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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1976 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE OMEN & CARRIE

1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.

Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To remains one of the most relentlessly original films of the 70s, already covered at 366 Weird Movies and a solid List contender.

Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.

The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to Charlton Heston, whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead to star in the awful Midway, which was also a box office hit that year. Almost equally uninspiring is Lee Remick as Peck’s wife. Like Peck, she’s too wishy-washy, coming to life most when she’s about to die. Together, Peck and Remick throw the film off-balance. In contrast, director Donner rightly doesn’t take this nonsense seriously. Harvey Stephens is effectively stoic as Satan Jr., which renders him even an even creepier beast, but surprisingly, his is more of a supporting character.

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DAMON ZEX: INTELLECTUAL PROVOCATEUR‏

While there might still be quality, dramatic television, there is little doubt the medium has lost it’s imaginative powers and any penchant for innovative, experimental, provocative, quirky aesthetics. Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kauffman are long dead. In addition to Kauffman, the 80’s did see Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Bakshi’s “New Adventures of Mighty Mouse”, but they have been relegated to distant memories. Then, in the 1990’s came Damon Zex; the underground cult icon from Columbus, Ohio’s short-lived public access television.

One writer speculated that Charlie Chaplin was nearly the sole silent super star to have survived sound because he alone understood it was a different art form. There is a reason that Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charlie Bowers, Theda Bara, etc. were inspirational fodder to later surrealist luminaries such as Samuel Beckett and Andre Breton. Those provocateurs understood and connected with elements from the silent art form which had it’s origins in vaudeville and can be seen in today’s performance artists such as Diamanda Galas and Damon Zex.

Much in early film, by today’s standard, was experimental because the rules had not yet been set as to what constituted ‘film’ and what did not. Luis Buñuel once said, “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.”

Damon Zex’s “Asana Assassin” (discussed below)

In lieu of today’s obsession for squeaky clean, hypernarrative Hollywood realism, reactions to expressionism, experiment, rough improvisation range from red flag dismissals such as “artsy” and “pretentious” to downright hostility. Audiences can numbly sit through porn fests such as Hostel or Passion of the Christ, but will react quite differently when aesthetically provoked.

Author Scott MacDonald nails it in his introduction to avant-garde film studies:

Mainstream cinema is so fundamental a part of our public and private experiences, that even when filmmakers produce and exhibit alternative cinematic forms, that dominant cinema is implied by the alternatives. If one considers what has come to be called avant-garde film from the point of view of the audience, one confronts an obvious fact. No one–or certainly, almost no one–sees avant garde films without first having seen mass-market commercial films. In fact, by the time most people see their first avant-garde film, they have already seen hundreds of films in commercial theaters, and their sense of what a movie IS has been almost indelibly imprinted in their conscious and unconscious minds by their training as children and by the continual reconfirmation of this training during adolescence and adulthood. The earliest most people come in contact with an avant-garde film of any type is probably mid to late teens (for many people the experience comes later, if at all). The result is that whatever particular manipulations of imagery, sound, and time define these first avant-garde film experiences as alternatives to the commercial cinema are recognizable only because of the conventionalized context viewers have already developed. Generally, the first response generated by an avant-garde film is, ‘This isn’t a movie,’ or the more combative, ‘ You call this a movie?’  Even the rare, responsive viewer almost inevitably finds the film–whatever its actual length in minutes–‘too long .’  By the time we see our first avant-garde film we think we know what movies are, we recognize what ‘ everyone’ agrees they should be; and we see the new cinematic failures-to-conform as presumptuous refusals to use the cinematic space (theater, VCR, viewing room) ‘correctly.’ If we look carefully at this response, however, we recognize that the obvious anger and frustration are a function of the fact that those films confront us with the necessity of redefining an experience we were sure we understood. We may feel we KNOW that these avant-garde films are not movies, but what are they? We see them in a theater; they’re projected by movie projectors,just as conventional movies are… we can see that they ARE movies, even if we KNOW they’re not. The experience provides us with the opportunity to come to a clearer, more complete understanding of what the cinematic experience actually can be, and what–for all the pleasure and inspiration it may give us–the conventional movie experience is NOT.

