably be found pretty cheaply otherwise. The only clip I could find on YouTube is dubbed into Spanish, so my poor captures will have to suffice as hints of the naked weirdness on display in this charmingly twisted little film.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Lately I've been setting my clock, so to speak, by the ongoing survey over at Goodfella's Movie Blog in which Dave posts his favorite for another year every other day. It's inspired me to look at some films I've had on my shelf for awhile, thinking them essentials, without really watching them. Dave'll hit 1959 this weekend, and that prospect inspired me to go back to my Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott box set to tackle their fifth collaboration. I finally took a look at their first go together, Seven Men From Now, last weekend, and maybe I'll double back and deal with that one at another time. For now I'm going to review the fourth of five films the team released via Columbia Pictures.

This time around, Scott bears the unlikely name of Ben Brigade, which Columbia thought would be a selling point for the film. They emphasized it in the poster and the trailer, and I suppose it conveys that Scott has the strength of a multitude, though not in the same way that Steve Reeves did when he played Hercules. Brigade is a bounty hunter who heads into a typical Boetticher rocky landscape to apprehend Billy John, a wanted killer who has tried to lure our hero into an ambush, but chickens out of it once convinced that Brigade can take him out before dying. Billy tells his partners to summon his brother Frank, who is sure to crush Brigade before Billy can hang.

Along the way, Brigade picks up a woman, Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) and two typically personable Boetticher gunman, Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). Mrs. Lane has most likely lost her husband to the Indians, while Boone sees Billy John as his ticket to a normal life. The reason is that, apart from the bounty on Billy's head, in which Brigade is presumably most interested, the state has promised amnesty to whoever brings in the outlaw. It took a while for Boone to figure out what amnesty meant, but now he wants it, and if the government will forgive all sins upon delivery of Billy, then what would one more death matter -- Brigade's, that is. Boone is one of those up-front sorts who makes his interest clear to Brigade. He has enough of a code of honor to want a fair fight if it has to come to that. For the moment, it's in both men's interest to work together, since there are Indians about and Billy's gang, plus Frank, is on the way.

Karen Steele (above) proves regrettably less formidable than her gun-toting entrance promises, while James Coburn (below) proves more formidable in later films.

Yet Brigade seems to be taking a lot of chances, like riding through open country when there are other routes available. It seems to Boone that Brigade may be inviting a confrontation with the gang, or Frank in particular, which makes his own scheme more dangerous. But he sticks to it, not least because of his growing interest in the newly minted Widow Lane. As for her, the more she understands of Brigade and Boone's conflicting motives, the more she despises both men. Her indignation at their rivalry for bounty seems to steer the film toward Naked Spur territory, but it eventually emerges that bounty is a secondary concern for Brigade, and that Billy is but a means to the end of revenge on Frank at a site of Brigade's choosing, one of dire significance for both men. Partly out of self-interest in Billy's fate, and partly out of respect for Brigade's grievance, Boone commits himself and Whit to stick around for the showdown with Frank's gang, the danger of which can best be illustrated by showing you Frank.

Ride Lonesome is a sort of torch-passing film, though Randolph Scott had a few films left in him, given the presence of future action star Coburn, imminent Bonanza star Roberts, and eventual spaghetti icon Lee Van Cleef. These younger actors aren't all fully formed yet. It seems strange to see Coburn playing the simpleton stooge to Roberts, for instance, while Van Cleef still lacks the essential coolness that he only acquired in Italy from Sergio Leone. He doesn't really have much to do here, given how Frank is built up, and doesn't really come across as the supervillain we might have expected.

Seeing Van Cleef in this picture helps solidify the impression created by the late revenge angle that Ride Lonesome is, arguably, the closest Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy come to a spaghetti western. Brigade wants to have his showdown with Frank at an old hanging tree where, we learn, Frank had hung Brigade's wife after Brigade, then a sheriff, had put Frank in prison. The difference between a "Ranown" western and a spaghetti western is that, in this movie, we are told what happened to Mrs. Brigade, while a spaghetti western would have shown it. One approach is not automatically preferable to the other, but the difference is significant. That doesn't mean that Ride Lonesome isn't brutal at times. I've noted before that the Boetticher films have moments of violence that sometime exceed what we'd expect from Fifties Hollywood, and here we get the threatened revenge hanging (lynching, really) of Billy John apparently realized.

