Posts Tagged ‘bad movies’

Jess Franco: 1961

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

To review La Reina del Tabarín, Jess Franco’s 1960 musical, I had to watch both the Spanish and French versions of the film several times. La Reina del Tabarín is Franco’s least typical film, a painfully uninteresting romantic comedy with a singularly unsympathetic male lead. Yet I would gladly watch that film — either version, or both — over and over and over, if it meant I never had to watch Franco’s next film, Vampiresas 1930, ever ever again.

Like his previous film, Vampiresas 1930 was intended as a vehicle for Mikaela (Wood). In this film, she plays Dora, a major star of the silent screen; she’s a vampiresa in that her agent has decided she should play up the whole Theda Bara act and make herself as mysterious and sexy as possible. Privately, she’s fed up with her public image as a frail, ethereal creature, prone to fits of overwhelming emotion. What she really wants is a nice plate of cheese.

Yves Massard, Fernando from La Reina del Tabarín, plays a struggling musician named Tony. He and his friend Daniel (Tenemos 18 Años‘s Antonio Ozores) play jazz at a little Italian restaurant to make ends meet. One day, a young girl newly arrived in Paris stumbles into the restaurant — her name is Carolina (Lina Morgan), and she’s starving. She’s also really cute, so Tony and Daniel rush to offer her some of their own food. When customers come in, Tony and Daniel rush to the piano and break into a number; whereupon Carolina’s eyes light up. She runs to the unattended double-bass and begins playing along. She’s not only a jazz musician herself, she’s a darned good one.

Tony and Daniel take her back with them to their lodgings. They live in a sort of commune for out-of-work musicians, where jam sessions are always breaking out unexpectedly, and where the landlady doesn’t want a security deposit — she wants an audition. Well, everybody bursts into a number, and Carolina gets to singing and dancing like mad. She’s in.

Tony and Daniel’s other job, the one that really pays the bills, is as technicians on the movie sets. Daniel is a stuntman, whose duties include riding a car into an exploding building. Tony provides mood music for the actors during the shoots… particularly for Dora, who thinks he’s just dreamy. When Tony makes a special visit to Dora’s dressing room to speak to her, she’s thrilled. When she finds out he’s there to ask for help getting Carolina some work, she’s heartbroken… though in fact it’s Daniel who’s got a thing for Carolina. Dora manages to get Tony to agree to a date at her place…

… which strikes her agent as pure publicity gold: a handsome musician for the notorious vamp! The scandal sheets will love it! This leads to a halfway-amusing scene in which Tony shows up for his “date”, not realizing there are reporters stuffed in every closet, under every piece of furniture, and behind every screen.

Now then: I’d go on about the various turns of the plot, but it turns out there’s no point. The whole story comes to an abrupt halt when it’s suddenly announced that the Talking Pictures have arrived. The silent studios have all gone bankrupt, and everybody’s out of a job.

Some of you reading this synopsis may already be starting to clutch your heads in pain. No wonder: it’s obvious the first half of the flick is a heavy-handed “homage” (sic) to Singin’ in the Rain… with Yves Massard in the Donald O’Connor role, and Antonio Ozores — yes: bug-eyed, round-faced, Jerry-Lewis-meets-Peter-Lorre Antonio Ozores — in the Gene Kelly role.

Vampiresas 1930: our heroes Singin' In The Rain: our heroes

It’s Ozores who gets to plunge into an exploding building, just like Gene Kelly:

Vampiresas 1930: Kaboom! Singin' In The Rain: Kablam!

Dora the vamp is actually costumed to look suspiciously like the character Olga Mara, who appears a couple of times in Stanley Donen’s film and has (as I recall) a single line.

Vampiresas 1930: Dora Singin' In The Rain: Olga Mara
Rear view:
Vampiresas 1930: rear view Singin' In The Rain: rear view

Dora’s director is a carbon copy of Roscoe Dexter, the stressed-out director in Singin’ in the Rain.

Vampiresas 1930: the director Singin' In The Rain: the director

Two other minor characters, the elderly impresario we meet in Mr. Radeck’s night club and his young blonde girlfriend, may also be patterned after Rita Moreno’s character “Zelda Zanders” and her boyfriend, the “eligible bachelor”.

Vampiresas 1930: etc. Singin' In The Rain: etc.

Here’s the trouble: Franco’s movie so far has been a painfully ordinary romantic comedy. Singing’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is not only one of the best movies ever made, it’s one of the best movies about movies ever made. It’s a spectacular exercise in pure cinema — one that delights in its artificiality, while at the same time commenting on the artificiality of the movies (my favorite line in a movie stuffed full of favorite lines is given to R.F., the producer, just after Gene Kelly’s Don has finished pitching the “Broadway Melody” number [“Gotta dance!”]. We’ve just been treated to a show-stopping, 13-minute production number of such stunning virtuosity that it’s hard to believe any movie could contain it. Just after this incredible sequence, Don turns to the producer and asks him what he thinks of the idea. R.F. replies, “I can’t quite visualize it…”)

Cinema — love of the cinema, passion for the cinema, understanding of the cinema — is woven into the fabric of Singing’ in the Rain from beginning to end. The plot device of the coming of the Talking Pictures is central to its story. In Vampiresas 1930, on the other hand, the advent of the Talkies comes as a complete shock. It’s introduced by newspaper headlines. Sure, newspaper headlines had heralded the triumph of The Jazz Singer in Singin’ in the Rain, but the bad news had been built up to gradually (not as though we didn’t know what was going to happen). Nor did ruin come to the characters right away, the way it seems to do in Vampiresas…. Far from building up a sense of comic foreboding, as Donen and Kelly did, and examining the change’s impact on the characters, Vampiresas… only shows up newspaper clippings. One states that 24 silent stars have all killed themselves in despair. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Vampiresas 1930: announcing the demise of the silent film Singin' In The Rain: announcing the demise of the silent film

Now, you can’t really blame Franco for the disparity between Vampiresas… and the movie it depends on for its first half. The story and screenplay were the fault — ahem, work of Pío Ballasteros, with dialogue provided by Franco. Who was Ballasteros? I have no idea; I do know, however, that the film was made at Estudios Ballasteros, so you can read into that anything you want.

But when we come to the second half of the flick, I am willing to assign plenty of blame to anybody who had anything to do with it.

You may have noticed I mentioned the name “Radeck” very briefly in my description above. In Franco’s films, “Radeck” is the name of the villain — the name first turns up in 1960’s Labios Rojos, and would continue to signify the Bad Guy all the way through Franco’s career. There’s been no room for a stock Bad Guy in the movie so far, just as there was no place for one in Singin’ in the Rain. That’s about to change: earlier, Daniel and Carolina had gone out for a night on the town, and while dancing in Radeck’s night club, had become so carried away by the music that they’d jumped onstage and given an impromptu performance with the band. We’re given the impression they’re about to be discovered by an elderly producer, who (just as in La Reina del Tabarín) just happens to be in the audience. That’s not what happens. The real point of the sequence is to introduce Radeck and his associates… the photography changes style drastically when we meet Radeck, becoming all noirish and Wellesian.

Radeck’s nightclub is really a front for his nefarious activities. When one of his underlings tries to double-cross him and rob the club, Radeck sneaks up on him and shoots him dead. Radeck and his girlfriend dump the body in a Paris park, but they neglect to remove the stolen money from the corpse. The next morning, when the starving Dora and her friends sit alone in the park, the stolen money blows across the park. Dora and the others find the money just as a passing policeman finds the body… and soon the four friends are on the run, under suspicion of murder.

Yeah, I know… it sounds like the scriptwriter ran out of ideas halfway through, and decided to throw in a chase scene. If only it were so innocuous. In fact, either Ballasteros or Franco had seen (and been impressed by) Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, which had come out a year or so before. In Wilder’s film, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis played musicians on the lam, who disguised themselves as women and joined up with an all-girl band. Because of its cross-dressing theme (and Joe E. Brown’s infamous final line), Some Like It Hot had been held up by the Spanish censors, who did not allow it to be released in Spain until 1963. Perhaps Ballasteros and Franco thought they could subvert the censors by turning the second half of their movie into a near-remake of Wilder’s film. Perhaps they thought they could rip off Wilder, and nobody would notice… since the original film hadn’t been released yet to a local audience. Whatever their motivation may have been, rip off Wilder is exactly what they did; and if the thought of Yves Massard and Antonio Ozores in drag scares you, you’ve only scratched the surface of the horror in store.

To give you a better idea of what’s to come, the French title of Vampiresas 1930 is Some Like It Black. And they’re not talking about coffee.

You see, the four fugitives need to find some way to sneak out of Paris to avoid the police. While Dora and Tony are waiting to speak to their agent, they overhear a phone conversation with Radeck: it seems he’s hired an all-black jazz band to play at his Club Negresco in Nice (you see where this is going, don’t you?). Tony, Dora, Daniel and Carolina rush off to the train station, where they meet the jazz band disembarking. Since the players don’t speak much French, they’re very happy when these four friendly Parisians offer to help them find their connecting train to Nice. They don’t notice that the “helpful” quartet has really put them on a train for… Siberia. Ha. Ha. Ha.

With the actual band out of the way, this means that not only Dora, Tony, Daniel and Carolina, but the entire population of the musicians’ boarding house are free to dress up in drag and blackface, and go down to Nice to take their place.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the result:

Vampiresas 1930

No, no… take a good long look; I insist:

Vampiresas 1930

Bear in mind we’re really only halfway through the picture. We have a good long time to suffer through this miserable indignity. To pad out the plot, it turns out that the Club Negresco is actually Radeck’s front for a major counterfeiting operation. Our terribly convincing and not-at-all offensive pseudo-black musicians have gone from one criminal mess straight into another.

Clearly this movie presents a lot of problems for a modern audience. But one of the problems it ran into early on stemmed from its origin as a vehicle for Mikaela. The trouble was, Vampiresas 1930 also featured the cinema debut of the gamine-ish Lina Morgan, who was an established stage actress and a natural physical comedienne. Miss Morgan wiped Mikaela off the screen with her every appearance. Take, for example, one of Mikaela’s big emotional numbers at the musicians’ boarding house: there she is, singing her heart out in a loving close-up… and over her left shoulder is Morgan, pretending to play the double-bass, making Harpo Marx faces and stealing the show. I guarantee that not a single eye in the theater was watching Mikaela while that scene went on. Mikaela’s career stalled after Vampiresas 1930, but Morgan’s was only beginning.

Vampiresas 1930

If Franco’s film had ended halfway through, Vampiresas 1930 might have made a good intro for Morgan. Unfortunately, once she starts doing Harpo Marx in blackface, her performance goes from charmingly eccentric to horrifying. Her “ethnic” schtick becomes so broad that it brings to mind every ghastly minstrel-show stereotype. Her antics are highlighted by the fact that nobody else seems to be trying in the least to do anything with their roles in disguise. All together, the band’s stage show performances are certainly unique: you can’t bear to watch them, but you can’t look away, either.

