Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wendigo Meets CRYPT OF THE VAMPIRE (La Maldicion de los Karnstein, 1964)

This Halloween night, Wendigo and I present a Frankenstein's monster of a vampire film, a sewing-together of popular horror elements in early 1960s Europe. It's one part Mario Bava's Black Sunday (the revenge of a condemned witch who has a look-alike in the present day), one part Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian-vampire ur-text Carmilla (au courant thanks to Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses) and one part just plan Christopher Lee. That may read like an awkward mix, but in the hands of "Thomas Miller," aka veteran director Camillo Mastrocinque, it's alive!...

Since Christopher Lee is top-billed, we may as well show him first.

What makes it work is the way the four-man Italo-Spanish team of adapters complicate the Carmilla story (which isn't acknowledged, of course) so that those familiar with Le Fanu may find themselves actually uncertain of how the story will turn out. As Wendigo pointed out to me, the standard Carmilla narrative doesn't kick in until just before the 24-minute mark, when a coach carrying the famous seductress (here called Ljuba and played by Ursula Davis) loses a wheel outside the Karnstein castle.

Before she arrives, we're introduced to a troubled Karnstein household, headed by a widowed Count Ludwig (Lee) indulging in an affair with his sexy blond maid Annette (Vera Valmont). The maid seems to be scheming to become the new Countess, either as his wife or his heir, but in her way stands Ludwig's daughter Laura (Adriana Ambesi), who has major problems of her own -- in her dreams, at least. She dreams of biting people on the neck and killing them. Under the tutelage of her caring, Satanist (!) head maid Rowena (Nela Conjiu) she has flashbacks to a Karnstein ancestress, Cirra, who was crucified (i.e. tied face down to an x-frame and left to die from exposure) for witchcraft, but not before cursing her descendants. At Annnette's instigation, Ludwig has invited young scholar Friedrich Klauss (Jose Campos) to research the history of Cirra and the curse, but as he comes closer to discovering the key detail -- that the curse will be realized through Cirra's lookalike -- an antsy Ludwig tries to shoo him away.

Who's responsible for those terrible dream/flashbacks Laura's experiencing? Ambitious Annete (top), maternal Satanist Rowena (bottom) or someone else???

With Annette apparently trying to drive Laura insane, and not necessarily needing to do a whole lot to reach her goal, and with Laura under the dubious protection of a devout devil-worshipper, Mastrocinque and his writers have set the stage for Ljuba's arrival. You may think you recognize Carmilla at this point, but what does Ljuba have to do with what we've already seen? Is she a prior instigator of events? Will she be a catylyst for future disasters? Or is she simply going to be an innocent, endangered bystander? It's Laura, after all, who dreams of biting Ljuba -- on whom she has an obvious girl-crush -- and Ljuba's neck is the only one that has marks on it.

Is Ljuba the vampire, the victim or just the love interest in this picture?

It's Laura who's obviously having supernatural experiences, and both Annette and Rowena seem quite capable of mischief, either against Laura or on her behalf. This chaos is best illustrated by the fate of an itinerant hunchback who tells fortunes and sells charms. Yes, Ljuba seems unduly alarmed by the man and his dog, but she seems just as alarmed when she and Laura discover him hanging by the neck in a crypt with a hand hacked off. And it's Rowena who hacked the hand off, to turn it into a Hand of Glory, a devil-approved divining tool to help her detect who's killing Karnsteins across the country.

But then who stabs Rowena in the back before she learns too much? Annette? She sees it happen and freaks out, only to vanish through a secret passage. Is someone trying to get her out of the way? Who, then, and why? More than one person has a motive, and Mastrocinque strives heroically to keep the ultimate truth a mystery until the film's final moments....

Rowena points an accusing finger from beyond the grave (above)
while the girls embark on a fateful elopement (below).

Wendigo hasn't seen every Carmilla-inspired movie, but he's seen a wide range of adaptations, including the loosely-inspired Blood and Roses and the more literally faithful Vampire Lovers. Crypt uses the core story as a starting point for a more elaborate mystery plot, but is otherwise faithful to the core. He pointed out to me that one surprise scare involving a man popping out of a coffin to attack one of the heroes, is straight out of Le Fanu, including the man's identity as the father of one of the vampire's victims. The key lesboerotic friendship between Ljuba and Laura is pretty much consistent with Carmilla, except with the names changed, as is the idea that the vampire walking the earth is actually a projection of the corpse that remains in its coffin. Wendigo hadn't heard of Crypt (which is also called Terror in the Crypt) before I added it to my Netflix queue, and would now not be surprised to learn that there are many more adaptations. While Vampire Lovers is more faithful and is free to be more explicitly erotic than the still-sensual Crypt, Wendigo doesn't see much distance between the Hammer classic and this underrated (5.4 on IMDB? It's better than that!) Euro effort.

