Thursday, October 29, 2009

DELIRIUM (Delirio Caldo, 1972)

You know as soon as you see Mickey Hargitay eyeballing a young woman in a pub that he has bad intentions. Sure, he's all helpfulness as he offers her a lift to a nightclub, but he can't stop himself from trying to feel up inside her miniskirt. The outraged girl demands that he let her out, and he complies. Of course, then he follows her, despite her dropping her shoes for speed, to the bank of a rushing river, where our man seems confused over whether to rape, strangle or drown her. She still ends up dead, the latest victim of a sex maniac the police have been unable to track down, despite the best efforts of consulting criminal psychologist Herbert Lyutak. Well, they're probably not his really best efforts, since he's our killer.

Herb's got problems at home. He loves his wife and she loves him back, but he's been unable to perform his husbandly duties. It seems that he can't get aroused unless he's strangling somebody. Marzia Lyutak (Ria Calderoni) worries that hubby is holding something back and urges him to indulge any impulse he has, so long as he'll do it with her. It gets pretty hot for a while. Just the sight of the Lyutaks making out gets the maid to licking her shoulder and fondling her own breasts. But Herbert simply can't rise to the occasion unless he takes it, or her, by the neck. For all the Mrs. knows, this is just a game of erotic asphyxiation. She doesn't realize that this is a two-way street as far as pleasure goes, though she might not be coming back. But no: Herbert won't let himself do this to his beloved. He realizes he has gone too far. He must end his murderous career.

That should be simple enough. He can confess to his police pals, right? But they might not believe him if he tells them. He has to show them. So he calls them and explains that, thanks to his advanced "meteoropsychic" analysis, he can predict the time and location of the killer's next attack. The cops just need to stake the site out and set up a decoy to lure him. All is arranged as he wants, and on cue he arrives at the park and approaches the designated victim. But he can barely strike up a conversation with her when they hear a woman's scream. The killer has struck; a woman is dead. Lyutak's analysis was virtually perfect, the police admit, but the doctor himself is quite perplexed. After all, isn't he the killer?

Thus writer-director Renato Polselli drops us through the trapdoor into the utter wackness that is Delirio Caldo, one of the greatest love stories ever rendered on celluloid -- as long as you leave morality or sanity out of the equation. We're in the amour fou zone here with a lead couple each of whom looks to the other in vain as an anchor of normality in a turbulent sea of compulsions. Marzia, for instance, clings to Herbert while dreaming of lesbian romps with the maid and Marzia's own niece, Joaquine. The highlight of the film is a red-lit nightmare sequence in which Marzia envisions herself and Herbert writhing and shackled as Joaquine and the maid get it on on the floor. Joaquine frees Marzia while Herbert thrashes and grimaces as only Mickey Hargitay can, and the loyal wife descends for a female threesome, only to see the other girls laughing at her. Fighting these urges, Marzia will do anything to keep her husband, if you get my drift. But she isn't dreaming Joaquine's own urges, which make the niece just as determined to drive the couple apart. And all the while the bodies keep piling up. The dead ones, I mean.

Delirium is a film on the cheap. Our detectives operate out of a police headquarters which looks neither official or public and is pretty obviously somebody's house with a couple of guys dressed up as bobbies. And did I mention that this impoverished Italian film is supposed to be set in Britain? Polselli won't do anything so obvious as tell you this, but you can figure it out from the bobbies, the "TELEPHONE" booth one victim hides in, and the habit one comedy-relief murder suspect has of uttering an occasional English phrase.

This is Britain.

Polselli can't even be bothered with stock footage or anything that might slightly suspend your disbelief in the Englishness of it all. But he seems to have trouble with the basics of cheap cinema. In one scene, Hargitay is driving a car at night. You'd expect some kind of process shot to create the illusion of a moving background, but what you get looks for all the world like a pinwheel made of rocks that rotates counterclockwise rather than a scrolling image from right to left. At times the cheapness of Delirium is almost embarrassing, but at others it actually enhances the starkness of the situation. Hargitay's first murder scene is dark, clumsy and protracted, but the notion you get that it had to be an unpleasant experience for the actress playing the victim gives the scene a certain primitive power.

Let's face it, anyway. You don't need big or even plausible sets to convey Delirium. A film like this depends entirely on its actors, and that's where Mickey Hargitay comes in. Mariska's Dad earned his nutjob credentials for all time when he played Travis "Crimson Executioner" Anderson in Massimo Pupillo's Il boia scarlatta, better known in America as Bloody Pit of Horror. If anything, Hargitay is ever screwier here, where he has to play a conflicted antihero with a guilty conscience, than when he played that more famous narcissistic maniac. With his fevered expressions and his bad hair, he looks quite convincingly like someone at the end of his rope. For all I know, showing up in this project meant that he was at the end of his rope. I notice that he did only one more movie in Italy, again for Polselli (The Reincarnation of Isabel) before retiring. That's regrettable, though maybe not from his own standpoint, because he could have given many more crazy performances in the years that followed. But I guess that makes the few he actually did, like this one, more precious. His female colleagues aren't far behind, Calderoni keeping at a constant level of hysteria and Christa Barrymore as Joaquine exploding over the top late in the picture.

