Friday, December 25, 2009

Dude Movies, Christmas 2009 Edition: Gremlins

What’s it about?
Idiot Americans can't follow three simple instructions and end up infesting Smalltown U.S.A. with murderous Gremlins, which look like a cross between Yoda and Anne Coulter.

Any chicks in the movie?
A sadly non-naked Phoebe Cates, because she wanted to be a serious actress around this time instead of her previous career incarnation as grade-A spank material.*

Awesomeness Factor?
Classic. Gremlins is the timeless tale of what Christmas is really all about: utterly boorish behaviour. The basic story behind Gremlins is as well-known as the movie is: Cute little Mogwais are cute, but they hate direct sunlight, and if you feed 'em after midnight or get them wet** they turn into nasty little Gremlins who will drink you out of house and home, smoke your cigarettes, and at least try to stab your wife. That's pretty much it, movie-wise: Mogwai gets wet, Gremlins pop out, Phoebe and "Whatever Happened To?" Zach Galligan put a stop to it, wise old indiscriminately Asian man tells stupid Americans to smarten up and takes the Mogawi back to Asian Land, the end. The story was written by Chris Columbus, and you can tell because like all Chris Colombus movies there's about 30 minutes worth of plot for a 90 minute movie. Luckily, God saw fit to not have Columbus direct it, instead handing the reins to then-recent Roger Corman grad Joe Dante, who uses the film as a wild excuse to free-associate through his personal childhood obsessions. Dante packs the corners of the screen with throwaway gags and references to Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine, EC Comics, It's A Wonderful Life, and The Twilight Zone***, filtering a 50s geek childhood through a then-current 80s lens. Unlike Columbus' mentor Spielberg, Dante knows that the idyllic veneer of smalltown America is only there to hide the nasty grubbiness beneath, so the Gremlins become a clever subtextual stand-in for the townfolk's outward charade of kindness and decency. Sure, the Gremlins are dicks, and sure they kill a couple of people, but they ain't trying to destroy your livelihood like that old crone at the bank is or putting moves on your sweetheart like that douchebag Judge Reinhold. Honestly, given the choice between a Gremlin and your average smalltown peabrained citizen, I'd stick with the Gremlin because, when push comes to shove, you can always microwave a Gremlin. Can't do that with your alderman.

Mitigated by?
For a real trip through Joe Dante's id, try the sadly overlooked Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the most brilliant piece of franchise suicide this side of Babe 2: Pig In The City.

* Which explains why she decided to do a movie opposite a cast of crazed puppets, because hello! Oscar!

** Which, not coincidentally, is also how I made it through university.

*** Not to mention some great character actors: Harey Carey Jr., Chuck Jones, Dick Miller, Hoyt Axton and Polly Holliday (aka Flo from TV's Alice).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009



TITLE: The Reincarnation of Isabel
DESCRIPTION: An ultra rare example of deluxe sleaze by one of Italy's grand masters of the satanic knee trembler. Packed full with whippings, impalings, torture, sadistic couplings, and a series of devil worshipping bunk ups. [RottenTomatoes]
DIRECTOR: Renato Polselli
YEAR: 1982
RUNTIME: 95 min



Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that no amount of bared, buxom, female flesh can save some films. "Lies!" you may call out. "The Reincarnation of Isabel!" I'll call out in turn. And if you've seen this, you'll surely have to cede the point.

Part of what makes this film so horrible is that you can't pin down precisely what caused this piece of Eurosleaze to fail so badly. Certainly the cheap sets and props can be excused, and the uninspired lighting and bizarre cinematography -- these are par for the course with such films. But the tired plot holding more flashbacks and dream sequences than The Wicker Man remake, and being ten times as convoluted? The poor acting, made ten times worse by the role swapping so many of the actors did in the course of the piece? It is truly hard to imagine director Renato Polselli being pleased with the outcome of his work, but somehow I suspect he must have been.

After all, once you commit yourself to creating a low-grade knock-off of Mario Bava's Black Sunday, what sort of standards are you really holding the work to? So in The Reincarnation of Isabel we get a castle haunted by the presence of a woman burned as a witch hundreds of years in the past, and a contemporary-day guest at the latest housewarming party who looks a lot like the same witch. She's not the only one experiencing deja vu, though: Everyone at this happening shindig looks suspiciously like people from the flashbacks to Isabel's initial demise. Reincarnations? Mostly! But Count Dracula's also kicking about in the mix -- you know, for the hell of it. (One of the alternate titles is "The Horrible Orgies of Count Dracula," which would honestly serve just as well as a description of this film.)

In short, The Reincarnation of Isabel is about the efforts of reincarnated attendants to a long-dead witch, Isabel, to sacrifice the hearts of virgins in order to reanimate her. (And they have to be virgins, in part because Count Dracula won't drink the sullied blood of women touched by semen. There's a classy touch for you!) Sounds straightforward enough, doesn't it?

In fact, this is so straightforward a premise I almost need to give Polselli credit for mucking it up to the extent that he has: Truly, it takes a strange talent to make something so simple so impossible to follow -- either by making the flashbacks extremely difficult to distinguish from contemporary-day action, or by neglecting peripheral details like justifications for everyone's actions in this piece.

Nonetheless, there is an audience for every film, so let me just stress that even for viewers who appreciate the female form, this is a frustrating piece, because most of the nudity isn't very functional, and the bizarre camerawork is often to the detriment of full enjoyment therein. The real audience of this film will thus be lovers of trash cinema -- the ones who recognize that a decent soundtrack is sometimes all it takes to make a film palatable. And The Reincarnation of Isabel has at least that much going for it.

