ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists,  Ridley Scott has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late Stanley Kubrick, Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.

Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted it to a fanbase who then pedestaled it. The eventual consequences of that dumbing-down was the trailer park science fiction franchise, Alien vs. Predator.

The consensus seems to be that Covenant is better than Prometheus but falls short of the original Alien. Undeniably, that spook house gorilla has its distinctive, addictive history, having been inspired by It, The Terror from Beyond Space, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As is well known, Scott upped the ante of anxiety by not allowing the cast to read the entire Alien script ahead of time. That tension spilled over, making a celluloid model so formidable that it merely inspired imitations.

With Prometheus, Scott escaped the doldrums of vapid ritual and crafted a film so original, so divisive, it became almost a standalone that no one would dare emulate. Although the rampaging rapist xenomorph was nowhere to be seen, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw still manages to be impregnated with something, making for a nail-biting race against birth. Behind it all is Michael Fassbender’s bewitchingly enigmatic David, the most compelling cinematic android since Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner and Jude Law’s “Gigolo Joe” in A.I.. Finally, Alien was exciting and fresh again.

The absence of Rapace is keenly felt in Covenant, but Fassbender’s David returns—twofold—and it’s his relationship with himself that propels Covenant and cements Scott as a late-in-life virtuoso filmmaker. He’s that rarity of rarities: an artist that started strong and, far from becoming derivative, has revisited and reflected on his body of work and ongoing themes, managing to say something epic about his oeuvre and himself. Comparatively, late in their careers, filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Chaplin, Disney, and even Picasso were producing what amounted to rudimentary, even fatigued sketches of previous wonders. The Scott of Covenant is like John Coltrane at Newport in the Sixties, expansively recomposing “My Favorite Things” into something so epic that it eradicates its former incarnations into faint skeletons. A small minority have accused Scott of compromise here, but that’s as deceptive as the criticisms thirty-eight years prior.

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1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MARTIN

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (directed by prolific trash guru Sergio Martino), is possibly the most well-known film of the Italian cannibal genre, primarily because it has name stars in Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress. Being Martino, it naturally revels in its nastiness, which runs the gamut from castration to decapitations, shots of human entrails, and actual footage of a monkey being devoured by a python. A nude Andress certainly helped its box office. It was yet another video nasty staple in the heyday of mom and pop video stores.

Starcrash (directed by Luigi Cozzi) stars cult fave Caroline Munro in a blatant Star Wars ripoff. There’s other people in it as well, like David Hasselhoff (in his film debut) and Christopher Plummer, but it’s Munro that audiences went to see, and it’s a hoot to boot.

Starhops is a sort of Star Wars parody, but it’s essentially juvenile sexploitation, surprisingly directed by a woman: Barbara Peeters. It’s obscure, for obvious reasons.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (directed by Leo Penn) is a Gothic horror TV mini-series starring grand dame Bette Davis, still riding high post-Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1960). Adapted from the Thomas Tryon novel, it’s winningly offbeat with a high camp performance from Davis as the town matriarch. For unknown reasons, it’s home video distribution has been spotty, only briefly becoming available on VHS in a badly mutilated version.

Jean Rollin goes zombie with Grapes of Death. Being Rollin, it naturally is going to have a twist—amusingly, zombifying wine. Opulently bloodied, the film has a reputation as being weaker Rollin. Actually, his virtues here outweigh his usual flaws.

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (directed by Bobby A. Suarez) stars Marrie Lee as an Asian 007 kickin’ ass of a buncha baddie henchman disguised as nuns. Naturally, it was an epic influence on Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget explosions, scantily clad femme fatales, kung fu galore, and wretched dubbing. Sorry, but you can’t call yourself cool ’til you’ve seen it.

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1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation genre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity quota, but it’s derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

 Behind Convent Walls (directed by Walerian Borowczyk) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (part 2). Zack Snyder remade DOTD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

John Carpenter’s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis ( Donald Pleasance) warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a William Shatner mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars Cameron Mitchell and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright,  Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by Abel Ferrara) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre (Nazisploitation) and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as Gregory Peck playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. As was discovered in the mid 1980s, Mengele was actually hiding on a farm in Brazil, an unrepentant but pathetic figure, jumping at his shadow daily until his 1979 drowning.

