Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Let's take a look at the trailer first this time. This copy was uploaded to YouTube by venomchamber.

That's the trailer I saw on a compilation disc and that's why I rented a DVD of the film now known as Blood Money. I should have been seeing a vigorously brutal story worthy of the hype, something that should have been an improvement on the only other spaghetti western-kung fu crossover I've seen, the merrily vicious and unconscionably entertaining Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. As far as production values are concerned, Blood Money, a collaboration between Carlo Ponti and Shaw Bros. with Antonio "Anthony M. Dawson" Margheriti directing, wins hands down. This is a beautifully shot film on a bigger budget than you might expect, with lush cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa and evocative landscapes filmed in both Spain (standing in for the U.S. as usual) and China. The music by Carlos Savina is more elegiac than badass, more Ortolani than Morricone, but very easy on the ear. The mighty men who star, Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh, are troupers who perform with enthusiasm....


That's a pun, not a typo, and it leads us to the problem with this promising package. It turns out to be a comedy, but I have no automatic problem with that. Shanghai Joe is pretty funny, too, whether it means to be or not. But the type of comedy The Stranger and the Gunfighter indulges in has little to do with its gunfighting or kung-fu elements. The original Italian title is La dove non batte il sole. My Microsoft Translator rather witlessly translates this as "Where does not beat the sun," but a more idiomatic attempt, "Where the sun don't shine," gets us nearer the bottom of the matter.

We're introduced to Dakota (Van Cleef) working his way through the defenses of a safe. At each obstacle he discovers a photograph of a woman, and with each discovery Margheriti cuts to a flashback presumably showing how the picture was taken. Each woman had a tryst with a short, bald Chinese merchant who seems to have a rear-end fetish. He examines each woman's tush with an appraiser's eye. All of this is unknown to Dakota as he prepares to blow the safe. The merchant appears to prevent the blast, but is killed by the explosion. Dakota is captured, tried and sentenced to death for the merchant's death.

In China, we learn that the merchant was the uncle of Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh) and that funds entrusted to him by a local mandarin are unaccounted for. All the official has to show for his investment is a cigar store Indian. To redeem the family honor, not to mention save their lives, Ho must go to America and recover the money. Lo Lieh gets to show off some moves here but the action seems perfunctory and the director seems most interested in getting slow-mo shots of the actor leaping through the air. Still, it's just about the most fighting we'll see from Lo Lieh in the picture.

Ho makes it to our original starting point in time to interview Dakota on the night before the hanging. He decides that the outlaw would make an excellent guide to the rest of the west and contrives to rescue him from the gallows. Reviewing the four photos, our duo realize that they must track down these women and find out what the old man found so fascinating about their butts. The bright but guileless Ho is unselfconscious about asking women to examine their asses or, worse, asking the men in their lives for the privilege. Despite these faux pas he emerges as the brains of the outfit, equipped with a foolproof method of picking roulette winners and a case full of acupuncture needles to enhance his imposture of a doctor. He deduces at last that each woman has had a share of information tattooed on her behind; combined, these rump notes will reveal the true location of the treasure.

"I wish to look at ass of your wife." A redundantly shocking moment from The Stranger and the Gunfighter.

The plot renders Blood Money a mildly bawdy comedy of manners -- or in Dakota's case, the lack thereof. The copy I watched seems to be 10 minutes short of the original length, which may explain why nothing more salacious than a butt is exposed here. The same comedy situations are repeated four times over, while Van Cleef is wasted playing a buffoon. You hold out hope for something better once some villains are introduced: an ex-con religious fanatic murderer (Julian Ugarte) who travels in a horse-drawn church and dresses like Rasputin of the West, and a big Indian brute clearly meant for a showdown with Ho. Add the inevitable Mexican bandits and you have a potentially formidable roster of enemies. But no one's heart really seems to be into the violence, even when a tortured Dakota gets hold of a Gatling gun, and the big fight between Lo Lieh and the Indian is lackluster. This is fatal. There's no point to making a spaghetti-kung fu crossover unless you go for broke with the action and violence. There's no point to watching such a film unless you expect a lot of action and violence. But somebody (Carlo Ponti, maybe) must have thought that the actresses' assets were equal in importance to shooting, kicking and killing. With all due respect to the rears of Femi Benussi, Erika Blanc, Patty Shepard and Karen Yeh, it just ain't so.

"The Deacon" (Julian Ugarte) brings the wrath of God wherever he goes, but no man makes a martyr of Lee Van Cleef -- though they can sure try.

Maybe this film was made too late. By 1974 comedy had contaminated spaghetti westerns to an almost incurable extent, and to a point where we should be grateful that we at least got Van Cleef and not Terrence Hill. By the time kung-fu was big enough globally to make a project like this plausible, the damage had already been done, and it was probably inevitable that a film like this would end up as some sort of comedy. It is only a Seventies dream, I suppose, to envision a film with a gunfighter and a martial artist who are both badasses true to their respective genres, something closer to the Mifune-Bronson teamup in Red Sun. That ideal crossover may exist only in that trailer I saw. If that sort of crossover is what you're looking for, the trailer is probably all you need to see.

Arthur Penn (1922-2010)

The director of Bonnie and Clyde has died hours after celebrating his 88th birthday. Penn's moment in the vanguard of American cinema was relatively brief, and he had the good fortune to inherit a project designed for both Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but given the opportunity the director rose to the occasion and helped change the entire attitude of popular cinema in this country. That the one film wasn't a fluke was proven, at least in my own experience, by his earlier emotional success with the movie version of The Miracle Worker (1962), a play he'd directed on stage, and his later western Little Big Man (1970), a sentimental favorite of mine because it was probably my father's favorite film. The only other Penn film that I've seen is the bravely eccentric western The Missouri Breaks (1976), but other efforts have their champions. While history may remember Warren Beatty as the ultimate auteur of Bonnie and Clyde, this is a time to give Penn's own artistic courage its due.

