Monday, March 26, 2018

The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru; Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

At the wedding of lame-legged Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyôko Kagawa), daughter of the vice-president  (Masayuki Mori) of the Land Development Corporation, Kōichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), the secretary of President Arimura (Ken Mitsuda), a group of reporters watch as Assistant Chief Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) is arrested on bribery charges involving likely kickbacks. The reporters note a parallel to an earlier incident involving Iwabuchi, Administrative Officer Moriyama (Takashi Shimura), and Contract Officer Shirai (Kô Nishimura), which was left unsolved after Wada's predecessor Furuya committed suicide by jumping from a 7th-story window. The wedding cake is also in the shape of the building where Furuya killed himself, with a rose sticking from the 7th floor. The police interrogate Wada and Managing Director Miura (Gen Shimizu) about the Corporation bribing government officials. Prompted by a letter he receives, Miura commits suicide by running in front of a truck. Nishi stops Wada when he in turns tries to kill himself by jumping into an active volcano. Allowing the world to believe him dead, Nishi takes Wada to his own funeral, where he plays a tape recording of his bosses plotting his death, persuading him to help him get revenge for past wrongs...

I have a Holy Trinity of Filmmakers: Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, and Akira Kurosawa. The Bad Sleep Well is another masterpiece from a director who made many of them. This film proves, as do the likes of Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, that he was as brilliant at Japanese style-noir as he was at period dramas such as Rashomon and Yojimbo. I love a good revenge flick, and Nishi's attempt to bring down these powerful men, and learning why he's doing it, is fascinating to watch, so that even at 151 minutes the film moves briskly. Mifune once again proves himself one of Japan's best actors, and his fellow Kurosawa regulars Mori and Shimura are excellent as well. Nishi's relationship with Yoshiko, whom he originally marries as a mean to an ends but finds himself genuinely falling in love with, is heartbreaking, and Kyôko Kagawa (also in Ozu's Tokyo Story and Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, among others) turns in a wonderfully sympathetic performance. Kamatari Fujiwara is also superb as a man willing to help Nishi, but guilt-ridden by his methods. The ending is tragic, and says a lot about how bureaucrats can abuse their power to crush those who stand in their way. Kurosawa is considered a legend for good reason, and this film ranks as one of his very best.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Body Beneath (Andy Milligan, 1970)

A woman in Highgate Cemetery on Hampstead Heath is attacked by three green-skinned women. Soon after, Graham Ford (The Pink Panther's Colin Gordon) is visited by his distant cousin the Rev. Alexander Algernon Ford (Tootsie's Gavin Reed) and his silent wife Alicia (Susan Heard). The two have recently moved to Carfax Abbey near Highgate, and invite Graham and his wife Anna to dinner. The Reverend also tells Graham the Ford family has existed since 98 B.C. Anna (Real Life's Susan Clark), who as it turns out is the woman at the cemetery, comes home. Meanwhile, Susan Ford (Jackie Skarvellis) tells her boyfriend Paul Donati (Richmond Ross) she is pregnant, and the two talk about getting married. Apparently, Susan will also be visiting the Reverend and his wife. Meanwhile (again), Candace Ford (Emma Jones) receives a bouquet of flowers. One of the green-skinned women whispers to her maid. The bouquet has a razor blade in it, on which Candace cuts herself, drawing blood. Susan shows up early at Carfax Abbey, where the Reverend is pleased to learn of her engagement and that Paul is of "strong blood." Susan passes out from drugged sherry, and is later offered food by the hunchbacked servant Spool (Berwick Kaler), whom she tries to convince to help her escape. However, she learns a horrible truth: for centuries, the Fords have been vampires. The family's blood has become diluted in the past hundred years by inbreeding, but Susan's unborn child may be the solution to their problem...

Andy Milligan is a fascinating example of a cult filmmaker. Also a playwright, he did films in both the U.S. and the U.K. Reportedly possessed of a violent temper, Milligan was also openly gay, and died of AIDS in 1990. Of the three films I've seen by Milligan to date, The Body Beneath is by far the most well-made. Milligan's literary inclinations are on full display -- sharp-eared viewers will recognize that Carfax Abbey was Dracula's home in England in Beam Stoker's novel, while the real Highgate Cemetery was the basis for Stoker's fictional Kingstead Cemetery. The performances run the gamut. Gavin Reed is a ham, but not in a bad way. Berwick Kaler makes the viewer feel for what would ordinarily be a stock hunchbacked assistant, sorrowfully recounting how his stepbrother pushed him in front of a moving bus. Shortly before that, we learn he likes pudding, which I'm sure many viewers can identify with. The Fords' vampirism is interesting. The Reverend and Alicia get their blood by transfusion, but the other members of the family seem to go in for the traditional neck-biting. Of course, horror movies about ancient horribly inbred families are nothing new; Jack Hill's Spider Baby is one of the best. The ending is surprisingly arty and well-shot for Milligan, as the Fords, flamboyantly attired, get together for their big conference. The Rev wants to relocate the family to America, home of "pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, degenerates, the scum of the Earth!" Hey, if the shoe fits...

