Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For American movie fans, perhaps the most preposterous element of Tim Burton's Batman Returns was the idea that a woman who had been thrown from a high window of a skycraper, albeit with awnings partly breaking her fall, could be restored to health, if not life itself, by getting licked by cats. Such was Burton's reputation already that most people -- I was one of them at the time -- probably assumed that the idea was his own, or that of his screenwriter. More likely, Burton had remembered Kuroneko, a film by the late Kaneto Shindo that has a few more elements later to be seen in Batman Returns. Like Burton's Catwoman, the vengeful ghosts of Kuroneko can take gymnastic tumbling runs. Like Burton's movie, Shindo's has a tragic finish in a wintry setting. Like Batman Returns, Kuroneko is a fairy tale in which a happy ending is impossible. But while Burton presumably grafted elements of Kuroneko somewhat awkwardly on comic-book archetypes, Shindo's film has the deeper integrity of authentic myth.

Shindo also has Burton beat, two cat women to one. Yone (Noboku Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are on their own on the farm because Yone's son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) has been conscripted into an army. Unprotected, they're helpless prey for a foraging band of samurai. Claiming their usual prerogatives, the men rape the women; for extra measure, they kill the hapless duo and burn their house down. But lest you think war is hell, hell has something in store for the warriors.

I am Kuroneko, hear me roar.

Enter the cats, who give our victims a licking and starts them ticking again. But there's an implicit pact with a "god of evil" who sets them up in a mystery house and tasks them with luring wandering samurai, seducing them, and biting their throats out. Soon, tales of a monster preying on samurai are the terror of the region.

Meanwhile, Gintoki becomes a hero and a samurai by slaying a Goliath-like warrior. Thanks to his new reputation, he's entrusted with slaying the local monster. Instead of encountering a monster, of course, our hero encounters two women who inexplicably resemble his wife and mother, who they claim not to know. They know better, of course, and Shige is troubled by her renewed desire for her husband, while Yone warns her either to do her job or steer well clear of Gintoki. But neither Shige nor Gintoki can resist the old attraction, nor can Gintoki fail to see the obvious for long. For love, Shige spares him, but pays a price. Meanwhile, Yone keeps on killing, and the pressure grows on Gintoki to get rid of the monster once and for all....

Love conquers all? Not this time.

The monochrome melancholy of Kuroneko seems very preminiscent of Tim Burton, but the mother-daughter menace more clearly refers back to Shindo's best-known global art-house hit, the somewhat more grounded Onibaba. Kiyomi Kuroda did the cinematography honors for both films, and makes the more fantastical Kuroneko one of the very last great black-and-white horror films, alongside its late contemporaries Night of the Living Dead and The Cremator. The three principle actors really sell the tragedy, while Kei Sato as Kintoki's overlord is a grandly hateful portrait of inhuman samurai arrogance. While there are several shock-attack moments early on, the real horror of the picture is the predicament imposed on the ghosts and the hero alike, since you could well decide that the samurai as a class deserve what they get from the ghosts. A supernatural afterlife doesn't really right the wrongs of life, and when evil claims the rights of vengeance where's the good anywhere? Like the last of the ghosts in Kuroneko, it's not to be found in the snowy sky, even if you search unto death. For all his refusal of happy endings, Burton set Batman Returns at Christmas and closed with the slightest hint of redemption, or at least resurrection. Kuroneko ends in the depths of winter, but it's really a Halloween movie at heart.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês,1971)

The Vietnam War and the final throes of European imperialism inspired a wide range of revisionist views of confrontations between "civilized" and "primitive" peoples in 1970s cinema. While the benevolence of the white man was, to say the least, not taken for granted, the nobility of savages wasn't always taken for granted, either. Cinematic aboriginals ranged from the idealized Native Americans of revisionist U.S. westerns to the utter savagery, albeit provoked, of Italian cannibal movies. Nelson Pereira dos Santos's movie comes early in the wave and is more likely influenced by the global interest in the primal kulturkampf than by other countries' movies. While it may have given world audiences the fashionable thrill of seeing a white man undone by tribal folk, it doesn't exactly offer a blueprint for a Third World uprising. Como Era Gostoso is a grim, unheroic affair that sees brutality and selfish ambition everywhere, though its main attraction is probably its abundance of nudity, male and female.