Along with the creative adaptation, Wendigo enjoyed Crypt's Bava-inspired black-and-white cinematography and art direction, and the overall craftsmanship of the relatively unknown Mastrocinque. While no one actress in Crypt's cast is the equal of Barbara Steele in Black Sunday, -- and Mastrocinque would get his chance with her in An Angel for Satan -- they're all attractive or charismatic, and there's real chemistry between Ambesi and Davis, and they all have a better story to work with, in Wendigo's opinion, than Steele did. While distributors could not resist temptation and teased in the ballyhoo that Lee was the menace, the actor gives a solid, straight performance as a troubled, relatively passive hero, and even Jose Campos was adequate in the customarily romantic dull male lead role. Wendigo says that if he sees more films like Crypt, he may change his mind about European horror once and for all.

The following video, uploaded to YouTube by qloshima27, is more of a highlight reel than a trailer, but it gives you some hints of the action.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Sequels weren't that common back when the movies that inspired Larry Blamire's Lost Skeleton films were made -- War of the Colossal Beast is one exception -- but Blamire makes exploitation films for our time, and the thing to do these days is exploit your own work. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra got an adventuresome theatrical release from Columbia ("the studio that gave you Lawrence of Arabia and Zombies of Mora Tau!") but I had missed the fact of a sequel until a blog reviewed it. Once I knew about it, I had to see it, since Cadavra was one of the funniest films of the last decade. As a writer, Blamire does a risky high-wire act. He works on two levels simultaneously, offering a pastiche of atomic-age schlock for knowledgeable fans while striving to keep it funny for the laymen. His idiom is a kind of off-key doubletalk word jazz; one beat after a punch line, the viewer's supposed to ask, "what did they just say?" and laugh as it all sinks in. Blamire exaggerates the illogic of an Ed Wood into outright nonsense ("If I see you making moves on my wife again I'll eat your hands!" Blamire's scientist hero threatens a presumed romantic rival, who answers, "Try that and you'll have company!") uttered with authentic artlessness by his stock company of cronies. The Lost Skeleton Returns Again includes a kind of homage to Blamire's own style in an evil scientist's promise to teach a naive native the secret power of the double negative. But sometimes Blamire gets lost in his own verbal labyrinths and exchanges cease to be funny. Fortunately, his format allows him to shrug off any longeurs, or have his actors literally shrug them off for him and move on.

Part of the overall gag of Returns Again is the fact that, while the setting has changed to South America, most of the locations haven't, while many of the cast are wearing exactly the same costumes as in Cadavra, even when they aren't playing the same people, but rather their twins. The famous Skeleton, however, has been reduced to a mere skull following his first misadventure, but he remains as petulant and domineering as ever. Hearing him call people fools and idiots never gets tired. For more than half its length, Returns Again promises to be as consistently funny as the original film. That its plot is baldly derivative of Cadavra itself is part of the joke, while Blamire's redemption arc for his now-alcoholic and self-consciously "bitter" hero is brazenly irrelevant to everything going on around him. That the cat-suited Animala can be reconstituted from four random Amazonian animals yet retain her personality and secret identity ("Pammy") from the first film is a sublime absurdity, while the Skeleton (it's just wrong as well as a slight to Freddy Francis to refer to the diminished villain as "the Skull") is a joy to watch in wire-assisted flying-attack mode.

But if a film like this can jump the shark at all, it does so when the rival teams of explorers cross the color border and enter the land of the Cantaloupe people. Blamire stumbles badly here, never managing to find the right tone for these dubious aboriginals. As Queen Chinfa, Alison Martin careens from borscht-belt bluster to Tarzanesque pidgin in what appears to be not a put-on but a genuinely bad performance. She's at her worst when Blamire requires her to perform the Cantaloupe Dance in a sequence that exposes the director's own weakness with physical sight gags. He's satisfied that Martin is funny as long as she's awkward, but her extremely tentative awkwardness does not amuse. Blamire also mistakes mere awkwardness for humor in a late-developing running gag as a dying character wishes for his redeemed family name to be sung across the cosmos, and literal minded Lattis and Kro-Bar, the returning aliens from the first film, oblige him in abrasive fashion. It isn't funny the first time and it's less funny when the entire surviving cast reprises the gag at the end. Susan McConnell and Andrew Parks, who play the inept spacefolk, have inferior material to work with this time. Their terrified ascent of a flight of stairs and their helpless confrontation with a closed door were among the highlights of Cadavra. In the sequel their big scene, apart from their wretched singing, involves their manhandling of a meal in response to the challenge that they hadn't touched their food. Meanwhile, Blamire has no idea of how to make his characters' battles with the film's adorably cheesy monsters (or with the flying Skeleton head -- don't call it a skull!) look funny beyond the minimally inherent humor of the situation. Each such battle looks like the one before, except for one bit when a monster gets to toss around a dummy standing in for a victimized scientist. The more action-packed Returns Again becomes, the more tedious it gets.