The nadir comes when the band is caught onstage after discovering the counterfeiting plan. Their way offstage is blocked by gun-wielding thugs, so they have to keep repeating and repeating and repeating the same tepid number (“Lara-Lara”, written by Franco himself) while they mosey en-masse through the crowd from one exit to the next. By this point, Massard’s shoe-polish makeup is already starting to rub off; the fact that the piano continues to play on the soundtrack even after Massard’s got up to join the others is a relatively minor problem by comparison.

Vampiresas 1930 is (so far) my single least favorite Jess Franco film. Admittedly, there are a whole raft of mid-eighties Franco flicks I haven’t seen yet; but since Vampiresas… contains so few of the (ahem) qualities we associate with a Jess Franco film, I find it unlikely that any of his more characteristic work will inspire such loathing. The Spanish DVD doesn’t help anything by cropping the frame to the wrong aspect ratio.

At the very end of the film, I kept waiting for the members of the real jazz band to come back from their inadvertent trip to Siberia and beat the living shit out of the principal cast. Alas, that’s not what happens… but it’s a beautiful dream.


While they were in Nice filming the latter half of Vampiresas…, Franco took the producer Sergio Newman to see Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Franco later claimed he loathed the Hammer horror films. “Terence Fisher is one of the worst film-makers that ever was,” said the director of Lulu’s Talking Asshole (Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco [Balbo/Blumenstock/Kessler], p. 244). But at the time, Franco seemed to find the Hammer films’ approach inspirational: if only their lurid, explicit approach to horror could be extended to the erotic implications of the stories, then, maybe, there’d be something worth watching…

Out of that experience in Nice emerged Franco’s first horror film, and his best-known film of any kind: Gritos en la Noche (“Screams in the Night”, aka “The Awful Dr. Orlof”).

Gritos en la Noche opens in the very early 20th century, as a series of abductions is terrorizing the town of Hartog. Young girls are disappearing off the streets at random, never to be seen again. In fact, they’re being abducted by the awful Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon), a former prison surgeon who needs young bodies for his medical experiments. His dirty work is done by his blind, disfigured, zombie-like servant Morpho, a psychopath rescued from prison at the expense of his mind; Morpho subdues his victims by tearing out their throats with his teeth. Orlof’s goal is to restore his daughter Melissa to life. She had been burnt in a fire, and now languishes in a coma, her once-beautiful face scarred beyond recognition.

On the trail of the disappearances is a policeman called Inspector Tanner (Conrado San Martin). Tanner has some good ideas: for example, he is seen to virtually invent the facial composite during the course of the movie (though I think the practice was already in use by that time). But overall, he’s a bit of a blockhead. Most of the real detective-work in the movie is done by Tanner’s fiancée, the danseuse Wanda Brodsky, with some help from a clever, sharp-eyed beggar named Jeannot.

Orlof’s method is to woo young girls with champagne and jewelry, convince them to go off with him, and then leave them to Morpho. Unfortunately for him, one of his victims loses the necklace he gave her in the struggle; when the beggar Jeannot finds it and sells it to a jeweler, its unique design is recognized by a policeman who was among the last to see the girl alive. While Tanner struggles to figure out what to do with this information, Orlof and Wanda encounter each other. Orlof is enthralled, because Wanda is the living image of his daughter Melissa (the two women are both played by Diana Lorys). Wanda, however, recognizes Orlof from Tanner’s attempt at creating an Identikit, and realizes that he must be the monster. Without telling Tanner what she’s up to, Wanda disguises herself as a prostitute and starts visiting the bars where she last saw Orlof. She hopes she’ll be able to attract his attention again, so she can get close to him and find out what he’s really up to…

But poor Wanda hasn’t bargained on the existence of the half-human Morpho, and soon finds herself in over her head. She’s able to send a last-minute emergency message to Tanner, but the Inspector (dunderhead that he is) thinks it’s just another false lead and refuses even to read it… until it’s nearly too late. While he dithers, Wanda attempts to escape, and discovers the hideous truth behind Orlof’s experiments. In the meantime, Orlof makes a bad mistake in his dealings with his ex-lover and assistant, Arne (Perla Cristal), which may spell doom for all of them…

Gritos en la Noche exists in two main versions: the better-known international version, which contains some notorious footage of bare breasts, and the version made for release within Franco’s conservative Spain. The Spanish version, while missing the nudity, is actually longer than the international version, and holds together slightly better. The brief nudity has drawn all sorts of notice in books and articles on Franco, but it’s really pretty uninteresting today: there’s a scene in which Dr. Orlof draws a scalpel between the breasts of his victim on the operating table, and a second scene in which the lust-crazed Morpho tears the dress off the heroine. The first of these scenes never made much sense to me: why (other than for giggles) is he working on her chest, when he is supposed to be cutting off her face? The footage has also been shoehorned in, in a very sloppy way that doesn’t match the surrounding sequences. The second of these scenes was shot using a stand-in, since Diana Lorys refused to do it herself. So neither of these famous moments is really integral to the film. (Nice boobies, though!)

In the Spanish cut, the opening credits extend into the first scene as far as the moment in which the drunk girl, soon to be a victim of Morpho, peers at herself in a mirror. This explains the weird disconnect between the action and the music — wonderful, avant-garde improvisation involving keyboards, percussion and slide whistle… Because the credits are missing, the action and the music seem totally at odds with each other in the international version… and this gives the opening an eerily-appropriate feeling of malaise. Thus the Spanish cut has a slightly more conventional feel, though it’s well worth tracking down as a valid and enjoyable alternative version.

Orlof and his blind henchman Morpho are lifted from the old Béla Lugosi film, The Dark Eyes of London. Lugosi had played a dual role of Dr. Orloff (with two “f”s) and kindly Professor Dearborn; though the movie was based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, the name “Orloff” did not appear in the book (in which the villain’s real name was Judd… “The Awful Dr. Judd” just doesn’t have the same ring to it). Lugosi’s Orloff had been aided by his lumbering, disfigured henchman “Blind Jake”, who’d ended up turning on his master in much the same way Morpho ends up turning on his.

Melissa and her disfigured face are clearly derived from Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (“Eyes Without a Face”, 1960), the hugely influential art-horror film that inspired a decade of European rip-offs. Franco would return to Franju’s original many times throughout his career, most notably in his 1987 film Faceless. The Awful Dr. Orlof is sort-of an anti-Franju film, since Les Yeux Sans Visage was specifically intended to avoid all the exploitative elements and horror-movie clichés that Franco’s film wallows in.

Orlof is Franco’s most famous film, but it’s not his best. The screenplay is crammed with terrible expository dialogue — which is unfortunate, considering how effectively Franco uses visual cues alone to convey Morpho’s ability to hunt by sound. Inspector Tanner’s investigations slow the movie to a crawl whenever he’s on screen; and no matter how clever his “Identikit” idea may be, it’s hard to believe that anyone would really be identified through the terrible drawings that result.

The actual horror elements of the movie work much better. The black and white photography lends everything a dank and decadent atmosphere (Franco’s use of light and shadow in his black and white films is very effective; he would not make another film in color until 1967!). The scenes of Morpho hunting his prey through an empty house are certainly disturbing, but there are quiet, subtle moments as well: when Howard Vernon’s Orlof sits considering his prospective victim, he’s captured in half-shadow, while the eyes of the girl he’s watching are fully illuminated. Vernon thus appears so dark by comparison to the girl, yet is so clearly visible, that he almost seems to be a living negative image (which is appropriate).



Vernon himself was an inspired choice for the sinister doctor. Born Mario Lippert, this Swiss-American actor had played important roles in films by Jean-Pierrre Melville, and could have gone on to a career making Important Films. He didn’t want a career like that, though. He preferred the unusual, the unexpected and the outré… which is why he got along so well with Franco, and continued to make films with him for most of the rest of his life. Vernon approached his roles in Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer and the Franco-scripted Zombie Lake with equal commitment and enthusiasm, and that’s the attitude that endeared him not only to Franco, but to legions of bad movie fans everywhere.

Still, even the horror aspect of the movie makes very little sense. There’s no reason why poor Melissa’s state should hinge on the condition of her face. There’s also no real explanation for the fact that once Orlof dies, Melissa dies, too. It’s absurd, but in this case the absurdity constitutes the core of the movie. The two are entwined in a sick, quasi-incestuous, quasi-necrophiliac sort of relationship; Melissa’s ailment might be more charitably described as poetic rather than clinical. Orlof and Melissa are two of Franco’s most important recurring characters. Various Melissas return throughout the Franco filmography, and in his bizarre tarot deck the “Melissa” card tends to suggest both innocence and doom. In The Secret of Doctor Orloff (two “f”s), a Melissa must lead her zombified father to his final death; in Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, Melissa is the blind bird-woman “daughter” created by Howard Vernon’s Cagliostro as an answer to Frankenstein’s male creation.

As for Orlof, he represents the first appearance of the Bad Father in a Franco film. Names recur often in Franco’s movies: Orlof(f), Radeck, Kalman, Al Pereira… sometimes these names have a symbolic significance (or at least, they assume this significance over time): for example, “Linda” is usually the innocent to be corrupted; “Lorna” often represents the corrupting influence. Other names and roles are taken from their literary sources: de Sade’s Eugénie, Justine and Juliette make repeated appearances throughout his filmography. But the Bad Father is different… actually, it’s one of the few elements in any of Franco’s movies that seems to go deeper than the surface. With Gritos…, such an early movie, we can’t tell yet what deeper significance the Bad Father may have. We’re still mostly in monster movie territory. But we’ll be revisiting the Bad Father many times as we go through Franco’s output. I have yet to decide if the depth of the image is real or apparent… but then again that’s exactly why I’m watching so many Franco films in chronological order.

Orlof again

Lastly, if there’s one truly awful thing about Dr. Orlof, it’s the English dubbing on the international version. I have the old Image Entertainment DVD, on which the viewing options are either English or French with no subtitles. Fortunately, my dimly-remembered high school French is quite enough to carry me through the French version. The English dialogue is so bad it’s unlistenable.

PS — the terrible opera seen briefly in La Reina del Tabarín is identified in Gritos en la Noche as Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Faust. Meyerbeer never wrote an opera based on Faust. He did wrote a very similar opera called Robert le Diable… but this ain’t it.

