Archive for November, 2012 | Monthly archive page

The Creature from the Blah Lagoon

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dong Show: Libidomania (1979)

Monday, November 12th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Other segments include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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