Here, Mengele spearheads an underground Forth Reich that is cloning an army of Hitlers. It could just as easily have been titled They Saved Hitler’s DNA. Peck’s performance veers from typical woodenness to bizarre cartoonishness, shorn of authentic menace, which at least suits a movie that feels like bad sci-fi Nazi pulp put out by DC Comics. There’s no frightening banality to it, which is what Fascism is all about (in his last starring role in 2003, Charlton Heston almost unwittingly nailed that quality as Mengele in the little seen, but still not very good My Father, Rua Alguem 5555). The Boys from Brazil is further burdened by comical German accents, including that of Laurence Olivier, who co-stars as a Nazi hunter and seems to be the only one who relishes the script’s pulp. The over-the-top finale literally goes to the dogs. James Mason, Michael Gough, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg make up the rest of the big cast. Hollywood congratulated itself and gave the movie a couple of Academy Award nominations.

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1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: RABID

If anyone from the future opens a 1977 time capsule stuffed with DVDs, the first impression they may reap is that everyone was having lotza sex this year. Sylvia Kristal (the most famous actress to essay the role) opens the year with Emmanuel 3. Laura Gemser (our Black Emanuel from ’75) takes over with Emanuel in America. Apparently native boys can’t get it up enough for her, so Laura branches out in Emanuel Around the World. She then plies her trade in the nunspolitation genre in Sister Emanuel, and finally takes on the cannibal movement with Emanuel and the Last Cannibals.  After that, Laura gets some much needed R &R, and won’t return until 1980’s Emanuel: Queen Bitch.The 70s were definitely not political correct, as Chai Lee proves with Yellow Emanuel. It’s more of the same with a different skin hue. Lee shrugs off the racist title and slut shaming, declaring that her vagina is merely a muscle that needs exercising. Actually, it’s a tame affair.

Joey Heatherton took over the role of Xaviera Hollander for The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington. She’s a bitter fit than Lynn Redgrave was in 1975’s The Happy Hooker, and director William  A. Levey was more at home with the trashy tales of the madame’s purportedly true exploits than Nicholas Sgarro had been two years earlier. Still, it’s dated soft-core titillation.

Adult film star Uschi Digard shows up for the “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” sexploitation segment of John Landis’ anthology,  Kentucky Fried Movie. Despite his one time commercial standing and the cults around a few of his films (1978’s Animal House, 1980’s The Blues Brothers, 1981’s An American Werewolf In London), Landis never made a good film and proved what a lousy filmmaker he was going to be in this, his second film. At the very least, we have to give the hack his due because he got through this without crippling or killing anyone.

Tan, buxom blonde Cheri Caffaro was a minor 70s exploitation sex symbol. She began her path to “fame” after winning a Brigitte Bardot lookalike contest and is best known for her Ginger McAllister trilogy: Ginger, The Abductors, and Girls Are For Loving, made between 1971 and 1973 and written and directed by her then husband Don Schain. Ginger was a softcore female James Bond for the drive-in circuit.  All of these were trashy and fun (we hope to cover the entire trilogy at a later date). Caffaro had branched out(sort of) playing different characters in Schain’s A Place Called Today (social commentary exploitation, AKA dull sleaze) and Savage Sisters (1974, directed by Eddie Romero), which is a somewhat tame but fun women-in-prison exploitation. Caffaro’s last film role (before divorcing Schain and becoming a beekeeper!) is Too Hot to Handle, which reunited her with husband/Ginger director. Her character name has changed here to Samantha Fox, but it’s essentially a darker variation of Ginger McAllister with a bit of Ilsa thrown in. Caffaro has fun playing a lethal lady, and it’s contagious. It’s kinky and inventive, but hampered by trying to do more than the budget allowed.

Death Game (directed by Peter Traynor) is purportedly based on a true story and opens like an old dark house thriller with two women (Sondra Locke—best known as Clint Eastwood’s ex, and Coleen Camp—best known for her 70s cleavage) seeking refuge from the rain. Unfortunately, Seymour Cassel lets them in, and before you can say menage-a-trois, he discovers himself tormented by lesbian psychos from the pit.  Despite all the destruction and mayhem, Seymour doesn’t solicit our sympathies. Low budget, rude, crude, and with some of the most amateurish editing ever committed to celluloid, this was almost universally panned at the time, but it is exploitation at its deranged purest, with waaaaaaay over-the-top performances. Overdosing on ham, you’ll think its a holiday of sorts.

Fight for Your Life (the only film directed by Robert Endelson) is ultra-violent blaxploitation, and one of the best in that sub-genre. With all the racial slurs being bandied about, this Straw Weisman script would be an almost impossible to produce today. It’s a variation of Last House on the Left and, to a lesser degree, 1955’s The Desperate Hours, with a gang of thugs breaking into the house of black minister and his family. A lot of torment follows, until the tables are turned. It’s been described as vile and repulsive and that’s absolutely spot on.  It’s actually superior to Wes Craven’s  groundbreaking film, but inexplicably less well known. If you prefer white racism swept under the rug, avoid this like the plague.

