Monday, April 16, 2018

Claudia Cardinale at 80

I’ve told the story here, at least a couple of times, about how I first saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST by accident as the unexpected half of a double feature, and how it so unexpectedly and completely moved me in ways to which my 12 year old self was accustomed that I left afterwards without seeing the Elvis Western I’d come to see. I knew Elvis couldn’t possibly compete with what I’d just experienced, so I picked up my coat and I left. I look back on this moment as the first adult decision of my life.


I was moved by a lot of different things about the film, but I now realize that its female lead Claudia Cardinale - who turned 80 yesterday - gave what was probably the first truly dimensional, empathetic portrayal of a woman I had ever seen in a film. Jill McBain is introduced as a New Orleans hooker who had the good fortune to catch the eye of a rich, romantic widowed landowner. She moves to join him and steps off the train to find him and his three children massacred for standing between some dangerous men and a goal they cravenly coveted - the raw lumber and iron necessary to build a town called Sweetwater, which Jill had somehow inspired in a heart no longer beating.


Jill is not your usual heroine; she is more of a look behind the scenes of a traditional western heroine’s life as she fights to survive and claim what she has earned. Throughout the film she is attended by three different men, each of them vultures of a kind and, in addition to whatever else the story eventually settles, the film is about how these three men interact with her and how her heart finally settles on one of them, who isn’t the worst one but really isn’t the right one either. When we meet her, she is one kind of illusion, the kind of woman whose promenading glance and well-turned ankle that might inspire a man to look at a handful of dust and dirt and believe in a place called Sweetwater. Then her life is blindsided by tragedy and the need to understand what has happened to her dreams and why. To learn the answers, she must navigate her way through the mysterious intersecting motives of these three men. By the end of this journey, she has gone from being confused by the name Sweetwater to becoming a literal waterbearer for the town springing up around her and the first train rails to connect the two halves of America from east to west.


Jill wasn’t the first woman of her kind in a western, but she was the first one I ever encountered. What she taught me that day at the movies, some men never learn.

Auguri e grazie, Claudia Cardinale.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE PSYCHOPATH (1966)

Margaret Johnson in her doll palace.
There is an Amicus production I’ve known for about 15-20 years and have never really liked at all: Freddie Francis' THE PSYCHOPATH. 

Since its original release in 1966, the Paramount release has been all but impossible to see - except in a pan-and-scanned copy that first ran on TNT with commercial interruption way back when I first taped it, eager to see one of the more important titles that eluded me back in the day. It more recently ran on TCM in the same ugly copy. But this past week it was released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in an actual Techniscope presentation. Imagine how these frames would have looked cut in half to fit your TV screen...


Patrick Wymark interrogates the principal cast.

 

 
I am surprised to report that I have done A COMPLETE TURNAROUND! With the full frame revealed, with the contrast corrected, the film has a marvelous look, with a strong cast and an Elisabeth Lutyens score with a eerie lullaby motif. I believe there may also have been a scene or two cut from the version I had previously seen, as some girly photos are taped to a man’s wall, a bit stronger than Paramount would have allowed for an all ages matinee movie in 1966. Not to mention half the screen was missing in every shot of that TV print! Admittedly, the Robert Bloch script is a little obvious, but the actors are top notch and the team responsible for THE SKULL are turning the screws as ably as ever, with some masterful compositions and set pieces.


Judy Huxtable and Alexander Knox.


Seeing it this way, it is also much easier to appreciate that director Freddie Francis must have seen a Bava film or two by this time, because we get some of his giallo atmospherics - the scattered dolls, the strobing lights, the victim trying to elude her killer while wearing a candy apple red mackintosh out of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. Indeed, this film can now be taken into account as a likely inspiration for some of Argento’s later imagery, and his uses of murder fetishes, particularly in DEEP RED (1975). As the title suggests, Bloch’s script is a quirky elaboration on his PSYCHO - it’s a more baroque study of a somewhat similar, somewhat dissimilar situation and - what a nice surprise! - grandly effective at times. The climax of the film achieves a level of simultaneous high camp and grand tragedy - actually operatic - and (this is no spoiler) Margaret Johnson's final flourish must have had matinee kids squirming in their seats back in the day. 

