Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Lucio Fulci’s immortality in the annals of genre film rests principally on his unique brand of extreme yet dreamlike horror movies (most notably the loosely connected “Gates of Hell” trilogy) and a quartet of world-class gialli in ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’, ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’, ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ and ‘Perversion Story’. But how does he fare with a straight-forward crime movie? Let’s find out.
‘Contraband’ was made in 1980, on the cusp of his last great throw of the dice as a filmmaker with ‘City of the Living Dead’, ‘The Beyond’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’. Already, a sense of ennui was entering his work, as ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The New York Ripper’ (a film whose very notoriety can’t quite eclipse a sense of its director’s total disengagement) and ‘Manhattan Baby’ all date from this period. Within just a few years, he would arrive at the dreary final stage of his career, from ‘Aenigma’ to ‘Door to Silence’.
But let us not dwell on such stuff. ‘Contraband’ is a cops ‘n’ mobsters crime thriller about the Naples underworld, smuggling, power plays, betrayal and violent death. And – with a caveat that we’ll get to in just a moment – it’s a pretty entertaining outing that demonstrates Fulci could pull off the car chases, shoot outs and hand-to-hand stuff just as well as, say, Enzo G. Castellari with ‘The Heroin Busters’ or Fernando di Leo with ‘Milano calibro 9’.
What Fulci doesn’t quite achieve is the narrative focus of Castellari’s film or di Leo’s ability to plot the hierarchical structure of the underworld. Indeed, ‘Contraband’ often seems like it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be – a revenge thriller, a poliziotteschi, an examination of the mechanics of drug smuggling à la ‘The French Connection’, or an epic of warring crime families in the vein of ‘The Godfather’. Sometimes it seems like Fulci has just assembled a collection of scenes homaging his favourite crime flicks and never mind that there’s no real through line or that he’s happily introducing new characters with barely a smidgin of context or explanation right up until the bullet-riddled final act.
Which isn’t to say that things don’t start out very plot-heavy. In short order, following a commendably actionful speedboat chase, we’re introduced to Luca (Fabio Testi) and his wife Adele (Ivana Monti) who are enjoying the high life (although Adele balks at the company her husband keeps) from the profits of a cigarette smuggling operation. Luca and his brother Mickey (Enrico Maisto) work for playboy capo Perlante (Saverio Marconi), one of a number of mob bosses involved in an uneasy fraternity called The Order of the Blue Motorboat. (I’m not making this up.)
When Mickey is assassinated, Luca suspects Perlante’s immediate rival Scherino (Ferninand Murolo) and ill-advisedly launches a one-man vendetta. Scherino disabuses him of his suspicions – and has a henchman beat the crap out of him for good measure – but before Luca’s investigations can lead him elsewhere, Naples explodes in a welter of violence as the Order’s cigarette smuggling ring is targeted by ruthless drug smuggler Marsigliesi (Marcel Bozzuffi). How ruthless is this gentleman? He puts a beatdown on a female drug runner and burns her face off with a Bunsen burner when she demands the wrong price in a transaction. Not one for negotiation, Marsigliesi.
As mentioned above, Fulci doesn’t do a particularly coherent job of teasing out the rivalries and interrelationships, and as ‘Contraband’ moves towards the hour mark, simple storytelling is replaced by a succession of sequences which generally end with gunblasts and chunks of flesh flying everywhere. Eventually, he stops pretending the film’s anything but an exploitationer and has Adele fall into Marsigliesi’s hands: cue graphic misogynistic violence on par with anything ‘The New York Ripper’.
What Fulci does achieve, however, is an effective contrast between the old guard of Naples’ criminal class – weary; retired; old men long out of the game – and the new breed of flashy, shallow, venal hoods who have replaced them. Fulci also has a hell of a lot bringing them back into the game, under the leadership of the pragmatic Morrone (Guido Alberti), when they decide enough is enough and teach the young pretenders a lesson.
‘Contraband’ is no classic and there are moments – Adele’s travails; a cluster of the assassination scenes – where Fulci delights in violence at the cost of narrative momentum; but on the whole it moves at a decent pace, the cast are on-form and Sergio Salvati’s cinematography grittily captures Naples: its streets and harbor and its sense of menace.