It looks like Boetticher and Scott never made a really bad western, but in my estimate Ride Lonesome is the weakest of the five I've seen out of the seven they made. At 73 minutes it actually seems a little padded. Boetticher was working in Cinemascope for the first time and may have indulged himself in more landscape shots than were strictly necessary, beautiful though they are. There's also a pointless subplot with Indians who want to trade a horse for Mrs. Lane and get violent when refused. The Indian fight has a perfunctory quality that's unusually disappointing from Boetticher. But the main weakness of this film, as I see it, is Pernell Roberts, who simply lacks the gravitas of such past Scott antagonists as Lee Marvin and Richard Boone. He just doesn't seem like the sort who should be ordering James Coburn around, and his romantic musings over the pneumatic Karen Steele are rather embarrassing. It's a tribute to Kennedy's plotting, if not his dialogue, that you remain interested in the simmering conflict between Roberts and Scott and uncertain of how it'll turn out.

Randolph Scott rides toward the foreground in the rocky opening sequence of Ride Lonesome.

But the general virtues of Scott and Boetticher redeem this film. It is a treat for fans of western landscapes, and Randolph Scott is his good old grim, laconic self. Coburn and Van Cleef are fun to watch while still in relatively raw form, and Steele is easy on the eye. There were better westerns made in 1959, but Ride Lonseome is a decent representative sample of the Hollywood adult western in its peak period.

Here's the trailer, uploaded by CultExtras.

Monday, July 27, 2009


By 1959, Jean Renoir seems to have become the Alfred Hitchcock of France, not for making popular thrillers, but by becoming a TV personality as well as a film director. He had released many of his films to television, and filmed introductions to them that we see today on Criterion DVDs. This late feature from the great Frenchman exploits his TV celebrity, opening with him arriving at a studio and preparing for a broadcast. The broadcast itself is "Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier," which Renoir introduces as a review of recent shocking events.

Friends began to suspect that something was wrong with Dr. Cordlier (Jean-Louis Barrault, above) when he changed his will, leaving his entire estate to a Monsieur Opale, a stranger to all who knew the doctor. It soon emerged that Opale was a man believed responsible for a series of random, brutal attacks throughout Paris. Cordelier told his closest friend, the attorney Joly, that Opale was assisting him in important experiments as a test subject. These experiments were to revolutionize Cordelier's field and make a fool of his great rival, Dr. Severin. The more people learned about Opale, however, the more intolerable his relationship with Cordelier became. He probably killed Severin, and appeared to have kidnapped Cordelier himself before the more awful truth emerged....

Opale strikes.

The story may remind you of something, especially with the final revelation that Cordelier had lived a kind of double life. Renoir is telling a kind of cinematic joke, and it's meant in part to be a joke on the audience. Le Testament is, as you've probably deduced, a modernization in a Parisian setting of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. While I don't know Renoir's motives for certain, it looks like he wanted to make the story fresh and surprising again, first by changing the setting and then by telling it in a novel manner. That's actually a pretty bad pun and I apologize for it. What I was trying to say is that Renoir sought a new approach to telling the Jekyll story on film and found it by adopting the structure of the original novel. Movie versions usually tell the tale from Jekyll's perspective, so that we follow his experiment from the beginning. The novel saves the dual identity of Jekyll and Hyde for a big revelation near the end of the story, leaving the relationship of the two individuals a mystery for as long as possible. Renoir seems to be conducting a kind of experiment himself (apart from making a feature-length film for television five years before Don Siegel's pioneering American effort, The Killers). The object, perhaps for his own amusement, may have been to see how long it would take before audiences recognized the familiar story.

Apart from the meta-element, Dr. Cordelier is, like any Jekyll movie, a showcase for the lead actor. Because Renoir tells the story as Stevenson did, there aren't really any transformation scenes, so Barrault's job is to sell the characters as distinct personalities as long as possible. He does it with a simple, almost crude makeup job, including some skunky looking hair on his wrists, along with clothes that seem a little too big for him (following the original premise that the Hyde persona is smaller than Jekyll). He adds a repertoire of spasms and a sort of lean in his walk that reminded me (and many viewers) of someone out of silent comedy. Renoir's filming on the streets of Paris put me in mind of the earliest Keystones and other comedies that consisted mainly of the comedians running amok in public. He and Barrault obviously shared an appreciation of silent clowns as often malevolent grotesques whose humor derived as much from cruelty as from pathos. Because Opale uses a cane a lot, he reminds many people of Charlie Chaplin in the earliest incarnation of the Tramp character in the Sennett and Essanay films, in which Charlie often had that malevolent spirit Barrault incarnates. At the same time, the actor reminded me vaguely of contemporary British comics, becoming a kind of amalgam of everything from Peter Sellers to Monty Python without the jokes, as if Renoir's film was really the first movie of the 1960s. He also sometimes reminded me of a singularly ugly woman in men's clothes, or someone's parody of a butch lesbian. It's a strange, yet cool performance, and the mixed messages he sends are compounded by Joseph Kosma's score, which sometimes sounds like silent comedy music, whenever Opale prances down a street, and sometimes channels Universal Studios, whenever Opale attacks.