Elitism in artistic taste has become a dirty word and frequently one hears the
excruciatingly lame defense for not being able to handle it, “Well, it’s just my taste and doesn’t really matter.” “Taste”, which should be acquired, is a reflection of one’s willingness to confront, and evolve past, tradition.

Damon Zex wears his badge of Artistic Elitism as a warning to the bourgeoisie. He is an intellectual bad boy that no one can claim him as their own. He’s too literary to be truly claimed by the goth/punk crowds and too extroverted to belong to the avant-garde. Yet, his inimitable, individualistic surrealism has earned him a defiantly unique cult following who recall his public access show with genuine, if cautionary affection.

Predictably, Zex, and public access in general, posed a considerable threat. Damon Zex first appeared on Columbus’ Public Access Television in 1992 with “Zextalk,” although he had been developing the character since his first live appearances: “Cerebral Cortex Sellout” in 1984, his first video; “GLitznik” in 1987, and a series of music videos which played on Much Music in Toronto. Zex quickly became the forefront figure in public access television, a kind of metaphoric, wild man John the Baptist prophet emerging from the desert to predict the coming of a new gospel that attempted to re-define and distort those fabricated notions of television. Like all new prophets, Damon Zex adhered to a gospel in the most ancient of traditions. John the Baptist evoked Elijah, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky pointed to new languages in music, grounded in origins of Bach and Gesualdo, and Damon Zex was a kindred spirit to innovators such as Georges Melies, Kenneth Anger and Ernie Kovacs.

Zex adheres to a yogic perspective in his art and life so when the attacks came early on, he never responded to personal criticism, but only stepped forward (repeatedly) to defend the genre’s right to use television surrealistically. Zex found himself in the unenviable position of defending aesthetics. It was a losing battle. Damon Zex was attacked for three consecutive days on CNN’s Headline Feed. Since Zex, with an MFA in Multi-Media Performance Art, knew how to defend himself, the Columbus City Council Democrats went after a weaker public access figure, but created a cable advisory commission to deal solely with Damon Zex. Zex had faced the City Council before, so he showed up anyway, defending Public Access as a whole while, to his surprise, his many supporters showed up to defend him. He found himself face to face with a council of old ladies, who employed a type of ideological leftist fascism and right wing fascist resources to launch their attack. The Council felt its mission was to protect “The Status Quo.” Zex, who had sought to transform the art form and dispense with preconceived notions of the medium, found that he and public access in general had upset the sacred banal balance. It became something akin to the infamous “Degenerate Art Show” of Nazi Germany. One can imagine Zex standing before them, a bit like Mahler facing the New York Philharmonic’s Committee of Women. Zex called them New Age Nazis. The ladies wouldn’t touch Zex, but instead proclaimed another public access show “obscene.” The end result was that anyone under 60 was unceremoniously removed.

Public access in Columbus was finally yanked in 2004, but by then it had become a diluted caricature of its former self (the same thing happened to Indianapolis Public Access somewhat earlier). Before all this, Damon Zex had gained a more expansive notoriety which had taken an intentionally surreal course. He had appeared on shows like Howard Stern, Geraldo, and Jerry Springer, moving through the crass commercial media phalanx as an experimental action, which took absurdist theater to a new plateau through post modern conceptual performance art. Since the demise of Columbus Public Access Television, Damon Zex has appeared sporadically on UK ShockVideo, the BBC in England (which airs his “Breakfast with Damon Zex” on Britain’s Channel 4), and continues producing his work, some of which is available on his websites: damonzex.com, zexart.com, checkmatethefilm.com, along with a dvd “best of” here: https://www.createspace.com/280629

 

It’s unfortunate Public Access television has lost Damon Zex, because poring over his body of work reveals an idiosyncratic personality whose work has refined, and deepened without losing the ability to provoke.  Indeed, if anything, his work has become increasingly provocative in its pronounced complexities, minimalism and a stubborn refusal to spoon feed his viewers.  Zex’s multi-media work is produced by the aptly named Zexart and Dissonance Cafe.

Zex’s early work was clearly influenced by the onslaught of MTV. He acknowledges this and adds that early MTV inspired to him to create his multi-media works, while later MTV inspired him to quit watching television altogether.  This sentiment comes together in Zex’s “‘MTV is Dead!” and was as necessary as Pierre Boulez’s infamous statement of “Schoenberg est mort” (in MTV’s case however, the statement was literally true).

