Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Demons (1985)

"They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and tombs, your cities."

I first saw Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) about twenty-three years ago when I was twelve. (It received an American VHS release.) My summation and review of the film when I was twelve is approximately this: "Demons? Fuck yeah!" (I don't care what anyone says, as this is funny to me.) In the intervening years, I must have seen it a dozen times, at least; and this last week, I pulled my old Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD of the film and just left it in the player, watching it four or five times over successive nights. This morning, I was flipping through my film notebook (which is just a composition book that I use to take notes while watching a film for review) and I noticed that I only made six observations and transcribed three instances of dialogue. From solely these notes, I am going to write about how delicate and sensitive a film Demons truly is. Yes, really.
For those who do not know, Demons is about a group of complimentary ticket-holders who attend a movie screening. The movie is revealed to be a horror film about, what my younger brother eloquently and accurately refers to as, "people fucking with shit that they should not be fucking with": a demonic mask is unearthed by four young people in the crypt of Nostradamus. One of the young four puts the mask on and cuts himself, becoming infected or possessed by a demon. One of the complimentary ticket-holders also donned a demonic mask in the theatre lobby and cut herself. This coincidence is not lost upon two of the complimentary ticket-holders, as this exchange of dialogue evinces:



"Did you see that? The same thing happened in the movie."

"Ahh...that's a bunch of shit, baby."
The coincidence turns out to be, unfortunately, not a bunch of shit.One of the complimentary ticket-holders who shows at the screening with his daughter is a blind man. While blind people are free to come and go anywhere that they please, like anyone else, the presence of a blind person at a movie screening is perhaps unusual. He asks his daughter to describe what's happening on the screen as she watches and then relates. The blind man and his daughter are the only two in the balcony seats until the daughter is approached by a man. These two escape from the blind man into a dark nook of the theatre for a romantic interlude. The temporary lovers are among the first victims of the demon invasion. Hearing the commotion below, the blind man searches for his daughter. He is all alone. This balcony scenario leads to one of the most subtle and affecting shots from Gianlorenzo Battaglia (Battaglia shot A Blade in the Dark and Blastfighter for Bava, previous to lensing Demons). The blind man shuffles in the dark and among the seats, calling his daughter's name. He steps and hears a crunching sound underfoot. In close-up of his foot, the actor pauses. The blind man steps upon his daughter's pearl necklace which lays broken, inches from her corpse. The dramatic pause and the close-up emphasize that the man knows exactly what he has stepped upon; and this leads him to intuitively kneel down and feel the dead face of his daughter. Why the scene is so affecting is that there is an intimacy created by the inclusion of the necklace. It's as if the pearl necklace has an association that only this father and daughter share. What follows soon after this scene is another unique sequence. In an unsurprising move, the blind man is attacked by a demon. Surprisingly, he survives the attack as the demon chooses to only gouge out his eyes and leave him with his dead daughter on the balcony. The rest of the movie goers eventually retreat to the balcony to escape the onslaught of the demons. The blind man greets them and reveals that the curse lies in the theatre, almost as if he has seen something like a mythological blind soothsayer. The scenes within Demons with this character are few but are imbued with quite a bit of sensitivity and depth. One wonders at how much more powerful these sequences could have been with this anecdote: "Had the fifth draft of the Demons screenplay been ready earlier than April 1985, chances are that Vincent Price would have starred. 'The part of the blind man was written for Price,' said Bava. 'The screenplay wasn't ready in time and he couldn't commit himself. If Price had done it, the part would have been more substantial. As it was, we cut it back.'" (from Profondo Argento, by Alan Jones, FAB Press, Surrey, England, 2004, p. 149.) The screenplay for Demons is disjointed, but perhaps this works in its favor. Much of the subtlety and richness to the film may be attributed to screenwriter Franco Ferrini: "Dario, Dardano Sacchetti, Luigi Cozzi and Lamberto Bava had all tried their hand at the Demons concept but he wasn't happy with it and wanted someone to look at it with fresh eyes. It was basically a script doctor job for me because the ideas were all there, they just weren't put together with any cohesion. It was always designed to be a horror adventure with lots of action and that was the basic problem, as the action was distributed across many characters attending the ill-fated movie screening in the cinema. It was exciting when they were all being attacked by demons at the same time but that undercut the scariness. My additions to the scenario were devising ways of getting each character alone so the frightening atmosphere could build rather than have continuous slam-bangs. What's character A doing while B is stuck in a lift? And what's C doing in the meantime others in such a confined space wouldn't notice? That took a lot of working out--like moving chess pieces around a charnel house--and I do feel that slant added enormous amounts to the overall box-office success of the movie." (Profondo Argento, p.144.)One of the best and most endearing sequences in Demons is of the young lovers, Tommy (Guido Baldi) and Hannah (Dario Argento's daughter, Fiore). The orchestra seating of the theatre becomes a death trap when the demons invade, so everyone retreats to the balcony. (Yes, they are trapped in the theatre. The exit was their first thought, too.) During the commotion, Tommy loses track of Hannah. Hannah gets trapped in the orchestra seating and hides under one of the seats. Demons is aided in this aspect of the story by its use of Dario Argento's signature theatrical lighting: unfiltered colors like red and blue, often flashing or shadow-filled. This lighting technique, being overtly theatrical, creates an unreal effect: so when everyone retreats to the balcony, two worlds are really created--one above and one below. Tommy searches for Hannah among the shadows, and by this time in the film, the action has come to a halt. At really any second, one of the shadows can reveal its inhabitants (and kick start the action, again.) Do the young lovers find each other's arms again? Yes. Is this a set-up for their tragic ending? Take a guess. It's a sentimental sequence, yet seriously tension-filled; and perhaps I'm showing my age, but it's a sweet and endearing addition to the film.Four criminals appear on the streets of Berlin, riding around in a boosted car, snorting coke from its can. Okey-doke. They're listening to Billy Idol, too. Initially, I had no idea what the hell these characters were doing in Demons. But like snorting coke from its can, I took their inclusion as important. They eventually factor into the events at the movie theatre. Yet again, there is a real sensitivity to their portrayal. The sole female among the four is small and blonde and cute and bubbly (her English voice-dubbing gives her this super-sexy, smoky voice which is totally trippy). Eventually, they spill coke all over the car. The four's leader tells them to pick it up, every last bit. With razor blades and thin pieces of paper, almost every gram is collected. What does the cute little blonde use? A picture of herself at one-year's old. She takes a moment to share this with Ripper (the four's leader). The black-and-white picture is actually shown in close-up. The four eventually get caught by the police and have to give chase. They take shelter in the movie theatre. (Ha, ha! There's the tenuous connection. I'm making fun of this, but I love tenuous connections and segue ways in films.) The lobby of the theatre is in disarray, and eventually, the four encounter a demon. The three males run quickly away to find an exit, and the young blonde woman pauses. She finds a full-length mirror in a storage room. She pulls her lipstick from her pocket and dons seriously-bright red lipstick. Her lips are shown in close-up. I would pay a lot of money to know what she is thinking at that moment. It is probably both poetic and inspiring. Demons is a rousing action horror film, but there's an amazing amount of detail in its fragments. In another signature Dario Argento moment, the desperate group in the balcony find a hidden room by knocking a hole in the wall. What's in there? It's a surprising answer. It's the same answer possibly as to what is causing the demons to appear in the theatre--cursed building, the actual celluloid of the film, or the demonic mask? I still agree with my review as a twelve-year old, as I've always wanted to ride a motorbike while brandishing a samurai sword with a pretty girl's arms wrapped around my waist. I still rock out to hearing Motley Crue. I’ve never snorted coke out of a can. There’s still hope, and Demons is still a great film.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dämonenbrut (2000)