Jess Franco: 1959/60

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

I’ve already written a full review of Jess Franco’s first film, Tenemos 18 Años (“We Are 18”, 1959). Tenemos 18 Años was a virtually plotless road movie; it followed two girls on a trip across Spain in an absurd yellow car. The girls are hoping for excitement, but all they get are car problems and road fatigue. So they begin to imagine picaresque adventures for each other, and these fantasy sequences — which blend uneasily in with reality as the movie progresses — form the main part of the film. Midway through the movie, the lead male actor (comedian Antonio Ozores, playing the character “Mariano” — an in-joke reference to Ozores’s brother, the director Mariano Ozores) has his own fantasy sequence that turns into a 15-minute horror film parody. This bizarre sequence is filmed in a completely different style from anything else in the movie, and quotes many of the familiar horror tropes that would become Franco’s stock-in-trade for most of the rest of his career.

Unruly, scattershot, chaotic, unconstrained by narrative… Tenemos 18 Años certainly was a far cry from the typical Spanish comedy of the time. Franco hoped the movie would come as a breath of fresh air, and would inspire both audiences and film-makers to start looking for new directions in their light entertainment. But there was a reason most Spanish comedies of that time were so conventional and repetitive: they were still heavily controlled by the government of that other Franco. By the mid-50’s, satirical films and parodies had started to appear, questioning the values presented by the state-approved españoladas and other cozy depictions of an isolated Spain; but a first feature from a brash young unknown was much more likely to attract the scrutiny of the censors than the work of established artists. With his very first film, Jess Franco found himself in trouble with the Authorities.

Tenemos… was kept from release by the state for two years. Ostensibly, this was because of a fantasy sequence involving escaped prisoners: one of the girls imagines falling in love with a convict and helping him evade the law, and this was considered unacceptable. In fact, there’s much more about Tenemos… that ran counter to the tenets of fascist entertainment: Tenemos… did not present a picture of Spanish youth, or of Spanish femininity, that conformed to the image the censors wanted to convey. Here we had two 18-year-old girls on their own — traveling freely, expressing themselves freely, exercising their imaginations, being thoroughly independent… neither madonnas to be worshiped nor whores to be redeemed; neither idealistically-depicted domestic figures, nor victims of that same repressive idealism. They were just a couple of girls, engaged in a free-spirited rite of passage that had only been imaginable, up to this point, as a journey for young Spanish men (Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies, pp. 109-110).

It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened to Franco’s development if Tenemos… had been given a fair chance. As it stands, the trouble Franco ran into with a relatively harmless movie like Tenemos… only deepened his distrust of the Authorities, and paved the way for the truly transgressive films he’d make later on.

Aside from Antonio Ozores’s prophetic turn as the monstrous “Lord Marian”, this first film introduces one of the most important recurring elements in Franco’s career: the decision to place his story, however insubstantial, firmly in the hands of his female characters. Men in Franco’s films tend to think they’re the ones controlling the situation, and indeed Franco often encouraged his actors to believe this was the case. In fact, these men are usually helpless fools who can’t do anything without the women’s help. Franco never told his actors that this was his intent: he was afraid that if he told them they were supposed to be saps, they’d play their parts too broadly. Thus he encouraged them to think of themselves as typical movie leading men. In the context of a Franco film, this made them look like “incorruptible idiots” (Tohill & Tombs: Immoral Tales, p. 107).


Many of Franco’s later films would follow Tenemos… and center on two strong female protagonists. His very next film, Labios Rojos (“Red Lips”, 1960, also starring Tenemos…‘s Isana Medel, who was his girlfriend at the time), featured two young women who ran a private detective agency. At the request of a mysterious man named Kalman, the “Red Lips” detectives try to track down a jewel thief named Radeck. Neither the jewels nor the thieves turn out to be what they seem, and soon the girls are on the run, wrongly accused of murder…

Labios Rojos is, if not a lost film, at least an elusive one. I’ve never been able to track down a copy. Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco (Balbo/Blumenstock/Kessler) says the file “seems to have disappeared totally from circulation” (p. 37), and bases its own review on the photonovel that was derived from the movie. Nevertheless, the Red Lips girls returned many times throughout Franco’s filmography: Sadisterotica (aka Rote Lippen, 1967) is a sort-of remake of Labios Rojos, and that film was followed by a sequel, Bésame, Monstruo (Kiss Me, Monster) the same year. Les Emmerdeuses (“The Pains in the Ass”, 1974) was yet another reboot of the concept, with the lesbian subtext of the girl-girl partnership made explicit; while La Chica de los Labios Rojos (“The Girl with the Red Lips”, 1986) condensed the two girls into one, probably for budgetary reasons. The last appearance of the two female detectives came nearly 40 years after the first, with Seda Roja (Red Silk, 1999).

But the Red Lips girls aren’t the only recurring characters to be introduced in Labios Rojos. “Radeck” — a name taken from a Georges Simenon novel — went on to become one of Franco’s stock names for his villains, just as “Kalman” became shorthand for a character that was uninteresting in himself, but was still important to the plot. Franco recycled the name of the henchman, “Carlos Moroni”, as a generic henchman name several times in his early films, but discarded it before long.


Before Franco could get his directing career started in earnest, he still had some journeyman’s jobs to do. At the same time Franco was making his first two films, he also provided screenplays for a couple of films by León Klimovsky. When Klimovsky backed out of doing a musical, his producer Sergio Newman remembered Franco, and thought the energetic, imaginative young man would make a good replacement. That’s how Franco, the man who thought he was going to revolutionize Spanish comedy with Tenemos 18 Años, ended up making the safest, most conventional movie of his entire career: La Reina del Tabarín (“Queen of the Tabarin Club”, 1960).

La Reina del Tabarín was a Spanish/French co-production, with Newman sharing credit (at least on paper) with the legendary French producer Marius Lesoeur. It was intended as a vehicle for a rising star named Mikaela Wood, aka “Mikaela”. In spite of its Spanish setting, the story of La Reina del Tabarín is puerile Ruritanian comic-opera nonsense, about a poor-but-honest girl of the street who falls in love with a callow nobleman and gradually teaches him to love truly.

Now, in spite of its hackneyed, uninteresting plot, there are several reasons to pay attention to La Reina del Tabarín. First, most obviously, this was Jess Franco’s third feature film — out of nearly 200 — and as his least characteristic film, it’s noteworthy if only as a curiosity. Even in such a conventional film, there were still a couple of opportunities for Franco to express his own emerging style; there are several moments in the film, some only seconds long, that are recognizably Franco’s, and which probably would not have succeeded as well had they been left to Klimovsky.

But the main reason to study La Reina del Tabarín — its chief appeal to the Franco-ologist — is this: it’s La Reina… that introduces us to the Franco Version Problem.

Now, as a devotee of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, I am very familiar with Version Problems. But the catalog of Jess Franco is probably the ultimate example of the phenomenon. As if it wasn’t confusing enough that he frequently re-used his own scripts — sometimes for movies of completely different genres — his films often went through so many changes in post-production that it’s hard to tell if some versions should even be considered the same movie… or even be considered a Jess Franco movie at all. Sometimes Franco himself was responsible for the changes — for example, he shot a version of Erotic Rites of Frankenstein in which the actors were always clothed for distribution in conservative, pre-destape Spain, and an entire second version with much more nudity for distribution in the rest of Europe. But for the most part, the edits were likely to be done without either Franco’s knowledge or permission. For example, his first Marquis de Sade adaptation, Justine (1968), was heavily censored by its Anglo-American producers (AIP!); while A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) was completely recut by Eurocine, first with extraneous softcore inserts… then with hardcore inserts… then, in the early 1980’s, with terrible zombie attack footage shot by Jean Rollin… before finally being edited out of all recognition and showing up on US home video as “Zombie 5”. So it went throughout Franco’s career.

And the troubles all start here.

I’ll explain by providing a synopsis of the Spanish version, which is the longest. The movie begins with credits displayed over footage of the streets and rooftops of Madrid. The background music is a collage of all the movie’s songs, in the manner of an operetta overture (This opening, too, has a sort of backhanded appeal for the Franco fan: at some point in his brief time at Film School, before he got thrown out, Franco must have heard one of his teachers explain that a good way to create visual interest in the frame is to include one of the many antique street lamps that feature in Spain’s urban architecture. Certainly in some of Franco’s later films, El Conde Dracula (1969) and Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1971), street lamps and hanging signs feature so often they deserve their own credits. Well, in the opening credits of La Reina del Tabarín, there’s a street lamp in nearly every shot).

The movie opens with a neat crane shot that gives us an overhead glimpse of our heroine, Lolita (Mikaela), singing and dancing for coins in the streets with the help of her uncle and brother. Lolita’s performance is blocking traffic; and it just so happens that one of the people stuck watching her is a theater manager, who’s very impressed by her voice and her beauty. He puts a generous contribution in her tambourine, and tells her to come see him about a job. Her uncle and her brother, who are tired of being poor and hungry, are thrilled… but Lolita insists she will never compromise herself by singing as somebody else’s servant.

Once they all get home, though, Lolita finds it difficult to maintain her defiant attitude. In spite of some bad comedy and a pretty good song — “La luna me engañó” — Lolita can no longer ignore her family’s hunger. So she goes to rent some decent clothes and audition for the theater manager. Of course, the show for which she’s auditioning, like the revue-within-the-musical in “Guys and Dolls”, is just awful… an intentionally-overdone example of the worst kind of amateur show. The club concièrge doesn’t want to let Lolita and her family in, thinking she’s a non-paying customer; but Lolita gets the attention of the management by singing such a fiery flamenco number that the producers can’t even hear the rehearsal any longer. Lolita starts her audition — but before she’s even begun, one of the producers gooses her. That’s enough for Lolita.

In the meantime, we’re introduced to Fernando (Yves Massard), who appears to be a harried commercial traveler saying farewell to his belovèd before going away on a long business trip. However, no sooner has he parted from one girl than he’s run into the arms of another — a harried commercial traveller, just returning to his belovèd from a long business trip. In fact, he’s not engaged to either girl, and he’s not a businessman: he’s a wealthy nobleman who serves in the Spanish diplomatic corps. He’s engaged to a young French heiress named Monique, the daughter of a diplomat… but until he’s actually married, he’s determined to play the field as aggressively as possible.

Sneaking away from Girl No. 2, he returns to his mother’s home just in time to join a costume party. He’s had a double planted in costume to give him an alibi for his wanderings, and he quickly exchanges clothing with him. Brushing off yet another young lady who’s recognized him as her sometime-boyfriend, Fernando rejoins Monique as though nothing had happened.

The sounds of the party carry out into the street, where a despondent Lolita and her family are dragging home their cart and barrel-organ. Realizing that these rich people must have more than enough food, and remembering her success fighting her way into the audition, Lolita climbs over the villa walls. Pretending to be part of the scheduled entertainment, she bursts into song. The partygoers are thrilled by her singing and dancing, and since it’s a costume party nobody thinks twice about her shabby clothes. Fernando’s mother rewards her for her performance by promising her a good meal.