Monday, December 29, 2014
Our story starts in 1971 with Jack Hill's 'The Big Bird Cage', a fairly standard example of the women-in-prison genre (or more particularly of its especially sleazy subgenre which locates said prison somewhere in the wilds of a politically unstable tinpot South American country) which was enlivened no end by Pam Grier in a supporting role. It was only her second film appearance and it kicked off a four-movie relationship with Hill that spanned the first half of the 70s and made Grier a blaxploitation icon.
Fast forward to 1972 and Hill made an in-name-only sequel, 'The Big Bird Cage', this time with Grier in the lead. She plays Bloosom, an hilariously inappropriate name for a Marxist revolutionary who's as handy with a gun as she is with her fists. Blossom is committed to the revolution, even if her leader - and lover - Django (Sid Haig) is content to postpone the glorious moment to a never-ending parade of tomorrows as long as he can swing on his hammock and drink wine and have a small army of followers defer to him.
Said followers, however, are a tad disaffected that Blossom is the only woman amongst them and exclusive in her favours to Django. They, too, dream of revolution but more fervently so of female company. A two-birds-one-stone solution presents itself when they learn of a women's prison run by a sadistic warden (is there any other kind?) by the name of Zappa (Andres Centenera). More work farm than penitentiary, the inmates labour at a giant mill known as the bird cage and are occasionally pimped out to visiting dignitaries.
The revolutionary front decide to liberate this facility (and hopefully score some new recruits). To this end, Blossom finds herself "volunteered" to get arrested and shipped out to the prison, whence she will foment rebellion; the plan is for Django's troops to provide firepower to assist with the break-out. So far so excessive force, but what none of them realise is that the prison's latest detainee, American party girl Terry (Anitra Ford), owes her arrest to a case of misidentification arising from Django and Blossom's actions earlier in the film.
Indeed, 'The Big Bird Cage' focuses as much on Terry as it does Blossom, perhaps more so in the early stages as Terry negotiates the prison's power structure, learns who to befriend and who to be wary of, and looks out for fellow wrongful arrestee Rina (Marissa Delgado).
Naturally, the Blossom/Terry plotlines eventually coincide, but the outcome isn’t what you might have been expecting, one of several unexpected swerves Hill makes with the material. Likewise the ongoing feud between aggressive lesbian Karen (Karen McKevic) and smart-mouthed Mickie (Carol Speed): when Mickie is forced into harm’s way at Zappa’s hands, rather than take advantage of the situation, Karen reacts with righteous fury.
Perhaps the oddest thing Hill does, though, is during the mid-section where Django infiltrates the camp by getting hired on as a guard. Zappa, keen that his staff keep their hands off the inmates (there is a general “no sex” rule at the camp that’s only repeal when Zappa wants a visiting politician or businessman to have a good time), hires only gay guards. Django expedites his employment opportunities by allowing himself to be picked up by chief of guards Rocco (Vic Diaz) in what seems to be a gay bar in the middle of the jungle.
While all of this malarkey is as stereotypical and risible as the lesbian bar scene in ‘Foxy Brown’, the absurdity somehow makes it not only palatable but outright entertaining. There’s something about Sid Haig – Sid fucking Haig, ladies and gentlemen – pretending to be gay that totally rewires the synapses and leaves your head spinning.
By the time Blossom, Terry et al stage the break-out, a set-piece that occupies the last quarter of an hour and delivers explosions, shoot outs, chases and Rocco suffering the proverbial fate worse than death (another moment that has to be seen to be believed), ‘The Big Bird Cage’ has not only careened through a deliriously inclusive exploitation checklist, but upended most of them even as it ticks them off. It thumbs its nose at intellectualization, renders redundant the reviewer, and glories in its gorgeous and strikingly iconic heroines. ’Nuff said.
Friday, December 26, 2014
Of the four films Pam Grier made with Jack Hill, ‘Foxy Brown’ is easily the most famous. In fact, it’s one of the most famous blaxploitation movies of all time. Perhaps only ‘Shaft’ can lay claim to being better known as the key exemplar of the genre.