I’ve always been aware that Germany has produced, at least for the last two decades, quite a number of gore and splatter flicks and I’ve always had the least interest in watching them. From what I can glean from English-language reviews of the cinema, its particular attraction lies almost solely in its depiction of gore; and there is quite a fan base for this underground phenomenon. However, generalizing any type of cinema is often inaccurate and unfair, so with an open mind, I watched Andreas Bethmann’s 2000 film, Dämonenbrut. The version here under review is the 2006 “Director’s Cut,” which is approximately ninety minutes, and is included on a region 2, DVD set from German label, X-Rated Kult. My attraction to the film was its top-billed actress, Katja Bienert, who, after making a series of films with Jess Franco in the 1980s, according to her IMdB credits, went on to work in German television. Dämonenbrut, in some ways, marks her return to cinema. I literally fell in love with Bienert when I first saw her in Franco’s Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (1983). Young Bienert had one of the most beautiful smiles that I had ever seen and radiated true natural beauty. She elevated a film with a simple yet confused plot; and with Franco’s subjective, disjointed, and poetic camera, Diamonds of Kilimandjaro ranks as one of my favorites from Franco. It’s an obscure title, even among Franco fans, but Bienert’s performance makes it well worth seeking out. An island exists off the coast of Italy that is avoided by all sailors, because of its inhabitants. The inhabitants of the island have now grown restless and are eager to “enter” into the general population. A military vessel, commanded by Mike (Chrisz Meier) (who is accompanied by his fiancé, Maria (Bienert) and his crew), crashes during a storm while near the island. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, a couple is fucking. Afterwards, the young woman goes to shower while her lover rests on the bed. While he is staring at the crucifix on the wall, the wall begins to bleed and the cross inverts. The lover is murdered brutally by an unknown force. When the young woman returns from her shower, she finds her dead lover and is attacked. Cut to daylight and outdoors with Magdalena (Marion Ley) and her two criminal associates, Riccardo (Thomas Riehn) and Antonio (Carsten Ruthmann). Riccardo and Antonio rob a bank and take a hostage (Anja Gebel). After the robbery, the trio and their hostage plan on hiding out at the uninhabited island, despite a warning from black-cloaked old man. Maria and Mike both awaken to find themselves on the island. They are separated from each other but not for long. The short and skinny: Dämonenbrut is low-budget and shot on video. There is quite a bit of graphic violence and gore, a very large quotient of frequent female nudity, and tentacle sex (a la Japanese hentai animation). These attractions typically sell themselves, and curious audiences can usually seek them out with little impediment. Would you like to know more? Bethmann knows his European cult cinema. I mean really knows. The premise of Dämonenbrut seems an overt nod to the film within the film Dèmoni (aka Demons (1985); directed by Lamberto Bava). There is a scene where Marion Ley’s Magdalena finds a stone tablet near the ruins on the island which has an inscription that reads as a warning. Like Jess Franco’s cinema, Bethmann keeps his actresses primarily in their birthday suits whenever and wherever possible. At its essence, Dämonenbrut is a very pure and effective exploitation film, a nasty and perverse one at that. Despite its over-the-top graphic content, one of the aspects of Dämonenbrut which has stayed with me in reflection is the film’s filmic purity. Film makers across the board and around the world often have trouble creating interesting and efficient exposition for the first act of their films. Often expository dialogue is employed, and nearly always it comes off as artificial and contrived. Why do two people have to relate things to each other that each already knows? For the audience’s benefit, of course. Bethmann actually has his characters deliver dialogue in monologue. Like people talking to themselves. For example, when Mike washes ashore of the island in his life raft, he says aloud to himself, “This must be the island that I couldn’t find last night on the map.” Or this example, Bienert’s Maria attempts to wade through the water, near the edge of the island. An invisible barrier stops her. Although, it is obvious that she cannot proceed forward, she says aloud, again to no one around, “I’m unable to move beyond this barrier.” Delivering exposition in this manner is no less artificial than delivering exposition through conversation. Bethmann’s use is so rare that it actually comes across as kind of brilliant: why waste time with attempting to make exposition seem organic through conversation and just cut to the chase with a few seconds and one line? Bethmann did his own practical special effects for Dämonenbrut, and they are actually done very well and are effective. In fact, I would say that they are on par with other special effects for low-budget horror films such as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead and Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste. One of the things that Bethmann really does effectively, as did Sergio Stivaletti in Dèmoni, is to focus on eyes. Perhaps this speaks more to my own fears and quirks, but there is nothing more demonic than soulless yet colorful eyes. In fact, Bethmann breaks a rule quite often that I have for monster makeup: never put creature makeup on the most attractive people in the cast. This is a ridiculous rule that I have, and I’m glad that he breaks it. There are at least a couple of scenes with a quick cut where Bethmann drastically changes the tone of the scene with a reveal of the change in a character’s eyes. Save Bienert, the acting in Dämonenbrut is not very good, and this is perhaps my biggest complaint towards the film. Now for the sensational. There is quite a bit of offensive material within Dämonenbrut, and if you do a modicum of research on the film via your favorite search engine, you will get a more accurate description of such. I say only this: tentacle sex. I will say it again: tentacle sex. Bethmann is very much a talented and competent film maker as Dämonenbrut (at least its “Director’s Cut”) is swiftly-paced, well-composed, and frequently compelling. As with any low-budget film, props and costumes and makeup often look less than credible, but primary audiences attracted to this film will not see this aspect as a deterrent. I certainly relished the opportunity to see Bienert again, and she really steals every scene that she is in. Unbelievable.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Les demons (1972)

