Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blue Demon contra el poder satánico (1966) versus Arañas infernales (1968)

Blue Demon contra el poder satánico (1966) is a beautiful Blue Demon film, directed by Chano Urueta, because its appearance seems to belie any commercial genesis as simply a wrestling picture. Arañas infernales (1968), directed by Federico Curiel, is the more traditional tale wherein superhero and legendary luchador, Blue Demon, has to save the world from an alien invasion who take the form of human and spider.
Urueta doesn't need a traditional narrative for El poder satánico, but it has one. Viewing it as a collage piece is a better experience, made up of song-and-dance sequences, seduction sequences, Satanic sequences, wrestling matches, and Blue Demon sequences. El poder satánico resides in a character portrayed by charismatic and legendary actor, Jaime Fernández. From his jail cell, he smiles and is later buried by the hands of justice in a nondescript plot in the cemetery. Cut to modern times, as the hands of thievery are digging his grave whereupon the true poder satánico reveals itself and Fernández's character rises. It's not long before he dons a cape and finds a cobwebbed mansion with Gothic trimmings, but he doesn't behave in the traditional way a caped figure in a Gothic residence should behave. A young couple is walking in arms in a forest, clearly infatuated with each other, when Fernández's character encounters them. With the tight close-up upon the eyes, el poder satánico works its magic. The young man is killed (upon whose coffin Blue Demon sheds tears, giving him a personal stake in the administration of justice); and the young woman is captured by the power. Back at the Gothic residence, with his captive under his spell, Fernández's character seduces the woman twice and then leads her to a chamber, a homemade crematorium where she is burned alive. The satanic smile from Fernández's character returns.In Arañas infernales, Curiel allows the aliens to invade right at the beginning and unlike Urueta, lets Blue Demon beat up bad guys and save the world. Blue Demon serves up justice, initially, in his athletic, fist-pummeling style. Beset by an alien immobilization attack, Blue Demon and his associates are seized, whereupon two alien henchmen in human form, donning black capes which are glittered with a spiderweb design, move into dispatch the group. Blue Demon sheds his cape and gives the two a beatdown. As most residing on Earth are apt to do, the aliens have clearly underestimated Blue Demon's power. Their strategy changes with some experimentation until deciding upon imbuing a wrestler with superhuman strength to enter the ring and take down our hero. This alien incarnation looks the part, glittery headband, shiny armbands and belt, and flowing cape; and appears credible in combat: as when he initially enters the wrestling arena, three wrestlers are sparring and a promoter is present. The alien wrestler asks to get into the promotion and challenges all three wrestlers as an audition. It's an impressive display, and soon Blue Demon is pencilled as his opponent. During their match, the likes of which pay-per-view has never seen, Blue Demon takes to this chump. Slowly, Blue Demon in a strategic move, works over his right arm. The human hand of the alien incarnation, as he is losing the match, begins to grow hair on his right hand. Blue Demon suppresses him with his athletic ability, and the alien incarnation shows its true form: his right hand takes the form of a spider. He enters the ring, and the crowd rushes for the exits, screaming. Blue Demon, the courageous hero, doesn't waver but is ready to serve up the final stage of his ass-whipping.Virtually all Blue Demon action sequences within El poder satánico take place within the ring. Blue Demon's battle against Fernández comes in the form of academic study: Blue Demon is seen primarily behind his desk with a large, ancient tome in his hands. Urueta's compositions of Blue Demon at study are either haphazard (showing a careless attitude towards the production) or playfully brilliant: striking images, giving the superhero an Edgar Allen Poe-ish air who faces dark demons from legend. The actual wrestling sequences within both films actually reappear in both. El poder satánico features one match, two out of three falls, with Blue Demon winning two, but it's the same sequence shot in two different ways (perhaps this is lifeless carelessness from Urueta, but the end result is a disorienting, deja-vu effect). Santo makes a cameo appearance in El poder satánico, shaking Blue Demon's hand in the dressing room; and the viewer also gets to witness a Santo wrestling match, re-used from a Santo film from the period. Blue Demon is not the vehicle who drives the narrative of El poder satánico, but like all the sequences, he is driven by the images, as a powerful inclusion: a aong-and-dance sequence allows Fernández to seduce the singer, giving an opportunity for Gothic and satanic seduction which fuels Blue Demon who eventually has to end the evil character. Undeniably, Blue Demon is the vehicle and true savior within Arañas infernales (literal English title, Hellish Spiders), and the film could have benefitted from more indulgent, atmospheric, and/or surrealistic sequences (like its fantastic final ten minutes). Arañas infernales boasts a tried-and-true formula, has an absence of cinema's greatest superhero, El Enmascarado de Plata, El Santo, and benefits from showing Blue Demon as a great cinema superhero, himself, in his solo battle against the alien-cum-spiders. Long live Blue Demon.

Monday, June 28, 2010

George A Romero's Survival of the Dead (2009)

When I wrote my review for George Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007), I admitted that I had no idea what Romero was trying to say with his film. Voice-over narration begins Romero's latest film, Survival of the Dead (2009), by a character introduced in Diary, revealed in Survival to be named Sarge "Nicotine" Crocket (Alan Van Sprang). He became famous on the Internet as he was captured on camera robbing a Winnebago belonging to young people "who were making a documentary about themselves." Read into that line what you will. Sarge continues: subsequent to the outbreak chronicled in Diary, the death toll has increased (along with the undead population) monumentally; and Sarge, still with his military outfit, is ready to go AWOL, as he believes in the "Us versus Them" war, being isolated is the key to survival. Cut to an isolated island off the coast in New England where Patrick O'Flynn (Kenneth Walsh), the patriarch of one of the island's oldest two families, and his band of kin are ridding the island of the walking dead. O'Flynn's daughter, Jane (Kathleen Munroe) is not happy with her father's behavior: as many of the undead on the island, being a small community, are all in some ways like family, Jane believes going around and exterminating them in a systematic way is wrong. Jane believes a more humane approach needs to be explored. When O'Flynn and his band invade the home of one the residents, O'Flynn is unable to kill the family's two children, both undead and chained in their bedroom. The parents weren't able to kill them and housed them, in some sense of hope. Enter Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), the patriarch of the other oldest family on the island, and his band of kin. Muldoon is against the killing of the undead residents on the island. A stand-off ensues. The result is Patrick and a few loyal followers being exiled from the island. Back at the mainland, O'Flynn makes an Internet message, and Sarge and his small band, now AWOL and looking for a location to hole up, watch his message. O'Flynn's message is an invitation to Plum Island (from where he is now in exile) which he touts as safe and isolated, and Sarge and his crew accept the invitation.

With Survival of the Dead (2009), Romero pens a literate script, chock full of humor and social criticism, both of which ranges from heavy-handed to very subtle, and also draws strong, developed, and likable characters. Sarge is an antihero worth following: he is tired of getting into fights with bands of the living and watching his friends die as the result of human error in military strategy. He is reticent to accept O'Flynn's invitation, but like any good antihero, Sarge stands by his friends. One of his buddies tells Sarge that he knows that he will take a bullet for him, but Sarge isn't taking a bullet for anyone. The viewer subsequently gets to see if Sarge stands by his words or speaks through his actions. Two of Sarge's crew, Tomboy (Athena Karkanis) and Francisco (Stefano DiMatteo), who in a poor script would provide bad jokes and an a fresh body for an opportune, over-the-top kill scene, actually deliver excellent dialogue and become enriched, very-likable characters who are genuine in emotional scenes. Even the island inhabitants, like O'Flynn don't stay static but grow and become more complex. Like Diary and his previous zombie cinema, there is little faith in humanity; but unlike Diary, Romero delivers characters who imbue the narrative with both humility and humanity.

Nearly all of the current social issues in the U.S. are targets for Romero's script. The issue of immigration is an overt one but it is not didactic. No finger-pointing here, as Romero doesn't clearly show his preference for either side of an issue. Rather, most of Romero's criticism is organic and woven into the script. Most of his criticism really only becomes apparent when Survival is over and in reflection. The story is unexpected, as the opening scenes appear as if the family feud on the island would be the setting for almost the entire film (which, I admit I would have found boring). The journey that all the characters take is not typical, and Survival, overall, is well-paced.