Rita Calderoni and Christa Barrymore play very rough in the last act of Delirium, but it leaves them very relaxed afterwards.

Objectively speaking, I'd probably have to call Delirium a bad movie, but it's bad in an entertaining way. As an exploitation film, it presses most of the right buttons, and I'd definitely recommend it to fans of female nudity and guileless overacting. At the very least, Delirium comes closer to truth in advertising than most movies do.

If there was an original trailer for Delirio Caldo it doesn't exist online, but GialloTrailers has uploaded an unofficial trailer featuring the movie music of Gianfranco Reverberi.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wendigo's Ten Favorite Vampire Movies

"Wendigo" is the nom de net of one of my oldest friends and the biggest vampire fan I know. I consulted with him nearly a year ago when Twilight came out and he reviewed it favorably. That seems unusual among horror movie fans, but Wendigo is, in one sense, more of a vampire fan than a horror fan. That is, he is interested in the concept of the vampire and its evolution, and he wouldn't claim that vampires belong to the horror genre. He understands that the vampire has meant many things to different people over time, from the night terror made manifest to the modern power fantasy, from the quasi-rape fantasy offered by the master vampire to the forbidden fruit represented by his female counterpart. If anything is consistent about the vampire in pop culture, it's the temptation of immortality and the challenge of its moral cost.

In my own view, the vampire has to an extent lost its potency as a moral threat, so that a vampire in a typical "urban fantasy" story might be little different from an elf in a just-plain fantasy novel. But since the vampire has been a fantasy creature all along, there's nothing inherently wrong with that development. Back when I published his thoughts on Twilight, I suggested that I might get Wendigo to make up a list of favorite vampire films. Now, with Halloween and the release of New Moon impending, he's given me a list in chronological order that takes us from the beginning to last year -- and Twilight is not on the list, nor, to my slight disappointment, is my man Count Yorga the swinging Seventies vampire. I know Wendigo digs the Yorga films (and Deathmaster, too), but pressed to pick ten favorites, this is what he came up with:

1. Nosferatu (1922). This would be number one if the list were in order of preference as well. F.W. Murnau's silent chiller is still the definitive vampire film in Wendigo's book, and also the one that, for him, comes closest to the essence of Bram Stoker's seminal novel, even if Max Schreck's uncanny Graf Orlok isn't a perfect physical match for Stoker's repellent yet compelling monster.

2. Dracula (1931). Bela Lugosi remains an icon for good reason. Tod Browning's film has its detractors, but Wendigo feels it does justice to the Balderston-Deane version of the story, while Lugosi's strange gestures and cadences define the essential inhumanity of the vampire. Bela makes you believe you're dealing with someone who is undead.

3. [Horror of] Dracula (1958). The neat thing about vampires is that you can have more than one definitive performance. Christopher Lee's Dracula is archetypal in its own right, and counts for Wendigo as the first modern vampire, the period setting of Terrence Fisher's film notwithstanding. More so than Lugosi, Lee personifies the rape/domination fantasy aspect of the vampire and conveys the commanding sexiness inherent in Bram Stoker's concept despite the author's sometimes unpleasant descriptions of his villain. Lee's more virile vampire is what makes him modern.

4&5. The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Twins of Evil (1971) are prime examples of the forbidden-fruit aspect of the female vampire. These Hammer films from the "Karnstein" series set new standards for vampire sensuality and remain for Wendigo the best lesbian-vampire films. Twins goes the extra mile in its emphasis on the threat of incest as Peter Cushing struggles with the temptation presented by his niece. In these films the female vampire represents a menace to everyone, the classic succubus for men, the supreme transgression for women.

6. Fright Night (1985). Tom Holland's semi-comic horror hit simultaneously looks back to the classical tradition while steering the vampire in a new direction with its innovation of what some people call the "grrr face" as the true visage of the otherwise seductive vampire. Besides the homage to horror hosts of the past, Wendigo likes this film's insistence that faith is necessary to make holy symbols effective against vampires. It was a necessary corrective at a point when all you seemed to need was to cross any two objects together (fingers, even) to turn the undead.

7. Near Dark (1987). Kathryn Bigelow's cult classic pretty much set a template for much of future vampire cinema and vampire literature. Wendigo says it's the first film to really play with the "pack" concept of a society of vampires and their interaction with each other, and the first to effectively imagine white-trash vampires. At the same time, it revives the romantic concept of vampires in the form of an "innocent" vampire that can be redeemed by love.

8. Blade (1998). The first action-adventure vampire movie and as such an undeniable landmark, Stephen Norrington's vehicle for Wesley Snipes also set a new standard of glamour for modern-day vampires, the violent power fantasy making immortality even more alluring.

9. Underworld (2003). Replace Blade with a female action hero and you take the vampire adventure genre to yet another level. In addition, Len Wiseman's film brings cinema in line with the burgeoning urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre by introducing all manner of lineages and bloodlines and the mythology of the ancient feud between vampires and werewolves. On top of all this is Kate Beckinsale in that outfit! Who can argue with that?