In his approach to his art, Damon Zex has taken Picasso at his word that “great artists steal” and that every work, regardless of subject, is a self portrait.  Zex’s absorption of Chaplin, Joseph Beuys, Andre Breton, Peter Sellars, and Ernie Kovacs only touch the surface.  A critic once listed at least fifty influences on Picasso’s work.  In a rare instance, the brash artist wrote the critic, not to chide him for listing his influences, quite the contrary, but to take him to task him for failing to list Paul Gauguin.  Similarly, Zex has no vanity or false artistic pretenses.  He will go to extraordinary lengths to discuss his love of other artists.  His a refreshing and humble honesty.

Ohio State University students from the 90’s will almost always bring up the inevitable subject of their public access cult hero; Damon Zex and reminisce about their favorite ZexTalk episode.

‘Waking Nightmare” is an earlier, vampire horror parody that begins as a homage to Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.”  It ends with Zex eating a bloody tampon right out of his vampire girlfriend.

“Breakfast with Damon Zex” finds Zex going through a morning ritual that few are likely to repeat; a bowl of Rice Krispies mixed with a bottle of red wine and consumed until the puking point (and then consumed again).

In “Geek Temple” Zex is a televangelist who explains “God gave Adam and Eve really nice bodies because God liked to watch them f___k.  God likes to watch you f__k too.  When you love God, God’s s__t tastes good.  God’s s__t does not stink.  And if you love God, your s__t won’t stink either.”  Media Hypnosis, combined with the god of money, abounds and thrives in a conceptually barren dark age.

“Hate-O-Rama” begins with Zex’s “F__K for drugs,” juxtaposed against Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain,” then introduces Officer P.P. Piggly, who comes across a a mix between Chaplin’s Keystone Kop, Lenny’s Officer Krupke, and Sgt. Jim from The Blob.  Zex then crams in as many “F’ bombs as he can squeeze into 6 minutes and snorts aspirin.

“Drinking and Driving with Damon Zex”, and the early psychedelic, self-titled “Damon Zex” were campus favorites and it’s easy to see why.  In his youth, Zex astutely had his aesthetic finger on that proverbially surreal dorm room milieu, but one can indeed imagine the reaction of a random viewer, in the comfort of a quaint suburban home, stumbling upon the likes of Zextalk while channel surfing in Columbus during the 90’s.

As easy as it is to see why Zex was “THE” hip voice crying in the wilderness for Columbus in the 90’s, and as compelling as the films are, it’s almost, despite the tragic circumstances, tempting to say that the abortion of Public Access also freed Damon Zex because since then his films have become much more assured.

Maya Deren once bragged that she made films “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick”.  Damon Zex is not given to fanciful illusions and cites the failure of both television and Hollywood where “budget and need for quick return silence any and all levels of experimentation.”  Yet, he also remains optimistic and feels that the public at large is inching towards that moment of ecdysis, leaving behind its banal skin.

“Romance in the Park”, at first glance, looks like it’s going to unfold as a silent film styled sequel to the earlier “Waking Nightmare.”  The post-film grain effect recalls film in its infancy, circa 1905 through about 1915.  Zex pours himself wine on a park bench and then spies girlfriend Tamara Mitchell ,sitting on bench across the way, crossed legs, reading a magazine.  Tamara begins to seduce him as she caresses her collar bone.  Zex smiles and tongues his wine goblet.  After some shared, distant interplay, the two join on Zex’s bench, share wine, sensually caress each other and the two minute film ends with Zex burying himself between her legs.  The film ends at exactly the right moment.  On paper, it may not sound like there’s much to it, but it’s a sublime piece, replete with Zex’s frequent theme of repressed sexuality, but without the youthful punchline.  “Romance in the Park” is filtered through the dream-like quality Bunuel spoke of perfectly captures that inexplicable essence of the erotic subconscious.

“Kundalini Killer” and “Assana Assassin” feature Zex in front of his accomplished pen and ink works, which have an organic, yet frenzied quality, similar to the spirit of Edward Munch, Hieronymus Bosch, and William Blake.  These two shorts are symbolically the forefront bookend of five films which reveal Damon Zex at the peak of his powers, a remarkable and highly personal period.

