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Monday, December 12, 2011

70 YEARS OF THE WOLFMAN

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the release if THE WOLF MAN, perhaps the seminal werewolf film and the movie from which most of the general public's knowledge of lupine lycanthropes is garnered. One of the very best of Universal's classic cycle of horror films from the 1930's and 1940's, this tale of one innocent man's horrifying curse still has considerable tragic power despite its age and the changing styles and tastes in filmmaking. If you've never seen it, you owe it to your film education to check it out immediately. Here's the trailer:

Monday, November 28, 2011

THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN (1977)

"Her pussy's in this plot, too! She's using it to murder me!'
-the king of the Underworld, shortly after Bruce Lee saves him from being fucked to death by Emmanuelle. (Yes, you read that right.)

If you're a regular reader of this site, you know I love and cherish movies from many genres that could kindly be called "completely fucking ludicrous." With that in mind, please allow me to introduce you the what is hands down the most insane, ridiculous, stupid, and just plain downright shameless example of the deservedly maligned "Brucesploitation" genre. For those not aware of its dubious existence, the Brucesploitation sub-genre of martial arts films were cheapie cash-ins made in the wake of Bruce Lee's untimely demise, invariably starring dudes who bore a passing resemblance to the master at best, and none of whom were anywhere near being within the same galaxy of Lee's skills. The legion of those films are mostly boring and outright necrophiliac trash, but THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN is both wildly entertaining and an intentional comedy, and as such it deserves to be not only rediscovered but also restored and remastered. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that this film is more entertaining than any actual Bruce Lee movie. How, you may ask, is that possible? Allow me to explain...

Bruce Lee's priapic corpse arrives in the Underworld.

It's 1973 and the great Bruce Lee is dead. His corpse, equipped with cool shades and what appears to be a raging hard-on — no, really — arrives in what is apparently an Asian variant of purgatory, and we are informed that when people die, their bodies and faces change so they no longer look like they did when alive and kicking (which is a convenient way of glossing over star Bruce Leung's utter non-resemblance to Bruce Lee). After arrogantly insulting the king of the Underworld and being given back his chucks (which were taken away when they were revealed not to be an impressive boner), Bruce wanders the local streets and encounters a number of majorly copyright-infringed characters in a noodle restaurant. We're talking Popeye (played by Chinese actor Eric Tsang) and Kwai Chang Caine from KUNG FU (played this time not by David Carradine, but by an actual Chinese guy) on the side of good, and Zatoichi, James Bond (!!!) and Clint Eastwood (played by a Chinese actor and dressed like the Man with No Name from the classic Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns).

Kwai Chang Caine, Bruce Lee, and Popeye...Motherfucking Popeye?!!? What the fuck???

Meanwhile, the aged and exceedingly horny king of the Underworld is having problems with his wives because they've gotten wind of Bruce Lee's newly-arrived presence and they, like every other woman in the Underworld, are devoured by lust at the mere thought of him, even Emmanuelle (who's apparently the concubine of the Exorcist). Yes, that Emmanuelle, and she even describes herself as "a silly little pussy."

NOTE: For you readers who may have come along after the dire days when decent porn was not as readily available as it is now, the Emmanulle character, initially portrayed by Sylvia Kristel, first showed up in a 1974 French softcore erotic film that went on to become a massive international hit, after which there followed a succession of sequels — around thirty-six at last count; no, seriously — the vast majority of which did not feature the original actress. From the dawn of home video and the ubiquity of cable TV, practically every kid I grew up with saw at least the first Emmanuelle movie and were mostly bored silly by it, its considerable amount of full-frontal nudity notwithstanding, so to those of us of a certain age the mere mention of that name is evocative of a key moment in our adolescent development. The point here being that in the world of cinema, the character of Emmanuelle was nearly as much of a household name as Bruce Lee, only reigning in the realm of tenderloin cinema rather than that of chopsocky, so her inclusion here as a usable pop culture icon makes a certain degree of sense. But I digress...

One of the king's two wives is especially into Bruce because she's a fan of his movies — how she saw them in the Underworld is not made clear — and she desires nothing more than to have him beat her with his "powerful weapon" (his chucks) and make passionate love to her...

It's at this point that I think it's appropos to note that I'm neither drunk nor making any of this up. All of this lunacy is actually in the movie.

Anyway, Bruce rejects the advances of the king's wives, thus greatly insulting them and spurring them to send Count Dracula (pronounced here as "Draculer" in the dub) and his gang of zombies to kick Bruce's ass. That only pisses Bruce off, so he dons his famous Kato outfit from THE GREEN HORNET (where he got it from and why he does this is anyone's guess) and hands out ass-whuppings like they were Halloween candy. And just when things look really bad for Bruce, he reveals the secret "Third Leg of Bruce" technique, in which he magically produces an extra leg with which to kick Dracula square in the face.

Also, the bad guys, led by the Godfather and the Exorcist (who has an atrociously bad French accent for no explained reason), want to recruit Bruce to help them overthrow the king, but cocksure Bruce doesn't give a fuck about that (or much of anything else for that matter) and seeks nothing other than a way back to the world of the living. As the bad guys launch assassination attempts against the king, including the aforementioned and memorable attempted murder by pussy, Bruce intervenes and is made captain of the king's personal guard (a plot point that goes absolutely nowhere). The remainder of the film is taken up by fight after fight after fight, in which the bad guys are killed off one by one, finally culminating in Bruce forcing the reluctant king to send him back to the world of the living, which the king does by drop-kicking him and sending him flying off into the distance as the newly-liberated denizens of purgatory cheer their thanks.

Wow. Just...WOW.

THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN is balls-out insane from start to finish and this review doesn't even begin to communicate just how out of its mind the film actually is. It's low-budget to the nth degree, features one of the worst/best dubbed voice tracks on record, contains wall-to-wall fight scenes that look like they were choreographed by an eight-year-old, includes a surprising amount of nudity and sex for this kind of flick (which is what earned the film its R-rating), and is packed to the rafters with so much outright silliness and utter stupidity that I had a huge grin plastered across my face for most of its running time. Unlike many cheapjack kung fu films from its era, especially those found in the annals of Brucesploitation, the film is not dull for even two minutes and its loony, surreal cartoonishness moves along at a breakneck pace that suggests the filmmakers didn't want to allow viewers any time in which to actually contemplate just what kind of madness was unspooling upon the screen. No lie, THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN gets my HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION as a must-see masterpiece of bad cinema, but I recommend holding out for the UK-region DVD of it (provided you have an all-regions player) rather than spend money on the washed-out and blurry print included in the U.S.-released ULTIMATE DRAGON COLLECTION 10-film Brucesploitation set.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

JAMES BOMB: WHICH IS THE WORST 007 FLICK?

As the 23rd 007 film, SKYFALL, gears up to shoot, I was once more set to pondering exactly which of the 22 official James Bond movies is the most cinematically worthless of the lot. Many factors can go into what makes for a lousy 007 entry and what individual viewers consider wretched is rather subjective, so I’ll focus my spotlight on the Bond films that are generally considered to be the bottom of the barrel and work to figure it out from there.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971)

The Moon Buggy: a far cry from GOLDFINGER's Aston Martin.

