Sunday, October 29, 2017

THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS reviewed

Bert Williams (1922-2001) was a Florida-based actor whose career reached back to episodes of SEA HUNT and THE WILD WOMEN OF WONGO. In 1965, he rolled the dice to become a multi-hyphenate by writing, producing, directing, starring in and even editing and partly photographing an obscure and much sought-after project called THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS. The film got next to no exposure but it became the stuff of legend when a quirky, artistic-looking ad for the film ran in one of those old Film Market issues of VARIETY, promising a film that delivered "Sadism," "Horror," "Stark Naked Drama" and (most appetizing of all) "Quack Love." Besides all this, there was a notation stating that the picture had been named "Primitive Art Film of the Year," though without mention of by whom. It was one of those things: anyone who had seen the ad and heard it mentioned by someone else who had seen it bonded to them like a brother. The film was assumed to be lost, and some even assumed it might never have been completed - though it now appears that it did receive at least one playdate because the only known print was located in an abandoned movie theater. In the last couple of years, other surviving materials on the film turned up in a much-ballyhooed eBay auction, which I assume is where Nicolas Winding Refn comes in.

Refn - reknowned Danish director of such films as THE NEON DEMON and DRIVE and the winner of a similar eBay auction that left him the owner of Andy Milligan's celluloid rarities and scraps - has now unveiled THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS absolutely free - as the opening salvo of his forthcoming byNWR.com streaming site, which premiered last night in piggy-back fashion on the art film streaming site MUBI. Dale Berry's HOT THRILLS AND WARM CHILLS (1967), restored with materials from the Something Weird Video collection, will be premiering in a few days. Refn's channel will be premiering independently next February.

 
 
Any connoisseur of the exploitation cinema's strangest arcana will want to investigate THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS - a title whose plurality, its poster suggests, was a last-minute idea that sort of spoils what should have been its biggest surprise. According to the IMDb, the title of its original script was THE VIOLENT SICK. Williams (who bears a distracting resemblance to Donald Trump, as he would look without the elaborate comb-over) plays Johnson, an undercover cop who fails in his attempt to bust some moonshiners in the Everglades but manages to escape brutalized captivity by swimming to safety through gator-infested waters. Before he passes out from exhaustion, he witnesses one of his pursuers being knifed to death by a horrific, chimerical murderess - blonde, beautiful and naked, save for a plastic mask. He awakens in the Cuckoo Bird Inn, a concealed bed-and-breakfast run by Mr. and Mrs. Pratt, who have the funniest, most hostile hospitality seen onscreen since THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Before Johnson can ask a single question, he is warned by Mrs. Pratt - a former actress, she boasts - to mind his own business and respect their covert way of doing things. Being a cop, Johnson can't quite manage this and discovers that his cantankerous, volatile hosts keep their beautiful, blonde, teenage daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) chained in a room at the top of the house like some kind of hotcha Saul Femm, because she's supposed to be "mad." Though she's half his age or more, Johnson warms up to Lisa, hovering over her, touching her, giving her little kisses "for luck" after he makes plans to help her escape.

 
What sounds like a fairly straightforward crime picture equally indebted to Tennessee and Charles Williams takes some abrupt, trap-door detours into bizarre, expressionistic, Southern Gothic horror (and even a graphic gore sequence or two) as the Pratts' peculiar lifestyle is cracked open to show just how sick a family living this remotely from society can be. What we ultimately learn is not all that unexpected, but there is value in the telling and a measure of delight even in the film's sometimes incoherent construction. The appearances of the aforementioned murderess are accompanied by some inspired, screeching sound effects and sudden flurries of artful editing, which suggest an attempt on Williams' part to cop something of PSYCHO's shower murder's technique; however, he throws in the curve of holding the action in frame perfectly still, so that time is literally suspended as the viewer is bombarded with fabricated, dynamic "still" images. There is a good deal of the film that is artless, lame, at times verging on agony, but it's all unpredictably organized with shufflings of original material and ancient stock footage that are unaccountably striking, dream-like, and like little else the movies have shown us. This isn't one of those square peg movies that refuse to fit into the round holes of conventional cinema; it's a shape that doesn't quite have a name. As I watched, I was occasionally reminded of some other movies - POOR WHITE TRASH, NIGHT TIDE, THE INTRUDER (for its coarse look and technique more than anything else), ALICE SWEET ALICE, EATEN ALIVE, the aforementioned THE OLD DARK HOUSE (the 1932 version, which I had just seen earlier the same day, which made it easier to identify the shared story points), Ivan Varnett's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1950) and THE DUNGEONS OF HARROW - but only in flashes. It's ultimately its own curious, lopsided, intermittently wondrous thing.
 