I for one, however, don't see much use in a film like this for anything but ambience -- the way some lounges and dance clubs now project bad old movies with a lot of wild imagery onto the walls with the sound turned off. In the company of your own home, you needn't turn the sound off to produce the same effect: the imagery is wild, the nudity is rampant, and the plot might as well be non-existent. But at the very least, it's not boring. Horrible as this film is from any other stand-point, it at least has the "fun" factor held extremely high over such offerings as The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance. And yes, for this reason alone I intend to see it again some day. Will I still be ranting about how horrible it is? Most definitely. I think that might be part of the appeal.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A lot of booze, plenty of viewing partners, and a high tolerance for trash.

Friday, December 18, 2009


TITLE: Pink Floyd The Wall
DESCRIPTION: Loosely based on the life story of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's original front man (who was kicked out of the band for his bizarre and disturbing behavior only to go insane shortly thereafter), PINK FLOYD: THE WALL stars Bob Geldof as Pink, a mentally damaged man who has gone from a hopeful child artist to a burned-out rock star drifting away from reality. [RottenTomatoes]
DIRECTOR: Alan Parker
YEAR: 1982
RUNTIME: 95 min

No film makes a stronger argument than Pink Floyd The Wall that life itself may cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (I wonder after watching this, should pregnancy tests be accompanied by warning labels?) From birth to death, to the tyranny of war, school, parents, sex, disease, and social order, nothing in this film strikes without leaving its mark on the psyche of one "Pink", the central figure in a series of loose vignettes that serve as narrative.

I say "loose" because while each piece is a coherent fragment in its own right, these pieces stop fitting snugly together as the film progresses -- like a series of photographs laid over one another to give the semblance of a panoramic view. I don't mean to imply this is a bad thing: It's just part of this particular film-verse that things don't quite fit together in anything more than an impressionistic sense.

Because the point, ultimately, is for the music to tell a story; and while a single song can have narrative cohesion in and of itself, albums aren't expected to sustain that same perfect narrative all throughout. Nonetheless, to listen to a complete album, one expects an overall flow, an overarching mood -- and in emulating this aspect of the original medium, Pink Floyd The Wall doesn't disappoint.

In early scenes Pink is young -- he's lost his father to WWII, seeks out another father figure, has mother issues, is alienated by his education system. In later scenes, Pink is a drug and booze-addled rock star, jaded by fame and on the precipice of a mental breakdown. In fact, it's this breakdown which ultimately frames the film, with intermittent scenes pivoting around his colleagues discovering him after a show, semi-comatose in a wrecked hotel room he's reconstructed in his own, incomprehensibly ordered way.

And yet, the flow of Pink's life is not singular: Beyond the haunting, interspersed cartoon animation of Gerald Scarfe, there lies the counter-life of adult Pink as the head of a fascist organization (with its own, interwoven rock opera performances, if you can believe it) -- which has nothing to do with Syd's real life, but everything to do with richness of metaphor developed throughout the whole of the film.

What is this metaphor? Well, Scarfe's imagery is as good a place as any to elaborate on its nature -- the subject of which is all too often confused with the object in public discourse.

Of course, there's good reason for thinking the film is just a scathing commentary against fascist rule -- foreign and domestic alike. For one, the animation sequences are rife with German planes, the Union Jack, and skeletal corpses turned to crosses, to say nothing of marching black and red hammers, beast-like shadow-dwellers in gas masks scurrying for shade, the black eagle of Nazi rule casting its deathly pall over a red sky, and law enforcement bashing in the brains of a man cowering before an oppressive, life-taking wall.

Moreover, with tragic real life sequences clearly demonstrating how war destroys families (if you haven't got it by "Bring the boys back home / Don't leave the children on their own - no! - no! - no!", sung by a united front of returned soldiers with their wives and families at a train platform, you never will), it's easy to see how the subject of war and especially fascism dominates the film's imagery.

Nonetheless, fascism isn't the subject of these walking hammers, these rallying cries for post-conflict reunion: rather, fascism is itself the metaphor for something else. For what, you ask? For a kind of oppression that dominates Pink's development -- the ultimate oppression of his own mind in the gaining light of his adult life. Yes, Syd Barrett (on whom Pink is loosely based) suffered horribly from schizophrenia exacerbated by his drug and alcohol use, and his mental descent figured heavily into his exit from the band.

And if there's any doubt that this is the dominant metaphor of the film, you need only mark upon the counter-life wherein Pink is himself the fascist -- or the point in the animation where Original Pink stands trial after being "caught red-handed showing feelings / showing feelings of an almost human nature." Or what about the one very prominent oppression image that doesn't fit into the war paradigm -- the one in which man is, quite literally, a delicate rose, consumed by a vicious labial flower and soon after carried off in that same flower-turned-dragon's mouth into the wastelands of Wall-world? Yeah... unless I missed some memo wherein women as a whole joined up with other fascist elements of society, adult relationships are just another oppressive aspect of Syd's troubled state of being.

Which brings me full circle: Despite the regular, fetal/childlike representation of Pink, the "delicate rose" metaphor of his adult relationships (his aversion to sex from either groupies or his girlfriend), and the not-so-subtle suggestion that this emasculation springs in part from the lack of a father figure, the film carries Pink as a fragile male in a very strong, counterbalanced way (the surfeit of war imagery certainly doesn't hurt!). This is so masterfully carried off, in fact, that as you near the end of the film (hopefully with a deeper understanding of Pink Floyd's lyrics and the overall resonance of the album, The Wall) it's hard not to feel a little beaten down by the titular wall yourself, and with it all the things that just plain suck in life.

... Which is probably why a lot of people grasp at the ending of this film as a straw of hope. Okay, fine. Take the reprieve, if that's what you need. Let the images wash over you and be done with it. Just... try not to think too hard about what's about to happen to all those bricks from the wall.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: Your full attention, and a healthy propensity towards experiencing "human feelings".