We come down several notches for The Uncanny (directed by Denis Héroux). Produced by Amicus veteran Milton Subotsky, it’s another stab at the anthology genre, and a tepid one at that. Peter Cushing is the author/host who tries to convince his skeptical publisher (Ray Milland) that cats are evil spirits intent on taking over the world, which segues into a trio of tales. The first (and-sort-of- best) vignette stars Joan Greenwood as a wealthy socialite who has revised her will, leaving everything to her cats. The maid (Susan Penhaligon) tries to steal the will and the felines get pissed, making for a gory comeuppance. The two remaining tales are forgettable, with Donald Pleasance giving one of his worst performances as faded actor Valentine Death, whom everyone calls V.D. Get it? Fortunately, the cat literally gets his tongue. Cushing and Milland are quite good and the direction is competent, but its failure is in the scripting by Michel Parry.

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THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB (at The House Of Shadows, Gresham Oregon)

“Brother Cobweb: A White Trash Opera,” 8 ft x 4ft house paint on wood panel ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Jonestown Massacre” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Rehearsing Brother Cobweb with Rev. Harry (Garman Gibson)

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Gotterdammerung (detail)” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB  (house paint on 8 ft x 4 ft wood panel) “Gotterdammerung” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB The Whore Of Babylon (Holly Day) ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb’s Communion detail” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB (house paint on 8 ft x 16 ft wood panel) “Brother Cobweb’s Last Supper” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb : Get Behind Me, Satan!” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb preparing the sacrifice.” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB “Brother Cobweb & Rev. Harry preparing the sacrifice” ©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB Brother Cobweb’s A GOOD FIGHT ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “TheChurch Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB . Old Nick (Kevin Klansnic). ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

THE CHURCH OF BROTHER COBWEB Harlot for Christ ©2017 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker as Brother Cobweb in the “The Church Of Brother Cobweb” @ the House of Shadows©2017 Alfred Eaker

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1977 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: SHOCK WAVES & SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS

Star Wars, Annie Halland Elvis becoming a corpse were the entertainment events of 1977; but exploitation/horror cinema hardly noticed, driving ahead full-throttle with Third Reich obsessions in this banner year for Nazisploitation. Naturally, queen Dyanne Thorne was still cracking the whip. Unfortunately, Ilsa the Wicked Warden was directed by Jess Franco, and he is no Don Edmonds. Franco’s direction is, as usual, languid. Still, Thorne, now a redhead, has undeniable charisma. Originally, this was not an official Ilsa title—the wicked warden was originally Wanda—but was christened with her name somewhere along the way.

Thorne was extraordinarily promiscuous in 1977, appearing in a second Ilsa: Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia (directed by Jean Lafleur). More flesh and blood along with multifarious locales makes this a far better entry than Franco’s effort, while still not at the level of Edmonds’. This was the last of the Ilsa films, which undeniably make up the most notorious of exploitation franchises.

Blatant Ilsa ripoff Elsa: Frauline Devil (directed by Patrice Rhomm) features German hookers being sent to the camps to service the poor overworked Nazis. It has a lot of wretched accents and amateur costume design, with Nazi uniforms looking like they just came off the racks. Worst of all, though, it’s a big tease in both the sex and whip-cracking departments. Needless to say, Thorne does it better.

The same can’t be said for Last Orgy of the Third Reich (directed by Cesare Canevari), which features cannibalism and death by German Shepherds and rats, but this one’s different. It has a brunette warden (Maristella Greco).

A pubic-hair eating rapist dwarf actually outdoes the lesbian concentration camp warden in SS Hell Camp (AKA The Beast in Heat, directed by Luigi Batzella). Macha Magali is the Aryan camp dominatrix filling in for Dyane Thorne. It tries to outdo the competition, and succeeds (with multiple brutal rapes, pulling out fingernails, castrations, rats, etc), but even with all that going on, it still manages to be a dull affair. It’s still banned in the U.K.

Italy continued its love affair with Nazis (at least on screen). Nazi Love Camp 27 (directed by Mario Caiano) has a decent budget, wretched dubbing, notorious hardcore sex, and a good, central performance by the tragically short-lived Sirpa Lane (from The Beast) as a Jewess out for revenge.

The Red Nights of the Gestapo is another Italian entry in the genre. Directed by Fabio De Agostini, it is clearly influenced by Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976) and features a Third Reich orgy and farting torture. Brass was more adept at this kind of thing, for what that’s worth.