 
 
 
 
 
One of the film's most indelible touches is the original music score by Williams' wife Peggy, which consists of only two songs, "In The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird Inn" and "Lisa" - both accompanied by a reverberating, pre-Lynchian electric guitar and avant-garde percussive, plucking effects. In an online thread responding to last night's premiere, I read a posting by a guitarist who said he couldn't resist picking up his own guitar and playing along with it. I can fully understand this; the film's music, though probably its most purely enjoyable, competently developed layer, has so much open space that it feels still under construction and invites an extra hand.

Refn has chosen his moment well, on the cusp of Halloween, and he has called attention to it with the equivalent of a Dead Sea Scroll of exploitation cinema. It's an audacious introduction for byNWR.com, to say the least, and bodes well for curiosities yet to come. Of course, one can't help wishing for download and hard copy availability of material this unusual and coveted, and perhaps these will eventually be among the surprises in store.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bringing Back the Bippy

Dan Rowan and the lovely Dick Martin.
Maybe it's the state of our world, but humor has become a good deal more important to me lately. When I was in junior high (secondary school) and planning a way I might emulate my older fanzine-publishing friends, I spent some serious time daydreaming about launching a humor fanzine; I was going to call it LOONY and I had even designed a mascot for its cover: Irving Lathbeap, a shameless hayseed variation on Alfred E. Neuman. (His surname came from a list of anagrams found in one of my textbooks.) I ended up doing a couple of horror film fanzines instead. While my nostalgia for classic horror films ultimately won out and put me on a scenic route to my eventual career, I must admit to an almost-as-strong nostalgic pull for the comedy I absorbed in my pre- and early-teens: MAD and CRACKED magazine, W.C. Fields, George Carlin, The Firesign Theatre. And recently, I've been inclining back to all that: I've been doting on my MAD Magazine collection and filling in some gaps; perusing some cheaply acquired early issues of CRACKED and SICK (I was amazed to discover that SICK actually once carried reviews of off-the-wall movies like Marco Ferreri's THE APE WOMAN!); reading for the first time Harvey Kurtzman's work on HUMBUG and TRUMP, recently collected in beautiful hardcover editions; and delighting in Time-Life's recent release of  ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (4 DVDs, $14.99).

For many years, it has been impossible to see LAUGH-IN in its original form. The official word was that the original broadcast versions of ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN no longer survived, that the tapes had been cut-down and reassembled into half-hour shows for syndication, without any thought to preserving them in their original form. Then, just last month, Time-Life began to unleash a veritable tsunami of LAUGH-IN viewing options. In addition to the First Season set, there is THE BEST OF ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN (12 DVDs each, $178.99) and ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN: THE COMPLETE SERIES (all six seasons on 38 discs, $254.95). Time-Life will be following through with the COMPLETE SECOND SEASON set in early 2018, and you can also find THE COMPLETE SERIES available directly from their website, payable on a convenient installment plan.

Tiny Tim's national debut stuns Dick Martin.
I saw the first season during its original run when I was eleven years old, and because so much of the material was either news-topical or risqué, a certain amount of it went over my head, but the sheer verve and invention of the delivery made it funny anyway. The impact of LAUGH-IN's premiere is something I can only compare to Beatlemania and Batmania; I had the tie-in paperback, the soundtrack album, even a run of LAUGH-IN magazines. In a sense, NBC and the show's producers manufactured this excitement (didn't they all, to some extent?) but its carousel-like format, its constant influx of new regulars and surprise guest stars (John Wayne! Tiny Tim! Hugh Downs! Richard Nixon!), its incessant dropping of new catch phrases into the zeitgeist (Sock it to me! Here come the Judge! You bet your sweet bippy! Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's. Goodnight, Dick!) kept it exciting for a remarkably long time. Yes, you probably had to be there - and now you can.

Jo Anne Worley's MAD magazine ad.
Revisiting the first season now, I have found myself not only getting more out of the comedy and better appreciating the broad mix of its talent, but more conscious of its myriad influences - notably old time radio, MAD magazine (series regular Jo Anne Worley had been a cast member of the Broadway hit THE MAD SHOW and had even participated in at least one of MAD's own faux ads), PLAYBOY, THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON, Richard Lester films, THE MONKEES (early episodes included primitive rock video segments), certain kaleidoscopic European films like Louis Malle's ZAZIE, and the vast pop cultural landscape that was the 1960s. It's also fascinating to observe how hugely influential the show and its veterans became. LAUGH-IN was certainly one of the models for MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, even PLAYBOY AFTER DARK, and Arte Johnson's timid Polish immigrant character who suddenly bursts into apoplectic Broadway show tunes shows a very direct line to Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man character. Well before SNL, several members of LAUGH-IN's uniquely wacky ensemble branched off into film careers (Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Eileen Brennan, Henry Gibson) but most of them gravitated to drama rather than comedy. Even Rowan and Martin failed to spin-off into a feature film career, with 1969's THE MALTESE BIPPY faring no better commercially than their forgotten 1958 film debut ONCE UPON A HORSE.

