Tuesday, October 6, 2015

El asesino está entre los trece (The Killer is Among the Thirteen) (1973)

El asesino está entre los trece (The Killer is Among the Thirteen) (1973) plays like a Who’s Who of Spanish 70s genre cinema:  Patty Shepard, Jack Taylor, Dyanik Zurakowska, Eusebio Poncela, and Simón Andreu, for example, head the cast; while Paul Naschy delivers an extended cameo with future superstar Carmen Maura featured in an early role.  This cast plays a group of leisure, invited for a weekend sojourn by Shepard, with highballs, inane conversation, extravagant dinners, and possible evening bed-hopping on the agenda.  As the title would indicate, this representative class of the boo-gee has a sinister character amongst their number who plans on reducing it before the weekend is out.

While it is not anemic, the first murder of El asesino está entre los trece does not occur until the end of the second act.  Several signature features of the giallo are present:  black gloves, razor blades, and the first-person point-of-view of the killer.  The murders are not graphic, and the love scenes are tame.  The camera cuts away when a bra is unstrapped or when a blade enters into someone’s flesh, usually.  With the sensational elements considerably toned down, El asesino está entre los trece feels like Renoir-lite:  the values of the middle class are exposed, and because of their values, the middle class do themselves in, rather than the maniacal killer the title suggests.
Shepard plays Lisa Mandel, a recently-widowed wealthy woman who invites the group to her secluded home in the countryside.  Her husband died a couple of years ago in a plane crash, its jet he was piloting.  Barbiturates were found in his system with a non-lethal dose enough to make him fall asleep.  Lisa believes the killer visited him slightly before he took off and drugged him.  That person is among her group of invitees, and she reveals this information to them during the first evening’s formal dinner.  Every single one of them had an opportunity to kill her husband.  Lisa has invited the group to discover each’s motive and reveal the killer during their stay.  Even Lisa’s cousin, Francis (Poncela), and her aunt with whom she lives cannot be ruled out as suspects.  A mild case of paranoia sets in among the guests and slightly hampers their fun.
Tension and dread is sorely lacking in El asesino está entre los trece and this is its chief flaw.  A murder mystery, intuitively, should focus on murder or mystery, but they are almost wholly absent from the first two acts of the film.  Andreu plays Harry Stephen, a very flirtatious playboy.  His aim, apparently, is to seduce every single woman that the film presents.  The lovely, little maid, Elena (Rosa de Alba) is his only successful seduction.  First, he encounters her in his room and showers her with flatteries.  During their second meeting, he dares a kiss.  Finally, he attempts to fuck her in his bedroom, but Elena, by this time totally infatuated with him, suggests a clandestine rendezvous in the pool house.  They meet at the midnight hour and fuck in the pool house.  At the conclusion, Elena asks, “Will you take me with you when you leave?”  Andreu, as Harry Stephen, suggests that they slow down.  Naschy, incidentally, plays the jealous handyman who is having a relationship with Elena.  (He has a love scene with Rosa de Alba, and I am sure he thanked his director, Javier Aguirre.)  Not only do these scenes feel as if they are out of The Rules of the Game (1939), but they occupy a substantial portion of the film’s ninety-minute runtime.  Also, no one’s personality, or boo-gee status, really reveals anything that he or she may be the killer.  This is a fantastic cast, and I do enjoy watching them work.  However, I kind of wanted a murder mystery, and El asesino está entre los trece, on the whole, does not deliver.  I do not think that I am asking for too much.
The music by Alfonso Santisteban is wonderful.  The acting by all of the participants is excellent.  The direction is competent.  Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Aguirre and Alberto S. Insúa, is dull and antiquated.  El asesino está entre los trece does have its charms as a curiosity of 70s, Spanish genre cinema, but these charms are only for us, the diehard fans, who could still find better to behold.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Hugo Stiglitz Chronicles, Volume Two

More Stiglitz.

