Monday, February 21, 2011

Anno 2020 - I gladiatori del futuro (1986)

Sometimes the stories behind the films are more interesting than the finished films. I find this shit fascinating. Let us first hear from the participants from a semi-obscure film from Italy, made in 1986, rooted firmly in the “Post Nuke” genre--Anno 2020 - I gladiatori del futuro (2020 Texas Gladiators). Ready?
Luigi Montefiori (aka George Eastman)

"I directed that film at Massaccesi's request," says Luigi Montefiori (aka George Eastman) about Anno 2020 - I gladiatori del futuro (2020 Texas Gladiators) (1986). "His production company had bought the ready-made 'package' (actors with contracts and fixed dates, script already written, cost of the film frozen) from another production company, which had backed out because they considered it impossible to make the film with such poor funding. Massaccesi thought he could manage, but then, over the next 24 hours (work was due to start on Monday and it was already Friday), he realized that the script was short...terribly short--the film would have lasted an hour at the very most. The shooting schedule had already been worked out (20 days exactly) and couldn’t be extended a single day unless somebody was prepared to put up the finances. He called me up and asked me if I would be willing to assist him with directing the film: I turned the offer down saying I’d do it alone, but not with him.” (from Spaghetti Nightmares, edited by Luca Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Fantasma Books, Key West, FL: 1996, p. 108)
Montefiori continues, “To be honest, when he [Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D’Amato] said, ‘Let’s direct it together,’ I answered, ‘No, I’ll direct, and you can watch and learn how it’s done.’ He really got pissed off. No, I told him that the first day on the set. On the first day of the shoot, we were in the basement of the Hilton hotel, you know, where there are all the pipes, for heating and so on--in order to shoot a strange scene, like out of James Bond--Aristide and Donatella [Donati] were on the set. He stood there like this [Montefiori gestures with arms crossed], watching me. He wanted to see what I would say. Then the cameraman showed up, and I said, ‘Put the camera here, with this lens, then we’ll do a dolly shot...’ And he was totally quiet. After five minutes I was thinking he’d come up. I was saying to myself, ‘It’s impossible for him to hold his tongue.’ And in fact he come up and goes, ‘Why’d you put the camera there?’ I said ‘Aha! Aristide!’ I must say that I hadn’t asked him for a salary as director. When he’d proposed we direct together, I knew it was because he didn’t want to pay me! So I said, ‘I’ll direct.’ He started to object and I told him to pay me an assistant director’s salary. I didn’t care about the money--at the time I didn’t give a damn about money. So when he came up to me and asked me why I placed the camera there, I said, ‘Ari, you’re paying me to direct, not to teach you how to direct.’ He got really pissed and called me every name in the book and split. But I say he always let me work in peace, since of course he knew me. The thing that was fun for me was to do something that everyone said couldn’t be done. We’d just answer: ‘It can be done, don’t worry.’” (from the documentary, Joe D'Amato Totally Uncut, included as a supplement on the Shriek Show/Media Blasters Anthrophagus DVD)

Montefiori further states that, “I looked at the script and estimated that I’d need another half hour of film, which meant I’d have to improvise some scenes to shoot on the sets which had already been planned, I couldn’t have done this effectively as a co-director, as I’d have had to first discuss every idea for a new scene. He [Massaccesi] hedged a bit at first, but then, when I said I’d do it for a very low salary, he gave in. You see, I wanted to do the film at all costs and was convinced that if I could pull off such a difficult task, I could be a director for the rest of my days. Anyway, I did the shooting in exactly 20 days and everything went smoothly despite the lack of resources, and here I must say that I owe a great deal to the participation of my young and exuberant assistant-director, Michele Soavi. I never saw the finished film; once I’d supervised the editing, I left the technicians to do the postrecording and the mixing. I wasn’t particularly concerned about how it had turned out, being satisfied with the fact that I’d managed to keep to the schedule and produce a 95 minute film.” (from Spaghetti Nightmares, p. 108-09)

Pierluigi Conti (aka Al Cliver)

Question: You remember another film you did with Aristide [Massaccesi], but directed by [Luigi] Montefiori?

Answer: I vaguely remember it...

Q: Do you remember whether Montefiori directed the whole film, or was part of it directed by Aristide?

A: No, I think Montefiori directed the whole thing. Aristide was good at that sort of thing. When he’s entrusted the direction to someone, he didn’t interfere with it, unlike the usual producer. (from the Joe D'Amato Uncut documentary from source same as above)
Aristide Massaccesi (aka Joe D’Amato)

“Montefiori didn’t feel confident enough in the action scenes and so I dealt with those, leaving him to the directing of the actors. But in this case, the name recorded at the Ministry was mine.” (from Spaghetti Nightmares, p. 79)

I love Luigi Montefiori’s story. Notice the insinuation that he makes during the first paragraph with the phrase “over the next 24 hours”--it sounds as if Joe D’Amato bought a film production which was going to begin in less than a week, and he had only started to prepare for the shoot the Friday before the Monday starting of the production. So he calls in a old friend and collaborator to fix the shoot. The two had made films on the fly in short periods of time, before--Sesso nero (1980) is a prime example. Montefiori even further insinuates that the two didn’t finalize who was actually going to direct (or if the two would co-direct) Anno 2020 until the first day of shooting. Finally, although Montefiori makes it sound as if he directed the film, the statement by Massaccessi, in his typical modest and terse style, says a lot. If he directed solely the action sequences, then Joe D’Amato was a true co-director, because Anno 2020 has a lot of action sequences.
While the finished film has a few problems (as I’ll discuss below), Anno 2020 is quite an accomplishment considering its background.