The first issue of LAUGH-IN Magazine.
There might be some understandable trepidation about referring back to 50 year old topical humor, but - as with classic Warner Bros. cartoons, which pack their own supply of sometimes head-scratching WWII references and movie and radio star impressions - most of what's here is funny because it's wild and crazy. If you get the historical associations, it's remarkable how often the jokes strike one as still relevant or even prophetic. (I haven't seen it yet, but I seem to remember one of the show's "News of the Past, Present and Future" jokes referring to future President Ronald Reagan - and getting a big laugh.) The FIRST SEASON set also includes the trial balloon special from September 1967 (hilarious) and highlights from a 25th Anniversary reunion (where Dick Martin scores some bonus points with a sober and clear-eyed recollection of exactly what his late partner Dan Rowan brought to their partnership).   


The surviving complete material is sourced from analog tape masters, which isn't of good enough quality to warrant Blu-ray presentation, but is certainly good enough for the viewer to see the difference between what was shot on tape (the in-studio stuff) and what was shot on 16mm (the dancing body paint girls, the exterior vignettes, the guy in the rainwear falling over on the tricycle). I recommend you give the COMPLETE FIRST SEASON set a try (at $15, the price is right) - especially if you've seen the cannibalized half-hours and imagine that the hour shows are just more of the same. Those TV syndication compendiums were cut to please the short attention spans of the lowest common denominator and omitted some of the show's cleverest musical comedy extravaganzas. If you're at all like me, you'll probably find yourself pining for the COMPLETE SERIES box before you know it.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.   

Thursday, October 19, 2017

RIP Umberto Lenzi (1931-2017)

I was very sorry to awaken this morning to the news of director Umberto Lenzi’s passing at the age of 86. He seldom received the critical respect due to someone like himself, who had done so much heavy lifting to keep the Italian cinema going, but though he had not made a film since 1992, there is a great sense of much more than himself coming to a stop with this news. Lenzi loved the cinema and was one of a handful of early fans and critics who muscled their way into the business, becoming its first generation of postmodernist grindhouse directors. 

Most serious discussions of the Italian popular cinema in English tend to focus on horror films and thrillers, which tended to place Lenzi’s passionate, tireless, industrious work among the also-rans - if not in other categories altogether. From a historian’s perspective, he was usually making the wrong kind of film at the wrong time to stand out. At the height of the Italian gothics, he was focusing on sword and sandal pictures, costume pictures; his KRIMINAL anticipated Bava’s DIABOLIK: he also anticipated the return of the giallo into fashion with his series of Carroll Baker thrillers (PARANOIA, SO SWEET... SO PERVERSE, A QUIET PLACE TO KILL) but they didn’t exploit the sense of style that defined such films; and then, at the height of the giallo, he was making some of the best poliziotesschi of the day (ALMOST HUMAN, VIOLENT NAPLES, THE TOUGH ONES, THE CYNIC THE RAT AND THE FIST), hard-hitting films that took awhile to find their international following. Several of his best thrillers were scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi.

In the end, he left us a lot of fun, memorable, unpretentious pictures including SANDOKAN THE GREAT and its sequel THE PIRATES OF MALYSIA, the SuperSeven spy adventures starring Roger Browne, SPASMO, EYEBALL, SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS, OASIS OF FEAR, and those unforgettable doozies THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, NIGHTMARE CITY, and CANNIBAL FEROX (aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY).

Grazie per l’intrattenimento, Maestro.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

October 30 is... Hammerween!



It was now 60 years ago that Hammer Films released their first color horror film, Terence Fisher's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) - and, in commemoration of this important anniversary, some major activity is afoot in the UK. Indicator - the company responsible for two recent very impressive Ray Harryhausen sets (with a third on the way) - will be releasing a box set called HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING, which will collect four of Hammer's Columbia co-productions from the 1960s: MANIAC, THE GORGON, CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB and FANATIC (aka DIE! DIE, MY DARLING!). There is another set due in the first quarter of next year, that will likely contain the balance of Hammer's Columbia titles.