La mara salvatrucha (2002) (??)
La mara salvatrucha (2002) is listed on the IMDb as Veteranos de la M-18 (2007), although my DVD shows the former as the title with its year listed in the end credits.  The film is about a street gang.  They don’t work; drink and smoke weed; and commit acts of heinous violence.  The leader of the gang is tight with his sister; and one day, as he is gunning down a fleeing foe, his sister rounds the corner and is gunned down, too.  The leader is devastated and as La mara unfolds, he begins to lose his shit.  In an exemplary scene, the gang attempts to rob a warehouse full of goods which is guarded by armed men.  Now constantly inebriated, the leader stands vacant and still as bullets fly around him.  He gives a slurred speech and pumps some bullets into the warehouse’s boss.  It is unclear whether the gang claims any booty from this robbery.  He and his gang go to a cemetery where they encounter the parents of one of their victims.  The gang guns them down.  He rapes a young woman who, devastated by her trauma, turns to heroin.  The leader begins shooting up with her, too.  It is clear the path that this young man has chosen will lead him to certain death.  By the end of ninety minutes, at least.  Stiglitz plays “El jefe,” and he sees his soldier on the street, the leader of the street gang, causing nothing but trouble for the entire syndicate.  A showdown is inevitable.

La mara is a low-budget exploitation film, where I found myself fascinated as to what kind of shit was going to happen next.  There is an aimlessness to the action which, in a creative touch, mimics the lifestyle of the street gang.  There is something undefinable about watching the tragedy of someone self-destruct juxtaposed with the same person committing ruthless acts of violence (like brutally torturing a foe, only to, with venomous passion, force one of his comrades to murder the man).  La mara is oldschool exploitation.  I couldn’t really tell what was up with Stiglitz:  he’s so cold and icy that it is hard to read his emotions.  He dies really good in this one.  He is also billed as “Stiglis.”
Pistoleros del traficante (1999)
Not only is Stiglitz top-billed in Pistoleros del traficante (1999), he appears as the protagonist, as opposed to the supporting role I find myself familiar with.  He is an officer on the front lines of the drug trade and is actively attempting to stop drug trafficking…with little success.  During a dangerous raid, Stiglitz and company manage to interrupt a drug trade and nab one of the dealers.  A fellow officer shoots the suspect before he can talk, and Stiglitz has to shoot him down.  This scene is representative of Stiglitz’s dilemma:  everyone around him, including his so-called compatriots on the force, are on the wrong side of the law.  Stiglitz meets one of his homies at a bar, and the fellow seems an affable chap.  (Although in the first scene of Pistoleros, after a concert scene, this same fellow is seen gunning down two dudes in cold blood.)  Stiglitz’s homey is one of the key, upper-echelon figures in the drug trade and he has turned his sights towards turning Stiglitz to the dark side.  He commands his voluptuous lady to seduce Stiglitz at every opportunity she can get.  Stiglitz is actually cool with that, despite having a gorgeous and loving wife.  Eventually, one of Stiglitz’s crooked colleagues on the force makes a fatal mistake that identifies him as a bad guy.  Stiglitz, with six-shooter in hand, shoots everybody.

Pistoleros feels polished, and Stiglitz is a compelling badass as the lead.   The plot of Pistoleros is nothing new:  Hong Kong cinema has made a cottage industry out of the genre, and almost every country is familiar with police corruption.  This film has a real energy; and while it isn’t memorable, it certainly is entertaining for its run time.  There are musical sequences which are nice.  The action sequences are very well-done.  When Stiglitz takes over, it’s win-win.
Cementerio de cholos (2003)
Stiglitz does not appear until about fifty minutes into Cementerio de cholos (2003) (out of ninety minutes).  He does receive top billing.  Cementerio is about young friends who enjoy the pleasures of youth:  dancing, playing basketball, socializing, and drinking and smoking weed.  Dampening their fun is a bunch of assholes, a vicious street gang.  In the opening sequence of the film, the young friends are dancing to live music in the open air.  The street gang arrives and begins making trouble.  The leader of the street gang has eyes for the pretty betty with the cool kids, but she rebuffs him.  The next day, she is walking home and gets kidnapped by the street gang.  They take her to a secluded place and gang rape her.  She escapes.  She finds solace first in the hands of a religious zealot (who later immolates himself in the film); second, she returns home to find her mother passed out drunk; and finally, she turns to her friends and explains her trauma.  Revenge is on tap, ready to be served cold.  It becomes a little lukewarm when the two groups meet to fight, as they are kind-of lame in execution.  As the film nears its conclusion, the young friends begin killing the members of the street gang.  It appears that Cementerio will not end until the street gang is completely wiped out.  Or ninety minutes ends.  Stiglitz is the police officer attempting to end the violence among the groups.

