Tuesday, November 26, 2013


The one thing Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' does extremely well is to demythologise the figure of the hitman. The existential cool of Alain Delon in 'Le Samorai', the quasi-mysticism of Jean Reno in 'Leon', are here replaced with a couple of ex-soldier, ex-private-security types named Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley). Both live in blandly anonymous English suburbs. Both, when they're not killing people (and as the film opens it's been eight months since their last job), live relatively mundane lives. Jay and his Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) bicker and trade recriminations as the money runs out, seemingly staying together for no other reason than their seven-year old son. Gal drinks a lot and chases women. His latest squeeze is Fiona (stand-up comedian Emma Fryer - badly miscast), who works in Human Resources and seems to enjoy the downsizing a little too much. Fiona's depersonalised language in a dinner party scene that plays out with all the tensions, resentments and acrimony of a Mike Leigh film but without Leigh's trademark observational humour to leaven it, is just one of several instances of heavy foreshadowing.

Wheatley also ladles on symbolism: an arching rainbow as Jay and Gal meet their mysterious client for a new job; Jay's blood on a sheet of parchment; dead rabbits; a whole textbook of Arthurian imagery sneakily incorporated into a seemingly realistic aesthetic of motorways, chain hotels, identikit suburban houses. Britain as homogenous and ugly. It's therefore genuinely startling, then, when the last act erupts in a phantasmagoria of 'Wicker Man'-style paganism. Not that the shift from crime thriller to horror movie is as swervingly discordant as, say, 'From Dusk Till Dawn'. A pagan symbol marking out one of the characters for ... well, something ... means the film plays its hand fairly early on, and the smiling acceptance of several of Jay and Gal's targets is as good an indication as anything else that something very different from the archetypal hitman thriller is going on here.

Wheatley has said in interview that he was less interested, while co-writing the screenplay with Amy Jump (his wife and long-term co-writer), with traditional plot-driven narrative than how individual scenes play off against each other. It shows. Watching 'Kill List' is a wildly contradictory experience, to the point at which, as the end credits rolled and I ejected the DVD almost vehemently, I hadn't enjoyed it as a cumulative viewing experience and didn't feel any urge to write about. A day later, the film having crawled around in my mind like an acid-coated virus, I was relishing the prospect of hammering out a review and trying to engage with it.

Ah, but there's the rub. Getting into even a moderately in-depth dialogue about 'Kill List' involves flinging out spoilers left, right and centre. Although you could argue that they're not necessarily spoilers since Wheatley doesn't so much tie all of the film's implications, insinuations and semi-revelations together as leave everything as open-to-interpretation as possible. Also, a lot of my thoughts on the film over the last 24 hours have been, not shaped but certainly influenced, by online discussion threads. So I'm at a crossroads: I don't want to (a) spoil a couple of jaw-droppingly brilliant didn't-see-that-coming moments, or (b) rigorously debate an interpretation that I didn't arrive at myself.

Here, then, are some spoiler-friendly thoughts on the film. As a commentary on Britain as corrupt, riddled with things that are hidden, and ruled by degenerates, it makes its point in brutal and unflinching fashion. Wheatley films violence in a way that's reminiscent of early Scorsese: a sudden eruption from the fabric of the film that recedes just as suddenly. The violence is resolutely scoured of anything that might be misconstrued as glamorous or iconic, be it Jay and Gal emotionlessly lining a victim's office with plastic sheeting prior to shooting him in the head, or a bit of business with a hammer when Jay discovers a mark is a child-pornographer and opts for a less-professional-than-usual approach to the job. It's almost - almost - a moral film.

When Wheatley squares up to religion, politics, power structures, familial dysfunction and the failure of masculine ethics, he delivers powerhouse scenes. His plumbing of the superstition and paganism that never seems that far in Britain's past is a brave and interesting move, but the imagery he conjures during the last 15 minutes is so evocative of 'The Wicker Man' that 'Kill List' doesn't quite survive the comparison. 'The Wicker Man' is precise and focused in its narrative where 'Kill List' is elliptical. 'The Wicker Man' ends with a shot that is devastating and final and inescapable while 'Kill List' stumbles bluntly into 'A Serbian Film' territory for its abrupt denouement while still leaving the crucial "why" of it all unanswered.

As I mentioned earlier, there's an interpretation that many of the film's commentators have settled on - let's just say that, conceptually, it suggests that 'Kill List' has more affinity with 'The Omen' than 'The Wicker Man' - and which accounts for much of the symbolism but still doesn't quite hold water. That Wheatley chose to jettison a more traditional narrative approach in favour of something more organic sometimes works against the film - particularly since, as genres, crime and horror tend to be very story-driven. Likewise, Wheatley's po-faced direction is occasionally at odds with the script's deviations into black humour. Played more as a dark comedy, 'Kill List' might have been clearer in its intent and its broadsides more emphatic. There's a splendid scene where, posing as travelling salesmen, Jay and Gal find themselves sharing an otherwise empty hotel dining room with a small group of born again Christians. Jay's slow-burn reaction gives the script's clearest exposition of his mindset, as well as paying off in a way that's both edgy and genuinely funny. Wheatley and his cast find a perfect register and I can't help but speculate how wonderful 'Kill List' would have been had it struck this balance through the majority of its running time.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Remember that “don’t mention the z-word” gag in ‘Shaun of the Dead’, a riposte to Danny Boyle’s preciousness in insisting that ’28 Days Later’ wasn’t a zombie film? At its most inspired, Alejandro Brugues’s ‘Juan of the Dead’ plays out as a politically-minded exposition of this concept – one, moreover, that you don’t necessarily need a thorough grounding in Cuban history to appreciate. Nothing here gets lost in translation.