10. Let the Right One In (2008). Yes, this is Wendigo's winner of the great vampire kulturkampf of last year, though I must remind you that he likes both this and Twilight. The Swedish film gets the nod and makes the list because Wendigo was impressed with its more "realistic" presentation of a vampire-human romance as a relationship of profoundly disturbed individuals in an evocatively cold and harsh setting.

That's the list of someone who has read many things vampiric and thought a lot about genre fiction in general. Wendigo acknowledges an Anglo-American bias (the last film being the exception) but believes that his favorites will stand up to the competition from Europe, Mexico or elsewhere. Any such list is bound to be provocative as well as informative, and I'll be keeping my friend appraised of any responses to his list. I think he'd make a great movie blogger himself, and if we get a dialogue going we may yet draw him into the fray on a more regular basis.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


This October, for many movie bloggers, the theme is Italian horror. Kevin J. "Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies" Olson has declared a blog-a-thon on the subject at his own place, and that inspired me to take a look at this item from Pupi Avati, who has been only an occasional horror director during his still-active career. That may explain why La casa dalle finestre che ridono seems less generic than its genre peers. Its rural setting rules out the decadent modernity of the giallo, and his deliberate build-up denies audiences the regular jolts and assaults they might get from zombie or cannibal films. It's more of a writers' film than a lot of Italian product, advancing the story by narrative rather than stunning you with visual style or gore effects. It aims at instilling a mild sense of dread, but not so much that you aren't shocked when Avati actually wants to shock you.

The story takes us to a small Italian village dominated by a dwarf, Solmi, who took the lead in rebuilding after the German occupation during World War II. The SS used the village's San Sebastian church as a headquarters and reportedly executed prisoners there. This fact is mentioned, but that promising angle is never developed in the film. In any event, a restoration project is under way that has revealed a fresco portraying the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, painted by the village's most famous son (for all we know), Buono Legnani. The priest would rather cover up the violent scene, but Solmi thinks that a proper restoration would make the town a tourist attraction. He brings Stefano, an art restorer (Lino Capolicchio) in to do the work, but Stefano's project brings back bad memories and wild rumors about Legnani from some people, along with vague hints about a "house with laughing windows." We know Legnani was messed up because we hear a monologue of his over the opening credits, in which he talks about his colors flowing through his veins, to purify death and be purified by death, while we see a man being stabbed repeatedly and howling in agony. As it happens, Legnani is known as a "painter of agony." Was that him we saw stabbed? Could it have been him stabbing the victim? It's too soon to tell.

Stefano's curiosity begins to go beyond the St. Sebastian painting when a friend suffers a suspicious "suicide" just before he was to tell our hero about the house with laughing windows. Despite getting evicted from his hotel room on a spurious pretext, he presses on while staying at an old woman's house deeper in the countryside. He hooks up with the village schoolteacher, and later hooks up with her considerably younger replacement, Francesca (Francesca Marciano, later the screenwriter of a fine 2003 film, I'm Not Scared). An alcoholic handyman, Coppola (co-write Gianni Cavina), spooks him with stories of the evil painter and his more evil sisters. He finally leads Stefano to the H.L.W., where the Legnanis supposedly buried the bodies of their victims -- models who were killed to inspire Buono's paintings. While Buono himself apparently died long ago after setting himself on fire -- no body was found, however, -- Stefano grows certain that the sisters, whom Buono painted as the tormentors of St. Sebastian, are still alive, and possibly still killing people under the influence of some obscure Brazilian cult. It's a hard sell for most of the village, especially since one of his primary sources is one of the most disreputable men in town. But as he delves deeper, and as he and Coppola actually find bodies buried, people suddenly start disappearing fast....

That passing remark about the SS early in the picture hints at a subtext to The House With Laughing Windows, something to do with a community's complicity with atrocity. The Legnanis themselves weren't collaborators, Buono having burnt himself up in 1931 and the sisters disappearing not long after, but it becomes terribly obvious by the end of the movie that the town has in some way, passively or otherwise, collaborated with its own homegrown evil, maybe for no other reason than to protect the reputation of a famous artist. For most of it, I was willing to believe that the mad artist himself might still be at work, though the truth of the matter proves at least as appalling as that possibility. In any event, the painter isn't the monster of the story. The fundamental horror of it ties into the stranger's fear of strangers, the isolation of a visitor in some location where he feels unwelcome or excluded, a primal sensation that everyone is against you. A horror film is where you can have such fears confirmed without having to confess them yourself.

As mad painter Buono Legnani, Tonino Corazzari burns with an unwholesome artistic passion. Actually, in this shot he just burns with ignited alcohol.

Without many of the usual sensationalistic or exploitative elements (the actresses don't even do nude scenes, and the one revelation of a woman's breast comes at the worst possible moment for our hero), Avati's film may strike some horror fans as slow. But it's an atmospheric piece even though the location isn't particularly picturesque, and it's paced carefully to ensure that you will be shocked when Avati is ready. You get the sepiatone stabbing over the credits, then one modestly bloody death early on, and then it's all exposition and character development until an out-of-nowhere scene in which Lidio, an irreverent imbecile of an altar boy (who boasts to Stefano that he threw a live animal into his friend's coffin) rapes Francesca.

