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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

SEX & FURY (1973)

In recent years I've often asked myself whether or not the bona fide exploitation film, as we once knew it, is an extinct breed. I look at the output of the majority of moviemakers of the past two decades or so and am pretty much forced to admit that such appears to be the case. The grindhouses that once inhabited the seamier parts of the nation's cities are nearly all gone and Hollywood certainly no longer has the balls to provide us with anything even remotely like the over-the-top violent, gory, and nudity-saturated fun that so many of us grew up on and still hold dear —GRINDHOUSE and the most recent RAMBO being rare exceptions — so I'm thankful that DVD is there to make up for the loss. Watching sleazy crap in one's home is nowhere near as fun as sharing the experience with an audience reminiscent of the rampaging Zulu nation on amphetamines while worrying about the borderline-condemned theater collapsing on top of you, but I guess it'll have to do. It's a state that saddens me, though, because SEX & FURY is exactly the kind of movie that would have gone over quite well at the late, lamented Norwalk Theater.

SEX & FURY comes from the glorious period in the early 1970's when it appeared that many Japanese filmmakers had either completely lost their minds or imbibed a two-liter helping of Tennessee sippin '-whiskey, and the exploitation flicks resulting from that crazed state of mind were marvelous examples of sex and violence that often put our own homegrown efforts to shame. There are many who laud SEX & FURY with such descriptions as "the best exploitation movie ever made" and suchlike, and I'm the first to admit it's entertaining as a motherfucker, but it is by no means perfect...

Reiko Ike as Inoshika Ocho, one of the best of Japanese cinema's legion of badassed chicks.

Starring the cooler-than-cool Reiko Ike as the wandering gambler/pickpocket Inoshika Ocho, this flick takes place in 1905 and follows her adventures through Japan's Meiji period's underbelly as she searches for those responsible for the murder of her detective father some twenty years previous. During the course of her wanderings, Ocho calls "bullshit" on the cheating of a dealer in a yakuza-run card game, something a veteran gambler like herself would notice, and watches in shocked horror as the dealer is immediately killed in order to preserve his boss' reputation (although the boss secretly ordered the dealer to cheat). As the man dies in her arms, he tasks Ocho with giving his sister a sum of cash that will buy her out of prostitution, but the evil yakuza boss decides to have Ocho killed before that can happen and sends his men to murder her as she luxuriates in a hot tub. What follows is a spectacular fusion of sex and violence as Ocho leaps from the tub, stark naked, grabs a short sword and proceeds to kill every man in sight. This takes place about eleven minutes into the movie and is one of the few fight sequences in any film where the slow motion employed throughout in no way hurts the flow of the action, plus it allows us to see how a naked woman's bits are affected by gravity and motion as she swordfights like some demon straight out of Hell. Both awesome and educational!

Ocho's hot tub massacre: the scene that made this movie a classic.

By the time the sequence is over, Ocho's covered from head to toe with blood and has made her way outside into the gambling house's snowy courtyard, a location that will look familiar to anyone who's seen QuentinTarantino's KILL BILL VOL. 1 (or 1973's LADY SNOWBLOOD, for that matter).

Anyway, Ocho goes off in search of the dead guy's sister, and her search coincidentally brings her into contact with two of the three tattooed miscreants responsible for her father's assassination, and those two scumbags used information obtained from Ocho's dad to build political careers for themselves, positions from which they got up to all kinds of corrupt doings. Ocho's path also brings her into contact with Christina (the awesome Swedish cutie Christina Lindberg of THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE and ANITA fame), a former celebrated dancer who now works as a professional gambler and spy for the British government; the sad-eyed Christina accepted the spy gig as a way to get to travel to Japan to once more see her lover, Shunosuke (Masataka Naruse ), who is himself in direct conflict with the corrupt government officials as a radical leftist. Poor Christina finds herself a pawn in the machinations of her superior, Guinness (the atrociously bad actor Mark Darling), who seeks to set up an opium operation, and to facilitate that he gives Christina to one of the corrupt officials, which of course leads to a lesbian scene that swiftly evolves into a three-way that leads to the revelation of...