In the balance, however, there's still more than enough prime Blamirean humor here to justify a recommendation to anyone who enjoyed the original Lost Skeleton and anyone interested in a parody pastiche of atom-age sci-fi. Even during the increasingly draggy second half, the film snaps back to life whenever characters other than Chinfa get a chance to talk. If the monster fights are badly staged, the running gag of "It's funny...." death speeches allows for nice recoveries. In the end, I can't hold it too much against a film inspired by bad movies that it's partly bad itself. For all I know, Blamire meant it that way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

KIDNAP (Fatevi vivi: la polizia non interverra, 1974)

Patty Hearst was still a hot topic when United Artists picked up Giovanni Fago's crime drama, which has little else to recommend it from an exploitation standpoint, for American distribution. I gave it a chance as a Netflix instant streaming video, expecting a typical Italian tough-cop movie, with the redoubtable Henry Silva as the cop, but Fatevi vivi fell somewhat short of that. Silva's Commissario Caprile talks tough but accomplishes hardly anything here.

Caprile has to solve the kidnapping of an industrialist's young daughter, but he uses the crime as an excuse to harass his old enemy, crime boss Frank Salvatore (Gabriele Ferzetti, "Mr. Choo-Choo" from Once Upon a Time in the West). Salvatore has clout enough to get Caprile transferred or kicked upstairs whenever he becomes an annoyance. Now that he's an annoyance again, Salvatore figures that the best way to get him out of his hair is to solve the kidnapping himself. It's an expedient as old as M, and it's hard to go wrong with it, especially when the mobsters prove more effective investigators than Caprile's cops. Meanwhile, the three masked kidnappers (one a drug-addict played by Rada Rassimov) answer to "the Professor" (Phillipe Leroy), who slowly eliminates his accomplices on his way to a speedboat-chase showdown on Lake Como with Salvatore's gang.

Masks help our kidnappers make a dramatic entrance (above) but viewers may consider it a waste for Rada Rassimov (below) to keep her mask on for much of the rest of the picture.

If Kidnap isn't really a cop film, it isn't really a mob film, either. Nor is it much of a kidnapping movie, since we learn nothing about the Professor's motives or anything else to make him an interesting villain, and we never get a strong sense of the child's peril until the speedboat chase. None of the characters is very deeply developed, though Silva and Ferzetti get some nice, sociable ball-busting scenes together. A prostitute who witnessed the kidnapping (Lia Tanzi) is set up as a pivotal character -- largely ignored by Caprile but intimidated into cooperating with Salvatore, she stumbles upon a crucial clue twice over in a big coincidence -- but gets forgotten by the film once her specific plot function is over. As far as Fago is concerned, Tanzi's main function may have been to perform the obligatory topless scene. He directs with little emotion or engagement, draining the film of most of its dramatic or exploitative potential. At the climax, you do wonder whether he'll go all the way and kill the child, but the action footage shot on the water comes out misty and smeary.

Gabriele Ferzetti is about to make Lia Tanzi an offer. Will she refuse?

Kidnap isn't an outright bad film -- Silva makes the most of his limited role, the other actors don't embarrass themselves, and there's a good score by Piero Piccioni -- but it's the sort of movie that leaves you asking, "Is that it?" after 99 minutes. I expected plot twists, like the exposure of secret collaborators with the kidnappers, that never arrived, and the story had nothing unique to say or show us about cops, crooks or kidnappers. Unfortunately, that is it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


In Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida's previous film, The Affair, the dominant visual motif was women wandering in traffic, automotive or locomotive, representing the risky waywardness of passion. The heroine's mother had been hit by a truck, for instance, and was revealed to be having an affair, while the heroine herself has some threatening encounters with trains. For Flame and Women (also known in English as Impasse) the not-so-symbolic theme is child endangerment. Several times over, infants are shown in peril, or dead.