The little Frenchman (Arduino Colassanti) never gets a name. Condemned by his own people, who are competing in 1594 with Portugal in the colonization of Brazil, he is weighed down with a ball and chain and dumped into the sea. He somehow makes it to shore and eventually falls in with some Portugese who make him their gunner. He gets captured by the Tupinamba tribe, to whom he struggles to prove that he is French, and therefore an ally, and not a Portugese enemy. They may not know either language, but they think they can tell the two apart when Europeans speak. Their chief, Cunhambebe (Eduardo Imbassahy Filho) decides that his prisoner is Portugese, mainly because he wants a slave to sacrifice as a ritual meal -- and the French trader who visits the Tupinambas regularly has no interest in correcting the chief's error. The most he'll do for his fellow Frenchman is hold out hope that Cunhambebe will eventually free him before he decides to kill him.


For the moment, the Frenchman is useful. The tribe has salvaged two small cannons from their raid, and their prisoner knows not only how to fire them but how to make more gunpowder. Cunhambebe hopes for a decisive victory against his tribe's traditional enemies, the Portuguese-allied Tupiniquins. While he prepares for war, the Frenchman introduces the tribeswomen to new ideas in agriculture, sheds his European clothes and cuts his hair tribal style. This last bit actually makes it easier for Cunhambebe to grab him and yank him around, to assert his dominance. You can see concern in the chief's eyes even as everything seems to go his way -- a suspicion that his slave and his cannon might get more credit for the eventual victory over the enemy tribe. Meanwhile, the Frenchman has been given a woman, Seboipepe (Ana Maria Magalhães) and notices that the "bead" she wears in her navel is actually a silver coin. He and the trader find a buried treasure but squabble over the split, our hero killing his momentary partner. He's still hoping to make a break, maybe with the woman and definitely with the treasure. Everything comes to a head when Cunhambebe decides abruptly, after brooding in the middle of a victory celebration, that it's time for his slave to die. The girl explains the role the Frenchman must play in a scripted ritual, and stops him from escaping with his loot. The climactic question is whether the ritual is symbolic only, whether a Pocahantas scenario will be played out, or whether Cunhambebe ain't playin'...


The objectification of the Frenchman is the starkest fact of the story. If the French think of him as a criminal, and the Portuguese as an enemy, the Tupinambas see him as food, albeit a special kind of meal they can taunt as he's dragged into their village. This taunting may make the Tupinambas seem more evil or depraved, if not more savage, than the mindless-seeming cannibals of Italian gore films. The more that we see that the Tupinambas have a culture, from their elaborate rituals to their purely ornamental fashion sense, the more disturbing their cannibalism seems and the more, perhaps, we want to think that they don't really mean it, that all this talk of eating someone is just a game. Seboipepe;s attitude may be the most troubling of all; does she grow truly affectionate toward the Frenchman, or is she simply turned on by the idea of playing with her food? Despite any horror we feel toward his fate, it remains hard to root for the Frenchman, as he remains viciously greedy in a way the filmmakers may have felt was characteristically European for the time. Como Era Gostoso is a film without a hero, since Cunhambebe seems hardly less odious in his egotistical ambition and readiness to exploit the white man and his weapons. As the chief, Filho practically steals the film from Colassanti, his surly ambition trumping the title character's somewhat generic traits. He manages more than anyone else to convey a performance with body language and facial expressions while speaking a language foreign to him and parading about practically starkers. The cast as a whole manages to transcend self-consciousness in portraying the topless and bottomless tribespeople, probably because they understand that feathers and bodypaint are as much their clothing and their identity as shirts, pants, etc. are ours.

