Monday, February 28, 2011

Short Film: The Hangman (USA, 1964)



The Hangman, a poem written by Maurice Ogden in 1951, is still found in an occasional US textbook. Whether seen as an allegory about the Holocaust or an indictment of McCarthyism, it tells a tale that is easily applicable to today's polarized and increasingly intolerant society. The poem tells the tale of the arrival of a hangman in a typical town and how he does his work, making his way one-by-one through the population… he starts with the outsiders, an ever popular victim, and works his way from the different the average Joe, never meeting any resistance due to inertia, fear of being chosen next, and mankind’s general ability to look the other way. The problem with being silent when you shouldn’t be is that when you get in the firing line there might not be anyone left to stand up for you…
The poem is read by Herschel Bernardi (The Savage Eye [1960]), a character actor who started his career in the early Yiddish films of Edgar G. Ulmer and was blacklisted throughout most of the 50s. The film, a co-winner of the Silver Sail Award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1964, was directed by Les Goldman and Paul Julian, and features the music of the US American composer Serge Hovey. Paul Julian, who was supposedly the inspiration for the Roadrunner character at Warner Brother's, where he was a long-time animator – you saw many a film he worked on as a child – provided the effectively moody illustrations.

A tragic, horrifying and nightmarish film, its message is as equally valid to today's society as it was to that of the past…

The Hangman
by Maurice Ogden

Into our town the Hangman came,
smelling of gold and blood and flame.
And he paced our bricks with a diffident air,
and built his frame in the courthouse square.

The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,

only as wide as the door was wide;

a frame as tall, or little more,

than the capping sill of the courthouse door.


And we wondered, whenever we had the time,

who the criminal, what the crime

that the Hangman judged with the yellow twist

of knotted hemp in his busy fist.


And innocent though we were, with dread,

we passed those eyes of buckshot lead –

till one cried: "Hangman, who is he

for whom you raised the gallows-tree?"


Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,

and he gave us a riddle instead of reply:

"He who serves me best," said he,

"Shall earn the rope of the gallows-tree."


And he stepped down, and laid his hand

on a man who came from another land.

And we breathed again, for another's grief

at the Hangman's hand was our relief


And the gallows-frame on the courthouse lawn

by tomorrow's sun would be struck and gone.

So we gave him way, and no one spoke,

out of respect for his Hangman's cloak.


The next day's sun looked mildly down

on roof and street in our quiet town,

and stark and black in the morning air

was the gallows-tree in the courthouse square.


And the Hangman stood at his usual stand

with the yellow hemp in his busy hand;

with his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike

and his air so knowing and business-like.


And we cried, "Hangman, have you not done

yesterday, with the foreign one?"

Then we fell silent, and stood amazed,

"Oh, not for him was the gallows raised."


He laughed a laugh as he looked at us:

"Did you think I'd gone to all this fuss

to hang one man? That's a thing I do

to stretch a rope when the rope is new."


Then one cried "Murder!" and one cried "Shame!"

And into our midst the Hangman came

to that man's place. "Do you hold," said he,

"With him that was meant for the gallows-tree?"


And he laid his hand on that one's arm.

And we shrank back in quick alarm!

And we gave him way, and no one spoke

out of fear of his Hangman's cloak.


That night we saw with dread surprise

the Hangman's scaffold had grown in size.

Fed by the blood beneath the chute,

the gallows-tree had taken root;


Now as wide, or a little more,

than the steps that led to the courthouse door,

as tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,

halfway up on the courthouse wall.


The third he took – we had all heard tell –

was a usurer, and an infidel.

"What," said the Hangman "have you to do

with the gallows-bound, and he a Jew?"


And we cried out, "Is this one he

who has served you well and faithfully?"

The Hangman smiled: "It's a clever scheme

to try the strength of the gallows-beam."


The fourth man's dark, accusing song

had scratched our comfort hard and long;

"And what concern," he gave us back,

"Have you for the doomed – the doomed and Black?"


The fifth. The sixth. And we cried again,

"Hangman, Hangman, is this the man?"

"It's a trick," he said, "That we hangmen know

for easing the trap when the trap springs slow."


And so we ceased, and asked no more,

as the Hangman tallied his bloody score.

And sun by sun, and night by night,

the gallows grew to monstrous height.


The wings of the scaffold opened wide

till they covered the square from side to side;

and the monster cross-beam, looking down,

cast its shadow across the town.


Then through the town the Hangman came,

through the empty streets, and called my name –

and I looked at the gallows soaring tall,

and thought, "There is no one left at all


for hanging, and so he calls to me

to help pull down the gallows-tree."

So I went out with right good hope

to the Hangman's tree and the Hangman's rope.


He smiled at me as I came down

to the courthouse square through the silent town.

And supple and stretched in his busy hand

was the yellow twist of the hempen strand.