I was six years old when this came out and my folks took me with them to see it at a drive-in. All I remember of it from my vantage point bundled up in blankets in the station wagon’s back seat was the image of that moon buggy racing over a simulated lunar surface, and in retrospect I wish that were the only memory I had of the film. Sean Connery returned to the Bond series after a four-year absence and the unfortunate departure of his replacement, George Lazenby, who starred in 1969’s superb ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, and the regression in quality was indeed sorry to behold. Whereas the previous film dripped with style and restored 007 to a virtually gadget-free arena of straight-up espionage and shattering violence, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER brought things back to the already-tired level of lame-brained comic book adventures and strained, largely unfunny humor, at the center of which was a visibly older and much worse for wear Connery. Looking like he’d been subsisting on a diet of pub crisps and lager, Connery sported a ludicrous hairpiece and wore fashions that made him resemble some stereotypical high-toned dockside queer on the make for some dashing Navy trade.

Oh, James...Say it ain't so!

Needless to say, such an aspect was totally inappropriate for our hero, but when one considered the quality of the so-called Bond Girls in this outing perhaps a bit of man-on-man action wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The plot was also idiotic and featured the first go-round with vehicular stunts like something out of a Hal Needham good ol’ boy flick or a DUKES OF HAZZARD episode from a few years later and felt as out of place in a James Bond movie as a twelve-inch penis sprouting organically from the loins of Jayne Mansfield.

Kidd (Putter Smith) and Wint (Bruce Glover): pernicious pooves.

The sole items of interest here were the all-too-brief inclusion of Kidd and Wint, a pair of intriguing homosexual assassins (played by Putter Smith and Bruce Glover) whose talents are barely — and fatally to themselves — put to the test against Bond, and Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks), a checkerboard pair of athletic, gymnastic lovelies who give Bond quite a kicking…only to be defeated by the out-of-shape agent (in a pink tie/scarf, no less) when he quite unbelievably manages to maneuver them into a nearby swimming pool.

Thumper (Trina Parks) and Bambi (Lola Larson): a pair straight out of my daydreams...

Oh, and Shirley Bassey’s lovely theme tune marks what is more or less the demise of the old school classy Bond theme songs in favor of tunes provided by pop/rock stars, much to the detriment of the series’ classiness factor. But times change and DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER was there to announce James Bond’s headlong arrival into the 1970’s, for better or worse. And if you ask me, it was for the worse. Bottom line: this is one of the very few 007 films I can't sit through again for any reason. Not even Bambi and Thumper.

LIVE AND LET DIE (1973)

James Bond, now played by former-Saint Roger Moore, encounters a much different spookshow than he's used to.

Once a trendsetter, the Bond flicks would now occasionally imitate popular fads in cinema and in this case the genre being nodded to was that of black exploitation, or “blaxploitation” if you prefer. It was stupid and insulting enough to see 007 pitted against a cadre of stereotypical scary Negroes common to the genre that gave us Dolemite and Truck Turner, but was it really necessary to go there with the whole voodoo element? I think not, but at least we got a mouthwatering twenty-two-year-old Jane Seymour to make us forget the James Bond-meets-minstrel show travesty that tries to pass itself off as a spy flick. This film also gave us the first of seven 007 films starring Roger Moore as James Bond, an element that polarizes Bond fans like no other. For many Bond followers of my age group, we first saw 007 when the films were run on ABC and each airing was a big event in those pre-home video days of yore, especially when introduced to them by parents who were fans of Sean Connery. Then Moore took the role and his broadly comedic take on the character struck a chord with the slightly younger new fans, while many of us Connery groupies remained loyal to the Bond-as-school-bully version. I’ve personally never been able to stomach the humor in the Bond films and really learned to despise it with the advent of the Moore era, so I take a very dim view of all of his entries, with the exceptions of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), although in the case of the latter I find it disposable solely because it’s pretty much a beat-for-beat remake of the Sean Connery YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), only with the emphasis on outer space in one and the ocean’s depths in the other. The Hal Needham-esque vehicular insanity returns with a truly fucking just-plain-crazy bit involving a speedboat, and in the middle of that madness is the unwelcome introduction of Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a Red Man-chawin’ redneck character who seems to have materialized from another film entirely.

Clifton James as the embarrassing redneck stereotype Sheriff J.W. Pepper.

I guess his countrified ways were meant to contrast with Bond’s perceived British sophistication, but the shit just wasn’t funny and veered straight into the downright embarrassing. And as noted with DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, the days of the old school Bond theme song were over and Top 40 pop music artists took the reigns from John Barry and his collaborators, and perhaps no other 007 theme song epitomizes this aspect as well as Paul McCartney and Wings’ overblown and epochal title song for this movie. I got sick of the LIVE AND LET DIE theme back in ’73 and could go the rest of my life without ever hearing it again; I know damned near everyone else on the planet digs it, and you are more than welcome to it.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)

Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, the world's deadliest assassin, in the process of being infinitely more cool than Roger Moore's James Bond.

Often turning up on fans' rosters of the worst that the Bond franchise has to offer, this is definitely a lesser entry but I don't think it's deserving of all the vitriol it gets. Christopher Lee out-cools Bond, the Thailand locales are exotic and surreal, a pre-FANTASY ISLAND Herve Villechaise scores as diminutive servant/assassin Nick Nack, and the whole thing comes off as some kind of odd Asian-flavored fever dream starring 007, so I can't quite slag it off. And while LIVE AND LET DIE sought to cash-in on the blaxploitation angle, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN briefly tips its hat to the then-hot kung fu movie boom with a brief but thoroughly entertaining bit featuring Bond at the mercy of a school full of martial arts killers, only to find himself rescued by the baddest-assed pair of schoolgirls you've ever seen, one of whom, Yuen Qiu, would turn up some thirty years later in the memorable role of the endlessly chainsmoking landlady/badass in KUNG FU HUSTLE. However, on the downside are two of the series' most lackluster Bond Girls, Britt Eckland as Mary Goodnight and Maud Adams — who would return to the series nine years later as the title character in OCTOPUSSY — in the nothing role of Andrea Anders, one of the worst theme tunes out of the entire lot (sung by "To Sir With Love" chanteuse Lulu), and the Chernobyl-level unwelcome return of Clifton James as Sheriff J.W. Pepper, somehow incongruously turning up on vacation in Thailand.

Clifton James returns as uber-redneck J.W. Pepper: What the fuck is this guy doing in Thailand?

Those elements notwithstanding, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is a passable entry that can be enjoyed with a minimum of brain cell use.

MOONRAKER (1979)

Bond versus the enormous Jaws (Richard Kiel) atop a ski lift. Now, that's entertainment (?)!

Once more riding the cash-in bandwagon, this film can be accurately summed up with a mere five words: "James Bond meets STAR WARS." Utterly ridiculous and totally without a brain in its head, this one features an embarrassing laser gun battle in outer space between spacesuit-equipped government agents and the forces of the bad guy's private space-army, a Venetian gondola that's tricked-out a la the famous Aston Martin in GOLDFINGER (1964), a truly terrible throwback theme song by Shirley Bassey — making her the only singer to croon a Bond theme tune three times, let alone twice — , one of the series' blandest villains, a zero-G sex scene at the film's climax (which also features one of the absolute worst jokes in the series' entire run) and the return of Richard Kiel as the gigantic razor-toothed assassin Jaws, a character I found to be too over-the top in the previous THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). This one's enjoyable enough if you were a fourteen-year-old boy when it came out (as I was), but it does not pass muster for grownups.