Off the coast of Havana, middle-aged ne’er-do-well Juan (Alexis Diaz de Vilegas) and his equally irresponsible best bud Lazaro (Jorge Molina) encounter a corpse while out fishing. When it unexpectedly comes to life and lunges at them, Lazaro shoots it with a harpoon gun. The friends decide this is the kind of business best left unreported to the authorities and hasten back to shore, fishless, where Juan resumes his twin hobbies of drinking and womanising, and Lazaro clumsily tries to bond with his grown-up son California (Andros Perugorria). Neither suspect that they’ve witnessed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Then an aged neighbour dies … only to return moments later, suddenly ambulatory after years of infirmity and with a taste for human flesh. Again, Juan and Lazaro fail to understand, as they desperately fend him off, what the deal is. Vampirism? Cloves of garlic rammed in the living corpse’s mouth have no effect. Possession? They attempt an exorcism. (Contextual parenthesis: I watched ‘Juan of the Dead’ after a spectacularly shitty day and in a mood of abject grumpiness; during this sequence, I found myself laughing so hard I had to pause the DVD to wipe away the tears.) Later still, the streets of Havana flooded with similar undead shufflers, Juan and Lazaro watch a news report: there have been acts of unsocial behaviour, the bespectacled and humourless anchor announces, perpetrated by dissidents in the pay of the American government.

The word “zombie” is used once in ‘Juan of the Dead’. By an American. No-one speaks English. The explanation is lost on them. The opportunity, however, isn’t. You know how in most zombie films, the narrative pretty much channels itself towards an inevitable mismatched-group-of-survivors holed up in a claustrophically intense setting while the zombies effectively besiege them scenario? ‘Juan of the Dead’ laughs at that concept and gleefully romps all over Havana as its anti-heroes set up a business disposing of “dissidents”. Juan’s sales pitch, each time he answers the phone, is “Juan of the dead, we kill your relatives, how can I help you?”, a line that gets funnier the more it’s repeated, not least because de Vilegas is clearly struggling to keep a straight face each time he delivers it.

Joining in the fun are China (Jazz Vila), a drag queen with a kick-ass attitude and a killer pair of heels; El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez) a built-like-a-brick-shithouse bodybuilder who faints at the merest hint of blood; and Camila (Andrea Duro), Juan’s teenage daughter who morphs, with appealing rapidity, from clean-cut girl-next-door to Lara Croft wannabe, all cut-off jeans and a handy technique with a ball-peen hammer.

Together, they lurch from entrepreneurism to misadventure, from broad comedy to horrifying … uh, well, no. Not actually. Although ‘Juan of the Dead’ turns in a couple of relatively effective suspense scenes, any trade in grue or gore is played entirely for laughs. As a result, even though some of Juan’s band of merry “dissident”-slayers buy it, Brugues struggles to imply that there are any real stakes involved.

But that’s just nit-picking when the comedy is so effective. As a political satire, it works well. As as a comedy of the absurd, it works beautifully (there’s a fight scene staged as a tango that is just priceless). As a full-tilt, exuberant, utterly unapologetic belly flop into every about a specific genre that the film-makers so evidently love, it knocks the ball right out of the park. Indeed, with its deliberately cheesy special effects (a vehicle impacting into a harbour is strictly die-case-model-thrown-in-a-bathtub stuff), casually laconic protagonist and knowing upending of genre tropes, it’s as pure a B-movie love letter as ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ or ‘Planet Terror’, and a lot funnier than either.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

The first three paragraphs of this review are pure supposition, and The Agitation of the Mind accepts no responsibility for having to tell lawyers to Foxtrot Oscar.

The scene: the tersely named Tom Six (who sounds like he ought to be a boy superhero rather than a director with an unhealthy track record in button-pushing) is talking to a potential backer about this little project he wants to make. A horror film.

“Okay, so, it’s called ‘Human Centipede’ and it’s about a mad scientist—” (the potential backer, let’s call him Fred so that I don’t have to keep typing potential backer, nods and smiles: mad scientists, always a crowd pleaser) “—who kidnaps these two beautiful American girls who are travelling through Europe—” (Fred nods and smiles: beautiful girls, always a crowd pleaser; Americans, good for the wider market) “—and uses them in a, ah, how shall we say, Fred, a medical experiment. Can I get you another drink?” (Fred nods and offers his glass, but he seems a little dubious now. Medical experiments? This might be a box office turn-off.) “Fred, no worries, ja? This is experiment is, ah, kind of like in the well-received French film ‘Martyrs’. Controversial, sure – disturbing, sure – but there is a social point to the film, as well as being tense and exciting and, here’s the thing, cheap to make.” (Fred, glass refreshed, sips and nods and asks a question about the title.) “Ah, but there is the genius of the film. The title conjures all sorts of horrible images. The poster will conjure more horrible images. And the film itself, Fred … well, nobody can complain they were sickened or disgusted or they didn’t know what they were getting into. The title will build the buzz, generated the word of mouth, before the film’s even been released. Kind of like what happened with the hugely profitable American film ‘Snakes on a Plane’. This film will have a legion of fanboys while we’re still shooting. Did I mention how cheap it will be to make?”