"While Lorna was Franco's most over the top and fevered film for de Nesle, some of the others, like The Demons and Sinner (both 1972), come pretty close to its creative outrage. The Demons was one of those 1970's films that used witch-hunting as an excuse for sadistic sexual shenanigans. It was less flat than the earlier Der Hexentö ter von Blackmoor (Night of the Blood Monster; 1969), which tackled a similar subject. Despite lashings of dungeon scenes and pernicious nipple torture it had some joyous overtones. The demons, or witches, of the title were lusty catalysts of desire who writhed around with tumescent vigour. Unlike other films inspired by Ken Russell's The Devils, these demonic nuns weren't neurotic figures, they were more like unstoppable forces of nature. In contrast, the witchfinders were one-dimensional power brokers, puritans, who in the end were defeated by their own repressions. In another break from most period films, the music in The Demons wasn't ambient or medieval, it was pure European progressive rock, with plenty of rapid bongo beating, scattershot guitar solos and atonal bowing and bending on the strings. Twenty years on, it adds a kitsch quality to the proceedings, making the film ripe for rediscovery....
"The Demons is basically another Women in Prison film. There's the same heated bed-writhing, the same fixation on lesbian activity and depraved frolics. Unlike the Women in Prison films, the authorities can't cope. The Mother Superior reels, red-faced and turned-on, when she finds a hot-blooded naked nun rolling around in a cloistered bedroom. Overcome by lust, she throws herself off the balcony rather than give in to her amplified desires." (from Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York: 1995, pp.110-11)
"Franco's second examination of the evil doings of witch-hunter Judge Jeffreys has some things going for it, but all in all, this must be considered a disappointing movie despite the talent involved.
"I don't agree with Phil Hardy's Aurum Encyclopedia which complains about 'zooms moving in and out of female crotches.' Well, zooms are there, and also female crotches. But Raoul Artigot's camerawork compares favorably to Manuel Merlino's, being much less hectic and providing the movie with a badly-needed solidity that almost manages to weld together the disparate elements (In the same year, Artigot helmed his own witchcraft-movie, La Noche de las Brujas, starring Patty Sheppard.) The acting in the movie is uneven. Doris Thomas as the doomed Mother Superior is actually very good, and so is Karen Field as the evil Lady de Winter.
"Howard Vernon takes a 180 degree turn from his role as the main torturer in Franco's El Proceso de la Brujas (1969) to his part as a good nobleman who takes pity on Jeffreys' victims. The tortures are presided over by Luis Barboo, who does his job with relish. Most of the other performances are not really memorable, even if there are some pretty faces (the award for the sexiest nun-eye makeup goes to Britt Nichols!). There are some rough sex scenes with much pain and agony.
"The music ranges from medieval music and church organs to wild electric guitars and the 'nuns-in-heat' subject has never before been treated with so much squalor." (from Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco, by Lucas Balbo, Peter Blumenstock, Christian Kessler, and Tim Lucas, Selbstverlag Frank Trebbin, Berlin, Germany, 1993, p.93)"The first work Franco authored with the assumed name of Clifford Brown (as a homage to the omonimous black trumpet player, an exponent of the so-called hard bop style), the film features once again Judge Jeffreys, the leading character of Proceso de las brujas/Il trono di fuoco (starring John Foster aka the Iranian Cihangir Gaffari in place of Christopher Lee), in a story mixing I lunghi capelli della morte (1965) by Antonio Margheriti with The Devils (1971) by Ken Russell. A formidable lesbian sequence, bordering on hard core, performed by Britt Nichols and the ambiguous Karin Field (here on her first and only interpretation for Franco) dominates the rest of the movie, a very second-rate work with a horrible soundtrack.” (from Bizarre Sinema! Jess Franco El sexo del horror, edited by Carlos Aguilar, Stefano Piselli, and Riccardo Morrocchi, Glittering Images, Firenze, Italy: 1999, p. 103.) “Dieser Film ist mit Sicherheit einer der sehr professionell aufgezogenen Franco-Filme, da er auch mehr Budget zur Verfü gung hatte. Die Mischung aus sinnlicher Erotik, mittelalterlichem Religionswahn und grausamer Folterszenen hebt den Film ungemein an. Selbst VMP war damals sofort als Videoanbieter gefunden. Leider war die FSK 18 Schnittauflage fü r dieses Band sehr streng, so daß aus der 93 Minuten Originalversion eine deutsche 82 Minuten-Fassung wurde. Bestes Beispiel dafü r ist die Szene, bei der man bei der nackten, gefesselten Nonne die Brustwarzen mit heiß en Eisen zerquetscht. Der Film ist mit Sicherheit auch fü r nicht-Franco-Fans und bietet keinerlei Trash, sondern nur gut ü berlegte Inszenierung. Daß Howard Vernon vom bö sen Folterknecht hier zum Edelmann wird, ist ebenfalls sehr untypisch.” (from Jess Franco Chronicles, by Andreas Bethmann, Medien Publikations, Germany, 1999, p. 47.)A woman is tortured and pronounced a witch by Lord Jeffreys. Before being burned at the stake, she curses the populace, and noblewoman Lady de Winter requests from Jeffreys to hunt the countryside for any relatives of the deceased witch. This search leads the Lady to a convent where two sisters, Kathleen (Anne Libert) and Marguerite (Britt Nichols), are housed. Their parentage is unknown, and noting a suspicion, the Lady, much to her enjoyment, probes the two sisters to determine if they are virgins. Kathleen is not and is subjected to torture. She is pronounced a witch by Lord Jeffreys. Marguerite is visited that evening by her mother, the deceased witch who uttered the curse; and the old crone recruits Marguerite into the league of Satan to exact revenge.