OCTOPUSSY (1983)

Is Bond on assignment at Lucky Cheng's?

Loaded with wall-to-wall hot chicks (many of whom could have been played by top notch drag queens) thanks to the title character having an all-girl army, this flick tested the limits of just how brain-dead a 007 movie could be. The plot is some bullshit about Faberge eggs and the theft of Russian artifacts and their replacement with fakes or some such mess, but it soon becomes just so much white noise as the film moves from one uninvolving set piece to another, yielding zero in terms of thrills or entertainment. Rita Coolidge provides "All Time High," a perfunctory theme song at best, and we actually get to witness Roger Moore literalizing his buffoonish version of Bond by actually appearing as a circus clown.

No, this isn't a Photoshopped image. Seriously.

Any movie that features James Bond in clown drag is best avoided, and that element is just the icing on this very large shit-cake. I found nothing to recommend about this film and urge those who have not seen it to do nothing to alter that state of affairs. OCTOPUSSY is wholly without worth and I can't for the life of me understand who it was aimed at. Certainly not James Bond fans.

A VIEW TO A KILL (1985)

Roger Moore's thankfully final outing as 007, accompanied by Grace Jones as May Day (and not Chris Tucker as seen in THE FIFTH ELEMENT).

As much as I loathe and detest OCTOPUSSY and all that it stands for, A VIEW TO A KILL gets my vote as the very worst James Bond movie ever made, and it earns that dubious distinction for a great number of reasons but I'll just sum it all up thusly: every single thing about this movie sucks ass, except for the Duran Duran theme song, and you just may give up on Bond for life if you sit through it. Grace Jones as a Bond Girl who's more masculine than Bond, a plot that's just a colossal "who cares?', Tanya Roberts as a plank of wood, the complete and utter waste of Christopher Walken as the uninspired bad guy (Fellow Walken fans: even the mighty Chris isn't worth sitting through this movie; he's given nothing to do and he does nothing with that nothing) and damned near everything else contained within A VIEW TO A KILL's overlong 131-minute running time would have sunk just about any other franchise and I'm frankly surprised the series continued after this creative disaster. But the one thing that made me aware I was seeing the worst James Bond film ever made occurred early in the film, during the customary pre-credits mini-adventure: while on assignment in Siberia, an ancient-looking Roger Moore as 007 escapes from enemy agents while snowboarding to the musical accompaniment of — now get this — the Beach Boys' "California Girls." Honest to God! I only saw this film when it originally came out, just over a quarter-century ago, so I don't remember if that version of the song was the real thing or a cover, but either way I guess I should be thankful it wasn't the David Lee Roth cover. Now that would have caused me to commit seppuku right then and there, spilling my assorted viscera all over the floor of Fine Arts IV, thereby providing more genuine entertainment than anything found onscreen.

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987)

Timothy Dalton's 007 tries to stay awake during what may be the most boring film in the series.

Aside from introducing us to Timothy Dalton as the world's greatest superspy and bringing him into play during a terrific pre-credits mini-adventure, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS clocks in at an agonizing 130 minutes and is a stone-cold bore. Once seen, it's easily forgotten and even a Bond diehard like me will put the particulars of its plot out of his or her mind. Life's just too short for dull 007 stories and you will miss nothing if you turn this one off once the awful song heard during the opening credits starts, and that song annoys even more because it's the lamest thing the superlative Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was ever involved with. Plus, at the end of the film we get the actual theme song, "The Living Daylights," as blandly droned out by the limper-than-limp a-ha of "Take On Me" infamy. I doubt even the purest Bolivian cocaine could keep anyone awake during that one.

LICENCE TO KILL (1989)

For the second time in 007 history, a wedding leads to unspeakable tragedy...(Refer to ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

Many people really, really hate this one and for the life of me I can't figure out why. I've heard it explained away as folks not liking its plot having Bond go "off the reservation" in order to avenge the mutilation-by-tiger shark of his CIA pal Felix Leiter and the rape/murder of Leiter's bride as orchestrated by a vile drug lord (a chilling Robert Davi), a rampage flat-out not approved by MI-6 that features the kind of sadistic violence common to the portrayal of Bond and his world as seen in the books written by Bond's creator, Ian Fleming. Sure it's nasty, but the series started out as quite shocking and brutal in its content, but then came GOLDFINGER and its comic book touches, a successful formula that has been repeated in nearly every 007 film released since 1964. I guess the general moviegoing audience had become so used to the Bond films as over-the-top, snarky self-parodies after Connery's later pictures and the whole goofy Roger Moore run (with the notable exception of the largely-straight FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), so when the filmmakers opted to give us a gritty and violent 007 outing many were not ready for LICENCE TO KILL's meaner-than-hell attitude. I greatly enjoy the vicious Bond of the novels and early films, so the only things that didn't work for me here were the somewhat-distracting presence of Wayne Newton (who I do like, but I find him out of place in a Bond film) and the obligatory car chase/exploding secret base finale involving an eighteen-wheeler. If you like your Bond movies more genteel and sunny then I guess that's cool, but I feel both Timothy Dalton and LICENCE TO KILL have gotten an unfair rap and that's a damned shame because Dalton was a terrific Bond. Much better than Pierce Brosnan's runway model/clotheshorse spy. (Yes, I know ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE's George Lazenby was a model, so please don't write in to tell me I'm being hypocritical.)

GOLDENEYE (1995)

Pierce Brosnan cops a stay-awake move from Timothy Dalton in his debut as 007.

Bested only by THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS in the sheer boredom department, GOLDENEYE marks Pierce Brosnan's debut as Bond and it's a looooong 130 minutes that comes to life during the pre-credits sequence and 007's close encounter with Famke Janssen's memorably nymphomaniacal/psychotic Xenia Onatopp. Nothing much to say here other than to urge caution when considering sitting through it; if you choose to do so, have a comfy pillow at the ready.

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)

007 holds co-star Robert Carlyle hostage and demands that the screenwriters alter the script so it becomes TRAINSPOTTING 2, rather than the utterly generic film that resulted.

This one offended me by virtue of it being a textbook example of a by-the-numbers entry in a long-running series. I did not give a good goddamn about anyone or anything in this rote time-waster and was especially put off by the presence of that human bobble-head Denise Richards as — I shit you not — nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones (my vote for the all-time worst would-be funny Bond Girl moniker). Not only does Richards annoy the living shit out of me in everything I've seen her in (with the notable exception of a guest turn in an episode of TWO AND A HALF MEN), she's now forever captured on film as a willing participant in a post-coital moment with Bond in which he seizure-inducingly comments, "Looks like Christmas comes more than once this year." I don't ever need to see this one again either.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)

Daniel Craig's 007 and Olga Montez (Olga Kurylenko) traverse the wasteland that is QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

I've reviewed QUANTUM OF SOLACE at length, but I'll let it suffice to say I found this film extremely disappointing after CASINO ROYALE (2006) and felt it came off like I was watching someone else play a video game. The film was also very heavily influenced by the Jason Bourne films, replicating that series' propensity for confusingly-edited action sequences, and all I have to say to that is this: if I want to see a Jason Bourne movie, I'll go see a fucking Jason Bourne movie! I'm a James Bond fan, god damn it, born and bred, and I accept no substitutes. There is no excuse for Bond stooping to imitate those who followed in his wake, especially not after CASINO ROYALE, for fuck's sake!