Opale's particular kick is attacking the weak. His assault on this poor gentleman rivals Henry Fonda's number on Wallace Ford in Warlock as Best Attack on the Handicapped of 1959.

Reviewers have criticized the cinematography, blaming it on the limitations of television, but I like the way the outdoor footage looks, and I think Renoir and cinematographer Georges Leclerc made the most of their urban locations. Films like these are partly travelogues through time for me, so simply seeing footage of Fifties Paris is a treat, but this is also good footage, as far as I'm concerned.

Le Testament is part of the ridiculous bargain that is Lionsgate's Renoir DVD collection, which includes two silent features, some shorts, La Marseillaise and The Elusive Corproral. It's still a bargain compared to the other great-director box sets the company has released, and this film definitely helps make it worth the money. Everyone agrees that it's a minor item in the Renoir canon, but it works as a light horror film that's not so different in spirit from some of the more irreverent drive-in fare of the time from AIP and other producers. Classic horror fans should definitely check out this variation on a famous theme.

Here's a French trailer for a subsequent theatrical release of the movie (uploaded by Thespilian) that gives you a fuller sense of Opale's activities. He doesn't neglect the ladies, you see, but overall prefers to beat people up.

ABC News Discovers "The Room"

During the teaser before the commercial break on tonight's ABC Evening News, the anchor said something to the effect of: some people are calling it the worst movie ever made, but moviegoers can't get enough of it. I thought they were going to come back and talk about G-Force. To my surprise, the final segment described the emergence of an authentic cult movie phenomenon in our jaded times.

I first learned about The Room from Tenebrous Kate, Empress of the equally Tenebrous Empire after which her admirably spooky movie blog is named. Here is her account of the movie, including a shout-out to yours truly for allegedly coining a category for films like this one. Since ABC will only allow me to link to their site, I had better illustrate what everyone's talking about with this official trailer, uploaded by OperationDumptheDuge:

It may surprise some people that a film acclaimed as the Worst Ever isn't a "genre" film. It is neither an action film nor a horror film, from what I can tell. It looks more like a Lifetime Original Movie, or people's worst case scenario for that genre. Nevertheless, on this small evidence you can see what others have noted: bad acting all around, and profoundly questionable production decisions. The focus of attention is actor-auteur Tommy Wiseau, shown here in what may be a typical scene from his performance, uploaded by DVDont.

But The Room's unusual quality doesn't depend entirely on Wiseau's presence on-screen. Here's a bit of romance between two supporting actors, uploaded by needforswede.

Here's more on the history of the movie, on which Wiseau reportedly spent $6,000,000 in production and promotion. Released in theaters in 2003, the cult really seems to have picked up steam only in the past year, and now has caught the attention of one of the three major TV networks. So here's ABC's account of the cult, including footage of audience participation at a recent showing, entitled "Enjoying a Really Bad Movie." (Shared via AddThis ) Those who've seen the film can judge whether 's been done justice, and the rest of you can ponder whether this is a cult worth joining.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

JOSHUA (1976)

