Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Succubus (Necronomicon - Geträumte Sünden; Jesús Franco, 1968)

Lorna Green (Janine Reynaud, costar of Franco's Two Undercover Angels) is the star of  an S&M-themed nightclub act. Her boss Bill (Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman’s Jack Taylor) is also her lover. Through the machinations of a mystery man (Michel Lemoine, Reynaud's husband at the time), Lorna, who has amnesia, begins experiencing dreams involving her killing people that come true. The first of her victims is Admiral Kapp (Franco regular Howard Vernon, or "Varnon" as the credits spell his name), who she stabs through the eye with a knitting needle.

I'm back! After three months of inactivity, something finally spurred me to revive this blog. I was doing a Google search for Andy Milligan's film Blood, and I was delighted to discover my review of same was the seventh result on the first page. Reasoning that would cause people looking for info about the film to check my review out, and from there perhaps my other critiques, I decided it was high time to get back to work.

This is the second Jess Franco movie I've reviewed here, the first being The Blood of Fu Manchu, but overall it's the seventeenth I've seen. Jess' work is a very mixed bag, but when he's good, he's really good. This film is really good Jess Franco. All his trademarks are here: nightclub scenes, zoom lens, and the awful Dr. Orloff himself, Howard Vernon. Of course, there's also some bare flesh on display, particularly from Reynaud, although Roger Ebert inexplicably called ugly in his review of Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo according to Wikipedia. The film has a strong supernatural flavor, with Lemoine's character strongly implied to be the Devil himself.

The provenance of the film's original German title is somewhat curious. Franco claimed he came up with it when he saw a book entitled Necronomicon in writer Pier A. Caminnecci's home. Since the Necronomicon was originally the name of a cursed tome in H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, one wonders what Necronomicon this could be. The forgery by "Simon" would not be released until 1977, with George Hay's version following a year later. Methinks Jess might've been pulling our leg.

This has to be one of Franco's more surreal films. Among other weirdness, we see an LSD party held by a psychiatrist, played by Cave of the Living Dead's Adrian Hoven which boasts a little person butler who, along with the other guests, imitates a dog and then tries to gang-bang Lorna as Hoven (who was also a producer) reads from a book. Admiral Kapp, who is served by two men clad in bow ties, collars, and nothing else, plays a meandering game of word association ("Candy?" "Sperms.") with Lorna before she stabs him in the eye. Lorna has a collection of mannequins in historical gowns who seem to come to life when she kills a blonde post-coitus. It's appropriate that both Godard and Buñuel are name-dropped, two filmmakers who were no stranger to putting the bizarre on film.

Those two worthies are not the only pop culture references in the film. Camus' The Plague, Kafka's The Castle, Madame Butterfly, Doctor Zhivago, the Rolling Stones, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, and others are mentioned. Such nods can be insufferable under the wrong hands, but they fit the tone of Franco's film rather well.

Succubus is without a doubt one of Franco's most unique films, and has already become one of my favorites of the many I've seen, which are nonetheless not even a tenth of his massive output. This is more The Awful Dr. Orloff than Female Vampire, a director who was capable of great highs and great lows showing what he could accomplish when he tried hard enough. Shudder subscribers can check it out there. Essential viewing for Francophiles!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (Nora-neko rokku: Onna banchô; Yasuhara Hasebe, 1970)

Biker chick Ako (Japanese-Korean pop star Akiko Wada) gets involved in a fight between a teenage girl gang led by Mei (Lady Snowblood's Meiko Kaji) and the debs of the male Seiyu Gang. Ako is welcomed by Mei's gang as one of their own. Mei's boyfriend, Michio Yagami (The Streetfighter's Last Revenge's Kôji Wada, no relation to Akiko) seeks to join the Seiyus, to Mei's chagrin. To earn membership, the Seiyus order Michio to persuade his friend Kelly Fujiyama (Ken Sanders), a half-Japanese, half-black boxer, to take a dive. Kelly also has feelings for Mei. Kelly reluctantly agrees to throwing the fight, but after taking a beating from his opponent, he marshals his abilities and wins. The infuriated Seiyus, led by Hanada (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla's Gorô Mutsumi) and his shades-sporting lieutenant Katsuya (In the Realm of the Senses' Tatsuya Fuji) try to kill Michio for not making good on his promise, but Ako convinces her new friends to come to his rescue. Mei's gang and Michio find themselves fugitives from the Seiyu Gang.