And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap,

and it sprang down with a ready snap –

and then with a smile of awful command

he laid his hand upon my hand.


"You tricked me. Hangman!" I shouted then,

"That your scaffold was built for other men...

And I no henchman of yours," I cried,

"You lied to me, Hangman. Foully lied!"


Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,

"Lied to you? Tricked you?" he said. "Not I.

For I answered straight and I told you true –

The scaffold was raised for none but you.


For who has served me more faithfully

then you with your coward's hope?" said he,

"And where are the others who might have stood

side by your side in the common good?"


"Dead," I whispered. And amiably

"Murdered," the Hangman corrected me:

"First the foreigner, then the Jew...

I did no more than you let me do."


Beneath the beam that blocked the sky

none had stood so alone as I.

The Hangman noosed me, and no voice there

cried "Stop!" for me in the empty square.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Last Man on Earth (Italy/USA, 1964)



"You're freaks, all of you! All of you, freaks, mutations!"
Robert Morgan



The Last Man on Earth is a minor horror classic well worth watching that was more or less doomed to total obscurity until it fell into the public domain in the US and suddenly enjoyed a massive DVD release by an untold number of cheap DVD firms. Interest in the film was also spurred after it became general knowledge* that the book and film were inspirational to George Romero in the creation of his own full-fledged classic horror film from 1968, the original Night of the Living Dead (full film), which is also now in public domain.
In its positive review of the film, the website Bad Movie Report claims, like many, that The Last Man on Earth is the "Zombie Movie Zero", but even if the film is perhaps one of the key influences of the slow-moving killer zombie genre, the creatures in the film are not zombies, they are vampires – or at least, vampiric, a point worth noting as the fact they are not actually dead (and even capable of reproducing sexually) is important to the original ending of Richard Matherson's 1954 science fiction horror novel I Am Legend and this movie, the first of four cinematic versions to date.
Yes, Virginia, there is a book upon which Will Smith's mostly crappy big budget I Am Legend (2007 / trailer), as well as the exploitive, violent and fun rip-off I Am Omega (2007 / trailer) and the entertaining slice of 70s Armageddon cinema The Omega Man (1971 / trailer), are based. Of the four films, some follow the book more closely, others hardly follow it at all, but only one – The Last Man on Earth – had the balls to follow the depressing and extremely non-commercial ending of Matherson's book, the last line of which is the source of the book's ironic title.
But then, Matherson had his hand in the pie when the film was being made: the film script was written in part by Matherson who, dissatisfied with the end version, used his occasional nom de plume Logan Swanson for the credit. He also felt that Vincent Price was miscast as Robert Morgan, the lead character of the film, which this is true: Price, a man capable of excellent acting turns (see Witchfinder General [1968 / trailer], Theatre of Blood [1973 / trailer], The Masque of Red Death [1964 / trailer], Kansas City Confidential [1952 / full film] or Laura [1944 / trailer], to list a few of many great acting turns), is extremely uneven throughout the film and particularly weak in virtually every pre-apocalypse scene. It is a credit to the film that despite Price's less than satisfactory performance, the film still packs a punch… but then, had Price had a somewhat better director than Sidney Salkow, perhaps he would've also given a stronger performance.
Salkow, who began his career why back in the days of Poverty Row and honed his style doing second features before finding his later niche as a television director, had a relatively staid and immobile style that fit well to TV production methods; along with his other horror film, Twice-Told Tales (1963 / trailer) an anthology film based on the horror tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Last Man on Earth is possibly his only feature film release of any note. But although his rather staid direction does not sink this film, one is left with a feeling that The Last Man on Earth would have been well served with a somewhat less dull camera work, particularly during the final scenes.
That said, many of his long shots, particularly in the scenes in which Morgan (Price) is pursuing the dog, the first sign of normal life that he seen in ages, through a deserted and properly retro-future deserted city, do capture the loneliness that the last man on earth would surely feel and experience. One wonders, however, who's to blame for the bad and inconstant day-for-night shots; more than one scene seems to flip back and forth due to the lousy grasp of the shooting technology. (Sidney Salkow, by the way, is only credited for the direction in the English-language prints of the film. The direction of The Last Man on Earth, filmed in Italy, is credited to Ubaldo Ragona in the Italian prints, one of the co-writers of the screenplay. Going by past and prior credits, however, it is questionable at best whether Ragona really did anything other than translate the directions of Sidney Salkow to the Italian crew and cast.)
Though filmed in Rome and Lazio, Italy, the events of The Last Man on Earth take place in good ol' USA. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the last man on earth, or at least the last truly human man. The film opens by showing the obviously bored and depressed man go through his daily grind of replacing garlic wreaths and broken mirrors, fixing the boards on the boarded-up windows of his home, taking the dead from his front lawn to the local burning pit, sharpening stakes. By day he hunts and kills those that seek his blood by night, vampires one and all. The life he lives is joyless and, in all truth, rather pointless – but then, what kind of life can one have when one is the last of one's kind and living in a world overrun by somnambulant and less-than-intelligent vampires?
Midway through the film, the flashback kicks in to reveal how Morgan came to be in his situation. A happily married scientist with a loving wife named Virginia (Emma Danieli), he is part of a team trying to find a cure or vaccination for a deadly virus blowing over from Europe that first kills and then turns its victims into vampires, hungry for blood but averse to sunlight, mirrors and garlic. Morgan alone remains immune, possibly due to being bit by a virus-carrying bat many years previously. He loses his daughter and he loses his wife, but it is his former best buddy and coworker Ben Cortman (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart of, among other films, Caltiki the Immortal Monster [1959 / trailer], Death Smiles at a Murderer [1973 / trailer], Die Grotte der lebenden Leichen [1971 / trailer] and the great Mario Bava classic Die toten Augen des Dr. Dracula / Kill, Baby, Kill! [1966 / trailer / full movie]) who later comes banging at Morgan's doorway every night moaning for his blood. (Perhaps one of the most truly Gothic horror moments of the film is when Robert, sitting alone at home after having illegally buried his deceased wife, hears her low rasping voice asking to be let inside the house.) Into his lonely life a dog does cross his path, but the joy of new-found company is short: it, too, is infected. But then, unbelievably enough, he spies a woman walking in the sunlight. Her name is Ruth (Ugo Tognazzi's wife Franca Bettoia), but there is something odd about her: yes, she can walk in the sun and look into the mirror, but garlic makes her ill and she is surprisingly unsympathetic to his vampire-killing activities – and how did she survive for such a long time?
Well, watch the film and find out.