The real threats to Japan's children, Yoshida tells us this time, are alienation within the nuclear family and the reduction of children themselves to commodities and status symbols. His story makes the point by showing us the fraught interrelationship of two couples. Ibuki and Ritsuko (Mariko Okada, Yoshida's wife and star) have a toddler son, Takashi. Ibuki is sterile, "a man but not a father," but to prove himself a man he must become a father. He arranges for Ritsuko to receive artificial insemination from his gynaecologist friend Sakaguchi, whose marriage to Shina (Mayumi Ogawa) is childless so far; she, too, seems to be sterile. Ritsuko resists the procedure, disliking the idea of bearing (the English subtitles unfortunately say "wearing") another man's child. But Ibuki insists that it'll be his child as long as she's his wife. She's unconvinced, and would rather believe that a tractor driver she seduced (or was raped by) out in the country is the real father. At the same time, Sakaguchi envies the children he shepherds into life, and struggles with an emotional attachment to Takashi and his mother, while Shina, usually preoccupied with birdwatching, picks the little boy up off the street and takes him on an outing without asking permission. Despite that episode, Ritsuko comes to feel as if Sakaguchi is the true father of her child, while Ibuki insists on his essential paternity no matter what....

Mariko Okada hides (not so sincerely) from a hunky tractor driver, while Mayumi Ogawa takes Baby Takashi for a worrisome walk across a bridge.

Flame and Women portrays a society in dysfunction in which families go through the motions of reproduction and science enables them to do without the emotional ties upon which children depend. Yoshida raises the question of what the children will think in a prologue and epilogue, the first showing a baby's eye view of adults speculating on the impressions the infant will form, the latter a long shot of parents laughingly teaching a child to distinguish his parents from trees, rocks and leaves. After sitting through the grim narrative, you're meant to ask how, exactly, any child can identify his true parents, biological or not. Artificial insemination complicates the question, but the troubles men and women have connecting beg the question in the first place.

Along with his visions of infanticide, Yoshida achieves some beautiful black and white landscapes in his forest location with the help of first-time cinematographer Yuji Okumura. The monochrome keeps the imagery austere but preserves the splendor of nature nearly as well as the color cinematography of Yoshida's Akitsu Springs. As for the actors, Mariko Okada is as good as ever, but Mayumi Ogawa steals the show as the dangerously flighty Shina. Flame and Women finds Yoshida still working out relationship issues, intellectually at least, with a sharp cinematic imagination that makes his relative critical neglect among Americans a bigger mystery with each of his films that I watch.

Monday, October 25, 2010


As a rule, I don't review movies after missing the first half hour, but when you see what I saw while channel surfing past Turner Classic Movies this evening, it bears mentioning. What I saw was Glenn Ford and Edgar Buchanan, a westerner and his sidekick, climbing up a ridge. On the other side of the ridge are two prospectors mining gold. Buchanan shoots both of them in cold blood. He climbs down, looks inside a cave and tells Ford about the trove they've found. The report of a rifle tells us that Ford has just shot Buchanan down in cold blood, in the back. Ford proceeds to dump the three bodies into a crevice. We see the bodies pile up, one on top of another. The gold is all Ford's.

All right, Lust for Gold; you have my attention.

The director is S. Sylvan Simon, who may be best known for directing Red Skelton comedies. This is his last film as a director; he'll be dead at age 41 two years later. The screenplay by Richard English and Ted Sherdeman is based on a book by the pseudonymous Barry Storm (who becomes a character in the film; the real man sued the studio) that purports to recount the discovery of the Peralta treasure in the "Lost Dutchman" mine by Storm's grandfather, the Dutchman himself, Jacob Walz (Ford). The screenwriters add to the Walz legend a noirish plot involving Pete Thomas (Gig Young) and his wife Julia (Ida Lupino), who hope to manipulate Walz into revealing the location of the mine, the secret the whole town covets. Theirs is a risky game, since Walz is a volatile brute. Tossed out of a bar in mid-bender, he vows that, if they won't let him back in, he won't let anyone out. He blasts away at the door until the mickey the barkeep slipped into his last round kicks in. It's Julia who drags Walz into her bakery and puts him to bed for the night.

Julia is just supposed to win Walz's confidence, exploiting their common German ancestry, while pretending to be estranged from Pete. The plan works well enough that Walz, who has cleaned himself up for courting purposes, decides to go back to the mine for fresh gold to pay for a divorce for Julia. Pete can't restrain his jealousy, however, while Walz can't fully shake his suspicion of everyone. He stumbles upon the Thomases in a clinch, part of Julia's insincere attempt to win back Pete's confidence. After consoling himself with booze, Walz plans his strategy. He gives Julia a map to the mine, fully expecting that Pete will come along. He stalks them along the way and shoos away their pack animals while they descend into the mine opening. He then besieges the unhappy couple with gunfire and loose boulders (!) until the Thomases are out of ammo and fading from thirst. He taunts them, tossing them a canteen of water and then shooting it to pieces while they fight over it. Finally, Julia stabs Pete in the back and tries to climb up to join Walz, insisting that her act of murder has proven her love for him. Cue the EARTHQUAKE!!!