VOLUME ONE will include Blu-ray and DVD discs of all titles and be released on October 30, just in time for Halloween. The discs - which I'm told will likely repeat the previous Indicator release format of being in PAL but otherwise region-free - will contain a wealth of extras for each title, mostly of the featurette/video essay variety, with a full audio commentary for THE GORGON by DIABOLIQUE's Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan, and 32-page booklets for each title with essays by Kim Newman and others. The set will be priced at 42.99 GBP and is available via amazon.co.uk.


Studio Canal also have four coveted Hammer titles in store for October 30 release as "doubleplay" BD/DVD sets (RB and R2), with four more to follow on January 29, 2018 but theirs are being released individually with a cover price of 14.99 GBP. The first four titles are SCARS OF DRACULA, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB, FEAR IN THE NIGHT and DEMONS OF THE MIND; the next grouping will offer HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING, and TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER. None of the titles have commentaries, but each is supported by an entertaining featurette (18m, roughly) produced and directed by Marcus Hearn in which various Hammer historians (Jonathan Rigby, etc) and even some stars (Valerie Leon, Jenny Hanley) offer memories and notes concerning the various films. I've been able to preview the first four Studio Canal titles and they have never been more beautifully presented on home video: crisp, colorful, loaded with depth, spotless.

Klove (Patrick Troughton) models the SCARS OF DRACULA.
SCARS OF DRACULA (1970), directed by Roy Ward Baker, was the fifth film in Hammer's Dracula franchise starring Christopher Lee (omitting 1960's BRIDES OF DRACULA, which didn't) and also the first in the series to be produced solely by British funding. The script by "John Elder" (longtime Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) is a compendium of familiar series situations, kicked-up with a new emphasis on bloodletting, sadism and bawdiness. Jenny Hanley plays the female lead, Sarah, whose attraction to two brothers - responsible lawyer-to-be Simon (Dennis Waterman) and the bedroom adventurer Paul (Christopher Matthews) - brings her to the attention of Count Dracula (Lee) and his mortal manservant/enabler Klove (former DOCTOR WHO Patrick Troughton). Lee has some impressively fierce scenes but nothing much is done to permeate the film with dread of him, as Terence Fisher did so ably in his early series entries; here, he's a bit too approachable and available. It's Troughton who steals the film as the almost subhuman Klove, who finds redemption for the past crimes he's committed in service by a photograph of Sarah and finally by closer contact with the woman herself. SCARS is more cheaply made than other films in the series, but DP Moray Grant invests it with color and ripe Gothic atmosphere that is a revelation here, in contrast to earlier releases and particularly the turgid-looking US theatrical release prints. I did notice some "day for night" anomalies though, with the sequence of Simon and Sarah's flight from the castle flickering between night and daylight, and Dracula himself resurrected at the outset to look upon an exterior that transitions to daytime.

Valerie Leon.
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB (1971), based on Bram Stoker's 1903 Egyptian thriller THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS, was something of a cursed production having lost its star Peter Cushing after three days of filming (he was called away by his wife's terminal illness, and replaced by Andrew Kier), a crew member (who perished in a motorcycle accident), and finally its director Seth Holt (to a heart attack) all before its last week of shooting. Executive producer Michael Carreras stepped in to direct, and the result is a fascinating hodge-podge - without question one of the more potent Hammer films of the 1970s, but one that always gives me the feeling of having been poorly (or at least incorrectly) assembled at the editing stage.

The lead character, Margaret (Valerie Leon), is introduced while tossing and turning in a nightmare that is repeated midway through the film, and no explanation is ever given for what appears to be the scar of an attempted suicide on one of her wrists. The scenes of the archaeological expedition resulting in the curse of the Egyptian Queen Tera (also Leon) are presented as flashbacks but I suspect these were meant to open the film, and that the miraculously bleeding stump of the Queen was meant to resonate with a later shot revealing Margaret's scar (we get in zoom-in, though we've already seen it). Leon, though dubbed by another actress, has considerable presence and the story (scripted by Christopher Wicking) is compelling for the many ways in which it echoes Stoker's DRACULA: a foreign source of evil transported into the heart of London, the relationship of the story to a madman in an asylum, the forces of good and evil being arranged in two houses within view of each other, the patriarchal governing of the women by older male characters who live to see the women empowered by supernatural evil, and so forth. For reasons well beyond my understanding, someone thought it would be amusing to arrange a two-shot of Margaret and her boyfriend Tod Browning (!) on a bed, Tod on his back with his legs apart, with Margaret in an inverted position facing the camera while eating a banana.

Peter Cushing as the menacing Headmaster in FEAR IN THE NIGHT.
FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972), written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, is a minor psychological thrillers, a project that dated back to a Sangster script originally submitted in 1963, when he was cranking these out with regularity. It sounds like a joke but it's the story of a young woman repeatedly attacked by someone with a prosthetic limb - and her name is Peg! 