Aw, who cares? By this point in the story any attempt at a plot recap is kind of pointless since the plots all converge in kind of a narrative train wreck, but it all ends in an ever-escalating cavalcade of depravity, debauchery, gory violence, nudity, switchblade-wielding nuns who show up from out of nowhere,

and the indelible image of Christina Lindberg clad in anachronistic hippie/Injun fringy buckskins, applying a bullwhip to a trussed-up Ocho in an underground dungeon decorated with huge stained glass images of Christ and a psychedelic light show.

SEX & FURY doesn't always make a whole lot of sense, but it is undeniably fun and entertaining. However, it does get bogged down by how convoluted the plot gets about two thirds of the way in, to say nothing of the mostly uninvolving romantic subplot about Christina and Shunosuke. Yeah, it's great to have Lindberg around, but her delivery of English is stilted at best, and although she's supposed to be playing a Brit she nonetheless speaks with a thick Swedish accent (the guy playing her superior's far worse and has none of her soulfulness, so I'll happily cut her some slack). And when she and Shunosuke are briefly reunited, what's supposed to be a tender sequence instead becomes an embarrassing display of two actors who don't speak English being asked to do just that, and it's truly agonizing to watch.

On the plus side, we have some truly vile villains who are in sore need of slaying, and the terrific presence of Reiko Ike as Ocho, who just plain exudes tough-gal confidence and single-mindedness throughout. She's a joy to watch and deserves all the kudos she receives for this performance, especially during the butt-nekkid fight sequence. She's totally comfortable with running around nude and slashing deserving rat-bastards, something not many exploitation movie actresses would have been, maybe not even Pam Grier during her prime, and she's amazing to watch. The scene's nudity is not exactly what I'd call gratuitous or sexy, instead being a matter-of-fact look at what would most likely happen if some badassed woman were attacked as she was bathing and then took the fight to her utterly surprised assailants. The one question I have about the scene is just how they were able to shoot a four-minute slow motion sequence where the protagonist is both head-to-toe nude and in constant motion, but at no point do we see a trace of her bush. It's a masterpiece of camera placement, the actress hitting her marks, choreography, and, above all, some of the tightest film editing I've ever seen.

So I say definitely check out the many sleazy charms on display in SEX & FURY. It may not be all it's been hyped up as, but it's a damned fun way to spend an hour and a half.

Reiko Ike and Christina Lindberg: what more could you ask for?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1973)

Pixieish Christina Lindberg as Frigga, perhaps the ultimate put-upon exploitation movie heroine.

When Sweden's 1973 THRILLER - EN GRYM FILM found its way to these shores in 1974, it was known by several different titles, including HOOKER'S REVENGE and THEY CALL HER ONE EYE, and was exhibited with some twenty-five minutes of footage excised. It's been out on DVD in the United States for the past few years in two restored versions — the "vengeance" edition, and the more explicit limited edition — and having spent much time pondering its merits since seeing it when unleashed in its fully uncut form, I have to say that it's almost the letter-perfect example of a seventies-era exploitation flick. You'll note that I say "almost," so allow me to elucidate.

Poster from the shorn -of-twenty-five-minutes U.S. release.

THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE falls squarely into the tried and true exploitation category of the revenge film, and its all-too-human and horrifying scenarios are absolutely not recommended for the squeamish or the easily-offended. The protagonist is Frigga, a young woman whose sexual assault at age eight rendered her mute, played with agonized melancholy by the innocent-looking yet totally hot Christina Lindberg, one of the few actresses who's so cute that I willingly sit through any Euro-trash softcore movie that she's in, most notably 1973's ANITA . One day during her teen years, Frigga makes the grave error of accepting a lift from Tony (Heinz Hopf), who promptly kidnaps her, addicts her to heroin, and forces her into prostitution.