Cementerio depicts another ruthless street gang.  This gang even enjoys fighting among themselves.  They murder a cop.  Murder a business owner during a robbery.  Bet on dog fights.  Lose on dog fights and beat and rob the winner.  Gang rape women.  Shoot some more people.  Ruin parties.  The highlight of Cementerio shows that the unity of young people is strong, and this unity is, simultaneously and ironically, wholly absent among many young people.  Stiglitz chews the scenery.  He points his gun more than he shoots it.  The film feels like a slice-of-life docudrama played with the seriousness of an afterschool special.  This is unique, in its own way.  I would have preferred, as usual, more Stiglitz, but I would not be lying if I said that I was entertained for ninety minutes.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Hugo Stiglitz Chronicles, Volume One

For the fan of offbeat film, one of the perks of living in a culturally diverse city is the accessibility to weird movies from other countries and in other languages.  Whilst shopping at my local mega-mart, I noticed a large bin, about the size of a child’s swimming pool, filled to the brim with DVDs of Mexican films, most of which were less than the price of a pack of cigarettes.  Atop of the heap were several films featuring actor Hugo Stiglitz, the star of one of my favorite European horror films, Nightmare City, and whose name was immortalized by Quentin Tarantino when he cast Til Schweiger as Sargent Hugo Stiglitz in his 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds.  Most of the DVDs that I saw available had Stiglitz’s picture on its cover, often he was brandishing a firearm and held a cold, icy stare for any prospective viewers of his cinema.  I thought that these were badass, so I bought a shitload of them.  I feel compelled, now, to chronicle my journey through these films.  I see no end in sight.

2 monjitas en peligro (1998)
The image of two attractive nuns brandishing assault rifles on the cover of this DVD was enough for me to merit purchasing it.  The presence of Stiglitz, who receives top billing, was gravy.  2 monjitas en peligro deals with two (biological) sisters.  As children, they were cared for by the Mother Superior (Ana Luisa Peluffo) as their loving father was often occupied with business.  His business was drug trafficking, and he gets gunned down by the police who interrupt an exchange.  The young girls’ grandfather takes it upon himself to rear his granddaughters, especially by teaching them how to expertly use firearms.  The sisters grow into women (portrayed by Edna Bolkan and Maribel Palmer) and are engaged in helping the Mother Superior run her orphanage.  One day, two armed thugs, with a copious amount of cocaine in tow, take refuge in the orphanage from the police and hold all inside, including the children, hostage.  The two sisters cut a deal with their captors:  they agree to tape the cocaine to their persons; disguise themselves as nuns; and deliver the goods to the local crime boss in exchange for their surrendering and letting everyone go.  The police will not search two nuns, and absent any heavy evidence, the captors will face seriously reduced charges.  The deal is made, and the two sisters deliver the goods.  The local crime boss is most impressed.  He attempts to pay the two sisters to perform their ruse, again, and they are close to accepting as the orphanage is constantly behind in payments.  They refuse, as everyone knows, drug trafficking cannot justify even helping poor, unfortunate orphans.  The local crime boss then kidnaps the Mother Superior and forces the two sisters to drive a station wagon full of cocaine into the city, past police checkpoints.  If they do not, then the Mother Superior will be killed.  The sisters learn, en route to their destination, that Stiglitz, who works as a henchman for the local crime boss, was involved in the murder of their father.  They decide to get revenge upon the syndicate. 