SS Girls (directed by Bruno Mattei) also influenced by Brass’ Nazi opus, has its tongue firmly-in-cheek and feels like its been lifted out of the pages of a comic book. As strange as it may sound, it’s one of the most entertaining Nazisploitation films of the decade. It’s chock-full of Mattei’s trademark montages, close ups, stock footage, and a jazzy score. It also has bestiality, orgies, and endless parades of flesh.

Mattei’s second Nazisploitation feature (of the year) is Women’s Camp 119, which is more of the same, with the additional bonus of poisoned bullets for nude prisoners. The result is two hours of writhing in pain and bleeding out of every orifice. This one is also like a comic book, but more of a Chick tract. It makes you feel dirty for having seen it. It even has a lot of Chick targets, like a Catholic priest who gets popsiclized and a two-for-one with gay Jews. Of course, the Nazis-for-Christ attempt to cure the gays in this tailor-made-for-Mike-Pence flick.

Shock Waves (directed by Ken Wiederhorn) takes a different route with Nazi zombies, literally bred to survive underwater. Brooke Adams is among a small group of passengers taking a tour on a cruiser with cantankerous captain John Carradine. It’s a watery variation on Old Dark House thrillers, with the group crashing into a wrecked ghost vessel. The captain is killed and the survivors are forced to take refuge on an island (filling in for the Old Dark House) where they discover what they believe to be an abandoned hotel. Its sole occupant is former Nazi commandant  Peter Cushing (with a convincing accent). Unknowingly, the group has awakened the commandant’s genetically altered “Toten Korps”—AKA death corps—AKA Nazi zombies. They’re a creepy, disease-ridden albino lot, adorned in aviator goggles and SS uniforms, emerging from the water in slow-mo to kill anyone within their path. Since this was marketed as exploitation, Adams is required to strip down to a yellow bikini and take a swim—until she bumps into something dead.

Cushing’s role is a relatively small one, which leaves the acting to Adams. She’s up to it, but unfortunately, she’s the only one, with her fellow passengers clearly being amateurs. Apart from awakening Third Reich undead and fleeing them, there’s really not much of a plot. The violence is subdued and it’s definitely not paced for the post- Romero zombie audience. Despite its flaws, this is an impressive meager budgeted indie with good acting from Cushing, Carradine, and Adams, along with effective underwater photography (by Reuben Trane) as the death corps wait on the ocean floor to entrap unsuspecting victims. The zombie makeup is equally compelling, and Wiederhorn (who also scripted) adroitly mounts tension. None of his fellow-up films have matched this. It’s easily the best movie ever made about Nazi zombies.

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DARK SHADOWS (2012)

Tim Burton will go down as an artist who peaked early. Dark Shadows (2012) continued the autopilot fatigue that has plagued this director for the past twenty years. Burton’s quasi-religious fan base has a tendency to erroneously dress him up as a “dark” auteur. Rather, his has muted into a one-note style with increasingly few exceptions. The bulk of his post Ed Wood (1994) films are “Disneyfied” and actually jettison the darker, complex nuances in favor of what he imagines to be audience accessibility. Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are lucid examples of this syndrome. Gene Wilder’s Wonka projected far more interior disturbance than Johnny Depp’s silicone interpretation. In Burton’s Alice Lewis Carroll’s twitchy surrealism gave way to a Disney-paced narrative with yet another cartoon pseudo performance by Depp at its center.

Many critics harp on Burton’s narrative shortcomings. Like Mario Bava (an epic Burton influence), Burton has admitted he wouldn’t know a good script if it bit him. However, Bava, never quite making it to the level of  an in-demand filmmaker, retained enough independence to keep his oeuvre fresh. Burton’s aesthetic decline is a sharply dramatic one and the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in scripting. The films of Luis Bunuel refute the lie that three-dimensional characterizations are absolutely wedded to orthodox narratives. Burton’s early films evoked a strikingly fresh milieu with characters who, on the surface, seemed to be flying the freak flag high. Yet, Burton’s initial cannon of freaks really weren’t so different than the rest of us. If Pee Wee Herman, Adam, Barbara, Lydia and Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle, Edward Scissorhands, Kim, and Peg, along with Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi were, perhaps, not immediate family, then they were most certainly extended family or close friends with whom we felt affinity, kinship, and admiration.