Waiting for the cheque to clear and having found a cast crazy enough to sign on the dotted line, the Six-meister starts giving some thought to his magnum opus’s central conceit – its main selling point, its self-powering controversy-generator: mad scientist stitches three people together anus-to-mouth to create a … well, the clue’s in the title. There’s a funky idea he’s kicking about that has to do with nutcase scientist bloke trying to train the centipede. He’s got a finale mind involving a couple of cops and some shooting. All of a sudden it dawns on him: he needs an extra hour’s worth of material to drag this mo’fo’ to the hour and a half mark. He doesn’t think that Fred and the other backers are going to be too happy about ponying up for a 30 minute short …

Which is my best guess as to how the world was gifted with Tom Six’s blackly comic and politically insightful satire grubby little B-movie ‘The Human Centipede (First Sequence)’, the parenthetical part of the title thumbing its nose at you with the promise of even more venality come the sequel. The film opens with a German trucker pulling over and hoofing it into the woods to take a dump. He’s followed by Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser), who shoots him with a tranq dart. Later, the dude is killed off and buried (he’s “not the right match”). Next up, we have two helium voiced American girls driving through Germany to a gig (as you do), and getting first of all lost and then stranded after a blow out. Say hello to Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), who quarrel whilst driving, quarrel whilst sitting helplessly in their car awaiting the arrival of a knight in shining armour, and cease quarreling and sit in uncomfortable silence, doors locked and windows wound up, as they’re approach not by a knight in shining armour but an obese pervert who thinks he recognises them from a porno and whose chat up technique consists of saying “I’ll fuck you good and hard” and making unsubtle movements of the tongue. Finally they decide to walk through the woods in the hope of finding a house where they can use a phone. And thus our heroines arrive at chez Heiter and a twenty minutes of padding segues into … well, another twenty minutes of padding.

It’s impossible to approach ‘The Human Centipede’ and not know what fate lies in store for Lindsay and Jenny. Even when it was first released, the publicity machine had built up enough steam that everyone knew about the bumhole/cakehole surgery business. Hence the next twenty minutes or so, which detail the capture of another subject, Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), and Lindsay’s attempts to escape, her flight hampered by a drugged and somnolent Jenny, are leached of tension since it’s a foregone conclusion that said attempts will fail.

Six then proceeds to pull his punches with the surgery, and even the inevitable scenes of Katsuro, Lindsay and Jenny stitched together in an unpleasantly intimate manner aren’t actually as queasy as you’d think. For all that Heiter makes a big deal about the three of them sharing one digestive system, the horrible implications of this are more suggested than shown. Granted, the scene in question is definitely one to fast forward through if you’re eating, but it’s nothing compared to the “circle of shit” sequence in ‘Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom’, or Divine’s caprophagous moment of infamy in ‘Pink Flamingos’.

This isn’t to say that ‘The Human Centipede’ is a total waste of potential: Lindsay stumbling on a memorial in Heiter’s garden to “mein leibe 3-hund” is an effective little scene; Heiter’s prissily self-important diction as he gives a medical lecture to his trio of screaming subjects is funnier than it has any right to be; and the nastily deliberate final shot gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “stuck in the middle”. But such moments are offset by the horrible stereotyping of Katsuro, the last act introduction of a pair of detectives so ploddingly inept that your average giallo copper looks like Inspector Morse by comparison, and the total lack of any form of emotional investment in the characters or the story. Put simply, ‘The Human Centipede (First Sequence)’ exists purely to present the hardcore horror fan with a, well, human centipede. How it gets there is boilerplate, the characters it uses are ciphers and for all its provocation the end result struggles to keep its head above the undertow of banality. 

The sequel, however … well, that’s another story.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Here’s a fun game we can all play. How many films can you name where the mainstream press or the moral majority have trotted out the old “is it art or is it porn” rhetoric? Two points for each film. I’m going out for a couple of pints. I’ll see you at paragraph two in an hour or so.

Hi. Welcome back, everyone. How many did you get? Wow, that many! Okay, let’s throw something else into the mix. How many of those films have Nazis in them? Round of applause for everyone who said ‘The Night Porter’.

Who was that? Someone at the back? Several someones? Did I hear you say ‘Salon Kitty’? Come forward. Please. Make yourselves comfortable. You now have a front row seat to this evening’s review on The Agitation of the Mind.

The 1970s in European cinema was a time of the most sublime heights, and also of challenging and envelope-pushing provocation. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 controversy magnet ‘The Night Porter’ didn’t just push the envelope, it set fire to it and danced round the ashes with a pair of braces over its otherwise naked breasts wearing an SS officer’s cap and snapped off a Hitler salute every so often just in case someone hadn’t been offended yet. That ‘The Night Porter’ also happened to be a well-acted and profoundly serious examination into psychosexual dependency only made it harder to stomach. Oh, and that nice Dirk Bogarde was in it who’d been everybody’s heart-throb just a decade and a half previously.

Bogarde’s journey from b&w pin-up idol to art film dark horse took arguably its most pivotal turn in 1969 when he starred in Visconti’s ‘The Damned’ alongside Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger. Hands up everyone who can see where I’m going with this.

Fast forward to 1976 and Tinto Brass has presumably had a meeting with some money men and said something along the lines of “hey, let’s do a mash-up of ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’ but with loads more bouncing boobs and floppy phalluses” and the blank cheque was handed to him while “bouncing boobs” was still ringing in their ears and it was only later that one of the producers said “hey, wait a minute guys, did he say something about floppy phalluses? We’d better keep an eye on the rushes.”