Update: On an unintentionally lighter note, Diane Sawyer on ABC News has just described Bonnie and Clyde as "the Romeo and Juliet of crime." WTF? You might as well say that Romeo and Juliet were the Bonnie and Clyde of Verona, though that idea does start my imagination working....

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Instead of Kate Beckinsale in sleek leather, Paramount Pictures and director Josef von Sternberg give us big, blustery George Bancroft in this landmark crime film. It was a comeback film for Sternberg, a wunderkind who captivated Hollywood with his indie film Salvation Hunters but was humiliated by a stint at M-G-M and a project produced by Charlie Chaplin but consigned to the flames unreleased. He had risen and fallen in two years, but Paramount gave him another chance with reshoots on a Clara Bow picture. When his salvage effort worked, Sternberg got another chance to direct, and Underworld made his career. According to the supplemental material on the new Criterion DVD, Paramount awarded Sternberg their own in-house prize for the best film of 1927 -- and that was the year the studio released Wings, the original Oscar winner. Maybe Underworld made more of profit.

The histories of film I read years ago often touted Underworld as a precursor of the classic gangster films of the 1930s, but now that I've seen it I'm reminded more of the crime films that came before. For starters, the lead criminal "Bull" Weed (Bancroft) isn't a gangster in our racketeering sense of the word, as far as I can tell. Nor does the film call him a gangster; the term of art is "crook," and that gives you an idea of his actual activity. Bull is an urban bandit, the sort of fellow you might stumble across in the middle of the night charging out of a bank with a safe in his arms. That's pretty much how the film's hero encounters him. This hero (Clive Brook) is a staggering drunk who knows the notorious criminal on sight and calls him by name in mid-abscondment. Realizing that he can't leave a witness walking the streets, but perhaps in too much of a hurry to shoot him on the spot, Bull grabs the lush and drags him back to his headquarters to debrief him. The rummy is desperate for drink but unafraid of Bull and resentful of any hint that he might squeal on the crook. He calls himself a virtual Rolls-Royce for silence, and while the claim would seem to be belied by the way he called Bull's name out on the street, the easily-impressed Bull renames him "Rolls-Royce" by way of adopting him as a stooge.

Bull finds Rolls work as a janitor in a speakeasy he frequents with his crony Slippy and his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent). He sets Rolls up in an apartment that doubles as a safe-house for Bull, with a secret passage to his warehouse of swag. Rolls is an intellectual with a cunning streak, suggesting a simple way for Bull to frame his enemy Buck Mulligan (not the stately, plump one) for a jewel robbery. He stocks his hovel with books and claims not to be interested in women, but despite the intellectual gulf separating them, he and Feathers begin to fall for one another, risking Bull's jealous wrath. That wrath can be fatal, as Mulligan learns when he drunkenly tries to rape Feathers at the annual gangster's ball.

Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook in Underworld. The casting of the 40 year old Brook as the male romantic lead means we're still far from the glamorization of gangsters to come.

Imprisoned and condemned to death for killing Mulligan, Bull seems less concerned about his own life than with the thought, provoked by the sight of one dance at the ball, that Rolls and Feathers might be two-timing him. In fact, they are thinking about leaving town together, but both feel that they owe Bull too much to leave him to his fate. Rolls puts together a breakout plan, but as it falls apart Bull takes matters into his own hands and effects his own escape, now determined to destroy the two people he cares most about, the ones who supposedly betrayed him....

Brent and George Bancroft in the middle of a police siege that isn't the only detail of Underworld to anticipate Howard Hawks's Scarface (see below for something else.)

[The next paragraph contains spoilers.]

Underworld made George Bancroft a star, though he's better known now for character parts in later pictures like Stagecoach. Even though this is a silent film, I find myself wanting to describe his performance as "loud." He's big and boisterous, a kind of perpetual explosion of energy on screen, and you can imagine a booming voice boasting and bellowing throughout the picture. As a criminal type, Bancroft's a transitional figure, halfway between the grotesque masterminds played by Lon Chaney Sr. and the relentless charismatic aggressors played by Cagney, Robinson and Muni in the Thirties. As a personality, Bancroft is somewhere between Chaney and Wallace Beery, more of a lovable lummox, despite his crimes, than a monster or menace. If Underworld seems more like a Chaney than a Cagney vehicle, that's due to the way it plays for pathos by ultimately making Bull a sympathetic character. He's not an antihero or a "good bad man" by any means, but he's reminiscent of many Chaney characters in his emotional neediness and an implicit potential for redemption. As the story plays out, Bull's apparent jealousy proves to be driven by a worry that neither Feathers nor Rolls really cares for him. Once he receives reassurance of their shared loyalty and devotion to him, he's untroubled by the fact that they now love each other. In a finish that clearly separates Underworld from gangster films to come, Bull lets the lovers escape from his besieged hideout and surrenders to the police. He's willing to go back and face the music after a stolen extra hour of freedom because, as he tells the cops, what he learned in that hour -- that he was loved, in a way, after all -- was worth more to him than his entire criminal career.

Sternberg tells the story with all the fluency of late silent cinema. He doesn't go overboard with Murnau-influenced camera movements, but when his camera does move, it counts. Instead, he relies on close-ups to catch every subtle or not-so-subtle shift in the three leads' emotions as they interact with each other. The director shows off his dedication to faces most flamboyantly during the gangster's ball sequence, aka the "Devil's Carnival," with a rapid-fire montage of a few dozen mugs and molls gaping at their own faces in a mirror in somewhat less than a minute. It's a stunning if superfluous moment in an otherwise relatively unshowy film, but it underscores Sternberg's emphasis on the face as his primary instrument here.

