Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

Jess Franco: 1965

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Miss Muerte, also known as The Diabolical Dr. Z, is often referred to by Franco’s fans and detractors alike as his best horror film — maybe his best movie of all. Enough has been said about it that I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief in discussing it.

The movie begins with a jailbreak, one of the oddest in film history. The “jail” looks more like a dungeon or old mine, and it’s hard to imagine one prisoner being locked away in it. Still less can we imagine that one prisoner getting out of it… but get out of it he does. Miles away, where the mad Dr. Zimmer is carrying out some equally odd experiments, the laboratory phone rings: Dr. Zimmer’s daughter Irma answers, and discovers it’s someone named Bresson who’s called to tell them “un condamné à mort s’est échapé” — a condemned man has escaped. Who’s Bresson? A cipher; a reference to the director Robert Bresson and his 1956 film. Franco and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Carrière (a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel), have thrown him in like a Family Guy cutaway.

By strange coincidence, the escaped killer winds up on Dr. Zimmer’s doorstep. Zimmer sees his arrival as a perfect chance to experiment on a human test subject: nobody knows he’s there, and nobody will miss him if — when — things go horribly wrong. Mind you, in this case there’s not much difference between the experiment succeeding or failing; the result is going to be pretty drastic for our poor escaped convict one way or the other. For Dr. Zimmer is a student of the legendary Dr. Orloff. His area of study is human behavior, and he has a pet theory that what we refer to as “good” and “evil” are purely physiological responses that can be modified by a little creative surgery. He’s already done plenty of tests on animals, changing wild creatures into docile pets, and turning pets into ferocious killers. Now, at last, he has a chance to use his sinister Mad Science Device on a human being! He will turn this “evil” criminal into a “good” — that is, useful and subservient — member of society.

It’s obvious that Dr. Zimmer has some conceptual problems with the ideas of “good” and “evil”. He’s especially confused in the way he equates moral behavior in human beings with the perfectly reasonable behavior of wild animals. When he goes to present his “findings” to the big Scientific Conference headed by Dr. Vicas (Howard Vernon), he’s quite properly laughed at. Facing both ridicule and censure by Vicas and his associates, Drs. Moroni and Kallman, the frail, wheelchair-bound Zimmer goes into a rage that results in a sudden, fatal heart attack.

Irma Zimmer, a scientist in her own right (and just as crazy as Dad), swears revenge on the men who drove her father to his death. When the late Dr. Z’s faithful assistant refuses to continue his unethical experiments without him, Irma throws the woman into the clutches of the Morpho Machine and turns her into yet another obedient robot. Then she decides to fake her own death, so she can continue her plans for revenge in secret. To this end, she murders a hitch-hiker who resembles her. Unfortunately, in disposing of the body, Irma gets caught in the fire and is horribly disfigured.

Now, “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco” describes Miss Muerte as one of Franco’s grimmest films, and I suppose it is — if you take it at face value. I can’t possibly take it at face value. From the opening, pointless “Bresson” joke, to the moment when old Dr. Zimmer, disciple of Dr. Orloff, is confronted by the mad scientists from two previous Franco “Orloff” films — Howard Vernon as Dr. Vicas, and Marcelo Arroita-Jaureguí as Dr. Moroni — it’s clear that Franco’s tongue is in his cheek.

By now, we expect recurring character names in Franco’s films, so we can hardly be surprised by the presence here of a Moroni and a Kallman. But we might be surprised by everything else… particularly the way Franco seems to subvert even his own previous movies as the story goes on. For example, the original one-“F” Dr. Orlof had been driven by the desire to restore the scarred face of his daughter Melissa. In this film, the mad doctor exits before the movie’s really begun… so the disfigured daughter gets to perform the face-restoring operation on herself!

The method of Irma Zimmer’s revenge is also bizarre, even by the standards of a Jess Franco movie. She abducts a night club performer named Nadia (the lovely Estella Blain), whose act has her impersonating a scantily-clad angel of death, and throws her into the Morpholator. Once Nadia has been zombified, Irma outfits her with curare-laced artificial fingernails and sends her out to kill her enemies.

The Diabolical Dr. Z

But Irma’s plans are undercut by some unusual developments. First, there’s the little matter of Nadia’s boyfriend. The lovers had planned to run off to Paris for a vacation, just at the time Irma abducted Nadia. To throw off suspicion, Irma plants a note for the boyfriend, in which Nadia says she’s been called away unexpectedly to a modeling job. In Paris. To make matters worse for Irma, it turns out that Nadia’s boyfriend is an old colleague of Irma’s and her father’s, who’s quick to pick up the clues and associate the supposedly-dead Irma with Nadia’s disappearance.

Next, there’s the really, really obvious fact that the theories of Orloff and the Doctors Zimmer are completely bogus. The Morpholator may have a certain effect on people whose moral sense has already been compromised — such as an escaped murderer, or a mad scientist’s assistant — but when it comes to controlling an innocent victim, it is far less effective. Though Zombie Nadia starts carrying out her assassinations, her conscience gradually begins to awaken and rebel. At one point, as though to underscore the inadequacy of Zimmer père‘s animal experiments, Nadia turns feral and attacks her captors; Irma must fend her off with a whip and a chair, in the manner of a cartoon lion tamer.

But the biggest threat to Nadia’s grand scheme — and the one thing I love most about this movie — is that once Dr. Vicas has been killed, Dr. Moroni and Dr. Kallman immediately realize they are in danger, and refuse to fall into Irma’s traps. Moroni simply panics and runs away, allowing Irma to catch up with him and dispatch him. But Kallman not only expects some sort of crazy mad-scientist scheme… he even has a Plan B in place to respond to it.

Of course, Irma expects that, too, and has her own Plan C…

In the meantime, Nadia’s boyfriend, Dr. Phillipe Whitehouse, has begin to suspect that her abduction and the deaths of the scientist are all related. Also on Irma’s trail is Police Inspector Tanner — yes, Tanner; not only is this the name of the bumbling detective in the original Awful Dr. Orlof, in this case he’s played by Jess Franco himself. This version of Inspector Tanner isn’t quite as boneheaded as the version played by Conrado San Martín four years earlier. However, Tanner’s faculties have been dulled by two additional responsibilities: first, he’s just become the father of triplets, which keep him awake all night; and second, he has to play host to a visiting detective from Scotland Yard, one Inspector Green (played by composer Daniel White).

How can I take any of this seriously? How can I not laugh when the victims thwart the villain’s elaborate schemes with good old-fashioned common sense? How can I let all the twisted references to Franco’s other films, let alone the conventions of everybody else’s horror films, go by without a whistle of appreciation? How can I not giggle over a guy named White playing a guy named Green?

Well… actually, I do take it fairly seriously. I just don’t take it at face value. In fact, there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on in the movie that tempers the underlying humor. Take the design of the Zimmer Machine, for example. Its minimalist design makes it look exactly like we’d expect a home-made Morpholator to look — it’s a very menacing creation. Nadia’s struggle to regain her humanity is certainly anything but funny — and on that subject, the ambiguity of the movie’s very last image is haunting. Irma’s scene with the hitch-hiker works pretty well, too: it veers uneasily between seduction and murder. Irma’s subsequent fire injury, though, is just another movie reference (like the Bresson gag from the opening), and contributes relatively little.

The Diabolical Dr. Z

From his very first film, and all through his career, Franco made it very clear that his female characters were always central to the action. Often it would be a pair of strong women who took the lead in whatever passed for a plot in these films, as we’ve already seen in Tenemos 18 Años and Labios Rojos, and as we’ll soon see again in films like El Caso de los Dos Bellezas and Besame, Monstruo. In Miss Muerte we see the negative version of this partnership, as the story is driven forward by Irma Zimmer and her unwilling partner in crime.

Nadia may emerge as the tragic focal point of the story, but for most of the film’s duration it’s Irma’s story. Franco would return several times to the Cornell Woolrich-inspired theme of the woman who takes revenge on the men who robbed her of her man; but in this, his first variation on “The Bride Wore Black”, the story has been strapped into the Machine and given the Orloff Treatment. The Orloff saga so far has been dominated by the idea of the Bad Father; in El Secreto de Dr. Orloff, the focus had shifted from the corrupted father (and uncle, as well) to the innocent daughter… and in this film we’re given a further twist, as the daughter turns out to be even more reprehensible than the father.

The men who follow in Irma’s track aren’t as helpless as they will become in some of Franco’s later movies, but they are far from the standard movie heroes, saving helpless women from their own frailty. Nevertheless, Nadia’s night club number — in which she dresses as a sort of sexy predator and first seduces, then attacks a male mannequin — is a stunning visual metaphor for Franco’s handling of the relations between the sexes.