Then, something happened. Shortly after the backlash of Batman Returns (1992), Burton lost his mojo, and Depp followed suit in an even more pronounced obvious way. At one point, Depp promised to be the new Brando, offering a fresh alternative to the plasticity of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Whoever would have guessed that Cruise would eventually prove to be a smarter, riskier, more clever actor? Nothing in Depp’s later career has the nuanced depth of Brando’s Don, Paul, or Jack Mickler. Cruise’s Bill Harford, Frank Mackey, John Anderton, and Colonel Claus resonate far more intelligence and commitment to craft than anything Depp has committed to celluloid in the last decade. Instead, in his non-Burton films, Johnny Depp has become a parody of Errol Flynn’s late career parody. Doused in increasingly thick make-up and mascara, Depp’s offerings have amounted to flaccid drag (perhaps Ed Wood’s hooks dug too deeply into Depp). If Depp’s lethargic, dumbed-down Flynn-esque caricaturization increasingly amount to a dull train wreck then, in Dark Shadows, we witness the actor’s de-evolving slide into Bela Lugosi drag, which sounds more interesting than it actually is.

Depp’s phlegmatic Barnabas Collins all but evaporates inside a movie that sees Burton imitating Burton, disguised as a Gothic soaper that only worked as a product of its time and place. It would seem obvious, to anyone with an iota of artistic or pop culture instinct, or even to anyone who remembers the original “Dark Shadows,” that the series simply cannot not be duplicated. The short-lived, early 90s remake only served to reiterate how delightfully dated the original series had become.

Burton’s big screen treatment, some fifty years after the fact, is even further removed. Burton attempts to stylize Dark Shadows with his sophisticated, big budget stamp, never once realizing that the rudimentary quality of the original is its sole staying power. But even in his lampoon take, Burton plays it safe, and the film never rises above a ho-hum investment.

A vapid lead character, made strictly of cardboard with a cut-and-paste performance, is the sleepwalking ringmaster in a cookie-cutter ensemble. Even Eva Green, who proved herself a remarkably complex actress in Casino Royale (2006), fails to register. She is given no direction in a flatly written character. Chloe Grace Moretz, another promising talent (who did very good work in last year’s Hugo), is simply placed in front of a lens and told to snarl. Helena Bonham Carter screeches as Dr. Julia Hoffman; she seems like a character lifted out of a second-tier Hanna-Barbara cartoon. Only Michelle Pfeiffer, who can be a stoic actress, briefly manages to generate any living flesh from the printed script.

On the surface, Burton and Depp should have been as interesting a collaboration as Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, but the former team was composed of genuine malcontents coming from an actual freak circuit. Burton and Depp were birthed by Disney and “21 Jump Street.” It shows. Dark Shadows is yet another failure in the Burton/Depp cannon. Burton and Depp’s Dark Shadows comes across like a lecture from two stuffy, aging academics, who might have been genuinely weird at one time, failing to convince us how hilarious the original series now seems. In the last 20 years, the most interesting film Burton has himself directed was 2005’s The Corpse Bride and it would be difficult indeed to convince a millennial that, at one time, both Burton and Depp generated authentic excitement among alternative film lovers.

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1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA

The beauty of the 1970s is its obsession with multifarious genres and trends, but the hardly means all the movies are good. A case in point is Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, which jumps on the killer animal bandwagon started by Bruce the shark, who shows up here as a laughably fake big green scaly lizard. Naturally, Hooper taps into his own hayseed folk focus, which include Texas Chainsaw‘s tied-up Marilyn Burns, a very creepy Neville Brand, an almost unrecognizably made up Carolyn Jones, and a very kinky fellar named Buck, played by Robert Englund. Another 70s tendency, which would be unthinkable in the next decade, is the terrorization of tykes. Here, a poor little crippled girl gets to witness her doggy become gator bait. She’s further terrorized by dysfunctional parents, including a pappy lookin’ for a nonexistent eyeball (!)  It’s a weird indie (but, by no means not List-worthy). Hooper is still in full exploitation mode before Spielberg ruined him with a professional filmmaking lesson for Poltergeist (1982)—not a bad movie per se, but with a few exceptions, it threw Hooper permanently off course.

No award will given for guessing what film Mako: The Jaws of Death (directed by William Grefe) is shamelessly ripping off. It stars Richard Jaeckel using sharks to exact revenge. Better is William Girdler’s Jaws-with-claws, Grizzly, which stars Christopher George and the busy Jaeckel (again). It’s an unadulterated rip-off, made all the better for its trashiness.

Jeff Liberman’s Squirm is a hoot. Think Jaws as a buncha earth worms. It’s roguish humor is winning. It was a video store favorite for years, usually found next to the sticky floor section.

Surprisingly Rattlers (directed by John McCauley) are a duller, less threatening lot than fish bait.