Dos Santos films in appropriately spare style, stripping the story of any European romanticism while showing off impressive art direction in the Tupinambas village. While the quotations from contemporary writers commenting on native savagery really only interrupt the story, except for a probably predictable epilogue, they don't disrupt the viewer's immersion into an authentically alien human environment. The picture's invocation of a dead culture is convincing, though one might wonder whether dos Santos meant ultimately to show that it deserved death. No paradise was lost, it seems, and primitive life promises no refuge for a drop-out from European civilization, whether accidental or deliberate. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a vision of human nature in the raw, in more than one sense, and has a place in movie history as a discordant variation on the savage-vs.-civilized theme.

Now Playing: OCT 26-27, 1962

Halloween is near, and horror movies are here.... in Toledo.

In St. Petersburg:

In Eugene:

In Middlesboro:

Fifty years later we let the weather frighten us.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE CREMATOR (Spalovač mrtvol, 1969)

Karel Kopfrkingl's job is to promote cremation as an alternative to burial. He's certainly sold himself on the idea. He wants to convince others, everyone if possible, that cremation takes away the fear of death. Influenced by a book about Tibetan Buddhism, he claims that the soul is freed from the body by burning, in case people are troubled by the idea of laying and rotting in the earth. Karel sees himself as an enlightened, sensitive man. He promotes his tastes in classical music nearly as hard as he does cremations. How can you not like the beautiful sounds? He lives in Czechoslovakia in the year of doom, 1938. His bit of German blood may benefit him in the new order to come, but a bit of Jewish blood in his wife, and in his son, might hurt his chances of becoming the crematorium manager. Also, things will be bad for wife and son once the Nazis take over. They will suffer, surely. What is the sensitive, the enlightened thing to do to spare them that suffering?

The crematorium and its keeper.

You'd think that with such a historically specific setting and literal Nazis in the background driving events along, a Communist regime would have little problem even with such a disturbing picture as Juraj Herz's Cremator. But the Czech regime of 1969 had been imposed upon the country by force following the Soviet suppression of the "Prague Spring" the previous year, and in general Marxist-Leninists haven't been comfortable with disturbing, at least in movies. I suppose they must have felt that a film set amid a recent takeover by foreigners would inspire unwelcome analogies. But once we step back from the historical situation at the time of its release -- according to Wikipedia it was banned yet submitted as the Czech entry for the Academy Awards -- we can appreciate that the horror at the heart of Herz's picture transcends politics and ideology. Kopfrkingl's a sick ticket well before the Nazis show up, though it's only after that he starts implementing his own personal final solution, years ahead of the Germans, to the problem of existence.

Playing the title role, Rudolf Hrušinský gives one of the creepiest performances ever, part Charles Laughton, part Peter Lorre, but mainly a disquieting portrayal of sociopathic detachment. As his salesmanship takes a murderously messianic turn, Karel sees himself as a living Buddha, an alternate Dalai Lama, a savior of the world. In his delusion, Hrušinský doubles as a robed monk announcing Karel's elevation to spiritual leadership -- do you suppose the same guy visited Steven Seagal? --  and tempting him from the other dream figure in his life, a dark-haired woman who could well represent Death. Maybe she's a more benign ideal of it, but it's definitely one he abandons at the film's surreal close, even as she runs after his car in the rain. Is he envisioning that? Symbolism aside, Kopfrkingl's presumption of enlightenment exacerbates his detachment and awakens an antinomian streak in him, though it's less likely that he sees himself as above the law than that he no longer sees the law. But the man's been creepy all along, from the way he droningly lectures everyone about the virtues of cremation to the way that he insists that a portrait of a Nicaraguan leader (bought for the frame at a frame shop) is actually a French cabinet officer to the way he compulsively combs other people's hair (including the dead), then runs the comb through his own hair. Watch as many outright horror films as you can this season and you probably won't see a more quietly disquieting performance.