This is now going to be my chief reference when I tell people that presentation has everything to do with how we respond to a film. Mind you, the opening reel of the film has some unavoidable scratches, but they are much easier to ignore when the frame brightens to a day scene - and thereafter it is smooth, enjoyable sailing. On Facebook, Kino Lorber's Frank Tarzi has credited disc producer Bret Wood with being wholly responsible for the reconstruction of the film's Techniscope elements and color correction, making it releasable in the first place as a more elaborate restoration would have been outside the company's budget. The color palette is essential to the film's enjoyment, featuring extraordinary uses of lavender and royal blue that I'd never noticed in my old faded copy. There's also an audio commentary by Troy Howarth and a grab bag of trailers for similar recent Kino Lorber product.

Very happy to scratch this important restoration off my list of disappointments after all these years... but don't get me started on THE DEADLY BEES (also 1966), pretty much an abject failure from the same filmmakers! 

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)


Christopher Lee, actually playing Sax Rohmer's Emperor of Crime in Hong Kong.
You've got to hand it to producer Harry Alan Towers: as busy as he was, as productive as he was, he always had his finger on the pulse of what was happening in popular media - not just in English-speaking countries, but around the world. When director Don Sharp moved on to bigger, more mainstream pictures after directing the first two Fu Manchu films, Towers had already groomed Jeremy Summers to take over the pilot seat, having chosen him on the basis of his solid background in British crime programmers (CROOKS IN CLOISTERS, DATELINE DIAMONDS), pop culture (the Gerry and the Pacemakers film FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY), and episodes of DANGER MAN and THE SAINT. Towers would ultimately make four films with Summers, of which this was the second, following FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (1967), derived from the Sanders novels of Edgar Wallace.

Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford.
Maria Rohm, Horst Frank.
Peter Carsten, Tony Ferrer.
But the actual playing ground of the third Fu Manchu film showed even greater global awareness and ambition. Again working with a German co-production company (actually two, Constantin joining forces this time with Terra-Filmkunst), Towers further extended his partnership to the Shaw Brothers factory in Hong Kong, which availed the film of a scenic splendor that the previous two could only hint at. The principal players - Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford - happily returned, seizing paid vacations to the Far East with both hands. They were joined by Horst Frank, Suzanne Rocquet, Peter Carsten and Wolfgang Kieling from Germany, New Zealand actor Noel Trevarthan, and Filipino superstar Tony Ferrer, cannily cast as Nayland Smith's Eastern counterpart, Inspector Ramos. Ferrer, who since 1965 had been starring in crime and action pictures as the Philippines' answer to James Bond, Agent X-44 (a role he would continue to essay until 2007), is the most interesting element of the film. His participation includes actual martial arts choreography, then rarely seen onscreen, and his arrival on the international scene coincides remarkably closely with that of Bruce Lee. True, he's not as dynamic or charismatic a martial artist as Bruce Lee (who is?), but when he cuts loose, he spikes the film with an authenticity it doesn't often summon otherwise. Also making her debut in the series is actress Maria Rohm, Towers' Viennese wife, as Ingrid Swenson, a torch singer in a sailor bar. She pantomimes to two songs sung by Samantha Jones. Nayland Smith's demure Chinese maid, Lotus, is here replaced by a new one, Jasmin - played by Mona Chong, an actress fresh from ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! and DANGER MAN and bound for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

Douglas Wilmer.
Ditto.

Maria Rohm.
Once again, Sax Rohmer's name appears above the title on a story he never wrote. And it's that same story he never wrote. Fu Manchu abducts the daughter of a leading scientist at work on a potentially devastating formula, and the story builds to the usual klutzy demise for Fu and Company...  However, in this case, the film foregrounds what should have been a more interesting and original storyline involving the abduction of Nayland Smith, who is replaced with one of Fu's murderous minions after some advanced plastic surgery. As things play out, it's an energy-sapping subplot as the replacement is played less as an impersonator than as a zombie, which effectively takes the film's putative hero out of circulation - we see him tediously tried for murder, shots of him looking dead-faced and uncommunicative in the dock with flip-optical cutaways to newspaper headlines (the cinematic equivalent of yawning through a series of "and this happened, then this"). On the plus side, Ferrer and Carsten are actually better equipped for the film's physical heroics, and the subplot gives Marion-Crawford opportunities to emote for a change; he contributes his own finest work in the series. Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin likewise are fully prepared to give their best - Lee has an excellent moment when he receives the news of Nayland Smith's capture - but their characters are surrounded by too much excelsior. At the same time, seemingly important supporting characters are simply present to go through the motions, which now verge on the risible (thanks mostly to Frank's fey, panatela-smoking bad guy with Texas cowboy affectations), or to stand around as the drably predictable happens. Summers' direction capably handles all the onscreen traffic, but never feels involved in it. It should be mentioned that Nayland Smith mentions at one point that he has retired from Scotland Yard and is joining a new organization to be known as Interpol. Interpol was founded in the 1950s, but this may not be an error in the film's period setting, as Wilmer's hair is shown to be fully gray here and there is not much on view to absolutely contradict an early 1950s time period - apart from the fact that our villains have not aged.