Pietro Brambilla as Lidio tries to have his way with Francesca Marciano. See the next photo for his comeuppance.

From that point the film escalates its brutality while pushing Stefano deeper into paranoia as his enemy proves maddeningly omnipotent and he ends up looking like a fool (if not a suspect) to the authorities. The big revelation scene that shows who's been doing what and why is as nasty and nutty as you could want, and it may be a bigger jolt than it otherwise would be had Avati not kept things at a pretty mundane level for most of the movie.

This is an atypical Italian horror because it requires and rewards patience, and while some might say that it's more culturally Italian because of the rural village setting, a properly-dubbed presentation of it might actually prove more accessible to global audiences because it lacks some of the genre elements that may confuse or turn off non-Italian audiences. But I think that even genre connoisseurs will find something to appreciate in Avati's movie.

And here's the Italian trailer, uploaded to YouTube by sneakybaxter:

Friday, October 23, 2009

THE UNKNOWN WOMAN (La Sconosciuta, 2006)

From the director of Cinema Paradiso comes the winner of the David di Donatello award, Italy's answer to the Oscar, for the best picture of 2006. Giuseppe Tornatore's thriller starts out like an Italian version of the "woman from hell" domestic thrillers that were so popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, only to head off in the direction of classic female revenge pictures without quite getting there. It's a stylish, sometimes shocking picture that ends up being a little less than meets the eye.

Early on, La Sconosciuta gives off a bit of a giallo vibe, and an original score by Ennio Morricone only adds to that impression. The first thing we see is a group of three women, dressed only in underwear, but also wearing white masks over their faces. They're replaced by three more women, similarly clad and similarly masked, as someone watches through an eyehole in a wall. Keeping things mysterious, Tornatore cuts to his heroine Irena (Ksenia Rappaport) en route to the town of Velarchi. She has less savory flashbacks along the way -- fleeting indistinct glimpses of what looks like nasty business.

We get more flashbacks as she establishes herself in Velarchi, taking an apartment across the street from a condominium, insinuating herself as a cleaning woman in the condo and befriending the maid for the Adacher family on one of the upper floors. Irena is very interested in meeting that family and possibly working for them. She proves to be quite ruthless about this. Taking in a movie with the maid, she nabs her keys to the condo, dashes out to get them copied and manages to get the originals back in the maid's pocketbook without the old lady noticing. She uses the keys to sneak into that apartment and look around -- for what, we don't know yet. But to get in there on a regular basis, she's going to have to deal with the maid. And so she does, tripping her down a long spiral staircase -- giallo-esque, no? -- until the old lady cracks her head on the floor and starts the blood flowing.

Irena is one of many applicants for the Adacher maid vacancy, and lands the job despite lying about being able to drive. One of her main responsibilities is tending to the Adacher's young daughter, Thea. She has a sort of neurological disorder that leaves her without many of the usual instinctual defense mechanisms. If Thea falls, for instance, she won't throw her hands out to break the fall. Irena makes a bad first impression on the little girl by bumping into her, and Thea figures out early that Irena is not an excellent driver. But Irena deters Thea from ratting on her by threatening to rat on her for eavesdropping on her parents' arguments. After this rocky start, Irena is determined to win Thea's confidence and toughen her up so she can stand up to the school bullies who exploit her weakness.

What is Irena up to? The flashbacks let us piece a story together. Irena is a Ukrainian woman who got caught up in the international sex trade. She had it rough in what looks like a rape camp where she is beaten and manhandled while other women are whipped in harsh, fragmentary scenes that are more suggestive and troubling for being brief. But she displayed a defiant spirit that impressed a bald thug by the name of "Mold," who got her out of the rape camp and turned her into a baby mill. She had nine children in a twelve-year period, all to be taken from her at a profit to Mold. But the system went wrong when she actually fell in love with a handsome young man who innocently offered her strawberries one hot day. Their idyllic romance, filmed with blazing haziness, ends with a kind of illegitimate pregnancy -- he knocks Irena up without paying for it. He pays later. Enraged that this baby, one she actually wanted to keep, was also taken from her, she takes it out on Mold in the film's goriest sequence, ripping into him with scissors before running off with his money.

It becomes obvious that Irena believes that Thea is her lost love child. But she seems less interested in running off with the girl, if she's interested in that at all, then in mentoring her in a disturbingly brutal fashion. Irena wants Thea to stand up for herself. To train her in this discipline, she ties the girl up with scarves so that her legs are locked together and she can't move her arms. Spreading blankets all over the floor, Irena repeatedly knocks the girl down, exhorting her to learn to stand up on her own. When Thea manages to rise, Irena knocks her down again. Initially playful about it, Thea grows angry and fearful as Irena proves unrelenting. Worse is to come when Irena conducts another round of these exercises on the bare hardwood, despite Thea's bawling protests. Up to this point, I'd thought that Unknown Woman was a film that could have gone over with American audiences if someone had been willing to dub it into English, ballyhoo it properly and put it in wide release. But these training scenes, even though they pay off in a scene where Thea fights off her schoolyard tormentors, would probably be deal-breakers for U.S. viewers, since Irena's methods are hard to distinguish from child abuse.