The plot of 2 monjitas en peligro sounds really cool, but the execution is extremely mechanical, most of it delivered in dialogue.  The film generates no real energy.  Stiglitz mostly chews the scenery:  he just stares at people and looks badass; or he has a drink and a smoke while delivering dialogue.  The director, Jesús Fragoso Montoya, makes no interesting compositions and never steps beyond a conservative decision.  He does, however, have a fondness for the female culo, so when the actresses were in thongs, compositions got tighter.  I perked up during these sequences.  The few action sequences are perfunctory, and the ending was woefully anti-climactic.  Bolkan and Palmer are two very sexy and adept actresses, and their characters should have been pushed beyond dialogue.  To be handed a script this insane and to not complement it with visual insanity is a cardinal sin of the highest order.  Stiglitz should have just have shot everybody for ninety minutes.
Pandillas criminales (2002)

A young woman is walking home alone at night when a van of street thugs pulls up beside her and drags her into the van.  They brutally gang rape her at a secluded building.  Meanwhile, a vigilante girl gang are beating and killing a local thug.  When the young rape victim stumbles home, she encounters her mother (Diana Herrera), and the two have a lengthy argument.  Her mother leaves the home that very evening.  The following day, the young woman visits a rape counseling center and is treated insensitively.  On her way home, she meets two of the local girl gang.  They sympathize with her and offer her real support.  They also offer to help her get revenge upon her attackers, at any cost.  Stiglitz plays a crooked cop who is feeding drugs to the street thugs and leeching their profits.  His character does not make it into the final act, despite the fact that he has top billing (his name spelled “Stieglitz” in the credits).

Pandillas criminales could have been a gritty exploitation flick, but, again, this film is talky.  Even during the final act, when the girl gang assaults the street thugs’ hideout, dialogue sequences between the ladies stand out when ammunition should be flying off the walls and into street thugs.  As interesting diversions, the street thugs have a rival gang; and twice in the film, the two leaders meet to gamble upon each’s best fighter in a one-on-one fight.  Unfortunately, none can fight for shit.  It is as if their idea of martial arts is simply the idea of performing kicks.  These fights could have been dressed up with some interesting camerawork, but, like the majority of the film, such camerawork is absent.  I can appreciate the sensitivity shown to the ladies:  there is a real unity among them, and the issues within the film are serious.  However, whenever revenge is to be exacted, I like my revenge exacted cold (and really cool-looking).  Stiglitz appears in nothing more than an extended cameo, and perhaps his casting was to attract attention to this film.  More Stiglitz only could have helped.

La voz de los caracoles (1993)
First, think of all the shit that you can do at the beach:  sunbathing, lazing about drinking beer, swimming, jet-skiing, long walks at sunset with a loved one, a romantic canoe ride in a quiet alcove, deep sea-fishing on a yacht, and an al fresco dinner at twilight by the seashore.  Are there more?  Probably, but La voz de los caracoles is only about ninety minutes.  The film is a romance, dressed inside a thriller plot line.  If you lived through the nineties, then you know this story.  A wealthy gorgeous wife (Felicia Mercado) witnesses her husband get murdered by an unknown assailant.  Miguel Ángel Rodríguez plays the police officer assigned to protect her twenty-four hours a day.  After some playful antagonism, the two eventually fall in love.  They hit the beach.  A lot.  Police protection is a fucking paid vacation.

Rodríguez also directs La voz de los caracoles, and Stiglitz gets third billing behind him and Mercado.  Stiglitz plays Rodríguez’s boss and leads the investigation finding the killer.  Here is an example of their police work:  Mercado gets angry at Rodríguez and storms out the house.  This is the first time that she is alone after police protection has been assigned.  The killer attacks her, and before he can strike, Rodríguez shoots him in the leg, causing serious injury.  He limps away, and giving half-ass chase, the police can nab him, solving the crime.  Nope.  They decide not to do that.  There is also in La voz a strange subplot involving some sort of cosmic voodoo, as Mercado is friendly with a local soothsayer.  It ties into the mind-blowing conclusion of the film.  I am not really as angry with La voz as I sound:  Mercado and Rodríguez are an endearing couple, and I did enjoy watching their romance blossom.  However, I do want my Stiglitz fix, and unfortunately, in La voz he just serves up cold stares and yells at people in the office.  Maybe he could have gone to the beach, too, and shot up everybody there.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Digging for Fire (2015)