Anno 2020 - I gladiatori del futuro (2020 Texas Gladiators) begins with a group of law marshals who patrol the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Texas. This group is comprised of Nisus (Al Cliver), Jab (Harrison Muller), Catch Dog (Daniel Stephen), Halakron (Peter Hooten), and Red Wolfe (Hal Yamanouchi). Like a Black-Ops team, they disrupt a band of rabid and violent raiders who attack a peaceful group of religious settlers. All of the raiders are killed, and the remaining settlers are rescued. This group has a code--they intend to restore justice in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, by any means necessary. However, Catch Dog sees a distressed settler hidden in the corner, named Maida (Sabrina Siani), and decides, with no one looking, to rape her. He is stopped by Nisus and given a beatdown. The group expels him on the spot and forces him into exile. Maida, while grateful for Nisus’s help, questions his violent methods: if he just kills the killers, isn’t he just a killer, too? This observation is astute, and Nisus cannot disagree. He agrees to accompany Maida to her settlement--a community living under the shadow of a power plant. This group has hopes of rebuilding it, just like they are rebuilding ideas like community and harmony. This is just the beginning.
I’ll be damned if the story of Anno 2020 isn’t epic in scope. It’s definitely a Western in its structural design, its archetypes, and its mythology, complete with a saloon sequence, a canyon standoff, and a fort defense by incoming raiders. Love, revenge, redemption, good versus evil, hope, despair, wagon wheels...all that shit. Eventually, Cliver’s Nisus abandons the group and settles with Maida in the community. Nisus becomes a pillar and helps the community restore power to the plant. He and Maida even have a child together and are beginning a family. Eventually fascist bastard, the Black One (Donald O’Brien) busts in on the group with his elite futuristic warriors in tow. A band of raiders also appear to be supporting the Black One, led by Nisus’s former colleague, Catch Dog. They subdue the community after a valiant defense by the settlers, and the Black One takes power, intending to kill the rest of the law marshals in the area. Part of the charm of Anno 2020 comes from the era, and those, like me, who love Italian action films from the 1980s, especially the “Post Nuke” films, will enjoy revisiting this era: the Mohawks, the makeshift battle armor, spiked armbands, the facepaint--as much as these are costumes for new tribes of the post-apocalyptic world, they are also staples of the 1980s fashion scene. Anno 2020 has a synth score by whom the credits reveal as Francis Taylor who may be Carlo Maria Cordio, as the IMdB suggests, as nearly everyone in the credits has an Anglicized pseudonym. Like most music for Italian genre cinema, the “Post Nuke” cycle of films wouldn’t be memorable without the fantastic synth scores. Anno 2020’s score is pretty cool. The inclusion of actors like Muller and Siani are memorable, solely because the bulk of their work was few and was during this decade. Both of the actors are eye candy: Muller has beautiful eyes and a pretty baby face which he hides under a beard; while Siani is voluptuous, tanned, and bleached blonde. Anno 2020 is a representative film of the era.

As the film progresses, it is evident that the haphazard planning by Montefiori and Massaccesi would have an effect. There is some shit in this film that really comes out of left field. The saloon sequence involves a bizarre game of Russian Roulette. Later in the film, the remaining group of marshals, after fleeing the raiders, wander in the woods to encounter a group of Native Americans who are rendered visually in stereotypical cinematic fashion. There is even a slavery sequence in a mine where the Black One houses his prisoners. This scene seems an opportunity to film a slave revolt.
Visually, Anno 2020 is competent and slick yet not flashy. Its design is to be a commercial action film and it delivers--it hides its low budget well with its editing while also being exciting editing in its action sequences. Montefiori’s improvisations to the script and his direction of scenes with the actors are well done. He’s a professional and seasoned (and in my opinion, underrated) screenwriter who knows scenarios and characters well. Although the story is disjointed and fragmented (and a lot of the time, weird), there is a richness and depth to the fragments.

Anno 2020 - I gladiatori del futuro is ultimately really representative of how creative Italian cinema was. Film makers, like Joe D’Amato, could pick a whole production up on the fly and were professional and sly and creative enough to craft an entertaining film. These films were designed to make quick cash and not lasting memories. The film makers can have the former any day. I’ll gladly take the latter.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Les cauchemars naissent la nuit (1970)