I love Japanese cinema of the '60s and '70s. From Yakuza to samurai to martial arts to kaiju to pinku-eiga, I love pretty much every genre they delved into in that era. I've wanted to see the Stray Cat Rock series for years, and luckily for me, Amazon Prime has all five films. I really dug the first one (aka Alleycat Rock: Female Boss, Female Juvenile Delinquent Leader: Stray Cat Rock, and Stray Cat Rock: Woman Boss), and am very much looking forward to watching the others. The series ran from 1970-1971. Yasuharu Hasebe directed the first, third, and fourth films. The second and fifth were directed by Toshiya Fujita, who directed star Meiko Kaji's most famous film, Lady Snowblood, based on Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura's manga.

Interestingly, Kaji stars in all five Stray Cat Rock films, but plays a different character in each one. There's no overt shared continuity between any of the films, as far as I know. Meiko is one of the most divine goddesses of my Japanese cinema pantheon, but the film's sole flaw is that she takes a backseat to Akiko Wada. To be fair, Wada is a talented actress, and a talented singer judging by her musical numbers in the film, and Ako is a memorable character. It's just a little disappointing that Kaji isn't more take charge as Mei, given her portrayal of such powerful and deadly women as Lady Snowblood and Sasori from the Female Convict Scorpion series. Wada also appeared in the next film, Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo, but only had one song. According to Hasebe in an interview in Chris D.'s absolutely awesome book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, the series was originally supposed to be a vehicle for Akiko, but the studio, Nikkatsu, became more concerned with grooming the next generation of star, Kaji took over as the series' headliner, and Wadi didn't return for the last three films. The underutilization of Kaji is the one imperfection in this otherwise impeccable film.

Unsurprisingly, Hasebe doesn't shy from depicting brutality, such as when Katsuya's girlfriend uses a blowtorch on a captive member of Mei's gang. The presence of the obviously biracial Ken Sanders adds an interesting touch to the film, though his heritage is never brought up. The third film, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, which as I said before was also directed by Hasebe, apparently does explicitly touch on the subject of mixed-race Japanese, so I'm curious to see that one. There are some groovy scenes in a nightclub featuring bands performing in both English and Japanese. I hope the rest of the series lives up to the high bar this one sets!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Ape Man (William Beaudine, 1943)

Agatha Brewster (Minerva Urecal) comes to America to find her brother James (Bela Lugosi), a scientist who has disappeared. James' colleague Dr. George Randall (Henry Hall) takes her to his mansion, where she learns that his experiments have transformed him into a half-man, half-ape. Investigating Dr. Brewster's disappearance are reporters Jeff Carter (Freaks' Wallace Ford) and Billie Mason (Adventures of Captain Marvel's Louise Currie). James' condition can be staved off with injections of spinal fluid, but this would require killing the donors, and Randall is understandably reluctant to do so. Therefore, James and his savage lab gorilla take matters into their own appendages...

