Rollerball

US | 1975 | Directed by Norman Jewison

Logline: In a corporate-controlled future a popular veteran in a powerful, but violent sport sets out to challenge and defy those who want him out of the game.

Based on his own short story titled "Roller Ball Murder" William Harrison provided the screenplay to the Hollywood production, one of many utopian/dystopian-style futurist science fiction movies from the early-to-mid 70s, of which A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, and Logan’s Run are three others baring a similar wary, but very dated vibe. Curiously Rollerball is the only one that has been remade (more on that later).

It is 2018. There are no more wars, but instead a violent indoor arena sports game, a circus-like cross between roller derby, gridiron, ice hockey, and wrestling that has the monopoly on conflict, as the world has become a global corporate state. Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the popular star of the Houston Rollerball team. He’s a ten-year veteran. But it is his flagrant Alpha male arrogance that is threatening the secret corporate purpose of the game - to expose the futility of individualism - of which Jonathan is determined to undermine, at all costs. 

The head of the Energy Corporation Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman in suitably ripe and mannered form) attempts to lure the star player away from the game with all manner of incentives and gifts, including a new trophy lover Daphne (Barbara Trentham) to replace Mackie (Pamela Hensley) who had been the replacement for his wife, Ella (Maud Adams), who had been inexplicably removed from his life by executive order. Jonathan only wants to know why he must retire … so, game on. 

Like Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball sports (excuse the pun) a fascinating and compelling premise, but is let down by ill-conceived production design that fails to portray the kind of future that would likely exist in terms of technology, fashion, and industrial design (though you gotta love the movie poster design). These are movies irretrievably trapped in their own time warp, which in many ways only adds to their curious nature. They are all incredibly earnest in their thematic intent, even their subtext, but are also strangely devoid of a sense of humour. When they are humorous it is unintentional, more a result of silly, garish design. 

Norman Jewison directs the Rollerball scenes with gusto, however, and much of the stunt work is solid. In fact, it was one of the very first Hollywood productions to properly credit the stunt performers. The use of classical music, in particular Bach’s brooding Toccata and Fugue in D minor, is notable, especially in the movie’s opening credit sequence, and in the movie’s nihilistic, final scene. 

Rollerball, with all its silly roulette and pinball collisions, ends in precisely the way you expect it to, but the journey there, though too talky for its own good as an action flick - there are only two Rollerball games actually depicted in the two-hour running time - does have a decent sense of momentum, carried by Caan’s charisma, but also his support cast, the striking Hensley and Trentham offer as much as they can, despite their thankless roles, as does Jonathan’s buddy and teammate Moonpie (John Beck), one of many who, none-too-surprisingly, sport a mo’ (sorry, it slipped out again).

Rollerball, in its day, would have been very much the kind of science fiction movie for those that don’t usually watch sf movies, particular as it was sold on its cold-blooded, visceral nature. It’s a violent movie, but tame by today’s standards. Curiously, the 2002 remake, directed by John McTiernan, was originally written as a much more powerful movie, in terms of its intellectual, socio-political content, but McTiernan decided audiences would want a bloody, all-out action flick and delivered a hard-R movie, which bombed with test audiences, resulting in a heavily re-shot and re-edited PG-rated wipeout. Ahhh, the irony. 

I’m still hanging out for a remake of Solent Green and Logan’s Run, perhaps another go at Rollerball could be made; a complete overhaul in terms of design, whilst keeping the sharp socio-political edge of the original, and pushing the ultra-violence and nihilism into the extreme. Let’s face it, 2018 is just around the corner, so let’s get real. 

 

Rollerball is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Via Vision Entertainment, featuring two audio commentaries from director Norman Jewison and screenwriter William Harrison, a making of featurette - "Return to the Arena", plus trailers and teasers. 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Docteur Jekyll et Les Femmes | France/West Germany | 1981 | Directed by Walerian Borowczyk

Logline: In 19th Century London a homicidal sex maniac infiltrates an engagement party and begins to terrorise and assault the guests and hosts. 

Has there been a tale told more times on the silver screen than "The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde"? Perhaps only the tale of "Count Dracula" in all his undead guises, or perhaps that other elegant ghoul, the "Phantom of the Opera". Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, apparently penned in a cocaine-fuelled three-day frenzy, is a true fable of human times, vintage and contemporary; the moral grey that seethes and recedes in the mind, the carnal desires, the fear and hatred, the sensual beast, the fragile creature, the civilised and bestial, the tempered and berserk. 

The late Polish maverick and ciné provocateur Borowczyk delivered two great indulgences in aberrant eroticism, Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975), although he had been making films since the mid-40s, but it is this loose adaptation, yet tight in amoral conjecture, of Stevenson’sfamous novella that is his crowning achievement, despite its cramped interiors and stilted performances. It is a phantasmagorical pantomime of perverse proclivities!

Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) is hosting a small soirée to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). The guests; various dignitaries, officials and relatives, including Fanny’s mother, have arrived at the doctor’s Victorian residence, which also houses his laboratory. They mingle and admire the artwork and ornamental weaponry, whilst the doctor discusses his will with colleague Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon). Should something happen to Jekyll, the will can only be disclosed to his confidante, Mr. Edward Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg), whom no one has seen. 

Shortly after there is a violent incident within the household; one of the guests, a young ballerina, has been found raped and murdered, and the vicious intruder assaulted Miss Osbourne, and is now on the loose. It is every man and woman for themselves. The poor butler outside is mistaken for the killer and shot dead by General Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee). The psychopath is definitely still inside. 

Soon, the identity of the fiend is revealed, but the real secret is yet to be exposed. Miss Osbourne is desperate to be reunited with her fiancé, but he inexplicably eludes her, and everyone else. He has retreated once again to his lab, and to the security of his precious cache of Solicor, the transcendental medicine that is feeding his hunger for sensory exploration and moral abandonment. 

Bororwczyk’s intended title, and the one that it originally screened under at Sitges Film Festival, winning him an award for Best Feature Film Director, was rejected by his producers who insisted it be known as Dr. Jekyll and His Women. But the substitute title is entirely misleading, as Mr. Hyde doesn’t discriminate, ravaging and ravishing both men and women within Dr. Jekyll’s labyrinthine abode. Hyde is entirely amoral and polyamorous. He is also a sadist and a sensualist. Jekyll and Hyde are a contradiction and a juxtaposition, further complicated by the feminine spanner in his masculine works, Miss Osbourne, who is determined not to lose her lover. 

It is startlingly erotic (Mr. Hyde displays his engorged, scarlet member a couple of times, most notably as he takes a consenting blonde guest from behind as she fondles a sewing machine in front of her!) and wonderfully atmospheric, filmed by Noël Véry with a delicious diffused light, on what seems to be an elaborate multi-level set, both interior and exterior. The action takes place over one night - in fact daylight never makes an appearance, for this is a narrative that forges through the night time of the soul. While the movie’s most memorable scene, it’s transformative centrepiece, takes place in Jekyll’s secret bathroom, where he fills his bathtub with water and empties a vial of the active ingredient into it, then, in a seemingly unbroken shot the twitching Jekyll submerges his naked body into the sepia water and re-emerges as the lascivious, snake-like Hyde. 

Borowczyk has grabbed his tale by the horns and straddles the beast with theatrical zeal and surrealist pleasure. Indeed, this movie is a beast unto itself, snarling and snorting. Succumb, and acquire its coppery, salty taste, letting yourself be ravished by its oneiric, ripe design, complete with Bernard Parmegiani’s magnificent, minimalist score, so desolate and seductive. Admire Udo Kier in, arguably, his greatest performance, be mesmerised by Zalcberg’s grotesquerie, and delighted by Pierro, her voluptuous innocence dissolving, her passion smouldering … their union congealing. 

Love is a cruel, raw fever.

“Long live the novelty of my sensations!” 