Christopher Lee.
Noel Trevarthan, Tony Ferrer and "motley crew" under cover.

Horst Frank and torture chamber props going to waste.
Most observers of this series blame Jesús Franco for bringing about the end of this series with the last two entries, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (aka KISS AND KILL, THE KISS OF FU MANCHU and AGAINST ALL ODDS) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU - and it should be mentioned that Towers himself agreed. But the real problem is fully apparent in the first three: Towers should have allowed someone else to write them - someone with the time to actually read Rohmer, perhaps. The first three films essentially present us with the same story three times, each time served up with a bit more sauce and seasoning. (The spice in this case is some mild profanity; there is almost none of the usual sado-masochism, with the exception of a branding sequence for which a prop of a woman's bare back was obviously built for a close-up that isn't kept in its entirety.)  In a sense, the most significant fault of THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU is that, in its reach for greater (dare I say Bondian?) glamor and spectacle, it loses sight of the character's origins in pulp fiction. The negligence of his alien invasive presence, lurking dangerously on the periphery of a known world, is sacrificed as the series extends beyond mystery into common adventure.

Once again, I have reviewed the film working from the imported Momentum DVD release of THE FU MANCHU TRILOGY of 2001, which includes a trailer. The image grabs used here are from that Kinowelt/Studio Canal-sourced release. The film has since been released domestically as a DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection. I have not seen that version and cannot verify whether or not the American cut differs from this one in any way.

 (c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966)

With the second film in producer Harry Alan Towers' series, the key participants appear to have studied their previous effort closely, taken note of all the minor mistakes therein and corrected them, though the new work makes a few missteps of its own. Nevertheless, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU is an appreciably more assured film and perhaps the series' high point. 

Rather than filming in Dublin as before, the production occupied Bray Studios, where all of Hammer's best-loved films had been made. As Fu's subterranean headquarters is secreted this time far below an Egyptian temple, the set flats and decorations are right out of a Mummy series rummage sale and feel familiar in the best way. Again, the budget didn't allow for a Hammer-level composer, but Towers was able to recruit Bruce Montgomery (a veteran of the Doctor in the House and Carry On series), who is described by the IMDb as "a hopeless alcoholic" and whose work here was likely far more than simply buoyed by its credited conductor, Philip Martell - Hammer's musical supervisor since 1962). It was Montgomery's last credited score (though he did not die until 1978 at age 56) and it has the authority of a genuine, if minor, Hammer score. Also significantly, returning director Don Sharp had done another Hammer film with Christopher Lee in the interim, presiding over one of his more celebrated performances in RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1965), and he makes immediately clear that he has learned how to use this instrument onscreen to its fullest. Lee's Fu Manchu is a more expressive characterization here, swathed in emerald silks and taking charge of people's minds by wrapping their heads in his large hands. The opening sequence, which drops us immediately into the middle of the action (not to be confused with the needless memory-refreshing excerpts from FACE that open the American version) - reintroducing Fu and his daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) as well as their latest abductees, Michele Merlin (Carole Gray) and her scientist father Jules (Rupert Davies) - may be the most bravura filmmaking in the entire series. Acting, direction, camera blocking, wardrobe, set design, and score - it feels like a foretaste of classic Hammer.



Howard Marion-Crawford and Douglas Wilmer, our heroes.
Then come the aftertastes, which unfortunately include the less satisfactory heroics of Douglas Wilmer as the new Nayland Smith; he hasn't much of the dramatic gravity that Nigel Green brought to the role. Howard Marion-Crawford is back as his stuffy associate Dr. Petrie, with somewhat less to do, and this time the guest German actor slot is handed over to the reliable Heinz Drache (THE MYSTERIOUS MAGICIAN), who gets several opportunities to demonstrate his flair for fisticuffs - which look good but sound like someone off-camera was asked to clap his hands together every time a punch was thrown, the better that we can hear them connect. The primary heroine is surprisingly not Carole Gray (who's a bit far down the cast list for one of her screen time and credentials), but rather a French ingenue, Marie Versini - who isn't remotely equal to Gray but had the advantage to the film's German investors of having been a cast member in several of Rialto Film's Karl May adventures. The Peter Welbeck (Towers) script is a basically a more needlessly complicated retread of the previous story, built to accommodate a fifth-wheel supporting role for another of Rialto's krimi men, Harald Leipnitz.