On her way to the kitchen, Lolita bumps into Fernando, who’s bringing champagne for Monique. Lolita mistakes Fernando’s military costume for servant’s livery; Fernando, seizing his chance to get to know this pretty young girl, goes along with the misunderstanding. He tells her he’s “Rigoberto” (“Roberto” in the French version), the valet. Fernando/Rigoberto watches as Lolita unselfconsciously polishes off an entire chicken. He helps her carry food out to her cart, and promises to come see her with more groceries the next day.

Fernando tries all his usual pick-up lines with Lolita, but the streetwise girl sees through all of them. Fernando is horrified when he catches himself actually blurting out the truth about who he is and what he does — our first indication that he’s seriously falling for Lolita. As the two grow closer, he comes to see her when she performs at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, others in Fernando’s circle also go to this restaurant, and one of his peers catches sight of him and Lolita in mid-snog. Soon their affair is the subject of gossip all over town, and the news eventually reaches both Monique and Fernando’s mother.

The grande dame summons Lolita at once. The girl thinks she wants to hire her to entertain… but when she finds out Fernando’s true identity, she’s devastated. Fernando’s mother is amused that the girl had no idea who her son really was, but insists that this impropriety cannot be allowed to continue. Why (she chuckles), the very idea of a man in Fernando’s position being seen with a mere street singer! Lolita bristles: which of them is it, really, who has been behaving disgracefully all this time?

When Lolita confronts Fernando with his deception, Fernando assures her that whatever he meant to do at first, he has now genuinely fallen in love with her. He’ll give up his position, he says — he’ll cut the ties with his family, and he’ll break off his engagement with Monique — if only she’ll elope with him. He promises to return to her tomorrow, a free man; and Lolita, not fully believing him, shakes his hand sadly in parting.

In fact, what Fernando does next is look for the guy who betrayed him. Finding him drunk, he knocks him out and throws a glove in his face… challenging him to a duel. In the duel the next morning, Fernando deliberately fires his bullet into the trees. His “friend” does no such thing. Fernando is not killed, but is left grievously wounded. Naturally, he never shows up to run off with Lolita; and Lolita thinks he has abandoned her (which, really, he has). When an impresario from Paris hears her perform and offers to take her back to France with him, Lolita accepts.

In Paris, Lolita gets the full Pygmalion treatment from her impresario and his associate, Professor Picardi, who turn her from a coarse Spanish spitfire into a sophisticated Parisian chanteuse. She makes her début at the Club Tabarin as “Lola Miranda”, and quickly becomes a national sensation. Because of her artistry, she’s celebrated as a social equal by everybody-who’s-anybody. Back in Madrid, the convalescent Federico reads of her success. “Quickly!” he cries to his valet, “We must go to Paris…!”

And you can fill in the rest yourself.

Here’s where the fun begins: when La Reina was released in France, Eurocine’s Marius Lesoeur considered it his movie. To make this clear, he made some drastic changes to the film. First, he took most of the Spanish crew’s names out of the credits, which he also altered by removing the shots of Madrid. The French version opens with a backdrop of the Tabarin Club, advertising the performances of “Mariquita, la Belle du Tabarin”. One one hand, this alteration suggests that the important part of the film is the portion that takes place in Paris. On the other hand, the change suggests the producer never actually watched the film… since “Mariqita” is the name of a song Lolita sings at the club, not the name of the performer.

The next important change Lesoeur made was to cut out the entire first 15 minutes of the film. This meant a couple of songs were cut from the picture, but no matter: the French version even cut the references to those songs out of the music for the opening credits! Thus La Belle du Tabarin begins with Federico rather than Lolita.

This is a very big change, and one that affects the entire tone of the picture. The original Spanish version is Lolita’s story all the way through; in spite of the movie’s conventionality, this emphasis makes it thematically consistent with Franco’s later work, in which the female characters are almost always at the heart of the action. The French version has Lolita intrude unexpectedly into Fernando’s story — and considering Fernando is played by a French actor, we can perhaps see why. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a mistake. Fernando is a despicable cad at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, “happy ending” notwithstanding, he still seems like a despicable cad who doesn’t deserve a second chance (of course, the movie’s finale takes place on New Year’s Eve 1913-14; considering what the next year hold for everybody it’s not really much of a “happy ending”, in either version). His decision to provoke a duel, then deliberately lose the fight, suggests that he would rather die than be honest with the women in his life; and though Lolita’s male friends see his survival of the duel as proof of his masculinity and honor, in hindsight it looks like nothing of the sort.

Most tellingly, the French version changes the very last scene of the movie. In the Spanish original, Fernando and Lolita walk off into the breaking dawn, talking about how nice it will be to get the hell out of Paris and go back to beautiful, sunny Spain. In the background, we hear the energetic Spanish song “La luna me engañó”, from earlier in the film. Fin. But in the French version, the song has been cut out — just as it was cut from the first part of the film, along with the whole opening 15 minutes. It’s been replaced by a continuation of the sedate, romantic theater music from the scene before. The dialogue has also been removed: the lovers take their walk without saying a word to each other. There’s no mention of Spain at all.

So even as early as Jess Franco’s third film, producers were meddling with his work. Lesoeur managed to turn Franco’s movie, slight and uninteresting though it might have been, into something worse… without his knowledge or permission. Perhaps it was destiny.

Here are some other notable facts about La Reina…: To begin with, Franco gives classical music a ribbing. He presents it as stuffy and pretentious, and inferior to the “music of the streets” or even the music of the Club Tabarin. We get to see a few moments of a hilariously awful opera, shot in a broad comic style, which emphasizes all the stereotypes of Grand Opera (French opera, that is; not the Wagnerian type, which has stereotypes all its own)… The heroine cries, “No!” The villain sings back, “Yes! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The heroine cries, “No!” The villain sings back, “Yes! Ha! Ha! Ha!” And so on. It’s no wonder that Fernando and Monique walk out. Then, later on, Professor Picardi gives a soporific recital. In the French version, he introduces Beethoven’s 1808 “In Questa Tomba Oscura” by saying, “Now, my dear friends, I have the honor to present a new song…

Thinking of music, the song “Amor, amor” — which is featured prominently in Franco’s The Awful Doctor Orlof, makes its first appearance in Franco’s work here… in the scene where Fernando challenges his “friend” to a duel.

Next, there’s the case of the actress Dora Doll, who’s credited with a Special Appearance in the film. She plays another singer at the Tabarin Club, who at one point sings “La Petite Tonkinoise” (made famous by Josephine Baker and later featured in Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980)). Dora Doll had a fairly busy career in European cinema; but by the mid-eighties, she’d ended up making terrible movies for Lesoeur’s Eurocine studio with director Andrea Bianchi (Burial Ground). One of her movies for Bianchi, by most accounts her worst, was the Franco-scripted Mengele Commando (1986).

More significantly, La Reina… marked the first screen appearance of an actress who became very important to Franco’s development. Her name was Soledad Miranda, an astonishingly beautiful young woman who was one of the small army of actors and artists who hung out around Mikaela. Franco gave her a brief cameo as a French noblewoman in the audience at the club. The brief appearance helped her get her foot in the door of the industry; she continued to appear in a succession of minor roles and minor films until Franco had the opportunity to cast her as Lucy in his version of Dracula. From then on, he cast her in a succession of wild and sexy starring roles. She became his muse, his inspiration… and then she died at the height of her career, after a horrible car crash. Franco was devastated by the loss.

And finally, in spite of the generic nature of the movie, there are a handful of scenes in which Franco manages to create some real visual interest. One of these is the duel scene, for which Franco seems to have unleashed his inner Orson Welles. Part of the duel is filmed from underneath the doctor’s carriage, which at first seems like a pointlessly arty setup… until the final shot is fired; the horse starts, and the carriage shakes. Suddenly the reason for the odd framing becomes clear.

The climax of the duelling scene

The other places where Franco’s camera seems to come alive are the several club scenes. All through his career, Franco never passed up an opportunity to put a some kind of stage show in his movies. Here, at least, the idea makes sense as part of the plot. He would never again have the chance to mount something so big… so elaborate… so eye-killingly colorful. It’s obvious why Newman wanted Franco to take over from Klimovsky: what works in La Reina del Tabarín works because Franco made it work.


Kaalo (2010): In India, Sand Witch Eat You!

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

Once upon a time, between the 11th and 18th centuries, witches roamed the earth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, animists of all stripes… all good believers responded to this plague of evil by rounding up the suspected witches and putting them to death. Whether they were hanged, burnt, beheaded, etc., this constituted a perfectly reasonable response to a perfectly real and in no respect exaggerated supernatural menace. At least, that’s the story our movie gives us. So for the moment we’re going to have to put aside any reservations we might have about what the survival (or, more likely, revival) of pre-Axial Age religious practice during that period really meant, and just — y’know — go with it.

Among the worst and most powerful of these enemies of all faiths was a child-eating witch named Kaalo, who stalked the desert of Rajasthan in northern India. Eventually she was stoned to death and buried by the outraged people of Kulbhata village. But powers of darkness released her from her underground crypt, and allowed her to travel through the sandy earth as an undead fiend. The residents of Kulbhata fled, leaving their town to be reclaimed by the desert as the centuries passed. From that time on, nobody ever followed the ancient road through Kulbhata… at least nobody who lived to tell about it.

Fast-forward to the present day. A crew of workers looking to widen and modernize the long-unused road are attacked by their own power tools and killed. Next, a party of four travelers, waiting at the roadside nearby for a bus, are possessed by the evil spirit and send wandering into the arid wilderness. And then comes the bus… a bus that just happens to be named Kismat (“Destiny”)

Aboard the bus is a standard crew of horror movie victims. In addition to the driver and the conductor, there’s the wise old Pandit and his wife. There’s the newlywed couple. There’s the wannabe-Hollywood photographer Hasmukh (who insists on only speaking English), and his beautiful model. There are four young men on their way to a wedding — Raghu, the leader; Chandan, his sidekick; Guddu, who’s always stoned; and Chhotu, who’s usually the butt of his friends’ jokes. There’s Shona, a little girl on her way to her grandmother’s house (though it’s much too hot in the desert for a Riding Hood). And rounding out the list is a tight-lipped, square-jawed, two-fisted tough guy named Sameer. Sameer is headed home after being estranged from his father for years. He wants to demonstrate his worthiness to return home by building a well for his village… and to do that, he’s travelling with a load of explosives hidden in his backpack.

Now, Sameer himself resembles a load of explosives in a rumpled backpack, and when he finds little Shona is sitting in his seat he’s not exactly pleased. But Sameer is no match for the sassy little girl, who isn’t intimidated by him in the least. A grudging friendship begins to build between them, one in which it’s clear little Shona has the upper hand.