It is difficult to discern what Les cauchemars naissent la nuit is about, in as much as it is to discern what genre Jess Franco's film falls into. The latter is not important (but erotica is probably the answer); and as to the former, here is a plot description: Diana Lorys is Anna, a nightclub dancer, who meets Cincia (Colette Jack), who invites Anna to her home. Cincia tells Anna that her talent and beauty are above and beyond where she is working and makes a vague promise to Anna that she can make her a bigger success. Anna agrees and soon finds comfort in Cincia's home. A local doctor, Paul (Paul Muller), is eventually summoned to Cincia's home under the assumption that Anna is ill. Apparently, Anna has been having nightmares--those of her killing people or waking up not knowing what she has done, with someone dead in her bedroom. Les cauchemars naissent la nuit is, as a mystery, reminiscent of Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo (Paranoia) (1969) in the respect that Anna's reality is being manipulated by those around her. Anna's subsequent madness is borne from this manipulation. The key figure in this manipulation would have to be Colette Jack's Cincia, but during the nightclub sequence when Cincia first sees Anna, it would appear that Anna actually seduces Cincia. Anna's striptease sequence is shot in Franco-style (aka very lovingly) (aided by José Climent's photography and a sexy score by Bruno Nicolai); and it almost seems that Cincia is compelled to have Anna in her home. Lorys's Anna remains the focus of Les cauchemars naissent la nuit, and this makes it difficult to discern what is going on around her. Franco shows many an emotional scene where Anna wants to flee Cincia's home, and Anna often runs into the arms of Muller's Paul. She continually asks for help. Paul, not uncaring, lends a sympathetic ear, yet his ultimate advice is often just "go home and rest." More telling perhaps about Les cauchemars naissent la nuit is where this falls in Jess Franco's filmography: it is only slightly removed in time from his previous Eugénie (1970); and his subsequent film would be Christina, princesse de l'érotisme (1971). It is very easy to see Les cauchemars naissent la nuit as an experimental, transitional film: Les cauchemars has the intense subjective sexual obsession of Eugénie combined with the ethereal, almost random, characters of Christina. Jack Taylor appears late in the film as one of Cincia’s lovers; and when Anna and Taylor’s character interact, it is often composed of poetic, playful dialogue. Taylor’s character doesn’t seem real, and if he’s helping Anna, then it is very cryptic. Finally, giving a very precious appearance in a small performance is Soledad Miranda as a beautiful girl peering out of a window across the street from Cincia’s house. She has dreams that she shares with her lover of coming into a lot of money (this is important to the plot?). Miranda is dead sexy--Franco composes her primarily nude wearing only thigh-high boots. Franco had an intense obsession for Miranda, and it undoubtedly shows.Les cauchemars naissent la nuit is a lithe, meandering, arty, poetic film. I tend to prefer my cinema like this--a film which has really nowhere in particular to go in terms of story, so its imagery becomes prominent and, in the case of Franco, seductive. A minor entry, perhaps, in Franco’s filmography, because of the films preceding and following it. However, here’s some facts to conclude this post taken from essential Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco:

Only released in Belgium, this variation of the Miss Muerte story (a nightclub dancer unconsciously commits murders for somebody controlling her) has become virtually invisible since this limited release. Franco used the same story three years later for his own production of Los Ojos Siniestros del Dr. Orlof. Local critics writing about Les cauchemars naissent la nuit found that “the vague screenplay in the crime novel vein was only a pretext for showing scenes of a dubious nature with excessive nudity.” It is also true that Belgium is probably the most prudish country in Europe: even sex magazines are sold with stickers to cover genitalia! When asked (in Vampirella n° 13) what had been his smallest budget to date (in 1973) Franco named this film.

(from Obsession, ed. Lucas Balbo & Peter Blumenstock, Graf Haufen & Frank Trebbin Publishing, Munich, Germany: 1993, p.77)
Les cauchemars naissent la nuit has been released by Media Blasters/Shriek Show on DVD as Nightmares Come at Night. Also, check out Aaron’s review at his killer blog, The Bone Throne.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

La tomba (2004)

Some questions, perhaps, are better not asked and left unanswered. After a week's viewing of his cinema, I asked myself why--for well over a decade, now--I continue to watch the films of Bruno Mattei. Are they fun, b-movie trash? Maybe, but I find this answer unpersuasive. Lurking on message boards and searching for answers for the few of us who genuinely consider ourselves fans of Mattei's work, I can find no answers. Mattei fans make no apologies and mount no defenses. It's as if there is no redemption to be had. Often, I am like a vegetative hospital patient in front of the screen when Mattei's images flicker past and am totally defenseless. Is Bruno Mattei cinema anti-cinema? I like that term, and it looks cool as I write it; but I prefer to end this query now, before its answers crawl up from the abyss.La tomba (2004) is one of Mattei's last films. In the new millennium, before his death in 2007, Mattei would helm more films than in the decade before. Most, if not all, were shot-on-video and most, to put it in an understated manner, were highly derivative of other cinema. Mexico. The height of the Mayan civilization. One of the Mayan deities, a goddess, is about to be invoked and brought forth into this world. A high priest resides over a sacrificial ritual with his masked consort at his side. Two jewels are placed in the eyes of the statue of the goddess, and now, only sacrifices are needed. The final sacrifice is to be a priestess, someone specially chosen. A clan of Mayan warriors disrupt the ritual and begin battle. If the Mayan goddess is brought forth from the dark abyss, then humanity is doomed. The masked consort flees with the high priest. In a tomb located in the catacombs of the temple, the high priest sacrifices himself. Patiently, his corpse will stay in the tomb. One day, he will rise again and complete the ritual. Mexico. Modern day. A group of archaeology students led by their professor (Robert Madison) arrive via bus to begin a survey and study of some ancient ruins. If you've read the paragraph above, then take a guess where they're going and what they are about to do. I'll wait.