“Killer” and “Assassin” are surreal slithers, glimpses from a nether realm related to Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty.”  Zex is in the process of a dark-hued, diaphanous molting. The influences of Chaplin and Peter Sellars have crystallized here and become quite distinct.  Sellar’s Dr. Strangelove with the darker Chaplin of Monsieur Verdoux and fascist Hinkle have been duly processed through Damon Zex’s innermost, expressionist psyche.

These two films are yoga voodoo rituals and Zex is on the verge of a brutal act.  Both films stem from Zex’s decade long study of yoga.  Contrary to the watered down New Age Version Yoga, the practice was considered necessary for the warrior caste, ready to go into battle and take human life.  The Kings and Rajas of India all studied yoga to perfect themselves, to cut through distracting illusions and connect with a supreme sense of self.  There are, of course, numerous branches of yoga and Kundalini Yoga is a form of the Tantric teachings, which came into existence sometime after 500 A.D. and is based in yoga being an active meditation that utilizes the world, rather than rejecting it.

Damon Zex’s “Kundalini Killer”

In “Kundalini Killer” Zex holds an actual pose where one extends arms and moves perpetually while mentally focusing on a verbal mantra with each inhale and exhale.  Zex warns that “if one is not completely centered, one can have side effects of madness from the most extreme Kundalini movements.”  In “Killer”, Zex chose the notion of being an assassin, or psychic killer, for yoga, used like western black magic.  In the face of all the new age touchy feely peace and tranquility yoga, Zex felt this aspect of yoga to be highly surreal.  He expertly gauges just how far to proceed and tempers it with the seasoned knowledge of measured restraint; the result is something far more unsettling than anything he has thus far produced.  He is, by turns, whimsical, direct, aloof, revealing, nonchalant, and salts it with a perfectly measured touch of stylized melodrama.

“Assassin” strips this down a further layer.  “Yoga is for war” and Zex has wiped off his white face base and what remains is his direct flesh, highlighted only by his penetrating, mascaraed eyes.  In contrast to the laying bare of his exposed flesh here, Zex removes a communicative layer and does not speak.  Instead, he gives us voice over narration.  This was a bold, daring and intelligent, decisive move.  This Damon Zex is not about to cave in to overtly indulged, histrionic emoting, the flesh says quite enough.  He interacts with and mirrors his own imagery.  A cool toned, dada spirituality permeates throughout.  The sharp cuts, elongated pauses, extreme penetrative close-ups and dreamy, disturbed horizons are all expertly judged.  This is an artistic plateau that can only be reached through a rewarding and struggled process.  Re-visiting an earlier work, such as “Zex for President” would be the equivalent of a sojourn back to an early college level creative period.

“Eyeball” and “Mask” are 40 second fluid tapestries that seemingly emanate from a previous unseen action, the equivalent of something akin to a slicing open of palm.  They are extreme close-ups of Zex’s eye and face.  They work very well within their brevity and appear as horrific miniatures in the Damon Zex oeuvre; surreal and hypnotic transcendental etudes, visual dissonance, almost Webernesque.

When jazz musician John Zorn released his album “The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone” (which featured Diamanda Galas among it’s cast of characters), Morricone pronounced it a profound and flattering tribute.  Morricone tributes were a dime a dozen but what made Zorn’s album so unique was that, in explosively reinterpreting elements of Morricone’s music, Zorn created a startlingly refreshing new work.  Damon Zex is a kindred spirit here. By, fragmenting, expanding on, and employing guerrilla aesthetics towards those seminal influences he absorbs, his work goes far beyond something as banal as mere imitation.

After “Television is Watching You,” Damon Zex fell into a creative void.  Upon emerging from this, he returned with a 27 minute film, his long laboured manifesto that goes to a realm even beyond “Assana Assassin” and “Kundalini Killer.”  This symbolic bookend leads us to CHECKMATE (next week).