The Last Man on Earth is an interesting film and possibly a seminal film in regards to modern horror, which is why it earns its place as a minor classic. But it is also an uneven film, and though the most true to the original source of all the films yet made, it suffers some glaring flaws. As mentioned above, Salkow's direction and Price's acting are weak and there are some serious technical difficulties in the filming. Worse, possibly, is that the shuffling vampires are never truly threatening – hell, the barricades of the house in which Morgan resides are hardly even worth mentioning – despite their effective slow shuffle. For that, there are truly effective aspects of the film, including the presentation of drudgery of Morgan's life, and occasional moments and scenes of true horror as well as an effectively hard-hitting ending similar to that of the book. (A few other flaws cannot be brought up without fully revealing the big twist, so for the sake of the few who don't know it, those flaws will not be tackled here.) But the sign that The Last Man on Earth is a film well worth viewing is that it remains in your mind long after it has ended, something many better-made films do not – and something that none of the other filmic adaptations of I Am Legend manage to do.

*Just how factual this "general knowledge" is, is debatable: while there are obvious similarities in the vampires of The Last Man on Earth and the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, possibly intentional, as far as I can tell there is no documentable substantiation that the former inspired the latter that, so to say, comes directly from the horse's mouth – just articles about the film that claim Romero has said it without saying where he said it. Anyone out there know the source?


Full film at the Internet Archives:



Jennifer's Body (USA, 2009)