Franco's Les demons is a corruption of the story of Justine and Juliette which Franco had film previously as Justine in 1968 for Harry Alan Towers. In Les demons, Libert's Kathleen is Justine, but unlike the Marquis de Sade's heroine, Kathleen is literally innocent, unlike Justine who is naive and innocent in the ways of the world. Like Justine, Kathleen floats into and out of the arms of various people, most of whom take advantage of her while precious few show her kindness. Nichols's Marguerite is like Juliette who quickly adapts to the ways of society, but here, Marguerite is adapting to exact revenge. The majority of Les demons takes place outside of the cloister, and to be noted, the version here under review is the 2003 "Director's Cut," from the region 2 DVD from German label, X-Rated Kult. It runs approximately a hundred minutes.
Les demons, despite quite a bit of sex and violence, is one of Franco's most conventional films, enhanced by Artigot's formal and classical photography and Franco's own screenplay. Here is an interesting tidbit found in a old digest magazine, serving as a "sneak preview" for a subsequent release of Les demons:

The Demons. Starring Anne Libert, Britt Nichols, Doris Thomas, Karin Field. Directed by Clifford Brown.

In the recent months, there has been an increasing interest in the occult, witchcraft and, of course, a resurgence of the "Dracula" theme. The forces of evil have never had it "so good" as in films. The Demons begins with a witch burning in medieval England, just before William of Orange acceded to the throne. Vengeance, erotic witchcraft, curses (which the scenario writers pass on to the audience) not to mention "every extreme of torture and degradation" make up some the happy components. For those who have a genuine interest in black magic (and for those who like it combined with old fashioned sexuality), look for The Demons. (from XSighting Cinema, Vol. Two, No. One, P.S.I., Canoga Park, CA, Fall, 1976, p.40.)
The preceding quote I find of particular interest as to giving perhaps an insight into the cultural (and commercial) milieu of time.