Frustratingly, The Rat Savior (directed by Krsto Panic) remains an elusive gem. It won several awards at genre festivals, was available briefly on beta-max, was shown rarely on television and in arthouse cinemas (where I caught it a quarter of a century ago), and is only available on YouTube, devoid of subtitles or dubbing. It has recently been released on a PAL DVD in its original Yugoslavian language, which will hopefully pave the path for an accessible statewide release. Based on the novel by Alexander Greene, it’s a rodent-infested variation on body snatchers crossed with John Campbell’s shape-shifting “Thing.” The nasty cheese-eaters kill and impersonate human victims. The resident scientist (Ivica Vidovic) develops his own pesticide. However, once the rats impersonate a human, there’s no way to differentiate them, and mistakes are bound to happen. The Rat Savior is allegorical, political paranoia; a one-of-a-kind film, awaiting rescue from obscurity.

The House With Laughing Windows (directed by Pupi Avati) is a rare giallo that’s more unsettling than stylish. Already covered at 366 movies (as a capsule), it’s a bizarre mystery centering around an enigmatic fresco of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian and warrants exploration for fans of the genre seeking something off-kilter.

How can an exploitation film starring Klaus Kinski and Josephine Chaplin, revolving around history’s most famous serial killer, go wrong? Simple: Jack the Ripper is directed by Jess Franco, who lazily adds gore to mask the lack of atmosphere, style, and enthusiasm. The performances can’t rescue it from Franco’s drab hands.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is Charles B. Pierce’s obvious jump on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre bandwagon. Fortunately, it has its own attributes. Pierce, having previously done the pseudo-documentary horror The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973) (about the mythical Bigfoot) has a feel for the material, and injects a sense of hayseed humor in this tale purportedly about a real life, never caught Phantom Killer from 1946.

Snuff (directed—sort-of—by Michael Findlay) is really a hodgepodge that combines footage from a previous Argentine film, Slaughter(1970) together with a What’s Up Tiger Lilly spirit (but without Woody Allen’s wit). Of course, it’s not a snuff film at all, but it is beautifully idiotic—enough to be distributed on DVD by Blue Underground.

Now we come to the post- Ilsa(AKA Naziploitationportion of our show with SS Experiment Camp (directed by Italian exploitation guru Sergio Garrone). It has everything you would expect: lesbian Nazis in lab coats, horny storm troopers, electrocutions, golden showers, and frozen camp prisoners.

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DAMON ZEX’S CHECKMATE

Along with Yoga, Damon Zex’s other passion is chess.  He had begun playing the game at the age of five and renounced it after winning a state championship years later.  After emerging from a creative hiatus, Zex returned with his 27 minute film Checkmate.

Checkmate represents a return on many faceted levels.  Zex labored long on Checkmate and that labor paid off brilliantly.  Checkmate is Damon Zex’s diaphanous train wreck that one simply cannot look or turn away from.  It is horrifying, perversely amusing, unbearably intense, highly contrarian, and Damon Zex at his most quintessentially bizarre.  Even knowing Zex’s previous work will not prepare the viewer for for this, despite it’s being that seemingly inevitable bookend to what came before.

When making Checkmate Zex knew fully well that he risked propelling even his most ardent admirers into that incessant squirming, uncomfortable plateau.  But then, Damon Zex is hardly one to rest on laurels, nor is he one to cave into conservative, expectant formulas to appease a fan base.  The Checkmate that emerged after Zex’s self-imposed silence is the equivalent of an artist clearing out his own mothballs.

Everyone involved with Checkmate knew Zex was onto something special and different, even though a videographer friend, frustrated with the film’s static qualities, wanted to change it and chastised the artist for breaking the “101 basic cinematic principles.”  Indeed, Damon Zex is breaking even his own orthodoxy in Checkmate, but with an overwhelming sense of clarity. The long, sustained enveloping pauses are sharply cut with richly complex compositions which could almost be described as inducing cubist headaches.

The bulk of Checkmate is juxtaposed to Mahler’s 9th Symphony, and Zex is one of those artists determined to take Mahler back from the music fundamentalist who have claimed the composer as solely their own.  Alban Berg proclaimed the first movement of the Mahler 9th as the greatest in all of music.  Arnold Schoenberg gave an impassioned defense of the phantasmagorical, surreal, sensual Mahler 7th against that reprehensible, conservative music critic Olin Downes.  In more recent years, filmmaker Ken Russell produced a delightfully unorthodox film, while avant-gardists such as Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna have proven to be Mahler’s aesthetic offspring. Damon Zex joins this unique clique and returns us to the meaning of a true Mahlerian edge.