Video has either been a blessing or a curse for modern cinema. Modern viewers have adapted to life beyond celluloid quite well; and most do not see it as a deterrent to an enjoyable cinema experience. Modern technology has advanced quite far; and often, films shot on the video format rarely call attention to themselves. La tomba is one of those rarities. Have you ever seen a really funky-ass-looking television show and wondered why it looked so funky? Lighting for film and lighting for video are two wholly different arts. La tomba appears lit for film (or lit for coverage) and shot on video. Colors appear unnaturally bright and vibrant, and the sets appear even more theatrical and artificial. With every frame of La tomba, while watching, it is difficult to forget that a film is playing out. La tomba really calls attention to itself with its visual style. Therefore, one with little ease can be critical of the sets, the costumes, and the makeup. You can almost see where the latex adheres to the skin on the practical makeup effects. When one of the characters pushes the lid off of the crypt which houses the corpse of the high priest, immediately one does not think of heavy granite. The lid weighs practically nothing, and that actor straining is clearly acting. How about them apples?
Mattei loves casting attractive women in the roles of his films. Their attractive quality seems, at times, the sole reason why he cast them. Two actresses standout: Anna Marcello and Kasia Zurakowska. Marcello gives the best performance in La tomba as the bruja. Upon arrival in Mexico, the archaeological team needs a guide. A disgusting, lecherous man named Professor Santos is the initial guide. He is not able to fulfill his duties (his final scenes in La tomba are sublime). The archaeological team, via the concierge at their hotel, is led to a "healer," or bruja, who could substitute. Enter Marcello. Simultaneously sensuous and sinister, Marcello always scowls. Her character radiates true energy. Zurakowska plays Viola, one of the archaeological students and also was the priestess from the initial sequence whose death is staved off by the Mayan warriors. Not a coincidence. In an endearing sequence, Viola is hard at study in the temple with her portable CD player tucked into her waistband. She’s dancing to her own rhythm and occasionally taking notes from one the murals in the temple. Viola hears a haunting and odd chanting. She pulls her earphones and shakes her CD player. Frightened, she throws the player to the ground. Gasp! There is no music disc inside. Incidental note. Most, even those reading this, will never see La tomba. However, if you want to see how beautiful Marcello and Zurakowska are, then do an image search via your favorite search engine for one of their model pictorials. Best not done at work, kiddies.

I know little of acting and little of character interaction and little of actor motivation. This, to me, is the oddest thing in La tomba: whenever a character starts screaming or flipping out, usually Viola, another character will run over to him/her and immediately grab and shake them. In fact, the characters will go out of their way to touch each other in almost every conversation. The concept of personal space is truly dead in La tomba.

One of the indisputable and shining highlights of La tomba (of really all of Mattei’s cinema) is the editing. Although it does not appear that Mattei edited La tomba, Mattei has as many credits as a film editor as he does a film director. Of all the things that could be said about his work, directorial self-indulgence is not one of them. Mattei rarely fell in love with his footage. As an editor, he knew when to cut a sequence before it outstayed its welcome. La tomba zips along and seems well shorter than its ninety-minute-or-so running time.

There is so much more that can be said about La tomba: the inclusion of clips from other films (Effectively inserted by the way, in a dramatic sense. The fact that they are celluloid inserts in a video film give them away, however.); the presence of actor Robert Madison (who appeared in some other notable Italian films) who is rugged and handsome and looks like a professional wrestler; and the sublime script and dialogue. Too much has been said already, and I think that I’ve seen La tomba too many times. I will see it many more times: the true mystery, undoubtedly.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Snakewoman (2005)

Snakewoman (2005) is one of my favorite latter-day Jess Franco efforts. Prior to my recent viewing of the film, with the intention of writing about it, I had read quite a bit of recent and not-so-recent criticism of Franco's cinema. Almost all of it noted flaws common in Franco's cinema, primarily his use of simple narratives, poorly-paced, sex scenes inserted as time filler, shoddy camerawork (all the more awful when the film was shot on video), and a continual recycling of older material (that is to say, Franco has made the same film more than once). My cinema tastes have always been in the most strict minority, and while I respect others' opinions, I still watch Franco's cinema with my own eyes. Having seen over a hundred of his films now, having lost count around that number, the only aspect of Franco's cinema which varies, for me, is the intensity. However, with this recent viewing of Snakewoman, for the first time in a while, I saw it influenced by the majority opinion.Oriana Balasz was a controversial, and now obscure, artist from the 1930s, whose work, primarily film, is closely-guarded by her descendants. Carla (Fata Morgana), an agent for a publishing house, has gone to the Balasz villa to persuade the family into selling the rights to her work. Carla arrives and meets a young woman (Carmen Montes) who claims to be Oriana. She refuses to sell the work to Carla. There is an inherent mystery in the premise of Snakewoman. One would intuitively begin to ask questions with the hopes that the subsequent narrative would, at the minimum, provide clues to the mystery. Such as: what was so controversial about her work? why would a family prefer to keep it hidden away from the world, despite lucrative financial offers? Those questions, perhaps, could be clouded with the irrational, supernatural themes: is the young woman really Oriana? how is she still young?
These questions are answered by Snakewoman's narrative, but I would really be pushing my limited ability at persuasive criticism to prove it. As a mystery, it fails. As a horror film, it fails.