Now that I've had my rant, what do you name as the most rock-bottom-awful 007 adventure? To quote the guy on the receiving end of Dirty Harry's infamous hard-on-inducing speech about his .44 Magnum, "I gots ta know!"

Monday, November 7, 2011

ANNIE SPRINKLE'S HERSTORY OF PORN: REEL TO REAL (1999)

WARNING!!! If the frank discussion of some of the grottier elements that can be found in porno offends you or grosses you out, you are strongly advised to give this entry a miss. And bear in mind that this warning is coming from me, so take that for what it's worth.

"Pornography is the mirror in which we can see our reflections. The same image may appear beautiful one day, and ugly the next, be liberating one year, and offensive later. How wonderful to have the opportunity to take a look. To learn and, perchance, to dream. Making porn is a lot harder than you might think. I've never even come close to capturing the magnificence of my best sexual experiences. One thing is for sure: in just twenty-five years, we have come a long way. The answer to really bad porn is not no porn, but to try to make better porn. No matter where we stand, pornography reflects us all."-Annie Sprinkle

As is probably apparent to my regular readers, I am unashamedly fascinated by pornography, not merely as a means to a solo orgasmic end, but mostly as an earthy, fleshly reflection of who and what we are as sexual human animals. And while I have been known to enjoy such material for its most obvious intended use from time to time, I’m always interested in learning about the history of the medium, a form that goes back as far as the moment when the first cave-person fashioned a curvy goddess statue from crude earth or put pigment to cave wall to depict primitive images of copulation.

So anyway, about a week back I stopped by a kiosk in Manhattan's Union Square where a couple of guys sell assorted "gray market" DVDs, and the more erudite of the two, remembering my interest in documentaries on the history of porn, offered me what he believed to be an overview of American tenderloin cinema as hosted/narrated by veteran porn star Annie Sprinkle. I accepted the disc, ANNIE SPRINKLE'S HERSTORY OF PORN, and took it home, allowing it to sit atop a "to be watched" stack for a few days before I threw it into my player for a late-night screening. (And it really was a screening and not a moment of "relaxing the gentleman's way;" I was on the phone with my equally-insomniac friend, Daisy, as I watched the first half of it, so there was no five-knuckle shuffling going on.)

Our humble raconteur and documentary subject, Annie Sprinkle (née Ellen Steinberg).

For those of you out there who have no idea who Annie Sprinkle is, she's a notorious bisexual porn star/prostitute/stripper/performance artist who was born Ellen Steinberg in Philadelphia and has re-invented herself several times throughout her career, now enriching the world with performance pieces and other works that disseminate perhaps the most sex-positive vibes in American society's hypocritically puritanical sexual landscape. For what it's worth, I really like Annie's sweet and adorable persona and the joy and utterly shameless happiness in sex that she merrily espouses like some kind of bubbly and lewd Yoda with big ol' titties, so I was totally down with her acting as a guide through the history of American porno's golden age.

Such a journey, however, was not what I got when I started watching ANNIE SPRINKLE'S HERSTORY OF PORN. It instead turned out to be a very thorough and hearftelt video autobiography/career retrospective beginning with Annie's time in assorted porn that began as conventional beast-with-two-backs reels and going up through her then-current role as a DIY sex-educator/sexual shamaness-goddess, and I could have dealt with that just fine if it had not been comprehensive enough to include footage from some of Sprinkle's more, er, "specialized" efforts. To be fair, Sprinkle herself does warn the viewer that if there's anything onscreen that they may not want to see, they can simply "cover your eyes and it'll pass, and please try to keep an open mind until the very, very end," and it's advice I wish I'd heeded in more than one instance. You see, Sprinkle's work in straight porno was already rather raunchy even by the somewhat nebulously-defined standards of the genre, and some of it could be considered "nasty" in terms of her very game willingness to do just about anything on camera, but as of the late-1970's she adventurously veered waaaaay into fetish stuff that Sprinkle claimed led to most mainstream porno directors no longer hiring her because she'd gained a rep as being "too kinky." Featured during the fetish overview are segments including the following:
  • Sprinkle's signature golden shower antics
  • dwarf-fucking (the guy in that equation, Luis De Jesus, played the vile Ralphus in the "classic" grindhouse gore opus BLOOD-SUCKING FREAKS)
  • Annie shoving a toothbrush into the orifices not found on her head (don't worry, it wasn't the brushy end)
  • Annie getting seriously rodgered with a hefty kielbasa
  • heavy-duty bondage and rape-fantasy stuff
  • Annie getting fisted (stumped?) by an amputee
  • close-up removal of swamped, bloody feminine hygiene products
  • Annie being graphically fisted herself and then graphically fisting some splayed-out skinny guy with her mitt lodged up him well past her wrist, after which she introduced his sundered butthole to an enormous dildo at least two feet in length and about as wide around as a can of Chock Full O' Nuts coffee
  • an absolutely revolting "rainbow shower" segment in which our girl pukes all over some scruffy meth-addict-looking dude, barfing into his open mouth and jerking him off with fresh hurl as a lubricant (Sprinkle somewhat defuses that last bit by stating that they actually used canned soup, which is apparent when one goes back and really examines the footage, but nonetheless yecch...)
Maybe I'm just too "vanilla" but none of the stuff on that list strikes me as erotic in any way, which is not to say I wouldn't have watched it for its curiosity value if I had been truly forewarned. And, to tell the truth, I had already seen examples of all of that kind of stuff since I hit college, so none of it was new to me. (Though I had avoided the menstrually-related material; I'm not squeamed-out by period stuff thanks to the realities encountered when involved with girlfriends and also due to most of my friends being female and very candid about their "lady business" — there is nothing in that department that I have not heard about firsthand and in medically-graphic detail — but I don't find such stuff appealing as my porn fodder of choice.)

Anyway, following that overwhelming fetish-pummeling, Sprinkle's focus mercifully shifts to 1982's DEEP INSIDE ANNIE SPRINKLE, which she claims was the first porno film conceived from a woman's point of view, and from which she moved into crafting a more female-centric pornographic experience. Then, as the 1980's got going and the era of "new age" healing and philosophy dawned (which, if you ask me, was little more than a re-discovery of the Eastern stuff the '60's counter-culture dabbled in, only now seasoned with dashes of neo-paganism), Sprinkle hooked up with a Tantric adept who guided her into her first deeply spiritual experience with sex and sexuality. She emerged from her time with him a woman energized and transformed, who sought to share her epiphany with all whose hearts and minds were open to it, as well as seeking to educate the people on safer sex so awareness would be raised and the very act of loving would not continue to be a sensually-disguised Grim Reaper in the age of AIDS. That era in Sprinkle's development can be seen as akin to a narrative in which the protagonist, having undergone the assorted tests that would forge them into a hero that rang true to Campbell's theories on "the heroic journey," comes back to the world they left behind in search of adventure and learning imparted through said trials, returning with a beatific sense of wisdom and self. Some would find such espousing of these sentiments to be just so much self-serving hippy-dippy bullshit but I definitely get where Sprinkle's coming from when she discusses it, and my buying into what she has to say on the subject goes back as far as when I read her excellent and highly recommended book, POST-PORN MODERNIST (1991).