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LICENCE TO KILL (1989): DEBUNKING THE DALTON BOND MYTHS

James Bond aficionados all tend to have their favorite 007. While I prefer the first four films, three of which were directed with style by Terence Young, I do like most of the series. The Roger Moore Bonds get picked on a bit because of their cartoonish qualities. Moore, in realizing the silliness of the scripts, chose to play 007 at an absurd level, and that was not an unwise choice. Even an overblown dud like Moonraker (1979) has its guilty pleasure moments, although by the time of View to A Kill (1985), the franchise had clearly gone stale and desperately needed a reboot. Still, Moore’s good-hearted, light approach was so popular that it proved a hurdle to new Bond Timothy Dalton. When Dalton’s severest, most fundamentalist Bond fanboy critics take their pot shots at the actor, they normally propagate the following myths:

Dalton Myth 1: The Bond producers really wanted Pierce Brosnan, who could not get out of his Remington Steel contract; they settled on Dalton at the last moment.

Fact: The Bond Producers had long wanted Dalton, as far back as 1969. Dalton was approached for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but the actor felt he was too young for the part and turned it down. In 1984, Roger Moore considered leaving the series and Dalton was approached for a second time. However, Dalton’s schedule was full and Moore renegotiated his contract. In 1987 Moore permanently retired from the part and it was Dalton again whom the producers asked first. Dalton was committed to do Brenda Starr (1989) but expressed interest after his deal was done. The Producers then went to Brosnan, who was unable to get out of his Remington Steele contract. Luckily for the producers, Brenda Starr was then put on hold and so Dalton was asked again and finally signed, some eighteen years after producer Albert R. Broccoli first sought him as 007. Broccoli understood the box office appeal of the frothy Moore as Bond, but the producer wanted to get back to the gritty Bond of Ian Fleming and the first films. When Dalton, always a literary actor, insisted that he would play 007 like the Bond of Fleming’s novels, Broccoli believed Dalton was the man for the part.

Dalton Myth 2: The Living Daylights(1987) and License to Kill (1989) were box office failures due to Dalton.

Fact: Living Daylights did very good box office and received the best reviews for a Bond film in twenty-two years. To Broccoli, Dalton was hugely responsible for this reboot of the Bond franchise. When Licence to Kill was released two years later, it was released the same summer as Batman (1989) and did poorly at the American box office. However, the film did quite well in Europe and received good reviews. Broccoli knew that American audiences would be slow in adjusting to a rougher Bond after becoming accustomed to Moore’s superficial secret agent, but he knew the franchise’s long term life was dependent on returning to Fleming’s basics. After a period of years, License developed a cult following among American fans.

Dalton Myth 3: Dalton was fired after Licence proved a disaster. Dalton so damaged the Bond franchise that six years passed before another Bond film would be produced.

Fact: This is the most grossly uninformed myth. Broccoli and Twentieth Century Fox became entangled in legal rights regarding the Bond films shortly after the release of Licence to Kill. Dalton’s contract was for three films, and GoldenEye(1995) was originally written for Dalton as Bond. However, because of the length of time in litigation, Dalton was able to get out of his contract, enabling him to work on other films. Broccoli wanted Dalton back and would have gotten Dalton for GoldenEye a few years earlier. However, mitigating circumstances prevailed and, despite misgivings, Broccoli and his daughter, Barbara, who had just stepped in to replace her terminally ill father, hired actor Pierce Brosnan. Both Barbara and her father preferred Dalton to Brosnan, but they were also both aware of Brosnan’s appeal to American audiences. After Die Another Day (2002), Barbara felt the series was veering back to the cartoonish quality of the Moore years. Salary issues and undisclosed differences arose between Brosnan, Broccoli and the remaining producers. Years before, Barbara’s father had met strenuous resistance from star Roger Moore when the effort was made to craft the films and the character as more “realistic” in For Your Eyes Only (1981), a move American audiences resisted. For Your Eyes Only is now regarded by some as one of the better Moore Bonds, although that is debatable. Whatever the reasons, Broccoli wanted to replace Brosnan with a Bond who had qualities similar to Dalton’s Bond. She found that, and more, in Daniel Craig. It took awhile but the Bond franchise returned to the original Ian Fleming style. That was a James Bond first fleshed out by Timothy Dalton. Dalton was simply ahead of his time and too soon after the long run of the Moore years. It took the middle-of-the-road Brosnan series before American audiences could be weaned off the cartoon expectations they had fallen into. Once Brosnan fulfilled his role, western audiences accepted Daniel Craig, and Craig’s Bond is more closely related to Dalton’s portrayal than it is to Sean Connery. This reboot of 007 is not that different from Christopher Nolan’s revamping of Batman away from the camp parody the series had fallen into and back to the original, edgier conception.