It had been a while since longtime collaborator, Antonio Mayans (aka Robert Foster), had appeared in a Franco film. He appears as a doctor who is treating a young patient named Alpha (Christie Levin) who appears to be suffering from delusions--seeing a person who is not there (who is influencing her behavior). Lina Romay appears during the final act of Snakewoman as Carla's doctor. Subsequent to her rebuff by the Balasz family, Carla left the villa and spent three days in a daze. She could not remember what happened or where she went. Carla's doctor recommends that she spend a week recuperating at her isolated country resort. During the week that she spends there, Carla's publisher calls to tell her that he has acquired the rights to Oriana's work and thanks Carla.

All of these events really occur in Snakewoman, and to be truthful, I had never really noticed the salient details until this recent viewing. The plot is nonsensical and not coherent. Snakewoman has a very simple narrative that is not frustrating because it is hard to follow, but frustrating because it is so simple.
My previous viewings of Snakewoman and my feelings and thoughts about the film were quite different. What I would describe (and will now) is not proper criticism.Carmen Montes, as Oriana, is a gorgeous and seductive woman. Franco's first shot of her is a fake silhouette. That is to say, with his composition, he wants to outline Montes's svelte figure against a light backdrop; but Franco also wants to draw attention to the wonderfully provocative tattoo which surrounds her body--a large snake. The end result is dim light coming from the background and soft light upon the foreground. The opening scene is both lulling and soothing. Almost perfect atmosphere for an erotic film. Mayans's character has a very tenuous connection to the main plotline, and his patient, Levin's Alpha, has an even thinner connection. Franco later reveals who Alpha is seeing in her delusions and has the two meet. When these two characters meet, they fuck. For a long time. For a duration way beyond the threshold of most viewers. This is not a deterrent for Franco. In a humorous touch, Mayans's character is shown in crosscut during the scene, chanting in Latin. I have no idea why, but it almost seems as if Franco is making a religious joke on solemnity. With the Mayans crosscuts, Franco is breaking his solemnity for this erotic sequence, but don't worry, Franco is going to capture it all. I cannot tell if it's genuine, but in the background in several scenes of the villa, there is a promotional photo of Marlene Dietrich, taken during her heyday, and it is autographed. It is framed, and occasionally, Franco will begin his scene with a close-up on the photo, and as the scene plays out, the framed photo will blend into the background with the rest of the props and furniture in the villa. The Dietrich allusion has a tenuous connection to the character of Oriana. In later sequences, Franco shows Oriana's film work (in black-and-white). It's fairly explicit and not unlike Franco. However, Oriana's films do not appear like old stag films: they're framed and shot with a reverence and detail to light and dark.My math may be incorrect, but I believe Jess Franco was in his mid-seventies when he filmed Snakewoman. It is difficult not to see a connection between Oriana's work and Franco's own. What Montes's Oriana says about the fictional filmmaker is possibly applicable to Franco's cinema. During Oriana's first meeting with Carla, Oriana gives a very inappropriate speech about the culo. This speech makes me laugh, because I cannot think of another film maker, save Tinto Brass, so devoted to the female culo.

At the end of this long post, all that can really be said definitively is that Snakewoman is quintessential Franco: erotic, irreverent, both poetic and haunting, and unique.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Lorna, the Exorcist (1974)--Repost with critique of the Mondo Macabro DVD

Save this paragraph, what follows below is my original post on Lorna, the Exorcist, as published on December 27, 2009. Despite my desire to tinker with the text, I have resisted the urge to change it. It is not very good, alas. The original title of this post was "Jess Franco's Lorna, the Exorcist (1974)," and I have removed the "Jess Franco's" from the title (as an incidental note, this is because I've largely abandoned the auteur theory as a workable critical approach). I've recently received the Mondo Macabro DVD release of Lorna and am, again, quite impressed. The DVD release presents the film in a beautiful, anamorphic widescreen transfer, and the film is presented with an English language option and a French language option with English subtitles. I've watched the disc twice and have yet to listen to the English track, as I much prefer the French. The subtitles are excellent. Included on the disc are text essays and interviews with author Stephen Thrower and Gerard Kikoine. The Kikoine interview is of particular interest, as he shares his anecdotes about Robert de Nesle, editing Jess Franco's films, and his early work as a sound editor and film editor. Kikoine also talks about French cinema and censorship in France during the seventies. It is recommended and is my favorite supplement on the disc. The super-dope Mondo Macabro trailer reel is included also. This DVD release is essential Franco, and I cannot think of a true, cult film fan who does not have a stack of red DVD boxes on their shelf in his or her collection. One other note, there is a scene in Lorna which I reference below as being more provocative in its original version. Mondo Macabro has included this scene in their loving restoration of the film (an introductory text halts the beginning of the film on the disc, describing the laborious process of bringing this transfer to the public. This is very commendable work, and I appreciate it when Franco is attributed the value that he deserves.). I have left the original screenshots from my old vhs transfer and have included, above them, screenshots from Mondo Macabro's release. This is not done for comparison, as it is obvious that there is none. I have left the original screenshots, as they were part of the original post and they show how old school Franco fans saw this film, perhaps, prior to this essential release. I purchased my copy here, but it can also be found here.