Based on Peter Norden’s novel – which itself was based on actual events – the plot of ‘Salon Kitty’ can be summarised, without missing out anything in the way of narrative detail or political theorising, as thus: ambitious Nazi Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) is given the task of setting up a knocking shop for high-ranking officers, and to this end coerces famous Berlin madam Kitty Kellermann (Thulin) into relocating to premises he has an interest in and firing her exotic girls in favour of a retinue of Aryan totty handpicked by Wallenberg himself. Among the recruits is socially-confused poor little rich girl Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), whom Wallenberg begins to obsess over. Margherita, however, finds herself caught up in a doomed affair with disaffected Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu), who is planning to defect Rudolph Hess stylee. Increasingly suspicious at Wallenberg’s machinations, Margherita discovers he’s using the brothel to strengthen his own power base, and she and Kitty join forces to turn the tables.

And that really is all there is to it, plot-wise. But, oh lordy, does Brass take his time getting there. In a director’s cut that clocks in at a frequently tedious 133 minutes, nearly quarter of an hour has elapsed before Wallenberg recruits his harem, 40 minutes before Kitty finds herself working for Wallenberg, an hour and a quarter before Reiter plans to defect, and somewhere around the hour forty minute mark before Kitty and Margherita team up to unmask Wallenberg. There are many things ‘Salon Kitty’ can be accused of. Narrative propulsion isn’t one of them.

‘Salon Kitty’ is overlong and deeply uneven. Intermittently, the script makes a stab at political commentary or philosophical debate. Periodically, Brass gets it into his head that he can direct like Visconti or Resnais and he tries, falteringly, for something visually majestic and aesthetically elliptical. Astoundingly, the odd bit of quality slips through, such as Margherita’s last day with Reiter before he returns to the front. For the most part, though, ‘Salon Kitty’ looks like what it is: a porno movie with a big enough budget for a couple of arthouse darlings in the lead roles and the services of a production designer (in this case – wait for it – Ken Adam).

But even if we just hang the “blue movie” tag on it and judge its merits solely on its success or otherwise as an example of said form, it frustrates. There is little that’s genuinely erotic. Sure, it’s sleazy – oh, you’d better believe it’s sleazy – but not in the guilty-pleasure/cold-shower-afterwards way that many exploitationers are. There’s a kind of despondency to the sleaze on offer, from the “auditions” that see the girls paired off with horribly unappealing partners, to the predilections of Kitty’s clients: a scene involving projected footage of Hitler and a loaf of bread in the shape of a cock and balls crests the peak of absurdity within moments and finds itself plummeting down the vertical drop of depressingly sad on the other side.

The tonal instability is perhaps best evidenced by an orgy near the start of the film: the girls picked by Wallenberg are marched into a gymnasium and ordered to disrobe. In the shower block of said amenity, a platoon of Nazi soldiers are similarly urged to get nekkid. The girls march to one side of the girl, all pert breasts and rounded buttocks, while the men troop in one behind the other, willies waggling all over the place as if they’re about to indulge in a National Socialist circle jerk, and all the while a sergeant is yawping “Links zwo drei vier, links zwo drei vier”. The chant put me in mind of the Rammstein song and for a couple of brief minutes the whole thing was so utterly ridiculous that I was grinning away and in very real danger of starting to enjoy the film. Then the orgy starts.

How can I describe it? Imagine an orgy where nobody really fancies anybody that much (subject of which, a late in the game sex scene between Berger and Savoy is truly compelling for no other reason than Berger’s almost terrified reaction at having a naked woman in front of him), where all of the body parts are mispositioned (unless “blow job” actually means having the lady’s head level with one’s belly button and said blowing effects fluff removal from said navel, in which case I’ve been asking for the wrong thing all these years), and the male-to-female ratio is one short on the lads' side necessitating one of the women to writhe around on her own and hope that nobody notices. It’s horribly shot, nonsensically edited and about as titillating as a party political broadcast.

‘Salon Kitty’ has a reputation as one of the key Nazisploitation films, and in some respects it’s well earned. Brass’s pretentions to artistic legitimacy – his next project would be the ludicrously ambitious and notoriously ill-fated ‘Caligula’, starring no less a phalanx of mainstream talent than Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud – ram it into place (fnar fnar) as some kind of squalid bridge between ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’ on one side and ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ and ‘The Beast in Heat’ on the other. But it is, as the jaded reviewer desperately searching for a kiss-off line might observe, a bridge too far.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Remember the critical platitudes that were showered upon ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ last year, and the buzz that surrounded ‘Amer’ back in 2009? Remember how both of those films were essentially art-house navel-gazing pepped up with a bit of gore? Remember how the broadsheet critics were quick to drop “giallo-inspired” into every review, like they all had framed posters of ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ on their living room walls? ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ had nothing to do with gialli while ‘Amer’ replicated certain visual tropes without capturing the pacy thrilleramics the genre traded on.

No, we have to go back to 2004 for world cinema’s most recent shot at the giallo style of old. And, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a doozy!

Eros Puglielli’s ‘Eyes of Crystal’ – the title already evoking ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and ‘Cold Eyes of Fear’ – has a swirling mystery of sexual psychodrama at its centre. It has a troubled protagonist, an enigmatic antagonist, a beautiful woman (soon to be in peril) and a cluster of gruesome murder scenes. Baroque set design abounds, particularly relation to a ‘Suspiria’-like house belonging to a collector of fetishistic curios. There’s an important clue hidden in the mists of the past. A broken doll provides a key image.

Top flight giallo material and Puglielli uses it with panache. Okay, I didn’t spot any J&B and the police in ‘Eyes of Crystal’ are definitely not the plodding incompetents typical of the genre, but who’s counting? In fact, the police are something of a force to be reckoned with here, as evidenced by a straight-into-the-thick-of-it opening in which Inspector Amaldi (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his partner Frese (Jose Angel Egido) chase down a rapist even as he’s subduing his victim. Said douchebag smirks as if he’s got the number of Rome’s best lawyer in his cellphone. “This is for when you get out,” Amaldi glowers and kneecaps him with a well-aimed shot. It’s halfway through the film before Amaldi’s backstory spells out the reason for his messianic hatred of molesters.