From there, Sprinkle expanded her horizons by identifying as a lesbian and becoming an artist who appeared in pornographic "art" films and performance art pieces, such as the now-infamous "Public Cervix Announcement," in which she would appear seated onstage, sans undergarments, schlamp a speculum up herself and let intrigued audience members check out her cervix, up close and personal (which is unfortunately not covered in this documentary). She then addresses the fact that she's getting older (she was forty-four at the time) and approaches that aspect of life as another avenue for exploration and the gaining of wisdom and self-understanding. There's even a "how to make a porno" fantasy sequence in which Sprinkle appears as an aging mermaid who initiates a younger mermaid into the pleasures of the flesh and eventually dies, but not before happily passing the torch on to the younger generation, secure in the knowledge that those who succeed her will only expand upon what she has imparted. Though kind of goofily presented, that coda was actually quite beautiful and filled with more genuine meaning than anything found in any three-thousand garden variety porno flicks that one could provide as counter-examples.

This career retrospective/gentle manifesto could not possibly be more sexually explicit if it tried, and some of its content will most likely be objectionable to some members of the audience, but I, for one, greatly appreciate and admire the efforts of this porn icon who used her position as a "sacred whore" of the media to enlighten and inform. What some would condemn as a sordid career path can be seen here by the open-minded as a celebration and exploration of the limits – or rather the non-limits — of human sexuality and the positive power of self-reinvention, and if anyone is going to be a guide through those waters, I'm glad it was Annie Sprinkle (with the genuinely brilliant and far less kinky Nina Hartley coming in second). Armed with a cheery, sunshiney sense of humor and an air of earthy, womanly sweetness, I can't help but find her utterly appealing and quite adorable, and in every way the welcome antithesis to the faceless, emotionless replicants who infest the porn landscape and render it so largely joyless. If only there were more individuals with her warmth involved, maybe the porn industry would not be as reviled of an entity as it unfortunately is.

Monday, October 31, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 31: HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)

Along with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), this was one of the films that heralded Hammer Studios as a revolutionary force to be reckoned with in the post-war horror cinema landscape. Less a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic novel, DRACULA, than a mid-20th century re-jiggering of many of its elements for an audiences that might find Universal and Lugosi's take on the Count to be a tad stage-bound and genteel, HORROR OF DRACULA is the simplest iteration of the classic vampire yarn's tropes imaginable and can be seen as the template for how to tell a vampire story to a modern audience until stuff like FRIGHT NIGHT and Anne Rice happened.

Recounting the plot is pointless as it's all essentially a template that boils down to a bitter war between Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), with good inevitably triumphing over evil; something we've seen before, certainly, but it's the atmosphere, the look of the film, and the brisk telling of the tale that make this iteration of it a classic. Dracula's castle is a triumph of set design and realization, his dark-haired and very hungry bride is quite memorable, and the events that transpire once the undead suckface reaches England are just a horror fan's banquet of the basics done right. We also get the one-two punch of Lee and Cushing in career-defining roles that they would both go on to repeat several times (in some cases to diminishing returns, if truth be told), and of many, Lee's Dracula is the definitive screen version of Bram Stoker's arch-vampire, and I can totally understand why. He's very tall, urbane, imposing and regal as all get out, but once his facade of aloof nobility is seen through and the vampire stands revealed, Lee's Dracula very much takes the fight to his human opponents and gets very physical indeed, seeming all the while to actually revel in being darkly, irredeemably evil.

I mean, look at this fucking guy! I'd be scared of a vampire if I ran into one in real life anyway, but Lee managed to fairly radiate a palpable, primally-chilling malevolence that even later vampires that had shape-shifting makeup and animatronic technology to bolster them could not begin to approach. Lee's Dracula was a menace of the first order that needed to be expunged from the face of the earth, and Cushing's Van Helsing was just the dude to handle that thankless task. Though a man of cold, hard science and rationality, Van Helsing was smart enough to call a spade a spade when he saw one and thus he dealt with Dracula with the single-minded focus of a master surgeon eliminating a particularly stubborn cancerous growth.

HORROR OF DRACULA is absolutely worth your time if you've never seen it (and even if you already have), both as a textbook example of how this kind of thing can be done right and with no extraneous bullshit, and more importantly as a reminder that vampires are supposed to be fucking scary, not sparkly and all Emo, unlike those found in a certain tamponathon franchise whose name I will not besmirch this review with.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 30: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

Not to go on All-Fours; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not men?


—“The Law,” from “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1896) by H.G.Wells

After several years of having no choice but to enjoy its lurid charms via a "gray market" DVD of a print of it culled from Turner Classic Movies, one of my all-time favorite flicks, 1932’s (or 1933’s, depending on your source of info) ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, is finally available on legitimate DVD from those loving preservationists over at Criterion, and I pre-ordered it the second I heard of its imminent release.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is a fantastically sick and twisted little movie that got in there just before the infamous Hayes Code was instituted and took away all the really nasty sex, violence and evil shit that made moviegoing worthwhile in the early days of Tinseltown.

Will H. Hayes: the human douche nozzle who ruined old school Hollywood.

After the Hayes Code was in place, Hollywood cleaned up its act considerably, under threat of serious penalties, and didn’t really get its balls back until the 1950’s, a shot in the arm that led to the freer expression of the Sixties and Seventies (and then, for the most part, films pussied-out again bigtime, but that’s a subject for another post).

Anyway, I first saw ISLAND OF LOST SOULS during my formative years but I was too little to fully grasp exactly why it had been banned in the United Kingdom for some twenty-five years after its release. It was a black & white flick about some queeny guy with a mustache and a white suit who lived on a remote island and made really lame-looking human/animal hybrids. There was no graphic violence, no cussing, and certainly no naked ladies, so what was the big deal?

Oh, the wisdom that comes with growing up and seeing the same movie through eyes that had gone on to witness films such as DAS CAVIAR DINNER and BARNYARD BANG...(Don't ask.)

For those not in the know, the movie’s based the 1896 novel quoted at the start of this post, and it centers around a guy who gets unwillingly stuck on the island of one Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton, utterly burning down the house with a spectacular display of major league gayness and questionable sanity), a medical genius who has somehow managed to create a horde of grotesque and disturbing “men” from a variety of wild animals.


Doctor Moreau (Charles Laughton) and friend.

The products of apparently anesthesia-free radical surgery and ray treatments, Moreau’s creations are rather a sorry lot who have been conditioned to live by a series of laws intended to curb their innate animal behaviors and mold them into regular Joes. Don’t ask me what the purpose of such experimentation is; I guess simply to be able to say that he was able to do it? To fulfill some crazed need to play God? Fuck if I know, but one thing becomes clear very early on: Moreau is barking mad, his cultured exterior masking a whip-wielding psychotic who appears to get off on the suffering of his “children.”

Just another fun-filled day on the Island of Doctor Moreau. NOTE: the dude with the serious sideburns is none other than Bela "Pull the string!" Lugosi as the Speaker of the Law. Yowza!

Being stuck on Moreau’s creepy, vine-tangled and fog-enshrouded island is bad enough, but our uninteresting castaway is set to be married to an equally uninteresting fiancée (who of course sets out to find him), so Moreau decides to give his most successful creation a field test. The Doc unveils Lota (Kathleen Burke), a sultry brunette in a pre-Dorothy Lamour “exotic” island girl getup (this was back in the days when hot, non-Caucasian chicks were considered exotic) who has never seen a fully human male other than the Doc and his assistant (actually a big deal; those two seem like an obvious couple to me, and as this was a pre-ccode film, they very well could have been), and hopes sparks ignite between Lota and the stranded cipher.
Kathleen Burke as Lota, the Panther Woman: say hello to your grandpappy's stroke-material.