OK, let me start by saying I really don't have anything against Diablo Cody – in fact, I'd say that all the negative press and unadulterated hate she is and has been subject to is, more than anything, based on mass envy and subliminal sexism. She made it, and you didn't – and worse, she's a fucking woman. People, get over it. (I say "people" here and not "dude" because sexism against women, especially within the context of success-envy, is not an attitude held by men alone.)
That said, I do hate Juno (2007). It may have some mildly scintillating dialogue, but it is also a manipulative and irresponsible piece of pre-Tea-Party idiocy disguised as an empowerment tract for female teenagers. (Give me Waitress [2007 / trailer] anytime – it, too, may have been pure fantasy, but at least it wasn't so subversively right wing.) But much like one badly written sleaze novel never stops me from buying and reading the next one, or one disappointing episode of The Next Generation never stopped me from watching the next, one crappy film seldom stops me from going to see the relative person's next project, providing it sounds interesting – and damn, if nothing else, Jennifer's Body sure sounded interesting, and not just because it starred Megan Fox, a starlet who seems to have once had the world's best publicist but whom I had never before seen in a film. (There are indeed some advantages to living in Europe.)
True, Aeon Flux (2005 / trailer), the previous film of director Karyn Kusama, was pretty crappy, but it also featured enough stylistic verve to make one think that maybe her next film would be better; and that, at least, Jennifer's Body is. And indeed, as is obvious at the latest during the slow pan up to and across Jennifer's body during the opening credits (a scene used twice), Kusama is capable of some interesting visual and symbolic touches. Her eye for composition is noticeable, and the occasional visual flourish indicates that were she but a bit more experimental she could be a director of future interest – if she ever gets some decent material and a budget.
In any event, when an English buddy of mine I was visiting down in Naples, Italy, last October told me he had the extended version, I was more than happy to kick up my feet, share his Scotch, and finally take a gander at Jennifer's body – not that we ever really got to see that, for like most mainstream horror films of today, full close-up nudity never comes into the picture, not even with a body double. (Ah, for the days of yesteryear when, in films as mainstream as Dressed to Kill [1980 / trailer], they'd body-double a 49-year-old star like Angie Dickinson with a Penthouse Pet of the Month and open the film with a prolonged soapy shower scene. Those were the days!)
Some 107 minutes later, as the credits rolled, we both had to agree: the Scotch was good. And Jennifer's Body? Well, at least it wasn't a manipulative and irresponsible piece of pre-Tea-Party idiocy disguised as an empowerment tract for female teenagers.
The horror slant of Jennifer's Body is a rarity within the horror genre: the man-killing succubus. (How many succubus films have you ever heard of? Only two come to my mind straight off the bat, Jess Franco's surrealist Succubus [1968 / trailer] and The Devil's Nightmare [1971 / trailer], and they're both vintage eurotrash.) In the two-bit town of Devils Kettle, Nowhere, USA, the nerdy Needy (Amanda Seyfried) has been the best friend of the high school bimbo cheerleader Jennifer (Megan Fox) since way back before they even knew what pubic hair was, let alone had any.
One night the two best buds (best babes?) go to the local hillbilly watering hole to catch the concert of an indie band on tour called Low Shoulder and barely manage to escape and survive when the place burns down. Low Shoulder, in need of a virgin for a sacrifice for a demonic spell meant to propel them to stardom, whisk away with Jennifer. Little do they know, she is anything but a virgin. Later that night, she shows up at Needy's home covered in blood and puking black guck. A jock dies, the local goth emo dies, and then Needy clicks to the fact that Jennifer is killing them: she has become a meat-eating demon who needs human flesh to stay young, fresh, purty and alive. This puts a bit of a strain on their subliminally lesbian relationship, a strain that gets worse when Jennifer goes after Needy's twink-like-squeeze Chip (Johnny Simmons)...
Needless to say, the acting in Jennifer's Body is rather bad, but that can hardly be held against the film because the acting in films like this is never all that good – nor is it ever really expected to be. But for a horror comedy, not only is Jennifer's Body relatively light on the laughs but it isn't very horrific – with the possible exception of all the scenes pertaining to Jennifer's fate in the hands of Low Shoulder, an unnerving and uncomfortable reflection of a doomed woman facing death in the hands of a group of men that basically see her as a resource, as a form of bartering good, as an object, and not as a human life of value. (To show just how uneven the film is, the next scariest thing is the whole film is the texture of Megan Fox's complexion, and not just when she's weak and pale and hungry for non-external organs. The short, early close-ups of her face in her pre-possessed form – wow. Those pores look huge, that skin be all bumpy – she ain't gonna age well, that's for sure.)
Megan Fox is actually well cast as the titular and dislikable Jennifer (when not shown in close-up), despite being the weakest actor, but Amanda Seyfried, much too attractive to convey nerdom effectively, is terribly miscast as the ugly duckling best friend who realizes Jennifer's secret. The rest of the cast handle their parts rather well, if only because they have such little screen time that their clothes and "type" do their acting for them. (But what was the point of a metal-claw-handed teacher? Was his "deformity," for a lack of a better word, supposed to be funny? If that's OK, why no queer jokes? Why no Negro jokes? Why no "I spik Eengleesh" jokes? Hell, why no retard jokes?)
The script is a mess. Cody is not very good at situation comedy and only mildly good at black comedy, and in most scenes she was obviously way too busy thinking up pithy dialogue to concentrate on structure or plotting.
(The film, which easily could have been told sequentially, is told 90% in flashback – and even has a flashback within the main flashback.) A balance between the comedy and the horror is never effectively attained, which weakens both (a very bad thing, since both were already weak anyways), and some plot elements – especially the sudden superhero turn at the end – are so out of the blue that they only get derisive laughter. Likewise, during one showdown, Needy's sudden eruption of what a lousy person Jennifer has always been not only runs contrary to the friendship as reflected throughout the movie and the hidden motivations behind the overly discussed girl's kissing scene that her verbal explosion leaves the viewer scratching their head with a "Huh?"
As bad as Jennifer's Body is, what hurts the most about the film is that it truly conveys the sense that it could have been so much more, so much better. A rewrite or two would probably have helped a lot.
But then, who knows, perhaps it is simply one of those films – like The Army of Darkness (1992 / trailer) or The Thing (1982 / trailer) or Peeping Tom (1960 / trailer) – that needs ten years of peculating before it finally begins to work, before the good aspects of it can finally outshine its flaws. In that sense, however, I would guess Jennifer's Body to be more like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958 / trailer), in that it is a film that needs a lot longer period of time before its virtues become apparent. Right now, however, it just really ain't all that good...