Herz directs at a slow burn pace, making the picture look like many another Czech New Wave comedy with its "people are goofy" attitude and dragging a running gag with an impatient husband and a "crazy" wife through the story. At the same time, he edits the movie to reflect Kopfrkingl's detachment, often cutting in what seems like the middle of one of his speeches to what proves to be another time and location. At the very end, for Karel's final attack and subsequent apotheosis, the direction rises to its subject's delirium, and so does the remarkable score by Zdeněk Liška. In simplest terms, The Cremator portrays a man's mental and moral breakdown. Leave considerations of history or ideology aside, and if you can follow that simple thread, Spalovač mrtvol may reward you with a sensation of true horror.

Now Playing: OCT. 24, 1962

Deceptive advertising in Schenectady, NY?

According to the references, and Terry-Thomas notwithstanding, Don Chaffey's A Matter of WHO (as in World Health Organization) is a thriller about the effort to track down a deadly virus. Looking at the ad, either the current reference sources are wrong, or the Newsweek reviewer ("All laughs") had a strange sense of humor. The Canadian Weekly of November 17 suggests a split decision.

Note: the girl in the bikini is pointing to an "Operetta Series" of M-G-M re-releases that's been playing all over the country this fall.

Now for some less ambiguous entertainment in Pittsburgh.

Nothing sells the "heavyweight" idea (not to mention "gutsiest") like a picture of Gleason on the run, in case anyone questioned the size of Anthony Quinn. But if this isn't Pittsburgh's cup of gristle...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: MADAME DU BARRY (1934)

Breen found producer Hal Wallis "sneering and argumentative," saying that if Breen had his way, Warner Bros. would have to go into the milk business. Breen bellowed at him: "If people like you would get out of the way and sell milk, maybe it would free the screen of a lot of its whorehouse crap, and decent people could sit down and enjoy themselves in a theater without blushing!"

Mark A. Viera, Sin in Soft-Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood
The time is March 1934 and the Pre-Code era is drawing to a close. Joseph A. Breen, perhaps American history's best argument for Know-Nothingism, was having it out with Hal Wallis over the script for Madame Du Barry, which finally reached theaters in October.  The script had been extensively revised to placate Breen, the head Production Code enforcer, but William Dieterle's finished film still got condemned by the self-styled Legion of Decency, and one can see why today. If you accept Dante's Inferno as the epilogue to Pre-Code, then Madame Du Barry may be Pre-Code's last stand, or at least Warner Bros.'s fighting retreat in an effort to see what they could still get away with. It's a film with a split personality, to a large extent a simple superimposition of Warners motifs on 18th century France -- so much so that you could call it "Gold Diggers of the Ancien Regime" -- yet also self-consciously a prestige costume picture with lavish costumes and sets. That pretension prevented the studio from doing what almost seems obvious, which would have been casting its key stock-company players in the historical roles: Guy Kibbee as Louis XV, for instance, or any number of leading ladies in the title role. Why not Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell, or Barbara Stanwyck while Warners still had her, or Ginger Rogers while she was back from RKO for a time that year? Doing so would have undercut the prestige, rendering Madame Du Barry a burlesque in form as well as a burlesque in content. So Dolores Del Rio, a refugee from RKO, was cast as the famous courtesan, and Reginald Owen played the king, and they're fine in their roles. The story was a familiar one, or at least Du Barry was a familiar name back then. She was one of the legendary scarlet women of history that everyone seemed to know, at least by name, when such women still seemed incredibly exceptional. Du Barry: Woman of Passion had been made in Hollywood just a few years before, and even if people had missed that famous flop they probably had an idea of what they were in for.