Along with Richard Harris, Fred Williamson is one of the unlikely western stars of the 1970s. Yet he made more westerns in that decade than Clint Eastwood did, and while he didn't pioneer in aiming westerns at black audiences, he probably did more to sustain the black-oriented western as a subgenre. Joshua, also known as The Black Rider, is the last of his westerns. He wrote the story and screenplay, while Larry G. Spengler, Williamson's collaborator on the "Nigger Charley" movies, directed. It looks like a big comedown in budgetary terms from his previous westerns. He's the only name in the cast that most people will recognize, though Seventies specialists may recognize Mexican actress Isela Vega from such stuff as The Deadly Trackers (with Harris) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Curiously, Joshua's stripped-down, almost minimalist quality may point to some serious artistic intentions on Williamson's part. This isn't one of his typical swaggering performances. Instead, he's a taciturn Civil War veteran bent on revenge for the murder of his mother. She was a servant for a white man whose pioneer circumstances don't seem like the kind that would require a maid, but he has not only Joshua's Mom but a brand-new mail-order bride (Brenda Venus). But a band of desperadoes show up for dinner, take the wife and kill Martha as she goes for a rifle. Learning of this, Joshua mourns for a moment, reclaims the rifle (it belonged to his father and was Martha's only possession) and rides out into the brutal landscape beyond where the posse gave up. From this point on, everyone he encounters takes him to be a bounty hunter, and the question of his identity seems to matter to screenwriter Williamson. He's always quick to deny that he's out for money. Asked by Vega, for instance, he responds, "No, ma'am; I'm a killer." Hunting down the kidnappers is an easy segue from his wartime vocation. Warned by the posse that he'd be one against five, Joshua scoffs: "I just came back from a war where I killed nearly twice that many." And this is what I mean about Fred's unusual modesty in this production. Do you think he'd normally claim less than ten kills in a war?

Joshua's mission is further complicated by the fact that the mail-order bride seems to succumb to a sagebrush version of Stockholm Syndrome after being raped several times by the gang. The apparently heavily-edited version of Joshua that I saw off a Mill Creek Entertainment DVD doesn't illustrate any transition from shrieking hysteria to apparent camaraderie, but I wonder whether there was a parallel intended between the bride and the slaves whose freedom Joshua has just fought for. She was sold to one man, raped by another, but may be exercising some freedom, for what it's worth, by sticking with Jed, the gang leader.

"Don't do this anymore!" Brenda Venus protests during a rape scene. Is she addressing the rapists or the leering cameraman?

By the final showdown, when Jed's willing to give her up to get Joshua off his back, she doesn't want to leave him, and she ends up sharing his fate. So there's really no one to rescue, and no bounty that Joshua wants to collect. It's understandable, then, that Jed howls the question "WHO ARE YOU?" repeatedly during the final confrontation. And it's typical of this film that Joshua has no more answer to offer than "I'm my mother's son."

I think Fred was trying hard to make a serious western that transcended the blaxploitation sub-genre. Race hardly comes into the story apart from a few times when Joshua is called "boy," but he doesn't even really take note of the slur. When Jed promises to take the gang into a town where Joshua would be crazy to follow, it's not because the town has a Klan chapter, but because a gang of renegades runs the place and doesn't like bounty hunters, lawmen, etc. Arguably, the hero and his dead mother don't even need to be black for the story to work. But the Hammer's good intentions are often sabotaged by his own failures of invention or some dubious dialogue. Williamson concocts a silly scene in which his stalking of one of the gang is interrupted by a snake attack. This obliges him to indulge in some snake wrestling before taking out two foes at once by dropping the snake on the outlaw's head.

Later, we see him sharpening some sort of arrow at night. In the morning, we see that he'd snuck into the outlaws' camp and killed another of the gang by planting the arrow in his neck. You can't help but think that he could have killed all the outlaws in their sleep and taken the bride away -- if only he had made more arrows. Instead, he resumes his customary stalk. Later still, he's wounded in a gunfight in the renegade town. He rides off into the wintry mountains until he falls off his horse and passes out. Overnight, he is buried by the snow. In the morning, three renegades ride in, having offered to finish Joshua if Jed will pay them. Their arrival is only a wakeup call for our hero, who pops out of something like a foot of snow cover to kill the renegades. To his credit, Williamson promptly has himself collapse again so he can be taken to Isela Vega's house for surgery and that sure-fire cure for fever and delirium, a night in a naked woman's arms. But again, this isn't typical Fred; he's too busy selling the shakes to really enjoy the experience. Still, you get the idea: some of the action in this film is pretty dumb.

Williamson's writing is hit-or-miss, and success seems to depend a lot on the actors speaking his lines. Here I have to single out one Ralph Willingham, who here makes what IMDB claims to be his only appearance ever as an actor. After watching him play Weasel, the old coot member of the kidnap gang, I can sort of understand why he never worked again, at least under that name. Weasel is kind of a comedy relief character, if your idea of comedy is hearing him say, "I ain't had so much fun since the time I raped my nine year old sister!" Fred has to take the blame for that line, but I strongly suspect that Willingham muffed one when, after being teased provocatively by his cronies, who want to open his pants to see what he's got before allowing him to rape the mail-order bride, he screams, "Put your tail between...your tail and run off like a goddamn coyote!" I think Willingham's instincts were partly right. He saw that he was in a low-budget show that was low on charismatic action, so like many legendary performers in the wild world of cinema, he took it upon himself to make the movie more entertaining. He ended up making it look and sound more stupid than it really is.