A high-strung young Londoner, Peg (Judy Geeson) - we're told she suffered a nervous breakdown six months earlier - is attacked in her apartment, after which she readily agrees to marry her boyfriend Robert (Ralph Bates) and move to the countryside. He's been hired to relocate to a 12-acre estate where he's to look after the aging former headmaster (Peter Cushing) of a private school which now serves as his private residence. Somewhat expectedly, he has a prosthetic arm - and he also has a much younger and not particularly likeable wife (Joan Collins, sporting the same striped vest sweater she wore the same year in TALES FROM THE CRYPT). The premises is full of sheeted furniture and rigged with recordings of past school assemblies, lending to its ghostly ambiance, but what is really going on here has a very rational explanation. About 20 minutes before the end of the picture, it seems to lose all its energy when a major character is excused, but the postscript accrues its own interest and the story resolves in an interestingly ambiguous sort of way. Okay, if a bit on the dull side, mostly due to a preponderance of drab colors and an utter lack of concern for visual atmosphere. A bit hard to believe, considering that the cameraman was Arthur Grant (THE GORGON, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA - and, incidentally, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB).

Gillian Hills and Robert Hardy in DEMONS OF THE MIND.
DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972), directed by Peter Sykes, was also photographed by Arthur Grant and it is here that we see his work at its latter-day best. Of all the Hammer films in this group, this is the one that actually looks like a classic Hammer film, and there is never any hint of budgetary constraints though they must have been there. Nevertheless, this is a controversial entry among fans, with several of the commentators in the accompanying featurette taken aback by its graphic violence and full-frontal nudity, describing it as "sick" and "unfocused," though the film itself is actually about mental illness and admittedly qualifies as marginal horror at best. 

The life of this film began, we're told, as a script called BLOOD WILL HAVE BLOOD, a kind of post-werewolf film about a nobleman who either was or imagined himself to be a former lycanthrope and his twisted attempts to stifle this accursed strain in his deeply inbred bloodline. By the time Sykes and screenwriter Christopher Wicking got through with it, nearly all its references to lycanthropy were discarded. As I see it, what remained may have left the film without a clear relationship to Hammer horror but the end product is an aggressive attempt to share barracks, as it were, with Michael Reeves' highly influential WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM, 1968), as a study of how the lives of young people were perverted and destroyed by a literally insane patriarchal society. 

The film, which chronicles the extreme attempts of one Count Zorn (Robert Hardy) - supported by dubious figureheads of science (Patrick Magee) and religion (Michael Hordern) - to keep apart his incestuously inclined son (Shane Briant, his impressive debut) and daughter (BEAT GIRL's Gillian Hills, remote yet ravishing), even ends with a freeze-frame of a woman's scream to emphasize its debt to Reeves. (The casting shows a similar debt to Stanley Kubrick with several members of the cast being recruited from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: Magee, Hills, Virginia Wetherell and Jan Adair.) Some of the performances are admittedly over-the-top but perhaps in the same way that Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971) is over-the-top, to make the lesson we are being taught about the abuses of power and authority impossible to miss. An ambitious Gothic that falls somewhat sort of its presumed mark, this is nevertheless one of Hammer's most authentic and interesting films of the 1970s. 

The individual titles are handsomely packaged and presented, but the supportive content feels minimal. It feels a missed opportunity that Studio Canal did not commission feature-length commentaries - or to include extant ones, as in the case of SCARS OF DRACULA, whose Anchor Bay (USA) and EMI (UK DVDs included a commentary by Christopher Lee and director Roy Ward Baker, both now deceased. Take care to preserve your old copy for future reference!

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.       


Monday, October 16, 2017

LOST HORIZON - Now With More Found Horizons

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt star in LOST HORIZON (1937).
I watched Sony's newly 4K-restored 80th Anniversary Blu-ray presentation of Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON last night, which is now only 6m shy of its initial preview length. While I continue to enjoy the film a good deal, I find myself increasingly unsure of whether the continued effort to restore this early cut is doing the overall work more damage than service. Though the newly uncovered footage is undeniably interesting, it generally only lengthens scenes already doing their duty, so that the film feels more rambling, unfocused and frankly self-enamored than the last time I saw it (probably the very reason prompting the cuts in the first place).

It's easy to see how Capra could have been seduced into the prospect of making the most of what he had, because few directors before him had been more indulged. The budget, including the construction of the dazzling Shangri-La, reportedly ran to $1.5 million (equal to more than $25,000,000 today), and Capra's initial rough cut is said to have run six hours. There is much about it that could not possibly be bettered (Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt particularly), but even if those six minutes (represented here by surviving soundtrack and production photos) were recovered, the film would still be lacking answers to some aggravating questions - like why the Russian woman character played by Margo wants so desperately to escape an apparent Paradise.