Joe Swanberg is one of the more interesting writer/directors working today, ever since his debut film, Kissing on the Mouth (2005).  He shows a willingness to experiment with scenarios involving intimacy (both physical and emotional) and Swanberg takes some serious artistic risks in exacting his cinema.  His latest film, Digging for Fire (2015), has premiered recently theatrically; and despite the fact that I live in a major city in the United States, the film was unavailable to see on the big screen.  The film did, however, appear on demand, and via iTunes, I was able to see it recently.  Let’s see what’s shaking.

Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson, who also co-scripted) are a young couple with a child about to enter preschool.  Lee teaches yoga; Tim is a high-school gym teacher; and their family are house-sitting in an upscale home for an actress out of the country filming.  Lee is stressing about their child’s education: she wants their son to go to a good school and is worried how they are going to pay for it.  Tim’s view is more lax:  he teaches in public school and feels it would be hypocritical for their son to not attend there.  Tim is also reticent to prepare and file their tax return.   To top it off, Tim has found on the property a rusty revolver and an old bone.  He wants to dig further and see what else he can uncover.  Understandably, Lee wants Tim to abandon that idea but she knows that he will not.  Instead, Lee decides to visit her parents (Judith Light and Sam Elliott) with her son for the weekend: this visit will afford her the opportunity to leave her son in good hands and have a relaxing evening out with friends.  Tim, unsurprisingly, becomes obsessed with the idea of finding more treasures on the property.  He continues to dig and has friends over for the weekend.  Lee and Tim, at this point, will remain separated for the duration of Digging for Fire, and each will take her/his spiritual journey during this last vestige of youth.
When Digging for Fire concluded and the credits began rolling, my sister, who was also in attendance at this viewing, said, “Nothing happened.”  She’s right:  Digging for Fire is a drama and it follows the traditional, three-act structure of drama; but nothing “dramatic” happens.  The only time that a character raises his voice, Ray (Sam Rockwell), it does not end with a violent confrontation or a yelling match.  Hurt and embarrassed, Ray leaves after his outburst, since he had been chastised by Tim for interrupting his evening with Max (Brie Larson).  The only time that a fight occurs in Digging for Fire is off screen:  a chivalrous Ben (Orlando Bloom) politely escorts a drunk out of a bar who was hitting on a clearly perturbed Lee.  For his chivalrous act, Ben receives a cut above his eye but he doesn’t throw a punch in return.  In fact, he asks the hostess at the bar to call the drunk a cab.  Finally, for example, both Tim and Lee have an opportunity to cheat on each other that evening:  Ben cooks Lee a meal for helping him tend to his wound, and the two take a moonlit stroll on the beach.  Ben kisses Lee, and despite the fact that she is attracted to him, she leaves him at the shoreline.  Tim and Max have a day of digging and bonding and dinner.  She comes over to the house the morning after the party at Tim’s house to retrieve her purse.  Max stays, and they get to know each other, creating a close connection.  Tim is too scared to even put his head in Max’s lap—it’s fairly certain that Lee and Tim love each other:  they just need some time away from each other to re-enforce and realize it. 
Digging for Fire is about the last days of youth and the entrance into real adulthood, the beginning of a family and its responsibilities.  (Swanberg’s son, Jude, plays Lee and Tim’s child, so Swanberg may be experiencing the same issues as he has rendered creatively.)  The film presents its themes in an understated manner, indicating, perhaps, that the process is not as stressful as its main characters are making it (it is rather an intuitive, natural choice).  Some are reticent to enter adulthood, such as Ray, and some of the characters, like Max, are clearly in the middle of youth.  Lee and Tim are going to cross the threshold by the end of the film.  At times the symbolism of the film is a little heavy-handed (e.g. Tim’s discovery in the final act), but overall, the symbolism is organic.  (In an especially adept scene, Lee purchases a leather jacket as an impulse buy.  Later, she steals money out of her mother’s purse.)  In one of my favorite scenes, Lee visits her friends, a married couple with two children and a nanny, portrayed by Melanie Lynskey and Ron Livingston.  Lee wants Lynskey to go out with her for the evening.  Lynskey’s character declines to go out with Lee:  it is implied that her husband may be cuddling up to the nanny, as Livingston’s character has invited the nanny to accompany them on a family trip to Costa Rica.  A lot of the scenes have a Raymond Carver, slice-of-life feel to them.