The Ape Man is the third film I've seen directed by William Beaudine and starring Bela Lugosi, the other two being the fairly decent Voodoo Man and the execrable Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, which I covered here a while back. Thankfully, our current subject is more akin to the former than the latter in terms of watchability. The absence of Sammy Petrillo helps considerably in that regard. Besides Bela, Louise Currie and Henry Hall were also in Voodoo Man. Both films also have surprisingly meta endings, in The Ape Man's case involving a oddball character who turns up at the most opportune times throughout the film, and whose identity is only revealed in the last scene. Bela as usual puts 110% into his performance. His ape makeup is cool, and way more convincing than the gorilla suit Emil Van Horn has to wear. Dr. Brewster's sister Agatha is supposedly a ghost-hunter, a la William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, but other than a scene where Agatha attempts to convince Jeff and Billie the ooking they've heard coming from the mansion came from a spirit called "the Galloping Ghost," this never becomes relevant to the plot. Too bad, because an ape man and ghosts in the same movie would've been awesome, in my movie. Jeff is pretty much a sexist ass to Billie throughout, even though they're on friendly terms, stating in the aforementioned last scene he should take her over his knee for going off on her own to find Brewster. Then again, his character of Phroso in Freaks was kind of a jerk with a heart of gold, so there's precedent for such a character in his resume. Henry Hall is better here than he was in Voodoo Man, where he was saddled with lines like "Gosh all fish hooks!" and "What I'm really interested in is young girls," which taken out of context sounds really troublesome. Bela fans should definitely give this one a look-see.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Anatomy of a Psycho ("Brooke L. Peters" [Boris Petroff], 1961)

Chet Marko (Darrell Howe) visits his brother Duke on Death Row. On his way home, Chet is accosted by three hooligans, who slash his face with a broken beer bottle, leaving a scar. Returning home, Chet gets into an argument with his sister Pat (The Tingler's Pamela Lincoln), insisting Duke is innocent of murder. Meanwhile, we learn that the father of Chet's friend Mickey (Ronnie Burns, George Burns and Gracie Allen's adopted son) was the witness who identified Duke to the police. After Duke's execution, Chet and his friends don masks and give the D.A.'s son a beating as revenge. From there, Chet's violent behavior only escalates, while policeman Lt. Mac (Michael Granger) seeks to bring him to justice.

I've watched my share of "teenagers gone bad" films, and Anatomy of a Psycho is a contender for one of the best I've seen. It's a suspenseful, taut piece of cinema, and Darrell Howe turns in a performance that is frankly brilliant in in its intensity. Of Chet's buddies, General Hospital's Frank Killmond as the sycophantic Bobbie is a particular standout. Ronnie Burns is also quite good, flexing serious dramatic muscles to contrast with the comedic work his mom and dad were so famous for. Michael Granger makes a likable and dedicated cop. When he shows up at Chet's shack home without a warrant, he admits that he is breaking the law, and says that when a cop does that, people should worry. He's clearly saying that in a way that makes it clear he thinks cops should obey the laws they enforce. In the days when police brutality makes a movement like Black Lives Matter necessary, this made me warm to the character, although it is kind of goofy that when he first shows up at the shack he's jokingly wearing one of Chet and his pals' masks from when they roughed up the D.A.'s kid. Isn't that evidence?

Russian Boris Petroff's direction is able, and the solid script was written by Jane Mann of The Unearthly fame and Don Devlin, father of writer-producer Dean Devlin. Don also has a memorable role in the film as Chet's ex-Marine buddy Moe, who suffers a terrible betrayal at his friend's hand. Some of the music was recycled from Plan 9 from Outer Space, but while I deny to my dying breath that Ed Wood's most famous film is the worst ever made, Anatomy of a Psycho is a much stronger film overall. It deserves to be much better known than it currently is, but hopefully a recent showing on TCM will bring it a new following.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Invasion of the Animal People (Virgil W. Vogel, 1959)

Diane Wilson (The Flesh Eaters' Barbara Wilson) is awoken by a piercing noise that causes her to run out into the street, where she is picked up by the police. Her doctor is unable to determine the cause of her seizure, but ultimately pronounces her in sound health. There is some speculation that Diane's attack is related to a UFO sighting that occurred at the same time. Later, Diane goes to Sweden for a skiing vacation. She receives a letter from her uncle Frederick (The Slime People's Robert Burton), an archaeologist, who she is planning to visit. Meanwhile, a spaceship crashes in Lappland, causing an avalanche. Believing the ship to be a giant meteor, Col. Robert Bottiger (Bengt Blomgren) asks Frederick and Dr. Erik Engström (Sten Gester) to investigate. Meeting Diane, Erik is immediately smitten, though Diane plays hard-to-get. Receiving a report of mutilated reindeer in Lappland, the scientists go to look into it, and find the footprints of a creature that they deduce must have been 20 feet tall.