As the viewers figure out before our boring hero does, Lota is revealed to have been altered from a panther into a prime piece of surfer-boy’s masturbation fantasy — no "pussy" jokes, please — but her shy and tentative attempts at “making friends” with the castaway go straight down the toilet once he notices her hands are reverting to their original clawed configuration and is understandably freaked the fuck out. Moreau orders poor, terrified Lota back to “the House of Pain” for a surgical touch-up, and awaits the arrival of the fiancée so he can turn one of his male hybrids loose on her. So not only do we get crazed punishment with a bullwhip and twisted medical experiments, we are also treated to Moreau’s intention to see if regular humans can successfully mate and possibly reproduce with his semi-human creatures, many of whom resemble a bunch of hairy, shirtless skells of the type that staff many restaurants in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. And when you think about it, the castaway would have gotten off (pun intended) relatively easy in the bargain since Lota is a bit of a looker (though the scratches would suck), while his virginal fiancée would have been relegated to savage rape by a literal man-gorilla (or something; it’s not made fully clear just what the guy is). It’s just plain sick, offensive, and gross.

And I love it.

Can you imagine being in the theater in 1932 and having your sensibilities offended by sadism, unholy “scientific” delvings, and intimations of bestiality and rape? That stuff’s still heavy nearly eighty years on, so seeing ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in those days must have been a serious brain-melter. Even the Doc’s well-earned and horrifying fate comes off as weak in comparison (thematically, anyway; being vivisected sans anaesthesia by a bunch of clumsy manimals would really bite the big one).

Lesson to be learned: be kind to animals!

So what was the delay in releasing this dark and sleazy classic to DVD? Today’s youth needs to see that it wasn’t all Busby Berkeley creating a religion for show tunes devotees or the Our Gang kids putting a positive spin on juvenile truancy, and that when their elders piss and moan about how today’s cinema is leading to moral turpitude they’re talking out of their asses. I’d love to see a contemporary director even attempt to go where this dusty old hairball did and not be publicly executed by watchdogs for decency in film. Good luck with that one, bucko. And any movie that serves to inspire some of Devo's classic work — specifically "Jocko Homo" and the title of their first album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! — is automatically okay by me, but this movie earned its place in my heart on its own very twisted merits.

"Us not that smart but us read CINE-MISCREANT!"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 29: THE SEVENTH CURSE (1986)

Betcha didn't expect to find a Chow Yun Fat movie on this list, didja? Believe it or not, this Category III cult fave was my first exposure to the excellence that is Chow Yun fat. Directed by Ngai Kai Lam, the same loon who gave the world the mind-bendingly gory and ultra-violent RIKI-OH (aka THE STORY OF RICKY), THE SEVENTH CURSE is an odd amalgam of its era's typical Hong Kong action flicks, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-inspired death traps, martial arts mayhem, and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM with some broad comedic bits thrown in. At its heart, it's a straight-up horror movie, but one that had its primary flavor somewhat diluted and derailed by too many disparate elements in what I'm guessing was an attempt to have it appeal to too many audiences at once or else alleviate its considerable "darkness."

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!!

The vile sorcerer Aquala (Elvis Tsui).

While on an expedition in Thailand to find herbs with which to hopefully cure AIDS, a bespectacled police physician, Dr. Yeun (Chin Siu Ho, best known in the West for his roles in THE TAI CHI MASTER and FIST OF LEGEND), encounters "the worm tribe" and disrupts evil sorcerer Aquala's human sacrifice of a beautiful girl, "Betsy" (Sau-Lai Tsui), to the horrifying animate skeleton/shape-shifting monster "Old Ancestor."

"Old Ancestor" in its less-robust form.

Aquala (Elvis Tsui) is a black magician straight out of the Mola Ram school of heavies and he wields an assortment of baleful skills, chief among which is the "little ghost," a foul creature that he produces from inside his cape that flies through the air, viciously attacks its targets, and eagerly sucks their blood.

The ravenous wrath of "little ghost."

So, with that in mind, you can guess he's not at all pleased with Yuen fouling up his ritual, thus prompting him to hit the good doctor with a horrible "blood curse" that causes parts of his victim's body to agonizingly burst and spew thick red paint blood. (It's phony-looking but that only adds to the charming gross-out effect.) Though seriously injured, the doctor helps Betsy escape back to her tribe, so she kindly strips naked and cuts into one of her own breasts to supply the doctor with a cure that will hold his curse at bay for one year.

There's nothing like a little utterly gratuitous nudity.

When the year runs out, Yeun is confronted by a member of Betsy's tribe (Dick Wei) who summons him back to Thailand so he can try to effect a cure for both the doc and the girl, whose face has become disfigured in the wake of Aquala's curse. Following the advice of his occult-savvy pal, Wei Si Li, aka "Wisely" (Chow Yun Fat), Yeun returns to Thailand and accompanies the tribesman on the quest for the antidote, dogged along the way by the cute but incredibly annoying unnecessary comic relief reporter Tsai-Hung (the gorgeous Maggie Cheung). The trio encounters all kinds of nastiness, gore and sadistic violence and when the irritating reporter ends up in Aquala's clutches, the heroes aim to rescue her and the tribe's children, who have been taken so their blood can serve as the base for a magic potion, extracted from a stone crusher/juicer that squishes the kiddies into liquid goo (in a scene like something out of a child's nightmare). And after that there's still the matter of curing the doc and Betsy's curses, plus kicking Aquala's evil ass and wiping out the Old Ancestor once and for all, so you could say that the doc's dance card is pretty full.

THE SEVENTH CURSE is very lively from start to finish but it does suffer from the aforementioned elements that throw a bit of a monkey wrench into its proceedings.The comedy, mostly stemming from Maggie Cheung's reporter character, doesn't work and when it happens it transforms the film into a whole other movie entirely. The action and martial arts sequences are well done but they also seem to belong in another film, especially the RAIDERS-style death traps and the blatant swipe of RAIDERS' gigantic rolling stone ball, this time with the ball being swapped out for the huge dislodged head of an ancient idol. The schizophrenic tonal shifts are all the more unfortunate because the horror story at the film's core is quite strong and would have made for an instant classic had all the needless bullshit been excised entirely. It's dark stuff of a rather Lovecraftian order and as such should have been treated with the seriousness of a heart attack.