Clara Dossena as Thea (bound, left) probably deserved some sort of award for an often harshly physical performance that Americans probably wouldn't expect (or accept) from a child actor.

The question of Irena's ultimate goal continues to hang over the film. Her ruthlessness early in the picture seems like it should have been motivated by more than a desire to instill some assertiveness in her presumed daughter. That ruthlessness persists as we learn that she's been helping the now-crippled old maid to write checks that subsidize Irena's activities, even though she's got loads of cash stuffed in her own apartment. She behaves like a villain, or perhaps like an avenging antihero, but Tornatore gradually turns her into a victim and a woman in peril. At Christmastime she gets the crap kicked out of her in an alley by a couple of streetcorner Santas. Then we learn that Mold, the man she and we thought she'd killed with those scissors, got better and wants his money back. Meanwhile, Mrs. Adacher, increasingly suspicious of Irena, starts stalking her in a reversal of the first part of the film, unwittingly putting herself in danger. Irena finds herself being framed for murder, but there are still plenty of twists and directorial tricks to come in the final half hour....

Buon Natale, Irena! The Santas do a war dance on our heroine (above) while Mold (Michele Placido, below) lies in wait for an unwary Mrs. Adacher (Claudia Gerini) as a worried Irena looks on.

La Sconosciuta is the first Tornatore film I've seen. Critics of his most famous film, Cinema Paradiso, call him a manipulator of emotions, and in Unknown Woman he arguably deserves that rap. I've already explained my problem with the character of Irena: her vague intentions don't seem to fit with the extreme measures she takes. Tornatore seems more interested in toying with the audience and pushing emotional buttons than in maintaining a consistent tone with the character. He wants to play tricks, and his ultimate trick is almost a parody of twist endings, though it's not quite the end of the picture. The actual end comes ten years after the main events of the story, a perhaps-implausible happy ending that affirms a bond that transcends genealogy and any memories of abusive conduct.

But if Sconosciuta's story trembles under scrutiny, it is at least a sleek, slick, often stark thriller with terrific location work in Velarchi, beautiful compositions by Tornatore and cinematographer Fabio Zamarion, and a dominating performance by Donatello winner Ksenia Rappaport. She gets to age about twenty years over the course of the story from victim to schemer to tired middle-aged woman, and she manages to embody a complexity in her evolving character that Tornatore can't quite encompass in his story. Ennio Morricone also won a David for a score that saturates the film with music, and the juxtaposition of his romantic lullaby theme with the brutality of the flashbacks is consistent with the good old Italian tradition. This is a movie that could easily have been an Italian horror film, and it reflects some influence from the genre. But Tornatore's main purpose was to toy with genre expectations by making audiences expect a certain kind of film, then another, and thus keep everyone guessing until the end, and that makes Unknown Woman a kind of genre picture itself. But that just means that fans of Italian genre pictures will find much of the film of interest, and a good deal of it quite worth seeing, even if it isn't necessarily satisfactory as a whole.

There's a remarkable teaser for La Sconosciuta on the Image DVD that is almost purely pictorial. None of the trailers available online really equal it, but here's one uploaded by ee6db

Halloween of the Damned!

Still marking time until my next full-scale movie review (it'll be up late tonight or early tomorrow), I'd like to share this sheet of wholesome thoughts I found laying on the sidewalk outside the Albany Public Library. I could tell in one glance that it was some sort of religious tract, though this is a particularly amateurish sample of the genre. It is a single 8.5x11 sheet of paper folded four ways, with printing on only one side of the sheet. It was most likely xeroxed at the library for distribution to the masses, one of whom left it on the ground for me to discover. Titled, "What's in your BAG," it features the usual selection of bible verses surrounding the author's own learned remarks on the significance of Halloween. These I print verbatim and in their entirety:

The celebration of halloween is dedicated to satan and the devil.
"Listen carefully my dearest readers."
Listen to what God is saying in the bible.
Isiah 42:8
I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.
Exodus 20:3,4
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness ofany thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth
In this days the witch craft and the predictors, they will gain human body's in diffrent places, in peoples homes, forest and mountains to be sacrsfice.
When they can't find people to sacrafices for satan, they will take animals or repiticles to drop their blood from this animals to evil. In those days they will give you candy and those candies, a lot of them are dedicated to the devil and have poison. In other cases some people uses masks to scare and still, also to do evil things to the inisents people, and still goods also.
They either still or kill, Everything that pertain this devilish practice is out of Gods commanments.

So there, you depraved watchers of horror films and eaters of devlish candy! You're on notice. And even if you don't believe a word of this, doesn't it scare you just a little bit to think that a real person wrote this, and is still out there in the world? If so, I suppose I've done my bit to properly haunt your Halloween.