Again, Swanberg with Digging for Fire makes another interesting film about intimacy; and he does not need overtly “dramatic” scenes to accomplish a rather fine piece of cinema for those open-minded and willing to see it. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas (1982)

La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas (1982) is a weird Jess Franco film.  In a good way.  It is also undeniably dirty.
Antonio Mayans plays Mendoza, the patriarch of his small family and an Argentinean actor living in exile on a remote island off of the coast of Spain.  The Mendoza family are the sole occupants of said isle whose other members are Desdemona (Lina Romay in her Candy Coster guise), Mendoza’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Dulcinea (Carmen Carrión), Mendoza’s lover, and Poulova (Susana Kerr), the youngest daughter, who is also simple-minded.  Their family dynamic has reached critical mass:  Mendoza has become disassociated—he is desperately trying to remember his past and revel in his former glory; but his past is a distant memory:  for all he knows, Mendoza is creating memories rather than re-living them.  Desdemona really, really wants to fuck.  In an early scene of La Casa, scantily-clad Desdemona lays upon her bed in full view of her father, attempting sensual poses every time that he looks up from his magazine.  Dulcinea has become bored with this isolated and repetitious lifestyle, especially since Mendoza refuses or physically cannot make love to her anymore.  Poor Poulova is nothing more than a small child in a grown woman’s body.  As she requires the same care as a newborn infant, the remaining family members bicker over who is to care for her, as none seem particular eager to do so.  One day a handsome young hunter (Tony Skios) arrives on the island for a little poaching and becomes the catalyst causing the Mendoza family to implode.

The sole criticism of La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas in the essential Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco is a quote from Franco:
La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas is not a horror film, but it’s a very bizarre film, a story of manners—bad manners!  It looks like Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, yet it’s totally different.  It mostly concerns la petite bourgeoisie” (J. Franco, Madrid, 1986).  (*)
Buñuel, Pasolini, and Jean Renoir, for example, all had fun at the expense of the boo-gee—exposing their values and then creating the characters’ downfall, because of them.  There is no reason that Jess Franco is not entitled to their same artistic license.  La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas is really essential Franco:  it is poetic, sensuous, and provocative while also being playful, progressive, and above all, very dirty.  It is a film made in post-Franco Spain, where Lina Romay spends almost the entire time butt-naked, seemingly because she can.  In a representative sequence, Desdemona sits in a rocking chair and eats an orange.  She is also watching what I assume to be an episode of Dallas (as the dialogue reveals characters such as J.R. and Sue Ellen).  Franco’s camera never leaves a tight composition upon Romay.  She begins enjoying her orange, letting the juice drip upon her body, eventually playing with a slice of orange in a very discreet area of her body.  (She enjoys the same playfulness with a cigarette in an earlier scene.)  I cannot help but to find this scene funny:  the privilege of masturbating to an episode of Dallas is now available; or one can now masturbate while watching Romay masturbate to an episode of Dallas. I think that I have exceeded my quota with the word masturbate for now.  Time to move on.

Franco exposes the characters’ self-centeredness and self-importance in La Casa.  Dulcinea is the recipient of an unfulfilled promise:  here she is on a supposed idyllic island with a famous actor:  Mendoza is self-absorbed and impotent, and Dulcinea is little more than a caretaker for the family, despite not being the mother of the two daughters.  She creates her own fun by blackmailing Desdemona into fucking her in exchange for her silence to her father about her chronic masturbating.  When she encounters the hunter in the living room late in the evening, Dulcinea is not reticent to seduce him.  When she catches Mendoza spying on the couple, Dulcinea shames him for his lack of virility.  It is the crushing blow for Mendoza—he realizes that his reality is a created one.