Licence To Kill is the most personal Bond film since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (an excellent film, flawed only by an inexperienced lead in star George Lazenby. Secret Service would have benefited greatly from Dalton’s tenacious, exotic 007. Despite Dalton’s misgivings about his age at the time, he was already an experienced actor in 1969. Dalton conveys determination and a romantic streak. Licence is also the most violent of all the Bond films.  It opens with an unfaithful girl getting lashed across her back while her lover’s heart is cut out by her boyfriend’s henchmen. The villain’s ends are particularly imaginative and gruesome. Several deaths are accomplished with the aid of the animal kingdom: one villain is killed in a drawer full of maggots, another is dropped into a tank with an electric eel, and the traitor is fed to a shark while Bond looks on, unflinching. Licence explores the horror realm when a villain’s head explodes in decompression chamber. A couple of victims are impaled, one at the end of a harpoon and a second on a fork lift.  A henchman gets ground up in a straw cutter, while his boss (a very good, intense Robert Davi) is doused in gasoline and set on fire. For these reasons, Licence was the first Bond film to receive a PG-13 rating (overseas it was released in an even gorier R-rated version.) Bond’s one-liners, delivered with cold precision after several deaths, are unsettling.

The more vulnerable Bond actually bleeds in this film; and Dalton’s portrayal, while not to the liking of those who prefer a two dimensional spy, was unique in a way that Brosnan couldn’t be. Brosnan’s Bond, while seething with sexual edge, seems an all too eclectic mix of the proceeding Bonds. Dalton’s almost Shakespearean 007, in hindsight, proves the more exceptional; his portrayal will eventually lead to the earthy Bond of Daniel Craig.

Where Licence to Kill falters is in the direction of John Glen, whose pedestrian style hampers the film (although it is clearly the best of Glen’s films for the series and he does excellent work in the action sets). Still, with a more stylish director, this film might have been a film on par with the Terence Young Bonds. There are some considerable missteps: the set-up allows Bond to resign his position and go his route alone without the aid of Q and his gadgets. After this potential direction is suggested, Glen cheats by bringing Q back in, even though the expanded role of Q is an unexpected pleasure. The finale is nearly a fatal blunder. Bond’s CIA friend Felix Lighter has been permanently maimed when fed to shark, while his wife has been raped and killed on their honeymoon. This is the impetus for Bond’s quest for revenge, emotionally echoing the harrowing memory of the murder of Bond’s own wife on their honeymoon. Yet, at the end Felix is in bed with babe nurses, gives 007 a sprightly wink, and says “Can’t wait til the next mission, James!” It rings a false, final note to all that has proceeded it. Bond’s Akira Kurosawa-like goal to infiltrate, dismantle, and destroy the drug empire of Franz Sanchez is achieved through shrewd manipulation of Sanchez’ demand for loyalty.

Carey Lowell plays the main Bond girl here. Licence, like Living Daylights before it, resists the standard sexist stereotyping. In the first Dalton Bond, this was done by keeping Bond monogamous (a first for the series). Here, it is the girl who saves Bond, far more often than the other way around.

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SIGNE BAUMANE: WOMAN

“When I don’t think about film, I think about sex.  Every 10 seconds.  I have the sense that my head is very close to my genitals.”  So speaks Latvian animator Signe Baumane in the documentary Signe and…. It’s part of an indispensable and unique collection of Baumane’s animated shorts called Ten Animated Films by Signe Baumane.

True to her word, there is sex aplenty in most of the films in this collection, including her  Teat Beat of Sex, and Baumane goes a long way to prove obsession in art is indeed a good thing.

In Natasha, a lonely housewife finds a vacuum cleaner is just as effective as any man.  In Five F___king Fables the head of a decapitated princess gives a man oral while a dog performs cunnilingus on her, penises do indeed come in every shape, size, color and form, and Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flowers are taken to a whole new level. These are just a few of  the repeated erotic images and themes that make up Baumane’s world.