Speaking of faces, an unlikely one to turn up here was Larry Semon as Bull's pal Slippy. Semon was for a short while considered a formidable rival to if not a peer of the canonical silent clowns -- Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc., --before making a version of The Wizard of Oz that has a reputation as the Heaven's Gate of silent comedy. Underworld finds Semon on the comeback trail after losing his independence, but with little more than a year to live. Paramount still considered him a draw; he's fourth billed and equal to Bancroft, Brook and Brent in most advertising. He's clearly in the picture for no other purpose than comedy relief, though you can see the possibility that his character might have been the one to betray the breakout plan to the police. But while he shows some simple dexterity and occasional good timing, he really isn't that funny. For Sternberg's purposes, Semon's there because he has a funny face, albeit with less makeup than he used on his own projects. That brings us back to the director's faith in the expressiveness of faces and the grotesque milieu that marks Underworld as part of an older crime genre rather than a precursor of a new one.

Cinematography by Bert Glennon; art direction by Hans Dreier.

However you categorize it, Underworld is a treat to look at for its cinematography, which arguably looks beyond '30s gangsterdom to influence '40s noir, as well as its razor-sharp editing. It's ultimately too melodramatic and somewhat maudlin to rank among the truly great crime films, but it's an admirable showcase for the storytelling sophistication silent film had achieved by the time sound decreed its extinction. It's one of three silents in a Sternberg box set from Criterion, along with The Last Command (which I saw on tape years ago) and another crime drama, The Docks of New York. If you try one via Netflix, as I did, you'll probably end up wanting to see the others.

Gangsters got more ambitious later, but the genre had to start somewhere. By the way, Howard Hawks is listed at IMDB as an uncredited contributor to Underworld's scenario, while Scarface scripter Ben Hecht gets story credit for the Sternberg film. I guess Underworld was influential after all.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gloria Stuart (1910-2010)

Bad news just in: one of the last links to the classic era of Universal Horror, but best known for her late-life return to celebrity in James Cameron's Titanic after taking a role Fay Wray had turned down, Gloria Stuart has succumbed to lung cancer not long after celebrating her centennial. Stuart was the female lead in James Whale's The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man and appeared in numerous films for other studios in the 1930s. She followed her Oscar-nominate performance in Titanic with several appearances in film and TV, including two Wim Wenders movies. Her last performance, in a sense, was an interview she gave a few weeks after her 100th birthday, when reporters noted that her voice was just about gone, though she appears to have kept her mind clear to the end. Given what that interview must have taken out of her as a centenarian dying of cancer, she was certainly a trouper to the end. Ave atque vale.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the Big Screen: METROPOLIS (1927)

About five years after I bought my "Restored Authorized Edition" DVD of Fritz Lang's silent superproduction, it became obsolete. A more complete, albeit damaged copy of the much-cut classic was found in Argentina, making possible the "Complete Metropolis" that's been playing select theaters around the world since its re-premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It has just reached my neck of the woods, where it's playing at a venue that could have hosted its original American release. The Proctors theater in Schenectady, New York, was built in 1926 and is one of two still-functioning movie palaces in the Capital Region; the other is the Palace, a 1931 structure in Albany. Neither is a full-time movie house; the Palace hosts a variety of concerts and the top stand-up acts, while the Proctors showcases the touring companies of the big Broadway musicals. Both houses frequently run revivals, however, and Proctors goes the extra mile with movie events like the upcoming third annual "It Came From Schenectady" festival of sci-fi, horror and all-around weirdness. The Schenectady theater has one asset that makes it ideal for Metropolis and silent film in general: "Goldie," a Mighty Wurlitzer organ played this afternoon by Avery Tunningley. "Goldie" has accompanied silent-film revivals for about 25 years now, and I vividly remember a summer season dedicated to the Barrymores back in the late Eighties. It's been more than a decade since I last went to the Proctors, and longer since I'd heard "Goldie," so with Metropolis stopping in I decided to drop in. I felt it was a film to be seen on a big screen when you have a chance.

Proctors Theater of Schenectady outside and inside. Interior shot taken from

As many readers know by now, calling the current version "Complete" is a bit of a bait-and-switch. In a text preface Kino International calls Metropolis "virtually complete," and two scenes remain missing. One of those is pretty important; it's when the industrialist Joh Fredersen rescues Maria from the (putting it mildly) mad scientist C. A. Rotwang. The other is a church sermon on Revelation, with information repeated later to set up the "false Maria," Rotwang's "Machine-Man [?!?]" in human form, as an Antichrist figure. Still, there's a lot of "new" footage from Argentina, recognizable by its apparently irrevocably beat-up condition. The remarkable thing about this salvage is how much footage of Brigitte Helm as both Marias hit the cutting room floor in the past. You'd think that any distributor would want as much footage of the lead actress as possible, but the impulse to tighten the show for more showings was inexorable. This recovered footage basically extends existing scenes, but the extra shots of the real Maria struggling to activate the alarm bell in the flooding Worker City make the scene more clearly a parallel to Freder Fredersen's ordeal on that whatchamacallit with the clock hands after switching places with Georgy the worker.

The false Maria is such an Antichrist that she's an anti-cross, too.

Speaking of whom, that character (Erwin Biswanger) gets much of his story back, as the restoration includes his ill-fated trip to the Yoshiwara nightclub. Also enlarged in the new version are Josaphat (Theodor Loos), the flunky fired by Joh Fredersen but befriended by Freder, who's more clearly the No. 2 male hero here, and Fritz Rasp's creepy "Thin Man," Joh Fredersen's enforcer who persecutes Josaphat and Georgy, then appears as an apocalyptic preacher in Freder's delirium, and finally denounces Joh's selfishness during the climax.

I always assumed that the "C.A." in "C.A. Rotwang" stood for "Crazy Ass." How about you?

Curiously, I expected the big screen to really showcase Lang's sets and effects as well as his vast crowd scenes. It did that, but it really showcases the acting in a way the small screen doesn't. Metropolis is an allegory told through pantomime, that silent substitute for naturalist dialogue, and that requires the performers to go big. The stupendous Rudolph Klein-Rogge as Rotwang rises furiously to the occasion as expected, and on the big screen I better appreciated Gustave Froehlich's oft-maligned turn as Freder.