Louis XV is old, lonely and tired of his current mistress, so a courtier hooks him up with Jeanette Du Barry. The king is ripe to be seduced after a disappointing visit to the "Deer Park," which is stocked with nubile prospects in a girls' school as well as game. And Du Barry is ready to live large despite the scorn of the nobility and the strain on the national budget. Typical of her impulses is her desire to go sleighing on a day without snow. To please her, Louis buys up all the sugar in Paris to glaze the lanes of Versailles with crystals. The expense is noted and the film hints occasionally that France is nearing a breaking point. When the royals gather to welcome Princess Marie Antoinette of Austria, the betrothed of Louis's geekish grandson, a peasant tells his son that the newcomer is "the last queen of France," though he quickly amends that to "next" when a guard asks what he said. Du Barry's extravagance would seem to hasten the day of reckoning, but the film wants us to sympathize with her, firstly because her enemies are snobs, but mainly because she makes the king happy. But as the reaper sharpens his blade, old Louis falls ill trying to keep piece between Du Barry and Marie Antoinette, and in the end, as the king suffers from an undisclosed but apparently virulent complaint that drives his children from his bedside, only Du Barry is brave and caring enough to comfort him with memories of happy times. For her services to the state she is ordered confined to a nunnery almost as soon as Louis dies. At the end she stands as a human symbol of the Pre-Code era. Escorted out of the palace, she breaks loose for one last moment to make a mocking curtsy to the new royal family, letting them know that she had a great time.
If Madame Du Barry often resembles Warners' modern-dress Pre-Code farces, it also bears an auteurial resemblance to another Dieterle film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Throw in some Paul Muni biopics in between and Dieterle stands as Hollywood's unofficial historian of France. Writers aside, I sense an affinity between Du Barry and Hunchback in Dieterle's whimsical portrayals of tyranny -- Henry Davenport's Louis XI is a comedy relief character in the later film -- and Du Barry's emphasis on the glamorous eccentricities of the impossibly wealthy makes it as much an early screwball comedy, albeit with a midly ominous undertone, as a last-throes Pre-Code. And oh, those throes! Del Rio has a sensational scene in which she invades the palace in her nightgown after her deluxe gown and wig (for a kind of coming-out party) are stolen by court enemies. But the Pre-Code Play of the Film is indisputably the dance number staged by Louis for his grandson on his wedding night. The boy is simple and unworldly, and the old king realizes that he'll need some special inspiration before performing his conjugal duties. So out come the dancing girls in filmy costumes unlikely to be seen in 18th century France, to get the lad aroused. Considering that some of the dancers aren't wearing much under those costumes -- not bras, at least -- the male audience may well get aroused, but young Louis sits dully in the midst of it. Old Louis finally resorts to an old family heirloom -- a book of pornographic sketches -- to make things clear for the boy, and even then it takes some further explaining from Du Barry to enlighten the poor kid fully.  I wish TCM had included that dance in its collection of Du Barry clips, but I'll have to leave it to your imagination.