Ralph Willingham is memorably bad in Joshua, but not in a way that'd ever make you want to see him act again.

On top of his codgery looks he has a high-pitched whiny voice that gets into Chris Rock if not Christ Tucker territory as he babbles, whines and shrieks about "that black devil" who's out to get him. In his final scene, in which Joshua works up a nice deathtrap by wrapping wet rawhide around the trigger of a gun tied to a tree, so that by drying in the sun it will tighten and fire the gun at a trussed-up Weasel, Willingham's wailing is pretty much incomprehensible. The point of giving a great bad performance is to leave behind memorable lines and line readings, but Willingham too often is just obnoxious, and his badness handicaps the whole film.

In the end Joshua isn't a very good movie, but Mill Creek's presentation of it in their Mean Guns: the Time to Die Collection box set makes matters much worse. It's a fullscreen copy that doesn't even rise to the level of pan-and-scan, missing so many of the opening credits that you might think that someone named Ed Iamson was starring. I strongly suspect that the Mill Creek copy is an edited version that got the film re-rated to PG after an initial R release. Mill Creek claims that their version is rated R, but apart from a few bursts of blood I saw nothing in the film to warrant that rating, though I could see that something more R-worthy may once have been there. Supposedly there are better versions in circulation, but if you find one I can really recommend this movie only to Fred Williamson fans, and then only on the understanding that it's an interesting experiment on the Hammer's part that doesn't quite come off as he hoped.

SpoonMHD has graciously uploaded the first ten minutes of the picture to YouTube, so take that as a trailer. This is about what the Mill Creek version looks like.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Calling Kenji Mizoguchi's acclaimed melodrama Sansho the Bailiff (or Sansho Dayu in the original) is rather like changing the name of Uncle Tom's Cabin to Simon Legree. The title character isn't the main character of the story, but the villain. He's a bailiff in what my dictionary tells me is a British sense of the word, in that he's an estate manager for a powerful imperial minister. His job is to squeeze every last ounce of blood, sweat and tears from the peasants on the estate and turn it into lucrative labor. He has whiskers of the sort Americans hadn't seen since silent movies. There's something virtually Dickensian about this creep.

Eitaro Shindo as Sansho.

The true hero of the novel is Zushio, the son of an exiled governor. Dad was broken and sent away because he would not squeeze his subjects according to imperial dicate. He teaches his boy that without mercy, man is nothing but a beast. The boy has some beastly years in store for him. Part of the family's punishment is that Dad is separated from Mom, Zushio and sister Anju. Years after the disaster, the remaining family is on the move, with limited posessions and a single loyal servant. They can't find shelter because reports of robbers and slave traders in the vicinity has led the government to forbid anyone, even innkeepers, from sheltering strangers. So our little family has to share the great outdoors with all these theoretical brigands. But they're in luck: a Buddhist nun offers them clandestine shelter for the night, and arranges for boat passage to their next destination. But as it happens, the boatmen are robbers and slave traders. They nab Mom and row off with her, while Zushio and Anju are held on land, eventually to be sold into the caring custody of Sansho the Bailiff. He puts them to hard work immediately, to the annoyance of his conscientious son Taro. The young man offers the kids some encouragement, advising them to endure for now and not to try escaping until they're older and stronger. Then he lights out for the territory.

Time jump: Zushio and Anju are young adults under their slave names of Mutsu-Waka and Shinobu. Anju/Shinobu remains friendly and compassionate, while Zushio/Mutsu is in danger of being brutalized by the need to survive and win Sansho's favor. He's now the bailiff's go-to guy when an elderly runaway needs to be branded on the forehead. This disgusts his sister, but the brother thinks he has no choice. Meanwhile, the new girl in the weaving department, whom Shinobu teaches the ropes of threads, sings a song she learned in her old town. It goes something like this: Anju, my heart calls for you; isn't life torture? Zushio, my heart calls for you; isn't life torture? What a coincidence! But not suprisingly, Shinobu gets the notion that the woman the new girl first heard the song from could be her mother.