The Diabolical Dr. Z

While we’re on the subject of gender conflict… the American distributors of The Diabolical Dr. Z seem to have been completely at a loss to deal with the movie. They just weren’t prepared for a horror movie in which all the most active roles were taken by women. If you look at the English-language promotional materials, they suggest that the title character is Irma’s father, who looks like a combination of Dr. Strangelove and the blind fortuneteller from The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. I guess they thought American audiences weren’t ready for the vision of Jess Franco.

Jess Franco: 1964

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Of all the films of Jess Franco’s early career, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff (“Dr. Orloff’s Secret”, aka “Dr. Orloff’s Monster” and “Les Maîtresses du Dr. Jekyll”) is the first that really feels like a Franco movie.

Coming as it does right on the heels of his two eminently successful thrillers, La Muerte Silba un Blues and Rififí en la Ciudad, El Segreto del Dr. Orloff feels like a step backwards in quality and professionalism… though this could be attributed mostly to the lack of funding. After the French co-producers he’d lined up for Rififí en la Ciudad had failed to come through, Franco found himself on the hook for some of its production expenses; then Rififí didn’t perform well at the Spanish box office, making the situation worse. Gritos en la Noche, Franco’s first horror movie from three years earlier, had done well, both in Spain and internationally. But so few prints had been struck of the film that even given its success, Gritos… still took several years to show a profit. Thus Franco had to cut a few corners to get El Segreto… finished, giving the movie that uneven, slightly unbalanced feeling that fans of the later Franco know so well.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff also features far more gratuitous nudity than his previous pictures. It’s not just the fact that we see more naked female bodies: it’s the context… or should I say lack of context… for the nudity that looks forward to the Franco of the 1970’s and beyond. Furthermore, by this time Franco had written and directed enough films that his patterns were starting to become recognizable. This was the first of his films in which so many elements of his prior scripts had been drawn together. Sure, a movie like Gritos… had also been a patchwork of references, but those had been to other people’s movies; in this film, Franco was clearly quoting himself.

The film begins with an eerie and atmospheric sequence: the awful Dr. Fisherman (Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui) lies on his bed, smoking a cigarette, while his troubled conscience tortures him with memories. He had surprised his wife and his brother (Hugo Blanco, from La Mano de un Hombre Muerto) in bed together, and had murdered his brother. Since Fisherman is a respected doctor, he’d been able to pass off his brother’s death as an accident… but he’d never been able to rid himself of the image of the two of them together, nor the image of his brother’s eyes widening in fear as he’d killed him.

Fisherman’s crimes go much further than this. He’s also stolen his brother’s corpse and brought it back to some semblance of life. He keeps the reanimated cadaver in his laboratory, in the attic of his castle. There — out of a weird combination of guilt and the desire to continue punishing his brother even after death — he uses the living-dead man as his human test subject.

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

The arcane knowledge Fisherman uses to restore life to dead tissue comes from his work with another scientist, the elderly Dr. Orloff (two “f”s, and [cough] presumably no relation to Howard Vernon’s character from Gritos en la Noche). Orloff is dying, and on his death-bed he confides in Dr. Fisherman his segreto — his method for not only making corpses breathe and twitch, but actually move and obey commands. His secret is this: in place of the “eleven herbs and spices” he advertises, he really uses only one ingredient, monosodium glutamate, which… ummm… wait a minute. Excuse me. That’s the horrible secret of Colonel Sanders. Orloff’s method involves ultra-high frequency sounds (sort of a zombie dog whistle), which have no effect on living human beings, but which stimulate reactions in creatures which no longer have the ability to filter them out. Yes, it’s nonsense, but it looks forward to the wacky behaviorist theories of Dr. Zimmer in Franco’s next movie, Miss Muerte (1966), as well as Jorge Grau’s 1974 zombie flick, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.

With the Secret of Dr. Orloff in his hands, Dr. Fisherman is ready to complete his experiments. Partly out of a spirit of scientific curiosity, partly to avenge himself on his late brother, and partly to avenge himself on all womankind for his wife’s betrayal (but mostly because he’s in a Jess Franco movie), Fisherman takes to picking up bar girls. He seduces them with costly gifts, and then uses those gifts — necklaces with receptors built into them, which pick up the sound waves from Fisherman’s control device — to mark the wearer as the next target. Perhaps The Secret of Kindly Dr. Carruthers might have been a good alternate title? Of course, necklaces were also part of Howard Vernon’s Orlof’s technique, so perhaps the Secret also involves dating tips.

Unfortunately for Fisherman, there are a few complications that crop up and interfere with his experiments. The first is the arrival of his niece, Melissa. Fisherman’s been appointed her guardian until the following year, when she will come of age and inherit her father’s estate. Of course, she doesn’t realize that her father (now called “Andros”) is standing in a glass coffin just upstairs… though she nearly stumbles upon him when she first arrives at Castle Fisherman. Fisherman is anxious to be relieved of his guardianship, but that process takes time. For the moment, he’s stuck with her.

And she’s stuck with him… and the other dreary inhabitants of the castle (in fact, Castle Fisherman is the same castle used in Gritos en la Noche, which had also been the scene of the “Lord Marian” dream sequence on Franco’s first feature, Tenemos 18 Años. It’s a little disconcerting to see the same castle in both of Franco’s imaginary towns, Hartog and Hölfen, just as it’s equally disconcerting to see that the castle really stands in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It had looked so lonely and isolated in the previous films!). Dr. Fisherman’s assistant, Ciceron, is an odd little man, while Melissa’s Aunt Inglud (understandably, under the circumstances) is a bitter, drunken wreck of a woman. It looks to Melissa like it’s going to be a grim Christmas chez Fisherman.

Melissa’s arrival also brings about a completely unexpected complication. Though Melissa never knew her Dad, and fails to recognize his photograph when she sees it, there’s still an odd connection between father and daughter. The longer Melissa stays in the castle, the more “Andros” becomes aware of her — and becomes attuned to her thoughts and fears. We start to realize that the theories of Dr. Orloff are inadequate: Andros is not merely a puppet. He has begin to remember what is is to be alive and fully human.

When Melissa, unsatisfied with the explanation of her father’s death, determines to break into his sealed room and go through his belongings, Andros senses her presence. He breaks out of his glass box, staggers downstairs and surprises her. His appearance is so horrifying that Melissa faints. Fisherman tries to get Andros back under control, but the living dead man ignores him and plunges off into the night.

But even if Andros is beginning to regain his humanity, old habits die hard. So his first act of rebellion is… to go continue his master’s vendetta against women of easy virtue. He breaks into the home of the local club’s jazz pianist (played by Franco himself), murders his girlfriend after she takes a long bath, and then makes short work of the helpless pianist on his way out.

The bathroom-stalking episode is really pretty cheesy; but the clumsily-handled nude scene is followed, in typical Franco fashion, by one of the most powerful images in the movie. As dawn breaks, Fisherman and Ciceron go looking for Andros with the high-frequency sound generator. They find the living dead man standing over his own empty grave. Andros’s face is as expressionless as ever, but we get some idea of what’s going on in his mind by watching him clench his fists compulsively…

El Segreto del Dr. Orloff

All the ingredients are here: we have the mad medico, killing young girls to further his nefarious plans. We’ve got the zombie henchman, who begins to develop a will of his own (much to his master’s consternation). Here the henchman is Andros instead of the expected Morpho, but that’s OK: the mad scientist is Fisherman instead of Orlof. Hugo Blanco’s Andros does look remarkably similar to Ricardo Valle’s Morpho; though instead of being blind, Andros’s disfigurement comes from the fact that his body had already started to undergo autolysis by the time he was revived from death. Thus the skin of his face has started to separate from the tissue below, giving him a ghastly look. Hugo Blanco had also played the murderer in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto (no real spoiler there), so his appearance is a sort of synthesis of both Franco’s earlier horrors.

What else? Let’s see: there’s the expected Melissa, the daughter of the Bad Father (in this case, the adulterous Andros, who is now her uncle’s killing machine)… but this time, Melissa’s also the ward of the Bad Uncle! We’ve got the barely competent Hölfen police inspector — “Klein” this time; Georges Rollin was dead by this time, and no doubt so was his “Inspector Borowsky”. The character “Karl Steiner” from La Mano… is back in Hölfen, but in name only: rather than being an intrepid reporter, he’s a retired boxer in this story. Steiner is the sometime-boyfriend of one of the murdered girls; whereas the “Steiner” of the previous film had been the man who solved the mystery, this Steiner only serves as a red herring for Inspector Klein.