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stage Fright (Italy, 1987)




More Italian cheese. Oddly enough, this cheese is actually imitation US cheese, but for what it's worth, this cheese is better than a lot of the real cheese it imitates – it must be that the fine Eurotrash veneer adds a needed spice that makes it all the more palatable.
Stage Fright – also known as Deliria, Aquarius and Bloody Bird – is the debut film of actor turned director Michele Soavi; he had actual speaking parts films such as Alien 2 (1980 / trailer) and City of the Living Dead (1980 / trailer) before going on to hone his directorial skills assisting the Italian masters Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento, back when they were still in their prime, by doing second unit direction on great cheesy films like Bava's A Blade in the Dark (1983 / trailer) and Demons (1985 / trailer) and Argento's Tenebrae (1982 / trailer) and Phenomena (1984 / trailer). In 1987, Soavi was finally given this Italian version of a US bodycount film to direct just when the psycho-on-the-loose genre was beginning to lose popularity. The flick didn't do too well when it was released, but over the years it has gained some cult popularity.

Although credited to one "Lew Cooper", the script to the film is by no one less than the great cult actor George Eastman – star of such Italo trash classics as 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983 / trailer), Metropolis 2000 (1982 / trailer), Porno Holocaust (1981 / theme song), Anthropophagus (1980 / trailer) and Rabid Dogs (1974 / trailer), to name but a very few of his mention-worthy films – with some dialog help from Sheila Goldberg, who also plays a small role in Stage Fright as a nurse. (Ms Goldberg is hardly a cult name, but prior to falling off the face of the earth, her writing "skills" were used by Umberto Lenzi for Ghosthouse [1988 / trailer], Ruggero Deodato for Body Count [1987 / trailer] and Claudio Lattanzi in his only feature film, Zombie 5: Killing Birds [1987 / trailer ].)
That said, in all honesty, likes so many Italian films the script is a mess. But then, does one really expect any common sense or understandable logic in a film from a country that elects someone like Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister three different times? Face it, they tick differently down there, and if you keep that in mind, then maybe it does actually make total sense for a dancer with a hurt ankle to go to a psychiatric hospital to get it treated – after all, much like a rose is a rose is a rose, a doctor is a doctor is a doctor. Luckily, a bodycount film isn't a bodycount film isn't a bodycount film. (The last line was inspired by a lovely recipe for a desert supplied by Gertrude Stein's husband, Alice B. Toklas, which you can find here.)
Stage Fright tells the non-Shakespearean tale of a group of desperate thespians taking part in a typically 80s avante-garde dance piece entitled "The Night Owl". The opening scene plays with this by starting with a tracking shot mid-rehearsal during a scene which involves a real (!) cat walking past the movie's final girl Alicia (the delicious Barbara Cupisti of The Church [1989 / trailer], Opera [1987 / trailer] and Dellamorte Dellamore [1994 / trailer]). Before the scene becomes an obvious "staged" event (and breaks into bad 80s innovative dance), the obviously cardboard backgrounds and odd make-up really causes the viewer to wonder what weird piece o' cheap-jack shit he just put into his DVD player. But by the time the saxophone-playing, imitation Marilyn Monroe starts blasting bad sax music, the viewer knows that that the film isn't cheap shit as much as it is real cheese.
During the rehearsal of a scene Alicia is not in, Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) convinces Alicia to get her ankle treated at the nearest hospital, a nut house. While there, they pass the room of the crazed killer actor Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who just slaughtered 16 people and is awaiting trial. As is required by the genre, Irving chooses that night to escape and, hiding unnoticed in the back of their car, follows the ladies back to the theater. Betty is the first to go in the most spectacular kill of the film: a pickax through the mouth. The director of the piece, Peter (David Brandon of Joe D'Amato's Caligola: La storia mai raccontata [1982 / trailer] and the infamous Ator The Invincible [1984 / trailer]), is a total asshole who sees the chance of unlimited publicity, so he convinces the financer Ferrari (Piero Vida, the fat journalist in The Child [1972 / trailer], who died in real life the same year this film was finished) to cough up more dough and demands the continuance of rehearsals; to make sure no one leaves, he has the actress Corinne (Lori Parrel) lock up the theater and hide the key. So guess who is the first to die next? Now the rest of the cast is stuck in the locked theater without a key, pursued by a bloodthirsty killer...
As a slasher, Stage Fright is an old standard dressed less in new clothes than in a European cut. Thus, though it treads no new ground, it at least looks different enough to be enjoyable. To the movie's advantage, it is also not a dead teenager film played by over-aged actors: the early-to-late twens that populate the film are all entirely believable in their shallow characterization(s) of young, unsuccessful and broke thespians desperate to make it further.
Also, as is often the case with Euro films, the director at least films the events as if he is making a film of greater gravity and artistic intent than a simple trash flick; thus many a scene has an added aesthetic glow – the feathers falling like snow, the unnatural aura exuded by the long hallway to the shower room, the tableau of dead on the stage, etc. The gore varies between extreme (the pick-ax scene, drill through the chest and severed torso are the true highlights) to skimpy (the chainsawed hand), but most of the murder scenes are very well staged. (The irony of the death of the dancing babe in her sexy nighty is also particularly effective.) On a visual level, the film really does look good.