Our hero can seem like an over-earnest ninny, but Froehlich has to convey a sheltered youth's simultaneous discovery of workers' squalor and Maria's messianic beauty, his disillusion upon experiencing his father's heartlessness, his naivety in taking on crucial industrial work with no training whatsoever, and the romantic righteousness that impels him to become Maria's prophesied "Mediator," the Heart who will reconcile Head and Hand. Most importantly, Froehlich has to portray privileged guilelessness along with instinctive goodness -- a combination that makes him too good to be true for many people. But on the film's terms he acquits himself admirably, misstepping only when the script requires him to swoon into delirium when he sees "Maria" consorting with his dad. Speaking of dad, I came away from this viewing with greater respect for Alfred Abel's performance as Joh because he doesn't indulge in the general frantic gesticulation until very late in the game. While everyone emotes intensely around him, Abel is the calm eye of the storm, and his calmness ideally expresses his power. You can see that when he silences Freder, who's just burst into his office, with the slightest wave of the back of his hand.

"Good lord, Rotwang, are you blind as well as mad? How can you call that a Machine-Man?" Alfred Abel contemplates his nemesis.

The biggest challenge, of course, was faced by Brigitte Helm in her double role. As the original Maria she's amazing, a charismatic leader yet still hardly more than a girl all-too-easily and believably terrified by the onslaught of events. While she preaches the parable of Babel (equating class conflict with God's confusion of tongues) and predicts the Mediator, I found myself wondering why she couldn't be that awaited one. I'm not sure the film can answer that question, but it does emphasize her vulnerability as well as her bravery in a way that makes Freder's claim to the role implicitly necessary. As the false Maria, the robot, Helm has to articulate a somewhat different notion of artificial life than what prevails today. In our time, we define artificial life as heartless and thus emotionless. In Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's time, influenced by the German Alraune myth, they thought of artificial life as soulless and thus depraved. But while the false Maria is depraved, Helm still has to show that she's still a machine-man under that sensuous facade. She does that with the occasional facial tic and birdlike head movements that were probably imitated by Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein -- a film for which Helm herself was reportedly considered. The overall effect sometimes contradicts itself, which brings us to one of my favorite subjects in the realm of cinematic revivals.

Throw Metropolis at a 2010 American audience and you run the risk of unintentional laughter. It should be no reflection on Lang if that happens, since it happens to a lot of classic films. I remember sitting through a campus screening where the audience chuckled their way through Paths of Glory, for instance. But while that film at least has a conscious satiric streak, Metropolis is a surpassingly humorless film, which puts it in peril if people start laughing. There were three significant outbursts of unintentional laughter at Proctors this afternoon. The first came during false-Maria's whore-of-Babylon dance at the Yoshiwara. Part of the laughter derives from the fact that Brigitte Helm does her best dancing while sitting perfectly still. Combine the spectacle of her stomping around half-naked with the shots of the young swells ogling and leering at her and you get unintentional laughter, though to be fair to Helm the laughs fell when the swells were on screen.

It's terrible, but you can't look away. Brigitte Helm does the Robot.

Another unintentional laugh-moment comes when the fickle workers, having learned that false-Maria's revolutionary tactics have put all their children in mortal peril, decide to burn "the witch" at the stake. The laughter comes when Grot, the big foreman who had resisted her machine-smashing scheme all along, breaks into a victory jig as she goes up in flames. That does seem out of character for someone who comes across as level-headed and conscientious throughout, but for the people at Proctor's a fat guy dancing was just funny. The funny thing about that to me is that Grot, as mostly underplayed by Heinrich George and as a big slob, is one of the most modern-looking and modern-seeming characters in the picture.

Ding, Dong, the 'witch' is dead. Heinrich George does the happy dance.

One more laugh came during the admittedly protracted and anticlimactic cathedral chase involving the real Maria, Rotwang and Freder. Once Rotwang had grabbed Maria and started climbing the roof the Proctors audience was tittering at how over the top the scene was. On the other hand, once Freder finally sends Rotwang over the railing and down to his doom the crowd burst into applause, and they cheered again once Freder and Maria were united for good. What does that tell us? It tells me that despite some awkwardness that has to be expected given the 83 year gap from production then to projection now, Metropolis still works. And why shouldn't it? Its influence has recurred so often in movies that in some ways it still feels contemporary. Watching it today for the umpty-umpth time, I felt retroactive echoes in my memories of not only Bride of Frankenstein but in a wild array of pictures from The Ten Commandments (the Mediator angle anticipates DeMille's unbiblical Deliverer concept) to Tim Burton's Batman films (in ways too many to list) to Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the interaction of a seductress and a mob of tuxedo-clad suitors on a staircase). Metropolis isn't even my favorite Fritz Lang silent film (ask me about his Nibelungen films sometime), but I'd be willing to say that it transcends lists of personal favorites and transcends film itself. It's an authentic 20th century myth, one misheeded by its own authors (for Thea von Harbou, it seemed, the Mediator was Hitler) and by many in its original audience, and more poignant for all that. But now it belongs to the ages, and the "Complete" version will be out on DVD soon enough -- but if you have a chance to see it on a big screen, with a live audience and a live accompaniment, do so.

For the record, I paid $12 to see Metropolis, though I could have taken $2 off had I bought a ticket in advance. That's the same amount I paid to see a matinee of Toy Story 3 in 3D. That should give you a good objective idea of what $12 is worth to a moviegoer. Accept nothing less for your money.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (Il rosso segno della follia, 1970)

Mario Bava's black comedy has what the literary critics call an unreliable narrator. How unreliable is John Harrington? "Nobody suspects that I am completely mad," is one of his first utterances while introducing himself to us. But when you go in with that attitude, you're probably not as unsuspected as you think. At least the local police inspector seems to think that Harrington, the proprietor of a bridal fashion shop inherited from his beloved mother, has something to do with the numerous disappearances of bridal models. It's a good guess: John, unhappily married to Mildred, a shrew with an occult obsession, seduces models, puts them through a sort of mock wedding in a room full of bridal mannequins, and kills them. They "disappear" beneath his greenhouse or via his incinerator, depending on circumstances. "A woman should live only until her wedding night, love once, then die," he believes.