One of the first images from Checkmate depicts Damon watching his earlier, anti-Utopian, Orwellian Television is Watching You. Encased in a blackened area that almost looks liquefied, Damon Zex juxtaposed against a televised Damon Zex feels like a perverse, masculine, saturnine, ghostly William S. Hart facing himself in dual roles.  The frozen expanse of thickened blackness is delicately, enigmatically penetrated by the timbre-like pthalo blue light emanating from the television set. Zex’s Chessmaster is the fragmented romantic narcissist, a hermit awkwardly seated before his own image.  Even in this pregnant pause, there seems a level of fierceness that simulates energy, slowly rising to the surface.  This nightmare abyss surrounds five symbolic chess boards…

Damon Zex on Checkmate:

The first chess board represented masturbation or solipsism.  The second chess board was the foundation of the ego casting its gaze upon the lowly human race.  Within the realm of the third board, I saw the summation of the dialectic created from man and woman.  The fourth chess board symbolized time itself, echoing the ticking of seconds across the chamber surrounding it.  Finally, the fifth board evolved from a two-dimensional, white/black matrix into the chaos of color which rearranged itself into a sentient, techno-organic life form supremely powerful, bending my will to its psycho-magnetic commands.

Over the years, I had created chess sketches expressing the megalomania of the mastermind who creates the unspoken strategies of the little people hopelessly bound to the board through metaphysical nonsense, routine, and social conformity.

I was exactly playing with a slowly building tension, moving to the music, very slowly, and dealing with a repressed emotional scenario.  Yes, in a manner it is very much in keeping with a true yogic removal from emotional self indulgence.  Like Mahler, who monitored his own heart rate throughout the end of his life and knew the tight rope he was walking.

Checkmate touches on the concept of elegance, a style statement, but also overstimulation and sexual repression.  It counterbalances the notion of solipsism with desire for the image.

In Checkmate there are geometric relationships between characters, duality, singularity, inhuman and human aspects, and of course the notion of the game, it’s relationship to a male/female dynamic, and a parody of bondage, the sugar of this very medium.  However, I will allow the thinking viewer to assemble all of that later.  Usually we are programmed to exactly know what to expect in any TV show, movie, or performance.  We know there will be emotional tension between good and evil, or we may be forced to watch the hero in a terrible situation, hanging onto the edge of our seats.  In Checkmate I am presenting a relationship without real resolution in life, without a linear time line but paradigmatic nonetheless.

Damon Zex seems closest in spirit to the early surrealists, who were attracted to the thematic mix of scandal and eroticism, preferred narrative (albeit unorthodox narrative) to the avant-garde, were the ideological offspring of Tzara’s Dadaists, and were always primed for chaos (ie; Anthiel taking loaded pistol to the 1923 performance of Sonata Sauvage,which did indeed turn into chaos).

Naturally, Zex could never belong to any specific movement, even the surrealists (especially since the movement imploded and became caricature).  But, Zex certainly identifies with the surrealist attraction to unpredictable danger and has also had his surrealistic defining moment. Rene Clair had his Entr’ Acte, Damon Zex has Checkmate.

Yes, this film was quite thoroughly thought out, especially in it’s composition, which has the shining translucency of a dark icicle.  However, it is the final act that is an incitement to randomness, Zex thumbing his nose at the very notion of a rational universe, that is tragically alien to Eros’ love. This is what gives Checkmate it’s most potent and significantly surreal power.

Checkmate combines Zex’s obsessions for Dr. Strangelove, Chaplin, German Expressionism, 1984, sexual repression, domination, absurdism, control, hypnosis, megalomania, S & M, dadaism, television, media, color, monotony, static, conceptual art, performance art, extreme make-up, stylized theatrics, Mahler, Totalitarianism, French Cinema, Silent Film, Self Indulgence, restraint, emotional coolness, melodrama, The Apocalypse, perversity, creative trajectory, eros, mockery, spatiality, ying and yang, male/female, repression, dreams, the nightmare and so much more.  Yet, he exerts supreme control over his art, astonishingly so.  In investing so much of himself, Zex’s obsession, his desires, his disdain, all too keen awareness of his cult, Checkmate could have easily descended into aesthetic chaos, but he remains master of the balance and it is classic Damon Zex. Checkmate will indelibly linger on in viewers minds long after it’s over.

Damon Zex’s artist statement, and his recollections on creating Checkmate are highly recommended and encouraged reading.  These can be found at http://www.checkmatethefilm.com/.

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BUNUEL’S “UN CHIEN ANDALOU” (1929)

“Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.”–Luis Bunuel

Although Un Chien Andalou (1929) is believed to be one of the first intentionally Surrealist films, its iconoclastic milieu is predominantly subservient to the sovereign elements of systematic realism.