When the bus reaches the point where its four last passengers were to be picked up, all that’s waiting by the roadside are four abandoned suitcases. Though the conductor and the passengers look all around for the missing travelers, the four are nowhere to be found. Not that any of them are particularly good at searching… they all manage to overlook the fact that the road ahead has been swallowed up by an enormous sinkhole… one that appears to lead directly to hell. It’s only when Shona almost falls into the sinkhole that anybody notices it’s there.

Well, says the bus driver, that means they’re going to have to continue by the other road. The Pandit turns pale when he hears this… the other road leads through the abandoned ruins of Kulbhata. Nobody who passes through Kulbhata ever makes it to the other side! The others think this is ridiculous; but the Pandit reaches into his bag and starts building a charm from chili peppers, a lemon and a knife. As the others watch in disbelief, he hangs the charm at the front of the bus. He demonstrates with his lighter that the charm cannot be burnt… proof that the goddess Kuldevi is now protecting them. As long as the charm stays intact, evil cannot reach them inside the bus.

Neither we nor the Pandit are terribly surprised when the bus had a flat tire right in the middle of the ruins of Kulbhata.

The Pandit and his wife stay in the safety of the bus, while the others explore the ruins. The photographer Hasmukh leads his model through several inexplicable changes of wardrobe, before complaining that the area has a kind of “M. Night Shyamalan” atmosphere to it (shudder). Shona and Sameer go off to skip rocks into a puddle. Guddu rolls an enormous joint. Meanwhile, the newlyweds go off to do what you’d expect newlyweds to go off and do, and ne’er-do-well Chhotu decides to go off on his own and spy on them.

Unfortunately for Chhotu, something else is watching him. He’s grabbed by something that emerges from underground, and is dragged off screaming. The others go to look for him; Guddu, stoned out of his mind, actually sits on the lip of the hole his friend was dragged into, without realizing where he is.

They eventually find Chhotu’s broken body thrust back up out of the earth, like a particularly ugly desert shrub. Nobody knows just what to do with him: they can’t just leave him, but on the other hand they can’t bring him back on the bus. Finally they wrap Chhodu in a shawl and tie him to the roof of the bus. Guddu is particularly hard-hit by his friend’s death, but everybody’s reeling in shock: no one can explain how he got killed, or how he ended up where he did… and in that condition. The conductor muses sadly that he had no idea what he was getting into when he painted the name Kismat on the bus…

…and then he is dragged away by an enormous flying creature — something traveling so fast the others barely register it as a blur.

It’s not long after that Kaalo the witch makes her first full attack on the bus. The Pandit’s charm may keep her from entering, but that’s a mere inconvenience: it doesn’t stop her from using her enormous iron pike to break the bus’s windows and go spear-fishing through the roof. Once she catches sight of Shota, she pauses her attack to leer hungrily through one of the few remaining windows. Her long, sticky pink tongue lolls out of her mouth and runs slavering up the glass. Twice. Kaalo has found her dinner!


When the others realize Kaalo has chosen the little girl as her victim, they immediately decide to try to save themselves by tossing her out of the bus. Sameer won’t let them: he promises to kill the first person who tries. The Pandit hurriedly informs the panic-stricken passengers that it doesn’t matter: anybody Kaalo sees is marked for death. And now she’s seen them all.

There are a number of good things about Kaalo that deserve special mention. At the top of the list is the monster Kaalo herself. She’s the CG-enhanced cousin of the wonderful rubber-masked creatures from the 1980’s movies of Mohan Bhakri and Vinod Talwar. When she slobbers over the bus window, or drools heavily with the anticipation of sinking her teeth into little Shona, or when she spreads her enormous CG wings and swoops down on her victims, she’s a joy to behold.



It’s not as though she’s strikingly original. Her obvious inspiration is the creature from Jeepers Creepers, right down to her bus-bound victims; and her one claim to originality as “the first ever day horror” is also bogus, as I’m sure a little research would have turned up some other hideous sun demon somewhere in motion picture history. But she’s a good old-school monster when she’s menacing her prey in full view; and when she’s speeding through underground tunnels with the point of her pike tearing through the earth above — like an iron shark fin — she still manages to come off as a palpable menace.

The pairing of Sameer and Shona is also one of the movie’s strong points. The Tough Guy and the Smart Kid can be cloying, but Aditya Srivastava (Sameer) and Swini Khara (Shona) manage to make the cliché bearable. Part of the reason is that the very young Khara is already an experienced actress: she made her debut as a very young girl in Vikram Bhatt’s glossy action flick Elaan (2005), and has worked regularly since. Cinema is in her bones. As for Sameer, he has his own incredibly cool theme music (a variation of the movie’s one-and-only song): whenever he has a surge of adrenaline, just before he charges into battle (usually to no effect), men’s voices in close harmony start singing a song in praise of Lord Hanuman. It’s awe-inspiring, and by the third time it happens all we need is a single chord to tell us the action is about to begin.

The rest of the cast is made up of one-dimensional characters; but then again, they’re supposed to be one-dimensional characters, so I guess it’s ludicrous of us to expect much more of them. Still, there are a few well-realized moments involving the others: for example, the way Chhotu’s napping in the sun on top of the bus is mirrored later by his corpse being strapped to the roof. Even pot-addled Guddu is given a humanizing moment, as he climbs blearily up to Chhotu’s body to keep him company. But these well-handled moments are the exception. The rest of the movie is filled with nonsense like Hashmuk’s fatal search for his lost hat. Even the Pandit’s big moment — which would have felt a little over-extended if it had been limited to about 15 seconds — is stretched out to a full minute through slow-mo, flashbacks, and reaction shots, and the result verges on parody. Perhaps it is parody. There’s such a thing as poor parody.

Even granting that some of the silliness of Kaalo was intentional, there are some things about it that really don’t work. First off — and this may be a deal-breaker for some people, which I would understand completely — it seems as though a poor Uromastyx lizard gets run over by the bus during the movie. We don’t actually see the squish, but the lizard has been lined up right in the path of the oncoming vehicle. The bus looks like it’s traveling much too fast to avoid it. Admittedly, most of the movie is dominated by special effects and visual trickery, so this may be a composite that was put together in the editing room; I just don’t know.

Aside from this, the movie’s main problem is the director’s preoccupation with style — what he thinks is style, at any rate. There’s barely a frame of Kaalo that hasn’t been processed and altered: there are jump-cuts, freeze-frames, missing frames, slow-motion sequences, fast-motion sequences, colored filters, distorting lenses, split-screens… for no particular reason other than the director knows how to do these things, and is insistent on showing us all his tricks. This sort of thing is common in today’s Bollywood, but even by contemporary Indian standards these techniques are applied with a heavy hand. Sometimes the extra effects make sense, as when Guddu (still high) starts seeing himself outside his body… but more often they interfere with the story & the action.

Here’s an example of how this obsession with technique stands in the way of the storytelling: at one point early on, Raghu is walking alone along a dusty path. The camera watches him at ground-level as he walks away. Then, suddenly, the camera rises and begins to follow him shakily. Anyone who’s ever seen The Evil Dead knows what this suggests: something has risen from the earth and is following him. The POV camera (for that’s what we assume it is) speeds closer to him… then appears to be following his feet… then suddenly jumps ahead of him (!), before falling back a bit. Then we get a view of what’s been stalking him: a tumbleweed, which approaches — not from behind him — but from his right flank. Aside from the fact that tumbleweeds don’t have a POV, the use of the traveling camera tells us nothing, and means nothing, which makes it an irritating distraction.

Another example: I can certainly understand why a film-maker might want to re-use the occasional special effects shot. SFX are expensive, so why not get the most out of them? But it’s not a good idea to repeat anything that’s extremely recognizable, or you’ll throw the audience out of the moment. It’s hard to suspend your disbelief when you realize the director is cutting corners. In Kaalo, though, a certain computer-animated sequence is shown once at about 4 minutes in, and again at about 42 minutes in… and it’s the shot with the movie’s title in it. Oops! It’s not very likely we’d forget where we’d seen that before.

Another of the film’s liabilities is the deserted city of Kulbhata… the abandoned, cursed, terrifyingly lonely city of Kulbhata, from which nobody ever returns. Oh, sure, in most shots the ruin is eerie and atmospheric, a desolate pile of brick and stone under the merciless desert sun. But our first sense that Kulbhata may not be as deserted as we’ve been led to believe comes when we see the hole into which Chhotu is dragged… it’s disguised with a rubber truck tire. When Guddu comes and sits on the tire, he sees in front of him a tire swing. Who builds a tire swing in a town that’s been deserted — and haunted by a bloodthirsty witch — for over 200 years? Did the witch need some play time? She’s got enormous leathery wings, for crying out loud… I can’t see how much entertainment she’d get out of a tire swing.

Then there’s this shot:

Spooky evil warehouses?

And shortly thereafter, we see this shot:

Spooky evil wind farm?

So it seems there’s a modern settlement right across the way, and a wind farm — a wind farm! — right in the witch’s back yard. These were easy shots to avoid, so there must have been a conscious decision by someone at some point to include them. What were they thinking?

Oh, but what the hell. Once you get past Kaalo‘s irritating visual style (and a possibly flattened Uromastyx), what remains is a fun contemporary update of the classic Indian monster movie… with far fewer songs.

Morituris (2011): Don’t Even Bother Reading This Review.

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Quid hac re fieri inpudentius, quid stultius potest?

Seneca, Ep. 120: 17

The closing credits of Morituris (Latin, meaning “for those who must die”) include a dedication: “In Memory of Humanity”. OK, OK, I get it: horror films at their most serious are uniquely positioned to reveal uncomfortable truths about the way we live, and the emptiness of the values to which we pretend to adhere. They should occasionally deal with genuinely horrific images, instead of the typical monster-movie nonsense: there’s room in the genre for both Michael Hanneke and Michael Myers. But in the case of Morituris — whose credits go on to thank both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Uwe Boll — I don’t buy the moral argument. This is a thoroughly reprehensible movie that’s trying to hide behind a veneer of high-minded social commentary. I call Bullshit.

Morituris makes two strong claims in its advertising: it says it’s a return to the Old School of gory Italian horror, and it takes pride in basing its story on a genuine and bloody part of Italy’s ancient history. Of course, when you mention Old School Italian gore and archaeology in the same breath, the first thing that comes to my mind is Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground. In Burial Ground, the zombies were Etruscans — revenents from that death-haunted pre-Roman civilization. Bianchi’s film was cheap, badly scripted and shoddily produced; it even ripped off scenes from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, which had been a huge hit the year before. The highlight of the movie was man-child Peter Bark chewing off his “mother”‘s breast. Sick shit, in other words… but relatively harmless. Burial Ground is the poster child for everything that was gloriously wrong with Italian exploitation horror in the 80’s, and the fact that it’s now available in Hi-Definition on Blu-Ray fills me with a perverted sort of joy.