The Fan

Der Fan | Germany | 1982 | Directed by Eckart Schmidt

Logline: A teenage girl, obsessed with an aloof pop star, finally descends into the macabre extremities of her adolescent fantasy. 

Simone (Désirée Nosbusch) is in love with “R” (Bodo Steiger), a successful West German new wave pop star. It’s more than infatuation, it’s an obsession. She’s written and posted a love letter to him. She skips class to wander around town in a dissociative daze, daydreaming about interludes with her new romantic lover. She hangs around the post office and grills the postman for a return letter from her dream paramour. But to no avail. Simone must suffer her indifferent parents and the blandness of her life, without “R” close to her. 

“R” has announced an appearance in Munich at the local television studio where he’ll be filming his next music clip. Simone makes her way to Munich and, because she is so pretty and dressed so alluringly in her dark chocolate leather pants and pure white cotton blouse “R” is immediately drawn to her, away from the rest of the nondescript teenage hordes clambering for an autograph. Simone remains by his side as he does his “Top Pop” thing. She has managed to enter his inner sanctum, her idolatry now made flesh. 

Schmidt’s tale of para-social obsession and deranged pseudo-psychosexual behaviour is, indeed, a strange and studied affair. Curiously intimate, yet still detached, with few speaking parts, and glacial in its tone and mood, the narrative drifts in and out of Simone’s perspective, at one point even drifting into her open mouth, an enigmatic piece of symbolism. It’s a very stylised take on the psychological thriller, providing precious little in the thrills department until the last twenty minutes, when Simone and “R” are alone in a mostly empty apartment exploring each other. 

It is the full frontal nudity in this sex scene, and the scene immediately following, that provides the movie with most of its notoriety. Désirée was seventeen when the movie was released. At the time she was an opinionated and successful music show presenter on German television, whilst Bodo Steiger was a shy and reserved musician in the band Rheingold, who provide the movie with its sparse, Kraftwerkian electronic score. Schmidt was keen on the cross-casting, having been influenced by the films of fellow patriot Douglas Sirk, and there is a kind of inverted parallel between Schmidt’s dream of love gone awry and the highly stylised female-centric melodramas. 

The Fan is curious in many of its elements. It feels like a short film that has been stretched to feature length. The stilted performances, the camerawork’s short depths of field, and the lack of convincing special effects makeup make it feel like a student production lost in the wilderness. These are all limitations, yet together they create a very particular atmosphere, or void. It’s hard to shake the vibe of this movie, especially the ultimate unhinged intent of its protagonist. She is a diehard romantic, oblivious to the implications of the real world. Yet her parents are as “damaged” as she is. 

It is the movie’s epilogue that reveals a final truth, where the true horror and perverse beauty become one, and it is a bizarrely satisfying denouement. The Fan is quite unique in its deep trashiness. 

NB: The Fan’s working title was Trance, and it’s the title it was originally released in the UK as, shorn of about ten seconds from the sex scene. A recent, restored Blu-ray release, as The Fan, is uncut. 

The Neon Demon

Denmark/France/US | 2016 | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Logline: After an aspiring young model arrives in Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by several beauty-obsessed women who are determined to get what she has.

Beauty may only be skin deep, but the dedicated must get to the flesh underneath in order to taste success. In Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest endeavour he has pulled apart the beauty myth with the claws of a cougar, and laid bare the throbbing heart of jealousy and spite. The Neon Demon is a feminine fable of murderous ambition fashioned as mischief and desire, and draped in the pulsating palette of a giallo. As “NWR” he has concocted a cinematic scent as rich and ripe as the stench of sex and death. Not surprisingly it is his most polarising movie to date. 

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a sixteen-year-old, fresh-faced in the City of Angels, with a portfolio shot by keen Dean (Karl Glusman, from Gaspar Noe’s Love). The pics are amateur hour to the modelling agency head (Christina Hendricks), but Jesse's naiveté and je ne sais quoi still impresses enough to warrant a shoot with surly photographer whizz Jack (Desmond Harrington), meanwhile makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) befriends her and takes the ingénue to a flash party where statuesque models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) take an instant indifference. That soon becomes dislike, and then the loathing is intensified when Jesse begins moving swiftly through the ranks, leaving Sarah and Gigi frothing in rage. 

“They say women are more likely to buy a lipstick if it's named after food or sex. Just think about it. Black honey, plum passion, peachy keen.”

Jesse is seduced by her tinsel dreams and wakes into a bewitching nightmare. 

Diana is the goddess of the hunt, of the moon, a giant eye watching in the night sky. Countess Bathory murdered dozens of nubile girls and bathed in their blood in order to stay young and beautiful. The perpetual mythology of vampirism, the dark magic of cannibalism, the eating of one’s enemies in order to consume their strength, the hunger for vitality in the fickle world of modeling. A city that eats its young, a city, not of angels, but of witches and demons. 

Refn has loaded his movie full of symbolism, but also abstraction and mystery. Like Lynch he’s less interested in trying to provide easy answers or simple meanings, and is more concerned and intrigued by cinema as a powerful vessel for sensory experience lost in an emotional wilderness. The manipulation of the ego is high on the agenda, as is sacrifice and humiliation. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there, as cruel and grotesque as it is beautiful and absurd. 

Much of The Neon Demon’s extraordinary effect comes from Natasha Braier’s stunning cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s elegiac, electronic score. The title sequence alone is mesmerising, but Martinez delivers a career best with his retro synth-laden soundtrack reminiscent of Vangelis’s score for Blade Runner, the sweeping, melancholy work of Jean-Michel Jarre, and the pulsating edge of Giorgio Moroder. When I think of images from the film I’m immediately soaked by the gorgeous chillwave of Martinez’s music. 

The four female leads; Fanning, Malone, Lee, and Heathcote, all deliver superbly. I’ve always been a fan of Malone’s work, but I must single out Lee here, as she expertly captures that hypnotic combination of immaculate beauty and haunted, desolate intent. Curious to note that both Lee and Heathcote are Australians. Keanu Reeves plays a mean-spirited, unsavoury motel manager, and while his narrative thread seems a little superfluous, in the bigger picture he plays his part to the hilt. The red herring that turns blue. Reeves makes me chuckle, you can spot him in a movie a mile away from the way he walks, like Frankenstein’s Monster, but he gives a solid performance here. Also of note, although uncredited, is Alessandro Nivola, as a fashion designer who thinks Jesse is the perfect specimen. He complains about plastic surgery, but insists that “beauty isn’t everything, its the only thing.” Much to the chagrin of Gigi, standing there, humiliated, feeling like a bionic woman who’s just had her cyborgian strength zapped. 

There will be blood. 

The Neon Demon is a lush and pristine dream, pierced by the jagged shards of a black magick nightmare. A bittersweet sensation that fills the mouth like hard candy, coated with the viscous coppery taste of blood. You might gag, you might swallow. The ripe Eurotastic taste is an acquired one, and if you savour it, the deep trash lure and allure has worked a charm, and like Lynch, the oneiric qualities have caressed your sensibilities and pulled you over into the triangular abyss. 

So, are you sex or food? 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

US | 1986 | Directed by Tobe Hooper

Logline: A former Texas Ranger involves a radio host and her colleague as he seeks revenge on the serial killing family that murdered his nephew.

“After a decade of silence … the buzzz is back!” shouted the tagline to one of the craziest, silliest sequels ever. Watching it again on its 30th anniversary it’s easy to see where the movie gets its cult following from, the outlandish, black sense of humour, the surreal vibe, and Tom Savini’s graphic special effects makeup. But the movie is as ripe for “deep trash” plucking as they come!

Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedlow), the Cook from the original movie, has taken top prize again at the local chili cook-off. He reveals, “It’s no secret, it’s the meat. Don’t skimp on the meat. I’ve got a real good eye for prime meat. Runs in the family.” His boys, Bo “Chop-Top” (Bill Moseley) and Bubba “Leatherface” (Bill Johnson), have been playing silly buggers again, but they’ve brought some juicy victims back to the family homestead, a huge subterranean lair beneath a disused Texas Battle Land amusement park. Along with L.G. (Lou Perryman), whom Leatherface promptly starts to flay, is L.G.’s spunky radio colleague Stretch (Caroline Williams), host of KOKLA's Red River Rock'n'Roll Request show. She’s hoping mad hatter Lt. Lefty (Dennis Hopper), the vengeful, armed to the teeth “Lord of the Harvest”, will arrive in time to save her.

Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) screenwriter Kim Henkel’s original storyline for the sequel featured an entire Texan township of cannibals running riot, but Golan-Globus and Cannon Films wanted something on a much smaller scale - especially considering they’d produced Hooper’s previous movie, Lifeforce, which cost $25m and bombed - and as such L.M. Kit Carson, who had penned Paris, Texas, the Breathless remake, and the rare Dennis Hopper doco The American Dreamer, was brought in (perhaps on Hopper’s suggestion??) to write something on a more modest budget. In the end the estimated $4.7m movie made $8m.

Although the sequel is a dark comedy (much more so than the black-as-midnight-on-a-moonless-night original movie), a satire of 80s greed and excess, of political correctness, the tone scene-to-scene is wildly uneven. The worst stuff features the two yuppies in the opening scenes, and Lefty’s early shenanigans, the best stuff comes with the later scenes in the underground lair, which occupies much of the movie’s running time. Dennis Hopper had Blue Velvet come out the same year, and it’s quite obvious which movie his heart is in (yup, apparently he thought Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was the worst movie he’d ever been in).

Meanwhile Stretch’s cool credibility vanishes as screeching hysteria envelopes Caroline Williams’ performance and she becomes almost intolerable, while the histrionics of the Sawyer family, from Leatherface’s silly jig, Chop-Top’s insistent head-plate scratching, and the Cook’s vacuous rambling and leering, veers wildly into Lampoonville. Yes, yes, it all adds to the nutty, bad dream fabric, but this becomes a very tight, uncomfortable fit by movie’s end.

The freaky, cartoon-esque, fetishistic element of Tobe Hooper’s sequel is one of its strongest hooks, highlighted by Cary White and Michael Peal’s elaborate production design and art direction, all beautifully lit by cinematographer Richard Kooris, whom Hooper originally wanted for the first movie. Savini’s sfx crew deliver some astounding work, most notably on the skinned L.G., Chop-Top’s metal head plate, and the Dick Smith-inspired old man prosthetic work on Ken Evert as Grandpa Sawyer. It’s a real shame two of Savini’s other set-pieces – yuppies having their heads chain-sawed in half – were either left on the cutting room floor, or poorly edited into the final cut.

The harsh reality is Hooper was given a very tight release deadline, needing to deliver something in just a matter of weeks. The rushed result is obvious, indeed the movie is a hot, sticky mess, but quite unlike any other horror of the day. It's not scary like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, not in the slightest. It’s the kind of deep trash nubbin’ you relish like a red hot sauce on a gamey hot dog covered with oozing jack cheese. Wash it down with as many Lone Star beers and Wild Turkey shots as you can get your hands on. Then light a really big reefer. You’ll need it. 

"Cook's out here chewing ass like it was steak ... We gotta run for that money now! Chase that dollar, boy! Gotta go fast to catch it," squeals Chop-Top ... "It's a dog-eat-dog world and from where I sit there just ain't enough damn dogs!" mutters the Cook.

Under the Cherry Moon

US | 1986 | Directed by Prince

Logline: A con artist, working as a pianist in the Riveria, along with his brother, attempts to scam a beautiful young women out of her wealthy inheritance, but falls in love with her along the way.

Prince’s first foray into filmmaking was an abandoned project known as The Second Coming, which was to be a documentary-style movie incorporating footage from the 1982 Controversy tour with a storyline in-between the songs. A year later he was knee deep in the production of the Purple Rain album and movie, which became a huge success in 1984. Now Prince had a serious taste for cinema storytelling, and within a year he was entrenched in the making of the Parade album and his first movie as director, Under the Cherry Moon

There are vanity projects and then there are vanity projects like Under the Cherry Moon, with Prince starring as musician, womaniser, and diehard romantic, also a scam artist and prankster, and a clown to boot. All wrapped up in the extraordinary wardrobe design of Marie France and finished off with Champagne and extravagant facial expressions. Under the Cherry Moon is an opulent disaster, a failed romance, a mostly unfunny buddy flick, and a musical that never really takes off. But, it stars Prince at, arguably, the height of his excess and success, and the music is sensational, even if much of it is just snippets and excerpts from the studio recordings that feature on the Parade album, or the b-sides of the singles. 

“Once upon a time in France there lived a bad boy named Christopher Tracy …”

Christopher Tracy (Prince) and his brother (from another mother) Tricky (Jerome Benton) living the Nice, in the south of France, living it up big time as dirty rotten scoundrels, wining, dining (and no doubt sixty-nining) the scores of uber-wealthy women, such as Mrs. Wellington (Francesca Annis), who pass through the Riveria looking for a little love action. They’ve done pretty well for themselves, “pretty” being the operative word, as both these gigalos seem to spend more time preening themselves than they do laying the ladies. 

In fact, there is a curiously strong level of homoeroticism that exists between them. They prance and dance around like a couple of immaculate queens, calling each other “honey” and “darling”, Tricky even states he doesn’t need friends, he’s his own man, just like Liberace, while Prince pulls more duck faces than an iGen white trash trying to take a selfie. It’s rampant. But this is the imp’s style. He’s having fun. Maybe it’s the movie’s biggest scam? Anyone watching Under the Cherry Moon looking for serious drama and romance has come to the wrong town, this is a “comedy” of manners, a "wrecka stow", indeed! 

Mary Sharon (Kristen Scott Thomas) is about to have a lavish twenty-first birthday party and is set to inherit $50 million smackeroos. Christopher and Tricky learn of this event and gate-crash with the intention of wooing Mary and swindling her wealth. Both brothers vie for Mary’s attention, but it’s Christopher who wins her affection, and he falls head over four-inch-heels for her. Mary’s father,  Isaac (Steven Berkoff) is not impressed, and he makes certain Christopher doesn’t elope with his naive daughter. 

Christopher drives a huge white Buick convertible with the numberplate “LOVE”, and claims that he does nothing professionally, only things for fun. At the Venus De Milo club he sits at an ivory flake K. Kawai grand and tickles the ivories playing An Honest Man. He tangoes Mary on the club balcony to the crooning guitar of Alexa De Paris, he makes love to her on a coastal retreat to the sweet sounds of Mountains

Mary Lambert, at that stage only known for a couple of promo clips for Madonna, was the movie’s original director, but Prince had her fired after a week over creative differences. Warner Brothers felt comfortable with their star taking over the reigns, but apparently legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus supervised much of the mise-en-scene and camerawork, uncredited, and certainly the two editors Éva Gárdos and Rebecca Ross would’ve had their work cut out for them in post. 

I’m very curious about the screenplay though. It’s credited to Becky Johnston, and it was her first produced screenplay. She went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for The Prince of Tides, so she's capable, but I wonder just how much influence Prince would’ve had, even though he isn’t credited with any of the story or screenplay? Indeed, it's easy to pull Under the Cherry Moon's screenplay to pieces, but the performances are all over the show. Prince and Jerome appear to be playing themselves, and relishing it. Kristen Scott Thomas has nothing good to say about her experience, and as her feature debut she’d probably prefer to leave it off her resume. Originally Prince’s fiancée, Susannah Melvoin, was cast in the role of Mary, but it was apparent very quickly that she couldn’t act. It's obvious Kristen struggles with much of her dialogue, but her ripe delivery is nowhere near as bad as Steven Berkoff. Terence Stamp was originally cast as Isaac, but he quit two weeks into production. Wise decision.