Time for reviewer confession. I am not a fan of the overwhelming majority of modern horror cinema and watch little of it. It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of Survival when it appears on DVD from fans of modern horror (DVD in two editions, single disc and special, both by Magnolia, who released stellar titles such as Let the Right One In and Timecrimes, for example. This is a company that I will support financially and purchase Survival on DVD when it appears, listed as August 24th of this year, along with a Blu-Ray disc. I was able to watch Survival currently as a video-on-demand selection via Zune Videos on XBox Live.). While Survival is quite violent, there are little scares to be had and atmospheric, tension-filled set-ups. Most of the action is gun play, both between humans and humans versus the undead. There are great zombie sequences, though, with my favorite being Sarge's encounter with a blonde zombie on a boat which he takes on with a flare gun. Finally, it will be interesting to gauge the reaction of fans who compare Survival to Romero's previous zombie cinema. I have chosen not do this.

When Land of the Dead (2005) was announced to be released, I was like a kid in a candy store: here was one of my favorite directors, returning to the genre after twenty years that he helped to create and also creating some of its masterpieces. After I saw Land opening day, I think I talked myself into liking it, confirming that feeling when I saw it again on DVD. (I need to revisit it again.) I was even more excited to learn that Diary was being made, an independent film after the big-studio financed Land. After Diary, I had very little hope for Survival. Now, I cannot wait for Romero's next film, whatever film he makes.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Stelvio Massi's Mark il poliziotto (1975)

Franco Gasparri is Inspector Mark Terzi, a narcotics officer who works in Milan. Mark knows the streets and its inhabitants, like the drug addicts, the thieves, and the drug peddlers, very well; and knows what is fueling the street crime is not coming from within. A well-organized, well-connected, and well-financed syndicate is bringing the drugs into Milan, and Mark has targeted wealthy and influential businessman, Benzi (Lee J. Cobb), as the source. Lacking any evidence at all connecting Benzi to the Milan drug trade, "Mark the Narc" is not deterred: bureaucracy, corruption, and procedural laws might get in his way, but Mark has his good looks, determination, and his .44 Magnum. Cue Stelvio Cipriani's funky jazz score in Stelvio Massi's Mark il poliziotto (1975).
Mark il poliziotto is Stelvio Massi's second poliziesco following Squadra volante (1974) and has an interesting commercial genesis. "I said, 'Why not make a film with Franco Gasparri?'" says Massi. "He [presumably this is producer, Pietro Bregni at P.A.C. who financed all of the Mark films (Italia Calibro 9, same reference as later in this paragraph)] said: 'No, who'd go and see it?'" Massi continues, "'Look, there's fifteen million picture stories sold a month. If we make it and the girls go and see how he moves--because he is static in the picture stories--maybe it'll work.' We started work two days later." (Massi's quote is taken from an interview included as a supplement on the No Shame DVD of Squadra volante.) Federico Patrizi and Emanuele Cotumaccio, authors of Italia Calibro 9, write: "Mark il poliziotto e il secondo poliziesco di Massi, interpretato da Franco Gasparri, idolo dei fotoromanzi ‘Lancio’ (quindici milioni di lettori al mese!). Amarcord racconta il pessimismo del regista all’epoca: ‘Allora con la P.A.C. facemmo due calcoli: diciamo che al cinema non vengono quindici milioni di persone senno fai questo film e ti sistemi per tutta la vita, nemmeno cinque, nemmeno la meta… diciamo la meta della meta. Aho… so venuti al cinema…!’” (p. 85, Mondo Ignoto S.R.L. and Profondo Rosso S.A.S., Rome, Italy: 2001.) Despite having made a few films prior to Mark il poliziotto, Franco Gasparri was famous as an idol in fotoromanzi (the "picture stories," e.g. magazines. There are examples with photos of both the covers and inside pages located in the "foto" section at this site.); and seemingly Massi and P.A.C. were hoping to tap into Gasparri's strong and commercially-solid fanbase.Unsurprisingly, extremely-handsome Gasparri is both focal with Massi's camera and with the narrative (from a screenplay by legendary Dardano Sacchetti, from his story with Massi, Raniero di Giovanbattista, and Adriano Bolzoni). Superficially, Gasparri's Mark the Narc character seems a hybrid of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Al Pacino's Serpico. One can see, beyond Dirty Harry's weapon of choice, the .44 Magnum, that Mark shares Dirty Harry's style of police investigation: warrants, evidence, and criminal procedural rules are obstacles. Intuitively, Mark, like Dirty Harry, knows the criminals are adhering to no rules themselves, so the only way to stop them is adhere to no rules to capture (or kill) them. Pacino's Serpico character (and Pacino's performance) is timeless and wonderfully complex and rich. Gasparri's Mark adopts Serpico's attitude towards police work with his appearance: like Serpico, Mark's hair and clothes match the youthful culture in which he works (which his boss, also, dislikes). Mark is also quite the ladies' man and in a more overt nod to Pacino's policeman, Mark has an extremely large pet dog, named Whiskey. Again, these are superficial comparisons, but Gasparri's character in Mark il poliziotto is only slightly deeper than his glossy photos. (Although Gasparri's Mark drives Sacchetti's script, his character is a vehicle which advances the plot. The character's actions do not create his own consequences and results which create the story. In other words, hero and villain are going to confront each other in the final act.) Considering the film's commercial genesis, some depth to Mark's character comes with his doomed romance with drug-addicted Irene (Sara Sperati). Mark shows pity on Irene at a crime scene where Mark and his straight-laced partner, Bonetti (Giampiero Albertini), find a dead body from a known figure in the drug trade. Appearances of his death lead to an overdose of heroin, but Mark believes it is a cover up for murder. Irene is a drug addict, also, and she floats around in the drug scene, frequently a target for men who sleep with her in exchange for drugs. Mark takes her to his apartment and calls a doctor to help her dry out. When she recovers, Mark sends her on her way, knowing more than likely, Irene is going to use again and hit the streets. This point is emphasized when Mark gives her a some money for a meal when the two separate: Irene refuses the money, because it is too tempting to go and use. She expresses a willingness to quit. Mark tells her to take it anyway, as he has little faith that she's genuine. The two reunite again after Irene has gone quite a few days without using (and the viewer sees in scenes that Irene is having a tough time, as no one wants to help her recover, including her mother). Eventually Irene's character becomes an essential plot device in Mark's investigation and Sacchetti's screenplay and Sperati's character yields to it.
Franco Gasparri is not only handsome but extremely charismatic. Massi does not spare the close-ups on his actor. "He was a real treasure," says Massi, "truly incredible. Apart from his good looks there were crowds of girls wherever he went. In Genoa they filled the piazza. And he was good, serious, and polite..." (taken from the Massi interview from the No Shame DVD of Squadra volante). The story of Mark il poliziotto does little to taint Gasparri's image: by far not a violent film (just compared to Massi's previous poliziesco) nor does it have a gritty depiction of street life nor a truly socially-critical message (despite the serious subject matter). Mark il poliziotto is the portrait of a young, good-looking, defiant cop who, no doubt, is relatable to the youthful audience to which the film was aimed. Likewise, there's a youthful energy to Mark il poliziotto and wherein lies its fun. Most of the adults (e.g. specifically the much older men) are depicted as money-driven, hollow, souless people. Lee J. Cobb's Benzi (whose casting was a real coup d'etat. The legendary American actor brings an amazing amount of professionalism to his role. He dubs himself in the English version and gives a great performance) is a strong example. Benzi sits in his palatial mansion one late evening going over paperwork. His wife is doing a crossword puzzle. Gasparri's Mark plays a prank on Benzi by calling him and playing a tape-recorded message of gunshots. Benzi doesn't care: he has too many important figures, including the police, on his payroll. He cannot be bothered with small-time cops or, for that matter, enjoy time in his house, doing something light and fun with his wife. Sacchetti's script does have some clever sequences, such as when Bonetti and Terzi go to see an importer/exporter (involved in the syndicate) and question him. The import/export business involves goods like small trinkets and toys. Bonetti picks up a toy police car and asks the businessman, "How much for this?" "You can have it," says the businessman, "for very little." "No thanks," says Bonetti. Very nice joke on corruption. Likewise, Massi's camerawork creates a very handsome production with Mark il poliziotto. "Technique's what helped me more than anything else," says Massi, "because I'd been an assistant and... And then an advantage I perhaps had was to be able to take the screenplay and slowly change it to my viewpoint. It was nothing extraordinary but that was it." (taken from the Massi interview on the No Shame DVD Squadra volante supplement.) Mimicking his own humility towards his artistic craft, Massi's style in Mark il poliziotto is elegantly simple and organic: no flashy compositions to compete either with Gasparri or the screenplay. Massi's desire is to make an entertaining action film and he delivers. Mark il poliziotto was phenomenally popular with filmgoers: "Il film costo 208 milioni, e ad un mese dall'uscita aveva gia incassato oltre due miliardi." (taken from Italia Calibro 9, same reference as above.) Massi would helm two sequels with Gasparri, Mark il poliziotto spara per primo (1975) and Mark colpisce ancora (1976) (with coverage of the two here soon).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gilberto Martínez Solares's El mundo de los muertos (1970) versus Julián Soler's Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida (1970)