Shangri-La, designed by Stephen Goossen.
Among the various extras, the disc includes two further deleted scenes not added to the main feature for lack of audio, but the commentator does a remarkably good job of looping them. There is additional footage of a funeral ceremony culled from the only surviving camera negative - which, despite the commentator's heightened endorsement, looked no better to me than anything in the 4K restoration. But it was all too easy to see how Capra and his cinematographer Joseph Walker could have fallen in love with the visual options at hand and gone completely overboard. There is a wonderful Busby Berkeley-type shot of the torch bearers ascending a spiral staircase, seen from below - and it's eye-popping until you realize, my God, this shot is going to need at least three minutes to complete its design!

Also restored is the Harry Cohn-demanded alternate ending, which was in place for most of the film's theatrical release but has not been generally available for somewhere north of 60 years. The two endings pose a difficult choice; the familiar one supports the film's conception of Shangri-La as a form of faith, while the alternate one makes it more tangible and unambiguous and gives the audience exactly what it wants. I like them both, but only one really supports the ideas carefully woven into the story. 

Another thing about the ending: are we sure that the actor in protagonist Robert Conway's final closeup is actually Ronald Colman? It doesn't look like him to me, and the uncertainty of this - especially coming after so much stock footage of snowy mountainsides - may be the real reason we respond to having Jane Wyatt brought back there.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Claude Sautet's DICTATOR'S GUNS reviewed

DICTATOR'S GUNS
L'arme à gauche 
1965, Something Weird Video
100m 41s, $10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Reviewed by Special Request! 
While it's probably not the first thing that crosses anyone's mind when they think of Something Weird Video, the SWV catalogue is arguably the best resource around when it comes to finding English-friendly copies of European crime pictures. Eddie Constantine! Alain Delon! Jean-Paul Belmondo! Peter van Eyck! Roger Hanin! Giorgio Ardisson! They've got 'em all - just go to their online catalogue and browse the section called "Spies, Thighs and Private Eyes."

One of the very best examples of this genre, and one of the legitimately best films carried by SWV, DICTATOR'S GUNS is a French adaptation of an American novel called AGROUND, written by Charles Williams - whose hardboiled fiction has also been filmed by the likes of Orson Welles (THE DEEP, 1969; based on DEAD CALM - a suspenseful sequel to AGROUND revisiting the two principals), François Truffaut (CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS, 1983; based on THE LONG SATURDAY NIGHT) and Dennis Hopper (THE HOT SPOT, 1990; based on HELL HATH NO FURY). This is the English-dubbed version, which was never released theatrically in the United States, so it had to be culled from a cropped 16mm television syndication print. (The English version was theatrically released in Great Britain as GUNS FOR THE DICTATOR.)

 
If this film is ever properly rediscovered and accorded an official release by Criterion or some other arthouse label (which could well happen, as its director Claude Sautet also helmed such pictures as CÉSAR AND ROSALIE and Un Coeur en Hiver), it would almost certainly be issued only in French with English subtitles - which would be a tragedy, because this version is the only place to hear and savor the robust villainy of American actor Leo Gordon, who receives what may be his finest dramatic showcase in this picture. (As a curious footnote, Sautet also had an important screenwriting career, which included early work on Georges Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE - before Boileau-Narcejac got involved - which places him as one of the likelier suspects to have written the novel of the film credited to "Jean Redon.") This film shares its slowly ratcheting sense of suspense, which Franju likened to twisting the viewer's head off.

 
Lino Ventura plays Jacques Cournot, an out-of-work skipper sarcastically addressed as "Capitan," who is hired in Santa Domingo by a businessman to inspect a boat called "The Dragon," which is up for sale. He returns to the man who hired him, a playboy type named Hugo Hendrix (Alberto de Mendoza), and gives a positive report and recommends that he propose a counter-offer to Mrs. Rae Osborn (Sylva Koscina), the owner of the vessel. Hendrix claims to have sent a check for $65,000 to Mrs. Osborn but she denies receiving it, and Cournot soon finds himself embroiled in police business for his participation in the deal, as Hendrix disappears along with "The Dragon." Rae asks to meet with Cournot and together they decide to track the boat by hired plane. They find it run aground on a small island in the Caribbean, inhabited not only by Hendrix but also a group of armed smugglers led by Art Morrison (Leo Gordon), who stole the ship to transport seven tons of guns, rifles and ammunition. His cohorts include Ruiz (Antonio Martín) and the expert knife-thrower Keefer (played by someone billed in English as Jack Leonard - who is not the American comedian Jack E. Leonard, as the IMDb misreports). 