Mutsu-Waka (aka Zushio, played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi) does Sansho's dirty work with a branding iron.

Mutsu doesn't buy it, until the day he's told to haul a sick woman into the woods to die. The woman is another friend of Shinobu's, so she tags along to comfort her. As brother and sister gather wood for a little shelter for their friend, Mutsu can swear he hears the "isn't life torture" song in the distance. He resolves to flee the estate and find his mother, but tells sis to stay behind until he can come back for her. She diverts a guard, but it's not long before the alarm sounds signalling Zushio's breakout. Anju figures that Sansho will torture her to find out where Zushio went, and she assumes that she'll break under his attentions. Her way of saving her brother is to walk into a river and drown herself. I told you it was a melodrama.

Anju (Kyoko Kagawa, who's been in films ranging from Tokyo Story to the original Mothra) begins to realize that her brother has no chance for freedom while she's alive.

Sansho's men are soon all over the place, including a Buddhist temple where they're told that no one was allowed to take shelter. This is a little bit of a lie, because Zushio has been sheltered by none other than Taro, Sansho's estranged son who has become a monk. He tells our hero that he had tried to tell officials in Kyoto about Sansho's evil ways, with no result. But he arranges to have his head priest write a letter of introduction for Zushio so he can petition the imperial government for redress. Zushio then makes his way to Kyoto, where he sneaks into a ministerial compound and begs for a minister's attention. He's promptly arrested and his remaining prized possession, a statue of Kwannon the goddess of luck, is taken from him. But the minister, when shown this, recognizes it as a gift his ancestor gave to one of Zushio's ancestors. He consents to meet with the prisoner, informing him that his father died a while back and regretting his ill treatment. As a small way of making up for Zushio's suffering, the minister makes him governor of Tango province. I did say this was a melodrama.

Improbably elevated to power, Zushio pays respect to his father before payback time for Sansho the Bailiff.

Despite warnings from the minister not to stir up trouble with powerful land owners, the new governor (he gets yet another name, but let's keep things simple) promptly abolishes slavery in Tango, a territory which includes Sansho the Bailiff's balliwick. To Sansho, who doesn't know who Governor so-and-so really is, this is like Lincoln getting elected President, but secession isn't an option for him. Instead, he has his personal goon squad try to suppress all word of the governor's order. If that means throwing signs into the sea, so be it. If it means beating up the governor's men and smashing the signs as if they were so many commandments, so be that, too.

But being governor does give Zushio some power. He arrives at Sansho's house in force, basks in the bailiff's belated recognition of his new superior, and has him arrested for destroying imperial property. He declares his old peasant pals to be free, but only now, when he asks for Shinobu aka Anju, does he get the bad news. You get the impression that he would have whacked Sansho with his bare hands had he not been told that it wasn't the bailiff's fault, apart from the broad social-injustice sense of responsibility we might argue for. Anyway, he still remembers to be merciful, so Sansho suffers nothing worse than exile. Then, with the bailiff safely out of the way, and the slaves freed, Zushio, realizing that he's defied the minister and overstepped his mandate, resigns his post to see if he can track down the one remaining member of his family....

For some film critics, Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu are two sticks to beat Akira Kurosawa with. They are "his masters," in David Thomson's words, epitomes of true Japanese cinema as opposed to the somehow-deracinated global idol. They are talked up in a way that reminds me sometimes of parents foisting bland yet nutritious lunches on us with the advice that they're good for you. That may be why I've only ever seen one Ozu movie (though that one, Tokyo Story, is reputed to be his best, and is actually pretty good), while Sansho is only the third Mizoguchi I've seen. Thomson wouldn't approve of my taste in Japanese cinema, with Kurosawa on top and Kenji Fukasaku (no entry in the Biographical Dictionary) second, and Shohei Imamura (a self-conscious anti-Ozu) rising fast. But let me make a longer list of preferred directors and Mizoguchi would be on it.

I don't know if there's anything echt Japanese about it, but Mizoguchi's style is quite different from Kurosawa's. There's something like a three-dimensional quality in Mizoguchi's work. Where Kurosawa's direction sometimes looks like choreography for and within the screen, usually to powerful effect, Mizoguchi's camera seems planted in a world more in the round, where there's stuff that's going on just off-screen that he may slide the camera over to examine, or there's more to see over the horizon, as a crane shot will reveal. There's a strong sense of living space in Mizoguchi's work that reminds me of Max Ophuls, who was also doing definitive work in the 1950s. Mizoguchi also achieves subtler effects from his actors, compared to the barnstorming quality of Toshiro Mifune's work with Kurosawa. I can understand how a certain cinemaesthetic sense would rank Mizoguchi ahead of his more famous compatriot.