Sin in Soft Focus describes Madame Du Barry as a crass mess with a plot left incoherent by cutting and censorship, and in its own time the film proved a modest money-loser for Warners. But if the final film leaves Viera wondering what the point was, allow me to suggest that, despite the studio's efforts to play ball with Breen, Hal Wallis's spirit still prevailed over the production, making Du Barry an act of defiant irreverence, a celebration of whatever can be gotten away with, even when you can't get away with it forever.

You will see just a little bit of the big dance number in the original trailer, available thanks to old reliable

Russell Means (1939-2012)

Means meant more to American history in general than he did to the history of the movies, but art allowed him to expand upon life by playing indisputable Native American heroes like Chingachgook in Michael Mann's ingeniously free adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans. In the novel, Chingachgook looks on as Hawkeye avenges the death of Uncas, Chingachgook's son. Rarely has a deviation from a literary original seemed more justified than Mann's, and Means's authoritative authenticity definitely helps legitimize the choice. Here's the scene climaxing with Means's fight with Wes Studi, here playing one of recent cinema's greatest villains, as clipped and uploaded to YouTube by admiralfeng.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

On the Big Screen: ARGO (2012)

After three films Hollywood seems ready to proclaim Ben Affleck the next Clint Eastwood, the latest star to show true career-worthy talent as a director. Comparisons with Eastwood seem apt because Affleck is getting praise for an unpretentious, meat-and-potatoes narrative style in the classical tradition. I missed his two previous film but the historical subject matter of Argo attracted me. The film recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of how a CIA agent smuggled six fugitive Americans out of Iran at the height of the Hostage Crisis by posing as a movie producer scouting the country for locations. As the publicity emphasizes, Tony Mendez (Affleck) worked with known Hollywood talent, most notably Oscar-winning Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who had collaborated with CIA in the past. Mendez and Chambers realize that they first have to convince Hollywood that they intend to make a movie before the Iranians will believe them. With help from a crusty old producer (Alan Arkin) they craft an elaborate pre-production publicity campaign, including a public read-through of a script by actors in fantastic costumes. In early 1980 Iran is still in the early throes of revolution, but the country still wants to do business with foreigners, so Mendez can get his foot in the door. He somehow bamboozles the Iranians into believing that he has a six-person production team following him, but those six will actually be the Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy, whom he must rapidly train for their new roles. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard is close to realizing that they're short six Americans at the captured embassy, while the skeptical Americans are poised to shut down the Argo operation at any moment....

From what I've read, part of what made the actual Argo operation stranger than fiction was how easy it was. It was too easy for fiction, it seems, since Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio do everything in their power to turn the story into a race-against-time thriller. The proverbial clock is set ticking right at the start when a mob storms the American embassy. Diplomats shred documents identifying embassy personnel, but the Revolutionary Guard sets children to work carefully pasting pages together so that it'll only be a matter of time before the Iranians realize that six people got away. So of course the kids finally piece together a picture of one of the fugitives just as Mendez is herding them onto a Swissair flight, and just after the Iranians acquire reference photos of Mendez's production team from their visit to the Tehran bazaar. The timing is just too neat, too conveniently suspenseful, and Argo's efforts to juice up the story only make everything seem less plausible. By the time a Revolutionary Guard goon is placing a call to Mendez's alleged Hollywood office while Chambers is held up by a film shoot from returning from his lunch break to answer the phone and "verify" the existence of Mendez's production company, the Argo viewer is either uncritically captivated by it all, or he is grumbling, "Oh, give me a break!" The overdramatization of events undermines the climax by making it too climactic. Since the Iranians in this account actually realize that fugitive Americans are on that plane, they send jeeps and cop cars after the jet in a futile (but impressively shot) attempt to stop its takeoff. But if the Iranians knew then what was going on, and felt so strongly about Americans trying to escape, why didn't they send some fighters up to force the plane to land? They can't because we know the Americans made it home; the script can't change that.

But if Argo errs in overdramatizing some parts of the story, it may have been too reticent about fictionalizing other parts. One of the big selling points of the film was the idea of using Hollywood tactics against the Iranians, and that makes it disappointing to see the Goodman and Arkin characters relegated to the sidelines as worried cheerleaders once Affleck is off to Iran. If the film is going to deviate from what actually happened to any extent, why not go broad and entertain us with the oldschool Hollywood hucksters going head-to-head with gun-toting religious fanatics? But Argo ultimately takes itself too seriously as a life-and-death historical drama to be comfortable with the inherent humor of the Argo conspiracy. The uncertainty of tone comes through most clearly in a montage crosscutting between the in-costume read-through in Hollywood and a mock execution of American hostages at the embassy in Tehran. There's an irrepressible absurdity in the juxtaposition, but Affleck tries to smother it by having composer Alexander Desplat score the scene with lugubrious, lamenting music, foregrounding the agony of the hostages rather than the heroic ridiculousness of the Argo reading. When Affleck goes wrong, it's nearly always when he tries to humanize his characters with moments of feeling and sharing. None of it does much to make the fugitive Americans interesting characters. Affleck treats it as a big deal when the fugitive most skeptical toward the scheme and scared of exposure and execution proves the most adept and enthusiastic deceiver at the airport, but it only comes across as another arbitrary plot twist.