Carole Gray and Tsai Chin, center stage.

One of the surprising highlights of the film is an abduction staged in a crowded theater during an opera performance - which must have been scripted in expectation of a more opulent budget and had to be pared down to barest essentials as the day of shooting finally came. Technically, it's a tour de force of getting away with murder: we see an audience not particularly dressed for a night at the opera, at least a few rows of faces, all looking at the stage as if they have been asked to imagine it while smelling something awful; we never see a glimpse of performance - we don't even see the stage! - and yet the scene, remarkably, works.

The wonderful character actor Bert Kwouk, best-remembered as Cato in the Pink Panther films, is a marvelous added resource to the Fu Manchu team as their star engineer Feng, but his addition is also problematical. First of all, Kwouk is simply too good an actor; we can see Christopher Lee upping his game when they share scenes together, which has the unwelcome effect of making them interact as equals - something the imperious Fu would never permit. Not only do the two men banter and bicker (!) over important details, but Feng actually questions and ultimately refuses orders. But the primary error of the Welbeck script, also present in the first, is that the reasons for Fu's dreams of world conquest are never explained - as are his intentions for what to do when and if he attains such power. With his goal left so nebulous, the film limits itself to a lower level of entertainment than it might have achieved. Also, when the stakes are raised to their highest in the final reel, Fu blithely ignores numerous danger signs arising between himself and absolute success, which causes him to look crudely sociopathic, insane rather than a villain with a vision. Sharp also does no favors to Fu's dignity when he allows us to see father and daughter scurrying like ordinary mortals on the lam, accessing their executive escape hatch as all Hell breaks loose around them.

In preparing this film, Towers plucked a feather from the cap of American director William Castle, who had recently chosen the cast of his 1965 thriller 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS from among the discoveries of an international beauty contest for teens. Having a knack for making other people's ideas a little spicier, Towers announced this film by holding a similar pageant for continental starlets above the age of consent! Whether or not the competition was a real contest or just ballyhoo, he got some quick ink in European magazines by having the "brides" pose while tearing off each others' clothes on set, though there is no erotic content in the film whatsoever.


My review is based on a viewing of Momentum's UK disc, dated 2001, though the film has since (2008) also become available domestically as half of an MGM Midnite Movies double feature with 1967's CHAMBER OF HORRORS. I have heard this version (which includes the aforementioned US prologue) also has an anomaly of presentation that causes  a slight vertical stretching of the image, which is reportedly soft to begin with; I have seen grabs online that confirm this. No such anomalies are present on the Momentum disc, which looks infinitely better than the copy of FACE OF FU MANCHU included in the same FU MANCHU TRILOGY box set. There are no extras on the disc. As with the other films in the series, BRIDES is included in its shorter, alternate German cut with music by Gert Wilden in the German box set THE DR. FU-MAN-CHU COLLECTION.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965)

"The world shall hear from me again."

When Christopher Lee agreed to portray Sax Rohmer's popular Emperor of Crime in this, the first of what became five adventures for producer Harry Alan Towers, he was graduating to the role in a couple of different ways. Firstly, he was stepping away from his essential homebase at Hammer Films to extend his range of portrayals of the great roles in horror and fantasy, having already played Frankenstein's creature, Count Dracula, and the Mummy - and in doing so, he was extending his reach as an international actor, as the film was to be an international co-production between Towers and Constantin Films of West Germany, who would ultimately release their own different cut (with a different score, to boot), Ich, Fu Manchu ("I, Fu Manchu"). Furthermore, he had already approached this role from two oblique angles; one might even say he had auditioned for it, by having played a very similar character, Chung King, in TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961) for Hammer, as well as Ling Chiu, the Chinese detective in THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL (1961), a krimi made for West Germany's Rialto Film, the home of the celebrated Edgar Wallace thrillers. It was here that those two lines had to converge.