Under the Cherry Moon is a movie for Prince fans and no one else, and in that purple light, it shines. There’s a small booty of Prince treasures to be found within it, such as Sheila E.’s Sister Fate record cover in Christopher Tracy’s bedroom, or trying to listen out for Old Friends 4 Sale (it’s listed in the end song credits, but no one can locate it), or watching how many times Prince drinks. 

And, let’s not forget one of the most hideous kisses in screen history when Christopher plants his chimp lips on Mary in the phone booth and smooches away like there’s no tomorrow. Ewwwww! 

But hey, it's the thirtieth anniversary of Under the Cherry Moon this week, and Prince passed away a couple of months ago. I'm still mourning. 

“We had fun, didn’t we?” 

Daughters Of Darkness

Les Lèvres Rouges | Germany/Belgium/France | 1971 | Directed by Harry Kumel

Logline: A newlywed couple book into a seemingly deserted resort hotel and are seduced by a mysterious countess and her equally alluring protégé. 

This art-schlock gem is a rare and fabulous creature; self-consciously delicate and artfully fragile, yet infused with an inner darkness and disquietingly dysfunctional characters. Although shot in English language its original French title translates as The Red Lips.

Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are newlyweds holidaying through Europe. They book into the Hotel Ostend in Beligum where they are immediately spotted by Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her assistant (read: lover) Ilona (Andrea Rau). The Countess is smitten with silky blonde Valerie. The concierge (Paul Esser) is intrigued by Ms. Bathory, as she has the same name and looks exactly like a woman who stayed at the hotel 40 years earlier when he was a young bellboy. The Countess tells him he must be confused. 

Valerie is anxious for Stefan to confirm their arrival in England with his mother, but he is reluctant to make the connection. Instead they visit nearby Brugge where Stefan finds himself morbidly fascinated with a bizarre murder scene. Later, back at the Ostend Stefan is mesmerised by the Countess who ingratiates herself. Valerie is disgusted. Valerie’s wariness sends Stefan into a schizo rage and he beats mercilessly her with his belt. At dawn light while Stefan sleeps she packs her bags and leaves for the train, only to be intercepted by the Countess, while Ilona goes to seduce Stefan. 

While the performances and much of the dialogue hinge on the risible, there is a distinct and deliciously oneiric quality to the look, feel, and atmosphere of the movie. It is a vampire tale unlike most as there are no fangs on display, whatsoever. This is psychosexual bloodlust of the most provocative and fevered kind, using a real historical figure – Countess Elizabeth Bathory – as the sensual villain. 

The movie, although savagely violent in places, floats with a distinct feminine wile. The three female leads contrasting beautifully against each other in look and personality: long blonde haired Valerie with her equine-face and piercing blue eyes, Ilona with her black Louise Brooks bob and large fraulein features (big dark eyes and huge red mouth), and the Countess, with her white gold curls, porcelain skin, and that oh so delicate voice that whispers sweet nothings, which carry you softly into the darkness forever. 

Kumel’s stunning, brooding images of landscape and architecture, of that fang-like car hurtling through the night, of Ilona perched in the shadows waiting as Stefan stirs in his sleep, belt still in hand, of the Countess slowly wrapping her bat-like cloak around Valerie on the sand dunes, of the body wrapped in black polyurethane lying on the ground in front of the hotel. The movie sings like a thirsty siren; a torch song for the undead, an evil legacy destined to unfurl over and over and over. 

“I’m just an outmoded character, you know, the beautiful stranger, slightly sad, slightly mysterious, that haunts one place after another…,” muses the Countess to Stefan and Valerie after events have taken a turn for the more complicated. 

There is also a very curious sub-plot that concerns Stefan’s true nature; when he finally calls his mother to placate Valerie, and it’s revealed that “mother” is in fact a middle-aged queen whose feathers are slightly ruffled at the “unrealistic” idea that Stefan has married a woman; “Whatever will we do with her?” This provocative avenue of characterisation provides the narrative some serious eccentricity, as does the extended “let the dead bury the dead” scene at the beach where the Countess has Stefan tidy up his dirty work. 

The movie’s infamous violent shock ending might seem a trifle absurd now, but it still works on a base poetic level. Then there’s the curious epilogue which layers on yet more mystery… The red lips quiver on to soul kiss for another night, raise goosebumps, caress cold flesh … and sleep another day. Definitely one of my favourite vampire movies. 

Cat People

US | 1982 | Directed by Paul Schrader

Logline: An inexperienced young woman discovers her ancestry will cause her to transform into a deadly panther when she is sexually aroused. 

I have a soft furry spot for this movie, despite its inherent flaws and trappings. It’s a rare beast, a remake - I prefer to call it a re-imagining - that harnesses the restrained thematic brilliance of the svelte, original and takes it to a more explicit and heightened level, without compromising the essence.

One of Jerry Bruckheimer’s early movies as executive producer, and certainly the “high concept” factors are in play, but the movie is very much director Paul Schrader’s vision, utilising ex-special make-up effects designer-cum-writer Alan Ormsby’s provocative screenplay. It’s an under-rated movie, very different from the original, but with enough merits to stand and stalk on its own four feet despite not performing well at the box office when it was first released and despite years of being trashed.

Irena (Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans to meet with her older brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Paul lives alone in a terrace he shares with Female (Ruby Dee) who is the housekeeper. She’s of old New Orleans voodoo stock, but welcomes Irena with open arms, happy that Paul is finally able to be reunited with his sister. But there is something strange and different about Paul. He is one of the cat people; a supernatural race of creatures that turn into black panthers when they are sexually aroused, and must kill to change back into human form. To prevent this xenomorphic trait from occurring they can only mate with each other. 

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Irena is befriended by zoo curator Oliver (John Heard), after he discovers her sketching an aggravated panther in its cage after-hours (one of only a few scenes lifted from the original movie). He’s immediately attracted to her, and it seems she to him. He finds her a job in the zoo gift shop, much to zoo keeper assistant Alice’s (Annette O’Toole) jealousy. Oliver eventually cottons on to the whole mythology and realises what has to be done, in one of Hollywood’s rarer moments of mainstream sexual bondage. 

In Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 original Irena can’t even kiss her husband for fear of what she may become. In the reimagining the sexual element is brought to the fore, and its passionate abandon is played upon feverishly. Where the original relies on shadows and suggestion, the atmosphere of otherworldliness and the corruption of innocence handled with great finesse by Tourneur, in the reimagining the emphasis is more on what is shown, with the atmosphere and mood this time being dictated by production design, sound and music … and warm flesh. While both movies are very effective, they are entirely separate creatures. 

Paul Schrader’s Cat People is very much a movie of sound and vision. From the stunning opening scenes set on the stylized landscape that is home to the cat people; red desert sands, gnarled trees, tribal living amidst the skeletal bones of victims. The dream sequences are excellent, especially the intense “night rabbit” hunting sequence, and the superbly atmospheric stalking scene in the inside swimming pool (the one whole scene duplicated straight from the original). The other brief moment from the original is when a cat-like stranger (Neva Gage) “recognises” Irena in a bar and whispers “My Sister” (in Serbian). 

Kinski and McDowell fit their roles perfectly, both of them charismatic, yet strangely goofy-looking, animal-like, sensual, otherworldly. Arguably it’s one of McDowell’s best performances. While Kinski delivers initial awkwardness which gives way to a powerful sense of confidence and, ultimately, a tragic desperation. Curiously, she had been shedding her clothes for movies since she was sixteen (To The Devil a Daughter), so she has happy to pad around full-frontal in Cat People showing off her lithe, feline, yet muscular body; she appears strangely androgynous, just as McDowell has an androgyny to his appearance too. 