Entering first into El mundo de los muertos (1970) is cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata, under the direction of Gilberto Martínez Solares, who previously directed the legendary luchador in the same year in Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstruos. Also released the same year (with the same production crew) and entering second is cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, in Julián Soler's Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida. Notice the word contra in the latter title. Yes, Santo must fight against his friend and rival only in the ring, legendary luchador, and cinematic superhero, Blue Demon, in both films. (Do not worry. Blue Demon created an entire body of cinematic work in which he was focal and a brave hero which I will chronicle in future posts.) Like Santo or Blue Demon against his opponents, I will dispense with the fun, theatrical prose, because it is beginning to annoy me (or perhaps because both films have a little bit more intensity than in other El Santo cinema). The three films previously mentioned would make a great triple-bill at any drive-in, as all are in some ways very similar (same creative people behind the camera) and at the same time have notable differences.
When I witnessed this scene within El mundo de los muertos, my heart began to race and I was seized with fear. Santo is in the arena and has entered the ring to face off against his opponent. His opponent is large and muscular and has this odd, gangrene-ish hue about his skin, as if he is not quite human. Nonetheless, the two square off when the bell rings. Santo's opponent is fierce, and soon the high-flying, theatrical lucha-style wrestling moves into intense brawling. What was once a sporting competition turns into a fight for his life as Santo encounters not one but two additional oddly- and deathly-colored fighters. The three attack Santo, and in a wince-inducing stunt, Santo is thrown against the ropes. The top rope gives away and slackens, and Santo tumbles to the hard floor of the arena. Alone, the courageous wrestler returns to the ring to face his opponents. The sickly-looking trio subdues Santo and introduces a foreign object into the match: a dagger. One plunges it directly into Santo's heart. I thought cinema's greatest superhero, the multitude's hero, was dead.Despite it being a shocking moment, the subsequent scene El mundo de los muertos is, in some ways, representative of the ethos of both films under review. Santo is rushed to the emergency room and open heart surgery is performed. The surgery scene doesn't match the celluloid of the dramatic scenes; and it is clearly an actual depiction of open heart surgery. The surgery scene is stock footage (presumably made for scientific audiences or medical students); and Solares and crew have really made effective use, in a commercial sense, of it. Reminiscent of Johhny Depp's lines as Ed Wood in the film of the same name, "I could make a whole film out of this footage, if given the chance." Well, Solares and Soler do not, but the stock footage serves as a serious impetus for their creativity. It is doubtful that Solares and company would be so audacious as to actually conceive and create a scene in which Santo is stabbed in the heart. But it worked, in an odd, possibly exploitative way. Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida begins with stock footage of wartime shots, mushroom clouds, and space exploration (I do not really know what footage is genuine but it does not appear to match the bulk of the film), and this opening montage of footage drives the themes of the film. An evil, James Bond-ish villian is going to take over the world, causing an international catastrophe, using rockets and related technology. The historical footage also provides a historical background for the villains, as Greek mythology and the titular "Atlantis" theme also play into it. Jesús Sotomayor Martínez (the producer of all three films mentioned above) and crew probably went a little overboard with the conception of Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida, as it really functions as a cool, late-sixties spy flick: not wholly benefiting from its contrived background but from the secret agent, spy action. When Santo has to make a trip into the title in El mundo de los muertos, the underworld setting is enhanced by natural scenery footage, altered with a blood-red hue, which colors the entire trip. The sequence rivals Coffin Joe in its hellish nature and is, like Coffin Joe cinema, bizarre, compelling, and totally fun. Provocative is a relative term, and while both El mundo de los muertos and Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida do not reach the heights of other cinema in the decade of the 1970s, each is fairly provocative compared to previous El Santo cinema in terms of sex and violence. Beyond the blood spilled over Santo's chest from his stabbing, El mundo opens with an Inquisition scene of torture wherein the witch-hunters give some nasty lash marks to the nude back of a bound female. As with most of the sex and violence in both films, its provocative nature is not in its graphic depiction, but rather in its overall, uncomfortable intensity. In the first-act battle between Santo and Blue Demon in El mundo, these two wrestlers really go at each other. There is an energy driving these two performers seemingly beyond their characters. The action appears sped up beyond twenty-four frames a second, and neither wrestler appears to be pulling punches. In a fantastic sequence in Santo contra Blue Demon en la Atlantida, Santo returns to his apartment in the evening after his wrestling match with Blue Demon. Waiting for him is a super-sexy woman, donning matching underwear and see-through, sheer fabric gown. She begins to seduce Santo and quickly has Santo under control. An evil agent appears just as Santo is about to get some loving, and the two men square off. The light-hearted, clumsy, tumbling battle does not ensue. The fist-pummelling is relentless, like two fierce animals fighting to the death. Oh shit. I've realized that I've hit my customary thousand-word mark and have not detailed a synopsis of either film. This will be remedied in a future post or with a viewing by curious, thrill seekers of cinema's greatest superhero, El Enmascarado de Plata, the multitude's hero, El Santo.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Dario Argento's Giallo (2009)

Rome, Italy. An opera house where two Japanese young women want to skip the performance on their last night in the city and do something fun. At the nightclub, the two young women separate, one meets a handsome young man while the other decides to take a taxi back to her hotel. The young woman flags down a cab and gives the driver her destination. The driver takes the woman on an unfamiliar route, apparently in the opposite direction of her hotel. The following day at a fashion show, runway model Celine (Elsa Pataky) receives a phone call from her sister, Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner), a flight attendant who has just arrived in Rome. Celine is busy with the show but makes plans to see her sister later in the evening. After the show, Celine flags a taxi to meet Linda at a restaurant. Linda calls Celine on her cellular phone while she is in the taxi and hears her sister yell at the taxi driver that he is driving in the wrong direction. Celine never shows at the restaurant or comes home which prompts Linda the following morning to visit the police. She meets Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrian Brody) who is working on a murder case involving young women victims.

The first act of Dario Argento's latest film, Giallo (2009), is extremely well-executed and focused. The initial collage of scenes which set up the intrigue for the film's mystery are tight and each sequence serves to advance the plot. When Brody's character is introduced, with his questioning of Seigner's Linda, he immediately appears as credible. While he is curt with Linda (and perhaps lacking sensitivity to Linda's stress over her missing sister), Avolfi only asks relevant questions to his investigation. Giallo then focuses on Avolfi as main character and in a following scene, he exits the police station to drive his car in Rome. As he is driving, Avolfi notes that he is being followed by a cab. In an unexpected turn, Avolfi stops in the middle of the street and confronts the cab driver. No chase through the middle of the city. Avolfi means business. Likewise, Avolfi's character never wavers throughout the duration of Giallo. As an inspector, he is logical and deductive, able to identify the relevant clues, make associational links between them, and advance his investigation.

During his first twenty years as a director, beginning with L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970) and leading up to (but not including) Due occhi diabolici (1990), Dario Argento is clearly an auteur. With his subsequent cinema in the twenty years up to (and including) Giallo, I am reticent to label him as one. This is not a criticism nor is it a flaw. If it is a flaw, then it is one with the criticism and not the film maker. Giallo is a very good but not great film. Those seeking the magic from his initial twenty years as a film maker, where nearly all of his masterpieces reside, will not find them within Giallo. In fact, the film's title is not Argento's return to the old genre but a reference to an important clue within the story.

Giallo is born from two influential American films, Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and David Fincher's Seven (1995) which has spawned (at least in the United States) the obsession with profilers and their investigative techniques. Identifying the killer's modus operandi is the key, since serial killers have their own motives different from most who commit homicide (with traditional motives, such as spurned love or money). Giallo follows suit as Brody's character is an FBI profiler working in Rome. He is Italian and was born there but spent his youth in New York before returning. Avolfi has an inclination towards finding killers, bordering on obsession. Photographic evidence is key, and early in the film, it is revealed that Avolfi has identified the killer's m.o. Giallo's second and third acts depict his investigation as finding the relevant clues as to now catch him.