Once the film's action reaches the boat, it remains limited to the boat and a small island, where the men proceed to laboriously unload more than 30 crates of arms in an effort to lighten the boat and get it back into the water. In the process of this arduous work, some characters die or are injured, and there are also attempts by Cournot and Mrs. Osborn to escape and/or outwit Morrison, who is eventually trapped on the islet in possession of all the weapons and ammunition, which make "The Dragon" something of a shooting gallery that our protagonists must survive while simultaneously brainstorming ways to move the boat to move out of harm's way. It would be wrong to describe what these maneuvers are; it's best to let the film and its nerve-jangling suspense surprise you. That said, the film is equally remarkable for holding one's attention despite being staged with extreme economy, and for braving the elements as its does. The boat setting and the rising tension recalls Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER at times, but this is anything but a psychological drama; think ARGOSY Magazine pulp made with the directorial finesse of a PURPLE NOON. This is a Something Weird title that I can unreservedly recommend to anyone.


(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Doris Wishman's A TASTE OF FLESH (1967)

A TASTE OF FLESH
1967, Something Weird Video
71m 50s, $10.00 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Despite its title, this is not a further entry in Michael Findlay's Flesh series from the same period but rather a stand-alone Doris Wishman item, written by her as "El Ess" with the direction credited to "L. Silverman" - and it's a very strange thing. Filmed almost entirely inside a single three-room apartment, the picture was shot without live sound, then post-synched by different actors at Titra Sound Corp. and scored with some of the most exciting library tracks imaginable (including the one that has since become legend as "the Something Weird Theme"). The result is a bit like a tawdry crime fotonovela in which the performances we hear were not actually given, where the misleading feel of excitement was laid-in like carpeting, by the yard.

We open with a beautiful woman luxuriating for quite a long time in a bubble bath, until another woman appears in the room and ventures to touch her. The intruder is actually the resident, Bobbi (Layla Peters), who leaves the room when her nymphomaniacal roommate Carol (Darlene Bennet) returns home. After exchanging inane chatter like "You should see the delicious undies I bought!", Carol becomes aware of their third wheel - a foreigner named Hannah (Cleo Nova, aka Peggy Steffans-Sarno - in an unflattering blonde wig), whom Bobbi met at the airport and invited to be her guest upon learning that she needed a place to stay. Two men (Michael Lawrence, Buck Starr) knock at the door, identifying themselves as telephone repairmen, but once inside they begin flashing their handguns.

It seems the apartment Bobbi and Carol share has the ideal vantage for their planned assassination of the visiting Prime Minister of Nedea the following morning. It also transpires that Hannah is a native of "Nedea" (I wonder if that's anywhere near Beldad?); indeed, she is the Prime Minister's mistress, who met Bobbi deliberately after her country's secret service pinpointed her apartment as near - but not too near - "His Majesty's" (sic) hotel suite. The would-be assassins pistol-whip her till she spills the exact time of the Prime Minister's scheduled arrival - 6:00 the following morning.

It sounds like there is a lot going on, but after this convoluted build-up, and enough early spice to let us know that the film could deliver if it cared to - a bubble bath scene (Hannah), a shower scene culminating in a PSYCHO-inspired intrusion (Bobbi), and some full-length mirror self-love (Carol) - the film settles into a holding pattern of sit-around-and-wait, with the exception of a surprisingly non-violent (and mostly non-nude) rape scene. The movie stumbles into its most interesting, unexpectedly charming passage when the voluptuous Bobbi falls asleep on the sofa and has a dream about dating Hannah while dressed as a man. This surprising diversion, treated with sweet naïveté, culminates in the foot fetishism expected of Wishman pictures - which may actually have been more the predilection of the recently deceased C. Davis Smith, who photographed the majority of them.




The complicated reasons that bring these various characters together in the same room is ultimately dismissed quickly and with uproarious ease, before unseen police close-in on one of the men in a hilariously protracted burlesque of suspense.

Today, Peggy Steffans has no recollection of making this film, nor any of the other quickies she made with Michael Findlay or Sande Johnsen between "Cleo Nova's" Joe Sarno assignments. Seeing her transplanted from that more ambitious universe to this one really does show how extraordinary and atypical an artist Sarno was in the context of his own times and milieu, and of course it's impossible to gauge the performance Peggy actually gave onset. There's nothing here to suggest that she received any direction whatsoever, other than "sit here, move your leg there," and one can easily believe that the entire film was improvised in no more than a couple of days. The entire cast was required to over-enunciate their line readings, to make the scenes easier to loop.