When attractive student Giuditta (Lucia Jimenez) swings by the police station to report a stalker, Amaldi takes her under his wing. A heavy mood hangs over the precinct. Amaldi and Frese’s colleague Ajaccio (Simon Andreu) is going into hospital and the prognosis isn’t good. Also, a triple murder – a courting couple and the old pervert who was getting his jollies watching them – has the force run ragged. Although his mind is primarily on Giuditta, it’s Amaldi who pieces together a handful of random clues and determines that the killer has some knowledge of taxidermy. He’s proved right as other bodies come to the fore, sans various body parts and sporting artificial approximations in their place.

Amaldi’s deductive prowess is further piqued by literary clues – anagrams, biblical verse, fragments of Latin – that the killer leaves, ‘Seven’-stylee, as if goading him. The suspects are as plentiful as the red herrings, with staff at Ajaccio’s hospital – and students and teachers alike at Giuditta’s university – behaving in strange ways, hiding secrets, knowing more than they let on. Puglielli puts all the pieces of the puzzle before the viewer, but shuffles them around with the misdirectional dexterity of a carny running a game of “find the lady”. That they click into place so neatly for the gothic finale is just one of the film’s pleasures.

Best of all, it isn’t merely homage. Although Sergio Martino’s ‘Torso’ provides an obvious touchstone with its “doll as stand-in for the killer’s sexual hang-ups” imagery, at no point does Puglielli attempt to borrow plot points or replicate scenes from other gialli; ‘Eyes of Crystal’ functions on its own terms and I can imagine non-giallo fans enjoying it as a well-crafted thriller. But for those of us in the know – those of us who take our killers black-gloved and our camerawork POV-heavy – it’s so much more.

Sunday, November 10, 2013


It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American film of good fortune at the box office must be in want of an unofficial remake. Or such was the rule of thumb during the glory days of Italian exploitation cinema. Walter Hill released ‘The Warriors’ in 1979, the same year that George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ came out of nowhere, established a blueprint for the post-apocalyptic subgenre and made a star out of Mel Gibson. Two years later, John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’ hit the screen.

Under the aegis of legendary exploitation producer Fabrizio de Angelis, director Enzo G. Castellari squeezed enough material out of various combinations of these three movies to fuel a loose trilogy. The first instalment was released in 1982 under the title ‘1990: I guerrieri del Bronx’. He cast a fading Hollywood star, a bona fide B-movie legend, a complete unknown he’d discovered at a gym, and a fuckload of cool bikes. Oh, and he gave his daughter a starring role as well.

It is with this unemotive young lady that the film opens: Ann (Stefania Girolami) is on the verge of her eighteenth birthday and set to inherit the chairmanship of her father Samuel Fisher (Ennio Girolami)’s arms manufacturing business. Ann has a moral problem with this and instead of, oh I don’t know, doing missionary work overseas or simply asset stripping the business and setting up a charitable institution instead, she runs off to the Bronx. In the real world, this would count as a particularly ill-thought-out option. In Castellari’s warped version of New York, it’s downright insanity.

Ann immediately runs into a gang called The Zombies, whose gimmick is they dress like hockey players, tootle about on stakes and wield their hockey sticks in pseudo-menacing fashion as they go after defenceless girls … I think this is a good place to stop and say a few words about post-whatever the Bronx and the societal dynamics of a lawless territory. I use the phrase “post-whatever” because, in terms of imagery and narrative, much of ‘The Bronx Warriors’ is a textbook example of the post-apocalypse genre. Except that nothing seems to have happened: no war, no nuclear holocaust, no breakdown of social order. Scenes in Manhattan show the city ticking along quite nicely; Fisher’s offices are well appointed; and there seems to be a constant stream of traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet for some reason the police have declared the Bronx a no-go area and lawlessness reigns supreme.

Okay, let’s suspend disbelief and accept that a very localised incident of social breakdown occurred and the police, the army and the voting public just thought “fuck it”. Here’s the rub, though: the Bronx hasn’t been barricaded, walled off, or bedecked with warning signs. Nor do the warring gangs who live there attempt to expand beyond the Bronx or staging raiding parties into more affluent areas. Moreover, while every building is a ruin, rubble is strewn everywhere and danger lurks around every corner, the roads are all perfectly maintained and two of the major gangs – The Tigers and The Riders – run a fleet of souped-up roadsters and big-ass bikes respectively, all of which are gleamingly well polished, without ever having recourse to a gas station or a car wash.

But movie-logic is at work here – and Italian exploitation movie-logic at that – so let’s winch our already suspended disbelief a few feet higher. Let’s see how long it hangs there while we review the gang-culture which this lawless chunk of NYC has spawned. Perhaps in order to distinguish certain hierarchical divisions, perhaps to suggest the uniforms of warring armies, or perhaps because the creative team behind the film wanted to rip off as many successful movies as possible, all of the gangs have a distinct look, a specific gimmick, and a remarkable talent for bringing to mind characters from other films. Hence The Zombies, who give the proceedings a ‘Rollerball’ feel; The Scavengers, whose dusty garb and feral behaviour evoke a whole trance of post-apocalypse antagonists; the musically-inclined, bowled-hatted droog-a-likes who call themselves The Iron Men and whose leader is a woman (go figure); and The Tigers, who sound more like a hockey team – I mean, seriously, even Nottingham’s hockey team is called The fuckin’ Panthers – and are led by the King of the Bronx (Fred Williamson) and it’s pure coincidence that his handle makes him sound like Isaac Hayes’s the Duke of New York in ‘Escape from New York’. A coincidence, I tells ya!