Thursday, December 17, 2009


TITLE: Nude for Satan
DESCRIPTION: Italian Gothic horror that tells the tale of a man who stops at a remote castle hoping to get medical help for an injured woman, only to find the inhabitants mirror the darker sides of the woman and himself. [IMDB]
DIRECTOR: Luigi Batzella
YEAR: 1974
RUNTIME: 82 min

Man, if I rated all films on their ability to live up to their titles, Nude for Satan would get a whopping A+++. Now, yes, it's true it takes a good twenty or so minutes for Satan to undress (quite literally!) female lead Susan Smith (Rita Calderoni) with his eyes, but once he does, boy, do the soft-core times roll!

By the end of the film, it hardly matters that there wasn't any clear flow of Susan to the dark side (apparently ever since the Fall, it doesn't matter how we ladies end up in the Devil's hands: the point is, we always do in the end! Lars von Trier must be fist-bumping Batzella in spirit right now). Nor does it matter that the male lead, Dr. William Benson (Stelio Candelli), ultimately saves both his and Susan's souls with... holy water? prayer? Nah -- fire, stupid! Because everyone knows fire is what the Devil fears! (Did I mention this solution is left out in the middle of this film's requisite castle, in a book open on a pedestal for just anyone to read?)

No matter how absurd the promiscuity, no matter how ridiculous the spiderweb scene (you've got to see it to believe it), at the end of the day, the film did what it set out to do: It got some hot chicks nude for Satan. A+++ on that score.

On a deeper score, however, I really wanted to like this film: After the abysmal staging in Night of the Hunted, the very intelligent, quiet atmosphere building in the first twenty minutes of Nude for Satan caught my eye. I was especially drawn to a scene where Dr. Benson, having entered the archetypal Italian horror castle in search of aid for a woman he found in a car accident, stumbles upon a room thick with decades-old cobwebs -- and beneath them, an old man lying supine on the floor, stabbed in the neck, who proceeds to laugh his rotten smile.

Now, in a realistic film, this would clearly be the point when any reasonable outsider venturing into the castle would decide "Dude, this shit's fucked up," and get the hell out in search of aid elsewhere. But this isn't a realistic film: for at least the first twenty minutes, it's definitively an atmosphere piece. So when the good doctor's too stunned to do more than accept the scene at face value and continue wandering through the castle, it doesn't feel at all like a cop-out to senselessness (as so much did in Night of the Hunted): Rather, you get the feeling this is an intentional move on the director's part to brace his audience for the surrealism to follow.

And the surreal certainly rears its head later on in the film, especially when Susan falls -- again, quite literally -- into Satan's spiderweb, and her screams, as a paper-mache spider inches toward her, rouse the doctor from his bedchamber. Whatever might be said about this scene -- its ridiculousness almost coming full circle into creepy -- it certainly is striking. And bizarre.

But by the close of the film, as all plot progression is abandoned to bare more wanton flesh, I was left wondering if the crew had just run out of time and money -- and if more of either could have guaranteed the quality of the film's thoughtful first twenty minutes extending through to the end. It's not that the cheap, prop dungeon serving as the penultimate setting was itself absurd (you make exceptions for these things the moment you've seen your first Ed Wood flick), but the Devil's playthings made it painfully obvious I was watching people act. It's a failing of the genre that you can't have even a slew of nude women act with the lewdness properly due a puppet of Satan, but still: Interpretive dance (or whatever the hell they were doing to symbolize their debasement)? Just didn't make the whole den of sin seem very sinful.

Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe the point of the film is to slip from a decent premise for sophisticated gothic horror to slapdash soft-core -- or maybe the first twenty minutes are the actual sore thumb in this whole endeavour, and I've got my criteria utterly backwards. Maybe most people don't care if there's a coherent framework for all this naked groping, and actually get impatient when the film tries to do more than what its title claims it will -- namely, to make the actresses nude for Satan!

In which case, I revert to my earlier verdict: A+++ for a film that lives up, quite squarely, to its title -- and nothing more.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A love of nude ladies and a taste for old movies that disintegrate into nonsense as you watch them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

New to the Store: Week of 15 December

Azur & Asmar: The Princes' Quest
Fille de Monaco, La
Hangover, The
Headless Woman, The
Inglourious Basterds
Lorna's Silence
Of Time and the City
Rescue Me: Season 5.2
Sita Sings the Blues
Sleep Dealer
Taking Woodstock


Batman Begins
Blood Diamond
Departed, The
Enter the Dragon
Full Metal Jacket
Hangover, The
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Inglourious Basterds
True Romance


TITLE: Night of the Hunted
DESCRIPTION: Cult French sex-horror director Jean Rollin created this oddity in 1980. This one is a strange departure from his usual vampire-themed fare: In a strange future society, the residents of an apartment building suffer from collective amnesia and insanity, resulting in extreme sex and violence. [RottenTomatoes]
DIRECTOR: Jean Rollin
YEAR: 1980
RUNTIME: 95 min

Wow. I think I may have broken my personal record for losing all ability to suspend disbelief in a film. Thanks to the wonders of tracking, I can confidently say that at 4 minutes, 40 seconds, this film stopped being enjoyable, and instead became highly irritating. Yeah, yeah, the sex scene from 13 to 19 minutes pretty much sizes up the aims of this film -- to be a vehicle for sexual content. Even then, though, it's not hard to get the basics of logical storytelling down, so when directorial laziness emerges so early in the film, it's exceptionally easy to look a gift horse (however comely she may be!) in the mouth.