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1975 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS, AND SHIVERS

In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws defined the idea of blockbuster as we now know it. Despite the epic career that followed, the director has never surpassed this early work. It’s really a full-throttle horror adventure about the trio of shark hunters Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss; a fact that amazingly eluded MCA when they produced numerous sequels (without Spielberg) that reduced Bruce (the shark) to an underwater Jason Vorhees.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show defined “cult classic” like no other film before or since. Although it was relatively slow to take off, it became the staple for audience participating midnight showings and undeniably the number one cult film of all time. It was stupidly remade by Fox (imagine that) in 2016 and deservedly flopped with both critics and its TV audience.

Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom was the last and most notorious film of Pier Paolo Pasolini before he was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances, shortly after filming. The film itself is only for the strongest stomachs.

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (directed by Don Edmonds) is one of the most notorious of cult films and made a bonafide 70s grindhouse superstar out of former exotic dancer and softcore porn actress Dyanne Thorne. The main role is loosely based on Ilse Koch—the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” The historical Ilse, wife of the camp’s commander, was known to have frequently flogged prisoners, including pregnant women. At one of her trials, witnesses were produced who testified that she chose Jews with unique tattoos for extermination so that she could keep their skin. After two trials, she was sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for crimes against foreigners, incitement to murder, and attempted murder. In the last few years of her life, she became paranoid that former camp prisoners were conspiring to kill her, and committed suicide in her cell in 1960.

Shot on the same sets as “Hogan’s Heroes,” the film is thoroughly a product of its time. Under that lens of horror/sexploitation/torture porn, it’s less offensive than either a TV series that makes light of the Holocaust or torture porn dressing itself up as sacred Easter pageant theology (2004’s Passion of the Christ). Still, one can question the entertainment value of a buxom blonde Josef Mengele conducting monstrous experiments, but 70s audiences had no qualms, flocking to see it in grindhouse theaters and making it enough of a hit that three sequels followed. Ilsa’s motive for torture is to prove that women can endure more pain than men and should therefore be allowed to fight on the front lines, which is about as convincing as the movie’s opening statement from the producers defending its historical accuracy. It’s unlikely to inspire contemporary viewers to go to do research on Wikipedia. There’s not much in the way of plot, but purely as exploitation, it’s resoundingly successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.

With this subject matter, a solid performance is needed. Thorne, with tight, low-cut white blouse and swastika armband, delivers in spades, spitting dialogue out of thin, cruel lips. It must be a testament to her onscreen charisma that she commands attention through all that bloodletting, which is still revolting even by contemporary standards. Thorne appeared in a number of similar-themed films outside of the Ilsa franchise before receiving a PhD in comparative religions and becoming a minister.

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A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF P

Thomas Pynchon: A Journey into the Mind of P, directed and produced by the brothers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, is not so much a documentary as it is a homage to that legendary recluse of post modern literature, who wrote books such as “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

The film is broken down into four appropriate sections: “Paranoia,” “Disappearance,” “Alien Territories,” and “Psychomania,” and its wildly mixed reviews are a bit perplexing.  One would think that a film on such a non-conventional literary figure as Pynchon would at least attempt to be fairly non-conventional in approach.  The Dubini Brothers do not disappoint there. But then, we’ve seen this type of reaction all too often.

A number of Beatles “fans” expressed outrage towards Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe.  What made the Beatles so unique and timeless was they refused to buy into their “religious base.”  Once they were elevated to near divine status, the artists’ response could easily have been to roll with what they (intentional or not) hit upon, follow the formula and keep that money machine rolling (aka: Elvis Presley).  Instead, fans never quite knew what to expect of the fab four.  The “White Album” was as certainly startling, perplexing and unexpected as “Revolver” had been.  Of course, that didn’t keep the pseudo fans from mantling unrealistic expectations on the solo Beatles’ career or from ostracizing any and all experimentation in their gods’ name (Across the Universe).

Pseudo fans from the church of Kubrick did the same thing when that usurper Steven Spielberg dared to take on A.I., possibly the most sublime and exquisite film of the last ten years or more.  The resulting film was actually quite true to Kubrick’s vision and even improved on it.  A.I. also revitalized the art and career of Steven Spielberg.

Pynchon, that vastly complex enigmatic myth, 20th century literature’s wandering saint, modernism’s yeti, has also declined much advocated canonization.  Thankfully, this film was made by true, dyed in the wool fans, not mere gold star wearing members of the Pynchon church/fan club.