And then there’s the gang our nominal hero leads: The Riders. At least they have a name that means something, since they all ride bikes. Superficially at least, they resemble the kind of gang you’d expect to inhabit a lawless and cop-free Bronx. Moreover, individual personalities are discernible within the gang, to such a degree actually that internal tensions are at a constant simmer. What utterly scuttles their claim to bad-motherfuckery however is their leader, our aforementioned nominal hero: Trash (Mark Gregory). Trash is a man in whom the dichotomy of brick-shithouse physique and mincing effeminacy never comes closer to being reconciled. Every frame he’s in, Trash challenges the suspension of disbelief. It’s impossible to believe in him as the leader of a hard-as-nails biker gang. It’s in the mane of hair and the pretty-boy lips. It’s in the skin tight jeans and the pert buttocks. It’s in the way he walks as if … well, check out the way he walks next time you watch the film and come to your own conclusions. It’s in the way he sits up straight with a slightly odious expression as he rides his bike. Put it this way: the dude couldn’t look more prissy if he rode that hog side-saddle.

So it’s yet another fuck you to the suspension of disbelief when he rescues Ann from The Zombies and they quickly become an item, despite the complete lack of chemistry between them. Meanwhile [he typed with a sense of relief] back in Manhattan, Fisher ain’t too happy that his little princess has gone on the lam, and decides that it’s Hammer time. Hammer (Vic Morrow) is a hard-bitten cop who was born in the Bronx and –

I said wait a fucking minute. There’s a character in this movie called Hammer and he’s not played by Fred Williamson. Really? I mean, fucking really?

– who was born in the Bronx and hates what it’s become or something along those lines or maybe they just pay him a really good bonus, anyway the upshot is that Hammer heads into the Bronx with a heart full of embittered hatred for its residence and sets about rescuing Ann by means of inciting a turf war between the various gangs because kicking off an all-out war between people who are armed to the teeth and place no value on human life is the best way to keep a teenage girl out of harm’s way while you quietly extricate her, non?

Putting aside this (il)logic, and desisting out of deference from harping on out about Morrow’s hammy and decidedly unthreatening performance (his next film was ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’), it has to be admitted that the idea of court intrigue amongst street gangs isn’t disinteresting. However, Castellari is a go-to guy for action, not Machievellian intrigue, and there’s a chunky section of the film that sags as a result.

Things get back in gear when one of Trash’s own effects an act of betrayal, a deal with a rival gang doesn’t go the way Hammer intended, and pressure from Fisher to (pun intended) put the hammer down, culminates in a private army storming the Bronx with horses and flamethrowers. Yes, you read that right. No, I haven’t been drinking. The scene is magnificent in its lack of coherence. A helicopter hovers over a gang hideout, the thwacking noise of its rotors inciting no alarm or concern. Men in silver uniforms carrying automatic weapons and flamethrowers start sprinting across wasteland and clambering over walls (because, yeah, in this lawless tract scarred by the battles of rival gangs, nobody posts a guard outside their HQ, amiright?) and the logic-savvy viewer would be quick to intuit that said tooled up guys got there by abseiling down from said helicopter. But then the fucking cavalry comes thundering in and the WTF-o-meter malfunctions in a buzz of blue light and a plume of smoke. Just to contextualise, this is a movie where a fucking armoured van doesn’t make it a single block in an early scene, and yet here’s some dudes on horseback who have just ridden through a borough even the cops don’t go near and nothing happened to them.

So, yeah: ‘The Bronx Warriors’ is an incredibly stupid film in which events follow on from each other without ever quite linking up or understanding what the word “narrative” means. Much of it hinges on a protagonist who’s quite simply risible, while the most charismatic actor in the piece – Williamson – is given bugger all to do. But here’s the thing: absent the talky “play the gangs off against each other” section, and ‘The Bronx Warriors’ is insanely entertaining. Castellari’s genius was for the action film and he never let deficiencies of script or dearth of budget get in the way of delivering crowd-pleasing entertainment. Even if the crowd in question weren’t exactly cinephiles. Or maybe because they weren’t.

Thursday, November 07, 2013


Popular actress Laura Crawford (Ursula Buchfellner) and her wardrobe assistant Jane (Gisela Hahn) are in a coastal South American town scouting locations for a movie, when …

What’s that you say? Why would an actress and her wardrobe assistant be scouting locations, instead of, say, a director and a production designer? Hush now, this is a Jess Franco film and logic has no place.

So, these two blonde hotties are in South America when Jane pulls some spectacular turncoat shenanigans and, in cahoots with Chris (Werner Pochath) and Thomas (Antonio de Cabo), kidnaps Laura and hauls her off to a jungle-infested island to wait for the studio head to cough up a $6million ransom. Said island has been glimpsed in the opening montage which juxtaposes Laura’s carefree lifestyle with the chase, capture and sacrifice to a deformed cannibal, of a native girl. Jess Franco drawing parallels, y’all.

While Chris starts going loco because he doesn’t like the jungle (“this wild vegetation gives me the creeps”), Thomas molests Laura and …

What’s that? Aren’t kidnappers supposed to worry about damaged goods/non-provision of spondoolies scenarios? In the real word, maybe, but this a Jesus Franco joint, people, and sexual violence is kind of obligatory.