Back to the movies next time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Poetry of Cable Guide: A Kind of Quiz

The latest issue of Harper's Magazine showed me that I hadn't been the only one to be fascinated and amused by the occult discipline of composing cable guide synopses of movies. The challenge consists of boiling down the plot and/or the essence of a feature-length film to one sentence, and the results often resemble a detailed description of the tip of an iceberg. Ranging from the superficial to the obtuse, they often seem to have been composed by people who haven't seen the films they must describe. All too often, cable guide just doesn't get it. One of my favorite examples, which I don't remember exactly, is the cable guide for Ben-Hur on Time Warner. It was something to the effect of: "A former galley slave encounters a Roman in a chariot race." Yes, this accurately describes an episode of the film, but cable guide's determined vagueness makes the event sound like an almost random incident. Characters are rarely named in cable guide, and motivations are irrelevant. In cable guide, for the most part, stuff just happens.

Imagine having never seen a film before and having only cable guide to work with. Some high-concept stories might be done justice, but many other movies are barely described at all by these accidental aphorisms. A poet named Brett Fletcher Lauer was obviously captivated by the mysteries of cable guide; the result is his publication in the literary magazine Jubiliat of a "found text" anthology of cable guide synopses. Harper's picked it up for its monthly "Readings" section, and since neither the magazine's editors nor Lauer can claim to have created this text, I feel entitled to offer some excerpts here. Take them as a kind of challenge to your movie knowledge. Some are easily recognizable. Some still baffle me -- and some of those probably describe movies I've seen. Whoever can identify them all (and Harper's saw no need for an answer key) is a better movie maven than I.

1. A former soldier tries to rescue a kidnapped nuclear physicist from a terrorist who wants her to create warheads.

2. A corporate climber, whose boss and others use his apartment for hanky-panky, aids a young woman.

3. The amateur sleuth has a killer, a gangster, and the police on his trail.

4. Evil partners experiment on an infant and send his twin to a reputable research nursery.

5. An insurance salesman joins would-be heirs and the butler in a mansion with a millionaire's corpse.

6. A dishonest lawyer must prove he is not a killer.

7. People hide in a house from carnivorous walking corpses revived by radioactive fallout.

8. Explosives ace helps woman get revenge in Miami.

9. David and Kathy spend half of their third date lying and the other half confessing.

10. A mystery writer and her friends are stalked by a faceless throat-ripper in a haunted house.

11. A doctor injects himself with ape fluid and turns hairy; he needs human fluid to turn back.

12. While blackmailing a corrupt police officer, a man becomes involved with two women.

13. No-frills policewoman is ordered to protect a pampered actress who has witnessed a murder.

14. From a sanitarium morgue slab, a corpse tells how she died and who was involved in her death.

15. A conspirator turns an arrogant ruler into a llama.

There's more where these came from, and infinitely more on your own TV. If we look, we might find some more baffling, and probably funnier, than these.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Mill Creek Entertainment is moving up in the world. Our favorite purveyor of public domain oddities is now selling licensed properties, including some of the library of grindhouse stalwart Crown International Pictures, acquired from the defunct BCI Eclipse. One of Mill Creek's first Crown offerings is a 12-film collection called Gorehouse Greats. Blood Mania shares one side of a DVD with Al Adamson's Blood of Dracula's Castle. Is that worthy company?

Here's Mill Creek's synopsis of the film: "A nightmare of unspeakable terror, this Gothic-like horror tale is about a young doctor who's haunted by a questionable past and entrapped in a hopeless present by jealousy, blackmail and finally, murder!"

Here's the trailer Crown International made for it. Plenty horrific, yes?

Here's another poster advertising the film. The co-feature is apparently a 1961 Most Dangerous Game knockoff being revived as a cannibal film. Blood Mania itself appears to have been offered in some sort of Taste-O-Vision process from what the poster copy suggests.

Crown was only the distributor of this Jude production, and that fact makes me wonder whether Jude or Crown had the bright idea to sell Blood Mania as a horror film or, for that matter, to call it Blood Mania. That title does not prepare you for what you finally see, and, admittedly, neither does the credit sequence, a spooky episode featuring a blond in a diaphanous outfit on the run, stalked by a mysterious and colorfully lit menace seen only in close-up who seems intent on strangling the woman. Gary Graver is listed as one of two cinematographers for this film, and I suspect that this opening bit is his work.

What follows looks less like a nightmare of unspeakable terror than like a Lifetime Original Movie, only with lots of boob shots. The vision turns out to be the nightmare of Ridgely Waterman, an ailing millionaire, doted on by his daughter Victoria and treated by Dr. Craig Cooper, the object (I should say an object) of Vicki's lust. The poolboy is another object of said lust, but he's heard of women like her and doesn't like her. Dr. Cooper also resists; he seems to be happily married, but a shadow crosses his life in the form of a blackmailer (identified in the credits as "Blackmailer") who wants $50,000 from Cooper in order to stay quiet about his sordid past as an abortionist. Roe v. Wade was still three years away.

Maria De Aragon puts the moves on Peter Carpenter (below) and the audience (above) in Blood Mania.