Like Pynchon himself, the film is amusing, surreal, perplexing, anarchic, wry, self-mocking, speculative, subversive for the sake of being subversive, and ambiguous. One thing is for certain; A Journey into the Mind of P is hardly orthodox biography.

The bizarre score by The Residents (which surprisingly fits), impersonators, archival news footage, idiosncratic interpretations of 60’s rock, obsessive fans and literary critics are just part of this strange brew that make up the film (and literary critic George Plimpton provides the most memorable quote in the film: “He’s the sort of guy who could turn out an almanac in a week.”)

Wisely, the filmmakers do not try to decipher Pynchon’s work and instead, craft a film, inspired by Pynchon’s work.  There is even an Indiana Jones like hot pursuit of the the author, with Pynchon finally being captured on camera for the first time in 40 years (sound to good to be true?  It probabaly is).

Revealing more in regards to Pynchon’s biography, work, life details, would be the expected thing to do, so in the spirit of the film itself, ….

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THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

1932’s The Island of Lost Souls is the first of three cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells “The Island of Dr.Moreau.” It is easily the best, although the 1997 attempt with Marlon Brando was not the disaster some critics claimed, and in fact was considerably better than the static, unimaginative 1977 version with Burt Lancaster.

The 1932 Island, directed by Erle C. Kenton, is rightly considered a classic, enough so that it received the Criterion treatment for a 2011 release. This is Kenton’s sole classic.  Although he was a prolific director, he was essentially a journeyman, taking whatever was handed to him and usually injecting little style. His other horror films for Universal were The Ghost Of Frankenstein(1942), The House Of Frankenstein (1944), and The House Of Dracula (1945), and they are all second rate, at best.

Island of Lost Souls deviates from the original story (which, predictably, prompted H.G. Wells to voice his disapproval), but the film is simply told. Like 1932’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Island is a pre-Hayes code film, and it shows. Of course, both films were taken from  literary sources, and that too is apparent.  Lost Souls‘ literacy is due to screenwriter Philip Wylie, who also adapted Wells for James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). The inimitable Charles Laughton, one of the great classic screen actors, plays Dr. Moreua with a classicist’s relish. Laughton is one of the major reasons for this film’s success, and as director Kenton shows atypical subtlety. These factors, combined with well-crafted sets and make-up, add up to a striking milieu.

Island is almost an old-dark-house genre film, except that the stranded visitor, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) ends up in a sort of kinky, contemporary Eden.  God is present in the symbolic persona of Dr. Moreau and although he is the antagonist, he is a three-dimensional one. He is intelligent, crafty, and that naughty twinkle in the divine eye is ever present.  God is creating again, although this time he’s attempting to correct his previous mistake by making man from the image of Eden’s animals.  Eve (a Wylie addition) appears in the exotic Lota (Kathleen Burke, who notably showed up in the following year’s pre-Code Murders in the Zoo).  Lota, AKA Panther Girl, alternately projects innocence and unbridled sexuality, and she is utilized by Moreau to usher forth a new Adamic age, with Parker as the new Adam. Of course, in every Eden there’s a rotten apple or two, and here it’s Parker’s abroad girlfriend (Leila Hyams, from Freaks) and the Beast Men, Moreau’s ungrateful children who hold a grudge against their creator for little things like torture, brutality, and vivisection. The Beast Men are led by the Sayer of the Law ( Bela Lugosi, who is well-directed). The Sayer calls the creator out for hypocrisy and original sin.  The Beast Men are well sketched here, which is a sharp contrast to the mere animalistic portraits drawn in subsequent versions. The finale is natural jolt, so much so that no other celluloid interpretation of the tale can match it. This lucidly told imaginative spin on Dr. Frankenstein’s Eden still holds up remarkably well.

As for the Criterion treatment, most welcome authoritative commentary is given by historians Gregory Mank and David J. Skall, along with filmmaker Richard Stanley (the original director of the 1997 version, who was replaced by John Frankenheimer).  Stanley offers entertaining, honest insight.  A little less welcome are reflections by John Landis and Devo.  Production stills and the theatrical trailer are excellent supplements.  This is a superb release that is essential for classic film lovers.

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