But all of that can be overlooked when a movie is as balls-out entertaining as this one is. The hero's a bit bland but everyone else in the cast more than makes up for his relative lack of character. As monsters go, Old Ancestor's kinda neat, what with starting out as a dirty-fighting skeleton and later morphing into a cross between the Alien and the winged form of Princess Dragon Mom from INFRA MAN and all, and the little ghost is one vicious little bastard whose malevolence far outweighs the in-your-face obviousness of it being a cheaply-made prop that looks like a dime store baby doll as altered with some liquid latex and a hot glue gun by an LSD-addled member of the Manson Family. And let us not forget the presence of thirty-year-old Chow Yun at as the appropriately-named Wisely. He's the kind of character who's mellow and urbane but knows all kinds of obscure shit about the black arts for no particular reason, so he's quite handy to have around when this kind of shit is going on. And does he fight the film's Big Bad with a crucifix, holy water, counter-spells or even exorcism? Fuck that shit; that stuff's for pussies. In this narrative, using that crap's like showing up to a knife fight armed with nothing but your flaccid dick in your hand. Wisely knows better, so he shows up at the last possible minute, armed with a motherfucking missile launcher and two loads that he uses to blast Old Ancestor into showering chunks that have not a hope in hell of re-animating. The first missile blows a huge hole clean through the monster, allowing it to observe its own beating heart before it's hit by the second shot, which scatters its remaining mass like a handful of thrown jacks. And when all is said and done, Wisely isn't even impressed with himself.

Chow Yun Fat, in an early moment of awesomeness, shows us how to properly sort out unholy creatures from the underworld.

I would have preferred a whole film about just Wisely and could have totally done without that bland-assed Dr. Yuen, but I guess a Wisely-versus-monsters flick would have been over two seconds after Wisely found out about the given threat and called a tactical thermo-nuclear strike to deal with it, after which he'd simply chill out in his study with a tumbler of Scotch as he waited for the radiation to die down. Oh, well...

Friday, October 28, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 28: SONNY BOY (1989)

"Can this be me? This pitiful thing I see trapped in this mirror?"
-the film's protagonist, upon seeing his reflection for the first time

A favorite horror sub-genre of mine is that of the maniac family, and there are few within that small sub-genre that come anywhere near the sheer sickness that practically drips from SONNY BOY. It's one of those movies where I'm firmly convinced all involved intentionally set out to make the most fucked-up, twisted film that's humanly possible to craft, but even in a morass of derangement like this, the power of the unfortunate protagonist's simple, basic humanity refuses to be expunged. But more on that aspect later.

In the semi-surreal New Mexico town of Harmony, a young couple is murdered by Weasel (Brad Dourif), a sleazy thug who then steals their car, not noticing their six-month-old baby boy in the convertible's back seat. From there, the baby ends up in the hands of Slue (the hulking Paul Smith), a sociopathic local crime lord who lives on a desert hog farm with his cross-dressing "wife," Pearl (David Carradine in what is unquestionably his most outrageous role). NOTE: no mention whatsoever is made of the fact that Pearl is quite obviously a man — complete with a strap-on set of fillable faux breasts for nursing — and that only makes her status within the story that much more interesting.

David Carradine as the doting Pearl.

Though Slue is quite clearly established as the dominant one in their relationship, Pearl overrules the annoyed Slue's intention to feed the infant to the hogs and lovingly adopts the child as her own, naming him Sonny Boy.

Not exactly a LION KING-like moment of new baby celebration.

In no time the viewer sadly realizes that Sonny Boy would have been better off had he been the next day's hog shit because Slue, though allowing Pearl to play doting mommy, takes control of the poor kid's "training," thrusting him headlong into a pitiless regimen of "strength-building" physical and psychological torture that over the course of seventeen years turns the child into Slue's personal biddable bipedal attack dog. The poor kid lives in a state of unwashed squalor, chained in an empty water tower and fed live chickens, and among other endless acts of cruelty foisted upon him, on his sixth birthday Sonny Boy is given "the gift of silence" by Slue: the fat, creepy bastard cuts out the boy's tongue. At age twelve, the kid reflects (in voiceover, which is how the film is narrated by a character with no tongue) on how his adoptive father teaches him "games of strength and love," such as dragging the kid behind the family car over the desert rocks and sand, noting how "each game makes me stronger, giving me a skin of armor so strong that not even fire can harm me."

By the time he's a young, handsome man (though certainly quite feral and visibly filth-covered), Sonny Boy is carted around in an old-fashioned ice cream truck and used by his adoptive father as a lethal weapon turned loose against all who would fuck with his rule over the town and possibly put the kibosh on his various criminal operations. And I neglected to mention that Slue is something of a painter who seeks entry into the posh Californian arts community, and he somehow figures to use Sonny Boy as part of his delusional plan to achieve that goal.

That setup is irresistible and the whole movie can be counted as worth one's time — and it's definitely worthy of its cult status — but once it's established its bona fides the film kind of loses its twisted way, shifting gears into a full-on study of poor Sonny Boy's burgeoning humanity once he escapes from his water tower confinement and runs loose in Harmony, greatly to the consternation of the townspeople. That's all well and good but we've seen the whole "Mowgli meets civilization" thing many times before and while it's nice to have our abused hero away from the clutches of his psycho family and discovering his more tender side with the willing help of a cute local girl (who must have no sense of smell whatsoever), when the film's Level 10 sickness factor is gone, what remains is not unlike a very twisted '80's teen movie scenario that simply putts along until it reaches its apocalyptic climax and combination uplifting/ludicrous epilogue. I get that part of the film's point was to show that despite the tortures he's endured, his sorry, violent existence can't quite squash Sonny Boy's most basic, agonized humanity, and the telling of that half of the story is not terrible by any means, but I really feel the movie loses a great deal of its uniqueness with its sudden redemptive shift in tone.

As poor Sonny Boy cowers during the onslaught of understandably outraged and heavily-armed locals, Pearl defends her family like the kickass mom she is.

Nonetheless, the first half/two-thirds of the movie is uniquely vile and twisted and well worth seeking out. The only problem with doing so is that as of this writing, SONNY BOY is not legally available on DVD in the United States unless you manage to track it down on a dodgy "gray market" copy burned to disc from an old VHS tape or laserdisc version. I first saw it ages ago on a friend's laserdisc copy and wanted to snag it for myself in a legit release, but still no dice. Then again it took forever for the classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS to come out on DVD and Blu Ray — hitting just a few days ago, as a matter of fact — so hope springs eternal, much like poor Sonny Boy's innocent basic humanity.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 27: DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (1980)

"Fucked up," thy name is DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE. Shot a year before the "slasher" boom of the 1980's kicked off with FRIDAY THE 13th (1980), so it can't be considered as having been influenced by that explosion of cinematic carnage, DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE is permanently set in time thanks to its end-of-the-disco-era elements and its lack of blood showering everywhere (that kind of thing didn't become common until after FRIDAY THE 13th's sanguinary excesses). But don't think its lack of blood makes it any less nasty than its more cutlery-fetishizing brethren...

Somehow managing to be even more simple/sparse in the plot department than most films in the sub-genre while simultaneously containing more genuine character development/motivation than nearly all other slasher films combined, DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE follows the sad and twisted path of Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), a twitchy loner who works at an industrial incinerator plant. The adult product of horrible abuse by stovetop fire at the hands of his sadistic mother who punished him for every perceived "sinful" thought, Donny's in his thirties and still lives at home with the now-aged harridan, a pitiful case of having been emotionally crushed and stunted into a state of arrested adolescence. While witnessing a co-worker nearly get fatally immolated during an on-the-job accident, Donny's utter lack of reaction or concern about the incident gives us our first real indication that something's seriously wrong with the guy. (Thanks to his failure to help his co-worker, we also see that Donny is not exactly well-liked by his fellow employees, most of whom regard him as a freak.) Upon arriving home after the incident, Donny discovers his mother dead in her favorite chair and at last, free of her domineering physical presence and perpetual verbal abuse, his mind snaps and his first act of rebellion is to play his (crappy made-for-the-movie) disco music at top volume. Thus empowered by disco — long known to be the soundtrack of rebellion — and fueled by the hectoring voice of his mother in his head, Donny skips work, builds a large fireproof room in his house (or maybe it was always there and merely hidden), buys an asbestos-worker's head-to-toe fireproof suit from an army surplus store (???) and embarks on a joyless spree of picking up young, attractive women, taking them to his house, rendering them unconscious and then chaining them naked from the ceiling of the fireproof room. Then he breaks out the flamethrower.