Here's where missing the opening left me at a disadvantage, since only now did I discover that this was all a story told in the present day by Barry Storm (William Prince) to a local sheriff and his deputies. Storm, Walz's grandson from a failed marriage prior to his discovery of the mine, hopes to find the fabled treasure. He isn't the first to look since the earthquake; many have died looking, some very recently. In a florid narration ("the ground gave out from under me like an unfaithful friend") Storm describes his trek to Superstition Mountain, where one of the deputies (Will Geer) is waiting for him. The deputy has been hunting for the treasure for years, and killing rival treasure seekers. This revelation sets up a brutal fight scene on a high cliff, combining suspenseful location footage and rugged action from the stars and their stuntmen. Deputy Geer has the upper hand and is about to kick Storm off the precipice when he's BITTEN BY AN F'N SNAKE!!! The second unit then sends a dummy off the cliff, while the sheriff (Paul Ford) and his remaining deputy (a grammatically correct Jay Silverheels) retrieve Storm, who then sets to digging -- in vain. The film closes with Storm inviting anyone interested to take their shot at finding the Dutchman mine.

Lust For Gold is a kind of missing link in the evolution of the "adult western," appearing a year before the breakthrough of 1950 (three Anthony Mann films plus Henry King's The Gunfighter) while showing the lingering over-the-top influence of David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun (Simon's title is unwittingly evocative of Duel's unofficial alternate title, "Lust in the Dust") and an echo of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The outdoor action (some of it studio-simulated) seems to anticipate the naturalist expressionism of Mann's westerns, but Lupino's crawl up the mountain also evokes Jennifer Jones's death march in Duel. There's an excess to Lust (boulders, earthquake, snake) that has to be excised before the adult or psychological western achieves its characteristic Fifties style. There's also a dark ferocity to Lust that seems uncharacteristic of either its director or its star and reflects the noir influence that was more readily recognized in Mann's films. Lupino is a standard femme fatale, but her rather uninspired showing is thoroughly eclipsed by Glenn Ford's singular performance. It's been said in (unjustified) criticism of his work of 3:10 to Yuma that Ford could not play a villain. I'm not sure if Lust For Gold disproves that point, but it does show that Ford can play a monster. Jacob Walz is one of the most irredeemable protagonists I've seen in an American western, despite a play for pathos during his awkward attempts to court Julia and his discovery of her betrayal. Ford revels in savagery and smirking cruelty, and certainly further endeared himself to audiences by tinkering with a "Dutch" accent through the picture, as if he (or Simon) thought he was Paul Muni. Glenn Ford probably should rank as the number three western actor of the Fifties after James Stewart and Randolph Scott (John Wayne didn't make as many westerns in the decade as some might think), but nothing I've seen from him in the decade to come prepared me for his rampage here.

I'm reluctant to call Lust For Gold a good movie. Where Anthony Mann might have made certain scenes look epic, Simon often (though not during the climactic present-day fight) makes them look silly. The film has a wild, compelling quality to it, however. Glenn Ford's typebreaking performance and the overall viciousness of the story give Lust the feeling of a violent kick of a subgenre in its birth pangs. I'll recommend it to western fans for historical value, but movie fans in general may find it entertaining too, in one crazy way or another. It's available in nine parts (if I remember right) on You Tube, so I can check out what I missed and you can check out the whole thing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wendigo Meets MARTIN (1977)

My friend Wendigo has a simple explanation for why he hasn't seen George A. Romero's vampire movie in the 33 years since its release: it hasn't been shown on television. He did go looking for it at the video store way back when, but the shop didn't have a Betamax copy. After that, he moved on to other things, perhaps deterred from pursuing it more aggressively by its reputation as a non-traditional, non-supernatural vampire movie. The Albany Public Library has had Martin for a while, but I'd forgotten that Wendigo had never seen it, or else I would have rented it for him earlier. He has a more eclectic appetite for vampire movies nowadays, so he was game this weekend.

Martin Matthias (John Amplas) looks twentysomething but claims to be 84 years old. He's supposed to be one of the unfortunate members of his extended family who inherited the curse of the nosferatu. The Matthias clan keeps their vampiric members alive as a kind of badge of shame, passing them from relative to relative over time -- perhaps to keep a low profile on their failure to age. This is what Martin believes, and what elders like his latest keeper, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) have told him, but some younger relations are understandably skeptical, and Romero never gives us objective proof of whether Martin is as old as he thinks or is actually dependent upon blood to survive. Martin's own viewpoint is peculiar. He presumably accepts the premise of the curse and believes himself unnaturally youthful, but those points aside, he insists that there's no "magic" involved. Holy symbols and other traditional defenses against the vampire have no power over him. Nor has he the powers of the traditional vampire, apart from purported immortality. Most famously, lacking fangs he must slice veins open with razor blades or other handy sharp tools in order to get at the blood he craves. To make it easier for himself he puts victims out with a hypodermic before cutting them or -- as seems to be the usual case -- raping them. He plots his attacks quite thoroughly, stalking his victims and scouting their homes over several days before striking, though no amount of preparation can rule out the occasional inconvenient surprise.