This perplexes me, since ‘Foxy Brown’ – while, after a slowish start, undeniably entertaining – is nothing compared to ‘Coffy’ as an example of the revenge thriller; and nowhere near as subversive as ‘The Big Doll House’ or ‘The Big Bird Cage’.
It certainly gives its heroine a lot to be vengeful about, though. The opening sequence has Foxy (Grier) called upon to rescue her feckless brother Link (Antonio Fargas) from a beating. Link’s been running numbers but has screwed up to the tune of twenty grand, which leaves him with the twin requirements of a place to hide and a means of raising the do-ray-me. Foxy willing provides the former and inadvertently the latter.
You see, Foxy’s boyfriend, Michael (Terry Carter) is an undercover cop who has just undergone reconstructive surgery and been given a new identity as a protective measure against underworld duo Steve Elias (Peter Brown) and Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder). That Steve and Katherine are still at liberty suggests Michael’s investigations haven’t been worth a damn, but hey ho! Link intuits that Foxy’s “new” beau is Michael, masquerading under his new persona, and sells him out without a second thought.
In short order, Michael gets whacked and Foxy gets medieval on Link’s ass. Link gives up the goods on Steve and Katherine and Foxy goes out for revenge. Discovering that Katherine operates a modeling agency as a front for high class call girls – whose charms she uses as leverage on judges and local politicos to keep her crew out of jail and her and Steve’s drug running operation off the radar – Foxy gets taken on the books.
So far, so ‘Coffy Part 2’, but whereas ‘Coffy’ begins with its heroine already out for revenge and remorselessly working her way up through a criminal hierarchy, ‘Foxy Brown’ takes a bit of time to get to Michael’s assassination and then puts Foxy in Steve and Katherine’s orbit very quickly. There’s no sense of Foxy having to scheme or improvise or overcome obstacles to get close to her nemeses. Nor does she exploit any of several opportunities she has, before Katherine sets her up with a corrupt judge, to simply take the biatch out. Instead, Foxy recruits junkie hooker Claudia (Juanita Brown) to her scheme and they set out to humiliate said judge in an attempt to ruin Katherine’s judicially-preferential relationship and provoke a reaction from her.
This is where ‘Foxy Brown’ starts running into problems. Simply taking out Katherine and Steve would achieve both of her ends: vengeance for her lover’s death, and severing the connection with the justice system that’s keep scumbags on the streets. Humiliating the judge only achieves the latter objective and tips off Katherine that something’s amiss. Moreover, there’s no reason for Claudia, whose family Katherine is using as leverage against her, to involve herself. When Katherine, predictably, reacts by sending her goons after them, Foxy puts herself in harm’s way in order to protect Claudia.
Harm’s way here refers to drug-pushing misogynists Brandi (H.B. Haggerty) and Slauson (Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan), to whose “ranch” Katherine orders the swiftly captured Foxy be sent. A narrative development, this, which serves no other purpose than woman-in-peril tropes and a sleazy rape scene. Once Foxy contrives an escape route, the real business resumes and she targets Steve’s drug running set-up by conniving her way into the affections of Hays (Sid Haig), a pilot contracted to bring the stuff in.
Once Hill arranges his ducks in a row for the big finale, ‘Foxy Brown’ ticks enough of the boxes to emerge as a decent thriller. But the narrative peregrinations by which Foxy does pointless things for the middle third just to push the film towards feature length annoy. As does a schizophrenic tone which sees outright nastiness cheek-by-jowl with goofy humour (several action scenes are played as slapstick); this is nowhere more in evidence than in a pointless set-piece in a lesbian bar that is horrible in its stereotyping, even by the standards of the 1970s. Also, Loder – so good in some of her other roles – doesn’t even begin to suggest the level of villainy required to make Katherine a credible mob boss.