Nigel Green and Karin Dor.
This first entry in the series opens with the ceremonial decapitation of Fu Manchu for his crimes, with his nemesis Sir Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard (Nigel Green) in attendance - an impressively ceremonial yet understated pre-credits sequence that underlines Lee's entrance with the flicker of light that precedes approaching thunder and concludes with the rain finally breaking and pouring down on an open courtyard abandoned by all save his headless body. The script by Peter Welbeck (Towers' pseudonym), based on no particular Rohmer novel, borrows a cliffhanger from the first Fantômas novel by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain to explain the villain's resurrection: he hypnotized a great Chinese actor into taking his place on the headsman's block. Then, we're off and running in a new plot, which concerns Fu's cold-blooded quest to acquire the research that has gone into the development of a new mass-murder drug distilled from the seeds of the black poppy. In a scene recalling the early scenes of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, Smith and his associates Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) and Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) visit a small town that has been used as an example of Fu's power, and the camera lingers mercilessly over the images of women, children, and animals who dropped dead in the street. 

Like Father, Like Daughter: Tsai Chin and Christopher Lee.
Jannsen is engaged to Maria Muller (Karin Dor), the daughter of the scientist (Walter Rilla) working in this area of research, who must be abducted and threatened with torturous death to get him to do what is wanted. It's a pleasure to see Fuchsberger and Dor, the stars of the Wallace krimis, acting together in English and they both figure in outstanding suspense scenes. Tsai Chin also makes a strong impression as Fu's sadistic and diminutive daughter, Lin Tang - whose name was Fah Lo See in the novels; she subsequently became a Bond girl in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). Her father has the power and authority, but she is shown actively working in the trenches of crime, disguising herself and chomping at the bit to deal out more punishments. In short, she seems potentially the more formidable foe, though she would never transcend her increasingly sullen, second banana status.

Director Don Sharp (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES, WITCHCRAFT) directs the film capably and without a hint of self-consciousness or humor, and the vaguely defined period setting is well-sustained. There is a sense about the film that it might have been whittled down from something of more epic length - there are references to key scenes glossed over or not shown - but it moves along at an able, indeed variable, pace that holds one's interest. The one source of disappointment is the score by Christopher Whelen, which seems present only to punch-up the action scenes, doing little to inject the film with identifiable flavor and personality. In this department, the film might well be improved upon by the German version (even shorter), which was rescored by Gert Wilden and is available as part of a comprehensive 5-disc box set released in Germany.

In case you're wondering, the film efficiently shrugs away any quarrel about this escapist material's inherent "racism" when one character's color-conscious observation is shut down by his companion's wise and friendly admonition: "It takes all kinds to make a world." 

Available as a DVD-R from Warner Archive, with no extras.  It's actually your best bet. Various import options exist, including a British DVD box set including the sequels THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966) and THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967) which includes bonus trailers; however, the quality of this version leaves much to be desired, looking somewhat noisy and overbright - evidently a not-very-skilled attempt at overcoming the limitations of 2-perf Techniscope.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Recent Viewings: SINFONIA EROTICA

SINFONIA EROTICA (1979, 84:39)

Before I say anything about the film itself, grateful thanks must be extended once again to David Gregory's Severin Films for its continued support of Jess Franco's film legacy. In this case, said support extends to paying for the 4K restoration of the only known surviving print of one of his more obscure titles (reportedly donated by the Instituto de la Sexualidad Humana in Madrid); mind you, this is a film never before released in America and known to circulate before now primarily as an Italian-language bootleg. Such a release is nothing short of heroic, as counter-commercial as the film itself, and therefore fully deserving of our custom. What makes the gesture still more appreciable is that the film in question is so very odd, even within its niche; it's the only period film Franco shot in the seven-year spread between JACK THE RIPPER (1976) and El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983), and his penultimate Sade adaptation, followed by THE SEXUAL STORY OF O in 1983-84.


Shot in Sintra, the magical area of Lisbon where A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD (1971) was filmed, this is a very personal, very cheap, yet remarkably sustained period adaptation of the Marquis de Sade. It's more akin to the Jean Epstein and Ivan Barnett adaptations of Poe than anyone could have expected from a 1980s feature, and also Franco's only attempt after 1968's JUSTINE to film Sade in an other than contemporary setting. It's based on the "Marquis de Bressac" portion of the novel JUSTINE, involving the characters more decorously portrayed by Horst Frank and Sylva Koscina in JUSTINE. 