Nearly everything is Giallo is focused: Brody's character, the plot, and even the photography by Frederic Fasano is clean and well-lit, so the viewer misses little of the action. There are no audacious compositions and even the subjective dream sequence only has a tilting camera effect. After La terza madre (2007), Argento's film feels even more conservative and mechanical. Despite the fact that this is a Dario Argento film (of whom I am a huge fan), I am perhaps not the right reviewer for this film. While I admire and very much enjoy both Lambs and Seven, I have seen little of the films made in their commercial wake nor do I watch Crime Scene Investigation-type television shows. Despite the film's director and title, I believe this is the audience for which Giallo is seeking. In fact if it weren't for the film's director, I perhaps never would have seen the film (although Adrian Brody and Emmanulle Seigner are an attraction. They are fine actors, seek diverse roles, and are always interesting to watch. They are both very good in Giallo.) I purchased the Polish DVD of Giallo which is region two and is in anamorphic widescreen. It includes the film's original English audio but has forced Polish subtitles during its play.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

José Díaz Morales's Atacan las brujas (1968?) versus El hacha diabólica (1965)

Despite the fact that the IMDb lists Atacan las brujas as being released in 1968, it would appear that both films directed by José Díaz Morales, Atacan las brujas (1968?) and El hacha diabólica (1965), starring cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, were either shot together or in near proximity. Not only do the films share its director but its sets and actors, for example. (While the cinema of El Santo certainly deserves in-depth research to inform better film criticism, these posts on El Santo are written for fun in an attempt to convey how much joy that I receive from watching the cinema. The cinema, like many across the world, comes from a unique and rich culture made by professionals with equally rich and unique backgrounds. Perhaps in a future post, I'll take a more academic look at the cinema, but until then, loosening up and having fun is the priority here.) Morales, the director, has a wonderful visual style: an old-school, almost Expressionistic feel combined with a swinging Sixties, short-skirts-are-all-the-rage attitude. Pitting Atacan las brujas (1968?) against El hacha diabólica (1965) would only result in a Pyrrhic victory, as the two films really compliment each other, making a wonderful double-feature, tag-team experience.
In Atacan las brujas, Santo sits in his office, listening to Arturo (Ramón Bugarini) whose lady, Ofelia (María Eugenia San Martín) is beset on all sides by the inequities of Elisa (Lorena Velázquez). Elisa, as Arturo tells Santo, is housing her sister Ofelia, as per their father's last will and testament, in which Ofelia must reside in their father's manor for one year to qualify as a beneficiary; and this condition is making Ofelia feel like a prisoner, under Elisa's spell. Ofelia is having dreams of a coven of brujas, led by Elisa, who want to sacrifice Ofelia to the Lord of Darkness. However, a righteous hero in a silver mask also recurs in Ofelia's dream, and Arturo has paid him a visit, seeking his help. Santo in the pursuit of justice will investigate.
In El hacha diabólica, in a fascinating, recurring theme in El Santo's cinema, Santo's ancestor has created a destiny for cinema's greatest superhero. Back in the day, just a few hundred years, Santo's ancestor was in love with Isabel (Velázquez) and his ancestor had a rival for her love: a man, after he sold his soul to Satan, who would become known as Encapuchado Negro. This rival of El Santo's ancestor would adopt the titular weapon to instill fear in all who came before him, and as long as his black hood remained upon his head, he would never die. Santo's ancestor would put down his sword and adopt a silver mask. Local mystic and wise man, Abraca (Mario Sevilla), tells Santo's ancestor that he will fight only with his fists to combat Encapuchado Negro and his mask will aid him (in the super-power department). Historically, the subsequent proceedings did not go well for Santo's ancestor, but cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, El Enmascardo de Plata, will prevail when both Isabel and Encapuchado Negro reappear in modern day. Both stories in Atacan las brujas and El hacha diabólica are familiar, yet Santo (nor Morales) is deterred: cinema's greatest superhero is going to get into some adventures and dole out some ass-whippings, while Morales spices up the visuals and adds the occasional flourish and sequence. Atacan las brujas has a brilliant one: Elisa enlists the aid of Medusa (Edaena Ruiz), her second, to seduce Santo in pursuit of the Lord of Darkness and evil. Santo is driving in his convertible, with his cape flowing behind him, on a deserted street. Ruiz's Medusa, who would stand out in a crowd, stands alone at the side of the road. Santo stops for her, and she requests a ride to her home. It would be El Santo's pleasure. Upon arrival, Medusa disappears from the passenger seat to (poof!) reappear at the door's threshold. Santo believes this act is curious and merits investigation. Inside the home, specifically Medusa's boudoir, Santo begins to weaken. Medusa has slipped into something more comfortable (itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikini) and is now pouring wine. Cleverly, our hero notes something is amiss: he is being beset by an infernal seduction. (Amazingly, Santo is able to discern between an infernal seduction and a non-infernal one. Most men would succumb easily to the latter and would be defenseless to the former. Not Santo, however.) Santo fights against Medusa's strong spell and is able to destroy the lower half of the boudoir's door and escape.
El hacha diabólica has a complimentary brilliant sequence. Santo learns of his ancestor's history through his friend, Dr. Zanoni. Zanoni has a contraption which will allow its participant to separate his/her soul from its body and transcend it (e.g. go back in time). Of particular note is the vulnerability of the subject while inside the contraption. Dr. Zanoni while operating the machine is also vulnerable. Both Santo and Dr. Zanoni don electric head gear and sit before a beeping-lights, electric-wire box in the center of the room. Santo gains all of the knowledge needed, and his soul then returns to his body. With his soul and body reunited, Santo is now invulnerable, again. Encapuchado Negro only then takes this opportunity to attack Santo. While he is a fierce opponent, Santo defeats him. While this may seem that Encapuchado Negro is extremely adept at inopportune timing, director Morales needed both Santo and Dr. Zanoni to be out of the contraption for an important and dramatic plot revelation. The plot revelation overshadows any deficiencies in strategy (of course).
The rendition of Ofelia's dream sequence to open Atacan las brujas is creative and compelling. Morales adopts a dreamy style with with slow dissolves, shadows, and an effective montage of imagery. The Lord of Darkness is powerful as he appears, standing stoically and ominously. Santo wanders through the brujas' domain as if he is lost in a dream: whatever he encounters, his courage does not waver, and he fights bravely. Morales also uses religious iconography effectively, as well. The image of Santo raising his arms in a cross pose to dispatch his enemies never appears false: the sense that Santo fights for a higher power and is imbued with its energy is genuine. When Elisa and company appear, their compositions are like album covers, each meticulously placed with each actor/actress in a specific pose. Their cosmetic qualities are polarized, and the viewer is looking at their beauty and outfits.
El hacha diabólica sees Santo righting pasts wrongs in pursuit of justice. Above all, Santo's quest is a spiritual one: Isabel's soul, his ancestor's destiny, and the evil of Encapuchado Negro must all be lain to rest for the present world to be right. Morales shoots Lorena Velázquez lovingly (in both films, actually, even when she performs an evil character). Velázquez possesses natural beauty and charisma (she is a notable actress in the cinema of this period), and Morales only has to capture it. With adept shots in Atacan las brujas , Morales focuses on her hypnotic eyes effectively to show her character's sinister qualtiy, old-school style; while in El hacha diabólica, he captures her as tragic and truly vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, Velázquez stands out in both films. For cinema's greatest superhero, El Enmascardo de Plata, the multitude's hero, El Santo, both films show just another day at work for the wrestler: making the world a better place for all.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007)

George Romero is creative, talented, influential, critical, etc.; any positive attribute that can be bestowed upon a film maker, Romero earns it. His Dawn of the Dead (1978) is unequivocally my all-time favorite film, and I would certainly list the man very high, if I were to do so, in my all-time favorite directors. When I purchased his Diary of the Dead (2007) on DVD (on its release day, no less, and I missed its theatrical run), I didn't finish watching it, stopping around the forty-five minute mark, during the "72, 000 hits on YouTube" sequence. To be candid, I had no desire at the time to ever finish it, but lately I've been fascinated with directors' later works, made during periods in their artistic career when both viewers and critics feel they have little left to contribute to their craft.