A TASTE OF FLESH doesn't share the sense of sheer outrageousness that characterizes Doris Wishman's most memorable work (DEADLY WEAPONS, THE AMAZING TRANSPLANT), but for collectors of such arcana, it's short and quirky enough to tickle your curiosity come the next rainy day. 

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.
 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

SWV Week Continues with ALL WOMEN ARE BAD!

ALL WOMEN ARE BAD
1969, Something Weird Video
61 minutes, $10 DVD-R, $9.99 download

Larry Crane's mind-boggling ALL WOMEN ARE BAD ("And I ought to know... I'm a man!") - a latter-day release from Stan Borden's prodigiously rough 'n' scuzzy American Film Distributing Corporation - rates as one of the defining titles in the Something Weird Video catalogue. It serves up a little of everything anyone cruising the label could possibly want: it's black-and-white, east coast Adults Only, shot without live sound (the narrator even loops a woman's dialogue), and the storyline - such as it is - is utterly deranged. In roughly ah hour of screen time, it manages to squeeze in something for the voyeur, the S&M freak, the foot fetishist, the ticklers and the tickled, the horror fan, connoisseurs of deliria, and gay gropings on both sides of the gender fence.

Peter Bradford plays our protagonist and narrator John Steele, a Manhattan door-to-door cosmetics salesman who, after a long day of fruitlessly pressing doorbells, takes a walk and somehow finds himself awakening from a nap in the woods. Deciding to return home early for a change, he discovers his wife Leila (Liz Byan, who wears exaggerated, implicitly Satanic eye makeup) in bed with another man. Feeling angry, wounded, and betrayed, but choosing not to make a scene, Steele makes a silent retreat and rents the first cheap furnished room he can find.






While everything up to this moment is acceptable within the bounds of loose storytelling, our narrator/protagonist's entrance into this rooming house catapults the scenario into a long, dark night of the soul in broad daylight, as he begins to slip in and out of time and space, his environs metamorphosing convulsively as if in a dream or a bad trip. He is abruptly transported from his rooming house corridor to a New York ferry, to what appears to be San Francisco's Chinatown where he sees a stripper smoking opium (followed by images of the woman posing under projections of psychedelic graphics), to standing behind a curtain at a hippie orgy, to being a fly on the wall at a gay seduction (grossly overplayed), to being an invisible witness to a monster's attempts to tickle a prostitute with ostrich feathers and a caped madman's indulgence in an act of necrophilia. Everything his greedy eyes observe seems to reinforce his titular philosophy, a fact driven home visually when each of the women - including the defiled corpse and the gay man about to be orally pleasured - assumes the winking likeness of the emasculating temptress, Leila. At the peak of his delirium, Steele's emasculation becomes literal when he fights to free himself from a strait-jacket only to find his torso transformed into that of a female.






There is a sense about this movie that it's something made out of desperation from scraps of unrelated footage; even the musical soundtrack can be heard abruptly shifting from what sounds like a Blues Magoos freak-out jam to equally jarring, schmaltzy strings during the monotonously-shot grope-and-slurp sessions. The aforementioned New York ferry scene, which drags on for several minutes (in a film barely longer than an hour!) as its passengers wait to get off (as we all wait to get off!), is hilariously scored with urgent suspense music, including snippets of familiar Roger Roger cues from the Valentino library like "Spell of the Unknown" and "Toward Discovery." At the same time, there is something perversely ambitious about this runaway mess that begs us to consider that at least some of its spiraling, surrealist achievement was premeditated. Certainly, within the context of other NYC-made adult fare of this period, the approach taken here was at least creative and unusual, yielding more than enough to win it credibility as a gritty, if inescapably silly, horror-fantasy anomaly. As it probes the delicate psyche of its conservative lead character, clearly bombarded by all the varieties of action he's not getting, it shares with other American Film Distributing Corp. titles (like WHITE SLAVES OF CHINATOWN), a conflicting desire to know what is available and a deep-seated, appalled fear of such human diversity.




 
Credited with special effects on the show is its only familiar name: Jerry Damiano - soon to become world-famous as Gerard Damiano, the director of DEEP THROAT (1972). He also plays the uncredited role of Mr. Squire, whom Steele visits in his executive office building in a Manhattan high rise - where a window is covered by what couldn't more obviously be shower curtains unless they had cartoon fish on them. Director Larry Crane can be glimpsed in the film playing both the bartender and the barnstorming necrophile.

The film is followed - at least on our archival copy - by a series of trailers, beginning with one for ALL WOMEN ARE BAD itself, which is surprisingly more explicit in its erotic commingling (and willingness to show female pubic hair) than the main feature itself.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.