That said, there are also a few true what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking moments as well – for example, if you're wielding an ax with a very long handle and some killer half-blind in an owl mask comes charging at you with a chainsaw, are you gonna go squealing ind prancing into a corner and make it easier for him to kill you (and not even think of your ax until after your hand is cut off) or are you going to go out swinging? Likewise, the McGuffin to get Alicia back to the theater for the final scene is truly stupid, as is the "second" ending tied to it – are Italian cops really so stupid as not to be able to count? Furthermore, though (according to the director – who can be seen in Stage Fright as the young cop of the two stationed outside the theater) the ending is a "wink-wink" joke satirizing the genre staple of the un-killable killer, the joke fails and comes across as the real thing.
In short, as a cheesily 80s Euro-version of the bodycount slasher, Stage Fright adds nothing new to and suffers from some of the common defects of the genre, but it also makes up for its unoriginality with some pleasing directorial touches, a nicely European visual feel, a couple of effective kills and a variety of babes with beautiful eyes.
There is worse Mozzarella out there, but any and all Mozzarella is much better than Cheez Wiz.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Planet Terror (USA, 2007)




Anyone out there not know the story behind Quentin Tarantino's & Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse project yet? Where were you, fer Christ's sake—Guantanamo Bay?
In short: the two purveyors of postmodern pop cinema joined forces to bring out a double-feature homage to the fabulous ephemeral low culture and low budget visual assaults screened in the eponymous trash palaces of yesterday. The best of such dives were usually found on the grimier former thoroughfares of any given town or city, like Broadway in downtown LA or pre-Disney 42nd Street in NYC; back then, 2 or 3 bucks got you a sticky seat in a filthy, run-down movie house populated by snoring homeless, perverts, low income minority families, drug dealers or blow jobs in the john, cockroaches in your popcorn as well as an endless cycle of 2 to 4 films.

Most such theaters, like the classic drive-in, have long become history and are an unknown experience for the youth of today, but Tarantino & Rodriguez thought it time to pay their respects to an institution that definitely formed both their visual and narrative filmic vocabulary and brought out their own faux-grindhouse double feature—regrettably, the general masses supposedly didn't get it,* and the project tanked.
Now, on DVD, the two films—Tarantino's Death Proof and Rodriguez's Planet Terror—are available in their original double feature format or separately in independent and extended versions. And it is this extended, 105-minute version of Planet Terror that we be talking about here—so there won't be no talk of how one works against the other, which is better or worse, etc. For all intents, when it comes to the following write-up of Planet Terror, Death Proof doesn't exist...it must have been playing at the Los Angeles or Tower, but I was at the State.