While Mrs. Cooper selflessly offers her body to the blackmailer in return for his silence, the doctor offers his body to Vicki Waterman, who offers a shortcut to $50,000 in the form of a murder plot against her father. She eliminates him with a fatal dose of amyl nitrate, though there is a sort-of-horror movie moment when he suddenly bolts upright in his death throes. And now comes the reading of the will by Alex Rocco and the crushing revelation that the bulk of the Waterman estate will go to younger sister Gail Waterman (future Playmate Vicki Peters)-- the blond from the opening credits. To this point, Maria De Aragon has played Vicki as a rampant tramp. Now she gets an all out mad scene, screaming, rolling her eyes and pulling faces in a tantrum of hatred worthy of notice by all aficionados of bad acting. Her most famous subsequent performance, if IMDB can be believed, is in the role of Greedo in Star Wars! I don't think Lucas got full value from her.

Greedo must have seemed like a natural next step for De Aragon following "Greedy" in Blood Mania.

So Vicki doesn't get the money, and now it looks like she isn't going to get the doctor, either. Having shaken off all remaining scruples against sex for money, Craig now goes after Gail, despite a hint from her older female companion that he may have a rival already. All seems to go well, however, as he treats the blond to a day at the Renaissance Faire, a romp on the beach, and a romp in front of the fireplace, interrupted only by Gail's inexplicable inheritance of her late father's nightmare vision of her violation. All the while, amateur artist Vicki paints with broad red strokes.

The trailer has told you about the last fifteen minutes. Psycho may have its shower scene, but Blood Mania stakes out its own territory with a definitive bathroom-sink scene in which Vicki commits sororicide with a statuette.

She calls Craig over so she can have the satisfaction of showing him Vicki's bloody corpse. She only sneers when the blubbery doctor whimpers, "Why???" then makes him dump the body in his car for future disposal. Then she draws him into her triumphant embrace before the moment of supreme horror that climaxes this tawdry affair.

Blood Mania was the one and only produce of Jude Productions. The director, Robert Vincent O'Neill, may be best known for the Angel series of vigilante-prostitute films from the 1980s. Our male lead, Peter Carpenter, co-wrote the film and would pull the same double-duty once more before an untimely demise in 1971. I can't help but believe that they all had something other than "Blood Mania" in mind when putting this together, but since there really wasn't such a thing as the "erotic thriller" genre yet, they must have thrown in some horror elements to make their project more exploitable, if Crown International didn't do that for them. Whoever's responsible, they did the right thing, for the shock and horror bits are the only elements of interest, apart from the toplessness and Maria De Aragon's histrionics, in this mostly mundane movie. I put it into the machine expecting a proper horror film for the season, so I'm naturally a little disappointed in Blood Mania, but people who watch it with a better idea of what to expect may be gratified by the more campy or sleazy aspects of the story. I hope this helps.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

HARAKIRI (Seppuku, 1962)

One fine day in 1630, a masterless samurai, a ronin, turns up at the gate of the courtyard of the Iyi clan. He has an unusual request: rather than live a deteriorating life of poverty, he would like the use of the courtyard to commit seppuku in a manner befitting a onetime samurai. Actually, this isn't the first time someone like this has shown up with this sort of request. Not so long ago, another ronin, in fact from the same disbanded clan as the new man, turned up with the same story. Already, by this time, the Iyi had grown suspicious of such stories. Word's got out that a ronin went to another clan, supposedly for the same purpose, but the saps in that clan were so soft hearted that they made the bum a retainer. Now the Iyi work under the assumption that anyone who turns up on their doorstep asking to kill himself is actually looking for a job or a handout. Rather than tell them to hit the road, the Iyi try to make examples of them by holding them to their word. They made sure that the last guy killed himself, the new arrival is told, even though all he had in the way of weapons was a bamboo sword. It's damn hard to disembowel yourself with a bamboo sword, and director Masaki Kobayashi illustrates this point in excruciating detail.

With a bamboo sword you can barely penetrate your flesh, much less disembowel yourself. Akira Ishihama demonstrates in Harakiri.

The latest sucker seems more determined to follow through on his desire to end his life. All he requests is to choose his second, the man who'll decapitate him once he's finished disemboweling himself. He has a specific person in mind, a known master of the sword, but it turns out that this individual is indisposed due to illness. The ronin goes through a second and third choice, both of whom are also too ill to come, before the Iyi counselor gets tired of the whole affair and tells him to accept the second that the clan had chosen. But if the ronin can't have the one thing he requested, the least the Iyi can do is listen to his life story. After all, he could kill a few of them if they try to force the issue. Fine, the counselor says, but make it quick.