Frigga contemplates her one joy in life.

The poor mute girl endures untold numbers of sleazy customers of both genders — let's call it what it is: this is rape after rape after rape — but when she works up some gumption and refuses a client, her pimp graphically stabs her in the eye, from which point the tortured lass sports an eye patch. Frigga's is a hellish existence of getting shot up with horse and being used by vile creeps — in one shocking instance, we witness hardcore scenes of penetration as a body-double takes a plowing from an overweight, hairy John — and when she discovers that her pimp has sent her parents a vicious letter that they believe is from her, she is finally pushed over the edge upon finding that the letter broke her parents' hearts so badly that they committed suicide. Frigga then gets her shit together enough to take karate, offensive/defensive driving, and firearms lessons on her off-days (yes, she actually is left to her own devices on her days off, her captors knowing full well that she'll be back for more heroin), and once she has that skill set in place she goes after her tormentors like a pint-sized Fury straight of the darkest tales of Greek mythology.

Now I don't know what you may think, but that sounds like it could have been the greatest exploitation movie ever made, loaded as it is with sex and violence from start to finish and a heroine any decent human being could not help but root for and want to see unleash righteous vengeance, but THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE has a couple of things going against it that hamper its potential classic ranking. First of all it's a Swedish film, and Swedish cinema is not known for lively pacing or even characters you can really find yourself emotionally connecting with. Like the country they hail from, Swedish films can be very cold and stark, and even their legendary pornography shares those traits, something that was largely overlooked back in the days when American porn wasn't yet allowed to be as "I am your gynecologist" explicit as its foreign contemporaries. Everyone in this film speaks in a lugubrious monotone and after a while I felt like I was dreaming all of it, or else I was under the influence of some particularly choice Mexican cough syrup, and that zombification of the proceedings is not in any way helped by the questionable choice of having Frigga's revenge scenes be rendered in snail-paced slow motion. Nothing kills a movie's action like slow motion, and here it buries the film and plants a fucking tombstone atop the fresh grave.

The lovely Christina Lindberg. I know it's all pretend, but she's the last person I'd want to see any of this stuff happen to.

But even with those obvious defects, one cannot deny the power of star Christina Lindberg's performance. Frigga's a character that life has chosen to shit upon since her childhood and her revolving door of graphic abuse is very hard to watch, endurable only because the tenets of the genre dictate that she will rally herself and savagely execute those who so severely wronged her by the time the final reel unspools. Secure in that knowledge, the viewer is nonetheless dragged along through her journey into a horribly personal hell, utterly unable to help her, offer her comfort, or rescue her thanks to being a filmgoing observer. Lindberg's childlike face is expressive to a painful degree, and her deep, sad eyes convey Frigga's misery far more effectively than any words could have hoped to. Everything she suffers only puts us that much more firmly on her side, and there is nothing even remotely titillating about her many nude scenes, although Lindberg's look captures a curious blend of childlike innocence and very much adult sexuality. I swear I wanted to reach into the film and throw a king-sized blanket over her to protect Frigga's dignity, and I would be shocked if you didn't find yourself sharing that sentiment. Not since Camille Keaton in the even more harsh I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) have I been so moved by a desire to stop the narrative and take the heroine away to a nice, comfy cottage somewhere, draw her a nice, hot bath, and hand her something very strong to drink.

So for me THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE is something of an odd duck. It's a theoretically perfect example of its breed, but I have a difficult time recommending it to anyone other than genre completists because of its flaws and the fact that it's simply one of the bleakest films I've ever seen. It's certainly not a date movie, and there's barely a sense of triumph when Frigga destroys her exploiters at the film's end. Frigga is a ruined and debased human being when all is said and done, still an addict and now, unfortunately, a murderess as well. This film comes from a place of utter blackness and misery and should probably be avoided by all but the hardiest of grindhouse-dwellers.

Poster from the original Swedish theatrical release.