Georgio Moroder’s lush, distinctly 80s, yet sublimely timeless electronic score is one of the movie’s highlights, from the dreamy opening variation on the main theme to the freaky nature of the hunting night sounds to the classic chords and lilting melody of Irena’s Theme, and, of course, that amazing themed pop song collaboration with David Bowie. The special effects make-up effects created by Tom Burman are very good (love the feline eyes!), especially a gruesome dismemberment, but handled with subtlety and restraint in the transformation sequences. 

The movie’s pacing is a little off though. The romance between Oliver and Irena is important, but it causes the film to sag in the middle (mind you if we didn’t have the fishing scene we wouldn’t have got to enjoy Nastassja walking and bending over in tiny shorts and long rubber boots; one of cinema’s unsung moments of unexpected eroticism). Curiously director Schrader and Kinski had an affair during shooting but coked-addled Schrader became obsessed and Kinski fled back to Europe after shooting wrapped. Schrader was beside himself and threatened to insert graphic “pussy” shots of Kinski into the movie (as if there isn’t enough of Kinski’s body on show already). This tarnished Schrader badly and he didn’t work in Hollywood for a decade. 

It’s saddening seeing the archaic real New Orleans zoo and the size of the cages, to think animals were kept this way for so long. But the claustrophobic containment fits with the movie’s ancient concepts of possession and freedom, slaves to the rhythm of beastly desire. How they got the panthers so riled up is questionable, but the genuine animal rage is undeniably effective.

Cat People is a tragic tale of desire in the guise of an erotic nightmare, essentially a tale of carnal mythology and dangerous desires; it’s about the animal in us all.

Eaten Alive

US | 1976 | Directed by Tobe Hooper

Logline: A psycho, redneck hotel owner kills various guests who upset or annoy him, and feeds their bodies to his pet crocodile.

Eaten Alive is a strange Southern brew. Desperately trashy, yet undeniably eerie, it lingers in the mind for days after viewing, like the mood of a creepy dream. It was known as Death Trap in the U.K. (and on the notorious video nasties list) and alternately in the U.S. as Horror Hotel, Starlight Slaughter, and Legend of the Bayou. 

Judd (Neville Brand) an extremely dodgy, disheveled man, with sex-crimes on his mind. He owns the run-down Starlight Hotel on the edge of the East Texan bayou. Alongside the porch is a murky pool where Judd keeps his large pet alligator (although he claims it to be an African croc). All Judd needs to feed his, and his reptile’s appetites, are suitable clientele. 

Along comes troubled whore Clara (Roberta Collins). Judd tries his way with her. Along comes a dysfunctional family; Faye (Marilyn Burns), Roy (William Finley) and young Angie (Kyle Richards). Judd interferes. Along comes Clara’s father Harvey (Mel Ferrer) and her sister Libby (Crystin Sinclaire) wondering what’s happened to her. Judd provides details. Along comes cocky butt-lovin’ Buck (Robert Englund) and his squeeze Lynette (Janus Blythe) to use one of the rooms for a little hanky-panky. Judd accommodates. 

Y’see all Judd wants is a piece o’ the action, but he’s got murder on his mind … and a hungry croc to boot. No plot, just piece meal, yet there’s something about Eaten Alive; a kind of studied exploitation. It’s loosely based on the real-life post-Prohibition exploits of a seedy hotelier known as Joe Ball and his pet crocodiles. Like a Dario Argento movie, the tone and atmosphere floats with mysterious menace and languid intrigue. Characters don’t do much, and yet they still manage to behave in oddly interesting ways, just enough quirks to beguile you and keep you wondering where this crazy, mixed-up movie is plunging.  

Although shot entirely within a studio (when characters start raising their voices in exterior scenes you can hear the roomy acoustics of the voices bouncing off the studio walls), it is this cost-cutting measure (the shooting budget was probably less than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, although it probably cost Hooper more to hire the actors on this film) which actually adds to the movie. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the unreality of the sets. 

The intense, moody lighting, the over-use of the fog machine, and the histrionics of the acting makes Eaten Alive behave like some kind of wayward nightmare pantomime, or like you're poring rain over a lurid, pulpy dog-eared paperback about southern sexual shenanigans soaked in a bourbon haze. Then there’s the hysterics; Tobe Hooper enjoys hysterics very much, and Marilyn Burns has got a great pair of lungs. 

The special effects are pretty darn cheesy, yes, the mechanical crocodile has to be seen to be (un)believed! Very curiously there was an end credit which read: “Mechanical alligator and crocodile furnished by Bob Mattey”. The producers would’ve been wiser spending money on footage of a real croc and editing it in. But then the fake croc adds a little more gamey flavour to this surreal gumbo stew. 

Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund has a hoot playing the redneck booty-lover, poor Marilyn Burns (whom Hooper had so ruthlessly terrorised in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) spends most of her time gagged and trussed to a bed, little Angie (Richards would play young Lindsey in the first two Halloween movies) spends nearly all her time hiding under the hotel amongst the rats and creaky foundations. Neville Brand mutters and splutters from his hoarse throat (he’s a human reptile!), relishing his own perverse form of justice: if you come to my hotel be prepared to be devoured. 

Yes, Eaten Alive is a curious creature, ripe for the plucking, late night popcorn fodder. Arm yourself with a large bourbon tumbler and a cut-glass ashtray full o’ bayou roaches, there's some country crooner lamenting a long lost love, and behind him the deep growl of a scaly beast swishing its tail in that pungent swampy corner.  

Caligula

Italy/US | 1979 | Directed by Tinto Brass, Bob Guiccione, Giancarlo Lui

Logline: The sudden rise and spectacular fall of Rome’s most notorious emperor. 

“What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul.” --- Mark 8:36

Behold, the glorious disaster that is I, Caligula! Not so much an unmitigated catastrophe, but the beautiful ruins of a once proud beast, the most expensive hardcore movie of all-time, Bob Guccione and Tinto Brass’s Caligula took four years to make, enjoyed a briefly successful theatrical run in a handful of theatres before becoming the white elephant in the offices of Penthouse magazine, the bane of screenwriter Gore Vidal’s career, the thorn in Tinto Brass’s side, and the embarrassment of core cast members, not to mention, the ridicule of most critics. Throughout Caligula’s checkered history – and, it is oh, so checkered – the movie has been continually, and unjustly, banished from serious appraisal. But I champion this movie; warts, deformities, excesses, and extremities, in all its muddled, self-indulgent, hardcore wonder! Vivat Caligula!

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am a God.”

Caligula traces the swift and sudden rise to power of Gaius Germanicus Caligula, and his (relatively short) reign as the third, and most infamous, Caeser of Rome from age 24 to 29. He was assassinated in 41 AD, along with his wife and daughter, after madness got the better of his judgment, and he’d betrayed one too many of his colleagues, a trail of murder and confusion left in the wake of his corrupt and ineffective leadership. But oh, what a fascinating period of decadent, violent history this movie traces. The abuse of power amidst the insanity of Pagan Rome. 

At the time Caligula was the most expensive independent movie ever made (it probably still ranks pretty high). Producer Bob Guccione, the editor of Penthouse magazine, had a deep-rooted desire to make the most spectacular and adult movie ever. But telling the story of Emperor Caligula wasn’t his idea. Producer Franco Rosselini invited scribe Gore Vidal to pen an original perspective on the story that would make no concessions to producer’s whims. Vidal incorporated his name into the title, and convinced underground filmmaker Paul Morrissey to direct. Enter Guccione as co-producer. Immediately the new affair rocketed the budget into the multi-millions, and Guccione got rid of Morrissey, not wanting the Warhol crowd hanging around. 