Invasion of the Animal People has an interesting history. It was originally a Swedish film called Rymdinvasion i Lappland, directed by American filmmaker Virgil W. Vogel, best known for The Mole People. When it was released in the States in 1962, distributor Jerry Warren trimmed it to 55 minutes, also adding ponderous narration by John Carradine (who worked with Warren on his own films The Incredible Petrified World and Frankenstein Island) and a new opening scene with Diane's seizure. This wouldn't be the last time Vogel and Warren would be associated - footage of the Mole People was integrated into Warren's The Wild World of Batwoman, one of the contenders for the worst movie I have ever seen. Invasion of the Animal People isn't that bad, but it's not remarkably good either. Despite the title, there's only one animal person. The furry suit (not that kind of furry suit, ya pervs) does look reasonably cool, and the monster has tusks and padded feet. Diane Wilson isn't exactly a strong female character, spending a lot of her screen time after the monster shows up screaming and hobbled by a wrenched knee. At one point, she expresses a desire to go with Uncle Frederick and Erik to investigate the meteor, but Erik tells her, "You just stay here and look pretty!" How she resisted the urge to kick him in the balls, I'll never know. The aliens look kind of like the Coneheads cosplaying as Brain Guy from MST3K. Disappointingly, we never find out just why they came to Earth. A singer performs a song called "The Land of the Midnight Sun" in Swedish, with Erik translating for Diane. Invasion of the Animal People is better than 95% of the films Jerry Warren's name is attached to, but anyone expecting a classic of the genre will likely be disappointed.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Women's Camp 119 (KZ9 - Lager di sterminio; Bruno Mattei, 1977)

A group of female prisoners from Ravensbruck concentration camp, described as "lesbians, communists, [and] pig whores" are transferred to Rosenhausen experimental camp, run by Obersturmbannführer Franz Wieker (Have a Good Funeral, My Friend...Sartana Will Pay's Ivano Staccioli). Helping Wieker are the sadistic Oberleutnant Otto Ohlendorff (Gabriele Carrara), lesbian Chief Kapo Marta (Ria De Simone), gibbering lunatic rapist Kurt (Giovanni Attanasio), and Dr. David Meisel (Nello Riviè). Wieker assigns prisoner Dr. Maria Black (Cannibal Ferox's Lorraine De Selle) to help Meisel, while Marta develops a fixation on another inmate, Cristina (Nightmare City's Sonia Viviani). As things go from bad to worse, Meisel, Maria, and Cristina begin planning 

Bruno Mattei has sometimes been described as "the Ed Wood of Italy." He was frequently partnered with Claudio Fragasso, the man who directed Troll 2, one of the most infamous bad movies since Plan 9 from Outer Space. Personally, I quite like Ed Wood. Having seen this and one other Mattei film, Violence in a Women's Prison, I have to say I like his work as well. I'm a comparative novice when it comes to Nazisploitation films - I've seen the legendary Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, of course - and even moreso when it comes to the Italian examples of the genre. I will be seeking out more, though. Salon Kitty, SS Experiment Camp, Nazi Love Camp 27, and Mattei's own SS Girls are all on my to-watch list. Now, for the record, I am most emphatically not a Nazi sympathizer. I'm of Jewish descent on my father's side, so unsurprisingly I hate the fuckers. But I am also an exploitation cinema aficionado, so I want to have a well-rounded education in many of the most prominent genres. Nazisploitation happens to be one of them.