The Devil really does exist and appears in Les demons. This is a telling reveal. Any sociological or theological examination is absent. Nearly all those in power in Les demons are self-absorbed, corrupt, and abusive. Libert and Nichols are two of my favorite Franco actresses. Libert is given a very rich role and gives one of her better performances. Nearly all of the performances are well above average. The best scenes in Les demons always involve either Libert or Nichols or both; and when they do appear, Franco has a tendency to loosen up his camerawork and make some creative compositions. Unfortunately, Les demons lacks the poeticism and hallucinatory quality of other De Nesle productions during the period. It's a precious film, however, for Libert and Nichols.

Monday, January 10, 2011

La bimba di Satana (1982)

La bimba di Satana (1982) is a Gabriele Crisanti production, written by Piero Regnoli, and stars Mariangela Giordiano. This trio, previous to this production, were frequent collaborators and are now known to present memory among cult film fans of having created true curiosities in Italian genre cinema. Amongst their collaborations are Malabimba (1979); Patrick vive ancora (1980); and Le notti del terrore (1981), for example; and likewise, this trio has produced many an opportunity for cult film fans to take a humorous stab at their cinema, myself included. Today, however, I will not be taking such an approach with La bimba di Satana."I've always been hired by producers who had just had a big flop," says director Mario Bianchi, "because I was good at stopping the bleeding." Bianchi begins his approximately twenty-minute interview, included as an extra on Severin's DVD release of La bimba, with humility. Bianchi's interview is either wonderfully or frustratingly cryptic as many questions regarding this production go unanswered. Bianchi tells an anecdote of working with the maestro, Lucio Fulci, in which Fulci asks Bianchi to film some incidental shots for his film, Sodoma's Ghost (1988). Bianchi concludes his anecdote by admitting that he ended up shooting a third of the film. This is a serious admission against interest, but it seems as if Bianchi is just attempting to describe his career in horror cinema. A very limited one, at that. If one were forced to categorize La bimba, then perhaps intuitively the most fitting description would be as a horror film. Bianchi continues: “When Crisanti, the producer, called me I was enthusiastic. I never had done anything like it. But, as I said, the problem was that we were working on a very low budget. In Rome we call them ‘pizza e fichi.’ We had very little time to do the shooting. You judge the results for yourself.” Bianchi concludes with this telling statement, “The budget was so small that it was impossible for Crisanti to lose money on the film.”

Perhaps with his limited background in horror cinema combined with the creative freedom allowed by the low budget, Bianchi’s La bimba di Satana is a film which appeals really to no one group. Seasoned horror buffs can scoff at the lack of scares; those seeking to satisfy their prurient interests are better suited going elsewhere (even with the extended XXX version); and the art house intellectuals won’t find much material to deconstruct. To me this aspect is damned impressive. So what is this film about?

Maria (Marina Hedman) has died, leaving as survivors her husband, Antonio (Aldo Sambrell), her daughter, Miria (Jacqueline Dupré), and her disabled brother-in law, who is cared for by a novitiate to the convent, Sol (Mariangela Giordiano). Miria is understandably upset by the death of her mother whose corpse is placed in the crypt of the family’s castle. While her body awaits embalmment, will her soul remain at rest? Two guesses, one of them is right.

Bianchi relates, again cryptically: “The only thing I didn’t like is the technique of the shooting. Anyway, I think it’s the same feeling for a novelist. Right after he writes the words ‘The End’ he wants to rewrite his book again from the beginning.” I disagree with Bianchi as he has some beautiful compositions, for example:
The family castle is a genuine location, and Bianchi frequently uses wide compositions, save the intimate, dramatic confrontations between characters. Interestingly, not only do these wide compositions contribute to the unreal atmosphere of the film, they also make this very small family seem even smaller. In other words, it makes this dysfunctional family seem all the more so. “I want to say ‘congratulations!’ to myself because of Mariangela Giordiano’s strip-tease scene. At the time it wasn’t easy to shoot a sequence like that without seeming vulgar.” [Please bear in mind despite the presence of exclamation punctuation in the preceding quote, Bianchi is delivering this statement in the same manner in which he gives his entire interview, kind of shy.] I think this scene is quite lovely, and Bianchi’s self-congratulation is merited, as it is not vulgar. This visual sequence is one of the richer scenes. Sol is undressing to go to bed, but her overtly theatrical mode of undressing really appears as a subtle striptease for the viewer. This aspect is heightened by the presence of her ward, Antonio’s disabled brother, peering at her through the doorway. He begins to fantasize about Sol pleasuring herself in front of him; and with a bizarre dissolve and harsh crosscut, Bianchi switches to his p.o.v. Bianchi also comments upon the presence of Giordiano’s white stockings and how they enhance the erotic aspect of the scene. He is one-hundred-percent correct, and I love how this one small scene becomes representative of all male fantasies with nuns: behind their habits and reserved demeanors resides human sexuality, all the more enticing, because it is, in some regards, forbidden. One of the other scenes which Bianchi likes is one of the few with Giordiano and Hedman embracing. As a visual composition, these actresses are quite stunning: Hedman with her voluptuous and soft body with light blonde hair and fair skin juxtaposed with svelte Giordiano and her darker complexion and hair. These two characters ambiguously hide a secret, and one arresting composition might reveal everything: from the floor the camera tilts upward capturing Giordiano standing straight with her hands at her side while Hedman, almost kneeling, caresses Giordiano with her hands and her lips. Hedman’s submissive position and Giordiano’s stoic position give the composition a perversely religious aspect but also an equally powerful erotic one. In AntiCristo: The Bible of Nasty Nun Sinema & Culture, its author writes: “The original Italian version was shot with hardcore sex scenes, which are not in the general domestic release version and shorter (69m) Spanish print. Vivi’s Italian video version is strictly softcore.” (p. 61, FAB Press, Surrey, U.K.: 2000, author Steve Fentone.) Strictly for purposes of review, I have seen this explicit version via the German, region 2, X-Rated Kult DVD. Ms. Hedman performs the majority of the sex within, and like the softcore version, the hardcore version is overall very odd and disorienting. In one sequence, its set-up very obvious even in the softcore version, Hedman performs in close-up. Nico Catanese’s score for both versions, a creepy, chanting tune, plays over Hedman’s performance. Almost humorously, Catense’s score plays to no rhythm: it just loops over and over. Hedman’s Maria controls the tempo, despite the scene climaxing with a literal climax. Regnoli delivers another dysfunction-filled script to create the dramatic conflict. He penned a really rich role for Giordiano, and her character gets to sample the dramatic range from maternal caregiver to sexual temptress to defiant captive to submissive lover. Giordiano and Aldo Sambrell are consummate professionals and give very good performances. Bianchi’s legacy in cinema is an intriguing one, and kudos to Severin for releasing this film. All quotes and facts from Bianchi are taken from his interview included as a supplement on the Severin DVD of La bimba di Satana. Those seeking a trippy, surreal and sick little flick are advised to seek it out.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Kárate a muerte en Torremolinos (2001)