La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas has some beautiful photography from Juan Soler and the music by Daniel J. White is quite enchanting.  All the performances are good.  My favorite scenes are of Romay waxing poetic by the seashore or looking above from the veranda at the passing airplanes.  Her voice-over narration speaks of a desire for freedom and melancholy for each passing day.  These soliloquies are very sensitive and well done by Franco.  La Casa is a unique, disorienting film well worth seeking out by fans of Franco.
* Ed.  Lucas Balbo & Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen and Frank Trebbin Publishing.  Germany.  1993: p. 153. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Death Avenger of Soho (Der Todesrächer von Soho) (1971)

I was in the mood to watch a krimi and a Jess Franco film and, subsequently, found a flick that fit both bills:  The Death Avenger of Soho (Der Todesrächer von Soho) (1971). 
An anxious man in a London hotel asks the manager for his bags to be packed and to have a cab waiting for him at the curb.  He returns to his room to find his luggage already packed and waiting for him which, for whatever reason, greatly perturbs him.  He pays his bill, and while attempting to enter the cab, he is killed with a precision knife throw from an unknown assailant.  Handsome Inspector Robert Redford (Fred Williams) arrives to investigate, and the crime scene yields little evidence.  Redford hooks up with his friends, crime novelist Charles Barton (Horst Tappert) and photo-journalist Andy Pickwick (Luis Morris) for help.  The sole lead in his case is a doctor, Dr. Blackmead (Siegfried Schüremberg)—who happened to be in the vicinity of the film’s first kill.  At the doctor’s office, Redford meets Dr. Blackmead’s assistant, Helen (Elisa Montés), and is instantly smitten.  Another murder occurs with the same modus operandi, yet there is no discernable link between the victims.  Redford’s leads run cold.  A mysterious man (Dan Van Hussen) breaks into the home of Charles Barton, and is caught stealing red-handed by Barton.  The would-be thief says he knows Charles Barton, personally, and the man occupying this home and using his name is not the same.  Meanwhile, a distraught Helen meets Redford at a bar and reveals to him that she found a dangerous opiate among the doctor’s pharmacy.  She believes that the good doctor has too large a quantity of illegal narcotics to ignore.  Redford agrees and has a break in the case.  He promises to protect Helen, who reveals that she has a mysterious past, as well…
Franco crafts a fine krimi film with The Death Avenger of Soho.  The film is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace [which had been previously filmed as Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen Koffer in 1963] and its screenplay is by Franco and Artur Brauner, whose production company CCC was looking to cash in on the popular Wallace krimi craze. (1)  Death Avenger was made towards the end of the krimi cycle. (2)  There is a moodiness to Death Avenger quite like Sie Tӧtete in Ekstase (She Killed in Ecstasy) (1970) where there is an overwhelming sense of uncomfortableness accompanying the dramatic action.  As there is little information made available as to what is motivating the killings, the resultant vibe is uneasiness and dread.  Franco’s photography (by Manuel Merino) has some exceptional set pieces.  The opening alleyway, where the first murder occurs, has a haunting quality, as a blind organ grinder listlessly chimes away accompanies perfectly the composition:  a tight alley where a clearly audible gust of wind seemingly does not affect a small bank of fog.  Franco also makes good use of the wide-angled lens, as he did subsequently in La Maldición de Frankenstein (1972).  There is a particularly, nasty giallo-esque murder near the end of the film.  Despite the seriousness of the dramatic action, Franco does allow The Death Avenger to be a sexy, flirty film.  For example, when Redford meets Helen for the first time, she opens the door and asks what he wants.  Redford coyly replies with a marriage proposal which the young lady politely declines.  It is easy to tell that these two characters have chemistry, and the film is propelling them towards each other; but Franco does not have to labor over a romantic subplot in order to produce one.  Unsurprisingly, Franco gets to include a sexy, nightclub set piece.  I would be shocked to learn if Franco’s libido ever waned.  Finally, The Death Avenger of Soho is a good film, because it is character-driven with interesting people populating the narrative (as opposed to the paint-by-numbers, procedural-plot-driven krimi).
Perhaps my Franco bias is elevating The Death Avenger of Soho above most krimi.  However, I do believe that krimi fans, giallo fans, and Jess Franco fans will enjoy this one.  The Death Avenger of Soho is a neglected film in Franco’s filmography during a period where he was particularly fertile.
1. Blumenstock, Peter.  Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Ed. Lucas Balbo & Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen & Frank Trebbin.  Germany.  1993:  p. 83.
2.  Ibid.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Musarañas (2014)