If you have Amazon Prime, you can check out the film there. And if you're still not decided, check out the trailer!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (William Beaudine, 1952)

The natives of Kola-Kola Island, including Chief Rakos and his daughter Nona (Charlita) find crooner Duke Mitchell and his partner comedian Sammy Petrillo (playing themselves), who fell out of a plane they were taking to perform for troops in Guam. Duke and Nona hit it off, while Sammy finds himself having to deal with the unwanted attentions of Nona's heavyset sister Saloma. Nona acts as lab assistant to Dr. Zabor (Bela Lugosi), a scientist engaged in evolutionary experiments. Zabor is himself in love with Nona, and doesn't take kindly to Duke's obvious interest in her. Like Saloma, Zabor's lab chimpanzee Ramona takes a shine to Sammy, and locks him in with her in her cage. Pepe Bordo, the local policeman, offers to use his wireless set to contact one of the other islands and arrange to get Duke and Sammy off the island, but Nona is saddened by the thought of losing Duke. Later, Duke, Sammy, and Zabor attend dinner with Chief Rakos and his daughters. Duke and Nona sneak away to discuss wedding plans, unaware Zabor's manservant Chula is spying on them. Chula reports this to Dr. Zabor, who then uses a serum to turn Ramona into a smaller monkey (not to mention a different kind), and somehow concludes that now he can turn a man into a gorilla. Chula grabs Duke, and brings him to Dr. Zabor, who sure enough turns him into the Brooklyn Gorilla of the title.

This movie hurts. Quite badly, in fact. Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo blatantly lifted their whole act from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who justifiably sued them. Duke, however, doesn't have a third of Dino's suavity or musical talent (he sounds like he's in physical pain at times during his songs), while Sammy is like an even more annoying version of Jerry Lewis, if such a thing is possible. (I maintain Jerry is at his finest in a rare mostly-serious role as talk show host Jerry Langford in Scorsese's The King of Comedy.) Literally every line out of his mouth is a bad joke, and even worse he laughs at many of them himself, the sign of a true douchebag in my opinion. He also frequently refers to Duke as "Dukie," which is a truly unfortunate homophone. Bela Lugosi is as fun to watch as ever, though it's depressing to think he was at that stage of his career when he was deep in the throes of drug addiction and taking pretty much any role that was offered him. In the only halfway amusing gag in the movie, upon first meeting Duke and Sammy the latter recognizes Zabor as "that guy who go around biting people's necks!" Charlita (born Clara DeFreitas in Lowell, Massachusetts) is a dull love interest, although she does look nice in a sarong. Sammy constantly running away from Saloma and making jokes about her weight (something Nona, her sister, never objects to) is pretty offensive, and that's coming from a large man who nevertheless laughs uproariously at MST3K's savaging of Joe Don Baker. Duke tries to inform Sammy of his transformation via charades(!!!), but is unable to do so until he sings one of his (s)hit songs, "'Deed I Do." Because apparently he can sing but not talk as a gorilla. The ending serves up one of the hoariest "fuck you" cliches in the history of cinema. Director William Beaudine has been nicknamed "One-Shot" because he allegedly seldom retook scenes with flubbed lines or special effects failures. Actually, this is a disproved claim made by Michael Medved, the cinematic and political moron who propagated the laughable idea that Lugosi's friend and collaborator Ed Wood was the worst filmmaker of all time. (Incidentally, Martin Landau watched Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla as research for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Lugosi in Tim Burton's biopic of Wood. Like me, he considered Bela the film's sole redeeming quality.) Bela appeared in a good few of Beaudine's films, though the only one of their other works together I've seen is Voodoo Man, which isn't a particularly good film but still beats the hell out of this one. Late in his career, Beaudine produced the horror Westerns Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, which have a certain notoriety all their own. Sammy went on to star in sexploitation icon Doris Wishman's Keyholes Are For Peeping, while Duke directed and starred in Gone with the Pope, where he played an ex-gangster who hatches a plan to kidnap the Pope and demand a dollar apiece in ransom from every Catholic in the world. Full of bad writing and worse comedy and music, this is very much a film for Lugosi completists only.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma; José Mojica Marins, 1964)