The deathbed scene with Dr. Orloff early in the film serves a similar purpose to the deathbed scene in La Mano de un Hombre Muerto: to kick off the story with the revelation of a deep, dark secret… though the secret turns out not to be quite as important as it seemed.

As usual for a Franco film of any genre or any vintage, there are also plenty of club scenes and musical numbers… but here they seem less related to the story than they’ve been in his movies so far. The first of these interruptions features the danseuse to whom Fisherman’s just given a deadly necklace. Her act is a striptease, and oh boy is it cheap and sleazy. It’s not as though the stripper’s very carefully dressed when she starts: her skimpy lingerie is put on so haphazardly that it looks for a moment as though we’re about to get the first of Franco’s famous pubic shots. But once she starts wiggling, her performance is staggeringly banal. She’s not on stage: she’s just standing in a clear spot between the patrons at the club, shaking her body in a way that could only be described as “dancing” as a euphemism on the “occupation” line of her tax return. For most of the number, she keeps her eyes glued to the camera. Then she takes off her top, and the act is over. It looks and feels remarkably like a real striptease in a shabby, disreputable bar somewhere — and heaven knows Franco had seen enough of those by this time.

Perla Cristal’s (literally) show-stopping number later in the film, “Pepita que horror”, is far more dignified (and better-dressed), though like the musical numbers in Franco’s later films it does grind the story to a halt. Fortunately, the song is so good that we don’t much care… However, Franco does manage to work in another delightfully sleazy striptease, this time in the guise of a murder set-piece. When the pianist’s girlfriend goes upstairs to take her bath (where Andros is waiting for her), the pianist (Franco) stays downstairs working on his latest blues composition. His music filters up to the bathroom, where the girl disrobes. The music continues as she steps into the tub and splashes the water all over her body, paying particular attention to her breasts… The blues in the background makes it a musical strip show with an added hint of voyeurism. It’s the clearest example we’ve had to date of the sort of thing the later Franco has in store for us.

'Pepita que horror'

Though these striptease sequences may match our expectations of the Franco of the future, they really don’t fit in this particular movie. The rest of El Segreto del Dr. Orloff is heavy with Gothic atmosphere, but those brief scenes are blunt and comparatively dull. They could have been shot by, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis and inserted afterwards, that’s how out-of-place they feel in this context.

Another thing I can’t help but think is out-of-place is our mad Doctor Fisherman himself. Franco regular Marcelo Arroita Jáuregui is a good actor, and he gives the movie’s strongest performance as the temperamental Dr. Fisherman… but after Howard Vernon’s turn as the Awful Doctor, Arroita Jáuregui just doesn’t look the part. To me, the bearded, rotund actor looks less like the successor of Orloff and more like Father Christmas (the Saint-nic Baron von Claus?). The Christmas setting of the story doesn’t help me take him more seriously. OK, OK: I admit this is my problem, not his nor Franco’s. But really: Dr. Fisherman? That’s not the most sinister and suggestive of names, is it? The French seem to have realized this, and renamed the character “Dr. Jekyll”, though this makes it difficult to explain why Andros goes to stand beside the Fisherman family crypt. Franco claimed for a time that the name “Fisherman” was a sort of homage to the English director Terence Fisher, though later in life he called Fisher “one of the worst directors that ever was” (in a 1986 interview reprinted in “Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco”).

Nevertheless, for all its problems, the movie redeems itself with its final sequence — a long fatal walk that seems to look forward to the endings of the films of Jean Rollin. Daniel White’s elegiac score and Andros’s one-and-only spoken line contribute to the feeling of tragedy and despair. Again, this is a touch of the later (dare I say “mature”?) Franco: like his later Virgin Among the Living Dead, El Segreto… ends with a gesture that suggests the whole film might have been deeper than we realized. It’s an illusion, but it’s a remarkable illusion, and it helps explain why viewers like me keep going back time and time again into the frustrating world of Jess Franco.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part IV: Lovely Molly (2011)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Concluding our series on the modern follow-ons from The Blair Witch Project. This one has the strongest connection of any of them…

ICONIC TALISMAN: Yes, though only glimpsed for a moment.

For years the standard response to the success of The Blair Witch Project was limited. There were parodies, of course, but the wave of found-footage movies that followed weren’t much more than superficial parodies themselves. Reality television seemed to get into the phenomenon a little bit deeper, but the lesson they took away from Blair Witch went awry: they saw…

  1. that with enough footage, you could tell any story you wanted, and tell it very convincingly;
  2. that POV video could make you a lot of money from a very small investment;
  3. that overmarketing will kill a brand, but it’ll also make the producers rich… so who cares?
  4. and that while people no longer believe that “pictures don’t lie”, they are much more likely to suspend their disbelief if a movie camera is hand-held.

These are all interesting lessons, but they’re not really enough. So while there’s a line to be traced directly from Blair Witch to Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, the really interesting developments that should have followed Myrick and Sánchez’s work took almost a decade to appear. I guess it’s only fitting that one of the best of the current crop of movies that bear an obvious relationship to Blair Witch should come from none other than Eduardo Sánchez himself.

Lovely Molly starts with a knowing reference to the most famous moment from the 1999 movie: the heroine sits in front of a camera, sobbing in despair, apologizing for the horrible things that have just happened. Yes, says Sánchez, I made The Blair Witch Project; let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? The first second or two of this introductory scene feels like a quick wink from the director. But enjoy the moment: a split-second later, things get very unpleasant indeed. The movie doesn’t wink again. It maintains a steady, ice-cold stare and doesn’t look away for a moment.

Molly and Tim have been married for about a year, and life for them is not easy. They’re both blue-collar folks — hats off to Sánchez for making a horror movie that remembers most ordinary people, even haunted ones, have jobs and responsibilities! Tim is a truck driver whose job requires him to be off on the road for long stretches. Molly is a janitor at a mall. They’re just about the least glamorous and most compellingly realistic couple ever to inhabit a horror flick.

Money is tight for the couple, so they are relieved that Molly’s family’s old house is available for them to live in for the first few years. It’s actually a very nice old farmhouse, far bigger than anything they could hope to afford… but it’s an old house, and subject to all sorts of inconveniences. It’s also the place where Molly’s father met a messy end when she was just a child. Molly herself has had issues related to her father’s death: she’d become addicted to drugs as an adolescent, and had spent some time in an institution… apparently for more than just detox. There are definitely bad memories hanging about the place. But in Molly and Tim’s position, the troubled past must make way for the troubled present.

Almost as soon as the movie’s been set up for us, the couple experience a terrifying midnight break-in at the old farmhouse. When the police arrive, they don’t find anybody on the premises, but Tim and Molly know they heard someone moving around in the pitch-dark house. It’s never made clear if the break-in has anything to do with the sinister events that play out through the rest of the film, but that doesn’t matter. The break-in puts us immediately in sympathy with Tim and Molly — reminds us of their vulnerability by putting them in a realistic situation with which we can identify very easily.

Shortly thereafter, Tim has to leave on an unexpected job. It’s good he’s getting work, since the couple needs the money. Unfortunately, this means he’ll be out of town for Molly’s birthday. Molly’s hurt by this at first. Eventually she makes peace with Tim (over her cellphone), but she’s still pensive when her vivacious older sister Hannah comes to celebrate with her.

Things start to go bad when Hannah unthinkingly shares a joint with her sister over slices of birthday cake. Hannah immediately regrets her action, remembering Molly’s substance abuse problems. Molly simply brushes off her sister’s concern. But that night — coincidentally or not — the disturbances begin for Molly as she tries to sleep, alone, in her father’s old house.

It certainly feels as though there’s someone in the house with her… particularly in her father’s old study, with its peculiar wall-full of horse pictures. Is that really a voice that she hears whispering fiercely to her? Are those the sounds of footsteps coming from downstairs? Or is she just imagining things in a house full of bad memories and bad floorboards?

After a few troubling incidents, Molly casually approaches her sister at work and asks her of she could, maybe, score her a little weed to help her relax. This sets off all sorts of alarm bells with Hannah — as well it ought. In the meantime, Molly continues to lose sleep as the strange events continue at the house. The light in the bedroom she shared with her sister growing up seems to turn itself on every night. Molly’s even awakened by the sound of a child sobbing from that room. The strange occurrences are accompanied by a high-pitched ringing sound, like the buzzing you get in your ears sometimes (for example, before you faint).