Combine a murder spree in the world of fashion and a mother-obsessed murderer and you have a movie somewhere between Bava's own classic Blood and Black Lace and Hitchcock's Psycho. The Psycho side comes to the fore the more we learn about the death of John's Mom, though the closes he comes to full-blown Oedipal transvestism is when he dons a bridal veil to finally bump off Mildred. Interestingly, the long-suffering hubby only decides to do in wifey when they belatedly achieve something like emotional intimacy. She was okay as long as he didn't love her. But once that certain something stirred inside him, she was done for.

Here comes the bride, there goes the bride. Stephen Forsyth decides to find out how the other half lives.

Sort of. Mildred's dead, you see, but she's not done. There was something to those books she read and those seances she attended, apparently, because she commences to haunt her husband. She goes about it in a really annoying way. John'll be out in some public place, and someone will start talking to Mildred. It's only then that he notices that she's somehow hanging around. Maybe he should have burned instead of buried her. He corrects his error, but people still see Mildred, or if they don't they wonder why the hell John is talking to, buying drinks for and often taunting that handbag he's started carrying around....

Laura Betti dominates the last acts of Hatchet...from beyond the grave!

Il rosso segno della follia ("the red sign of madness") most resembles in tone Bava's other black comedy from the period, Five Dolls for an August Moon, though Hatchet (a nicely alliterative English title) initially seems intended as more straightforward horror than Dolls. It's hard to tell how intentional the humor is in the first half, given what I take to be unintentionally funny dubbed dialogue. Once Mildred's ghost takes over the story, Bava's comedic intentions are obvious enough. But while the second half is entertaining enough, it leaves the whole slightly unsatisfactory simply because the whole ghost angle seems to come from nowhere. Nothing in the first half leads you to expect a supernatural intervention in the second half. Hatchet feels like two different movies smashed together, but because it's Bava it's a gorgeous mess with a Swinging Gothic atmosphere appropriate to the period. In the leads, Stephen Forsyth and Laura Betti are game, though they shouldn't be held responsible for the English dialogue put in their mouths, and there are plenty of pretty faces besides theirs. It looks as good as you'd expect from Bava and sounds as good as you'd expect from Italian cinema in general from this time. Il rosso segno is relatively minor Bava but as lighthearted horror it's like cinematic candy and even if you're not spooked you should be entertained.

Dig this wordless trailer, uploaded to YouTube by giantfish2, featuring the music of Sante Maria Romitelli.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


The surprising thing about this thought-provoking bit of intellectual sleaze from Japanese New Wave director Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida is that it's a literary adaptation, taken from a novel (known in English as The Lake) by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. That's surprising in retrospect because the story, as reimagined by Yoshida, is so essentially cinematic. Here's the difference: the Kawabata novel, I've learned, is about a guy who steals a woman's purse and finds a bunch of money inside. His theft of the money is compromising to the woman, Miyako, because it was her earnings as the kept woman of an old lecher. In the movie, the compromising item the thief finds in the purse is film.

In Yoshida's version of the story, Miyako is married to a dull older man but having an affair with a younger man, Kitano, who is also a bit of a stiff. Nothing seems to hold Miyako and Kitano together but their regular trysts in a hotel room, and you can see that Miyako's starting to get bored with him. His odd manner of addressing her as "Ma'am" or "Lady" has got to be off-putting. Sensing that the end is near himself, Kitano wants something to remember her by: nude pictures. Miyako consents reluctantly, realizing that photos could get her in trouble down the line. Kitano gets the pictures developed but doesn't have prints made. Seeing this, Miyako puts the film in her own purse, which is how the thief gets it after accosting her at night. He seems to have blackmail in mind at first, but he grows obsessed with Miyako, telling her that he's fallen in love with the woman in the photos. She responds to his interest as Kitano becomes more defensive and belligerent. She still wants the photos back, however, even though destroying those links to her could be a metaphorical murder of the new man in her life....

Woman of the Lake lets us see Mariko Okada from multiple angles.

Yoshida has transformed a literary episode into a story designed for cinema. His larger subject is the way we idealize, eroticize and objectify people through images. He illustrates his theme with a confrontation between Kitano and the would-be blackmailer at a grungy camera club, one of those places where shutterbugs snap shots of nude models, and with an extended visit to the making of some sort of sex film on a beach. Yoshida also tries to demonstrate his premise with a self-consciously fragmentary presentation of Miyako, played by his wife and frequent leading lady, Mariko Okada. As Miyako goes out at night, the director repeatedly cuts back and forth between front and rear views of the actress. Lit from behind, her face becomes a dark void in the close-ups. He sometimes seems as interested in showing us the back of Okada's neck as in showing her pretty face.

At the camera club (above) possession of the anonymous model isn't an issue. It's a different story (below) when the possession of pictures can mean possession of Miyako herself.

With a theme like this, Woman of the Lake is purposefully problematic. Can anyone capture Miyako's essence on film, or do they project their desires on the image? Do they then project the image back on the real woman? For that matter, Yoshida practically begs us to ask, can cinema or any visual medium capture a person's true self or lay down a true reading of even a fictional character? There's an alienating pretentiousness to the whole project, but since it's meant to be that way I still have to respect the director's ambition. As far as I can tell, it's a film that's meant to make you ask questions as much as it is an invitation to empathize with the main characters or leer at nearly naked women. I think it can be enjoyed as a mildly erotic, mildly noirish small-scale thriller, but it may be more likely to stimulate the mind than anything else.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

George A. Romero's SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010)

On the DVD, George A. Romero explains that his sixth "Dead" film can be seen as the second film of a trilogy that is already complete. This second trilogy begins chronologically with the second film released of the three, Diary of the Dead, and ends with the first film released, Land of the Dead. They have a character, or at least a performer, in common: Alan Van Sprang, who plays "Brubaker" in Land, an unnamed Colonel who hassles the video crew in Diary, and the same character promoted to the lead in Survival. The new film includes a flashback establishing "Nicotine" Crockett as the same character we saw in Diary, though he's somehow been demoted to Sergeant since then. Sometime in the future, presumably, he'll change his name to become the character glimpsed in Land. This is all very interesting to know, but it isn't essential to appreciating or critiquing Survival, since Crockett is more or less a straight man for his fellow soldiers and the people he encounters on Plum Island, Delaware.