 

True to surrealist tenets, the film’s naturalistic texture is the quintessential ingredient in its theatrical absurdity. In this sense, Surrealist film is antithetical to Expressionist film. For instance, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) utilized distorted set designs to convey dream worlds. In direct contrast, Luis Bunuel conveys the phantasmagoric reveries here through expressive, primarily organic compositions.

In “Sculpting in Time,” Andrei Tarkovsky  locates the pulse of Buñuel’s texture:

The driving force of his films is always anti-conformism. His protest—furious, uncompromising and harsh—is expressed above all in the sensuous texture of the film, and is emotionally infectious. The protest is not calculated. Bunuel’s work is deeply rooted in the classical culture of Spain, born on one hand of a deep love for country, and on the other of his seething hatred for lifeless structures, for the brutal, milking dry of brains. The field of vision, narrowed by hatred and disdain, takes in only that which is alive with human sympathy, the divine spark, ordinary human suffering, which has steeped into the hot, stony Spanish earth.

Andalou‘s cinematography is classic, elegant and traditional. Again, Buñuel utilizes minimalistic compositions (i.e. point of view) to frame complex psychological acts of voyeurism. Buñuel often stated that he was completely uninterested in the aesthetics of filmmaking. While that flamboyant claim might be suspect, this deliberate choice astutely serves his Surrealist agenda.


Extreme close-ups (like the still shocking opening sequence) are utilized only when absolutely necessary. Much of the camerawork is rudimentary and unobtrusive. This allows the viewer to engage with the dialectic thrust between the film’s protagonists and its symbology.

The editing further validates Buñuel’s claim of disinterest in aesthetics. Freudian affiliations, naturally, abound. Dissolves are employed merely to inspire emotional tension. The ants in the stigmatic palm are weaved into a woman’s armpit, followed by the image of a sea urchin. The result is shrewdly discomforting and challenging film poetry. Through editing, Buñuel propels the viewer into an idiosyncratic subconscious mirage.

As a silent film, Un Chien Andalou thinks differently than sound film. ( Charlie Chaplin, when asked near the end of his life, why he felt he was one of the extreme few silent filmmakers who survived the transition to sound, answered: “I suppose because I realized silent film was a different art form.”) This is clear in the use of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as a soundtrack and a subtext (the music was conceptually there from the beginning, although the sound was only added later). Shot in two weeks on a meager budget financed by his mother, Buñuel could hardly afford a score. However, his choice of music and its context in relation to the film was influential in the “non-writing” of the piece.

Buñuel was an erudite cultural omnivore who raided different art forms to enhance his own art. He was well aware of “Tristan”’s impact and influence. “Tristan und Isolde” boldly introduced dissonance to opera, and the world reacted. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” taking place after the death of Tristan, synthesizes the preceding dissonance through her own transcendental, sensual death.

Buñuel filters this potentially incandescent vignette through a natural, highly lit filter. This serves as a compelling visual counterpart to the narrative context supplied by the usage of Wagner.

Buñuel’s aural editing, again, reveals a psychological rather than an aesthetic choice. Isolde’s immolation gives way to bawdy brothel music. Bunuel’s editing style parallels the traditional rhythmic continuity editing prevalent in the period. Low angles, overhead shots, et. al., employed conservatively, symbolize the relationship between the highly stylized performances and the participatory camera work. Melot’s murder of his friend Tristan is also mirrored by the shooting of Andalou‘s protagonist, rendering Buñuels claim the film was merely a catalog of random absurdities as highly suspect.

Buñuel’s predilection for not so subtle swipes at clerical hypocrisy is already present in this, his first film. He would continue taking such shots throughout his body of work, of course. Some have confused this with anti-religiosity. With a Jesuit education, Buñuel was well-equipped to shock and delighted in doing so, as did Alfred Hitchcock in a slightly more conventional way. (Hitchcock also received a Jesuit education).

Buñuel’s shocking religious imagery here involves a dead jackass and two priests. With dangling cigarette, Buñuel sharpens his razor for the bourgeoisie. Sergei Eisentstein saw Un Chien Andalou as the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness, and Buñuel hoped bourgeois audiences would prove that point by rioting in reaction to the film. They didn’t riot, and naturally, this inspired Buñuel to surpass this clerical mockery in L’ Age d’Or (1930). The government of Spain reacted with banishment.

Salvador Dali, the co-writer who was in some quarters credited as co-director, claimed, after the fact, to have been a more prominent force in the production. While Dali did repeat the infamous eye slicing in the dream sequence he composed for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), Un Chien Andalou is more characteristic of Buñuel’s oeuvre.

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