And all the while, the narrative flow is interrupted by brief cuts to hand-held video camera footage taken by Molly herself. Why is she singing to herself in that eerie, girlish voice? Why does she seem drawn to her neighbor’s house, to look through her windows… to spy on her children? What is the meaning of the curious horse-headed talisman Molly takes from its hiding place in the cellar?

All through my first viewing of Lovely Molly, I found myself deeply impressed. Here, I thought, was a Bad House movie where it was clear — unambiguously clear — that the haunting was entirely in the heroine’s troubled mind. Molly is deeply disturbed; by the time she climbs into the attic and digs out the secret stash of heroin she’d hidden before they took her away as a teen, we see that she’s never really recovered from her early traumas. With an addict’s cunning, she’s convinced herself as much as everyone else that she’s outgrown her issues; but it’s not true. Her stash suggests she’d never fully intended to break free of the drugs — not in the deepest part of her. And her use of the drugs suggests that she’s never been free for a moment from the demons of her childhood.

Of course, the main demon of her childhood was her own father. The sobbing that she thinks she hears coming from the closet in her old childhood room? That’s the ghostly echo of her own sobbing, a long time ago, as she hid in the darkness while her father did unmentionable things to Hannah (and later, to her). And the Thing that eventually comes clomping up the stairs at night, chanting Molly’s name over the clatter of approaching hooves, is her father’s evil spirit.

Is it real, this uncanny horse-demon? Is it truly banging on the door to be let in? Has it really knocked the key out of the keyhole and demanded entrance? Molly’s POV video camera says yes: it is, and it has…

…but can we trust the video? Later on, when Molly’s employer shows her surveillance camera footage that seems to show her having a seizure, we discover that what Molly sees in the same footage is herself being raped by a dark stranger. When the boss blames Molly for what he sees on-screen, not realizing Molly sees it so differently, it drives the already-distraught girl into pure raving hysteria. Clearly we cannot trust what we think we’re seeing through Molly’s eyes… or even through Molly’s video camera.

Gretchen Lodge, as Molly, does a fantastic job of portraying a woman gradually succumbing to mental illness. The central tragedy, the core of Molly’s deterioration, is that she has been corrupted by her father. She has a horrible affinity for his abusive nature — whether through some hereditary illness, or just as a result of the perversion of the natural bond between father and daughter, she is becoming like him… and the strain is destroying her. It’s a brave performance in what appears to be a brave film… a film that doesn’t shrink from showing us a truly damaged psyche… a film that keeps us sympathizing with Molly, even after her collapse has made her a monster; a film that doesn’t bother to suggest the haunting is real, but shows us instead how irrationality leads to stories of ghosts and demons.

At least, that’s what I thought I was watching.

But then… after I’d watched the brutal, uncompromising story of a woman destroyed by the demons of her own mind… I saw the movie’s brief coda. And then I watched the DVD Special Features. And then I went on-line to see what others, including Eduardo Sánchez himself, had said about the film. And boy, was I ever surprised.

Because it turns out this superbly unambiguous study of Haunting as Mental Illness was actually supposed to be a genuine Demon Possesion film.


Tell me, if you like, that Citizen Kane is a film about sledding. Tell me that Titanic was an educational film about boating safety. Tell me anything. But please! By Azazel, by Samael, by Jor-el and Kal-el… by Baphomet, by Calumet, by Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, don’t try to tell me that Lovely Molly‘s about genuine demon possession. I mean, they’d done so well, up until the coda! It’s as though they watched Uruguay’s La Casa Muda and thought, “Yes, very interesting — but that’s not the way mental illness really works; we can do this better.” Sánchez & Co. gave us a sensitive portrayal of Molly as young woman with deep psychological problems… problems that just happened to manifest themselves as some kind of supernatural visitation. They showed us how trauma and substance abuse lead to Molly’s break with the real world, into a terrifyingly real-seeming hallucination that eventually destroys her life (and the lives of those around her). They showed us a harrowing illustration of the cycle of abuse. There was absolutely no need to drag the Devil into it.

And in fact, dragging the Devil into it cheapens the whole story. I’ve already had enough of Pat Robertson and his ilk on my TV screen, blaming the latest natural disaster on gay marriage and unwed mothers — some evangelical yob insisted the hurricane that tore through my town and my state in 2012 was God’s warning, because the evil liberal northeast was too soft on the sodomites. With this foolishness still ringing in my ears, the very last thing I want is another movie suggesting that some serious, tragic problem — like mental illness — is actually demonic possession. Are you kidding? Demonic possession is almost cosy compared to the alternative.

Now, if you want to think of Lovely Molly as such a conventional horror film, you can. There’s enough leeway in the telling of the story to support either conclusion, if you absolutely must have some ambiguity about the supernatural. Until the coda. The coda ruins everything by tacking on a hackneyed “it isn’t over” epilog — actually, now that I stop to think about it, it isn’t even the coda in its entirety so much as it is one gesture: one spoon-fed piece of information left out for us (and for one of the surviving characters) in an obvious place, to let us know the whole story’s been stage managed by Ol’ Scratch.

Turn off the movie just before the epilog, and you’ll be left with a near-masterpiece. You’ll see a convincing portrayal of evil as an inside force: something that results from poor choices and poisoned opportunities, something that’s passed down across generations like a disease. Something that forces us to hallucinate demons and ghosts to externalize the horrible pressures within. Something tragically human.

Watch it to the very end, though, and all you’ll see is another average horror movie.

This is not to say that there aren’t other problems with Lovely Molly, too — principally its male characters. The preacher-man, Pastor Bobby, is way too easy a target — I say this aware that I might be accused of contradicting myself in my outlook on religion in this film. But seriously: Pastor Bobby is much too much the cliché of the venal priest. Furthermore, Tim — who is in every other way the picture of a loving and long-suffering husband — does something thoughtless and stupid in the course of the story. Not only is what he does out of character for the man we’ve seen so far, it’s also brought into the story so abruptly, with such inadequate preparation, that a common reaction in viewers is to look back and question whether it was really Tim in those scenes. Worse, it feels as though the only reason this lapse was written in was to give Molly some sort of twisted justification for what she does to him. I’d like to think we’ve reached a stage where we can allow strong female characters to stand on their own — even as monsters. There’s no reason to weaken the male characters just to build some sort of misguided sympathy for a strong woman.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part III: Silent House (2011)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Continuing our series on the heritage of The Blair Witch Project: not just found-footage movies, but movies whose technique is inextricably bound up with their content.

ICONIC TALISMAN: Does a toilet count?
MOMENT OF SNIVEL: Not really, though closer than the original.

Silent House is a remake of the Uruguyan film La Casa Muda from 2010, and while it follows the outline of La Casa Muda fairly closely, there are some very important differences. Since any discussion of the film and its inspiration requires me to reveal their darkest secrets, this little review assumes you’ve either seen one or both films, or that you don’t care about Spoilers.

The first thing you realize about Silent House, if you watch it and the Uruguayan original back-to-back, is that Silent House looks much more like A Movie than La Casa Muda did.

La Casa Muda was shot on a still camera (!), and it has a cinema vérité feel to it; while it’s true that the oppressive darkness of the film makes it difficult to see what’s going on much of the time, the overall effect is to give the movie a sense of immediacy and realism. The original didn’t rely on standard camera tricks to heighten the story, and the result was a film that felt like a Blair Witch-style POV experience… even though it wasn’t. Sure, the Uruguayan film was also cleverly blocked and shot, but the camera work was subtle… so that the audience came to take the camera for granted.

Silent House has a totally different aesthetic. Its very first shot is a dramatic overhead look at Sarah, the heroine, sitting alone on a rocky shore. The image announces itself as a Composed Shot — you could take a still from the opening scene and frame it, or make a calendar out of it. The camera then descends gently to ground level, to join the girl as she walks to The House. We’re aware of the camera, impressed by the images it captures and the smoothness of its movements.

The divergences continue: La Casa Muda revealed its hints quietly, so quietly that many of them weren’t obvious until you saw the movie a second time. For example, the heroine Laura’s reaction on first catching sight of the House is to catch her breath and stop, just for a moment. That moment goes by so quickly it’s easy to dismiss it, but it’s still important. In Silent House, on the other hand, Sarah has already been at the house, working on the cleanup, for some time before the movie starts. We have no opportunity to gauge her first reaction to the House. Furthermore, Sarah’s House belongs to her family — and rather than being asked to come help a friend, Sarah and her father are working alongside Sarah’s uncle.

Barely 5 minutes into the film, the writers of Silent House attempt to cram so much obvious foreshadowing into the dialogue that it’s a wonder anybody was surprised by the twist that comes later in the film. Sarah’s uncle discovers that there’s mold in the walls of The House — it’s possible (wink, wink) that the whole structure is rotten with corruption. “If you cover it up, we’ll never know!” says Sarah. Ah, of course.