Diary begins with a static shot of a street scene in front of an apartment building. Two police officers are radioing into the station, describing a murder of a family, by one of its own. The police officers seem to not "give a fuck" really about the murder and are less impressed to hurry, because it appears the victims and perpetrator were immigrants. Photo-journalists are also present, and they are as indifferent to the crime as the police officers. One cameraman asks the paramedics to move their ambulance, because it is blocking his shot. A news reporter is prepping her hair. Presumably the same cameraman who asks the ambulance to move is heard by the viewer off-camera remark on the ambulance driver's behavior: he's eating a sandwich while corpses are being rolled out on gurneys. How insensitive.

The next notable sequence involves voice-over narration by arguably Diary's main character, Debra (Michelle Morgan) who is going to do the viewing audience a favor by telling us what we are going to see and, more importantly, why we are going to see it. Her boyfriend, Jason (Joshua Close) was a film student making a student film with future hopes of being a documentary film maker. When a zombie outbreak occurred, Jason began filming the events. Apparently, Debra's character has edited the footage into a coherent feature and added dramatic music during particular scenes to scare the viewer (which is always appreciated and thank you). Kudos to Debra for having a specific motivation; however with Romero's street scene opening of Diary, Debra has to answer one more question (which she does not directly) for the viewer: "Hey lady, every one in the beginning of this movie is portrayed as being full of shit. What makes you any different?"

Romero's previous four zombie films have always had social criticism, but it rarely came off as finger-pointing. There was always at least one character who imbued the film with humility and humanity; because each film is, in a very general sense, a story about people who attempt to survive in a crisis and are ultimately undone not by the source of the crisis (e.g. the zombies) but by their own doings while trying to survive. Diary is also a survival story but lacking any humility with any of its characters. There is little faith in humanity to be had in Diary, and by the film's conclusion that point is painfully reiterated and overdone.

Here's an example with small sequences in which creative directors utilize to their maximum potential to enrich their films. Both Dawn and Diary have an eerily similar scene, but their differences speak loudly. In the first act of Dawn, Roger and Peter meet for the first time in the basement of a tenement building. They quickly bond and make a plan to escape and they are interrupted by a disabled priest who enters the basement to escape the tear gas. The old priest only wants a moment to rest and catch his breath, and Roger and Peter don't impede him. The priest shares with the two some real insights (and delivers some of Dawn's famous lines). Roger and Peter both show their intelligence by being silent and listening. In Diary, the desperate crew of main characters, on the road in their Winnie, break down. They stop at a farm in rural Pennsylvania to repair the Winnie. The main characters also encounter a disabled person who is not a religious figure but a person traditionally and typically associated specifically with his religion: a deaf/mute Amish farmer. The main characters immediately start talking (asking to use the farmhouse to repair the Winnie); but become frustrated and roll their eyes, because the farmer is slow in communicating. He has to write using a chalkboard to answer their questions. The farmer, in a would-be humorous touch, pulls dynamite from his shed and takes out some oncoming zombies. Unfortunately, this flourish is undermined by one of Diary's many bad lines: (after zombies explode) "Hey, aren't Amish supposed to be peaceful?"

Diary of the Dead is really well filmed with some effective lighting and handheld camerawork. Romero even drops in quite a few audacious compositions, such as when a soldier points his rifle directly at the camera. Unfortunately, the pacing, the characters, the acting, and the dialogue are extremely poor. These deficiencies are fascinating, because I have no idea what Romero was trying to say or do in Diary. One sequence stands out and perhaps hides his intentions (if Romero had any): in the first act, Jason, his friends, and teacher are making a student film. The characters share a lot of bad meta dialogue about horror films and even take on the debate of "walking versus running" monsters. Clever. The "walking versus running" debate, however, even more cleverly, hides another argument that the characters are having. Jason says that viewers like "believability" in their horror films with their characters and their actions (assuming the viewer does not insist on believability with the films' premises, e.g. a zombie apocalypse).

So is that what Romero is giving his audience with Diary? Believability? I suppose that Romero is successful with his film in some fashion. Nearly all of the characters in Diary after the outbreak only want to return to their hometowns to be with their families. This is a very understandable human sentiment. However, some of the other characters and their motivations become confused (instead of becoming complex characters). For example, Debra is depicted as having a relationship with Jason, but save the open sequence, these two are depicted as totally annoyed with each other's presence: Debra cannot stand Jason's continuous filming while Jason (even behind his camera) cannot get Debra to show any other emotion than defiance. When these two have a would-be tender moment in the final act, it stands out as totally incredulous (and it also confuses Debra's whole motivation with her initial narration). When the bad joke pops up (quite a bit) or the characters take time to pontificate (which should really only be done here on this blog), Diary just falls apart.

I do not know what the alternative is to believability in Diary. I do know that it is a grating film, really mean-spirited and angry. Being mean-spirited or angry is fine, but there is no discernible energy driving it. Diary of the Dead is a zombie film motivated by little faith in humanity. A really creative, socially-critical, playful, and talented film maker, like George A. Romero, could have made a great film out of it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jean Rollin's La fiancée de Dracula (2000)

"For a long time," says Jean Rollin, "I dreamed of a close-up, an image, of a woman, naked if possible, the whiteness of her body making a nice contrast with the pebbles on the ground. And she is tied to wooden posts with the tide rising until it enveloped and covered her and I described it in many of my books. In the end, my heroine dies, caught in a trap, with the tide rising all around her. Finally, in my most recent film, La fiancée de Dracula I was able to realize this dream."
This anecdote by Rollin about his film, La fiancée de Dracula (2000), is fantastically rich. Within, there is the idea that the film maker is haunted ("for a long time") by images within his dreams. He has rendered this dream in his fiction; and whether the fiction inspired the dream or vice versa is unknown. The image was only "realized," or made true (perhaps), when captured on film. The romantic idea that a whole film could have its impetus in a dream, and the whole film could be created in order to capture this dream image is very Rollin-esque. The "pebbles on the ground" belong undeniably to one of Rollin's favorite cinematic settings, the beach at Dieppe; and his return there to film sequences as in La fiancée de Dracula is unsurprising. Also unsurprising, La fiancée de Dracula is a dream-like film.
The Dieppe sequence, which Rollin describes above, re-creates (or evokes) another sequence from his cinema. Rollin writes, "Again, the screenings were punctuated by laughter and sarcastic remarks. For me the most painful laughter came during the scene on the beach; on the pebbled shore a vampire suddenly emerges from a box. This is one of the most unusual images of my cinema, and despite the whistling and heckling it remains dazzling for me. It's there that true strangeness lies." This description is about a film that he made approximately thirty years earlier, La vampire nue (1969). Perhaps with the freedom that he found with his previous film, Les deux orphelines vampires (1995), Rollin was ready to reunite two lovers in his cinema, a vampire and the reluctantly-drawn and eager-to-surrender lover in La fiancée de Dracula.
All who come in contact with Dracula within La fiancée de Dracula succumb to madness; and the characters who populate this simple narrative, the viewer encounters them in various states of such. The Professor (Jacques Orth), also a medium, and his assistant, Eric (Denis Tallaron) are searching for the legendary Count. The Count is hidden away, seemingly in another dimension, while parallel characters who exist on earthbound planes, such as an ogress (Magalie Madison), a she-wolf (Brigitte Lahaie), and a pale, frail female vampire (Sandrine Thoquet), attempt to keep his location a secret. The key to finding Dracula is through Isabelle (Cyrille Iste) whose location is being guarded also. Isabelle is housed in a convent in Paris by a special order of nuns who are determined to keep Isabelle from uniting with Dracula. Succumbing to madness in a very severe state, the nuns' hold over Isabelle is tenuous. The Professor and Eric attempt to free Isabelle from the convent to find Dracula.
In response to the question, "What influence have the Surrealist artists (such as Dali, Magritte, Trouille) had on the way in which you structure your films," Rollin responds: "Of course, Surrealistic art had a great influence on me. But not only painting. For example in Le Frisson des Vampires, a girl gets out of a clock at the stroke of midnight, this image is a surrealistic composition. The image shot is surrealistic work. Like the collages of Max Ernst, I like to show strange motives, poetry, not gore. I prefer the fantastic, not the gore."
This response by Rollin is compelling (it is taken from a late interview, closer in time to La fiancée's production, in Issue Number Four of Ultra Violent magazine, edited and published by Scott Gabbey, Palm Bay, FL, 2002); and his choice of words, especially "strange motives" is telling. With the motif of Dracula's contact (or influence) causing madness, each character's dialogue moves into Absurdism. The absurdist dialogue against the surrealist imagery is both disorienting and fantastic. Most of the "parallel" characters within the film are examples with Madison's ogress character being a strong one. When the Professor and Eric (and the viewer) first encounter Madison's character, she is being teased at the base of a large tower in a village by the locals. Eric believes with her madness that she is unable to give any helpful information, but the Professor chides him: within her mind, despite the madness, is the key. The professor uses his medium skills to decipher and guide Madison with her words. The image of the young woman, frolicking in madness around the large tower, is another beautiful Rollin composition.
Rollin returns with his clock imagery (even more so in his subsequent La nuit des horloges (2007)); his Dieppe beach imagery; vampires and clowns. But there is also a willfulness, seemingly not apparent in his previous work (save Perdues dans New York (1989) and Les deux orphelines). La fiancée de Dracula feels also less guarded than his previous works. It is as if Rollin is filming truly what he wants regardless of audience reaction. If there is any laughter, perhaps Rollin is fueling it intentionally. The Mother Superior has a notable cigarette lighter in another standout sequence. Along with his willfulness, Rollin is very much playful and poetic with La fiancée; and it's well-worth seeing for Rollin fans.
The first Rollin quote is from an interview included on the region-one Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD of La fiancée de Dracula (the link is for purchase and reference). The second Rollin quote from within the third paragraph is from Rollin's essay in Virgins and Vampires, Crippled Publishing, edited by Peter Blumenstock, Germany, 1997. All other sources are as quoted within.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