Karate is funny. By no means do I wish to be disrespectful to its practitioners, as I’m well aware that the martial arts have deep cultural roots and have important significance to unique cultures. I respect that. However, if I were ever confronted by an opponent who entered into a karate stance and made a readying battle cry, then I would completely lose my shit. Game over before the battle ever started. Some of the greatest martial arts films that I have ever seen, have not only impressed me but made me laugh immensely. For example in Fists of the White Lotus (1980), Gordon Liu and Lo Lieh square off in a phenomenal sequence: Lo Lieh as the White Lotus Chief is meditating in the bath. Liu’s character attempts to get the jump on him by attacking him in the bath. Not only does Lieh exit the bath and put on his clothes, but he manages to fend off Liu’s attacks and win the fight. One of the greatest martial arts films ever. To further gauge my own sense of humor, I also laugh immensely when the vending machine kicks the shit out of the little league coach in Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive (1987). Go figure.
I discovered a little gem recently entitled Kárate a muerte en Torremolinos (2001).
Torremolinos is a Spanish resort town whose primary source of income is tourism. Jess (José María Cruz Piqueras) is a twenty-year-old surfer with a beautiful girlfriend named Danuta (Sonia Okomo). Jess is a member of the Catholic Brotherhood of Surfers and has made a vow of chastity until he is twenty-four. This is a problem for Danuta as she really wants to fuck. It may be a blessing, however. Torremolinos also houses a local legend: that of Jocantaro, a half-crab, half-octopus monster who lives off the coast and under the sea. Enter Dr. Malvedades (Paul Lapidus), a diabolical genius, who plans on raising Jocantaro from his watery depths to take over the world. With his zombie ninja henchmen, Dr. Malvedades needs five “newly-screwed virgins” to complete his plan. Oh shit. I was initially attracted to Kárate a muerte en Torremolinos by learning of the inclusion of Jess Franco as one of its actors. Its director, Pedro Temboury, according to his IMdB credits, served as an assistant director for some of Franco’s latter-day efforts such as Lust for Frankenstein (1998) and Tender Flesh (1998). Franco has always acted in his own films, and I have to admit that he’s pretty funny in Kárate a muerte. By the time Franco appears in the film, Jess has recruited his fellows in the Brotherhood of Catholic Surfers to combat the impending evil upon Torremolinos. Franco appears as a karate instructor named Miyagi who appears from an ethereal plane to instruct the desperate group in combat. In twenty four hours all the secrets of karate are revealed. The most humorous thing about this sequence is Franco’s delivery of his dialogue: he goes from quiet and meditative to ridiculously animated. While everyone in the cast gives enthusiastic performances, perhaps Oliver Denis deserves special mention. Denis plays, according to the film’s ending credits, one of the zombie ninjas but also served as fight coordinator for the film. In one hilarious sequence, four to five black-belt students at the local dojo head outside to practice. The zombie ninjas interrupt them and dole out some ass-whippings. Each karate student is wearing a white t-shirt with the logo “Karate Denis” on the back, so I take this as an indication that Denis teaches karate somewhere close to the location. If I had to choose my favorite character in Kárate a muerte, then it would have to be Denis portraying a mercenary, karate master named “Chuk Lee,” who is hired by the mayor of Torremolinos to stop the mayhem. Yes, he ultimately fails, but it is an entertaining failure. Denis is very good at karate and he’s dead serious when performing. I’m certain that he’s in on the joke, but that’s incidental. Denis’s performance and contribution, like all of Kárate a muerte, is perfect camp humor: never too self-aware, always straight, and when necessary, absolutely dead serious. Paul Lapidus, as Dr. Malvedades, also deserves mention. Temboury and Pablo Álvarez Almagro, screenwriters, give Lapidus the best dialogue in the film. No cinematic evil genius deserves this much ripe material. (The English subtitles are well-done.) Like all diabolical and evil masterminds, Dr. Malvedades has to relate his plan to everyone that he meets, and he is having a wonderful time doing so. He even has a copy of the Necronomicon (which is interesting that he owns it, as it appears non-essential to his plan.). His nemesis, named “Dr. Orloff,” played by Temboury, has a wonderful late-nite occult television show. I could watch this show over and over. When Dr. Orloff is finally recruited by the mayor after the failure of Chuk Lee, Dr. Orloff plans on using toys. Like plastic swords and dry-erase boards, I bullshit you not. While all of the characters have a glimpse in their eyes that this man is going to combat the ultimate evil with toys, none makes any mention. The only complaint that I can make about Kárate a muerte en Torremolinos is the opening credit sequence is too long, but it appears as if the collaborators put a lot of time into making it look spiffy. The entire film runs less than eighty minutes, and I could have watched a film twice as long. The film is low-budget, has a rubber-suited monster causing havoc on the beach, martians appearing out of nowhere, and a tremendous amount of heart. As much entertainment as Kárate a muerte en Torremolinos has provided me, it’s earned the tag: brilliant, phenomenal, amazing. I purchased the Region 2 disc here.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bentley Little and The Disappearance (2010)