Inhabiting these roles in this telling are Armando Sallent as the Marquis de Bressac, an unrepentant sadist and sexual anarchist who has taken a gay lover (Mel Rodrigo) in the wake of his wife's placement in a mental sanatorium, a deed he has arranged by blackmailing a corrupt doctor (Albino Graziani) - named Louÿs in honor of the French erotic poet. The discharging of the wife, Martine (Lina Romay, in her blonde-wigged "Candice Coster" persona), prompts the two male lovers to contrive a plan to murder her for her vast fortune, but their plot unexpectedly coincides with the discovery of a violated novice nun (Susan Hemingway of LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN) on their castle grounds. The pleasure of corrupting the nun (in which Martine hungrily takes part) unexpectedly exposes the captive's nascent sadistic personality, and the subsequent revels ultimately prove punishing to all... as well as liberating to some.

 
 
 

The film is scored with excerpts from "Concerto No. 4" by Franz Liszt (a composer whose "Liesbestraum" figures in other Franco films, notably 1968's SUCCUBUS) and stabby washes of glacial electronic keyboard by Franco himself. Musically, the film is unusual though not entirely unfamiliar as Franco's work. However, it was shot (evidently in 16mm) in a fractured style and general vagueness that - Romay's surreptitious but transparent involvement aside - doesn't fully evoke the involvement of its director. Its use of Victorian dresses and hats, its shots of gay men gamboling in nature over canned classical music sometimes brings the work of Andy Milligan to mind; while, on the other end of the spectrum, Franco sometimes appears to be deliberately emulating (if not satirizing) the technique of Walerian Borowczyk, sharing his attention to period clothing, to rooms and furnishings, to antiquity, and indeed the eccentric off-kilter framing that we so often find in Borowcyk's work. Only in the film's subject matter and its numerous sideways glances into abstraction and lens-flexing is Franco's hand apparent. It's interesting that Franco would attempt something so unlike his usual self (no self-references, no humor), particularly at the same time Romay was going so far as to deny her own screen persona, and that these attempts to forge new creative identities would coincide with their return to Madrid after decades of self-exile. 

It should also be noted that (depending on exactly when it was made) the film may have represented an under-the-radar reunion for the couple, who had gone their separate ways around 1976-77, at least onscreen - with Romay making films with other directors (Erwin C. Dietrich, Carlos Aured and Jorge Grau), while Franco occupied himself either by shooting films without Lina (SEXY SISTERS, DEVIL HUNTER) or creating new films out of older footage like THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME.

 
 
 

SINFONIA EROTICA may not be a major title in Franco's canon, but it also lacks the personal characteristics of a minor or malign one. It's a film that doesn't appear to have been made for the usual reasons of ambition, to do with ego, but in response to a deeply personal challenge to do something one has not done, to be someone one has not been. There are, admittedly, points of aggravation when the opening shots of the boughs of trees (which seem to quote the album cover art of Bruno Nicolai's original soundtrack for JUSTINE) are not sustained as long as they need to be held under the opening titles, and splice, and splice, wrecking the mood of the Liszt music; likewise, there is the climactic moment when the last thing a dramatic scene needs is for Lina's blonde wig to come off... and it does. Cut, print. One looks in vain for a reason why Franco would have retained an error so severe. Perhaps he didn't notice at the time and was stuck with what he had, perhaps he saw it as a Brechtian injection of distance into the moment - a reminder that these are all actors, like the ones we are surprised to find applauded in the opening scenes of many of his films. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

 
 
 


The film has a high degree of grain in some shots, which is one reason to suspect a 16mm origin. There are also occasional markings onscreen but, this being the only known print in the world, there is little room to find fault that wasn't there to begin with. The Region ABC Blu-ray disc presents the film in its original post-synchronized Spanish audio with English subtitles. There is some male and female frontal nudity, but the sexual activity never crosses the line into hardcore. 

Franco authority Stephen Thrower (MURDEROUS PASSIONS: THE DELIRIOUS CINEMA OF JESÚS FRANCO) is on hand with a 22:22 talk; while clearly bemused about the film, in a good way, he quickly runs out of compliments for it and spends most of his time on its literary origin and Sade's influence on Franco's work generally. There is also a touching 6:34 reminiscence of Nicole Guettard, Franco's first wife (credited with set decoration here), filmed during Severin's last visit to Franco's apartment in 2013.