When I first heard of Morituris, I was actually hoping for something like a Burial Ground for the 21st century. After all, it was Bianchi’s Etruscans who invented gladiatorial combat. But Burial Ground, sleazy and grotesque though it is, is good clean fun compared to Morituris, and if Morituris is remembered as fondly in 30 years as Bianchi’s appalling little film is, I hope I’m safely dead by then.

After a brief introductory credit (about which more, later) we’re given a prologue: a family consisting of a man, a woman, their two children (a boy and a very young girl) and the kids’ uncle are going for a picnic in the woods. The scene looks like it was shot on an old Super-8 home movie camera, though it’s immediately clear that no one could possibly be filming these scenes in real life.

As the mother, father and son get settled for their picnic, the uncle — a fat, greasy fellow who couldn’t look shiftier if he had the words SEXUAL PREDATOR tattooed on his forehead — surreptitiously leads the daughter off into the woods. When he thinks the two of them are alone, he circles her, whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (because all child molesters model themselves after Peter Lorre in M… didn’t you know that? Believe it or not, Edvard Grieg actually gets a music credit for this).

Just as Uncle Creepy is reaching for his zipper, something comes up behind him.

We don’t see who or what it could be, but our relief at the interruption is short-lived: the next thing we see, after a brief cut-away of the parents wondering where the little girl has gone, is uncle and niece lying side by side in pools of their own blood. The rest of the family ends up slaughtered in the same way. All we see of the killer (or killers) is a glimpse of a brawny arm. The camera pans across some overgrown Roman ruins, until it comes to rest on an inscription carved into a stone plaque: HIC SUNT LEONES (“here are lions”).

It isn’t often that a prologue is followed by yet another prologue, but that’s what happens next: the title credits take us back an extra 2,000 years by way of partially-animated comics illustrations. It seems there were five gladiators… prisoners of the Roman colonies who were forced into the arena against their will. Rather than fight for the amusement of their captors, these gladiators broke their chains and escaped. Pledging themselves to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and patroness of gladiators, the five men immediately began raping and slaughtering the ordinary citizens of Rome… impaling children, sodomizing women, generally behaving like the barbarians the Romans considered them to be. Eventually the soldiers caught up with them under a statue of Nemesis and killed them all. The five bodies were hurled into a pit, and over them was placed the stone bearing the words HIC SUNT LEONES… which I’m guessing was intended ironically: the Romans had nothing but contempt for gladiators who violated the rules of the arena. No matter how well the five may have fought, their actions would not have earned them any respect.

Fast-forward to the present-day. Two Eastern European girls have been picked up hitch-hiking by a trio of Italian men. The girls and the boys have hit it off, and are enjoying a leisurely car trip across country to a rave the Italians say they’re going to. Though the girls don’t speak Italian very well, they feel very safe and relaxed around the men; noticeable sparks seem to be flying between two of them in particular. For about a half-hour of screen time, we might almost believe we’re watching a movie about young people having a good time…

… except for the fact that we already know what the men are planning. The whole situation is being stage-managed via cellphone by a man known as “Jacques” back in Rome. Jacques and his acolytes consider themselves the heirs to the decadent Roman nobles. Being young and strong, and coming from wealthy and powerful families, they think the world exists for their amusement. And nothing amuses them more than to abduct, torture and kill young women.

Since we know this, the innocent banter in the car makes us profoundly uncomfortable. The slow pace of the car ride grates on our nerves, as we wait for the inevitable. We cringe as we see one of the girls growing ever more interested in the young mam sitting next to her.

When we get to the site of the supposed rave — which, of course, doesn’t exist and never did — we can only marvel and the smoothness of the boys’ plans. They manage a clever ruse that gets them possession of the girls’ only cell phone. Then they manage to get them drunk, and high… and separated just far enough from each other that neither realizes what’s happening until it’s too late.

And then the brutality starts.

What follows is very difficult to watch. Remember the girl who was flirting so sweetly with the boy beside her? After a tender moment, the young man bludgeons her to the ground, irrumates her, and then kicks her until she vomits up his semen. The other girl is held down and raped with a pair of scissors. And that’s just the beginning. I will say this for the film: what is shown in very convincing and ghastly, and what is not shown is even worse. The two actresses in particular are very good at conveying their agony, not only during the attack but for the remainder of the film. How they managed to maintain this intensity without damaging their psyches, I don’t know (the men are utterly believable, too; but somehow I think they had a much easier time of it).

Now, me? I do not find sexual violence entertaining. Even so, I might have kept the tiniest amount of respect for the film as a misguided and failed experiment — provided it had stayed with the course it had plotted for itself through scenes like this, and followed through with them. It doesn’t. Because just at the moment when the girls manage to effect a miraculous escape from certain death, the movie remembers it’s supposed to be a flick about undead gladiators.

From this point on, Morituris becomes a typical stalk-and-slash.

The gladiators themselves (once they show up) aren’t terribly interesting. There’s a Thraex — a “Thracian”, armed in the style of one of Rome’s many enemies (early on in the history of gladiatorial combat, these fighters probably were Thracian prisoners of war); a Murmillo, also known as a “Gaul”, traditional ring-rival of the Thraex; a Retiarius, who fought mostly without armor using a spear and a net; a Secutor, a heavily-armored sword-fighter; and, umm… umm… a fat guy with a hammer whose type I’ve never heard of. They’re imposing enough, I suppose: they’re played by very large actors, and their skin and armor are all painted a dead, dusty grey that blends them in eerily with the darkness of the forest. But it’s obvious that they’re just guys in makeup. Even the crappily-applied, wildly uneven makeup of Burial Ground was more ambitious than this. OK, sure, they have spooky teeth… but is that enough for walking corpses who’ve been dead for two centuries? When we finally get a look under their helmets, and we see that they’re just normal men, the effect is dispiriting.

But at least the gladiators are given their own listings in the credits. They may only be types, but their types are duly noted. That’s more than can be said of the living characters. Both the rapists and their victims are mixed up and credited as Moriturus 1 through Moriturus 5… as though there were no need to differentiate between them, or to dignify the women with names (and maybe it’s just my lousy Latin, but… masculine nouns for the women? Really?).

Effects master Sergio Stivaletti does a much better job with realistic bodily damage than with the makeup for his gladiators. But in spite of the cringe-inducing gore effects, the last part of the film is a tremendous disappointment. The gladiators fall into the usual Supernatural Menace clichés: they teleport; they get distracted at odd moments, just to pad out the chase… after the horrific scenes we’ve just witnessed, this empty-headed slasher film conclusion is completely unacceptable. And that’s particularly galling, considering Morituris was marketed as a movie about undead gladiators.

The opening credits of Morituris — as opposed to the title credits; this is a film with a lot of credits — begin with a quotation from the Roman philosopher Seneca, from his Moral Letters to Lucilius:

Nihil satis est morituris, immo morientibus; cotidie enim propius ab ultimo stamus, et illo unde nobiscadendum est hora nos omnis inpellit.

Seneca, Ep. 120: 17

That is, loosely translated: “Nothing is enough for those who know they must die — indeed, who are dying even now; every day we stand closer to the edge, and our every hour urges us on to our downfall.” It’s certainly possible to see how this quote, taken out of context, might apply to a horror movie in which the bloodthirsty living come up against the bloodthirsty dead. But it seems as though the makers of Morituris failed to read the rest of the epistle, because the real meaning of Seneca’s words comes as a stinging indictment of the movie they actually made.

In his very opening sentences, Seneca gets to his point: “…nihil nobis videri bonum quo quis et male uti potest” (we can regard nothing as “good” which can be put to bad use); then, later, he says, “Maximum indicium est malae mentis fluctuatio et inter simulationem virtutum amoremque vitiorum adsidua iactatio.” (the strongest indication of an evil mind is the fluctuation and conflict between feigned virtue and a love of vice). That’s really what we have here: a movie that tries to disguise its delight over sexual brutality with a moralistic wag of the finger.

I have the same sort of problem with Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, to which Morituris is heavily indebted. As repellent as I find Last House…‘s middle section — the humiliation, rape and murder of the two girls — I would understand it, and even admire it for its unflinching view of real horror — if I thought that the last section of the movie fit what came before. Instead, I’ve always felt that the end of the movie was scripted and shot without a true understanding of how powerful that middle section was. Some of it rings solid and true — for example, the father’s growing realization that he must become a murderer, and the inept first steps he takes to assuming that role. But (for example) the fellatio-castration scene, grotesque and memorable though it might be, seems jarringly out-of-place to me. In particular, the final freeze-frame and closing-credits song seem to suggest the movie still has a grudging, thoroughly-misplaced respect for Krug, the rapist/murderer, as a free-spirited anti-hero.

Yet I’m willing to concede that Last House on the Left is mostly successful, and still defensible. I have no such feeling about Morituris. There was no need for yet another quasi-remake Last House… There was certainly no need to use it as a template for a pseudo-zombie flick, especially one that skimps on the “zombie” part.

“In Memory Of Humanity”? The film-makers are invited to re-examine their own. To put it in terms our undead gladiators might understand: Thumbs down.

The Creature from the Blah Lagoon

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

First, let me warn you: this movie shows us 36 hours in the life (and death) of a family on vacation… ice fishing.

The point of ice fishing is not necessarily to catch fish. In fact, it’s hard to describe ice fishing as a goal-oriented activity… to call it an “activity” at all is a bit of an exaggeration. When you ice fish, you reduce the world around you to a Zen-like minimum: the cold limits your sense of touch; there’s really nothing to see but a featureless expanse of ice, with occasional driftlets of snow appearing and dispersing around you; your ears become attuned to soft, small sounds, but loud distractions are few. Your entire existence is reduced to life’s essentials: yourself… a few carefully-selected friends and family members… beer… and, almost as an afterthought, a hole in the ice, through which fish eventually may or may not be pulled.

So prepare yourself. If you approach a movie that revolves around ice fishing expecting non-stop slam-bang action, you’re going to be disappointed. You’d be better off going in expecting nothing to happen at all.


There are a few good things about Hypothermia, and they’re few enough that we can get them out of the way immediately.

First of all there’s its brevity: the movie’s about 70 minutes long. As the old-time movie makers knew, 70 minutes is an ideal length for a cheap horror picture… it’s not long enough to overstay its welcome. Of course, bear in mind that a lot of Hypothermia consists of lingering shots of snow blowing across ice, or lonely birds taking off on the horizon; so unless you’re a Tarkovsky fan, you may still find those 70 minutes interminable.