José Ramón Larraz's The House That Vanished (1973)

In a film which only slightly predates his notorious Vampyres (1974), The House That Vanished (1973), directed by José Ramón Larraz, shares its uncomfortable (and for some, effective) mix of sex and violence; however, the Spanish filmmaker's film also contains many of his unique visuals and motifs.
Valerie (Andrea Allan) is a very beautiful photographer's model and content with her life. She has a dodgy boyfriend named Terry (Alex Leppard) whom she accompanies on a short road trip to the country just before the weekend. Valerie does not know the trip's final destination and neither does Terry: he is stopping to consult his map, telling Valerie to "shut up," and then winding on into the forestry, each stop ever-so slightly further from the city. Night falls and the fog rolls in, and Valerie tells Terry that she cannot see anything out of the windshield. Terry spies a house and is "dead certain" that it is the location for which he has been searching. Terry is far from certain but it is late and he commits to this location, an uninhabited country house. Terry tells Valerie to wait in the car, and he goes in alone, keeping the house dark while searching. Valerie becomes cold and bored and eventually follows Terry inside. She catches him in the midst of a would-be burglary; but it seems as if Terry's information about the home's contents were inaccurate. Not only is Valerie now angry that Terry brought her along on a burglary but brought her along to the wrong house. Someone enters the darkened home, a couple, and Valerie and Terry hide in a closet. Only two exit the house, Valerie and a black-gloved gentleman.
One of the typical motifs of the mystery/thriller/horror genre is to have the protagonist witness something incredulous (a murder), and then have myriad other characters in the narrative attempt to convince the protagonist that what he/she saw is inaccurate. The narrative (and the filmmaker) then sides with its protagonist and makes him/her the mark for the killer (the viewer also sides with the protagonist). Genre hijinx subsequently ensue. However in The House That Vanished not only are Valerie's friends able to convince her that things are not what they seem but Valerie talks herself into complacency. Fair enough, for she has a good life: she's young, independent, and although not famous nor rich in her career, Valerie, perhaps, is on the brink of getting the next modeling job which will propel her into a more lucrative arena. Larraz fuels his narrative by siding with Valerie; and only visiting the threshold of the sinister to propel his narrative mystery along. The House That Vanished remains unequivocally throughout its duration a genre film. How long Larraz is able to keep the proceedings rational is the trick.
Larraz is somewhat successful in his attempt with The House That Vanished. Terry is immediately established as dodgy. In a brilliant scene, Terry drops his child off at his mother's home and wants to give him a gift for the weekend. Terry asks Valerie for a fiver and then beams a smile at his son that he's given him such a kind gift. After the weekend burglary sojourn, are you surprised dear Valerie that Terry has pulled a flit? Terry will eventually turn up. Several characters appear in the narrative, the would-be classic "red herrings;" however, Larraz shapes them to be a little strange but no more than that. One of Valerie's friends is introduced sleeping in her birthday suit only to be awakened by her pet monkey. Now read that sentence, again. Valerie's friend has a pet monkey. That is weird. However, Valerie's friend is presented, despite this quirk, as overall a very normal and comforting person. So when the would-be "red-herrings" appear, each can have a strange quirk, and Valerie can rationalize it: her boyfriend and friends are a little kooky, so why cannot the rest of the general public be a little weird?
Larraz is very adept at creating a languid pace infused with a strong atmospheric presence. His later film, perhaps under-appreciated today, Symptoms (1974), is strong evidence. Larraz is also equally adept at creating lurid sequences, usually involving sex, violence, or both. Vampyres is strong evidence of the latter. His adeptness at creating both stems from his undeniable talent; and his fan attraction comes from thrill-seekers seeking one or the other but rarely both. The inclusion of the extremely effective lurid sequences within The House That Vanished undercut his technique with his mystery, keeping appearances as rational as possible. The lurid sequences are too nasty and too well-rendered to be ignored. Larraz wants his viewer to sym/emphathize with Valerie; yet when the viewer encounters these sequences, the exploitative feel is overwhelming. The languid-paced atmosphere is punctuated far too loudly. The House That Vanished performs a schism. The authors of Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 (the link serves purpose for reference and purchase) write:

Scream and Die [an alternative title for House] was a Spanish/English co-production. All the mysterious, atmospheric shots were filmed in England, the rest was shot in Barcelona. It was a transitional film for Larraz, it solidified his links with the British low budget film industry, making it possible for him to do his first completely English film, Symptoms. The credits for Scream and Die implied that it was a British film through and through. Sex film director Derek Ford, for example, was given screenplay credit even though he had nothing to do with it. This played down the Spanish angle, making it easier to get distribution in England, also increasing the likelihood of American companies picking it up for the U.S. market.
The producers of Scream and Die wanted a fairly hefty quotient of sex in the film, and though this wasn't exactly to Larraz's taste he didn't back away from the subject.
If both the languid and the lurid were not so creative and effective, perhaps The House That Vanished would be, overall, more effective for viewers. If one were played down, the other could dominate, and most viewers could easily categorize and subsequently digest the film. Visually, Larraz is without equal in his unique images. For example, Valerie's escape from the house during the first act leads her to hide in a scrapyard. It looks like an auto graveyard (to borrow a phrase from Iggy Pop) and has an odd theatrical feel combined with some real tension, as the black-gloved killer goes searching for her. My favorite scene is (unsurprisingly) a quiet one, where Valerie enters the lobby of her apartment building. The lobby is dark but she ignores it and walks upstairs. The camera lingers in the darkness slightly too long. A door opens giving the darkness little light, so Larraz can capture a shadow in the midst of complete darkness. An obscure film.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ruggero Deodato's Uomini si nasce poliziotti si muore (Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man) (1976)