Rosselini saw Tinto Brass’s brazen Salon Kitty (1976) and had it screened for Guccione. They’d found their director. Also on board was production and costume designer Danilo Donati who supervised the manufacture of 3592 costumes, 5000 handcrafted boots and sandals, and wigs made from more than 1000 pounds of human hair! Donati was also in charge of a full-scale Roman vessel, complete with 120 hand-carved oars, the largest prop ever built at the time, at over 175 ft long and 30 ft high, and the stadium arena which spanned the length of three US football fields, and featured the notorious “headclipper” execution device that was five storeys high and 150 ft wide! That’s right, Guccione was sparing no expense! 

Gore Vidal was appalled at what was happening to his baby; gone were the muddy streets and dirty togas, replaced by majestic palaces and glamorous ladies-in-waiting. He resigned from the project and asked for his name to be removed from the movie, but Guccione had always intended for Vidal’s name to give the movie a veneer of respectability, and refused to discredit him. Later Guccione would alienate director Tinto Brass when he had him locked out of the editing suite. Caligula was quickly running into trouble and out of control. Principal photography was completed at the end of 1976, where it then entered a protracted post-production hell. The most infamous part of which was Guccione adding several minutes of inserts (pun intended) of sexually explicit footage he shot himself to take the movie to the next level (or baser level, depending on your sensibilities), chiefly in a legendary Sapphic tryst, and during the imperial bordello orgy sequence. 

I remember seeing full-page ads in my father’s secret stash of Penthouse magazines for several years before Caligula was finally released. The most commonly seen version was the R-rated theatrical cut which had all the graphic sexuality removed and was also the version released domestically on VHS. In 1999 the original uncut 156-minute version was released on DVD. However, neither of these versions do any justice to the intended shooting script, which was the heavily-tampered Gore Vidal version. And this is where I use the “disaster” description again. Not so much because the movie was ultimately a box-office failure and created so much disdain, but because Bob Guccione’s arrogance and ineptness lead him to constructing the movie in the editing room (after banishing Tinto Brass), ruining any kind of narrative continuity or cohesion which Brass had established during the principal shoot. Guccione and editor Nino Baragli chose many shots that were never meant to be included (zooms, out-of-focus shots, etc), cut up scenes and put them in the wrong order, deleted background characters, cutaways, and re-dubbed some scenes with entirely new dialogue! The final cut was three hours (with the lesbian and bordello scenes lasting twenty minutes each!), but that version only ever played at a few private trade screenings, and all traces of it vanished (oh, the humanity!)

Guccione had put together an impressive cast; Malcolm McDowell as the repugnant Caeser, Peter O’Toole as Tiberius, his ailing father, Sir John Gielgud as Nerva the elder, Helen Mirren as Caesonia, plus Teresa Ann Savoy and John Steiner who had been in Salon Kitty. Rounding out the rest of the support cast were mostly Italian actors, and Penthouse pets. After the movie was released both O’Toole and Gielgud wanted to disown the movie for its outrageously lewd and lascivious content, which only gave the movie more kudos within the underground circuit. Other actors who were considered for parts included Charlotte Rampling, Katherine Ross, Peter Firth, Orson Welles, Isabelle Adjani, Jack Nicholson, and Maria Schneider, who was actually cast (as Drussila) and shot some scenes only to walk off-set and quit in disgust when she discovered just how much nudity was actually required of her (apparently she’d not been happy with what Bertollucci had demanded of her on Last Tango in Paris).

Caligula is an extraordinary movie; the sumptuous sets and art direction, the saturation of mood and tone, the melodramatic performances; the whole production looks and feels like a strange phantasmogorical pantomime, a fabulously grotesque parade and elaborate façade of excesses and indulgences. Caligula is a marvel of decadence in every sense of the word; gorging on hedonistic pursuits, amidst the decay of morality and sensibility. The narrative is disjointed and at times infuriating in its lack of continuity, but it adds to the perverted fantasy of its depiction of history. That’s not to say much of this didn’t really happen, but I’m pretty certain the glamour of pagan Rome is an anomaly. 

Caligula is a movie to be admired for its set-pieces rather than a successful narrative. It is a movie to be experienced, to let its sensual decadence pour over you like sticky molasses and rich claret. There will probably never be another movie quite like it, despite the continuing desire of filmmakers, such as Gaspar Noe and Catherine Breillet, to make sophisticated adult movies that might crossover into the mainstream (I know, I’m one of them). These kinds of movies will always exist in the shadowy territory of underground, transgressive cinema. And perhaps that’s the best place for them, otherwise we have to listen to fuddy-duddy prats like Roger Ebert who walked out of his screening, yet still reviewed the movie, describing it as “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash. If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty." He gave it zero stars, and ended with a quote from another viewer who told him "This movie is the worst piece of shit I have ever seen.” 

But hey, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Or in my case, the deepest, trashiest of pleasure treasures, with absolutely no guilt attached. All hail, Caligula!

Dressed To Kill

US | 1980 | Directed by Brian De Palma

Logline: A mysterious blonde woman kills a psychiatrist's patient, and then pursues the prostitute who witnessed the murder. 

It’s been nearly thirty-six years since Brian De Palma released his giallo-inspired, assault on the senses, tagged as “the latest fashion in murder”. It excited and offended audiences when it was released, and had to be trimmed considerably in order to avoid an X-rating in the US. 

The movie kicks off with little shame; a controversial opening sequence features attractive, middle-aged Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) in the shower while her husband, Ted (Norman Eveans) is shaving. With the steamy hot water cascading over her body she gazes through the translucent shower stall glass and caresses her breasts and masturbates. A male figure emerges from the steam behind her and clamps one hand over her mouth, while his other presses her own hand against her crotch. Kate squirms and writhes in shock. Is this a sexual fantasy or a real violation? Suddenly we cut to an overhead shot of the married couple in bed, Ted humping away on top of Kate. He finishes, gives his wife a peck, and slips out of bed, leaving Kate all hot, bothered, and unsatisfied. 

After a brief chat with her science geek son, Peter (Keith Gordon), Kate has a therapy session with Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), voicing her sexual frustration and complaining of her husband’s lousy skills as a lover. Dr. Elliott listens intently, and arranges the next session. Kate then spends time appreciating modern art at the local museum. She finds herself flirting with a silent stranger, who hides behind sunglasses and entices her into his waiting cab. Against her better judgment Kate indulges in afternoon delight at the man’s apartment. 

Call-girl Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) sees the aftermath of an horrific murder and glimpses the killer in the elevator mirror. Cynical Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is on the case, as is Kate’s son Peter, who fashions an elaborate camera set-up in order to capture the killer leaving Dr. Elliott’s office, since the doctor has received phone messages from one of his unhinged patients, Bobbi, giving details of the murder. 

Brian De Palma has often been criticised as a misogynist, and a director of style over substance, and Dressed to Kill (even in title) is no exception to this all-too-tenuous analysis (in French-Canada it was re-titled Pulsions). He’ll be the first to defend his movies stating his technique is simply employing the most honest, direct method in telling a story for the big screen, and that women are more compelling to watch (and kill) on screen than men. 

Most of De Palma’s movies are excellent examples of the power of visual storytelling. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at film narrative, elaborate mise-en-scene and succinct film grammar. Dario Argento, like De Palma, is another director who is pigeon-holed as a Hitchcock rip-off merchant. In no way are either of these directors mimicking Hitchcock, they are appropriating a striking and efficient method of storytelling that Hitchcock championed. Filmmakers, like all artists, borrow (steal, pay homage, whatever) from those that impress them. If there is any criticism to be laid upon De Palma (and the same goes for Argento) is that despite their mastery of the medium, they’ve also delivered as many turkeys as they have peacocks. 