After a funeral, the undertaker Zé do Caixão (director José Mojica Marins) returns to his home, where his maid-with-benefits Lenita (Valéria Vasquez) explains she is unable to serve him meat because of a religious holiday. Zé, a devout atheist, flies into a rage, and goes off to get some lamb. Before he goes, he is visited by his friend Antônio de Andrade (Nivaldo Lima) and his fiancée Terezhina de Oliveira (Magda Mei). Lenita is jealous of Zé's attraction to Terezhina. Zé takes Terezhina to meet Antônio later on, but she flees after Zé tries to force himself on her. At a bar, Zé becomes involved in a card game, and slashes another player's hand with a broken bottle when he refuses to pay up. Dr. Rodolfo (producer Ilídio Martins Simões) is called to treat the injured man. Zé makes advances towards a barmaid, but when the girl's uncle objects, a brawl breaks out, and Zé escapes only with Antônio's help. Zé, who wishes Terezhina to father his son in furtherance of what he calls the "continuity of the blood," chloroforms the infertile Lenita, ties her to a bed, tapes her mouth shut, and kills her with a venomous spider, making the bite look like an accident. More than two weeks later, Zé accompanies Antônio and Terezhina to a Romany ("gypsy") fortune teller called the Old Witch (Eucaris Moraes), who foretells that Antônio will die tonight, and must be buried at midnight. During an argument about religion, Zé hits Antônio in the head with a fireplace poker, than strangles him in a bathtub. At his funeral, Terezhina accuses Zé of murdering her fiancé. Visiting the bar once more, Zé buys a bird to give as a gift to Terezhina. When she rejects him once again, he bloodily beats and then rapes her. Terezhina tells Zé she will kill herself, and that at midnight he will, as the title suggests, take his soul.

I have been curious about the Zé do Caixão (or Coffin Joe as he's known in English-speaking countries) films for years, and I am pleased to say the first film in the trilogy exceeded my expectations. José Mojica Marins has crafted a truly memorable character. As Zé, Marins is utterly sinister, with his black top hat, suit, and cloak, beard, and pointy, curly fingernails. One would almost think there was something demonic about him, though the film never says such. His obsession with the "continuity of the blood," his macabre laugh, and his sadistic glee in destroying those who stand in his way make him a villain to be reckoned with. He believes that his lack of faith makes him stronger than the average person. (Speaking as an atheist myself, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but Zé is insane, so take that for what you will.) The film is atmospheric and has great music. Zé addresses the audience in a pre-opening credits scene, and the Old Witch right after the credits. The ending is extremely well staged and genuinely scary. Zé de Caixão became an iconic character in Brazil (indeed, this was the country's first ever horror film), and Marins brought the character back for two more films, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) and Embodiment of Evil (2008). I know for damn sure I will be checking those out, particularly as I want to see how Zé could possibly bounce back from the events of this film.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Angel of Vengeance (Ted V. Mikels and Ray Dennis Steckler, 1987)

Despite the pleading of Pierre (Pierre Agostino, credited as "Pierre D'Augustino"), who tells him the Major said to leave the local women alone, Manny Laconi (Macka Foley, who played the gym coach on two episodes of Parker Lewis Can't Lose) propositions newcomer Tina Davenport (Jannina Poynter), who has come to a small mountain town to write a book about her father, a Green Beret who died in Vietnam about 15 years ago. Taking to the rustic life like a fish to water, Tina nevertheless finds herself continually harassed by Manny, who eventually shows up at the cottage, only to be coldcocked and arrested. Major Hargrove (David O'Hara, whose credits include playing a cop in an episode of Santa Barbara and Ed Gein on Criminal Minds), the leader of the survivalist militia group in the mountains Manny and Pierre belong to, shows up to transport Manny back to their compound, Tina having chosen not to press charges. The Major and Manny, who once served six years for sexual assault, get into an altercation with some bikers, who follow them back to the compound. The Major and his merry band kill all of the bikers except for Linda (Linda Eden), whom the Major gives to Manny to do with as he pleases. Going into town to get supplies, Manny and Pierre run into Tina out jogging, and Manny decides to bring her with them. Meanwhile, two rednecks leave a gun store after robbing the place and shooting the owner. Tina gets thrown in the same cell as Linda, who she insists needs a doctor. The Major is not happy with Manny for bringing her to the compound. Tina is tied to a bed, and Manny rapes her (offscreen, thankfully). Meanwhile, the two random killers murder a farm family. Tina accuses the Major of cowardice and requests that his men hunt her, giving her a fair chance. The Major gives her two hours, believing an unarmed woman is easy prey, but he is very wrong...