In a way, Survival is a reversal of Day of the Dead, with military folk as the relatively sane ones entering a domain of madness. The similarity extends to an island clan's efforts to tame and train their zombified relatives. That clan, the Muldoons, have driven their old rivals the O'Flynns off the island because patriarch Patrick O'Flynn took a zero-tolerance approach to zombies and the infected. O'Flynn goes online to lure survivors from across the country to Delaware, where he expects either to recruit them for the retaking of Plum or simply to roll them for wealth and weapons. After attempting to ambush Crockett's little band, O'Flynn ends up their ally as the soldiers discover the atrocities committed by the Muldoons. It becomes obvious soon enough that there are no good guys on Plum, except perhaps for O'Flynn's estranged daughter, whose survival after her father's exile is thrown into question.

More than ever for Romero, the zombie threat is just a McGuffin here, a backdrop for a feuding-patriarchs storyline very reminiscent of The Big Country, especially in its conclusion. By now, Romero is clearly having a hard time taking the zombies seriously. They're as gruesome as ever when they make their customary final rush (and when Romero reverts to practical gore effects after economizing on CGI blood earlier), but too often he makes them objects for sight gags. One is shot in the chest by a flare gun; for some reason that ignites its head. Another is force fed from a fire extinguisher until its eyes pop out of its head.

But at the same time some zombies become figures of pathos or a kind of gothic awe. A female zombie on horseback rides through the landscape like a figure out of folklore; the effect is eerily thrilling rather than horrific. But the story is less about the Dead than about the foibles of the living, with a moral Romero drives home with overkill (literally, you might say) in an editorializing, superfluous coda.

Romero's second trilogy doesn't compare with his first, but Survival is a big improvement on the hamfisted Diary, which wasted our time making Romero's who-cares point about our modern obsession with recording ourselves. If Survival doesn't really function as a horror film, despite some chilling moments and excellent exploitation of a dread-inducing landscape, it works for me as a pulpy adventure story with a slight accent of Celtic exoticism and an ensemble cast that performs with guileless conviction. The dialogue is often on a comic-book level, but the actors sell it sincerely, especially Kenneth Welsh as O'Flynn, a figure of malevolent exuberance. As long as you know what to expect (and what not to), Survival of the Dead should provide 90 minutes of undemanding entertainment, with a decent bit of gore for a chaser. You can almost feel Romero's frustration that he can't make films without zombies anymore (and he can barely get those made following the undeserved failure of Land), but he still has a certain genius for making something from next to nothing. The title may sound like an oxymoron, but it may be the director's defiant statement on the state of his career right now.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wendigo Meets FIANCEE OF DRACULA (2002)

Once again, Wendigo meets Dracula, and it should be a big moment, since this is the first time that Jean Rollin, the definitive director of French vampire films, has used Dracula in a movie. Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly, Dracula is probably the weakest element in a film that's otherwise wild with weirdness and really quite entertaining. With vampires, insane nuns, cannibalism and a dwarf, how could it not be?

The concept of Dracula, as we've seen it handed down from Bram Stoker to generations of filmmakers, doesn't really seem to mean anything to Rollin. He brings nothing of Dracula's accumulated mythology to his story. Instead, the blandly handsome creature in the puffy shirt who seems to live in a grandfather clock is "the Master," worshipped by the "parallel people," the strange, happy-go-lucky evil folk who are the true protagonists of the picture. Wendigo sees Rollin's Dracula as little more than a Latin Lover in gothic trappings, that little more being something like the fairy-tale Beast whom Beauty must free from a curse.

Dracula is imprisoned in the clock, or else the clock is his only portal for communicating with the world, but he can be freed if the parallels can get him married off to Isabelle, the self-styled "Queen of the Sabbath," an attractively insane young woman in the custody of the Sisters of the White Virgin, an order of nuns who find her madness contagious. Their goal is to keep Dracula permanently imprisoned by keeping Isabelle confined in the convent. Presumably sharing their objective are a pair of, shall we say, parallel hunters, The Professor (a modestly imposing old dude) and Eric (a dolt with a Boltonesque shock of hair). We meet them as they watch the dwarf Thibaut,in his jester's uniform, summon the love of his life, "the Vampire Woman," from her tomb to drink some of his blood. Our hunters later interrogate a local madwoman, little suspecting that by night she is "the Ogress," a buxom baby-eating bitch. Dwarf, vampire and ogress are parallels dedicated to getting Isabelle out of the convent and out of the mad nuns' clutches. They're abetted by a couple of elderly witches who try to convince the nuns that Isabelle is their daughter. She may be for all we know.

"Are we there yet?" The Professor and Eric wait impatiently while the Dwarfmobile (below) races to get Isabelle to the crypt on time.

Isabelle manages to break out and is sped by midget-driven motorcycle to some of Rollin's typically picturesque ruins. Thibaut has brought a baby basket along with an offering for the Ogress, who gives them directions (between bites) to a grandfather clock through which Isabelle can communicate with Dracula with the help of "the She-Wolf" (Brigitte Lahaie), a tall lady in a red dress and press-on talons. The hunters have followed and manage to rescue some imprisoned nuns, whom the Professor entrusts to Eric with directions to take them to safety. The next thing we know the nuns are on their own, one gets her heart cut out by the witches, another succumbs to apoplexy after watching Lahaie swallow a Rosary, and another is bitten by a bare-assed Vampire Woman.

Above, a wounded Ogress -- Shrek never had it so good.
Below, the Butt of the Vampire.