Still, as in ‘Coffy’ – indeed, as in anything in her filmography – Grier is iconic. She looks amazing and kicks ass with wince-inducing proficiency. Having laid a beatdown on Link and left him in no uncertainty that it’s only kinship that’s prevented her from killing him, Link’s dazed and disbelieving girlfriend gasps, “Who does she think she is?” “That’s my sister,” Link replies shakily, “and she’s a whole lotta woman.” Amen to that.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Most revenge movies leave the actual revenge till the final act. 'Savage Streets' - a Winter of Discontent pick a couple of years ago - is a good example. There's plenty of set-up: the protagonist's life and relationships and what's at stake; the perpetration of the act for which vengeance must be exacted; the planning of said revenge; then, finally, payback. In Jack Hill's 'Coffy', the pre- and immediate post-credit sequence has its eponymous heroine (Pam Grier) blow two scumbags away with a double-barrelled shotgun and snarl a line of dialogue about her sister and drugs. It's an attention-grabbing opening and you might be forgiven for expecting that a flashback detailing the sibling's travails is about to ensue.
But no. Having kicked off his blaxploitation classic in media res, Hill just keeps powering forward, the narrative as relentless and single-minded as Coffy herself. This is a film unencumbered by subplot or digression. The plot is utterly simple: Coffy avenges her sister by tracing a drugs ring back to its source and, uh, eliminating everyone along the way. Even more impressively, she does so - during the early stages of her vengeful rampage, anyway - while holding down a day job as a nurse and keeping her extra-curricular activities secret from activist and wannabe congressmen boyfriend Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw).
Things start to go pear-shaped when the trail leads to King George (Robert DoQui) who’s not an actual member of the British royal family but a fancy-pants pimp with connections to mob boss Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus). First up, King G’s other girls don’t take to Coffy at all, which leads to a Coffy-vs-a-roomful-of-hookers cat fight, the sole aesthetic purpose of which is for all participants to have their blouse or boob-tube ripped off at some stage in the proceedings. It’s a scene so needless, so ludicrously protracted and so utterly shameless in its intent that I’d be hard pressed to mount an argument against anyone who calls it in Jack Hill’s favour as Greatest Exploitation Movie Director Of All Time.
Secondly, Coffy’s attempted hit on Vitroni is thwarted by the intervention of his sleazeball enforcer Omar (Sid Haig). Although Coffy uses the situation to drive a wedge between George and Vitroni, she finds herself in woman-in-peril territory, and it soon becomes apparent that Brunswick isn’t going to be pulling any knight-in-shining-armour shtick any time soon.
'Coffy' melds propulsive storytelling with a total commitment to all things exploitative that doesn’t come at the cost of craftsmanship – Quentin Tarantino famously, and accurately, described Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking” – and it’d be a hell of an entertaining picture even if it were peopled by cheap-jack actors straight from the lumber yard. But, oh my sweet lord, 'Coffy' boasts some genuinely charismatic acting talent. Grier is magnetic: purposeful, resilient, tough, sexy as all hell, but with a recognizably human centre always underpinning her characterization. Let’s face it, she plays a nurse whose surname is Coffin, which is about the most unsubtle way of announcing one’s anti-heroine as an angel of death, and her modus operandi involves flaunting her ample curves until her antagonists drop their guard (generally about the same time as something else rises). It’s all too easy to imagine this being made a decade later with A. Gregory Hippolyte directing and Shannon Tweed in the lead role and the whole thing being glossy and static and unengaging. Grier gives Coffy a heart and the film soul.
Elsewhere, Sid Haig plays the vicious henchman as only Sid Haig can. How can I describe the Sid Haig experience? Imagine he was in a Bond movie, muscle for hire to Blofeld, and he surprised 007 in the act of infiltrating Ernst Stavro’s secret base. If Sid Haig squared off against Bond, all bets would be off and there’d be a fucking good chance of SPECTRE achieving the world domination plan.
William Elliott puts in a sympathetic performance as Coffy’s former boyfriend Carter, now that rarest of beasts, an honest cop in a tough neighbour. A scene where they almost reconnect, where (it is oh so subtly hinted) Coffy could possibly abandon her actions and let Carter pursue the matter through official channels, is underplayed and the more impactful for it. Predictably, though – for this is an exploitationer after all – the moment is violently interrupted and no such hesitation stills Coffy’s hand for the remainder of the running time.