It so happens that Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father-in-law of the previous victim, Motome Chijiiya. He'd raised the kid since the kid's father killed himself after the disbanding of their clan. The new Tokugawa shogunate is shutting down a lot of the great clans, dumping the once-proud samurai on the street. Hanshiro himself has a little girl to raise as well as Motome, and he's been instructed not to kill himself, but live for both the kids' and his lord's sake. Fortunately, he's a kind of craftsman and develops a trade in parasols, making a living while other ronin struggle or starve. In time, Motome marries Hanshiro's daughter Miho and they have a child. They're a kind of success story, but things fall apart once Miho contracts the Movie Disease. Soon the child also grows sick while the men spend all their resources and let their business fall apart trying to get their loved ones proper medical care. Ronin were not allowed to carry over their daimyo's health insurance plans, apparently, when their clans were disbanded. It was at a moment of supreme desperation that Motome paid his foolhardy, fatal visit to the Iyi clan. The three swordsmen who are now very coincidentally ill were the ones who brought Motome's body back to Hanshiro, explaining with barely veiled contempt how he had honorably ended his life.

Happier times for Hanshiro's family

What's the moral of this story, the Iyi counselor asks impatiently. The moral, Hanshiro suggests, is, don't you guys think you were a little hard on Motome? Don't you want to admit that maybe you should have asked why he wanted a sudden reprieve before forcing him to torture himself to death with that bamboo sword? Hanshiro was hoping that he might be able to tell Motome, when he meets him in the afterlife, that these Iyi creeps were just a little sorry for what they did. Not a chance. While Hanshiro dares claim that the samurai code of honor is now an empty facade, the Iyi insist that they've restored the code by forcing these losers to live up to their words by killing themselves. Anyway, the counselor asks Hanshiro, if you think the code is so much bull, why would you think we'd apologize?

Probably he didn't think they would. But before we wrap things up, Hanshiro has some lovely parting gifts for the Iyi. They are clumps of hair with name tags: samurai topknots. As flashbacks reveal, Hanshiro has already avenged his family by defeating the three swordsmen but sparing their lives, only taking their topknots. Doing that, however, is the supreme, unendurable humiliation. Those three swordsmen should have killed themselves, but instead they're hiding at their homes pretending to be sick. So much for the honor of the Iyi clan. And so much for the counselor's patience, as he orders his retainers to cut Hanshiro down. But this is a Sixties samurai film, no matter how subversive of the genre and its social context, so you know that Hanshiro isn't going down without a long, bloody fight....

Harakiri reminded me a lot of American films from the Depression era like William Wellman's Heroes For Sale, which is also a tale of a warrior kicked to the curb and left to fend for himself in times of peace. In a way, it also reminded me of Ted Kotcheff's First Blood, especially since the spurned warrior in Harakiri finally fights back against the oppressive society. Some people could read the Kobayashi film as an indictment of Japan's treatment of World War II veterans, but critic Donald Ritchie in his filmed intro to the Criterion DVD describes it as a frontal assault on the samurai genre itself. There's a tendency in Japanese cinema to attack the conventions of their own popular fiction, to debunk the myths they helped to create. Kinji Fukasaku did it with yakuza stories, and Kobayashi probably isn't the only one to debunk the values promoted by more conventional samurai pictures. Harakiri's slow-burn structure may be part of the subversive effort, since it denies us a real samurai swordfight until nearly two hours into the movie, and the only violence we get before that is Motome's gruesome death scene. After all, it's because there are no proper occasions for fighting anymore, thanks to Tokugawa, that ronin are reduced to their pitiable state. So Kobayashi and his writers delay the gratification samurai fans presumably craved, repeatedly going back in time, first as the Iyi tell Hanshiro their version of Motome's fate, then as Hanshiro tells them his version.

But when Kobayashi finally relents, he delivers one of the greatest samurai fight scenes I've ever seen, pitting Nakadai against Testuro Tanba in a windblown grassy field beneath an overcast sky. The editing and outdoor cinematography are brilliant in this long battle by samurai-cinema standards. This fight is structured by editing rather than choreography, with an emphasis on pictorial effect rather than seamless flow of action. I want to call it expressionistic in the same way that some of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull are expressionist rather than realist. Camera angles, light and shadow, and the poses of the actors add to the emotional intensity of the moment.

This epic one-on-one encounter, related in flashback, is followed by the big finish as Hanshiro fights his way into the Iyi headquarters and desecrates their ancestral armor. By the standards of insane, Wild Bunch-style bloodbath finales of films like Sword of Doom, Hanshiro's final rampage is relatively modest in keeping with Kobayashi's social-realist intent. We're actually given a final body count of only four killed and eight wounded, when Zatoichi in similar circumstances might have wiped out dozens of men. But the odds are against Hanshiro, and you're never allowed to forget that or really believe that he might somehow fight his way out or avenge himself on the Iyi counselor. In any event, Kobayashi's point seems to be that Hanshiro has already won his battle, by showing the counselor how his men had failed to live up to their vaunted code. But power gives the counselor the last word of the story, and the final irony is that history will record that Hanshiro actually did commit seppuku the way he supposedly meant to -- and that a lot of Iyi retainers suddenly got sick and died.

Harakiri is a film that rewards patience. If you like non-linear narratives you should have no problems with the first third of the film, while the middle section is the piecing together of a puzzle, and the final acts are all-out samurai mayhem. If action's what you want, the last half hour will make Harakiri worth the wait. Enthusiasts of Japanese cinema in general probably won't have to wait long before recognizing this as a great film.

Here's a subtitled trailer, uploaded by WorldCinemateque