Illusion, delusion and reality in Martin. You figure out which is which.

Domiciled in Braddock PA, where Cuda runs a grocery store, Martin is warned not to kill within the community, so he takes the train to Pittsburgh to hunt. At the same time, he befriends a cougarish local woman to whom he delivers groceries and becomes an underground media personality of a sort by calling an all-night radio talk show and describing his life and activities. Wendigo suggests that the radio calls are counterparts for serial killers like Zodiac or Son of Sam writing to the newspapers. Fortunately for Martin, Cuda doesn't listen when "the Count" is on the air. The imperious old man is determined to exorcise the curse (even though this has failed in the past, if Martin's flashbacks can be believed), and summons an elderly priest to do the job.

George A. Romero's Exorcist, with Lincoln Maazel as backup.

Martin is only disgusted by the ritual, and pays Cuda back by getting into a Halloween vampire getup to scare him that night, but on some level the exorcism seems to work. He's able to approach the cougar, Abbie, and enjoy sex unassisted by narcotics or razors, though the experience does little to alleviate Abbie's own depression. But while Martin's sexual hang-ups might be resolved, the blood compulsion endures, and he's gone without long enough to be "shaky," less careful and more likely to be caught the next time he hunts....

Wendigo doesn't believe in the Matthias curse. He thinks that Martin has just been warped by a dysfunctional upbringing in a twisted family environment. His techniques and attitudes are those of the serial killer, but the family lore and a cinematically inspired fantasy life (illustrated by black and white inserts and quasi-flashbacks) shape him into a modern-day vampire. Wendigo is satisfied that anyone who feels a compulsion to drink blood can be called a vampire. He's also satisfied with Martin as a superior vampire film from Romero's most creative period. Romero was a master of making do with little and taking advantage of local color. Location is important to this film; Braddock is a dying community, its industries dying, its church burnt, its residents stagnant -- the ideal setting for Cuda's archaic fantasies and Martin's disillusioned commentaries, which listeners take as a running joke. There's nothing to do there but mark time until you die; the only alternatives are escape or suicide. Perhaps ironically, other people's failures to adapt, change or escape seal Martin's fate. In a classic Romero finish, Martin has a lucky escape from a botched hunt, only to meet a reckoning for something he didn't do. Yet regardless of his fate, he becomes a kind of local legend, a fitting one for soulless modern society circa 1976, when the film was shot. In the end, Martin is as bleak a portrait of society as Romero's more overtly satirical zombie films, with less room to escape through laughter.

Illusion and reality again, sexual fantasy department.

Another virtue of cheap local filmmaking, in Wendigo's opinion, is the casting of unknowns like Amplas. He could watch Martin without pre-conceived notions of characters based on actors' histories, and he was impressed by the ensemble overall -- we didn't recognize a clean-shaven Romero as a wine-loving priest until the credits rolled. The women were realistically unglamorous, yet attractive emotionally, and Lincoln Maazel as Cuda was a hoot from beginning to end. Technically, Romero gets a little over-indulgent with a fog machine at one point, and Tom Savini himself admits that the blood employed in the gore scenes looks like melted crayons, but the final shock effect was nicely and convincingly brutal. Wendigo thinks the use of black and white for Martin's fantasy/flashback scenes was a wise choice and a nod to the classic horror tradition. Donald Rubinstein's grungy score fits this grungy movie like a scratchy glove.

For my part, I thought Martin has some very effective suspense scenes, anticipating future films like Scream in stressing the difficulties killers have subduing victims. If the story has a weakness for me, it's Romero's failure to dramatize Martin's dependence on blood. We never see him suffer or sicken from doing without, but that may have been Romero's way of saying it was entirely in Martin's head. Wendigo agrees with this criticism somewhat, but we also agree that this fault isn't fatal for the film. Wendigo actually gives this film his best recommendation; he plans to buy a copy for his personal vampire-film collection.

Martin himself explains it all for us in the theatrical trailer, uploaded to YouTube by albadeimorti.

Friday, October 22, 2010

NAKED AND VIOLENT (America...Cosi' Nuda, Cosi Violenta, 1970)

After Riz Ortolani scored a global hit and earned an Oscar nomination for "More," the theme song for the genre-defining Mondo Cane, it became a convention of the "mondo" genre of episodic, dyspeptic and salacious quasi-documentaries to have a sweepingly romantic theme song, ideally with English lyrics and optimally with music by Ortolani himself. Director Sergio Martino had to make due with the not-contemptible Bruno Nicolai, and in English this is what they came up with for Naked and Violent:

Look away...from misery,
From bitterness and hate,
And poverty...
And men who cannot wait
For you,

Look away, sweet Liberty,
From what you cannot see,
But Liberty,
You swore to set men free,
So why, tell me why,
Look away?