Where's Eric? Why did he leave the nuns in peril? Search us, but he never does seem like the sharpest stake in the coffin. He does manage to shoot the Ogress (a marksman, he puts a hole in each breast) but she manages to recover by allowing the Vampire Woman to drink her blood. They're parallel people, so maybe things work backwards for them; if someone drinks your blood, you gain strength. Maybe we just shouldn't think about it. Instead, think back to that nun we left with her heart cut out. She gets better, sort of. The witches didn't have any particular use for her heart, so they left it sitting on her chest. When she comes to, she gets up, grabs the heart, wanders about the ruins for a bit before finding a fireplace she can throw it in. Well, she doesn't seem to need it, does she?


After the parallels went to all that trouble to get Isabelle out of the nuns' clutches, Dracula tells her that she has to turn herself back over to the White Virgins so they can perform a sacrifice to a local Beast. They'll think that doing so will seal Dracula's permanent imprisonment, but he tells Isabelle that going through the ordeal will actually bring her to the place where she can free him once and for all. But first, the parallels have to get her back from the hunters, who took her home amid all the confusion. The female witch heads over and utters the significant incantation of the picture: "The presbytery has not lost its charm, nor the garden its colors." It sounds like the sort of cryptic instruction the BBC used to give resistance fighters during World War II, but if you say it with just the right emphasis and hand gestures, you can knock Eric out cold. Honestly, it doesn't seem like that much is ever required to stop the poor man's brain. With him out of the way, the parallels pack her on a boat and send her to an island where the nuns have been sacrificing their own to the Beast for quite some time. They tie her to some ruined pilings at the water's edge, expecting the high tide to take her.

Talk to the hand, Isabelle, or talk to the water.

The hunters try to thwart the sacrifice, the Professor storming the scene with a gun while Eric is sent into catacombs to contemplate a chess game between skeletons in bishops' finery. The Prof can communicate with Eric telepathically, we now learn, which probably explains some of Eric's higher functions like driving, shooting and so on. Once the parallels do away with the Professor, Eric's on his own, which means wandering around the vicinity of the Clock Chamber in his natural state of confusion. Meanwhile, just when the tide should carry the diaphanously clad Isabelle away, she vanishes. This irks the nuns, who take their annoyance out on the parallels, who despite their various supernatural abilities are no match for angry women with knives. "Be careful!" Thibaut warns, "These nuns have gone totally berserk!" You know, as opposed to when they were only sacrificing their own and collecting the remains for religious relics. Be that as it may, his warnings are in vain, though while Dracula's parallel minions suffer at the hands of the sisters, Isabelle has made it to her crucial tryst with the Master, which happens just as Eric blunders into the chamber to complicate things, perhaps....

So we have Dracula, sort of, and we have a Vampire Woman (if not the Vampire Woman), but Wendigo deems Fiancee of Dracula less a vampire movie than a fantasy movie that happens to have vampires in it. In simplest terms, it's a Jean Rollin movie, taking place in the director's personal fantasy world. Vampirism as such isn't especially relevant to the story. Dracula does nothing vampiric, and the VW's vampiric behavior isn't exactly crucial. We're not dealing with vampires as cursed or evil monsters. They're really just magical creatures, parallels for the present purpose. Their blood drinking is exploited to kinky effect occasionally, but Fiancee isn't about the lust for blood by any stretch of the imagination. Wendigo's willing to believe that Rollin only used the Dracula name as exploitation, to play on people's diverse images of the legendary vampire.

Wendigo would rather call Fiancee a "dark fantasy," which was what folks read before there was "urban fantasy" or "paranormal romance" in bookstores. The fantasy here is definitely dark, and who the heroes are has nothing to do with goodness or virtue. After all, we're apparently supposed to be rooting for the parallel team, which includes a baby-eating cannibal, for crying out loud. She's no hero, of course, but the charisma is all with her and her pals. This is one of those stories where you have monsters, and then you have real monsters -- the nuns, and to a far lesser extent the hunters. You're invited to empathize with the hunted, the hated, -- "monsters to be pitied, monsters to be despised" as one writer put it. They can't help what they are and, as Wendigo observes, they never really seem mean spirited in their wickedness.

In a way, the parallel world is also the world of the fantastic literature Rollin read as a boy, invoked here like it was in his previous film, Two Orphan Vampires. Isabelle flaunts an old book called La Reine de Sabbat and the Ogress, under hypnosis, recites a litany of fantastic scenarios as the stuff of her dreams. The world of fantasy, of genre fiction overall, pervades our real world, and Rollin may be saying that, just as Isabelle's madness infected the nuns, he himself, through his films, is contaminating us with a similar fantastic madness. Wendigo and I agree that Rollin achieved a more powerful homage to his childhood influences here than in Two Orphans, which had a pretentious, last-testament quality to it that the director has thankfully outlived. The one key thing Fiancee has that Orphans lacks is a strong narrative thread. Rollin does more justice to the power of his fantasies when he makes a story from them rather than a collection of reveries. Orphans suffered in Wendigo's opinion from Rollin's casting of overaged actresses in the title roles; they often seemed retarded rather than childish to him. In Fiancee we're definitely dealing with adult women, and Rollin can dispense with the inhibition that had kept nudity to a minimum in Orphans.

Fiancee looks like a bigger production than Orphans because Rollin uses more locations. As ever, he has a great eye for ruins and relics, often coming up with striking compositions. Wendigo still prefers Rollin's mid-period, comparatively impersonal vampire films, Fascination and The Living Dead Girl, but Fiancee has a strong enough story to lead you through Rollin's world and leave you willing to accept what you see. Wendigo recommends Fiancee as an interesting, idiosyncratic dark fantasy that proves that Rollin can still tell a compelling tale.