Affleck does a good job evoking 1980 with everything from hairstyles to Star Wars toys to the authentic period Warner Bros. logo, but it would go too far to say that he successfully imitated Seventies thrillers -- too many of those turn out badly for this happy-ending true story to fit the paradigm. As an actor Affleck is solid if not stolid as a stalwart agent, but as a director he can't make the scenes with Mendez's family seem more than obligatory yet superfluous.  Apart from Desplat's limpid score the film has an interesting soundscape dominated by the authoritative voices of the TV anchormen of yore. Affleck has a good pictorial instinct but his pacing is transparently mechanical and risks awakening viewers to awareness of being manipulated. Yet I heard people in the multiplex theater with me responding just as Affleck would want, so at least he knows how to push the right buttons -- which is more than might be said for many more experienced directors. But let's not rush to label Argo a masterpiece. It's no more and no less than an entertaining journeyman entertainment with more than the average political conscious and a touch of political correctness (taking pains to note anti-Iranian violence in the U.S.) as well. It's too soon to say that Affleck has fulfilled the promise he'd already shown as a director, but despite its faults Argo proves that the promise is still there.

Friday, October 19, 2012

I VAMPIRI (1956)

By the 1980s a certain stereotype prevailed about Italian genre cinema. The Italians, it was presumed, simply imitated American successes by making similar pictures more cheaply. That may have been true for post-Star Wars space operas and even for spaghetti westerns, but the Italian horror genre bucks the trend. Its founding film, this 1956 production directed by Riccardo Freda but finished by cinematographer Mario Bava, looks like a more lavish imitation of some of the cheapest American films: the Poverty Row horrors made by Monogram Pictures and PRC in the 1940s. It most resembles Monogram's 1942 film The Corpse Vanishes, a Bela Lugosi vehicle in which a mad scientist kidnaps and kills virgins for their spinal fluid -- the elixir vitae of the day -- in order to keep his wife alive and beautiful. Like many a Monogram movie, I Vampiri has a nosy reporter in an important role, but it differs from Wallace Fox's movie on the most obvious pictorial level -- Bava's black-and-white widescreen cinematography is often beautiful stuff, despite having hardly more production time than Poverty Row would assign -- and in its focus on villainy. Corpse Vanishes is a Bela Lugosi vehicle in which the mad scientist obviously dominates the proceedings while his wife is little more than a whiny prop. In Vampiri the woman getting the treatment, a French aristocrat desperate to stave off aging, is the true villain, while the scientists are mere minions. The spinal fluid fad is over by the Fifties; Giselle du Grand (Gianna Maria Canale) sticks with good old fashioned blood; hence the title.

By coincidence, Freda and Bava's project appeared around the same time as a spate of American B-movies that attempted to modernize classic monsters. If I Vampiri seems to be a generation behind in its story ideas, that probably has a lot to do with a Fascist-era ban on horror films that persisted into the 1950s until Freda went to work. The overall sensibility is more modern, however, because the horror is grounded in sexual desire as well as a longing for youth. Which is to say it also looks back far past the pulp tropes that influenced Poverty Row USA and hints at a more complete return in years to come of what went repressed in American pictures.

I Vampiri approaches the truly supernatural in the special effects sequences shot by Bava in which Giselle youthens or withers depending on her fresh blood count. It's the old trickery with makeup and filters that dates back at least to Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but the magic works as well as ever here as Canale emotes her way through the transformations. The actress strikes the right notes throughout, murderously imperious yet always just a little poignant. The movie grows more entertaining as it grows more gothic and the protagonists enter a castled world of hidden prisons and secret laboratories. It never entirely transcends its derivative nature, and it reportedly flopped in Italy, but it's an often-attractive, retrospectively significant film for the preview it offers of the world that Mario Bava would soon make his own.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

LIPS OF BLOOD (Levres de sang, 1975)

While the rest of Europe made what I call "swinging Gothic" horror films in the 1960s and 1970s, Jean Rollin comes closer to just plain Gothic. His is a Gothic manner befitting his own time, however. Some of his films are period pieces, but Lips of Blood in particular portrays nostalgia, and arguably criticizes it, rather than being a mere exercise in nostalgia. It creates a fitting setting for nostalgia: a modern France of bland parties, workmanlike sexuality and abandoned storefronts. The present day, for Rollin, already seems to be in a state of decay, dark and empty but for monuments where killers living and undead stalk the few hapless seekers. Why not yearn for a fantastic past as Frederic (Jean-Loup Philippe) does, like a sleeper awakened, when he happens to see a photo of an old castle at a party? The picture stirs long-buried memories of a night spent huddled under a borrowed shawl in the castle, and a friendly girl who comforts him and sends him home in the morning. Yet Frederic's mother says he never spent a night at such a place. And what's up with her? We saw her during the opening credits supervising the disposal of several bodies, still-breathing figures dumped into coffins that are nailed shut. It looks like sinister work, but is it?