I'm referring of course to the opening scene, wherein our lead lady, Elizabeth (Brigitte Lahaie), runs frightened into a country road where she's picked up by a young man named Robert (Vincent Gardnere). Just as he shuts the driver's side door to the car, a beautiful, naked woman named Veronique (Dominique Journet) tears quite obviously into the range of his headlights. He looks ahead, and asks Elizabeth if there was anyone with her. Elizabeth says she was alone. Meanwhile, the naked woman is still kicking around in plain sight of the headlights. Nevertheless, the man in the car drives off.

Now, even if I were to entertain the belief that Robert somehow didn't see this woman (and I find a naked woman lit up by headlights pretty hard to discount), I'd also have to entertain the belief that this woman, desperate to reconnect with Elizabeth and showing no reaction whatsoever to the man with her, would stop so randomly short of the car and just hang out by a tree, going no closer, though the distance clearly pains her. That's when irritation begins: It would have been so incredibly easy to shoot this scene in a more realistic sequence -- Robert and Elizabeth driving off, Elizabeth claiming she was alone, and finally, the forgotten woman running out of the woods too late, the car already a blip on the horizon.

This sadly is less a slight omission than an omen for things to come: Soon after, we're to believe that a doctor and his assistant were able to shift from a foot pursuit to a country road vehicle in time to tail Elizabeth's escape vehicle all night without being spotted (a hard thing to do on empty roads -- but again, Robert just missed a naked woman right in front of him, so maybe he's just that ignorant!). Soon after, we're supposed to believe that a building filled with patients suffering the same recurring memory loss would be left utterly unattended, with said patients free to wander at night, despite regular incidents of murder, brutality, and of course rape. Which we could, in the paradigm of a horror film, had we any cogent reason to believe the doctor and assistant had ulterior motives for trapping all these victims in the same building together... but if they did, why on earth would that same doctor, along with four guards, shoot so indiscriminately when Elizabeth and Veronique again attempt escape, after taking such great pains the first time to return them in one piece? Furthermore, how do they manage to miss at such close range, when the ridiculous ending of this film is contingent upon the doctor being a sharpshooter at upwards of 50 yards? And let's not forget that all of this is taking place in Paris -- so where on earth did Elizabeth and Veronique escape from the first time, when Elizabeth was first found at least six hours from the city?

As excuses for excess nudity, sex, and violence go, this is one of the flimsiest plot progressions I've ever seen. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned how Robert is absurdly able to discover Elizabeth's exact location from the absolute vaguest of details, or how a superficial wound to another girl's eyes somehow ends in death, or how, when Robert arrives to rescue Elizabeth, he bewilderingly pauses to dance with another patient in front of the building (and therefore, in clear view of any guards monitoring the building). Also, how the doctor and assistant quite randomly give up on their search for a cure just in time to dedicate the last twenty minutes to less than methodically murdering the remaining patients, all in varying stages of memory loss.

Are there any redeeming elements of this film? I'm sure some might argue that so much lovely bare flesh, carelessly utilized as it is, is always its own reward. Maybe so, but there's exposing skin and there's eroticizing the human body, and I'm not convinced the latter is achieved here. This film is also billed as horror, with an admonishment about not watching if you can't handle gore, but there's precious little blood spilled, either, making the film thus far 0.5/2. However, I will give Night of the Hunted credit for its underlying premise -- brutalized as it was in execution for the sake of more skin-shots. Yes, a good film about mass memory loss could be created with the same basic plot points as this one, if revisited by more skilled hands -- so if Night of the Hunted accomplishes anything, it's to stoke my desire to watch a better director make just such an attempt. But that's really the only good I see in this film -- and even then, I have to admit that just about anything would be an improvement upon director Jean Rollin's attempt. So take that slight praise as you will.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: Friends willing to help mock the film, and maybe a porn magazine or two to off-set its paper-thin excuses for female nudity and sexual content. How these two aids mesh with one another is... up to you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


TITLE: The Game
TAGLINE: Players Wanted
DESCRIPTION: Wealthy financier Nicholas Van Orton gets a strange birthday present from wayward brother Conrad: a live-action game that consumes his life. [IMDB]
DIRECTOR: David Fincher
YEAR: 1997
RUNTIME: 129 min

The Game was the first film novelization I read as a child -- a fact I distinctly recall because I didn't realize the book came from a movie until a couple years after. And oh, the betrayal I felt at this discovery, alongside a terrible shame for being hoodwinked! After all, I understood books being converted into films was a sort of tribute to the ideas therein -- one that could then bring attention to the original texts -- but why on earth would anyone want to go backwards? Surely it was cheaper (if not less time-consuming) just to watch the film? And how could a novelization ever be better than the film -- if it was bound to the fully realized format of the latter, how could it live anything but a half-life on the page?

I was so angry with the whole perceived scam of the thing, and how much love it stripped in me for the compelling story laid out in a book so long out of print neither Wikipedia nor Amazon now have any memory of its existence, that I steadfastly refused to watch the film. Nonetheless, a mere eleven years later, I finally put aside that childhood prejudice and let the story wash over me anew, in its original, cinematic form.

By this point, I'd been watching enough of a run of '70s horror that a film presenting an entirely different atmosphere -- just as soft, and dark, and gritty, but for all its action sequences still a much more interior piece -- was itself a delight. More so was how well-suited Michael Douglas seemed for his role as Nicholas Van Orton, a business magnate brooding on his fortieth birthday about his father's suicide at that same age. In deft, quiet strokes, Douglas sketches in the first few scenes a man whose whole adult life seems a series of cold-hearted choices predicated on a deep, internal uncertainty about the possible inheritance of such fatal inclinations.