But the profundity of works like Sansho can be overstated. This movie is, as I've said, melodramatic, almost in the manner of D. W. Griffith. Anju's sacrifice seems like a stunt that Lillian Gish might pull. I was struggling while watching the film to figure out what seemed so familiar about Zushio's odyssey until it hit me a little later. But a Google search informs me that I'm not the first to see a resemblance between the hero's riches-to-rags-to-riches-to? career path and that of the title character of Ben-Hur. Sansho Dayu, however, is definitely not a Tale of the Christ. The old mother is still singing "isn't life torture?" at the end of the film, and even though she is reunited with her son, nothing in the film really answers her rhetorical yet musical question in the negative. Life really stinks for most people in the Heian period, and for all of Zushio's fantastical ups and downs, you get the sense that Mizoguchi realized it would betray his social consciousness to give that blighted family a full-scale happy ending with fortunes restored and all ills cured. Sansho is a more mature and moderate melodrama than its American counterpart. It has, nonetheless, a positive ending because, despite some temptation, Zushio never really betrayed his father's hopes for him. He remained a good person, even if that meant renouncing power that might have been used for more good. On the other hand, how much do you want to bet that the next governor of Tango province recalled Sansho and restored as many slaves as could be recovered to that estate?

In the end I found Sansho a somewhat overrated movie, though clearly a superior one. But it's overrated in the way Citizen Kane is overrated. Sansho Dayu is a great film with beatiful black-&-white cinematography and location work and excellent performances from an impressive ensemble. It's a film I'd recommend to anyone interested in the global art of the wild world of cinema. But it didn't become my favorite Japanese film, and I don't think subsequent viewings will make that happen, either. It's only a film I like.

Here's a trailer from the Masters of Cinema collection uploaded by Eurekaentertainment. It features the fine score by Fumio Hayasaka.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Did Jose Mojica Marins ever read Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novel? I have to ask because I see just a hint of affinity between Ze do Caixao, the blasphemous undertaker we know as "Coffin Joe," and Hazel Motes, the blasphemous preacher of Wise Blood. Hazel has no interest in finding the perfect woman to bear the perfect child or anything like that, but there's something about his small-town heresy and his more modest will to transgression that reminded me of the Brazilian menace.

Did John Huston ever watch At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul? This I doubt; the influence doesn't go both ways, and maybe not even one. It's no more likely that screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald saw Marins at work. If there's something in the movie that reminds me of Coffin Joe, it must be inherent in the novel. But one thing Huston & Co. do to enhance the strangeness of O'Connor's story is to set it, probably for budgetary reasons, in their present day, the late 1970s. I didn't realize this was the case at first. The opening has Motes just out of the army and hitchhiking to his old family home, only to find it abandoned, then shopping for a $19.95 suit in a small-town clothes store, then riding a train into "the city," Taulkingham. Once he got off the train, I began to notice people with Afros and others not in period gear. Then I realized the film wasn't in period. But Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes looks as if he strode straight out of 1952 and into 1979. He didn't, though, and that makes him (arguably) a Vietnam veteran, though the moviemakers' probably faithful conception of him doesn't really make much of that detail.

Hazel has money and a determination to do something he's never done before. I don't know if shacking up and sleeping with a fat whore counts as novelty for a veteran, but it's a start. It doesn't stop his oppressive dreams of the childhood days when he toured with his grandpa (the director), an itinerant preacher and punished himself for glimpses of naked carny ladies by walking with stones in his shoes. The only cure for that, it seems, is to become a preacher himself or, better yet, preach against preachers. He founds the Church of Truth Without Christ, the Truth being that Christ was a liar who may well have been crucified, but not for our sake. Here's some typical Motesian theology:

Where you come from is gone. Where you thought you was going to weren't never there. And where you are ain't no good unless you can get away from it. Your conscience is a trick. It don't exist. And if you think it does, then you had best get it out in the open, hunt it down, and kill it.