This is a sleazy film. Make no mistake about that. There are lots of naked women being abused, whether they're whipped, or forced to have sex with frozen pilots to thaw them with their body heats, or having their heads dipped in water, or getting raped by crazy Kurt. Wieker kills prisoners by removing their uteri and transferring them into infertile women in order to propagate the Master Race. The sole male inmates, both homosexuals, are forced to have sex with women, and understandably are somewhat resistant. Mattei's take on the Nazis and their experiment is brutal, though I can't vouch for its historical veracity or lack thereof, and while it never reaches the excesses of Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Women's Camp 119 is pretty graphic. Most of the performances are good, with two being notable standouts. Nello Riviè is excellent as Meisel, the Jewish doctor who despises the horrors he's forced to perpetrate at Rosenhausen. Gabriele Carrara hams it up big time as the laughing, oft-shouting Ohlendorff. According to IMDB, he only did two other films, the aforementioned SS Girls and a "mockmumentary" on bizarre sex practices called Mutant Sexual Behavior. His acting is truly in a class of its own, and makes me wish he had been more prolific. The ever-dependable Alessandro Alessandroni's music is superb.

The ending is pretty depressing, even if good ultimately does triumph over evil. Just before our final scene, we're given text about what Wieker was up to after the camp was put out of operation. Two things about this amused me. First of all, the text lingers on the screen well past the point when most people would have finished reading it. Second, it begins with the words, "Tree months later." Whoopsie! Between this and Violence in a Women's Prison, I can tell Bruno Mattei was a sick puppy, and I am more than interested in further viewing his work. I have several films bookmarked on Amazon Prime, including Women's Prison Massacre, which like Violence is part of the Black Emanuelle series starring Laura Gemser. Hope they're just as off-the-wall entertaining!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Hot Potato (Oscar Williams, 1976)

Carter Rangoon (Sam Hiona) kidnaps June Dunbar (The Big Doll House's Judith Brown), a senator's daughter, to force the U.S. to provide aid to the Asian country of Chang Lan. The U.S. government recruits black agent Jones (Jim Kelly) and mercenary Johnny Chicago (Raw Force's Geoffrey Binney) to lead the rescue mission. Arriving in Chang Lan, they meet their police liaison, Det. Sgt. Pam Varaje (Women of the Prehistoric Planet's Irene Tsu), and recruit Leonardo Pizzarelli, aka the White Rhino, (Mean Streets' George Memmoli), a hefty Texan of Italian descent. Storming Rangoon's lair with elephants, they seemingly rescue June. However, she has actually been replaced with a lookalike, Leslie (also played by Judith Brown).

As noted in my review of The Tattoo Connection, Hot Potato is the sequel to Black Belt Jones that the former film is sometimes touted as, but isn't. The end credits say that the film is "Based on the character created by Alex Rose and Fred Weintraub," both of whom wrote the story for Jones, confirming it's meant to be the same character, though IMDB doesn't list Hot Potato as a sequel to Jones on either films' Connections pages. The fact that Jones has the same name, is played by the same actor, and has a similar personality to Black Belt Jones cements it. Unfortunately, Hot Potato is not nearly as good a film as Black Belt Jones. While the earlier film had some great humor, with the best example being Gloria Hendry's handling of dirty dishes, Hot Potato's comedy is much more forced and slapstick, complete with cartoon music and sound effects. The opening credits are shown over a General being called by Senator Dunbar (whom we can barely hear) about his daughter's kidnapping. The General promises to send Jones, then hangs up and says, "Where the hell's Chang Lan?" Oh shit, my sides! The White Rhino spends a lot of his screen time making bad quips and goofing around with toy police cars.

At times, the Rhino and Johnny seem to have a relationship similar to Monk and Ham from the Doc Savage novels I love so much, though not nearly as entertaining or coherent. ("I ought to blow you up like a ship!" "You know what your trouble is? You don't respect Smokey the Bear!") Johnny himself is given a small bit of pathos when we learn his wife and daughter were killed five years ago in an explosion meant for him, but this is never touched on again, and later he goes through the seven stages of grief faster then I've ever seen anyone. Irene Tsu is decent as the policewoman who winds up falling for Jones (and vice versa), but isn't given much to work with. Jim Kelly himself is cool as ever, and he choreographed his own fight scenes, so his are the most convincing in the film. Carter Rangoon, despite his awesome name, is not a very memorable villain despite his tiger trap, and his right-hand man Krugman  (Hardy Stockmann) even less so. Sadly, this is very much a film for blaxploitation and martial arts completists only.