Director David Fincher wisely gives Douglas wide berth for this portrayal, inserting rough film footage to help enhance Van Orton's memories of his father's death, but not so much as to detract from the audience's primary fixation on Douglas's emotional state at the outset of the film. This is crucial, because so much of the cinematography focuses on Douglas in close-up that scenes where the camera pulls away are clearly intended to make us feel his isolation as much as we feel our own isolation from him -- and neither would be possible if we didn't have reason to care about him first. And yet, for all his asshole traits in the lap of riches and luxury, we do: thanks to Douglas, the smoldering undercurrent of his character's emotional pain is quite clear.

Then we meet Sean Penn as Nicholas's brother, Conrad, and when he presents Nicholas with a gift of an enigmatic, purportedly life-altering game, the thriller element kicks in. After a day-long run of pre-game aptitude tests, coy conversations with either ex-game players or paid props of the game itself, and even a formal rejection from the company initially offering the game, Nicholas's wild ride begins -- starting with seemingly simple insertions but quickly amounting to situations that leave him with the terrifying realization that this game is just one big trick to get at his money and ruin both his and his brother's lives. By the end of the film, Nicholas is left with nothing -- except, of course, a choice: or rather, the choice that took his father's life. What emerges from this point on drastically changes the lens through which the bulk of the film should be viewed -- and for most viewers, is the final test of suspended disbelief. If you can accept what happens after as even moderately plausible, the whole film fits together like a perfect puzzle; if you can't, those two hours and nine minutes will just feel tedious and overlong, and most assuredly not that thrilling.

To outline this divide in viewer reactions, and arguments for or against it, would unfortunately be to spill the heart of the story's premise -- and yet, having read and vividly recalled the novelization all throughout my viewing experience, I can confidently, pleasantly say that knowing the outcome (unlike with The Sixth Sense) in no way diminishes the quality of the atmosphere or the character development in the piece (although parts in the middle did feel a little heavy, and dragged on). Ultimately, Michael Douglas does an exemplary job building and maintaining the protagonist's character; Fincher does an equally strong job staging the shots so as not to treat his viewers as morons; and supporting actors Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger provide very distinct, believable offsets in the scope of this universe. Is it a quiet film? Yes. Is it a ground-breaking film? Not really. Did I feel satisfied having finally put aside the childhood prejudice? Definitely.

And yet, since we're already talking about twist endings, I might as well end with a doozy for this review: Even if only for the more thoughtful explanations laid out in print, as opposed to the stark brevity of those on-screen, I have to say, that piddling film novelization I read a good twelve years back? Might just have been the better of the two after all. Too bad it's long since out of print.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: Patience, and a strong conviction that the decision-making processes of any one human being can be mapped and anticipated even when they're under duress.

Monday, December 14, 2009


TITLE: Devil's Nightmare
DESCRIPTION: A group of tourists, each representing one of the seven deadly sins, spends a terror-filled evening in a castle previously owned by a man who made a pact with Satan. Throw in '70s Euro-beauty Erika Blanc as a homicidal succubus, and you have a rather captivating piece of vintage gothic Belgian/Italian horror-sleaze.
DIRECTOR: Jean Brismee
YEAR: 1974
RUNTIME: 95 min

Other reviews of this film (the positive ones, at least) would have you believe this is, without a doubt, a "bad movie," but so bad it's actually great fun to watch. I was tempted to frame my review the same way, until it occurred to me that the rhetoric of that last statement is entirely self-serving: It's a cop-out way of saying I really enjoyed something despite its schlocky heritage, and to save face when others -- especially those unfamiliar with the common tropes and gimmicks of that same heritage -- find nothing redeeming about this piece at all.

But the truth is, I don't think this is a bad film. Quite the opposite: I found Devil's Nightmare to be exceptionally enjoyable on a surface level, as romping-good Euro-horror; and on a deeper level, I also found it to be a smart film -- that crucial difference between good films and truly good "bad" films. After all, with most bad films enjoyment is derived from unintended responses, such as when viewers laugh at something that's supposed to be scary or serious; or when more irony exists for the viewer than was originally laid out in the script. But if a film more routinely has you feeling the thrill of foreknowledge at times of its own choosing, and if there are indeed surprises of a gruesome or anticipatory nature embedded in the actual narrative, then it doesn't matter if the film hails from a time of flimsy plot premises and well-worn genre devices: It has done what it set out to do, and should be lauded for that success.

Certainly, there are missteps in this film (among which, a brief intrusion of sleazy soft-core reigns supreme), but what I found more striking was just how much actually works as part of a coherent whole. The film opens with a scene in Berlin, 1945, where the Baron-father of a newborn daughter takes the girl's life in her cradle. Is this just a case of aristocratic misogyny run amok? There's room for the viewer to wonder as the opening credits roll -- but soon enough a more tragic motive appears: the Baron's family has a curse affixed to the eldest daughter of any descendant, and if let live she will become a succubus to Satan himself. The Baron relates this story to a reporter years later, from his centuries-old castle home, and after the reporter dies of fright from what she witnesses on the property, seven tourists find themselves stranded in the region, in need of lodgings for the night. They aren't the only ones, however, and the addition of the stunning red-head Erika Blanc sets the whole evening's dark affairs in motion.

You can see, then, the tired tropes at play: the dark family secret, the foray of wide-eyed outsiders to a troubled European castle, the beautiful, enigmatic female lead, the foregrounding of the supernatural. But there are immediate, arresting differences, too. For one, the tourists' characters are drawn in more subtle strokes than one might expect -- so much so that a later thesis on the seven mortal sins is not readily apparent, while in hindsight a young priest's chess game with demon-pieces makes perfect sense as foreshadow. And the dialogue, though plagued by often distractingly bad dubbing, is itself measured and lively, with plot-progressing lines pleasingly interspersed among asides that build character tension in an organic fashion.