Patrick (Guy Delorme) and Marianne (Jacqueline Laurent) Mariel, along with their daughter, Linda (Lina Romay), near the threshold of her eighteenth birthday, decide to leave their lush villa and head to the coast for a vacation. Patrick receives a phone call at his holiday destination from a woman named Lorna (Pamela Stanford), who wants Patrick to keep his end of the bargain that the two made nearly eighteen years ago. Lorna, The Exorcist (1974) (a more apt title is this French one, Les possédées du diable) is another Robert de Nesle/Jess Franco collaboration. Whatever pact the duo made with the devil of low-budget cinema is unleashed upon the viewer. The trademark Franco production style, cheap, small crew, few actors, single locations, etc., works completely in Lorna's favor. "Franco delays the descent into the plot as long as possible," write the authors of Immoral Tales, "increasing the claustrophobia, working out his compulsions." The film's extremely simplistic narrative allows Franco to paint a perverse tableau of images, shrouded in the most intense and haunting atmosphere.The eroticism of Lorna, the Exorcist is carried by Romay's Linda and Stanford's Lorna, and their love scenes are captured by Franco with longing, loving looks, slow embraces, and gentle touching and caressing. Lorna begins with Linda emerging from a balcony to seduce a willing Lorna upon a bed. It's a sequence made all the more powerful upon the later revelation that Lorna is the actual seductress; and Lorna's visits to Linda are in her dreams. Visually this sequence and another where Lorna seduces Linda while taking a bath are treated by Franco at the edges of voyeurism. Each sex scene dares to move one step further into its intimacy, threatening to remove any intimacy at all by revealing all. When Lorna finally confronts Linda and reveals her plans for the young daughter, she tells Linda her tale of first meeting her father and the pact they made before she was born. Lorna and Linda embrace again, and perversely Franco plays on the film's incestuous theme. Apparently, this consummation scene was far more provocative and graphic originally (fact from Immoral Tales) and was absent from my French print of the film. (A still from Lorna from this sequence is included in Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco.) The erotic sequences are not reserved completely for Lorna and Linda. Catherine Lafferière appears as a mad patient (victim or lover of Lorna) being treated by a doctor played by Franco; and her performance is as uninhibited as Romay or Stanford. Her scenes have little narrative weight and seem to exist to only permeate the truly erotic and haunting atmosphere.Virtually all of the characters have one motivation and each actor is able to play to his/her motivation with a singular intensity. Delorme's Patrick runs on fear and plays as a desperate man throughout out the film. Laurent's Marianne, like Linda, is a victim of Patrick's pact with Lorna: she doesn't know what to do or what is about to happen. In a particularly nasty scene, she's the victim of one of Lorna's spells in one of the most wince-inducing scenes in Franco's filmography. Lina Romay is fantastic as Linda and is able to genuinely balance the effective and seductive erotic sequences with a wide-eyed performance in the more innocent scenes. Stanford, as Lorna, again delivers with another seductive performance, even all the more brilliant as Franco has her hidden behind quite a bit of bizarre makeup and some impressive costumes. The primary location of the modern hotel lacks the grandeur of the genuine and more ancient locations of Franco's other work, but as the Immoral Tales authors note, the hotel (and Franco's compositions) contributes to the film's claustrophobic and intense atmosphere. Producer Robert de Nesle contributed to the hauntingly beautiful score with André Bénichou, an essential element to Lorna. In Lorna, the Exorcist, Franco plumbs the dark depths and delivers a provocative and dark gem.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994) & Modern Vampires (1998): 2 by Matthew Bright