Once his screaming victims have been torched, Donny dresses their charred bodies in his dead mother's clothes and arranges them in the living room, all the while conflicted by clashing childlike emotions of providing the corpses with "love and comfort" and a violent hatred and distrust of women engendered by his treatment by his mother. Basically, it's PSYCHO's Norman Bates taken to a particularly savage extreme, so it's only a matter of time until Donny's towering dysfunction, utter inability to function outside of his house of horrors, and a series of hallucinations collapse his fucked-up world around him, and its a fall that's agonizing to watch.

There's a fine line between horror and the "psychological thriller" but DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE gets my vote as a horror flick due to its theme of the endless cycle of abuse coupled with its hideous death-by-flamethrower hook and charred zombie hallucinations. Who doesn't find immolation to be possibly the most excruciating of possible death scenarios? It's bad enough to be caught in a house fire or a flaming car wreck with no chance of escape but to to have some faceless maniac chain you naked from a ceiling and incinerate you alive as part of a premeditated course of psychotic intent? Jesus fucking Christ... If that doesn't count as straight-up horror, I don't know what does.

As or the movie itself and its overall tone, I don't know quite what to think. I found it far too bleak and depressing to be even remotely entertaining, which is not to say that it is at all badly made, and it's so dark and dour from its opening moments that it's a complete and total bring-down that doesn't thrill with the frisson (Ooh! Fancy film-fuck word!) one experiences with most horror films. It's just a miserable, hate and sadness-filled well of despair and I'm not sure I can recommend it to anyone unless they dig been terminally depressed. You thought SOPHIE'S CHOICE made you want to slit your wrists or jump off the nearest bridge? That film has nothing on DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE's low-budget grimy atmosphere. I've seen DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE twice, once when first encountered on DVD and a second time a couple of days ago when watching it to refresh my memory for purposes of this review, and I assure you I will never return to it.

Now that that's over, I feel the urge to take a long, thoroughly-scrubbed shower and watch something like THE SECRET OF MAGIC ISLAND (1956, France/Italy; released in the U.S. in 1964), a movie entirely populated by cute little puppies and kitties and all sorts of other adorable critters having happy adventures. Anything to wash the charbroiled stink of DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE from my consciousness.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

31 DAYS OF HORROR-DAY 26: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)

Perhaps the most Satanic title card ever, which is only appropriate for this particular movie.

Often unfairly overlooked in the post-EXORCIST era, this Hammer offering about Satanism is one of their more compelling non-series gems that fairly cries out for a modern re-discovery.

With a screenplay by Richard Matheson — author of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and the original I AM LEGEND, as well as several classic episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE — based upon the novel by British horror master Dennis Wheatley (TO THE DEVIL-A DAUGHTER and UNCHARTED SEAS, among numerous others)

Duc Nicholas de Richeleau (Christopher Lee): taking no shit from Satan-worshiping scum.

In 1930's England, the Duc Nicholas de Richleau (Christopher Lee) and his friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) look into the sudden mysterious disappearance of their friend, young Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who has not been seen or heard from by friends or relatives or several months, though it's known he recently and suddenly bought a large house. The Duc and Rex make their way to Simon's house and find an elegant party filled with assorted classy and exotic types in full swing, which a nervous-acting Simon explains away as "a meeting of a little astronomical society" led by the suave and sinister Mocata (Charles Gray at his slimiest, and that's really saying something), who clearly holds some sort of power over Simon. Also present is the equally on-edge Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), whom Rex is sure he recognizes from somewhere (which she denies, though it's obvious she's lying) and who storms off when she discovers the Duc and Rex are not members of the society, and as the Duc cases the room for information it becomes apparent that the society's members are discussing matters of the occult involving planetary conjunction and such. Noting the presence of the outsiders, Mocata takes Simon aside and bids him to throw out the Duc and Rex, which he politely does, but not before the Duc begs five minutes in which to look through a telescope that's upstairs. Simon obliges but the Duc uses the time to check out the upstairs and finds a mostly empty room, decorated with parchments claimed by Simon to be "just decoration, relics," and the room's floor bears a large and ornate diagram...

Just another day for that wacky Mocata (Charles Gray).

Hearing strange sounds, the Duc bursts into a closet and discovers live chickens in a basket, thus leading him to correctly and irately deduce that Simon is now a dabbler in the black arts. With Simon being the son of a deceased dear friend, the Duc looks upon Simon as a son and he would rather see the young man dead than messing about with the occult. Though having known Simon for over ten years, the Duc never before spoke of certain aspects of his life but now that his friend's son is involved in all this devil-junk, the Duc reveals that his studies into assorted esoteric practices has given him a rather serious working knowledge of things most dark, and when the terrified Simon refuses to let the Duc and Rex stay, the Duc knocks the young man out and he and Rex haul his unconscious body out of the house and speed away in the Duc's chauffer-driven sedan. Once at the Duc's home, the Duc uses hypnosis to free Simon from the society's spell and place a "symbol of protection," a silver crucifix on a chain, about his neck, along with an order not to remove it. When Simon is asleep, the Duc informs the dubious Rex that Evil — note the capital "E" — and the powers of darkness are "a living force which can be tapped at any given moment of the night," an act proven when the still-under-hypnosis Simon practically strangles himself in an unsuccessful bid to remove the crucifix from around his neck. When the Duc's butler walks in and sees Simon choking, he removes the crucifix, after which Simon promptly escapes out the nearest window. Breaking into Simon's house in hope of finding him, the Duc and Rex instead run into an eerie spirit — that looks like nothing so much as a creepily-smiling West Indian dude in a red diaper — that materializes from the symbol on the ritual room's floor. After breaking free of its controlling gaze, the Duc realizes that Mocata is some sort of high-level, Crowley-esque Satanic adept with actual black magic powers and from that moment on embarks on a crusade to save Simon from the arch-fiend's diabolical clutches before he can be re-baptized into the the way of the Left-Hand Path, and the only key to finding Simon lies in locating the mysterious Tanith. What ensues is a battle of the so-called rational world colliding head-on with seemingly impossible things that the ancients knew only too well to be both very real and very, very deadly shit that nobody should mess with. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but Satan himself even shows up in the horned form of the Goat of Mendes (look it up), so these are not your garden variety burnout Satanists that the Duc must reckon with. These guys are no goddamned joke, and you'd better believe that.

"Hi, kids! It's me, your old pal Satan! And I brought Pop Rocks!!!"

Though its thrills are comparatively low key by today's standards, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT offers very fantastical occult goings-on in a recognizably mundane setting that would fit right in with the events seen in stories like NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), and the end result feels like some oddball installment of either MASTERPIECE THEATER or MYSTERY. Drenched in Britishness from head to cloven hoof, this one's definitely something to add to your Netflix queue.

Poster from the original U.K. theatrical release.