But the surprises don't just lie with engaging dialogue or distinct characters: The very turns in the film also hold their own, pleasing weight. The first time Blanc reveals her true face to viewers, the early special effects characterizing this transformation are nothing to scoff at; and there's something eerily reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum in the way implements of torture do her bidding in the castle's dark underbelly.

Yes, there are moments when the horror slips into comic artifice, such as when Blanc pulls at her cross-scalded face in anguish before the prideful young priest, but in the end director Jean Brismee surely, knowingly plays one final feat of strength by revealing his Satan as something quite true to Bergman's Seventh Seal (the sharp-boned figure of actor Daniel Emilfork certainly helping in this regard) and completes his piece with a next-day reverie of hauntingly ambiguous proportions. Are the souls who dared spend a night in the succubus' haunt truly saved, or did the penultimate deal with the devil last little longer than the blood upon which it was writ?

A film with character depth, sufficiently engaging dialogue, true moments of intentional irony and fright, and an ending both enigmatic and rich in reference to its predecessors surely cannot be called a bad film. Devil's Nightmare has all the absurdity of its stylistic archetypes against it, and it groans at times under the burden of the genre's expectations, but the piece is nonetheless well-orchestrated -- and a pleasure I hope to have occasion to watch again.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A dark night, a cold room, and much love for the best of bad euro-horror.

Friday, December 11, 2009


TITLE: Cold Eyes of Fear
DESCRIPTION: A young London lawyer finds himself in a prickly situation after taking home an escort and discovering his butler dead, and a ruffian on hand with a gun. After maneuvering a delicate phone call from his uncle, a judge, requesting information at the young lawyer's disposal, the judge sends an officer to the house with a legal missive. But the officer is in on the hold-up, too! And it soon emerges that a quest for vengeance against the judge is the driving force behind the whole, muddled hostage situation.
DIRECTOR: Enzo G. Castellari
YEAR: 1971
RUNTIME: 95 min

After an agonizingly tedious pre-film introduction, care of the Redemption Films brand, Cold Eyes of Fear opens slowly but surely into the seedy underbelly of 1970s London life. Just as the tone of the opening encounter, between a lawyer and the escort he's just picked up, lulls you into the expectation of a rather underwhelming "mood piece," director Enzo G. Castellari does something interesting with his lighting: he has the young couple knock into a low chandelier, pointedly drawing the audience's attention to the light source that then frames, in pendulous passing, a very striking set of close-up images of the young lawyer falling over his escort on a table. Then the body of the lawyer's butler falls into view, interrupting the whole affair.

In that moment, I knew Castellari had the capacity to intrigue and surprise, and with this in mind I watched closely as a coarse criminal with a terrible English accent entered the fray; as tense close-ups of each character's eyes lit up the screen over and over in various, overdone sequences; as a phone call from the lawyer's uncle, a judge, in the middle of the enigmatic hold-up raised the stakes; as all hope for rescue from a subsequently dispatched officer fizzled as the man behind the uniform turned out to be the brains behind the hold-up after all.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, my interest thinned again. A strained attempt to cast the escort and coarse criminal as peas in a pod (and similar with the "higher intellects" of the lawyer and upper-class criminal) fell irredeemably flat when a bonk to the coarse criminal's head conveniently gave him a comic bout of amnesia. And the script was especially useless around the matter of the escort, who, having been trapped in a scenario that truly didn't involve her, frittered away this great potential tension on stiff and oddly-timed outbursts.

This failure to adequately divide or unite the conflicts between lawyer and past-defendant, and between low-brow criminal and "woman of loose morals," is a fairly good metaphor for the whole film's failure to divide the strengths of two distinct sub-genres resonating in Cold Eyes of Fear -- the home invasion piece, and the giallo, or criminal mystery. The former demands a great deal of exploitation and related action in their confined quarters, of which this film has precious little. Meanwhile, the latter demands a certain precision and logic to the developing story that fits in with the scope of the criminal's actions... and the viewer instead gets an overly complicated revenge plot existing solely so the criminal and lawyer-nephew have the opportunity to haggle about vague, meandering nuance surrounding a case never clearly laid out for the audience to consider on its own.

However, Castellari hadn't entirely nodded off in the course of this exhausting second act -- and when an explosion does occur in the third, the audience chances upon another striking snippet of excellent cinematography. Sadly, that's the last interesting twist (plot- or cinematography-related alike) in the whole, sordid affair, leaving this viewer with the following question: Did Castellari just assume the best surprises are doled out in exceptionally tiny increments, or did the man capable of creating those two bright moments of cinematic intrigue also think the rest of the piece equally up to snuff?

I'm left, therefore, with little to praise about this particular film except for a redeeming soundtrack, care of Ennio Morricone, but as giallos were far from Castellari's specialty (he directed, among other things, The Inglorious Bastards and a slew of spaghetti Westerns), and as he showed himself to have very clear moments of insight in his cinematography for Cold Eyes of Fear, I know I will be looking forward, with great curiosity, to the next Castellari flick that falls my way.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A sharp-shooter's eye for brief moments of very interesting cinematography, and a stiff drink for all the rest.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


TITLE: China Gate
DESCRIPTION: Ten former soldiers are given one last chance to prove themselves as they are called up for a mission some 17 years after they last went into battle. But the enemy proves to be formidable in this Bollywood feature.
DIRECTOR: Rajkumar Santoshi
YEAR: 1998
RUNTIME: 179 min

At the outset, I should mention this was my first Bollywood film -- and in so being, a real treat simply for exposing me to a very distinct narrative format. And what a format! Within the first few minutes we get the dishonourable discharge of a group of soldiers (for cowardice in the line of duty), the tyranny of a fearsome bandit named Jageera in an isolated village, the bluntly portrayed suicide preparations of Colonel Krishnakant Puri, and finally the nick-of-time interruption of a woman seeking aid on behalf of her father, brutally slain by the aforementioned dacoit Jageera in an attempt to save their people.