Probably no other national cinema has been so fascinated by the United States -- made so many films set there -- as Italy. America...cosi nuda, cosi violenta (America, how naked, how violent) is contemporary with spaghetti westerns and with mondo innovators Jacopetti and Prosperi's slavesploitation apocalypse Goodbye Uncle Tom, while later in the decade it was almost a ritual obligation for zombie and cannibal films to start in New York City. Martino's mondo purports to give audiences a warts-'n-all look at America, but it clearly caters -- panders, even -- to Italians' preconceived notions of our fascinating well as their desire for a realistic exploration of naked women. For every clip above there's an obviously and often absurdly staged sex scene. We get a Las Vegas sideshow where you get to see a girl strip and dance if you hit the target with the ball; an orgy in which the participants all wear fright masks and nothing else, inhibition being easier with anonymity; a purported recreation of a Manson Family ritual involving the devouring of fresh chicken blood with a side of melted wax on a naked woman's torso; and that mondo standby, painting on live, naked female canvasses.

Mondo movies have an obligation to offer pretentious moral or sociological commentary to legitimize their more sexploitative elements, and the sex scenes in Naked and Violent arguably advance the film's apparent thesis that Americans have grown so alienated from each other and from nature that they simply can't associate with one another in any normal, natural way. Americans seem to role-play in every aspect of their lives; both NFL football and drag racing are described as atavistic re-enactments of old-time rodeos (so what about modern-day rodeos?), while blacks, in a sequence possibly more racist than anything in the controversial Goodbye Uncle Tom, are shown reverting all the way to primitive Africa in a booga-booga dance and circumcision (?) rite of Martino's likely imagination. Some people are so incapable of forming relationships that they have to rely on sex dolls for company and comfort.Traditional kinship ties have deteriorated to the point that the elderly who can't afford to settle in admittedly paradisaical Florida communities are relegated to rot in wretched old-folks homes, or wander the Bowery, or stagger out to Times Square to sell their blood along with the other losers. Cancer is a blessing to the elderly poor because it means hospitalization: a warm bed and three squares a day.

But there's something unnatural even to the fortunate elderly, a reversion to childishness shared with the often naked and sometimes violent hippies who attended the big Altamont concert in 1969. Martino himself lurked at the fringes of Altamont but didn't have access to the real action on stage or nearby and had no rights to the music played there. Your first conclusive proof that Naked and Violent isn't going to be all it could be is when you hear its Altamont footage scored to that lousy Look Away song. You get the same effect, though it can't be helped, when Martino interviews various Americans; their words are drowned out almost immediately by an Italian translator. For an American viewer, it's hard to shake the impression that Martino and his writers weren't really interested in what Americans were saying or singing.

Mondo in a nutshell: this scene is supposed to show Americans' denial of death's reality with a corpse getting a makeup job at an undertaking parlor, but its most prominent feature is the trio of miniskirted assistants, filmed by Sergio Martino in the glamorous manner of a future giallo master.

Back when I reviewed Martino's All the Colors of the Dark I wrote that I was going to seek out more of the director's films. At first I had his giallos in mind, but then I found that Netflix was offering this rare mondo that had been brought to my attention months earlier by my frequent correspondent, the Vicar of VHS. As a mondo fan, I had to give it a shot. As a prospective Martino fan, I was disappointed. The quasi-documentary format doesn't exactly play to the man's stylistic strengths, and Naked and Violent (his third feature and his second mondo) is clearly a cheap project. Jacopetti and Prosperi's epics will make almost any other mondo look impoverished, but this one looks objectively impoverished. Moving down the mondo checklist, it boasts some of the most hopelessly obvious staged action (all of the sex scenes and, more offensively, an episode of white-on-black violence building up to a presumed lynching) and possibly the most revolting bit of animal cruelty in the whole genre. That comes when we see some cowboy gun-nuts taking target practice on helpless rabbits hung upside-down like midway targets. The cowboys, we're told, simply enjoy destroying life, and the moralizing tone of mondo narration never seemed more hypocritical. On the other hand, the scene sets up Martino's cleverest transition, as he cuts from exploded rabbits to the shimmying tail of a Playboy Bunny at a Chicago photo shoot.