When I first saw the Oliver Stone-produced Freeway (1996), I am almost certain that it was via cable television. Its star Reese Witherspoon (whom I had only known previously from her turn in twisted American-indie, S.F.W. (1994)) was a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood, off from L.A. to see grandma while the Big Bad Wolf, in the form of a psychopath (Keifer Sutherland), gives her a ride. It was a clever premise for the film, but even more impressive was its screenplay, penned by its director, Matthew Bright. Bright had a sharp wit, an acid tongue, and possessed a keen sense of his culture. His work pre-dates kindred spirits such as Matt Stone and Trey Parker and is also reminiscent of John Waters. Freeway is full of cultural stereotypes, and its humor always pushes the edge of being offensive. The humor does not derive from depictions of the stereotypes unadulterated, as, of course, that would be uninteresting: the stereotypes are polarized, perverted, and subverted, where everyone is the target of the joke and everyone is simultaneously taking aim. At the time when it was released, this type of humor was still cutting edge. Now, mainstream cinema and stand-up comedy has absorbed this style, and it is fairly common. Freeway is sick fun; and it was even more shockingly entertaining, because I happened to stumble upon it via a late-nite cable viewing. “A common theme through all of these stories [screenplays by Bright], including Modern Vampires, features a violent, vulgar, and totally misunderstood young lady who Matthew claims is based on composites of the main women in his life.” (quote from a supplemental text biography on Bright included on this Modern Vampires DVD.) This description is apt, but I thought that I would take a look at two very different treatments of Bright’s screenplays, Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994) and Modern Vampires (1998). Dark Angel: The Ascent is a Full Moon Pictures production; and this statement says a lot for those familiar with the company. Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures enjoyed its heyday in my teens. I loved the fact that the local video store had at least one title from them a month; and their VHS covers always emphasized the comic-book quality of the films’ style. Full Moon released comic tie-ins with their successful series, like Puppet Master and Subspecies, and collectibles, like toys, were available. Band had a strong commercial sense; and notably, every Full Moon release certainly had a formula for success. What is notable about the majority of these 90s releases is that they are rarely overtly comedic and almost never provocative. Band never wanted to purposefully offend any prospective viewer (at least those viewers who enjoyed crossing the B-movie threshold). For anyone who had seen Freeway, how would a Bright screenplay play out where its lines were delivered often serious and straight with not a hint of irony to be found anywhere? Veronica (Angela Featherstone) is a young demon, living with her working parents, in one of the lower circles of hell. She desires more than anything to walk above “under the golden orb” amongst the humans. This is forbidden, however. After a spat with her parents over dinner, she runs away and makes it topside. Veronica assumes a human form. Uneducated in human culture and their ways, she gets struck down by a car whereupon she is brought into the arms of a very pure and kind-hearted young doctor. He treats her and eventually houses Veronica in her home. Dark Angel is weird, not because of its premise, but because it’s played so straight. Veronica’s “programming” from her upbringing in hell makes her a vigilante on Earth: she’s killing criminals in the most violent methods, like ripping someone’s spine out. One of the inherent jokes, which is lost in this production, is that Veronica is really the product of a dysfunctional family and community. Her behavior stems from some idea of good and evil, yet her methods aren’t demonic, just misguided. Conveniently, when Veronica wants to fornicate with her young doctor, she’s immune from sin, as demons cannot receive a blessing from God for nuptial bliss. A good opportunity to pop in a sex scene. The dichotomy of the dysfunction vs. the demonic could have been brilliant, but Dark Angel is just too conservative to see it.However, Angela Featherstone as Veronica is quite enchanting. That is to say, once she takes human form and gets the demonic special effects off of her face. She is able to deliver lines with such genuineness that few actresses are able to muster. Again, just another lost opportunity of this production to capitalize on her talent.

Modern Vampires (1998) is written by Bright and directed by Richard Elfman, brother of Danny, who composed the film’s opening score. Elfman reveals on a “behind-the-scenes” featurette included on the Modern Vampires DVD that he and Bright were childhood friends. Bright had penned the screenplay for the film a decade earlier, and Elfman helped him polish it up. The familiarity between Bright and Elfman is definitely a reason why Modern Vampires is the superior film of the two.
Natasha Gregson Wagner is Nico (no, not that one, but they do look alike at times), a young woman walking the streets as a would-be prostitute: she gets picked up by her johns, and then she drains their blood. Count Dracula (Robert Pastorelli), who is currently residing in Los Angeles among the vampire culture, is a little pissed at young Nico. She is not being discreet at all with her feedings, and soon enough, she will be caught by the police, revealing to the world the existence of vampires.
Enter the very-good-looking Dallas, portrayed by Casper Van Dien. Dallas is an exiled vampire returning to Los Angeles for a while, to see some old friends and have some good times. Some of his old friends are Ulrike (Kim Catrall), Richard (Craig Ferguson), and Vincent (Udo Kier). Dallas is also on the bad side of the Count; and perhaps, his outsider status draws him to the young, rogue vampire, Nico. The true star of this excellent ensemble cast is Rod Steiger as Van Helsing. Steiger plays Van Helsing as an ego-maniacal Austrian with so much zeal that it’s infectious. Van Helsing, upon arrival in L.A., puts an ad in the local newspaper to find an assistant in vampire hunting. One of the local Crips, named Time Bomb (Gabriel Casseus), answers the ad; and for the money that Van Helsing is offering, he’ll fuck up anyone that Van Helsing wants. The two actors have a terrific chemistry and comedic timing. As Modern Vampires went on, I just started laughing when I saw Steiger’s face. He’s that funny. Wagner’s Nico is the heart and soul of Modern Vampires. It’s interesting to watch as seemingly everyone wants to tell her how to act, speak, and dress, while all she really wants is to have some friends and a good time. It’s unsurprising that she’s an outsider and a non-conformist. There is only so much bullshit that one can take before rebelling. Wagner is often endearing and often extremely funny.

Underneath the humor and its often sharp cultural anecdotes, both Bright screenplays show a real affection and kinship towards outsiders. Interestingly, both Featherstone as Veronica and Wagner as Nico understood this sentiment very well with their performances. While unfortunately Dark Angel is hampered by everything around Featherstone’s Veronica, those curious should still seek it out. Modern Vampires is very clever fun and is very much recommended.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Afterman (1985)

The Afterman (1985) is a Belgian film, directed by Rob Van Eyck, about a man (Jacques Verbist) who emerges from his destroyed bunker into a new post-apocalyptic world. The film, first made available on DVD after twenty-five years, is perhaps singularly notable, even in its obscurity, for its complete lack of dialogue. The Afterman also mixes arthouse cinema aesthetics with its accompanying intellectual themes and good, old-fashioned sensational cinema (e.g. sex and violence). The usual end result of a film mixing the two styles is that it finds no real audience and polarizes fans and/or critics in either camp. However, this mixing of styles makes it a perfect film for review here. Rob Van Eyck is clearly a director out to steal my heart. Here is his introduction for the film:

"Hello, I am Rob Van Eyck the director of this masterpiece. This is by far the most successful Belgian movie ever and I dare you to see it!"
Finally, here is some biographical information about Van Eyck included with the DVD:

Rob Van Eyck was born on the 26th of March 1939 in Zichem (Belgium). He claims that he inherited his mild anarchism from his roots. After all, Zichem was one of the few cities to be completely destroyed by the Spanish during the Eighty Years' War because of its defiance.