For some strange reason Frederic isn't satisfied with life in Seventies France (above), but longs for a gothic past.

The rest of the film is Frederic's struggle to fully recover his memory of the chateau. He begins to see the mute girl from the chateau, at among other places a movie theater showing Jean Rollin's Nude Vampire. The visions draw Frederic to open the coffins we saw at the start of the picture, which have bats inside them now. Before long, vampires are stalking the city and helping Frederic in his quest when not feasting on victims. Frederic needs help because people are out to get him. A woman confronts him and claims to be the girl from the chateau, now middle-aged; she leads him to a house and locks him in a room until the vampires rescue him. He's shadowed by a gunman who corners him at a large fountain until the vampires distract him by turning on the sprays. He's thrown into a mental hospital until the vampires disguise as nurses and spring him. But dumb luck puts a postcard in his hand that identifies the old castle, still the mystery girl's home. He find her in a coffin as his mother finds him, and the truth comes out. The girl is a vampire who infected the other vampire girls who've been helping Frederic. Mom and her vampire-hunter pals will take care of them, but Frederic has to resist the temptation to free his memory, or else the plague of vampirism will break out anew.

Spoiler: Frederic doesn't resist. That's what makes it a horror film.

And what's horrific about it -- chilling sounds like the right word -- is the way Rollin roots horror in nostalgia. If Frederic feels victimized by the repression of a memory, Jennifer (Annie Briand), the object of his longing, has been condemned to a regime of enforced nostalgia. Her coffin is surrounded by treasures of her childhood, including storybooks and Donald Duck comics. She can project her consciousness outside the coffin even before he's freed -- that's how Frederic could see her -- but she was stuck reading the same stories over and over. In later films, especially Two Orphan Vampires, Rollin will again summon nostalgia for a storybook world, but there his is the elegiac nostalgia of an old man. In Lips of Blood nostalgia comes with a threat of corruption, with a warning that some things should not be remembered or longed for so intensely. Frederic doesn't start seeing Jennifer until the random encounter with a photo jogs his memory. Once he sees her, his fairytale quest to rescue a sleeping princess threatens to cost him his sanity or his soul. If Jennifer's liberation can look like an escape from the past, Frederic's quest and his final choice seem like a retreat to an imagined past that can only render the seeker undead. The ambivalent mood of the movie may be as much Philippe's idea as Rollin's; the actor co-wrote the screenplay. That ambivalence still allows the possibility that Frederic's choice is the right one in his dead-end world, though that makes the conclusion no less horrible.

Lips of Blood is Rollin's most accomplished work as a director of his films that I've seen. His atmospheric instincts are assured, whether he films amid the ruins of the chateau or the modern ruins and monuments of the city. A strong sense of dread pervades everything once Frederic's quest begins. The film's one galling weakness is in the casting of the vampire girls. Briand is fine as an actual character, but the four subordinate vampires seem to be utter amateurs with no instinct for the camera whatsoever, stumbling about vacuously as if they've just staggered out of a nightclub or fallen out of bed, barely capable of grimacing or baring their fangs on cue. They are so many does in the headlights, and I feel sorry for the two who had nothing to wear but big diaphanous veils that blow wildly in some surely cold winds. They're all expendable, of course, but they undercut whatever mood Rollin is aiming for whenever they appear. Fortunately, they don't undercut the mood fatally; the director's vision here is too profound and expansive to be so easily ruined, and few great horror films are without awkward elements. I'm not ready to call Lips a great horror film after one viewing, and it'll never rank as any great scarefest. But if you're looking for a certain gothic creepiness rather than raw fright, Lips of Blood has something special to offer.