At a cafe, two extremely good-looking young gentlemen, Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock) are having coffee. Both have sugar while one has decaf. Save the expected street noise, it is a quiet afternoon in Rome. The noise at the cafe's pinball machine attracts the attention of Fred and Tony who then become fixated with the two men surrounding it. Tony puts a silencer on a pistol and covers it with a newspaper. Fred follows suit. The pinball game comes to an end, and the men occupying its space enter the street. A van makes an abrupt stop outside. The van speeding is assumed from the stop. A misdemeanor at most. The two men at the cafe join another in the street. Fred and Tony pull their pistols and kill a man sitting alone in a car and a man standing reading a newspaper, respectively. The three men in the street don hoods and pull weapons. Without any hooded figure firing a shot, two of the group of hooded three are killed by Tony and Fred near the van. The lone survivor of the van group (but not for long) attempts on foot to escape in the crowded street. Tony cracks an adept shot to his head; and the final corpse hits the asphalt, and blood streams making a large pool. Cue soft acoustic ballad (sung by lead actor Ray Lovelock). Fred starts his motorcycle and Tony hops on the back. The two leave. Sound like murder?
Or does it matter? In Ruggero Deodato's Uomini si nasce poliziotti si muore (Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man) (1976) in the director's signature style, there is a lot of immoral fun to be had by its characters while their director seeks an amoral tone with his film. This is an extremely judgemental description of the film, and perhaps totally inaccurate. The inclusion of Lovelock's ballads within the film were, according to Deodato, to soften the tone of the film. The tone of the film is what? Violent? "It was very violent, perhaps too violent" says Lovelock in retrospect. Al Cliver was offered a role in the film by Deodato who had previously appeared in his Una ondata di piacere (Wave of Lust) (1975) but declined the role after reading Fernando di Leo's script, because it was "too bloody, too violent. Both the dialogue and the action." (Cliver would not turn down a subsequent Di Leo script with I padroni della città (1976).) In addition to Lovelock's ballads, Deodato added light-hearted scenes to soften the violence and to give the film a cop-film feel, like American ones such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Silvia Dionisio appears as a secretary in Live Like a Cop, and she has a lot of fun keeping Porel's Fred and Lovelock's Tony at bay: fun flirting in mock adversarial positions. Deodato even exercised restraint by toning down the violence in a particularly nasty scene where Bibi Pasquini (Renato Salvatori) has one of his henchmen remove the eye of a drug-addicted debtor. Deodato said he filmed the eye being pulled from the victim's socket and then in close-up, filmed the eyeball being squished under foot. Deodato admits the scene is still violent in its cut form.Save Deodato's one act of restraint in excising his cinematic violence, the violence in Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man remains, only to be softened by its director. Deodato admits: "It's a cop film that I made and got to make my own personal decisions." Like his screenwriter Fernando di Leo, Ruggero Deodato loves being playful (even dangerously so) and combined with his undeniable creative talent, it is this playful, irreverent attitude which makes his cinema so compelling. Uomini si nasce poliziotti si muore (Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man), Deodato's sole entry into the 1970s crime genre, is amongst one of his best works and one of the best films of that genre.The punchline to the first paragraph above is the absence of three important facts: Fred and Tony are police officers (of a "special squad" which officially doesn't officially exist); the men that the two kill are known criminals about to commit a heist; and the heist is never executed. One could argue that the five slain would-be thieves are guilty of conspiracy to commit robbery at the time of their death but then, one would have to answer the question: why does no police officer identify himself and arrest them? Or the moral perspective, did the crime of conspiracy merit an on-the-scene killing? Any viewer can play with those questions and come up with an answer. The facts that remain from within the film unequivocally lead to this answer: Fred and Tony are two criminals, with a propensity for violence, with badges.The opening ten minutes of Live Like a Cop are famous for its motorcycle chase (exciting and brilliantly filmed by Deodato) but the events that prompt the chase and the events which occur after the chase are the incendiary ones. A woman exits a bank with a satchel handcuffed to her wrist. Two thugs on a motorbike attempt to snatch the satchel and make a quick getaway. The woman victim is dragged, and her head lodges into a metal pole. Still not deterred, the thug gets off the bike and begins violently pulling her arm to free the satchel, eventually stomping her head. The thugs flee without the satchel. Fred and Tony witness the crime. Motorcycle chase ensues. At the conclusion of the chase, one criminal gets impaled in a crash and dies which prompts a smirk from Lovelock's Tony. Fred attends to the other thug who was thrown from the motorbike. Although severely injured, the criminal is still alive...but not for long, as Porel's Fred snaps his neck with his hands. The impetus crime and the chase result are mirror images: criminals committing crimes in different societal roles. The talent on both sides of the camera shines. Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock are damn sexy men giving fantastic performances in an arrogant yet coy style, infusing their characters' attitudes. Gorgeous Silvia Dionisio beams with her smiles in a small, scene-stealing performance. Her sister, Sofia, steals her only scene with Porel and Lovelock later in the film. The best two performances with characters with the richest complexity are Adolfo Celi, as Fred and Tony's boss, and Renato Salvatori, as Bibi Pasquini, the crime boss that Fred and Tony chase in Live Like a Cop's main narrative. Two veteran actors at the top of their game. Di Leo delivers another acid-tongued, smart-aleck script and Deodato executes. Like most of Deodato's cinema, Live Like a Cop is still powerful and incendiary today. Is being bad this much fun? I wouldn't know, but Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man certainly is. The film is available on DVD from Italian label, Raro, in a very nice non-anamorphic widescreen print with both English and Italian (with English subtitles) audio. Included amongst its supplements is an approximately forty-minute featurette with Deodato, Lovelock, Cliver, and others involved in the production (and where all quotes and objective facts within are taken).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Santo en El tesoro de Drácula (1969) versus Santo el enmascarado de plata vs los villanos del ring (1968)

First up is René Cardona's Santo en El tesoro de Drácula (1969) in which cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, is a scientist. Entering second is Alfredo B. Crevenna's Santo el enmascarado de plata vs los villanos del ring (1968) in which cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, is mediator, organizer, investigator, and above all, wrestler. Santo's opponents are the gangster, Black Hood, and the legendary Count Dracula and Francisco Iglesias (Francisco Jambrina), conman and swindler, and his crew of criminals and evil wrestlers, respectively. Let us see how these flicks fare in Santo fashion, two out of three falls, both possessing wonderfully complex and contrived plots.
In Santo en El tesoro de Drácula, Santo debuts his latest invention to the scientific community. His invention is a contraption which allows a human subject to travel into the past and enter into a previous life. Thus, the belief in reincarnation is a strong presumption in its genesis and a serious limitation to the time travel. Once the human subject has successfully entered into his/her past life, then it may assume that life for a preset duration. When the human subject returns to his/her own present life, all observations and knowledge gained from the previous life will remain with the host. Santo believes the opportunity and the quest for knowledge outweighs any inherent dangers in the contraption. It has not yet been tested. The scientific community meets Santo's invention with ridicule. Santo is not deterred and is prompted to test the device. However, any human subject runs the extreme risk of irreparable psychological damage upon re-entry, and male subjects are particularly susceptible. Female subjects possess a four-times greater chance of resisting damage during re-entry. Santo must operate the machine from present day to ensure its success, so he is not a suitable candidate. So his girlfriend, Luisa (Noelia Noel) volunteers. Love it.
In Santo el enmascarado de plata vs los villanos del ring, Santo has a goddaughter, María Elena Ramos (Silvia Fournier) who is engaged to Rodolfo (Wolf Ruvinskis). Santo has raised this wonderful young woman and has given the couple his blessing. However, Santo has promised María's paternal grandmother, Doña Teresa Ramos (Consuelo Frank), on her deathbed, the opportunity to speak with María (from whom she is estranged) and make her peace. María and her grandmother meet. Doña Teresa Ramos apologizes to Maria for not giving approval to her parents' marriage. Shortly after she gave her disapproval, the couple died in an automobile accident. Would she forgive her grandmother? Yes. María's grandmother dies within minutes after her confession. In her will, she leaves María millions of pesos. Enter Francisco Iglesias and here's his grift: Iglesias runs a "spiritual center" where he hosts seances for the spiritually inclined. Doña Teresa Ramos was a member of the center, and during the last seance, she appeared from beyond the grave and requested to speak to her granddaughter. María and Rudolfo attend the latest seance and María's grandmother appears, requesting that María give half of her inheritance, approximately three million pesos, to the spiritual center, so she may find peace in the afterlife.
Both films become more wonderfully complex, incredulous, and intriguing. Back to Luisa in Santo en El tesoro de Drácula, who has made the successful leap back into time (about a hundred years) with Santo's invention. Luisa is in a distinguished manor where her father is a nobleman. In this new past life, Luisa's friend has recently died from mysterious recurring bouts of blood loss, despite receiving regular transfusions to increase her health. Enter Professor Van Roth (Fernando Mendoza), a physician and family friend, who is now treating Luisa for the same symptoms. Enter, also, nobleman Count Alucard (Aldo Monti) who intends on frequenting the villa to ensure that Luisa's treatment is going well. Professor Van Roth thinks the Count is suspicious. Two guesses as to whom the Count really is and one of them is probably right. The Count makes a nocturnal visit to Luisa and intends to make her one of his brides. Back at his crypt, with the las muerjes vampiro, the Count shares a secret to Luisa: the Count holds an opulent treasure. The secret is inscribed upon his medallion and his ring. The holder of both, and only with both, knows the location of the treasure. Before Luisa is inducted into las muerjes vampiro, Professor Van Roth enters with mallet and wooden stake. Santo transports Luisa back to present day, and she recovers.
How is Francisco Iglesias in Santo el enmascarado de plata vs los villanos del ring able to perform his con? A diabolical yet seemingly cost-ineffective scheme. First, he has his beautiful assistant pose as a nurse in a hospice environment where she gains the confidence of the patient. The nurse's mission is to surreptitiously place a tape recorder within the room and record the voice of the soon-to-be-deceased. That's it, her whole mission. The voice recording is needed for Iglesias's other assistant, a master impersonator, who is able to hear any one's voice and duplicate it. After the death of the patient, the corpse is removed after burial. Another of Iglesias's crew makes a mold of the corpse's face and a latex facsimile of the deceased's face is made. With the reproduction of both the voice and the face of the deceased, a seance is performed with the mark in attendance. The duplication of the deceased requests peace in the afterlife for a nominal sum donated to the spiritual center. Awesome.
Now for reviewer confession: unless you possess the joie de vivre which is El Santo cinema, then beyond their conceptions, both films move into the utterly familiar in subsequent execution. However, Santo el enmascarado de plata vs los villanos del ring boasts a very high quantity of action. Unfortunately, for the overwhelming majority of El Santo cinema, regardless of who is at the helm, fight sequences are shot static, as if the viewer is a ringside viewer at a wresting match. This reviewer could watch El Santo, El Enmascarado de Plata, the multitude's hero, do laundry, however. The wonderful flourishes often carry the films. For example in los villanos del ring, Santo calms everyone by telling them that he will consult his criminal files to uncover the identity of the perpetrators. Santo holds a small stack of files approximately three inches in height. Is cinema's greatest superhero only keeping tabs on supervillians? Has Santo rid the city of the majority of crime, and his files represent what is left? Is Santo only now creating files for criminals as a signal for a new direction in crime-fighting? I live for these questions. For more discerning viewers, I hope reading these descriptions were as fun as I had writing them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jean Rollin's Les deux orphelines vampires (1995)