And if this isn't dizzying enough, when the Colonel decides to help this woman, he does so first by sending letters to all his similarly dishonoured comrades -- so of course we're then treated to snapshot vignettes of the other men's lives, the whole of their respective characters encapsulated in brief, often comic archetypes. One's a drunk who can never pay his tab but talks grandly of his importance to the country; another can't hack it in security because he's just too damn tough; another still loves to eat and eat and eat... You get the idea.

Next to the earlier, immensely chilling scene of a boy wailing for his mother at the foot of his father's strung-up body, Jageera caressing the boy's tear-streaked cheek with a blade as vultures call for their impending supper, the antics imparted by these character sketches are striking -- even off-putting -- to the uninitiated. It will be another half hour or so before the Bollywood beginner gets a handle on the inner workings of such a tempo and atmosphere, to say nothing of the absurdly dramatic dialogue; and much longer before she'll be able to decide if this particular film uses those metrics of the genre effectively.

Because I haven't yet seen the 1975 hit Sholay -- the "Curry Western" itself inspired by Seven Samurai, and a great deal of the inspiration for this more contemporary Bollywood classic -- let alone any of the other contemporary offerings from the world's largest film industry, I simply want to comment on the metrics themselves. Specifically, what the blunt character-building conveys (in conjunction with the film's extraordinary run-time) is that the director's aim is to build an epic -- a sprawling story larger than any one person's journey -- but not an epic so serious it forgets the humour and the diversity of real life. Rather, an epic that off-sets any inherent pomp and circumstance with the cheeky humility of over-acting and full-out comedy.

In China Gate, this approach is amply confirmed by the Chumma Chumma song-and-dance sequence, an absolute jewel of a traditional interlude planted after a fleeting success emerges in the main plot (and yes, it inspired the "Chumba Chumba" song in Moulin Rouge). It's an extraordinarily enchanting performance: Unlike Western musicals, the female lead in a Bollywood dance number is often secondary to the main plot, creating the suggestion that the whole cast is "taking five" from the main action right along with the audience. And for all the fumbling and slap-shod fight scenes in the rest of the film, you can bet your top dollar the choreography in the dance sequences will be immaculate.

I have but one warning to the fellow, novice Bollywood-watcher: Don't try to look up the lyrics for the interlude song while you're watching the film. When the subtitles suddenly disappear from your screen, you'll be sorely tempted to find out that "Chumma Chumma" means "Jingle Jingle," and that the lead dancer is talking about how her jingling bells will steal a man's breath away, but DON'T DO IT. Research the lyrics in advance, or else wait until after the film, and just enjoy the performance while it's there -- otherwise you'll have to go back and watch it all over: Yes, the song-and-dance is that enchanting.

All in all, after my first experience with a Bollywood film, I'm left wondering about the strengths of the genre in comparison to very character-driven efforts in the West. I keep thinking especially of the Oscars, which notoriously subordinates the place of comedy in serious film. And then I think of the roots of cinema -- Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton: all masters of a form that blended slapstick with profound social commentary. And what of Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, a timeless silent film masterpiece that matches heart-wrenching trauma with a drunken piglet run amok?

Which is to say that the blatant differences between Bollywood and Western cinema may indeed be quite contemporary; and while we may no longer critically acclaim those Western works that join blunt comedy with equally straightforward tragedy, this is no more an indictment against Bollywood than against our own, oft-forgotten cinematic past. In short, China Gate -- while likely not the best Bollywood has to offer, and perhaps a little long (though I'll know better when I get around to Sholay) -- most assuredly piqued my interest in watching more.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A love of over-the-top-acting, ridiculous premises, hackneyed fight scenes, and singing and dancing!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New to the Store: Week of 8 December

'tis the season when smaller releases are fewer on the ground due to all the behemoths.

Cove, The
Fox and the Child, The
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Informers, The
Julie & Julia (also Blu Ray)
Public Enemies (also Blu Ray)
World's Greatest Dad

Our shipment of Henry Porter blurays was delayed, we should have them Thursday or Friday.


For some blisteringly foolhardy reason, I took on the challenge of watching Gen X videos in the order they're listed in the stacks. In the coming months I'll try to post the fruit of these exploits as close to daily as I can (yes, the store hours will inevitably be far more reliable than these posts: Check out our holiday schedule the next time you're by!). If even one of these listings guides you to brave a new, strange title on your next visit, I'll consider my work done!

TITLE: The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance
DESCRIPTION: Gothic lesbians prowl the corridors of a miserable little castle somewhere in Italy and fall prey to a deranged count, resplendent with canine gnashers, a fairly ghastly complexion and the personality of Pol Pot. This is Italian gothic with the added bonus of some bizarre breast gropings amongst the kitchen staff and other dubious sexual shenanigans.
DIRECTOR: Alfredo Rizzo
YEAR: 1975
RUNTIME: 89 min

There is a point to every film made -- not always a laudable point, and certainly not always a good point, but a point nonetheless. Sometimes, when you know what the director's aim was supposed to be, it's easier to ignore the failings of the film in other capacities. At other times, it's not immediately apparent what the director was shooting for -- and then you have to wait the movie out, if you have the patience, until the pieces fall into place.