But let’s just be brutally frank for a moment: the underlying concern of this movie, its Prime Motivator, is… child rape. You need to be extremely careful when you’re dealing with a topic like that, because it doesn’t lend itself to simple exploitation. If you were making a movie with such a sensitive issue at its heart, would you want one of the opening images of your film — in a scene laden with symbolic significance — to be… Daddy widening a hole with his sledgehammer? Really? Was anybody thinking about this?

“Just looking at it is making me sick,” says the uncle. I agree.

When the infamous Polaroid camera makes its first appearance, Silent House again distances itself from La Casa Muda by falling back into Movie Mode. The camera zooms in slowly on Sarah’s face, gradually excluding the action in the foreground. A bewildered look appears on her face. An ominous pedal point on the soundtrack tells us that This Means Something. And then, shortly afterwards, the hints start coming that all is not well in this apparently tight-knit family.

The ghostly little girl in La Casa Muda — who might be a symbol of Laura herself, or the ghost of an aborted fetus, or something entireley different — has been replaced in Silent House by two different figures. One is a fully-grown young woman of Sarah’s own age. This Sophia is an independent character, who interacts with Sarah as a long-lost friend that Sarah seems to have forgotten about. I’m not sure that’s an improvement… especially considering that Sophia is introduced outside the house. If nothing else, that brief interlude spoils the growing sense of claustrophobia, which was handled so well in the original. The second mysteriously-appearing figure is, surprise! a ghostly little girl, but in this case she’s obviously (too obviously) a symbol of Laura herself as a child.

Nearly all the ambiguity is missing from the remake. In Silent House, there’s a moment at which you can pinpoint the shift in reality — it’s when Sarah finds the red box (perhaps she rented Silent House from the Red Box, and fast-forwarded to the end? Hmmm…). Everything before that can be considered to have unfolded in a linear and comprehensible manner. La Casa Muda may have been intended to work in the same way, but I came away from it feeling as though there was no clear line between what was to be taken literally and what was pure hallucination. It’s possible to see the first two-thirds of the Uruguyan movie as entirely metaphorical. And certainly there were no wall-mounted bleeding toilets in La Casa Muda — followed by the all-too-blatant return of the sledgehammer — to make the situation plain. The difference between the two movies is this: one is a competent horror movie with a squirm-inducing twist… and the other, the original, forces the attentive viewer to think very carefully about how we process the information we see on the screens that fill our daily lives.

Both movies were shot with a gimmick: they both appear to have been shot in one continuous take. They weren’t, really, but that’s beside the point… both films are technically extraordinary. Again, though, their aesthetics are completely different: in the original, both the technique and the story are urging you — coercing you, really — to take what you’re seeing at face value, only to betray you in the end. The original used very little obvious trick camera work, and when it did — for instance, when Laura is out in the woods, disoriented, and the camera spins to find her in unexpected places — it came as something of a shock. In the American film, as I mentioned in discussing the opening, the single-take gimmick is just an overlay: otherwise it relies on the standard cinematic vocabulary of camera movements and setups. When it does get all hand-heldy and Blair Witch-y, that comes as something of a shock.

Still, considered purely on its own terms, Silent House is mostly an effective thriller. The cast is very good — though it might be a little disturbing to see an Olsen sister (even though it isn’t one of The Twins) in a movie about child abuse, Elizabeth Olsen delivers a fine performance in a role that keeps her on-screen for the entire duration of the movie. All the Olsen sisters have a sort of neotenic cast to their features — it’s part of what kept Mary Kate and Ashley a viable franchise for so long, and is clearly evident in the promotional image of Elizabeth used for the poster and DVD cover. This makes Elizabeth a wise choice for this particular role — she has a certain child-like vulnerability built into her very appearance. It might have been better had the camera not developed an inappropriate interest in her cleavage, which (considering the ending) makes us in the audience feel a tad queasy.

What really makes me uncomfortable, though, is Silent House‘s decision to change the underlying reason for all the horror.

La Casa Muda‘s back-story concerned the sexual abuse of an adolescent girl — a girl just old enough to fall prey to older men while believing she was making decisions for herself (it’s strongly suggested that Laura was under the age of consent, though that’s not made explicit… the age difference alone between Laura and the men, to say nothing of the incestuous aspect, makes it ugly enough). This abuse resulted — apparently, since everything is open to question in La Casa Muda — in a pregnancy and in the loss of the child, either to an abortion or something even more drastic. If the Polaroids we see are to be believed, La Casa Muda‘s Laura was tricked (with the help of alcohol) into believing she was a participant on equal footing with the adults who abused her… which she, as a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, might well have been anxious to believe. Laura is driven to madness and murder not just by the abuse (though that would have been enough), but even more by Nestor’s subsequent abandonment and betrayal — that is, by her internal struggle, and her own feelings of guilt for having gone along with him and her father. Laura’s madness is personified by the phantom of a little girl, who might represent her lost child, or possibly her own ruined childhood. But the fact that this ghostly little girl shows up in the Polaroids, when she’s clearly a hallucination, makes us wonder if the Polaroids themselves are to be trusted.

By contrast, Silent House‘s Sarah was violated when she was very, very young. It’s all clear-cut: there’s no pregnancy, no doubt about her status as a minor, no troubling questions in her own mind about whether she was capable of giving consent, no terrible conflict between longing and loathing. Sarah’s phantom isn’t a mute little girl: she’s a full-grown young woman her own age — with a name — who actually explains things to Sarah at the dénoument. And certainly there’s no possible ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s not after Sarah looks in the mirror.

Far from making us doubt our deepest instincts, and question if anything we’ve seen has been literally true, Silent House goes out of its way to tell us what’s happened, and how we ought to feel about what’s going on… The movie even cuts away coyly from Sarah’s actual murder of her father and its aftermath, in an attempt to keep our sympathy. Contrast this with the way La Casa Muda‘s camera suddenly assumes the point of view of the dying Nestor at the end of the main part of the story — putting us in the position of the rapist. Silent House‘s conclusion seems to undercut the point of the original, which left us too uncomfortable to sympathize with anybody in the story. Even Laura. Especially Laura.

Considering its subject matter and the potentially-infuriating nature of its twist, I suppose it’s remarkable that the American film got made at all. Bearing in mind how many changes and (over-)simplifications American horror movies often go through before they are released to a mainstream audience, Silent House is a pretty typical effort. If you didn’t like it, I’d suggest giving the Uruguyan original a try. If you did like it, then I think you should watch the original, too: you may be surprised at what La Casa Muda could achieve with such limited resources. But if you hated the Uruguyan film, you’ll probably find little to please you in the remake. At least in the original, there were no tasteless double-entendres about sledgehammers, and no bleeding toilets.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part II: La Casa Muda (2010)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Continuing our examination of recent horror movies that make a serious attempt at extending the subgenre made famous by The Blair Witch Project more than a decade ago…

ICONIC TALISMAN: Yes, sort of: a rag doll and a Polaroid camera.

A surprising number of people took the whole “found footage” aspect of The Blair Witch Project seriously — just ask the beleaguered residents of Burkittsville, MD. Today we’re going to look at a gimmick movie of a very similar kind: not a “found footage” flick, but a movie that hid its real import behind a technically innovative surface; a movie that extended the ideas presented in Blair Witch, and forced us to think carefully about how much we trust the camera to tell the truth. It’s not just the distance in time that makes La Casa Muda so interesting: it’s also the distance in geography. For it wasn’t Hollywood that came up with such an interesting follow-up. It was Uruguay.

Not that Uruguay hasn’t been producing cine fantàstico for years now: Ricardo Islas may be working in the US these days, but he got his start with microbudget horror films in his native country. Then there’s Maximilian Contenti’s very bizarre horror-comedy Muñco Viviente V (“Living Doll V”, 2008 — though there are no parts I through IV), in which the Killer Doll’s motivation really must be seen to be believed. And perhaps you’ve heard of Fede Álvarez, who directed the 2013 Evil Dead remake? He’s from Uruguay… and his magnificent short Ataque de Pánico! (2009), which he made for $300, manages in its 5 minute span to outdo the whole Jerry Bruckheimer Transformers series with its Giant Robot mayhem.

But 2011’s La Casa Muda is the first Uruguayan horror film to get widespread attention in the United States, if only because it was picked up for a remake by an American producer. It may seem like a dubious honor, to have your work remade for an American audience… as though you hadn’t done it right the first time; but that’s often the only way for the original version of a movie to get attention in the US marketplace. It’s a curious paradox, but in La Casa Muda‘s case a paradox is very appropriate.