So, Thomas does the nasty, Jane watches laughingly, and Chris rages at the flora and fauna. Meanwhile the studio hires man-of-action Peter Weston (Al Cliver) to make the ransom payment with the understanding that if he comes back with Laura and the six mill, he gets 10%. Of the money. What he’d do with 10% of an actress I don’t know.

Peter hooks up with helicopter pilot Jack (Antonio Mayans) who starts getting Vietnam flashbacks the moment they encounter a bit of a greenery and promptly has a meltdown as girlishly embarrassing as Chris’s “wild vegetation” pussy out. Jess Franco drawing parallels again, y’all. They make contact with the kidnappers, intending to throw them a ringer. Both parties double-cross each other, shots are fired, and in the ensuing chaos, Laura goes on the run and Jack’s helicopter is blown up (the helicopter-disappears-behind-cliff/puff-of-smoke-rises edit doesn’t quite match).

This rousing action scene deathly dull set piece lays the groundwork for the film’s second half, in which everyone wanders interminably around the jungle – which really irks the plant-hating Chris – and various individuals meet gory and unconvincing deaths (you know how in cheap movies, the blood looks like red paint? In ‘The Devil Hunter’ it looks like orange paint. Fucking orange!) while the deformed cannibal (Bertrand Altmann) goes trawling for white poontang.

A word on the deformed cannibal: he has ping-pong balls for eyes and plasticene smeared across his face. He also shuffles through the film – and I do mean shuffles; scenes where he ambles towards the camera, arms outstretched, last several minutes at a time – stark bollock naked. Indeed, in his climactic showdown with Peter, his penis flops around all over the place as the two of them grapple. Said fight is as badly staged as anything else on display here, gifting the word with images such as this …

… and providing an insight into what Derek Jarman’s ‘Sebastiane’ remade by Joe d’Amato might look like. But I digress, this is un film de Jesus Franco and any homoerotic (or judging by the above image homoironic) undertones are purely accidental. Accidental, you hear me? Why else would we have the visual pleasures of an equally naked Muriel Montosse (credited solely as “girl on yacht”) …

… or Buchfellner denuded and anointed with flowers by native girls?

‘The Devil Hunter’ is the kind of movie that should be 80 minutes long, joyously trashy and grubbily sexy. As it stands, it’s an hour three quarters (it feels like twice that), it’s joyless rather than joyous, and even the outrageous swathes of nudity (in the Jess Franco school of filmmaking native girl = booty shot) fail to generate any real eroticism. On the plus side Franco’s trademark zooms are largely absent; however (and even allowing for Severin DVD’s appalling murky print), shots utterly refuse to match:

I’ve seen plenty of cheapies that rely on day-for-night shots. ‘The Devil Hunter’ is perhaps the only film I’ve ever seen that throws in some night-for-day. But then again, it passes off its cast for actors and its narrative meanderings for a plot, so at least it’s consistent in its ineptitude.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Frightened Woman

A Rolls Royce glides at stately pace through the night. Gida (Lorenza Guerrieri), a call girl in a fur coat and a short skirt rubs, antiseptic cream onto the marks on her otherwise shapely legs. “You really hurt me this time,” she complains. She doesn’t complain when the unseen man next to her writes out a cheque. He takes a while doing it, the implication being there’s enough zeroes in front of the decimal point to make it worth her while. Then again, this is Italy in the late sixties, way before the Euro, when a million lira was worth about one pound sterling, so maybe she got stiffed. In both senses of the word.

Without pausing to consider the plausibility of a call girl who takes cheques, the film jumps forward a week and Gida’s refusing the same john another go around, pleading illness. She makes her excuses by phone; what’s happening onscreen tells another story.

Then we’re in the glacially appointed premises of a “philanthropic organisation” where a weasly minor executive with an eye patch (Varo Soleri) is getting the heavo-ho over an embezzlement case. He pleads with Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy), a big wheel within the organisation, to put in a word for him with the board. Sayer refuses. The minor executive takes his leave, but not before vandalising a bit of corporate art and making off with some gold lettering.

Next up, journalist Maria (Dagmar Lassander) approaches Sayer about some material pertaining to a story he’s writing. They have a disagreement, but Sayer nonetheless invites her to visit him in private to collect the material. Bad move. Maria finds herself drugged and wakes up at Sayer’s bizarrely decorated weekend residence – general location: middle of nowhere – where he casually advises her to get used to the idea of being his slave, and before you can say ‘Fifty Shades of Kitsch’ a series of psycho-sexual games are played out against the backdrop of gaudily decorated living rooms, torture dens, indoor swimming pools and a huge art installation reminiscent of the work of the visually-challenged sculptor in Yasuzo Masumura’s ‘Blind Beast’, made the same year.

The first half of Piero Shivazappa’s delicious oddity plays out very much as a battle-of-wills two-hander with hints of torture porn; and while the film never gets quite as kinky or explicit as the subject matter would suggest, Shivazappa ratchets up some genuine erotic tension – assisted no end by the frankly gorgeous Lassander in a committed performance and Leroy projecting cold hard arrogance like it’s going out of style. Had this been the tone for the entire hour and a half, though, it would have made for a tedious and repetitive little exploitationer no matter how funky the set design or how all-over-the-place the musical cues.

‘The Frightened Woman’ may be many things, but it certainly isn’t tedious or repetitive. Shivazappa makes a sudden tonal shift in the second half to focus on a bizarre courtship of sorts. Watching Sayer go from Mr Ice Cool to Mr Trying To Be Cool is a demented spectacle which carries the film across a fair few stretches of what-the-fuckery. Gasp as Sayer and Maria make out in his car by a railway crossing! (The visual metaphor that tells us Sayer’s getting a BJ is priceless.)