The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance is tragically one of the latter films: Not only are there no bloodsuckers, and precious little in the way of dancing, but even the production company's blurb for the film, relating how "gothic lesbians ... fall prey to a deranged count, resplendent with canine gnashers, a fairly ghastly complexion and the personality of Pol Pot" sorely misrepresents the culprit or crimes that take place in the course of the film (as if drastic rewrites or post-production plot changes weren't fully addressed in the marketing department).

And before viewers can even set themselves to the task of deciding what director Alfredo Rizzo's aims were, they have to endure a bizarre introduction to the film: a cheesy Bravo UK soft-core experience, care of the Redemption Films brand. For all the bared breasts and dripping blood, it's rather tedious -- and worse, an awful intro to the film itself. All Redemption Films start with some variation on this introduction, though, so just zip through it if you can.

When you do, the film opens with a straightforward premise: a count inviting an acting troupe of women and their emasculated manager to join him for the weekend at his castle. Within the first 24 hours of their stay, numerous excuses for female soft-core nudity emerge -- lesbians frolicking in their bed-chamber, another woman warming to the count's affections, the odd woman out making merry with one of the count's servants, two kitchen assistants exploring each other's breasts in recounting the tale of their lesbian guests. In fact, if this film were to be believed, the act of intercourse involves little more than the fondling of breasts -- just one of the cute consequences of erotic films skirting censorship in their day.

But the real tragedy emerges alongside the first death, a brutal affair involving one of the women in the troupe. Immediately, the lack of grief or even interest in this grotesque occurrence among the other women wears at the thin semblance of the film's plot, and from there a meagre fare of suspense and subsequent deaths leads to a wooden, drawn-out penultimate scene where suddenly it clicks for the viewer: The whole thrust of the plot was just an excuse for as much bared flesh as possible.

This is a sad realization, because -- much like the soft-core content itself -- The Bloodsucker... is exceptionally top-heavy with erotic scenes, so this epiphany about the leaden acting and stiff, flimsy plot that dominate the latter half of the film comes too late for viewers to forget about the plot in its entirety and focus on the main event.

Truly, if the film had even ended with another wanton display of female flesh, it would have succeeded in its aim. As it is, Rizzo's effort ultimately yields a lightweight soft-core scenario with a laborious plot tacked on for the second half. There are better, more efficient vehicles for buxom broads: The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance is a sad waste of healthy flesh, and not worth watching past the last done-up blouse.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: A love of breasts and bad acting -- there's plenty of both to go around!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dude Movies: Star Trek (2009)

What’s it about?
Alternate-universe Star Trek: The College Years crew team up to fight the evil Romulan evil plan of evil to destroy the universe out of spite, pretty much.

Any chicks in the movie?
Zoe Saldaña as Lt. Uhuru, who looks like Nichelle Nichols run through a Beyoncé brand hottifying machine.

Awesomeness Factor?
Warp 10. By all rights, the ancient and wheezing Star Trek franchise should have been hung out to dry a couple of decades ago, were it not for the life support granted by fandom’s most irritating dweebs.* Director and geek saviour J.J. Abrams, who can apparently do no wrong, wisely moves away from the dramatic inertia that’s plagued the series since The Next Generation days and replaces it with what Trek should have been all along: crazy-ass spaceman adventures in space. Abrams and his screenwriters understand that, at it’s core, Trek is really fucking stupid, so whenever the story calls for some patented Star Trek sci-fi twaddle like “I have opened the control valves to the matter-anti-matter nacelles”***, Abrams wisely decides to have the cast speak it as possible in order to get to more of the good stuff, like Kirk and Sulu swordfighting Romulans**** or watching entire planets blow up. They also make the indescribably wise decision to move away from the absolute dominance of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic to up the badass quotient for the rest of the crew, making it a more organic ensemble piece than the source material ever felt. The movie also looks great, too, positing a bright utopian future where spaceship bridge decks can be mistaken for an Apple Genius Bars and green-skinned chicks from Orion can really party. Given Abrams’ propensity for coating every corner of the screen in lens flare, watching this new, revitalized Star Trek is not unlike the feeling of being a baby and having a kindly uncle shake his keys at you. Sure, it’s juvenile, but you gotta admit those keys are shiny.

Mitigated by?
But speaking of the script: time-travelling through wormholes? Really? Ooooooh, I bet the next movie will have a holodeck mishap.

* Seriously, I’ve been a hardcore geek nerdboy my entire life and even I can’t stand Trekkies. They have this weird sense of both entitlement and superiority, which is ludicrous because Star Trek has the intellectual depth of Teenage Mutant Ninja** Turtles comic. They’re kind of like the nerdverse’s version of Republicans.

** I just wanted to write the word “ninja” again.

*** Original series, season 2, episode 22, “By Any Other Name”. Because even though I hate Star Trek, I also seem to have it memorized.

**** Not sure what the deal was with the Romulans, who aren’t styled as wild rage-o-nauts so much as slightly perturbed Tool fans. Also, note to Hollywood: face tats do not make people look edgy, it makes them look like gay bikers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New to the Store: Week of 1 December


Cook, Dane: Isolated Incident
Five Minutes of Heaven
Flame and Citron
Girl Seeks Girl
Into the Storm
Lost: Season 5
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian
Pale Force
Somers Town
Terminator: Salvation
Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles: Season 2
Watchmen: Ultimate Cut


Closer, The: Season 2
Closer, The: Season 3
Eagles over London
Golden Age of Television, The
Silent Night, Deadly Night: Parts 3-5
Three Men and a Cradle
Tora-San #1: Our Lovable Tramp
Tora-San #2: Tora-San's Cherished Mother
Tora-San #3: His Tender Love
Tora-San #4: Tora-San's Grand Scheme


Funny People
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian
Terminator: Salvation