The film was advertised as being shot in one continuous take. It’s not the first film to be structured like this, but it’s still a remarkable technical feat. However, almost immediately, critics began to complain that this couldn’t be true. La Casa Muda was shot using a reasonably-priced still camera (manufactured by Canon) which also had the capability of capturing high-quality video… but it could only shoot 12 minutes’ worth of footage at a time. To shoot the entire film in one unbroken take, the nay-sayers pointed out, would be physically impossible. In fact, there are places where the darkness of the image allows for takes to be edited together seamlessly (and that seems to be what the film-makers did). But the film had its defenders, too: they pointed out that it would actually be possible to attach a hard drive to the camera to enable it to shoot longer takes. And what’s more, they pointed out, even if the film was put together from several takes, it still seems to play in one continuous shot, so the technical achievement is still impressive.

Besides, since when is it a bad thing to make it look like you’ve done the impossible?

But as interesting as the single-shot technique may be, the really interesting thing about La Casa Muda — and the aspect of the film that leaves audiences either impressed & thoughtful or totally infuriated — is its approach to its narrative. And it’s here that the movie invites comparison and contrast with Blair Witch and its successors.

The basic setup for the story is this: a young woman named Laura is taken by her father to an abandoned house somewhere in the Uruguayan countryside. The house belongs to her father’s friend Nestor, but he plans on selling it. Before the house can be sold, though, it needs to be cleaned up — and that’s where Laura and her father come in. Nobody’s lived in the house for several years; Nestor warns them that the upper floor is falling to pieces and is too dangerous to be worked on. He leaves the keys with Laura’s father and says goodnight. Laura’s father locks them in for the evening and settles down to get some sleep. He advises Laura to do the same, since they want to get an early start on the cleanup in the morning.

But Laura is not comfortable in the house. From the very first time she caught a glimpse of it, she seems to have been taken aback. She peers around the dark old house and its dismal, unkempt grounds, but in her explorations she acts more like someone stepping back into a bad dream than someone naturally curious. Unable to sleep, she thumbs through an old photo album in the gathering dark. Something about the album disturbs her — or rather, something not in the album, since the thought seems to strike her when the photos stop. She looks up from the album at her sleeping father, then back at the album. What could it be?

And suddenly, there is a crash from upstairs.

Distressed, Laura wakes her father, who tells her it was nothing and that she should go back to sleep. But then the sound comes again: deliberate, purposeful, not in the least furtive. Eventually she’s able to convince her father that something’s really going on upstairs. He promises to go check, as long as she promises that she’ll be properly asleep by the time he gets back. The old man goes grumpily up the steps…

There is a brief pause. Then, a short, sharp scream, followed by a thud. And then the dragging noises begin.

What follows is a long, harrowing game of cat-and-mouse between Laura and whomever (or whatever) is in the house with her. It’s a game in which the bound & bloodied corpse of her father keeps popping up in impossible places. The other playing-pieces in the game seem to be an old rag doll and a Polaroid camera, which also have a habit of disappearing and reappearing. And then there are the keys — Laura’s father had the keys of the house in his pocket when he went upstairs, but even when Laura is able to find his body (it’s not always where she thinks it is), the keys stay lost. The game’s also played in near-darkness — Laura must often turn out her feeble lantern, as it’s an even bigger giveaway to her position than her ragged, panicky breath. The Intruder is seen only as a pair of feet or an out-of-focus shadow, but his (its?) presence is palpable even when we can’t see him clearly.

Laura does eventually manage to break out of the house, but even outside strange things continue to happen. Something seems to be following her — something she can’t quite get a look at — and when she finally sees the eerily-illuminated figure of a little girl standing in the road, she’s almost run down by Nestor’s car.

Naturally, Nestor is a little concerned to see Laura, covered with blood, standing in the road a good distance from the old house. Poor Laura stammers her explanation, but Nestor can’t believe it. He insists on going back to the house to look for Laura’s father. Laura begs him not to go back, but he insists. Leaving the girl sobbing in his truck, he dashes off into the house… only to re-emerge a few minutes later and practically drag her back inside. There is nothing, and no one in the house — living or dead.

That’s a summary of the first half of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, and haven’t read about its secrets, you might think you have a pretty good idea where it’s going from that point on. You’re wrong. In discussing the rest of the movie, I’m afraid Spoilers of the worst and most revealing kind are inevitable. Go see the movie, or the American remake, and then read the rest.

We’ve been trained to trust what we see on-screen. Even in an age in which photo and video editing tools are common in everyday households, we still half-believe the old saying that pictures don’t lie. Movies may emulate the literary technique of the Unreliable Narrator, but the camera isn’t usually considered an accomplice. In movies with a twist, like The Sixth Sense, the camera may elide the story a bit, or may drop out a few necessary bits of context. But it doesn’t usually lie to us. When we go back to watch the movie again, we can fill in the context we didn’t know before, and see what we missed — and usually it’s there for us to see, like the clues in a Golden Age detective story. If it’s not, we’re likely to feel we’ve been cheated.

Why? Why must it be so?

We know better in Real Life. We know that those Photoshopped pictures of 100-pound cats in their owners’ arms are clever fakes. We can see when a “photojournalist” has copied and pasted explosions from one place in his cityscape to several others. We may not know exactly who that grinning airbrushed corpse on the magazine cover might be, but we know it can’t really be Paula Deen. Why, then, are we so inclined to trust what we see on video — especially if it’s shot with a hand held camera? Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a Point-Of-View camera… as long as it’s slightly shaky and has the feel of having been shot on somebody’s phone, we’re already half-inclined to believe what we’re seeing.

And this is especially true of a movie that lulls us further into its spell by playing out in real-time. What do we even mean by “real-time”? The word “real” in that respect is misleading… and the fact that people got mad at the movie for not having been shot in a single take shows they didn’t appreciate the subtle misdirection that the advertising implied.

La Casa Muda calls us on our complacency. It turns out that pretty much everything we see for the first two-thirds of the movie is hallucination. In fact, the whole setup of the movie is revealed to be so unreliable that even the last third can not be trusted. The film forces us to think about the presentation of reality in the movies. We are manipulated ruthlessly in the beginning of the film; then we’re pulled equally far in a totally different direction as the movie concludes.

So kudos to the film-makers for coming up with a movie whose story subverts is technique (and its marketing). Or maybe I meant that the other way around… it’s a little confusing. But as interesting as the experiment may be, there are some real problems with the movie as a finished product.

The main problem is the seriousness of the subject matter that’s suddenly introduced, without preparation or explanation, as the movie draws to a close. There are some things you don’t use as plot conveniences, unless you’re prepared to deal with the implications. Sexual abuse is pretty close to the top of that list. In the case of La Casa Muda, we’re never given enough of a clear insight into what’s happened to make sense of it. The only thing of which we can be certain is that Laura has been raped at some point, and that her father was somehow complicit in the act. The twist in the story comes as a considerable shock, but let’s face it: this is the sort of thing that should never be used purely for its shock value.

The movie’s other problem is structural, and is a consequence of the risks it takes by breaking all the narrative rules. The twist in the plot leaves us with no frame of reference. The only way the second part of the story can be taken at face value is… if the entire first part of the story is considered pure metaphor.

That’s a little much to ask of your audience, and it’s the aspect of the movie that’s left most people angry and bewildered. Viewers try to find the point at which Laura’s hallucination begins (and they usually identify it as the moment when she looks up from the photo album, as the noises begin upstairs). But if you take any of the opening literally, the whole movie falls apart. It’s impossible to believe that Nestor would leave evidence of a heinous crime lying around on the second floor of a house he’d abandoned a long time ago. It’s ludicrous to think that Laura’s father would bring her back to the scene of that crime (in which she’d been involved), and expect her not to remember it. But if we take the images at the end of the film as the key to the deciphering the movie, the “ruined house” is more than just the scene of the crime. It’s also a symbol of what Nestor and Laura’s father have been involved in… a situation that has fallen apart, and must now be “cleaned up”.