Rob Van Eyck does not accept authority and therefore always comes into conflict with the established order. He was expelled from various schools, became a nightmare for his commanding officers in the army, unleashed a social revolution at the bank where he worked and burned the movie print of his first feature length movie--Ontbijt voor Twee--in 1972. On top of it all, he even burned it in the movie capital Cannes, after a falling out with his distributor during the festival.

Rob Van Eyck, a rebel with a cause!
The Afterman's first six minutes of its approximately eighty-minute runtime are really all that are devoted to exposition. Immediately I started to think about how trained I was cinematically and had become dependent on dialogue to either deliver or buttress the exposition of a film. Expository dialogue often removes ambiguity for any set-up in a film, and I suppose this is to create comfort in its viewer. What I found in the dialogue's absence, at least for me, was ambiguity. Verbist's character is first shown at a desk littered with computer terminals while a nearby television displays footage of an atomic explosion. He doesn't seem to be paying attention to either and is more than likely daydreaming. He does have Polaroid photos, and one of them, shown in close-up, depicts an adult female and a young child. He kisses this photo. In a large warehouse, he nonchalantly loots its contents and takes a can of whipping cream to consume. He grooms his beard in a mirror with scissors. In the exposition's most provocative scene, it is shown that Verbist's character houses a corpse in a freezer. As he is sitting in front of the computer terminals, they begin to beep and become animated, and before he knows it, the bunker is set for destruction. He survives and now must venture into the outside world with whatever civilization it holds. It is difficult to determine, from these initial scenes what kind of person Verbist's character is. His photo and his affectionate kissing of it imply that he does have a past and memories of someone whom he loves. His grooming of his beard implies that he does either care about his appearance, as if he is keeping some semblance of conformity, or implies that he has some sort of medical knowledge, keeping his beard short to stave off lice and the like. However, these scenes are juxtaposed with his scenes at the computer terminals, which one can infer that they run the operations of the bunker. In these scenes it appears as if Verbist's character has no idea what they do nor is he aware that they reveal, prior to the bunker's destruction, that there are mechanical problems within. He either cannot read or no longer cares what they depict; yet this begs the question, why sit in front of them? Finally, that corpse he houses in the freezer--let's just say, there is a strong inference that Verbist's character is committing a very strong cultural taboo. Despite the ambiguity in the film's initial scenes, they do present Van Eyck's themes for The Afterman for its subsequent run time. Verbist's character becomes a corrupted version of the Monster from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. He is going to learn what is civilization, while Van Eyck questions his viewer as to what is civilization. Many cultural taboos (or behavior once considered taboo) are presented while Verbist's unnamed character has numerous encounters with those outside the bunker. Unlike the Monster of Shelley's tale, Verbist's character does find a bride. Prospective viewers can only wonder what kind of world exists in a post-apocalyptic society. Anyway, enough of that shit. Van Eyck has a true artistic sensibility as The Afterman is quite compelling visually. Not only did Van Eyck direct the film but he wrote, edited, and shot The Afterman. There is an overall loving sense radiating from the entire picture, as if what Van Eyck is capturing with his camera is bringing him blissful delight. Characters are presented as desperate and tragic or as totally decayed and corrupted. One of the most brilliant and provocative scenes involves Verbist's character encountering another bunker and sneaking inside. Inside, the interior of the bunker looks like a wealthy villa, complete with an indoor swimming pool. Two extremely attractive females emerge as its inhabitants, and Verbist's character quite enjoys watching the two fuck in the swimming pool. Van Eyck is having quite a bit of fun, too. The two women perform quite the erotic scene, but it shockingly concludes and leaves Verbist's character running from the bunker.The Afterman's arthouse style and episodic narrative really make the violence all the more disturbing and the sex within all the more erotic. Each sequence gets the viewer excited almost in a tabloid sense--what kind of weird, kinky shit is going to happen next? However, each sequence is amazingly rich in reflection--I've watched it three times since I've received the DVD; and each time, I've taken away more. There's a spiritual quality to the film and an inquiry into human interaction that is well-worth listening to. Unique voices, like Van Eyck, often revel in pissing his viewer off considerably while at the same time challenging his/her intellectual ideas. The Belgian DVD is the 25th Anniversary Edition of the film, and its packaging promises a 16:9 (1.78:1) picture, yet my disc is not anamorphic. Extras included are filmography of Van Eyck, "info and message from director," but I believe I quoted above in total Van Eyck's "message" and biographical information (which is taken from the interior flap of the DVD). The actual disc has no menu but does have chapter stops. As to its technical qualities, regarding the disc's video and sound, I would refer you to another site that covers such material. I really cannot complain, as the film's obscurity makes it well worth seeking out. I purchased a copy (from a favorite) here.