Would it be sacrilegious to say that Planet Terror is better than the real thing? Probably not, but then it also wouldn't be 100% true. Let's just say, it's almost better than the real thing, but then considering that its budget was easily bigger than most producers of the real thing could have ever even dreamed of, that Planet Terror should at least come close to looking like the real thing is the least one should expect. In truth, however, Rodriguez's film is far more tongue in cheek, far more intentionally hip, far more intelligently shocking, far more excessively violent, and with far more extreme but realistic special effects than the average grindhouse film of yesteryear.
Not that this is bad—it isn't at all—but somewhere along the line, as fun as the film is, it becomes less an homage than an exercise in nostalgia: Planet Terror is less an imitation of the real thing than what we wish the real thing had been. Thus, the film comes damn close to being better than the real thing—it is exactly that which one always hoped to see in such theatres, but often did not. For every Fade to Black (1980 / trailer), I Spit on Your Grave (1978 / trailer) or Last House on the Left (1972 / trailer) there was also an All This and World War II (1976), Red Sonja (1985 / trailer), Cannibal Girls (1973 / trailer), Galaxina (1980 / trailer), Viva Knievel! (1977 / trailer), The Rebel Rousers (1970 / trailer) or Paddle to the Sea (1966). (I actually caught the last film as part of a quadruple feature with Vampyres [1974 / trailer)] and two other forgotten films at the Cameo in downtown LA in the early 80s under the misleading title of something like The Journey of Tanya—it was, needless to say, not what I was expecting.)
There is one major flaw to the film noticeable to any former grindhouse regular or fan of the cinematic sleaze of yesteryear: Planet Terror turns pussy when it comes to a central, integral ingredient of the classics of yesterday, be it Black Mama White Mama (1973 / trailer), Forbidden World (1982 / trailer) or Ultra Violet (1992 / trailer)—there ain’t no swinging titties. Perhaps the nudity was lost with the "missing reel", but more likely it is simply a reflection of modern times in the US, both in real life and in reel life: graphic nudity is a no-no, but go ahead and kill everyone as bloodily and violently as you want—and for sure, Planet Terror in no way skimps of the blood, ooze and violence.
Planet Terror sets the mood by opening not only with the long-forgotten but instantly recognizable psychedelic announcement for upcoming attractions as well as the famed "fake trailer" (featuring nudity) for Machete, which has since become a real film (trailer—not half as good as the original fake one) before unreeling the feature film. The (imitation) scratchy, ripped and discolored look of the film promptly makes a viewer of a certain age get a warm fuzzy feeling in their tummy as they remember the sticky seats and popcorn with cockroaches and blowjobs in the john, but before the tears can even begin to swell the film kicks in.
The tale is pure trash, just like it should be: a bio-weapon is released and begins turning people into oozing, brain-eating "zombies", and a variety of mostly non-minority US Americans have to fight for their lives. (OK, at least four main characters are probably Hispanic American, but the rest of the cast is amazingly Caucasian. Where dem comic relief black folks done gone?) The characters and periphery subplots are many and numerous and universally entertaining, and the gore and goo, once it kicks in, easily outdoes any mainstream film of recent history, including Dawn of the Dead (2004 / trailer), Apocalypto (2006 / trailer) and the My Bloody Valentine remake (2009 / trailer). Pustular blisters explode, skin slides, brains are eaten, explosions blow limbs around, testicals get cut off, and the borders of good taste and acceptable bad taste are continually stretched—all the while with a knowing wink of a slashed eye and a bitten-off tongue firmly in the cheek. The kid with the gun and the sliming-off dick (the latter an obvious homage to the famous climactic scene of the great and seemingly now lost underground masterpiece Thundercrack! [1975, info]) are indefinitely wonderful, new high "lows" in "mainstream" cinema, but in that sense they are 100% in line with the true exploitation sensibility of the original, real product. But whereas in the days of, say, David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981 / trailer) the viewer sat through a lot for one or two money shots of gore, in Planet Terror, once Fergie's cleavage (as "Tammy") bites the dust, the film is non-stop money shots. And the missing reel gag is amazingly effective...
And what fan of trash cannot enjoy a film of non-stop gory money shots?
Planet Terror is without a doubt imperative viewing, with or without love pillows.

*I would hazard to guess that it was less that people didn't "get it" than they did simply get so bored by that annoying talkathon Death Proof that they left the cinema early.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Im Banne des Unheimlichen / The Hand of Power (Germany, 1968)


The German trailer:


Also entitled The Zombie Walks for its English-language release, Im Banne des Unheimlichen really has nothing to do with zombies, other than that the murderer of the film is referred to as a zombie in the sensationalist news reports written by one of the characters. An even lesser and weaker link to the traditional Haitian concept of a zombie is the occasional scene in a Caribbean restaurant – complete with waitresses that don't bat an eye or drop their smile when a live dove lands on their head – and another character whose garish green skin is attributed to both some sickness picked up on the islands and to the "fact" that he is Creole. Thus, anyone looking for a gut-munching zombie film is going to be sorely disappointed. But someone looking for an enjoyable tacky German krimi, on the other hand, might enjoy themselves with this little film.
According to the German-language Wikipedia page on Wallace films, Im Banne des Unheimlichen is the 31st of 38 films made in Germany after WWII that were based on Wallace books. It is one of 14 Rialto Wallace productions for which director Alfred Vohrer was to point the camera. The film is "based" – to use the word freely – on the Wallace novel The Hand of Power, though it would perhaps be more truthful to simply say that one of the alternative titles of the English-language release of the film, The Hand of Power, was taken from the Wallace novel. The plot and events of the movie, as supplied by Ladislas Fodor (born 28 March 1898 in Budapest; died 1 September 1978 in La La Land), who also supplied a number of the scripts to the popular German Dr. Mabuse series (including Im Stahlnetz des Dr. Mabuse / The Phantom Menace [1961 / trailer], Die unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse / The Invisible Horror [1962 / trailer], and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse / The Terror of Dr. Mabuse [1963 / trailer]), as well as few other odd Wallace films, really has about as much to with the original novel as, say, years later the sci-fi James Bond film Moonraker (1979 / trailer) had to do with Ian Fleming's original book – in other words, nadda, other than a few character names.
The plot of Im Banne des Unheimlichen, as to be expected in a German Wallace film, is convoluted and senseless and laden with innumerable suspects, most of whom die one after the other, until the exciting finale when the remaining good guys and gals are barely saved in the nick of time, and the truly unexpected is revealed as the bad guy, the most logical assistant revealed, and all those evil pass onto another realm. In all truth, the action and twists and turns and red herrings fly by so quickly that it is pretty much pointless to even bother to try to solve the case yourself; instead, you should much better just lie back and enjoy some truly fun and crazy ocular events in almost LSD-intense color.
Indeed, the sets and color scheme, as well as general speed of events (or at least the speed in which one laughable scene flies to the next one) are the true joy of the movie, followed by the oddly ridiculous but nonetheless effective costume worn by the killer, the "Lachenden Leiche" (or "Laughing Corpse") – the titular "zombie" of the title The Zombie Walks – as he goes around doing his dirty deeds. Take a look at the office in which Inspector Higgins (the personable Joachim Fuchsberger, familiar from innumerable Wallace films and other fun stuff such as Die weisse Spinne / The White Spider [1963 / indiscriminate scene] and non-fun stuff such as Hotel der toten Gäste [1965]) interviews Professor Bound (Edith Schneider) – isn't the furniture just the stuffed cat's meow? (Professor Bound is one of the negligible suspects on the sidelines, the writer of a book that tells of an untraceable poison, a book of which the only known singular copy [which is on the open shelves of the local library manned by no one other than Ewa Strömberg (of Vampyros Lesbos: Die Erbin des Dracula [1971 / trailer] and Sie tötete in Ekstase [1971 / trailer])] is stolen by the Laughing Corpse from the film's lead heroine – only to be sent to Prof Bond by mail the next day. An ice princess, she is, but not a murderess.)
To claim the sets and color scheme are the true joy of the movie is not, however, a veiled insult. OK, Im Banne des Unheimlichen is not the best of the Wallace films, but it is one of the more enjoyable of the technocolor burlesques of mid-period Rialto productions; the fly in the ointment is in some of the casting – or rather, the casting of the female heroine, Siw Mattson, as the reporter Peggy Ward. Mattson – like the sexy Lillemor "Lill" Lindfors, who not only sings the film's groovy theme song The Space of Today but also plays the singer and murder victim Sabrina – came from Sweden, which in itself is not bad, but regrettably both her acting talents and her character are. She plays the character Peggy less fun and independent than brash and obnoxious, and she quickly begins to annoy whenever she pops up. (I, for one, hoped that the Laughing Corpse would get her when he shows up in her bachelorette pad – but he doesn't.) Still, she does get a few good laughs now and then, particular in relation to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and enough other aspects of the film shine well enough to steal the shadow she casts.
One odd scene that Wallace-newbies or anyone who hasn't seen a lot of the films might find rather long is that at Scotland Yard between the secretary Miss Finley (Ilse Pagé), Inspector Higgins and Sir Arthur (Hubert von Meyerinck) in which they go on and on and on about the retirement of Sir John, but at the time the film was released, the scene was of importance: the popular character of Sir John (played by Siegfried Schürenberg) had been in 12 prior Wallace films, and his sudden departure needed explaining. (The truth was that producer Horst Wendlendt had Schürenberg written out of the franchise instead of giving him his requested raise in salary.) To give credit where credit is due, it was as a stroke of ironic perfection to cast an obvious three dollar bill – he proclaimed it openly, politically, towards the end of his career – as the new elderly skirt-chasing but equally incapable head of Scotland Yard.
Oh, yes, the plot. Let's see, at the funeral of Lord Oliver an unholy laughter suddenly sounds from his coffin which, although promptly dropped by the pallbearers, is nonetheless put in the family crypt unopened. One after another, everyone connected with Lord Oliver – the mortician, the family lawyer (Otto Stern of Der Hund von Blackwood Castle [1968 / trailer]), the blackmailing nightclub singer (Lillemor "Lill" Lindfors), the chauffeur of his brother Sir Cecil, Dr. Brand (Siegfried Rauch of Der Mönch mit der Peitsche [1967 / trailer]) – is being killed by a mysterious person dressed in a black outfit and wearing a death's head. Sir Cecil (Wolfgang Kieling, the former voice of Bert on the German version of Sesame Street) is convinced the killer is his dead brother Lord Oliver, but he won't say why – and indeed, not only does the Laughing Corpse kill his victims by poisoning them with the stinger of Lord Oliver's "missing" scorpion ring, but Lord Oliver's body is no longer in its coffin! Inspector Higgens (Joachim Fuchsberger) from Scotland Yard and the journalist Peggy try to get to the bottom of things even as the bodies drop around them….
All this and a character that has green skin. Groovy – but in no way serious, No matter how straight (almost) everyone plays their role.

To see some groovy lobby cards of the film, go here.

The English trailer:
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