The house is also an obvious symbol of Laura herself. It’s not just that the dusty and abandoned rooms represent the closed-off parts of her mind, where she’s hidden her bad memories, and where dangerous figures lurk. There’s another, nastier side to the symbolism: it’s Laura who needs to be “cleaned up” by Nestor and her father. Apparently she had become pregnant with Nestor’s child (or possibly her father’s; the photographs we see hint at this, but Laura may not be able to admit it to herself), and the two men have conspired to make the “evidence” go away. Laura thinks her child has been murdered: this probably means they coerced her into aborting the baby, though there’s also the faint possibility that the men have killed the child after it was born. The baby may also be purely symbolic, in spite of what Laura says. The ghostly child may represent Laura’s own ruined childhood, rather than an actual child. There’s really no way to tell for certain: the mysterious and terrible events in the house are very likely all part of Laura’s nightmares, after she’s rebelled and killed the men who abused her. The Intruder, the doll and the Polaroid camera may all be fragments of her psyche.

But the house is also The House: a real place, where Laura killed two men. If Nestor’s dying words are to be believed, the real reason Laura was brought back to the house was for some kind of rapprôchement, or to assume the worst, a continuation of the old activities (and this may have been enough to tip Laura over the edge of madness). But Nestor’s words should not be believed — or at least they should be viewed with suspicion. According to Nestor, the Polaroids Laura found don’t exist. Then again, the text at the beginning of the (first set of) credits state that “disturbing photographs” were found at the scene, even though we see Laura burning them before she walks off into the wilderness. The “disturbing photographs” may not be the pictures we see of Nestor with Laura… they may only be the Polaroids Laura has taken of the butchered men. And the ghostly little girl, who (we know) doesn’t really exist, actually shows up, semi-transparent, in one of the Polaroids we do see. It is completely impossible to untangle what’s actually happening — what’s real and tangible — and what’s in Laura’s imagination.

And for this same reason, we shouldn’t trust Laura either. All the way through the movie, we’ve been goaded into taking Laura’s point of view on the story. Our deepest instincts compel us to believe her, since she is clearly the original victim and has clearly been driven insane. But as far as the action on screen is concerned, we’ve been manipulated: first through the conventions of scary movies, then by bringing up abortion and rape and murder — issues which it’s virtually impossible to remain neutral about. Even when the camera glances into a mirror, and reality (as we believed it to be) shatters like silvered glass, we’re still inclined to believe Laura’s literal point of view. But it’s useless to try to sort it all out, because the literal truth is not there to be found. We cannot trust what we see.

So what’s real? Well… the bodies of the two dead men, and a handful of photos — exactly what the movie’s press materials say was found in a real country house in the mid-1940’s, in the event that inspired the film itself. Only the house is witness to what else may be true… and la casa muda isn’t giving up its secrets.

Help! It’s the Blair Heir Bunch! Part I: Atrocious (2010)

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Examining some of the most interesting horror movies of recent years that owe an obvious debt to The Blair Witch Project, over a decade later… starting with this misunderstood gem from Spain.


Like many people, I have a habit of saying and doing incredibly stupid things. I’ve even made some of my stupidity public — enormously, permanently public — by posting it here on-line. One of the very dumbest things I’ve ever said was in the introduction to a review several years ago, where (for some reason I cannot begin to fathom) I came right out and stated that very few movies had ever attempted to follow up on The Blair Witch Project.

(I’ve kept the original review unchanged and unedited, because I don’t believe in trying to make myself look better in hindsight. However, if you think I’m going to link to it directly, you’re out of your mind. Go find it yourself!).

That statement was demonstrably untrue at the time I made it, and is even more foolish-sounding now. What I think I’d been trying to say was this: since the startling, innovative aspect of Blair Witch was technical rather than narrative, very few exploitation-movie makers understood it well enough to make a genuine follow-on. Sure, every big cinematic success has been a combination of technical achievement and narrative appeal; but it’s generally the narrative and not the technique that gets ripped off.

Intelligent film-makers looked at Jaws and studied Spielberg’s technique: for instance, his method of building tension, and then releasing it in ways that made the audience think they’d just seen something far worse than it was. Mere imitators looked at Jaws and thought about re-doing the story with a bear, or an octopus. But with Blair Witch, at least for the first few years after its release, it seemed as though the best the exploitation film-makers could come up with was (to continue the comparison) Jaws with a slightly different shark. They didn’t really contribute anything meaningful to what had already been done: they could only duplicate, by sending a group of kids into a dangerous situation with camcorders. At least, that was my thesis… it wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever come up with, and my lame attempts to defend it haven’t made it seem any more intelligent.

I stand by this point, though: the real lessons of Blair Witch had little to do with the overt setup of the film. One lesson — a superficial one — was that given enough footage and some skilled editors, you could tell practically any story you wanted, and tell it magnificently. It was a lesson that the makers of reality television learned well before actual film-makers did. One of the most interesting points of the 2007-8 Writers’ Strike in the U.S. was the demand of the editors of reality shows to be allowed to join the Writers’ Guild. By cutting up and re-arranging hours upon hours of raw footage, they were creating — out of “reality” — new characters and story arcs that didn’t exist until the edits were made.

A deeper lesson to be gained from Blair Witch is that modern viewers should be very, very careful believing anything they see… no matter how convincing it may seem; no matter how professional-looking the associated web site may be. It’s taken a while, but in recent years horror film-makers have really started to internalize this lesson and build on it. The result has been some amazingly thoughtful films that use the entire phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project, and the familiarity of Reality TV, to question the presentation of “reality” on-screen.

Atrocious is one of these films. Dismissed by many as a late-to-the-party Spanish Blair Witch rip-off, it is in fact a subversion of the earlier film. And the twist at its end is, in a way, brutally funny.

Atrocious immediately acknowledges how much the camera has invaded our lives in the years since Blair Witch was made. Remember how many people complained that the characters in the 1999 film kept their cameras rolling long after it seemed prudent to stop? Well, welcome to the new millennium, where there’s nothing in our lives too trivial that we won’t try to capture it and share it on YouTube or Facebook (oh — and nothing too momentous that we won’t try to reduce it to 140 characters for Twitter. We are slaves to our cellphones — but we don’t much care about reliable telephone service any longer, as long as our phones take good pictures and video, and allow us to access our social media… but I digress).

In the case of Atrocious, our young protagonists — Crisitan and July, brother and sister — have a video blog, on which they research and document spooky urban legends. In spite of the fact that they are still very (very) young, they’re seriously committed to the blog, and have invested a good deal of time and energy into it. That’s why they’re a little miffed that their mother and father are taking them (and their little brother, who’s still too young to go ghost hunting with them) off to the country for the summer.

Fortunately, the kids have a back-up plan. Their vacation home is near the site of a spooky rural legend: when someone gets lost in the woods of Garraf, the spirit known as Melinda — a ghostly little girl in a red dress — will appear and guide them to safety. As long as the kids are stuck in the boondocks, they might as well investigate that. Their little brother José can always just stay behind and play with the family dog.

(Yes, I’m sorry to say there’s a family dog; and yes, you have every right to be deeply concerned about its safety.)

The first clue we have that Atrocious is not going to be as straightforward as it seems comes from its epigram: “The mind is like a labyrinth, where anyone can become lost.” Hmmm. Our second hint comes from the location of the family’s vacation home… its creepy old vacation home. It’s in Sitges, which (as if you didn’t know) is home to a very famous Fantastic Film Festival — sort-of the Cannes of horror films. Hmmm.

The third clue comes when the kids are exploring the house. In the basement they find a stack of VHS tapes. One of the tapes in that collection turns out to be very important at the tail-end of the film; but what the kids themselves find is a copy of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which they pop into the deck and watch for a few minutes.

Finding an Argento film in conjunction with… that other tape that plays at the movie’s end… is just plain silly — and I think that was the point. It’s a joke that Atrocious‘s intended audience will pick up on quickly. Then, too, we need to consider the movie’s opening statement. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is notorious for the inadequacy of its “psychology”: as Maitland MacDonough points out in “Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds”, when the TV shrink is trying to explain the killer’s motivation at the end of Argento’s film, his interviewer falls asleep… thus revealing Argento’s contempt for the reasonable explanation. Clinical accuracy was not the point in Bird…, and that’s something the makers of Atrocious want us to remember.

Thinking of memories: it turns out the children haven’t been to the house in Sitges in so long that their recollections of it are very dim. Certainly they never heard the legend of Melinda while they were there. Their father’s friend Carlos fills them in on the story as he’d heard it: they say that Melinda had disappeared in the woods, or possible had fallen down a well… her body was never found, but she still roams the woods at night, looking for her mother. Those who have encountered her ghost in the forest say they never forget the terrifying sound of her whispers as they creep up behind you.

Is Melinda an evil spirit? Carlos doesn’t think so, but the stories are too numerous and varied to be sure. Nevertheless, Carlos promised his own father many years ago that he would never go into the woods of Garraf at night. And he never has, even as an adult. Carlos’s seriousness makes a big impression on the kids. Later, Cristian wakes up in the middle of the night, convinced that he hears strange noises coming from the woods around the house. Could this just be just the influence of Carlos’s story on an impressionable young boy? Or is something stirring?