Gawp as you realise his motor’s a Qandt Amphicar and they top off their drive in the country with a spell en bateau!

Marvel at how they ever found that castle-cum-restaurant!

Chortle at their embarrassment being caught like naughty schoolchildren in a dwarf’s bedroom!

Scratch your head at the cathartically satisfying but utterly incoherent twist ending! Seriously. A twist ending rendered more completely nonsensical in terms of its mechanics I have yet to see. There’s some business with a bottle of pills that holds water, but the rest of it – I don’t want to hove into spoiler territory, so let’s just say: wig, medical condition, photograph album – seems to have been pulled out of the drawer marked “no fucking way” and rubber stamped with “shut up, the audience won’t notice, they’ll be looking at Dagmar’s boobs”. It’s as if the denouement is so concerned with circularity – the Rolls Royce reappears, its ownership now in question, and there’s even a visual cue which makes an implication about our mono-ocular miscreant from the first scene, albeit one that’s impossible given the film’s timeframe – that the script created its own vortex which swallowed up logic, continuity and suspension of disbelief. The plot hole as black hole.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Lickerish Quartet

So, there’s this middle aged couple (Frank Wolff and Erika Lemberg) and their twenty-something son (Paolo Turco) and if any of these people were given a name I sure as hell missed it and the best even IMDb can do is “castle owner”, “his wife” and “her son”, so I’ll call them Mr and Mrs Sybarite and their son Junior.

So, one evening Mr and Mrs Sybarite and Sybarite Junior are chilling at their castle (as you do), watching a blue movie (as you do) and they decide that watching porn with one’s nearest and dearest is simply too boring, so they get the Rolls out (as you do) and go tootling off into town where a carnival has just set up stall (as carnivals do), and it’s while they’re admiring the spirited derring-do of the wall-of-death motorcycle riders that they recognise one of said daredevils as an actress from the stag film they were checking out earlier and Mr Sybarite seizes the opportunity to invite her back to the castle.

With the codicil “and humping ensues”, the paragraph above is a pretty effective summary of Radley Metzger’s 1970 slab of eroto-weirdness; and, ladies and gentlemen, something in my mind imploded while I was typing it. Seriously: castles, carnivals, porn actresses riding the wall-of-death and 16mm b&w dirty movie screenings that you watch with your son present. Whisky tango foxtrot?!?!

Metzger has made an appearance on The Agitation of the Mind before, with the self-consciously artsy ‘The Image’. That film, while taking itself far too seriously for a sexploitationer, at least benefited from (a) a sense of aesthetic remove akin to David Cronenberg’s almost scientifically observational directorial style, and (b) a committed and poignant central performance by Rebecca Brooke.

‘The Lickerish Quartet’, made five years earlier, boasts the stylish cinematography that would mark out ‘The Image’ as more than just mere hand-shandy fodder, but none of its narrative coherence, nor its debate on control, subjugation and power games. It tries for a statement on the interchangeability of sexual identity; however, Metzger goes about this as if he’s Alain Resnais on crack, flipping between b&w and colour, replaying scenarios with different participants, swapping identities, breaking the fourth wall, thumbing his nose at logic and generally running around behind the camera waving his arms in the air and yelling, “Hey everybody, I’m doing the old blurred lines between fantasy and reality thing. With tits.”

Nor does ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ have anyone in its cast who compares to Rebecca Brooke. As the porn star/wall-of-death rider, Silvana Venturelli is smouldering and seductive and that’s how it should be, but the script gives her sod all to work with and her performance stays jammed in first gear. Even Lemberg, an accomplished thespian, can do little but stare into the distance and deliver monologues dreamily. (‘The Lickerish Quartet’ is an inordinately talky film.) Of Turco I will only say that the lad probably had to be very careful in the proximity of timber yards – you can see how a yard hand could mistake him for a length of two-by-four and sell him to a joiner. Only Wolff delivers anything that passes for acting, and he’s the last one of the quartet that you want to see naked.

And what better way to segue into the entire fucking point of the movie – the rumpy-pumpy – that from a paragraph that ends with the word “naked”. Yes, folks, the cast get naked in ‘The Lickerish Quartet’, but perhaps not as often as you’d expect. Sure, the blue movie that runs in the background during the sexual cat-and-mouse between the participants is something of a constant and the version of Venturelli’s character who appears in it is pretty much unclothed throughout, but Metzger presents this footage as so scratchy, faded and jumpy that it makes your average ‘Grindhouse’ fake trailer look like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. In terms of the pairings off of the quartet, filmed in glorious Technicolor for our viewing pleasure, there are only really three combinations, they play out predictably, and with the exception of a nicely built-up-to Sapphic seduction …

… they’re generally devoid of chemistry. Wolff and Venturelli get it on in a bizarrely designed library that contains guns as well as books and has dictionary definitions of sexually related words lining the floor.

As the shot above demonstrates, much of the consummation in ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ is presented less as an unstoppable rush of wanton hedonistic desire than unsold slabs of meat piled on top of each other just before the deli closes and they get thrown out.

Metzger’s ambition as a filmmaker isn’t disputed. While some peddlers of trouser arouser fare – Russ Meyer, say – were absolutely categorical about the nature of their work, Metzger wanted his films to be more. And kudos to the guy. ‘The Lickerish Quartet’ – while it’s never quite as clever as it wants to be, as sexy as it ought to be, or as subversive as you’d think it is – remains a handsomely mounted film into which no small amount of thought was pooled. Along with naked ladies. And a naked Frank Wolff. Ah well, you can’t win ’em all.