For a while while watching the film, we wondered what the hell Rollin meant by "The presbytery has not lost its charm, nor the garden its colors." Wendigo will close for this week by suggesting that Rollin refers to the memories that persist after the presbytery has fallen into ruin and the garden loses its color. In simpler form, he could have said, "We'll always have Paris." At the end of Fiancee, Isabelle tells Eric that he won't be able to follow her until he learns the meaning of the cryptic phrase. She seems to be saying that Eric needs to learn to treasure both memory and fantasy while accepting change. She may also mean that Eric has to learn to go wild or mad in some way beyond his simple capacities for now. She says it all to him, but she's saying it to us as well. Wendigo is actually amazed that he came up with an interpretation for this gibberish. It may only prove him a good BS artist, but maybe he's got a little bit of the old madness himself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, so let's make sure we understand the essential differences. Daniel Barber's film is about a man in the process -- the final stages, really -- of losing the world he knew; Eastwood's is about a man who's already lost his. In Barber's film, Michael Caine's title character is clearly traumatized by loss and sudden isolation, while Eastwood plays the great American isolato; he's not consciously bothered about being alone, while Caine's isolation provokes him to think he has nothing to lose if he does something foolhardy. Eastwood is more archetypically cantankerous, but Gran Torino is not the reactionary sort of film that Harry Brown is. Harry's vigilante spree is a last act of rearguard resistance to social change, and given what we see who wouldn't resist? Both films are about the menace of gangs to an extent, but while Eastwood is against gangs he isn't against youth. There's no such distinction in Barber's film. Eastwood's character proves capable of allying with the more promising kids in his neighborhood, but those kids have no counterparts in Harry Brown. It's probably significant that Eastwood is dealing with immigrants and homeowners, while Caine must cope with fellow tenants, most as white as he, in a bleak apartment project (or "estate"). Gran Torino ultimately reaffirms immigrants' potential to replenish American society and culture, in part through homeownership, while the Barber film traps Caine in a zone where no aspiration seems possible, and the youth are already lost. Gran Torino is optimistic despite the hero's death; he sacrifices himself with some assurance that the future is worth it. Harry Brown ends, like many vigilante movies, with the protagonist a lingering implicit threat to the next generation. You can call it a happy ending, but how optimistic or hopeful is it, really?

Gran Torino was a politically correct film, once unbelievable from Eastwood, by comparison with Harry Brown. The British film won't necessarily strike an American observer as politically incorrect, since race doesn't factor into Harry's conflict and we're invited to sympathize with a female police detective facing sexism in the ranks. What makes it so, depending on your own point of view, is its purely reactionary quality, something that more sympathetic viewers might call unflinching realism. I find it reactionary (a descriptive rather than moral judgment) because of its unmitigated indictment of English youth. There's no good kid in the estates for Harry to befriend or protect, no one of the teen generation or slightly older who might give audiences cause for hope. Barber's movie is dystopian; it's set in the present, but it may as well be the time of Mad Max. If the youth of Britain have any chance, Harry Brown suggests, it'll only be as long as old men like Harry put the fear of death into them.

I draw comparisons because Harry Brown and Gran Torino are essentially similar. They're star vehicles for enduring action icons who are allowed, while playing old, sick men, to kick punks' asses. Caine's movie arguably deals with the main character's age and illness more realistically than Eastwood's. Clint coughs up blood every so often, then goes about his business punching out punks, while Caine succumbs to emphysema in mid-chase and has to be hospitalized. Harry is no septuagenarian superman; he's not as fast as the punks, prevailing over them mainly because they're incompetent even at violence compared with a knowledgeable antagonist. There are hints that Harry was more of a specialist in brutality in his Marine days than Eastwood's character was during the Korean War, making Harry's spree arguably more plausible than Eastwood's occasional non-lethal antics. The tension between Harry's skills and his age helps keep Harry Brown interesting. "What's he capable of?" is a legitimate question throughout in more than one sense: what's Harry capable of physically and morally? The moral tension, unfortunately, is understressed. Barber and writer Gary Young have so persuasively portrayed the estate youth as monsters that there seems little point in questioning whether Harry hasn't become a monster himself.

I'm ambivalent about vigilante movies. They can be entertaining as hell or Harry Brown, but I don't know if I can accept an "only a movie" argument in defense of their implicit advocacy of people taking law into their own hands. Given the end results in Barber's film, who could be blamed for thinking the message to be, "Go and do likewise." When a vigilante character gets away with it all, however implausibly, it seems like the cheapest form of audience gratification. Vigilante films are fantasies, however, and I suppose audiences can be trusted to draw distinctions between what's allowed on screen and in society. When a vigilante film is a star vehicle like Harry Brown, that might discourage viewers from thinking that vigilantism is something they can do. Plenty of able-bodied people probably leave this film convinced that Michael Caine could kick their asses in real life, or at least kill them with little trouble. Someone fantasizing about emulating Harry Brown might be stopped short by the realization that he isn't Michael Caine. Still, however modest the vigilante fantasy actually is, it probably still isn't healthy for society, and speaking from my own aesthetic perspective, I prefer more pessimistic movies, or at least those where the vigilante might get the revenge he or she is looking for, but pays for it as well.

Above, Harry Brown watches crime from a safe distance. Below, technology reduces the distance across time and space between Harry and his friend's final moments.

By that standard, Harry Brown can't fully satisfy me, but I like a lot of the parts. Barber has an eye for dismal cityscapes and a taste for apocalypse in miniature. He's also effective in portraying Harry's accelerated isolation, and the collection of deleted scenes on the DVD show a sharp editorial instinct for doing more with less. Caine milks the title role for all its pathos and all its comic-book crowd-pleasing quality, and works that tension between prowess and infirmity very effectively. In Emily Mortimer's detective he has a regrettably inadequate antagonist. She plays the character convincingly but it just feels like the wrong character for this story. It needs a detective who'll challenge Harry more forcefully, but that may just be me desiring a more ambiguous movie again. The gang punks are barely differentiated little ogres, but I'll say for the young men playing them that they look and sound like they were just plucked from the estates. Harry Brown is an urban nightmare of which its protagonist is a part. The best way to look at it, if not necessarily the way the creators want, is to see Harry as a symptom, not a cure, or as still a victim despite his revenge.