Cristian and July begin their investigation the next day, on the first of April ( HMMM! ). Normally they’d have to sneak around to do their research; but today, conveniently enough, their Dad has been called back to work in Madrid. That’s great news for the kids — their Dad doesn’t approve of the video blog (“Do you think that’s normal?” he asks, in the tradition of Dads everywhere), and has threatened to punish them if they continue with it. Now that the old man is out of the way, Cristian and July feel safe exploring the house and grounds with their camera.

Their first stop is the basement, where they find an assortment of peculiar junk: their old toys, an anatomical model of a human foot, dolls left over from their mother’s childhood in the same house… and a trunk full of mirrors. Odd. There’s some sort of journal, too; but that’s obviously boring, and they put it aside unread when they discover the box of videotapes. Cool! Bruce Lee! And Dario Argento!

All three kids are immersed in a horror film when they’re distracted by a sound from upstairs. Someone’s dropped a glass in the kitchen above… When the kids rush upstairs, they discover that someone’s also been rummaging through the cabinets. But who could it be? Dad’s gone, and Mom’s upstairs asleep. Perhaps the paranormal has come to find them already?

Cristian tells José to go play with the dog or something, and he and July go to investigate the abandoned hedge maze that adjoins their property. The gate to the maze is padlocked, but the resourceful July has already found the key. Cristian marks the way as they go, so they won’t get lost. Eventually Cristian notices a hidden trail that branches off from the maze proper. When the kids go to follow it, they find a dried-out well hidden in the undergrowth. Could this be Melinda’s well? Cristian decides to find out: he leans over the edge and calls, “Melinda! Melinda! Melinda!” He almost loses his glasses as he does it…

…but though he doesn’t lose his glasses, or (worse yet) fall in, Cristian may not have got off quite as easily as he thinks. There may be other consequences of what he’s done.

For as the kids pick their way out of the maze, Cristian thinks he sees someone else in the maze with them. Just visible through the hedges is a light-colored shape that could be a pillar… or could be a statue… but could also be another human being. Cristian wonders if it might possibly be their Mother, but July is certain it isn’t. Looking at the videotape later with José, they’re unable to decide if it’s really a person or not. It could be someone huddled in the hedgerow, or it could be nothing at all.

That night, Cristian attaches the camcorder to his laptop and points it out the window at the gate to the labyrinth. If there’s really something in the maze — maybe the same thing that made the mysterious noises the night before? — the camcorder will capture it.

And something does happen during the night… though it’s not the camcorder that gets a good look at it.

If there’s one thing in life that really brings me joy — one thing that makes everything else worthwhile — it’s dog noses. I love dog noses, preferably the big, wuffly-snuffly kind that come up and shovel you for attention. I like them mostly because they’re attached to an actual dog, but I also appreciate them for the precision instruments they are. The sense of smell is the most important way dogs get information about the world around them. Their noses are so sensitive, I’m told, that some dogs can get scent cues from as much as a hundred miles away. And did you know that some dogs can sense when their humans are about to have an epileptic seizure? It’s true: the neurological condition brings about changes in human body chemistry, which the ultra-sensitive doggy snoot can detect. Thus the animals can be trained to alert their companions before a seizure happens, so they can prepare themselves and keep themselves from harm.

You’ll have guessed I’m stalling.

You see, it’s the dog who senses activity in the maze overnight. He’s not frightened of it: he’s fascinated. It’s almost as though something hidden in the maze were talking to him, urging him to come in. And eventually he does… and he never comes out again.

In the morning, July and Cristian go looking for the dog. Little José is particularly upset over the dog’s disappearance — and who wouldn’t be? July suggests searching the maze, but the kids’ long-suffering mother doesn’t want them going in there. It’s overgrown and dangerous: it was easy enough to get lost in the maze when it was still in good repair, but now? Who knows what’s in it — even if it’s not a ghost?

If it had been their father telling them, perhaps they’d have listened; but since their mother is preoccupied with their distraught little brother, the older kids decide to go into the maze anyway. At first there seems to be no sign of the dog. But then they find a smear of fresh blood on the ground… and then a collar. Can you guess where the fly-blown trail of blood leads? To the well, of course. And down the well…


The dog has been mutilated. Clearly it wasn’t a wild animal that killed him and dragged him off into the well. And as if the dog’s death wasn’t bad enough, they have something worse to look forward to when they get home: keeping a brave face for José, and not letting him guess what they’ve found.

My readers know how I feel about the inclusion of animals in movies like this. They’re usually thrown in just to be brutalized… just to be the first to die, to shock the viewers before bad things start happening to the “actual characters”. Fortunately, these days we’re less likely to see horror movies in which the animals are really killed. But I don’t object to animals-as-characters suffering the same kinds of fates as the humans, provided they are taken seriously. And here the dog’s death is taken seriously. It’s not just a meaningless shock-moment: it’s a loss that’s felt very deeply by July and Cristian, all the more because they need to keep it from the heartbroken José. The killing of the dog is a moment that draws us into a deeper involvement in the story, rather than simply giving us a cheap thrill. In a sense, when you consider the end of the film, this involvement turns out to be a trick… but I still think in this case, the dog is not sacrificed in vain.

Unlike domestic animals, children are not usually put in any real jeopardy in horror films… particularly Hollywood horror films. In a sense, that’s a good thing: violence against children in movies is a very strong gesture, and it needs to be approached with care. That said, though, it’s become something of a cliché for children to come out unscathed from scary movies. So it’s a little refreshing to see that Atrocious is courageous enough, first, to earn the earn the right to put its young characters in real danger, and then to actually follow through with the threat. We’re told from the very beginning that terrible things are going to happen to the whole family. And terrible things do happen: rarely in horror history have kids been so thoroughly butchered as they are here.

For it turns out that this was not a good time for Cristian and July to be curious about dead children in Sitges. Something has been awakened by their curiosity… something that has been asleep for a long time; something that knows the woods and the maze intimately, and wants to draw the children into it. Something that will cause one of them to run a long way through the trees with the camera set to night-vision, à la Blair Witch… while seeing nothing. Something that will also leave one of the kids alone, terrified and burbling into the camera in a very familiar way.

In fact, the connections to (and quotations from) The Blair Witch Project are so obvious that it’s easy to see why some viewers have written the movie off as a pale imitation. But then, there’s the ending. Just at the crucial moment, when it seems like everything’s about to be revealed, the movie comes to sudden halt. We’re then given some news footage of the aftermath of the “atrocious” events we’ve been seeing. It turns out to be even worse, and even bloodier, than we’d expected… but that’s not the only surprise in store for us. No sooner have we been given a glimpse of the aftermath, when we suddenly find ourselves rewinding — actually, literally rewinding the tape: we’re back at the story’s real conclusion, the revelation of what horrible force-from-beyond has risen from the labyrinth to slaughter the family.

And it’s then that we realize we have not been watching the movie we thought we were watching.

The film-makers have learned the lessons of The Blair Witch Project very well. They’ve figured out how to use the POV camera to build atmosphere — how to stretch out a sequence just long enough without becoming intolerable, and how to suggest just enough without showing us anything. And they’ve also factored in our awareness of the existence of The Blair Witch Project, as well as its progeny. As a result, they’re able to pull of a nice piece of misdirection.

Some reviewers complain the twist isn’t fair. Really, it is: if you go back and watch the movie again after you know its secret, you’ll see how you’ve been tricked… but the movie’s played fair with you all the way along. Others complain that the resolution of the story isn’t the way things work in real life… to which both I and the movie offer no argument. I think that’s why the movie goes out of its way to bring up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. On a certain level, Atrocious is a horror film about horror films: it sets up the conventions we expect and then pulls them all away just when we’ve come to rely on them. What’s more, by showing us glimpses of the end at the beginning and putting the epilog before the dénoument, it teases us mercilessly.

This is something the Spanish seem particularly good at: not just giving us a twist ending, but thinking deeply and dispassionately about the mechanics of film, and coming up with something that forces us in the audience to consider our responses to it. This was what Jaume Balagueró did with Darkness: he dared to set up a very conventional horror film for the first half of his movie, taking the risk that his audience would lose interest… but when he got to explaining the motivations of his monsters, he managed to subvert the very conventions he seemed to be repeating. Atrocious, too, takes one hell of a risk, by seeming to be slightly above-average Blair Witch rip-off for most of its running time.

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.