He's provoked into prophecy by the presence of a purportedly blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) who travels with his daughter, to whom Hazel is conflictedly attracted. His initial confrontation with Asa Hawks attracts the attention of Enoch Emory, an 18-year old imbecile exiled from the sticks by his dad for offenses unknown to the moviegoer. Enoch has a hard time coping with city life because "people aren't friendly," and neither is Hazel. Huston treats Enoch as a comedy relief character, and Alex North's score definitely does, but he may be the most disturbing character in a film full of misfits. He steals a shrunken mummy from a museum because Hazel preaches that people need a "new Christ." He spends hours in the zoo haranguing monkeys because he suspects that they think they're as good as he is. He becomes obsessed with Gonga, the Jungle Monarch, a guy in an ape suit working the town to promote a movie. Seeing how kids rush to shake the monkey's paw, he finally steals the suit and romps through town, though he is ultimately disappointed to find himself somewhat less popular than Gonga. He has the "wise blood" of the title, which he claims gives him the ability to know things without learning them.

Dan Shor as Enoch, mummy thief and ape impersonator who only wants to be friendly, in Wise Blood.

Meanwhile, Hazel's mission seems to be to dispel people's illusions about a just or benevolent universe. You wonder whether the war had anything to do with his attitude, but the film won't tell you. His obsession with the blind preacher's daughter has led him to move into the same boarding house they live in, after assuring the landlady that the Church of Truth Without Christ is definitely a Protestant denomination. The worm turns at this point and the daughter, Sabbath Lily, begins to pursue Hazel, hoping he'll become her meal ticket when her dad moves on.

Hazel's career plan is threatened, however, by Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), who likes what he sees he of Hazel's preaching and thinks he can improve on it to his own profit. When Hazel won't go along, stubborn in his conviction that you can't buy the truth, Hoover hires a rummy (William Hickey) to dress up like Hazel and stand in for him on a car roof while Hoover works the streets for money. The rummy gets a $7 suit and $4 for a night's work, but it's the last money he'll ever see.

The closest Hazel gets to anything like Coffin Joe territory in the movie is when he stalks the rummy, forces his car into a ditch, forces the rummy to strip out of his imitation preacher clothes, and then runs him over with his own decrepit car. But despite all his preaching against conscience, our hero begins to feel unclean, and begins to pay a price for his feelings....

Wise Blood is full of disquieting if not quite horrific incidents and characters, yet the music and the promotion treat the story as if it were primarily a comedy. Maybe that's how Flannery O'Connor meant it, too, but Alex North's score veers distractingly from the bittersweet nostalgia of his riffs on "The Tennesse Waltz" to pure goofball effects for Enoch's exploits. Ultimately, after the story finishes with Enoch, it settles into a grimmer mode, though a sardonic temperament might still find it pretty comical. Yet Huston does something interesting with this material. He takes the utterly grotesque, almost cartoonish main characters and embeds them in an utterly authentic location shoot in Macon, Georgia. I can imagine the story being filmed in a more Expressionistic style or with more lurid effects, but Huston's realistic style extends to long takes that let us watch tiny characters lope or run and cars roll or lurch through the landscape.

The payoff is a late scene in which a cop pulls Hazel over "because I don't like your face," and makes Hazel's hapless auto roll down a gradual incline for something like thirty seconds before it ends up in the drink. It's as if Huston were adopting a godlike perspective to mock Hazel's pretensions, but it also reinforces the reality of the milieu in which the often implausible hero makes his personal pilgrimage. Gerry Fisher does a great job with the outdoor cinematography, while Sally Fitzgerald did wonders making the locations or sets look convincingly grungy. This film looks great. I mean it looks nasty, but in a great way.

This is a rare starring role for Brad Dourif and he makes the most of it. Hazel Motes may have been a role he was born to play. Harry Dean Stanton and Amy Wright as the Hawks family do fine work, and Ned Beatty has another of those performances where he storms into a film relatively late in the game and practically takes over by force of will and charisma.

I think it's a great thing about the 1970s that it was a decade in which so many brilliant young directors made their mark, and yet here was John Huston, who'd been directing since The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and writing since the Thirties, keeping up with the times with some great films. I wouldn't quite rank this with his best films of the decade, which are Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, but Wise Blood is a film no Seventies auteur would be ashamed of, and as the work of a man in his seventies it definitely deserves respect.

Egamimedia has uploaded the trailer for Wise Blood, which treats the film as a far more lighthearted comedy than it actually is. It is okay to laugh, though.