Dressed to Kill both struts and gobbles. During the long museum seduction sequence one could be confused into thinking they’re watching a strange midday TV romance with Pino Donnagio’s over-ripe score. Just like nearly all of Argento’s movies Dressed to Kill’s special effects are unconvincing; the blood looks like bright paint. But like Argento, I can’t help but be seduced by De Palma’s widescreen compositions and virtuoso set-pieces, his expert command of tension and suspense, and his red-blooded sensuality. De Palma would revisit many of the same elements in the inferior Body Double (1984) to absurd and risible effect. However Dressed to Kill’s psycho-sexual overtones make for a far more intriguing and provocative movie. De Palma leaves the psychological door ajar, but allows the carnal light to bounce off the blade poised in the darkness. This is artful exploitation. 

Just like in Psycho (1960) - the biggest influence on Dressed to Kill (although the story is gleaned from an experience De Palma had as an adolescent when he followed his father around with recording equipment trying to catch him out as an adulterer) - De Palma throws a red herring to the audience early on, and then pulls the carpet out from under them when he kills off his apparent lead character less than half an hour into the movie. He also successfully confuses the hell out of his audience when he has the character of Bobbi, the transvestite and suspected psycho-killer, being voiced by William Finley (from De Palma’s 1975 Phantom of the Paradise), although in context it can be explained as one character’s subjective hearing. 

Nancy Allen, De Palma’s girlfriend at the time (they’d got together on the set of De Palma’s 1976 Carrie) looks great in black suspenders, brassiere and stilettos, but her performance is painful at best. She’s one of the great thorns in Dressed to Kill’s side. The scenes with Det. Marino (Dennis Franz, unconvincing and thankless),  and, in particular, the utterly pointless scene at movie’s end where she discusses transsexuality with Peter (only to offend an elderly woman in the background in an ill-conceived attempt at humour), only highlight her limitations as an actor. Michael Caine, on the other hand, delivers one of his more under-rated performances (a role originally offered to an enthusiastic Sean Connery, who was unavailable).

WARNING! ENDING SPOILER ALERT! 

When Bobbi is shot by police and his real identity is revealed, the movie could’ve ended there. But no, there are another four endings! Then we have the aforementioned café conversation scene between Liz and Peter. How about ending right there? Nope. We’re then presented with a surreal scene depicting Dr. Elliott’s escape from the insane asylum where he strangles the nurse, to the cheers of the lunatics watching from the railing a floor above, and he unzips her uniform (revealing sexy suspenders underneath, what a surprise!). Is that the shock end! No, now we have a POV approaching Liz’s house where she is showering inside. Bobbi a la nurse has entered the house and is waiting. Liz senses danger, and spies the nurses’ shoes just outside the bathroom. Oh no! She tries to sneak quietly out of the shower but Bobbi is actually right beside the shower and (s)he slices his razor deeply through Liz’s throat. Surely the shock end?! But no, Liz jumps awake screaming in bed, and Peter runs to her side. 

It was just a terrible nightmare! But something’s not quite right … Hey, the movie may not have exactly aged like fine wine, but there’s still much to savour (even if it is just the final ten minutes!)

The Beast

La Bête | France | 1975 | Directed by Walerian Borowczyk

Logline: The daughter of an aristocrat travels with her aunt to a country estate to be betrothed to the wealthy young heir only to find herself distracted by family secrets and perverse fantasies.

The Beast is the perfect mélange of high art and deep trash, from a decade where the boundaries of good taste were pushed to the edge of the envelope, only to be caressed and folded back. High art, because the movie’s approach to the subject matter was years ahead of its time; and deep trash, because the shocking and lurid nature of the subject matter was treated in a pretentious or, more often, unintentionally absurd fashion.

The late Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s ludicrous tale is a forest-and-mansion-bound phantasy of the most beastly indulgences; a netherworld of turgid dressing room dramatics, and animalistic lust and desire bordering on the macabre. Yes The Beast is a beast all of its own. No other movie quite like it. Leave your sensibilities at the door would be a sensible suggestion, and keep your tongue gently probing into the side of your cheek.

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The plot of the film is slight to say the least, but the imagery, mood, tone, and ultimately its sensual deliverance, is what provides the movie with its cult revelry, its vulgar poetry; leaving the clutches of her aunt Virginia (Elizabeth Kaza), the English heiress, Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel), explores the French estate and discovers a secret family history. Later she dreams of musical fancies, in particular the pretty countess Romilda (Sirpa Lane) abandoning her harpsichord to find a lost wee lamb, then being stalked by a large sexually-ravenous ursine beast that first skins the lamb, then lusts after Romilda herself.

More importantly Lucy later comes to realise that the man she is to marry, Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti),  might very well be the beast of her (decidedly naughty) dreams himself; some kind of lycanthrope, perhaps. The patriarch, Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Trejan), of the wealthy, but crumbling aristocratic brood may have more than his spirits raised. Oh, the humanity!

The Beast began life as an 18-minute short filmed in 1973 and was intended for the director’s ambitious erotic compendium Immoral Tales (1974). Instead Borowczyk decided to construct a feature around the short. His stylistic and surreal sensibilities are like a lewd and lascivious cross between Tinto Brass, Roman Polanski and David Lynch. As a maverick visionary the director has made a striking paean to bestiality and wayward desire; his adoration runs wild and wicked indeed!

But Borowczyk doesn’t suffer offended fools gladly, kicking his film off with an extended sequence of a large black stallion rogering several mares. The camera catches the equine’s throbbing beasthood several times, as well as the mare’s pulsating pudenda; the director’s mind is in the stable’s trough it seems! But this is Walerian Borowczyk. His movies penetrate the mind like a bad feverish dream. You can’t help but return to the more outrageous, dark, and sexually-charged elements of his movies, as the sumptuous and vivid cinematography only provokes the viewer’s aesthetic demands.

The Beast is a strange and peculiar curiosity, oh yes. A satirical dream of animal ravishing, and amusing inter-racial (and inter-species) couplings, that suggests – like only a sophisticated sexploitation art flick can – that women fantasise about being ravished by bear-like beasts with enormous secreting erections until eventually the animal expires and the woman escapes with barely a scratch upon her alabaster thigh.

The Canyons

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US | 2013 | Directed by Paul Schrader

Logline: A jealous young movie producer suspects his lover of cheating on him and slyly infiltrates her connections in order to expose her.

On paper this read as the great erotic neo-noir; Paul Schrader at the helm of a low-budgeter, Bret Easton Ellis as the scribe, Lindsay Lohan as the femme, a male porn star as her nemesis, an uber flash hillside pad, the dappled light of California, the dangerous edge of Tinseltown. Stir in a heady dose of jealousy, manipulation, bisexuality, intrigue, and deception, and everyone should be home and hosed.

But The Canyons unravels long before the noose tightens. There is so much more promise than deliverance, the house wants to grind, but the meat remains wrapped. Well, mostly. There is definitely a sleazy allure, a seedy appeal, a hint of provocation, and a flash of the merchandise. And therein lies the Rub; considering the agent provocateurs onboard this production, why wasn’t this played to the sordid hilt?!

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Christian (James Deen) is a classic Ellis character, a cool, detached, egocentric trust fund kid with a loose career as an independent producer working on the outskirts of Hollywood. His latest film project features Ryan (Nolan Funk), a matinee idol-esque player who is having an affair with Christian’s lover, Tara (Lindsay Lohan). To complicate matters, or maybe just to grease the situation further, there is Ryan’s girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks), and Cynthia (Tenille Houston), an ex of Christian’s who is still his fuck-buddy.

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I was waiting for a character from one of the screen adaptations of Ellis’s novels to turn up, perhaps Tara might bring home Vic Ward (Kip Pardue) for a threesome, or Christian might bump into Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) coming out of his therapist’s office, or Blair (Jamie Gertz) might be smoking a cigarette at the next café table. Or maybe even Ellis himself might stroll past on the footpath and glance knowingly at the camera.