Next, Hyperthermia is far more focused on the people in its story than on the monster, or on the ways the monster tears its victims to bits. This too, though, is a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s generally a good thing when a horror movie emphasizes character over mayhem, but when the characters are limned in broad crayon strokes, well… frankly, you start wishing for some gore. The six people that make up the human cast of the movie have the outlines of interesting characters. But the details are lacking, and it’s really only the skill of the actors themselves that lets us keep our interest in them.

Best of the bunch, unsurprisingly, is Michael Rooker. What might be surprising is that the actor so memorable for his terrifying performances in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Walking Dead here plays a warm, compassionate, even-tempered family man. He does it so effortlessly that it’s almost possible to forget how effortlessly he’s played all those murderous psychotics. Almost.

Moving on to the movie’s problems… oy, does it have some problems.

Let’s start with the title. Nobody in the movie really ends up with hypothermia. This is in spite of the fact that four people over the course of the film take a plunge into the icy waters of a frozen lake… three of them at night. All of them bob right back up again, through the tiny hole in the ice down which they fell. None of them die instantly of shock, and none of them are much the worse for wear after a hot shower… monster bites are a bit of a different story, but nobody seems much put-out by their dunkings.

Rooker’s character is the first to go into the water, and his is the most harrowing and significant experience. He falls through the ice just as the sun is speeding into its descent: it’s still twilight when he falls through, but by the time he’s managed to crawl back out of the ice a few moments later, it’s already full dark. His limbs numb, his strength already exhausted, he’s barely able to hoist himself out of the water… but one he’s done it, and is lying helpless and freezing on the ice, nobody can see him in the darkness. It’s pure luck that his son, searching with a flashlight, is able to find him in time to prevent him dying of exposure, since nobody was around when he fell in.

The tension in the scene is undercut a little by the knowledge that the movie can’t afford to kill Rooker that early. If his character dies within the first ten minutes of the movie, most of the production’s star power is spent and wasted. Still, even though we know Rooker’s character (the Walking Dad?) is going to be rescued, it’s a little unsettling to see him bounce back quite as quickly and easily as he seems to. And it’s even more unsettling to see three other people plunge in and out of the ice as the story wears on, considering that the entire rest of the movie takes place out on the frozen lake… with only a small heated trailer as shelter. Sure, Rooker’s son’s girlfriend is a med student, but even so — there are limits to what you can do on the spur of the moment when somebody’s battling hypothermia and lacerations from monster fangs.

Next problem? It’s those characters again, damn it. We get just enough of a glimpse at the son to make us wonder if he’s a genuinely idealistic young man, or an insufferable poseur. We learn just enough about him and his girlfriend to realize that either he or she will have to die tragically before the end of the movie — the setup is just too on-the-nose for things to go otherwise.

But then, we’re introduced the movie’s prime motivator: the odious Steve Cote (played by Don Wood, a regular in James Felix McKenney’s off-beat horror movies). Cote (pronounced “Cody”) is that stock figure from the 70’s ecological horror films: the evil big city businessman, who’s brought the attitude of the boardroom out into the wild with him. He doesn’t just want to ice fish… he wants to catch every fucking fish in the whole motherfucking lake, goddamn it all to fuck; and if he has to lob a few sticks of dynamite down the fishing hole to blow himself as well as all the fish to fuckin’ kingdom come, then damn it, that’s the way it’s gonna BE, motherfucker! Also: fuck, fuck and again fuck. Cote appears out of nowhere with his son, naturally blasting Heavy Metal music across the lake at top volume. He’s got a big yellow trailer with state-of-the-art fish finding technology, a pair of snowmobiles, and an attitude the size of all New Jersey (which is funny, because he’s from Maine).

Cote is a Monster Movie stereotype — the kind of hyper-aggressive Type A Personality who goes ice fishing with firearms, and who refuses to take his injured son to the hospital after he’s dragged under the ice by a fish monster. He’s a real-estate developer, too, which means he’s made disrespect of the environment part of his whole career… not just his relaxation. He’s the heir of Leslie Nielsen in Day of the Animals, or Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants, and efforts to give him a little touch of humanity toward the end of his time on-screen really don’t amount to much.

But, see… we need him: it’s Cote’s high-power equipment that draws the fish monster out of the lake with its vibrations. Technically, all the carnage turns out to be his fault. Sure, the beast had already eaten all the fish in the lake — being an underwater biped, it was naturally better equipped for survival and predation than any mere fish. So the monster probably would have emerged at some point, anyway. But it’s made clear that it’s the combination of vibrations from Cote’s machinery, and the sheer, overwhelming odor of good ol’ mammalian testosterone that results from any encounter with Cote, that drive the creature to look for human prey.

And that brings us to my final point, for better or for worse… the movie’s high or low point, depending on your point of view: the Monster.

Writer/director James McKenney, a protégé of the legendary independent film-maker Larry Fessenden, has made a handful of idiosyncratic genre films, including CanniBallistic, The Off Season and the weird 50’s sci-fi homage Automatons. The influence of old-school low-budget horror is everywhere in his movies. The goofy tin-can robots of Automatons were clearly designed to be tongue-in-cheek throwbacks to movies like Target Earth or Gog… but what are we to make of the creature in Hypothermia? It’s a guy in a modified wetsuit, with a mask on top. It’s the spiritual kin of the Moon Beast… or Rana, the Legend of Shadow Lake (though unlike Rana, alas, it doesn’t regurgitate frogs). Like those two 70’s monsters, it looks halfway decent in stills; but when you see it in motion, it’s oh-so-clearly just a stuntman in a wetsuit.

(Did I mention the critter has wings? It has wings. Well, webbing, at any rate; webbing between its torso and its arms, like a flying squirrel.)

The monster sees everything in a curious yellow-red blur. In fact, the opening moments of the movie are shots under the ice, seen from the creature’s point of view — though it’s not immediately apparent that that’s what the effect is supposed to represent; I thought at first we were seeing everything through a glass of beer. I guess that makes the monster one of the few animals in nature equipped with a permanent set of beer goggles. That’s kind-of unfortunate, since Hypothermia features quite a bit of Product Placement for Geary’s, a fine Maine brewery (to make the connection even more unfortunate, it’s the awful Cote who brings the various packs of Geary’s products, even though his actions mark him as a “Schlitz Lite Ice” type of guy). Later, when I realized what the yellowish tint was supposed to suggest, I started thinking of the effect as “Serrano-vision”, after the artist who became (in)famous for photographing sacred objects immersed in his own urine. None of this helps me suspend my disbelief over the creature. I don’t imagine it’s given Geary’s much of a boost, either.

Serrano-vision also apparently gives the beast the astounding ability to remember scenes it wasn’t a witness to. The monster also understands English, I guess, because our survivors’ last-ditch effort to keep it from killing them involves asking it not to. It’s tempting to look at this all as a parody, but the movie as a whole is played so straight-faced that doing so is virtually impossible.

If you like terrible old-school monster suits, and think there’s a place for them in today’s horror cinema, then chances are you’ll have a soft spot for Hypothermia. Now, me? I do like unconvincing monster suits. I also like movies that are slowly-paced and atmospheric, so I’m an ideal target for this kind of film-making. And I, the ideal target, thought it was… well… okay. Just okay. Unfortunately, the flick left me lukewarm; and that’s probably not a good thing for a movie called “Hypothermia”.

I’m tempted to point out that in Really Bad Hypothermia, the patient stops shivering and becomes apathetic. But maybe that’s a little too harsh. I’ll probably be watching the movie again, in part to enjoy Michael Rooker in a sympathetic role… but mostly as an excuse to sit down & enjoy some beer from Maine. I don’t seem to have any Geary’s on hand at the moment, but I recently stocked up on some excellent stuff from Atlantic and Bar Harbor breweries. Maybe if I drink until I, too, have Serrano-vision, I’ll be able to enjoy the bug-eyed monster a little bit more.

The Dong Show: Libidomania (1979)

Monday, November 12th, 2012

A quotation at the end of Libidomania, ostensibly from an ancient Chinese philosopher, claims that sex unites us with the mysteries of the cosmos. You’d never guess this was true from the preceding 80 minutes. This 1979 Bruno Mattei pseudo-documentary is supposed to be about “sexual aberration” and the endless variety of human perversion. Instead, it’s a series of tacky vignettes that make the deviant imagination seem very, very limited.

Like most “documentaries” of this kind, Libidomania pretends to be serious. It shows us scenes of lewd behavior, while insisting they’re informative rather than titillating… like the illustrations in a medical textbook. That’s an age-old dodge, but you have to give Mattei his due: the illustrations certainly aren’t titillating.

The movie consists of a series of interviews with some dubious “psychologists”, followed by little vignettes showing us dubious psychology, dubious history and extremely dubious anthropology. Some of these vignettes — probably fewer than I realize — were shot specifically for this movie, and most of them are mercifully short. None of them allow for much skill in film-making, and none of them show any. Frequently they consist of little more than glimpses of the perversions being illustrated, with a voice-over telling us what we should be seeing. This is particularly true of the section introducing body fetishes, which goes by at lightning speed and gives us only hints of what’s going on in each tableau (lights up! A guy in a diaper sucks at the breast of a girl in peasant garb! Lights back down again! NEXT!). The music that accompanies these brief scenes often seems inappropriate, especially the twangy Jew’s-harp in the background of a scene about a man who’s turned on by running sores.

Of course, some of the sequences are appalling at any length… particularly three in a row that deal with bodily functions. The first skit, about urine — in which a woman squatting on a man’s chest apparently pees into a glass, which the man then drinks from and empties onto himself — is neither sexy nor shocking, and in fact brings only one word to mind: proteinuria. Urine should not fizz… and it certainly shouldn’t develop a foamy head. What’s more, whatever that liquid is, it appears to come out of the girl so rapidly and in such quantity that she starts to resemble a Human Keg.

Admittedly, given the choice between certain beers and urine, I’d be hard-pressed to even tell the difference, let alone choose between them. But the urine scene is just risible. It’s the next two scat sequences that go over the line.

The setup of the coprophilia scene is almost the same as that of the Golden Showers bit, but the, er… substance involved is much more convincing. Even though the whole thing goes by in a matter of seconds, and perhaps because it goes by so quickly that we can’t gauge for ourselves how fake it is, it’s enough to leave the viewer thoroughly nauseated.

That brings us to the sequence involving réniflage, sexual arousal from inhaling the odor of somebody else’s excrement… a sequence that unites the absurdity of the piss vignette with the sheer discomfort of the poop scene. It starts as though it’s just a bit of harmless voyeurism: a weedy old man pretends to wash his hands in a public toilet as a woman goes into a stall to relieve herself. As soon as she’s shut the door, the old man hastily runs to the door and peers through the keyhole. So far, nothing outlandish. But then the woman leaves the stall — and the old man, delirious with ecstasy, runs into the toilet… the woman has forgotten to flush! In typical Bruno style, the scene goes straight to hell: the man plunges both hands into the doughy, tan substance in the bowl, pulling it apart as he raises it to his nose. Ahh! The sweet smell of Mattei! It doesn’t matter that the stuff he fondles doesn’t look like real shit (or at any rate, if it is her shit, that woman needs to see a doctor post haste); the idea is more than enough to disgust.