Despite the fact that the most popular horror fiction writers have names which begin with the letter "K," such as King, Koontz, Ketchum, and Keene, for example, my favorite horror writers have names which begin with the letter "L," such as Lee, Laymon, and Bentley Little. And, despite my clever fucking observation, both classes of authors, "K" and "L," are talented writers whose work provides me with many an hour of entertainment. Now, with over two decades of reading horror fiction, if I had to pick a favorite author, then it would have to be Bentley Little. Why?
Bentley Little's 1989 debut novel, The Revelation, showed a strong influence from Stephen King (especially King's seminal and phenomenal 1975 novel, 'Salem's Lot); and would garner Little the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. The Revelation would also introduce Little's favorite antagonist: the "lurking horror," one which silently moves into an area, begins a path of pervasive evil, and then threatens to overwhelm and consume the populace. A band of good-hearted and courageous few inevitably confront the evil, determined to stop it at all costs.
Little's 1996 novel, The Store, would become not only his most representative work but also his best-loved by his readers. Tightly-plotted, swiftly-paced, biting satire and social criticism woven in between horrific prosaic imagery, The Store is signature Little. A concept intimately familiar to American readers, a large chain of retail stores, dubbed simply the Store (amusingly the Store pops up in many of Little's subsequent novels) announces the construction of a new store in a small town. Little takes his reader from concept to construction to completion of the Store with his reader; humorously yet also rendered quite creepily, the Store alters the entire culture of the town. The Store is almost perfect as either Swiftian satire or stand-alone horror. In either case, The Store is one of the best horror novels of its decade.
Little's brand of satirical horror has never let up. He would revisit the successful formula from The Store with different cultural targets: for example, home owners' associations in The Association (2001) and charter schools and public education in The Academy (2008). While neither is as quite a perfect storm as The Store, like all of Little's work, they are compellingly entertaining reads.
However, while Little has strong intellectual geneses for the premises of his work, his true creative talent lies in his rendition of the visceral. From the innocuous to the nonsensical, Little crafts superior horror prose. The creation of truly nightmarish imagery is a difficult task to accomplish; and at times, Little's creation of such seems totally organic. Little is superior to his contemporaries not only in his objective descriptions but he goes one step further: he takes the time to render the subjective feelings of fear and repulsion within his protagonists. For example in The Town (2000), Little creates some memorable sequences. Within the novel, an old banya rests in a field behind a house. While I cannot remember what this banya looked like, years later I can still remember how these characters reacted and felt when each gazed upon it. Each character felt the overwhelming sense of evil emanating from it, and Little with adept prose successfully channels these feelings into his reader. Little's epilogue for The Return (2002), an account of Zane Grey writing in his cabin in isolation in Arizona, is one of the most beautiful sequences that the author has ever written. It is also one of his creepiest. In fact, reading The Return is one of two times in recent memory that I can actually remember my heart beating fast during certain passages. The other time is from another author which I will save telling for another day.
Plot-driven fiction is the norm with today's commercial fiction. While Little has clearly demonstrated the ability to create intricate plots with multiple twists and turns with likable characters, my two favorite novels by Little have very simple premises. The Return is certainly one while the other is The Resort (2004). The Resort takes the simple premise of a family visiting an all-inclusive resort for a vacation. Not long after the family arrives, the shit hits the fan. The idea of a pleasure vacation takes a perverse and horrific turn, and the novel escalates in its depravity, its violence, and its scares. A perfect blend of signature Little horror, both from the innocuous to the nonsensical. In one sequence the mother from the family peeks out of her hotel room to witness the groundskeeper at work. The groundskeeper notices her gaze. He responds by doing a little dance. The dance isn't lewd; the groundskeeper doesn't turn into a werewolf; and the sky does not darken into a chasm. It's just a little dance, and it's an extremely creepy sequence. In a bout of furious reading, I had to finish The Resort as I couldn't, at times, believe what I was reading. I've since then read it many times as I have The Return.
Little's command of third-person, omniscient narration is evident by reading any of his work. Little has changed his style from time to time. His 2005 novel, Dispatch, shows his rare foray into the difficult first-person narration. Considering the limitations of the technique, Dispatch was a serious commercial risk for Little. I have no idea how successful it is amongst readers, and while it is not my favorite Little novel, Dispatch is admirable in both its conception and execution. The House (1997) employs an interesting design: alternating chapters, each focal on a specific character. All characters are tied to the titular house, and by the novel's climax all characters and events are tied together. The House, more than likely, will be remembered for containing perhaps Little's most perverted and transgressive imagery, however.
Bentley Little publishes a novel about once a year. The last novel of his that I read was The Academy back in 2008 shortly after its publication date. I haven't really flipped out over a Little novel since The Resort. I missed reading his 2009 novel, His Father's Son, although I do have it currently sitting at the side of my bed and am fairly certain I will read it soon-ish. I did, however, over the Christmas holidays finish reading his latest work, The Disappearance (2010). Here we go:
Gary and Joan are boyfriend and girlfriend. Along with their friends from UCLA (where all are attending), the group takes a trip into Nevada for the Burning Man festival: for one week out in the desert a makeshift community of artists and craftspeople meet and the event culminates with the burning of a large wooden effigy, a la The Wicker Man. This is a cultural event with which I am unfamiliar, but I get the jist. On page sixteen, Joan disappears. Here is an excerpt of Little's prose prior to Joan's disappearance:

Joan was no longer Joan. She was a button-eyed, life-sized rag doll lying unmoving amid the bloody bodies of his slaughtered friends. Two bansheelike shapes emerged from the fog enveloping the outskirts of the scene and picked up the huge doll. Her arms and legs flopped limply as the cloaked and hooded figures lifted her over Brian. His neck had been slit, and both his eyes and his mouth were wide open. Next to Brian, the bodies of Reyn and Stacy were little more than pulped meat.

Gary tried to scream, but only a tiny puff of air was expelled from his mouth. The air became visible, a round vibrating sphere. It darkened, lengthened, grew wings, then turned and attacked him, a chubby vampiric bat with sharp fangs and cold pinprick eyes. He tried to scream again, and the bat flew into his mouth, forcing its way down his throat, the rubbery winged body disgustingly tactile.

Though he was gagging and choking, he saw through teary eyes that Joan was no longer a rag doll but a little girl, and she was crying and struggling, trying to get away from her mysterious kidnappers. In the background, in the fog, the Burning Man was walking, its limbs, body and head ablaze as it moved in herky-jerky, stop-motion animation away from the carnage that was Black Rock City.

Then all was white.

Then all was black. (13-14)

Classic Little prose. Wonderful. I was flipping out and was not even through reading the exposition for The Disappearance.

The exposition for The Disappearance ends around, say, page twenty-four. I sensed with Little's efficient use of exposition and his initial imagery, this was going to be the work of a commercial writer at the peak of his talent. For the subsequent three hundred and seventy pages or so, it became painfully evident to me that this was not the case.
An interesting question, one which I cannot expound upon too much here, is to gauge the effect of our nation's current economy and climate upon the art that it is producing. Is there any correlation between people's fiscal conservatism and fearful nature towards any financial risk and the art which we are producing? I've noticed this considerably in commercial cinema of the last few years. While I've seen quite a bit of it, I rarely write about it. I much prefer to devote my time writing and celebrating the cinema where risk-taking is the norm. I've only noticed this recently with contemporary fiction. Are our artists sticking to tried-and-true, sellable formulas for success? I cannot answer this question with any certainty, but I do know that Little's The Disappearance is plodding, wholly conservative, and at times, very pedestrian.
I rarely read one book at a time; and when I took a break from The Disappearance and picked up another, truth be told, had its author not been Bentley Little, then I would have never finished it. Once Little begins his plot, there is too much time devoted to his characters engaged in tedious dialogue, and when they do act, it is always towards an unsatisfying goal: a long drive, a missed lead in the mystery, or some mundane task. No fear is generated at all (although a couple of early sequences are very good). To be fair, Little picked as the source for his antagonists a very touchy subject, one which most readers will have a strong opinion. Little doesn't side with any popular opinion, but his reticence to show his preference for any opinion doesn't come off as fair: it just appears as if he doesn't want to offend any of his readers. None of the intellectual ideas or social criticism, often ripe in Little's prose, is stimulating or interesting. I blazed through the final twenty pages, mostly skimming its predictable finale.
In conclusion, do not let The Disappearance be the first novel read by Bentley Little. I will never abandon this author, even if his next ten books are total shit. (This outcome is highly improbable.) However, if you think my opinion is full of shit, then please leave a comment below I always encourage, make up your mind for yourself and purchase The Disappearance and other Little work here. This link also serves for reference for the quote above and its parenthetical notation.