Fans of cult cinema will appreciate the legendary names behind Angel of Vengeance. Ray Dennis Steckler was initially the director, but was sadly fired after three days by producer Jeffrey C. Hogue and replaced with Ted V. Mikels, the director of such infamous films as The Black Klansman (not to be confused with the upcoming Spike Lee movie of the same name), The Corpse Grinders (in which people being ground into violence-inducing cat food is simulated by placing the actors into cardboard boxes and pushing hamburger out the other end), and The Doll Squad, often cited as the likely inspiration for Charlie's Angels. Mikels lived in a California castle for many years with a bevy of beautiful women, so make of that what you will. Angel of Vengeance marks the sixth film I've seen by Mikels, and the most recent in terms of release date. It's probably the weakest of the six, but I would say it has a certain "guilty pleasure" quality to it if I believed in the idea of guilty pleasures. The plot is standard '80s action movie fare, although some of the performances are amusing. Jannina Poynter is certainly attractive, but not much to write home about as an actress. Her response to finding a dead body seems less to denote anger at the killer as annoyance. It's also hilarious how she comes into town wearing an incredibly demure dress, but once she settles in the cottage she switches to a headband, tank top, and short shorts. Macka Foley plays one of the hammiest psycho rapists ever caught on film. David O'Hara is pretty charismaless and unmemorable for a militia leader. Pierre Agostino is likely a holdover from when Steckler was still directing the film, as he played the title character of RDS' films The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher and Las Vegas Serial Killer. One wonders if the name on the bikers' jackets, "Thrill Killers, Inc.," is a in-joke nod to Steckler's film The Thrill Killers. The random killers, Zach (Jason Holt, who also directed six films, four of which he acted in) and his unnamed partner (Ed Walters) chew the scenery almost as much as Foley, and the ending will likely satisfy viewers who've come to hate these pieces of shit. Some of Tina's killings are memorable, as when she jabs two sharpened sticks through a guy's eyes, or when she catches another one in a snare and blows him up with a grenade, leaving only a leg. There's a mediocre country song over the end credits, "Take Me Home" by T. Craig Keller (also the associate producer), and Tina twice sings Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" (Because her methods are totally ones of which the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman would approve, right?) This isn't anywhere near the level of Mikels' '60s-'70s work, but it's worth at least one watch for completeness' sake. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Maciste in Hell (Maciste all'inferno; Guido Brignone, 1925)

The forces of Hell, led by the Lieutenant, Barbariccia (Franz Sala), come to Earth in human form to spread chaos. Barbariccia tries to tempt the superhumanly strong Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) with wealth and power, but the virtuous hero will have no truck with the Devil. Soon after, Maciste confronts Prince George (Domenico Serra), demanding he take responsibility for the child he has fathered by Maciste's cousin Rosabel (Polaire). Unfortunately, Barbariccia kidnaps the baby, and tells Rosabel he is dead. Cursing God, she almost falls prey to the demon, but a friendly priest intervenes. Meanwhile, Maciste finds the baby and takes it to safety, reuniting him with his mother in the process. Soon the demons return to Hell, but not before dragging Maciste along with them...

The strongman Maciste is one of the longest-running characters in Italian cinema, debuting in the 1914 film Cabiria, the first of 27 silent films. In the 1960s, with Steve Reeves' Hercules a huge success, Italian filmmakers revived Maciste for a series of "sword and sandal" flicks. Since Maciste was not a well-known character outside of Italy, the dubbed versions often changed the name "Maciste" to other heroes of myth and legend. For instance, Maciste e la regina de Samar became Hercules Against the Moon Men. One interesting aspect of both incarnations of Maciste is that he appears in many disparate locales and centuries, as shown by the title of Zorro contro Maciste, a cinematic crossover with Johnston McCulley's swashbuckling hero. This leads to the inescapable conclusion the strongman is immortal. If so, perhaps Rosabel is actually his descendant rather than his cousin. That being said, this film is somewhat confusing in chronological terms. The montage of wonders Barbariccia offers Maciste includes shots of skyscrapers, yet Prince George's retainers wear powdered wigs and ruffled shirts. Despite this, the film's atmosphere is great. Hell is eerie, and the goatlike makeup on the actors playing demons is exceptional for the era. In human form, they resemble nothing less than stereotypical silent movie villains - think Snidely Whiplash. (Fans of exploitation cinema may recognize some of the Hell footage, as it was reused in Dwain Esper's 1934 sleaze masterpiece Maniac to symbolize the protagonist's madness, as well as footage from Benjamin Christensen's Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen: Siegfried). There are some cool special effects for the time: a demon's head inflates, while another places a head atop his neck. Franz Sala is more husky than muscular, but he makes a good hero. There is a slightly cringeworthy sexist line regarding the women of Hell's attempts to seduce Maciste, "Even in Hell, women are fickle!" I know this movie is pre-Gloria Steinem, but still... The script is fairly literary, including quotes from Longfellow and Dante. I've seen a couple of the 1960s Maciste films before, but this was the first of the original series I've seen, and I definitely want to check out more now.