That should give you some idea about the scenes shot specifically for this movie. But those who know Bruno from his later films, like Hell of the Living Dead or Cruel Jaws, will not be surprised that a large chunk of Libidomania is made up of footage from other people’s movies. For instance, one of the examples whose source I’ve been able to verify is the footage that (for some reason) accompanies a lecture on aphrodisiacs: it’s a hallucinatory “beauty and the beast” sequence that’s been desaturated, tinted sepia, and transplanted from a German sex film called The Devil in Miss Jonas (thanks, IMDb!). There are plenty of other scenes, particularly those illustrating Satanism and sexual magic, that have clearly been robbed from feature films. But what might surprise the seasoned Mattei veteran is how much of the rest of the stolen footage in Libidomania is familiar: specifically, the parts of the movie that deal with that dubious anthropology I mentioned.

Most of the infamous New Guinea footage that popped up in Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead — including the doctored shots of a woman appearing to eat maggots out of a human skull — also show up here. As offensive and condescending as those inserts were in a zombie movie, in this context they actually seem worse. For Libidomania uses the New Guinea footage to pad out scenes supposedly taking place not just in New Guinea, but in the old Guinea, in West Africa, as well as in two different parts of Central Africa. The documentary footage is then supplemented by newly-shot scenes featuring black extras (wearing the same or similar costumes in each scene), supposedly enacting some “native” sex ritual. New Guinea, Old Guinea, Cameroon… it’s all the same thing, right? Apparently all dark-skinned people, including extras in Cinecittà, are thoroughly interchangeable.

Now, if you’re hoping for any penetration scenes in this sexploitation movie (well, human penetration scenes, anyway…), then the closest you’re going to get is some of that stolen documentary footage: in one scene, a New Guinean man assaults his own nostrils with a wad of reeds in order to get some of his blood to flow. The excuse given for including this scene is that the man is supposedly purifying himself for a fertility ritual that we never see (in fact, the movie goes from the man’s bleeding nostrils to a very bizarre lecture on fetal sexuality, of all things). Like the bulk of the rest of the stolen documentary footage — especially the maggot-eating paste-up, but also including the scenes of mourners smearing themselves with mud and effluvium from an actual corpse — the connection to anything sexual is remote at best, and the movie’s attempts to establish a connection to Western sexual practice is laughable. Gee — on the one side, we have New Guinea religious ritual, and on the other side… a middle-aged man who likes to expose himself to young girls. It’s all the same thing, right?


All this would be unpleasant enough, but there’s more: the movie is a hopeless jumble. There’s no sense of progression from one set of sexual shenanigans to another. Just as nasal self-abuse passes into a discussion of embryonic sexual development, so too does the discussion of body-part fetishism turn unexpectedly into brief moments of BDSM and necrophilia. Sex murder comes up unexpectedly only about 45 minutes into the movie; and having touched on it ever-so-briefly, the movie passes on to a look at… aphrodisiacs! A rather tame bit on necrophilia is followed immediately by a look at bestiality. Now, I’m no fan of bestiality — I don’t think that civilized human beings should participate in any behavior they can’t spell — but I don’t see how you can use it to follow up corpse-fucking without a real sense of (pardon the expression) anticlimax.

And while we’re on the subject of Sodomy, I should point out that (this being a movie of the Seventies) male homosexuality is included in the list of sexual deviations… but it’s crowded in at the very last minute, and it is not given an accompanying vignette. Bruno knows his audience. But for all Libidomania‘s reticence on gay sex, you’ve probably never see so many various dongs on display in a movie presumably aimed at heterosexual men. There are real ones, and there are prosthetic ones — ranging from French dildos designed to ejaculate, to well-endowed statues and paintings, to the plasticine penis dangling from the nethers of the “transsexual” who has “accepted her condition” (NB: most transsexuals are happy with their altered condition; it’s the “trans” part of being a transsexual. What the movie seems to mean is “hermaphrodite”). Most of these are human wangs, but there’s a horsey one, too, in the movie’s most explicit scene (don’t worry: both participants are horses). There are even two schlongs that get cut off in the course of the film: one is reduced to pulp in a bloody but simulated sex-change operation, and the other — a familiar-looking plasticine pecker — is chopped off an “African” adulterer in one of the scenes illustrating “primitive” behavior. Wall-to-wall weenies, that’s Libidomania.

Mattei made two other “sexy” pseudo-documentaries like this one: Le Notti porno nel mondo (a.k.a. Mondo Erotico, 1977) and Emanuelle e le porno notti nel mondo no. 2 (1978). Both starred Laura Gemser, “Black Emanuelle” (“black” here meaning “dark brunette”), as narrator, who at least gave the audience something beautiful to look at in between tawdry strip-show sequences.

The first of the films is a fairly tame affair. It starts off with a tacky stage act, in which a woman dressed as an explorer (complete with pith helmet) is attacked by a guy in a terrible gorilla suit. Later, it shows us a magician who first makes his assistant’s clothes disappear — she was wearing so little that this is hardly a feat — and then makes her grow a penis (you know, if you rearrange the letters of “grow a penis”, you come up with “Spiro Agnew”, so there may be a political aspect to this scene I overlooked). The audience goes wild. The movie also shows us Dutch mothers who rent their underaged daughters out to dirty old businessmen. Gemser’s narration seems less upset at the exploitation of the girls than at the unattractiveness of the men. We’re also taken off to exotic Hong Kong for a look at a club that caters to (gasp!) lesbians! That’s right: Bruno’s idea of shocking Asia is a lesbian strip club. Le notti porno also claims to show us forbidden footage from the Arab world… where apparently they have multi-armed gods, Hindu dancers and sitars.

The second film gives us ever-so-slightly raunchier stuff. It starts with a vignette about sex and devil worship, probably taken from a feature film (though as familiar as it seems, I can’t place it: it’s got a sexy seance interrupted by a burly Xiro Pappas look-alike with a painted face, who takes the participants down to the cellars for some Satanic rituals. Mattei may have shot this [in which case it’s surprisingly competent compared to the rest of the movie], but it seems too elaborate to have been intended only for a vignette). That’s followed by a brief look at a sex carnival; and then comes a surprisingly innocent nudie-cutie episode featuring Armand, the Sex Magician. Armand big trick is making his audience’s clothes disappear. His act is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a naked dwarf with an enormous prosthetic erection… he chases the dwarf away with a flying dildo.

Other segments include:

  • …a stripper whose Lady Godiva act involves much more than just riding her horse;
  • …a sequence about (gasp!) lesbians co-hosted by Ajita Wilson;
  • …a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of a porn film (and no, the guy playing the director is not Bruno Mattei). One scene of this movie-within-the-movie has the director berating his male actor for flopping around “like a dead eel” — all together now, that’s a moray! — while on a similar note, a later scene involves a girl and her very close relationship with a snake;
  • …a (simulated, but graphic & bloody) Japanese penis transplant operation;
  • …a version of Snow White that Disney would rather you didn’t see. The scene is three dwarves short of a full set — and so, I think, was Bruno for including it;

…and, of course, some drearily familiar footage from New Guinea, including the notorious scenes of stone-age style piglet slaughter. I’d explain how that last bit relates to sex, but I’m too busy vomiting.

The only truly interesting thing about these Mondo movies of Bruno’s is how they relate to his later work. In the Laura Gemser movies, Mattei did for the first time what he would do regularly throughout his career: that is, make two very similar films either simultaneously or back-to-back. In making the Mondos, he’s also relied rather heavily on footage from other movies… not an uncommon thing for a pulled-together Mondo flick to do, but also another hallmark of Mattei’s later style.

And as we’ve seen, by the time we get to Libidomania, it’s not just the technique of scavenging things from other films that will seem familiar to us. It’s the actual footage itself.

Libidomania is Janus-faced in this respect. Looking backward, it recycles a lot of footage from the earlier two Mondo films; but Mattei takes the material presented fairly straightforwardly in the originals — the Dutch sex school in the first movie, for instance, and the penis operation, the New Guinea stock footage and the concluding nudist athletic event from the second — cuts it up, and then shoehorns it into a new movie without regard for continuity or context. Even if it made sense the first time… once Bruno’s finished with it, it will have lost most of its meaning. And if that doesn’t sum up a large part of Mattei’s film-making over the years, what does?

And this brings us back to Libidomania‘s forward-looking face — which has a bone through its nose. Liz Kingsley (brave, brave woman) has identified the sources for the New Guinea material that’s used in Notti No. 2 and Libidomania, and that recurs (and recurs, and recurs) in Hell of the Living Dead. Good for her: now I know which other films to avoid. Funny thing, though: there are bits of Libidomania that seem awfully familiar, even though they are not literally repeated in Mattei’s later movies. For instance, the explicit horse-fucking scene may not be the exact same one used in 1980’s The True Story of the Nun of Monza — in fact, the one in Libidomania is slightly less graphic — but it’s close enough.

Aside from its historical interest as a glimpse into Bruno Mattei’s development as a film-maker, there’s not much to interest a modern viewer in Libidomania — or, really, in any of the three Mattei Mondos. Their subject matter is practically quaint by comparison to what we’re used to in either popular entertainment (or porn) these days; and their approach to that subject matter is extremely uninteresting and uninvolving.

You’d think movies about the spectrum of human sexuality would have some kind of narrative flow… you know, a thrust… a gradual build over a series of smaller peaks to one solid climax, followed by a brief, quiet coda that allows us to gather our thoughts and put it all in perspective; almost like… like… well, I’m sure a simile will occur to me eventually. But that’s not the way Mondo movies in general, and Libidomania in particular, seem to be constructed.

Rather than give a structured, meaningful glimpse into the variety of sexual practices, Libidomania seems to suggest that most kinds of sex are brief, furtive, embarrassing and badly-lit — which, come to think of it, is probably how most of the movie’s target audience knew it. Bruno managed to promise his weary wankers a lusty escape from the dreariness they knew, only to give them back that same dreariness on a world-wide scope. Congratulations, Bruno! What a perfect way to embark on a thirty-year career of disappointment and frustration!


Something in my Head

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

A news story in April 2012 got me thinking about this warped piece of sci-fi from 1968.

Sure, the Japanese version makes some claims to subtext, which might explain why everybody in the movie is an idiot; but give me the American version any day, with its funky theme music…


Old Podcast #2: The Grim Reaper (2007)

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Death, be not proud…