The film finally finds some redemptive potential for America in its discovery of a little city built for the care of mentally handicapped children. The caregivers and their unselfconscious charges presumably exemplify the instinctive, unconditional bonds of affection the filmmakers failed to find elsewhere in the U.S. But Naked and Violent actually closes with a recitation of some purported blues poetry imploring the Statue of Liberty to "put out your light," "turn your back to the ocean" and "put a little love in me." This ties in (I guess) to the Look Away song, and I'm going to take another guess that it all means that Americans need to turn inward and deal with their hang-ups without taking them out on the rest of the world. A scene near the end of soldiers on leave embracing their wives in Hawaii helps make that point.

A mondo movie with the U.S. as its subject will always have some interest, just because of the novelty of presenting America as the exotic, decadent nation. Naked and Violent doesn't make the most of the premise's potential, but it'll retain historical interest for its conjuration of fact and fake into an America of the Italian imagination.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Peter Graham Scott's blood-and-thunder adventure can be found in Universal's Hammer Horror Collection DVD set, but that's as deceptive as the film's American title, Night Creatures. Apart from an early sequence involving the scaring to death of an arguably deserving old man, Hammer isn't out to frighten folks this time. This adaptation of Russell Thorndike's "Dr. Syn" series of novels (adapted simultaneously by Disney, with Patrick McGoohan as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) is more in line with Hammer's swashbucklers like The Pirates of Black River or The Devil-Ship Pirates, only with Peter Cushing starring instead of Christopher Lee. But that scene of flourescently-painted skeletoid night riders, who return to rescue Oliver Reed later in the picture, is worthy of some sort of ass-kicking horror at the drive-ins of yore.

Cushing plays Rev. Blyss (his name changed from Syn to avoid legal hassles with Disney), the benign vicar of an English village that's home to an extensive smuggling racket for contraband liquor from Europe. You're immediately supposed to suspect him of being Captain Clegg, the cruel pirate skipper who is shown from behind in a prologue condemning a sailor who slept with Clegg's wife to have his tongue cut out before abandonment on a deserted island. Clegg is supposed to have been hanged, and is supposed to be buried in Blyss's churchyard, while Blyss is supposed to be the chaplain who ministered to Clegg before his execution.

Not being familiar with the Clegg/Syn/Scarecrow story, I saw Cushing as the sort of benign character who turns out to be a vicious criminal in stories like these. And for a while I was uncertain of who would be the heroes and villains of the movie. That frightening to death of the old man made the smugglers (presuming them to be the night riders) to be rough customers and dirty dealers. But the naval detachment that comes to town looking for contraband is shown as a bunch of boors and bullies, and viewers more familiar with the Thorndike stories or English history might more readily recognize them as agents of an oppressive government. Blyss/Clegg himself is a stern leader but insists on no violence against the sailors, and is later shown to be a genuinely benevolent man in his new life, concerned for the well being of poor villagers and his own daughter, who believes herself adopted by Blyss. These are mixed signals for whether to root for him or not, but the authorities are clearly no heroes, if not villains either. The nearest thing to an unambiguous hero is Harry Cobtree (Reed), the local squire's "freethinker" son, a rival for the hand of Blyss's daughter, and more besides. It's he and his love who'll have a happy ending here, if anyone does.

As a period adventure film, Captain Clegg is fast-paced and amiable enough, with a dynamic dual-identity performance from Cushing. It has some decent, unpretentious art direction, though it's undercut a bit by some hopeless day-for-night photography. Two things stand out to distinguish the show for genre fans. The skeleton riders I've already mentioned. The other bonus is the prominent performance by Britain's answer to Tor Johnson, Milton Reid, as "The Mulatto," the unlikely pirate who scored with Mrs. Clegg and suffered for it. He survived to be found by and become the pet and bloodhound of the naval captain who investigates the smugglers.

Reid's the nearest thing to a monster in this alleged horror film -- he even fears fire more than normal folk, for some reason. He recognizes Blyss as Clegg but can't tell anyone, being presumably illiterate; his idea of revealing the truth is to tear apart Clegg's grave to prove it empty, but people finding the empty plot simply assume that the mulatto stole Clegg's body. He ends up stalking Blyss and other enemies with a harpoon, getting into a furious brawl with Cushing's stuntman in a burning house at one point. Reid remains a wild card throughout the movie, and for all I know this was the burly and often-mute actor's biggest role. He makes the most of it and adds a lot to this film's entertainment value.

Hammer downplays the scarecrow angle in its version of the Romney Marsh story, perhaps because Disney would play it up, but the straw man does put in a few dramatic appearances.

The subject matter may make Captain Clegg too obscure or just not scary enough to be part of the essential Hammer canon for many American viewers, but I enjoyed seeing more proof of the great studio's genre diversity. The repeated reminders via DVD in recent years that Hammer did much more than horror have been great news for movie fans, and the good news in this case is that Captain Clegg is eighty minutes of easygoing fun.

Universal really plays up the terror elements for all they're worth, and more, in this trailer uploaded to YouTube by justjoined.