I was looking forward to Musarañas (2014).  It is co-executive produced by Álex de la Iglesia and Carolina Bang (who also plays a small part), reuniting them from Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (Witching and Bitching) (2013) with actress Macarena Gómez and actor Hugo Silva.  Musarañas is co-directed by Juanfer Andrés (he also contributed to the screenplay) and Esteban Roel. Musarañas is a confused film, a little too familiar in its plot and a little too convenient when it needs to be.

In 1950s Spain, Montse (Macarena Gómez) cares for her younger sister, played by Nadia de Santiago.  Montse works from her home as a dressmaker and is an agoraphobic, wholly dependent upon her younger sister for assistance.  At the opening of Musarañas, her younger sister has just turned eighteen and is showing strong signs of independence:  she works outside the home; and Montse has noticed, from her window, her younger sister conversing with a young man in the street.  The sisters’ mother died during the birth of the youngest and the two were raised by their strict, religious father.  He has since disappeared, leaving the rearing of Montse’s younger sister upon herself.  Her father’s religious conviction is strong within Montse, and when her younger sister arrives late one evening, Montse takes to corporal punishment upon her.  In the morning, Montse begs for her sister’s forgiveness, but it seems their tenure together is destined to end.  The handsome upstairs neighbor, Carlos (Hugo Silva), injures himself falling down the stairs and he knocks at Montse’s door seeking help.  She puts Carlos in the spare room, and tends weakly to his wounds.  She promises his recovery, yet Montse begins drugging him.  Her younger sister wants to escape and is determined to help Carlos leave, as well.
Musarañas is Montse’s film.  She is the protagonist and the antagonist of the film.  Almost the entire film takes place in Montse’s flat and when the film ventures outside, it is only into the landing outside or Carlos’s flat upstairs.  Andrés and Roel expend quite a bit of time fleshing out her character and making her sympathetic to the audience.  It is revealed that her father was extremely abusive towards her and she had to endure this for quite some time.  Understandably, she is agoraphobic and fearful as her father kept a tight grip upon her.  When Carlos comes into her home, one can see why she is keeping him close.  In a romantic sense, this is really only Montse’s opportunity to fall in love.  Of course, Montse is also completely unhinged; so when Musarañas needs her to become a monster, she becomes one.  In a move, like a schism, all of the sudden Nadia de Santiago’s character (whose name is never uttered by the way) will become the protagonist:  she attempts to protect Carlos from Montse, and it is the younger sister with whom Carlos falls in love.  When Carlos’s disappearance attracts the police and his fiancé, Elisa (Bang), Montse begins a murder spree.  With each subsequent corpse that she has to hide in her flat, Montse becomes desperate and ruthless.  In the gory final act, Montse does not appear as a person at all.  Conveniently, Musarañas attempts a reconciliation between the sisters in the final minutes, and a revelation occurs between them that was painfully obvious to the viewer from the opening minutes.
Macarena Gómez, as Montse, gives a stellar performance.  She is the sole reason for seeing Musarañas.  No other character is treated with any sensitivity.  Musarañas begins as a fascinating character study but quickly and conveniently decides by its third act to become a bloody horror movie.  Adept filmmakers could have blended the two, but Andrés and Roel were not up to the task.  A pity.