Funny that, because two of the characters in The Canyons do just that: turn and gaze straight into the lens, the eye of the camera, breaking the fourth wall, in a way reminiscent of the self-reflective tearing of the reality fabric that he does so brilliantly in his novels Glamorama and Lunar Park. It is these two moments that seal the Ellis stamp on the movie, and the overall tone and atmosphere of the movie. It’s a shame Ellis wasn’t game enough to really push the boundaries. Or perhaps he was, but Schrader felt it necessary to reign in some of the excess.

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There’s full-frontal nudity, mostly male, though it should be duly noted that Lohan does not deliver the full monty. The movie’s most sexually provocative scene, a foursome, is much tamer than it should have been, with an earlier scene being the movie’s most notable “NC-17” moment; a random guy casually jerking off on the sofa whilst watching Christian go down on Tara.

Performances are precarious; James Deen was surprisingly convincing, considering his most prized asset was kept under-wraps for the most part. Nolan Funk oozed charisma, and tries hard, while the movie’s real star, Lindsay, gave off a Norma Desmond air of worn out quiet desperation, her once striking good looks lost behind foundation and heavy eye shadow, many years of heavy partying. She’s 26-going-on-46. Lohan is the movie’s anchor tearing through the loose sand on the seabed as the movie crashes on the surf.

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The Canyons’ dreamy visual narrative of drifting camerawork, soft pastel cinematography, and a languid mise-en-scene is the movie’s best feature, and the imagery that lingered longest, and had the most symbolic resonance, was the opening montage of lost suburban movie palaces and cinemas, those that have become derelict, shuttered up, abandoned. They appear occasionally through the rest of the movie, as momentary visual interludes, a poignant motif of desertion, estranged melancholy, social decay, and glamour gone west.

This is not an exit. It’s Ellis courting Tinseltown. Rock and roll. Deal with it.

The Canyons screens as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival, tonight, Sunday 8th, 7:30pm, Cinema One, The Factory Theatre, Marrickville. 

Saturn 3

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US | 1980 | Directed by Stanley Donen

Logline: Two off-world scientists are terrorised after a jealous imposter arrives at their remote station and assembles a giant robot assistant.

I’m really quite fond of this curious piece of cosmic debris, not just because of the presence of svelte Farrah Fawcett (R.I.P.) and the chutzpah of Harvey Keitel. Saturn 3 is hopelessly derivative, with a clunky narrative, and some dodgy special effects. But it has a fascinating history.

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The basic plot has Benson (Harvey Keitel), a psychopath on a mission, killing Captain James (Douglas Lambert) gruesomely (with little regard for plausibility), then impersonating the astronaut. He travels to Saturn 3 (is it an asteroid or is it Titan, it’s never made clear) with his large trusty canister (which, inexplicably, wasn’t sucked out into space in the bizarre locker-room-cum-airlock). Upon arrival he introduces himself to the two neo-hippie scientists, Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his partner Alex (Farrah Fawcett), who are in charge of a large hydroponic research station (Earth is over-populated and food is now being sourced off-world). There’s also Alex’s mutt, Sally, and a couple of service robots in the facility.

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While contact with Earth is blocked due to a 22-day eclipse, Benson/James makes immediate lustful eyes for Alex (hey, who wouldn’t?) and repeatedly tries, in the most uncouth and vain manner, to get into Alex’s jumpsuit, much to Adam’s restrained chagrin. While he bides his time Benson assembles and initiates the helper, Hector, the first in the "Demi-God" series of robots. Hector is an eight-foot tall humanoid hulk with red and blue liquid in tubing running from foot to head (well, actually Hector doesn’t have a head, instead a pair of electric eyes on a swivel-stick), and a bulky metal casing protecting the canister Benson brought with him, which is revealed to hold a massive amount of brain tissue taken from fetuses – thus perfect for programming.

Benson, however, prefers to have Hector operate from direct input; a flesh-jack – cortical stack - at the base of Benson’s neck, thus Benson can communicate and instruct Hector, telepathically. Of course this means Hector is infused with Benson’s unhinged, homicidal nature, so it isn’t long before Hector is on the rampage and although Benson is accountable, the huge whirring killer-bot is out of his control.

Saturn 3 was the project of legendary production designer John Barry (Star Wars, Superman), who envisioned a lush and dark precautionary tale of the future. He provided the story and was the movie’s initial director. However the budget was cut back during production because of spiraling costs on Raise the Titantic! from the same film company.

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According to imdb.com Barry was fired after creative disputes with Kirk Douglas, however I’ve also read that it was Barry's untimely death during production that led to legendary director Stanley (Singin' in the Rain) Donen take over. Donen apparently wanted to downplay the exploitation elements of the movie, so unfortunately a couple of intense scenes were cut before release: Adam and Alex killing Benson in a fantasy sequence (possibly after dropping the classic Blue Dreamer pills) and a rather gory sequence where Hector dismantles Benson’s body, which would explain a memorable production still of Hector with Benson’s severed head slotted over his/its own swivel-stick head.

The last quarter of the movie is incredibly clunky and the ending is very abrupt. There’s also a big jump in the narrative time-line that leaves the viewer going “Huh?” With seven assistant directors and six assistant editors I can’t help but wonder what the movie’s original rough-cut was like: no doubt far more interesting, visceral and dramatic. Indeed, renowned British author Martin Amis penned the screenplay, although from the finished movie you certainly wouldn’t be able to pick it.  

However, for all the dodgy parts of the movie there are elements that are intriguing, even cool. While the opening spacecraft sequence is shamelessly lifted wholesale from Star Wars, the font used for the title that precedes it is way funky. Benson’s approach to the asteroid/moon is B-grade indeed, but the decontamination chamber effect is visually striking. Adam and Alex’s outfits - costumes really - are risible (Farrah’s wardrobe and hair design is lifted straight from the pages of Vogue, yet her character is meant to be entirely naïve), yet Benson’s green spacesuit is very cyber-industrial-chic. The design of Hector, apparently inspired by the drawings of Da Vinci, is creepy and menacing, but unfortunately the “metal” is very plastic in appearance.

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There are only three main actors (if you don’t count Douglas Lambert’s token appearance), and the performances are uniformly horrible. Not surprisingly the movie was nominated for three Golden Raspberry awards: Worst Actor (Douglas), Worst Actress (Fawcett) and Worst Movie. Kirk Douglas pulls more ridiculous facial expressions than a clown, Farrah spends more time delivering a wimpy “Uh” or “Oh” rather than her soft-spoken drivel, while Harvey Keitel appears to be sleepwalking, and, very oddly, had his voice re-dubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice. Curiously there is not a complete cast list at the end of the movie, so Douglas Lambert is not mentioned, and the poor fool who stumbled around inside the robot suit was never given due credit.

Still, like any deep trash, I pluck what I need; Elmer Bernstein’s score is okay, and hey, you get to see a brief glimpse of Farrah’s lovely naked breast, and then her sumptuous nude body in silhouette, which set my pubescent mind racing when I first saw it back in 1980! Mind you, you’re also subjected to 64-year-old Kirk wrestling Harvey buck-naked.

Yes, Saturn 3 seriously malfunctions, its space junk body dragged around like Achilles did through Troy with the slain body of Hector; Martin Amis throwing a little literary metaphoric weight when he has Adam explain to Alex the connection. The movie was shamelessly trying to capitalise on the horror-sf success of Alien (1979), yet has none of Ridley’s expert command over look, feel, mood, and tone. Some of Hector’s robot moves are impressively executed, and the gore effects, especially the severing of Benson’s hand and Captain James’ demise, are decent, but the rest of the effects are mutton dressed as lamb (and to think the movie was released in a 70mm blow-up!)

I only hope one day a special edition gets released with all the deleted scenes, an in-depth director’s commentary, and Harvey and/or Kirk commentary. It might sound crazy, but the movie deserves better treatment than the full-frame, no-frills DVD release that’s been floating around for many years.

Even better, a remake, or should I say re-envisioning, with a bigger cast, and more adult content! I might even start work on a spec screenplay myself ...

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