"The story of Les Deux...involves two little blind orphans. They can only see at night because they are vampires and the film tells of their adventures. They meet strange creatures, a winged vampire lady, a wolf. There will be no nudity, but--rest assured--there will be some beautiful graveyard scenes, and it's very poetic and full of beautiful dialogue. Brigitte Lahaie will star in it, as well as Tina Aumont, who plays 'The Ghoul.' The two orphans will be played by Alexandra Pic and Isabelle Teboul, two young actresses who have never worked in films before. I found them through a newspaper ad and they are absolutely gorgeous, as you will see."
"[...][T]he vast doorway leading nowhere, a giant yawn of emptiness, which I noticed every day on the way to and from the set. I managed to set aside one hour in the work schedule so that we could use the site for the orphans to walk through."
The image of the doorway would be poetic without Rollin's anecdote informing it, but nonetheless it is a powerful image within his Les deux orphelines vampires (1995). Rollin's anecdote informs its poetic nature in such a way that it almost imbues the film with more hidden mystery and the fantastique. The image and story are poetic alone, set apart from the film: a doorway (a poetic description, as it appears more like a giant gate) with no utility whatsoever, easily circumvented from either side, without maneuvering through the middle, from a distance leading to different points of grass in the same field. At one time, it can be assumed that the doorway did have some utility, leading into an estate now gone or never built. Or perhaps its architects designed the doorway to sit in the middle of the field as its intentional purpose. For whatever reason, Rollin adjusted his entire production to film at its location for a fleeting sequence in Les deux orphelines vampires.

Now fifteen years old, Les deux orphelines vampires is one of Jean Rollin's latest feature films. My initial viewing of the film is almost as old, prior to the DVD revolution, through a dodgy, VHS screener, won perhaps in an online auction. Undeniably, the washed-out picture from umpteen duplications combined with its format drastically reduced its visuals. Needless to say, it was hard to appreciate the film, and at the time, I did not. From what I discerned, Les deux orphelines vampires was an overwhelmingly romantic film, not filled with what I would later learn as Rollin romanticism but the romanticism of the older film maker, revisiting childhood themes through nostalgia. For most viewers and critics, these aesthetics signal an artist's mortality and the end of his/her career. The film serves as a reminder of what was with the artist's work; where in Rollin's case, I saw his work as frequently surrealist montages of sex and violence and pop culture, such as vampires, clowns, pirates, and thieves.
Les deux orphelines vampires is based upon Rollin's novel of the same name, originally published in 1993 by Editions Fleuve Noir, Collection Angoisses No. 6, and was the first in a series of five books involving the titular pair, all penned by Rollin. Les deux orphelines vampires was translated into English and released as Little Orphan Vampires, translated by Pete Tombs who also wrote an introduction, Redemption Books, London, U.K., 1995. It also contains stills from within of the film. Tombs writes in his introduction, "Beginning with Le viol du vampire in 1968, French director Jean Rollin has made 15 films. Most of them have been in the horror/fantasy genre. He's often described as a maker of 'sexy vampire' movies. Yet what really makes his films interesting is not the sex, but the unique fairy tale quality that many of them have...This is the aspect of his work that surfaces most strongly in the books he has written. Little Orphan Vampires is the first of Rollin's fictions to be available in English and, although it has horrifying sequences, it's the romantic, almost whimsical, quality of the story that will surprise many readers." Subsequent to the film's completion, Rollin writes, "The film closely follows the book (and a part of the second volume), even down to the dialogues, which gives them a literary feel, a bit out of phase with the film, which I rather like."Many of Rollin's oldest artistic collaborators work both behind and in front of the camera. One of the most beautiful sequences involves actress, Tina Aumont. Craig Ledbetter, a visitor to the set, describes Aumont and wonderfully describes her scene:

A surprise visitor appears: Tina Aumont. The scandal-attracting Enfant Terrible of French cinema has lost none of her charisma from the days of Salon Kitty, although the excesses of the wild seventies have left their marks. Tina reveals herself to be the most approachable and, in spite of her long screen abstinence, very professional. "An actor without a film to work on is like a person without a family," she remarks, and it's quite obvious that she is happy about this chance for a comeback.
Her first scene is shot the next day. The location is a gigantic quarry not too far away from "Cheval Noir," whose wonderful stone and sand formations remind one of the surface of a distant planet. Cold and unique, it's a sharp contrast to the shapes and colors of the graveyard of Epigny. Here, in this desert from another dimension, Henriette and Louise meet a flesh-eating ghoul, a tragic figure played by Tina Aumont. The world after the apocalypse. The heart of every admirer of Italian Post-Doomsday movies bleeds. The cutting wind howls relentlessly, covering everyone and everything with thin white dust. At the end of the day, the work is done, and while we all try desperately not to bite on grains of sand, the comparatively quiet shooting of the castle scenes in a few days warms the heart.

(I assume that Ledbetter is the author since no author is credited in this piece but it appears in his published, edited, and designed European Trash Cinema, No. 13, Kingwood, Texas, U.S.A., exact year of publication unknown [late 1990s presumably].)

Les deux orphelines vampires is unlike any film made in 1995, similar to his previous work, yet quite a different film from Rollin. A very sensual film, the two orphan vampires have sight when night falls, and the primary color in which they see is blue; and that color permeates the images. Les deux orphelines vampires was released on DVD in 2002 by Media Blasters/Shriek Show as Two Orphan Vampires in anamorphic widescreen with both French (with English subtitles) and English language tracks. Included are brief, later-day interviews with both leads, Alexandra Pic and Isabelle Teboul, and an approximately forty-five minute interview with Rollin, discussing primarily this film but spanning to other facets of his career. The interview ends with a tour of Rollin's office where he shows some important items, including the Book of Incan art, which appears in the film.
Today, I appreciate, admire, and enjoy Les deux orphelines vampires. It is an ethereal, timeless, and very poetically-rendered film. The imagery inspires poetic description. Here are Rollin's thoughts on the completed film:

"And I had a production crew that worked without a hitch: my old crony Lionel Wallman, Sam Selsky making his last film and Jacques Michel, who had already worked on Killing Car. All this gave me the greatest freedom I ever had on a film. It is tamer, but better constructed and more controlled. One might miss the baroque craziness of Viol, Frisson, or Requiem, the wild improvisations of Bankok or Killing Car, and the strangeness of Demoniaques or La rose de fer, but at the same time I believe that Orphelines renders a very accurate picture of the cinema as I understand it, that's to say having the freedom to film what I feel like."
The final quote is from Rollin's essay on Les deux orphelines vampires included in Virgins and Vampires, Crippled Publications, Germany, 1997, edited by Peter Blumenstock, as is the second quote about the "doorway" and the final quote in the fifth paragraph. The first Rollin quote is from an interview conducted with Blumenstock in the same volume. The bibliographic information in the fifth paragraph is from Jean Rollin, Monster Bis, edited by Norbert Moutier, France, date of publication unknown. All other quotes and information are from their sources as cited within.