Available directly from Severin Films, where it is available as a no-frills bundle with Franco's THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME or in a deluxe bundle with the bonus feature, a special limited edition one-sheet, and an enamel pin.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

     

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE SECT, GIANT LEECHES, FIRECREEK

THE SECT (1991)
Michele Soavi's follow-up to THE CHURCH (1989, itself intended as a follow-up to DEMONS), derived from a Dario Argento story, actually plays more like the third "Three Mothers" story than THE MOTHER OF TEARS: it too has a young protagonist in a strange place (rural Germany), surrounded by young students, cultish colleagues and weird elders, with a mysterious watery recess far beneath her house. Soavi has, by far, the best directorial chops of anyone working in Italy during this period, and the movie begins with a soberingly sure-handed prologue that makes one feel there is an actual filmmaker is in the pilot seat, rather than someone with more flamboyance than a clue. Once we get down to brass tacks, after a fine part for Herbert Lom as a mysterious tramp with a purpose, the movie succumbs to the usual Argento foolishness: our heroine (Kelly Curtis, whom I actually prefer to her sister Jamie Lee) lives with a rabbit she calls Rabbit; she meets cute with a young doctor (Michael Hans Adatte) with an aversion to rabbits that results in unpersuasive banter; there are flashy deaths for anyone tenuously attached to the story; and we get the tail end of Argento's fascination with bugs. None of it makes any sense and, if a lot of it is silly in either execution or principle, some of it is also weirdly beautiful. The occasional scene commands respect - even if the visual allusions to THE BIRDS, EYES WITHOUT A FACE and ROSEMARY'S BABY and character names (Martin Romero, Mary Crane) are rather more brazen than they would be in the Maestro's hand. Available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.
 

ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959)
1950s horror doesn't come much grislier than this salty slice of cryptid horror pulp. Executive produced by Roger Corman and produced by brother Gene Corman, this is Bernard L. Kowalski's pursuant feature to NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1958), scripted by none other than Leo Gordon. Ken Clark (future star of Mario Bava Westerns) is a game warden in a sleepy, backwoods Southern town whose job consists mostly of patrolling local swamps for illegal traps - until the sighting of a bullet-proof mutation and the abduction of some locals raises the pressure on him to dynamite the area. The barely hour-long running time contains a fair amount of conversation about the ecological disadvantages of such a response, which is unusual and interesting, and there are an unseemly number of opportunities for Clark to bare his hairy chest, but the real stars of this show are Bruno ve Sota and PLAYBOY's July 1959 Playmate Yvette Vickers, as a bickering couple out of BABY DOLL whose sexual antagonism builds to an extended scene of Vickers and her lover Michael Emmet being chased through the woods by a shotgun-firing ve Sota - "just to scare them" - till something really scary happens. The scenes of the abductees having their blood sucked by the garbage bag monsters are unforgettable. Historically speaking, it's been hard to find a decent-looking copy of this film since it left TV syndication, but it's now available from Retromedia Entertainment as half of a nice-looking Blu-ray double feature with TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time this traditional 1.33:1 title has been released to home video in a widescreen format.



FIRECREEK (1968)
Slow-cooking, even-burning Western from director Vincent McEveety finds James Stewart and Henry Fonda delivering earnest portrayals where we might least expect them. This was not one of the better eras of the American Western, which is not to say that fine work in the genre wasn't still being done, just that audiences weren't as responsive to it. The Calvin Clements script gives us a hero and villain who are early examples of the two being mirror images of each other: Stewart is an underpaid honorary sheriff and family man in charge of a sleepy little town of self-described losers, who is bullied into defending it by the irresponsible actions of an outlaw gang led by a tired and wounded Fonda, who would rather hang his hat and make peace with the world but can't because these men represent his ability to lead. Neither man is actually leading; they're just wearing different kinds of badge, but as the sun goes down, night falls - night "when things happen" - and the men are forced to bring their images of who they are to the test. In 1968, this would have stood out as a searing indictment of what was then called "the Silent Majority," and its message still stands today. Far more thought-provoking than the usual American Western of this period, with strong supporting work by Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam (acting alongside Fonda before the two of them went into Leone's ONE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), James Best, Louise Latham, Ed Begley, Dean Jagger, Brooke Bundy and, in one of the most potent performances she ever gave, Inger Stevens.  Available for streaming from Amazon Video, iTunes and YouTube. Also on Warner Home Video DVD.

(C) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.