As you’ve probably gathered, I dig 'Coffy' immensely. A phrase I keep coming back to as the highest accolade I can offer in these Winter of Discontent review is “good unclean fun”. That’s why I seek out exploitation movies. That’s why I wade through untold hours of cinematic depravity. That’s why the Winter of Discontent is my favourite season on this blog. And 'Coffy' is entirely the kind of movie that justifies it.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
As December skis down the icy slope towards Christmas and everything is bedecked with tinsel and decorations and fairy lights, a warm and fuzzy feeling permeates humankind. It’s the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all.
On The Agitation of the Mind, we’re still snowed in by the howling storms of exploitation, cynicism, violence and the despicable excesses of man’s inhumanity to man. Because, let’s face it, it’s always men who fuck shit up. Only now, the Winter of Discontent has its very own angel.
Angel of vengeance, that is.
Over the next week or so, the undisputed queen of blaxploitation, Pam Grier, will be gracing these pages and there will be no goodwill whatsoever to the men who find themselves on her bad side. None.
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
After the kitchen sink aesthetic of ‘Anita: Swedish Nymphet’, the unmitigated tedium of ‘Maid in Sweden’ and the “is it an exploitation movie or isn’t it” what-the-fuckery of ‘Exponerad’, finally we have a Christina Lindberg starrer that delivers the kind of good unclean fun that trash fans approach these kind of movies for in the first place. And how could it not? It’s called ‘Sex and mother-loving Fury’, y’all. Sex. And. Fury. Has there ever been a better title for an exploitation movie? Hell, it’s not just a title, it’s a statement of intent.
And then there’s the rest of its credentials: it was directed by Noribumi Suzuki (who made the controversial and thoroughly depraved ‘Star of David: Beauty Hunting’, a film that I can only describe as the ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ of sexploitation); it stars Reiko Ike, the authentic poster girl for the pinkie violence movement (random picks from her filmography: ‘Women’s Violent Classroom’, ‘Terrifying Girls’ High School: Animal Courage’, ‘The Lustful Shogun and His 21 Concubines’); and it features gambling, prostitution, political treachery, shoot-outs, sword-fights, whippings, flick-knife-wielding nuns, snow, blood and nudity.
Just taking those last three items as a baseline aesthetic, there’s a scene fairly early on where gambler and vengeful swordswoman Ocho Inoshika (Ike) witnesses a murder at a gambling den. Later, a team of assassins attempt to silence her at a bath-house. One of them gives himself away and Ocho blinds him with a well aimed flick of a playing card. Nasty things, paper cuts. She then grabs her swords as the others come piling after her and the ensuing five minutes of sword play spills out of the bath-house and into a snowy garden outside. Oh, did I mention that Ocho is naked throughout the entire altercation? That, ladies and gentlemen, is how Noribumi Suzuki rolls.
But anyway, what’s a nice(ish) girl like Ocho doing in a seedy gambling den in the first place? Well, in a short and bloody prologue set in the late 1880s, Ocho as a young girl is walking with her father, a detective investigating political corruption, when he’s jumped by three antagonists, repeatedly knifed and some key evidence taken from him. Their faces are hidden, and the only identifying marks are their tattoos: a deer, a boar and a butterfly respectively.
Twenty years later, Japan an expanding empire in the early years of a new century, Ocho is all grown and deadly with it. A pickpocket, a gambler, a stone-cold killer, she’s doggedly tracking down her father’s killers. It’s a mission that brings her into contact with anarchist Shunosuke (Tadashi Naruse) and Yuki (Rie Saotome), sister of the man murdered at the gambling den and to whom she made a promise, in his dying moments, to rescue Yuki from a life of sexual servitude to businessman Iwakura (Hiroshi Nawa). Iwakura is in cohorts with gang boss turned statesman Kurokawa (Yoshikazu Kawazu), a man with big and not necessarily legal plans for the new Japan.
Meanwhile British spy master Guinness (Mark Darling) – handler to the glamorous but conflicted agent provocateur Christina (Christina Lindberg) – races to uncover Kurokawa and Iwakura’s plans before Shunosuke succeeds in assassinating Kurokawa. Oh, and the reason Christina’s conflicted? She and Shunosuke used to be an item.
That, believe it or not, is a simplified synopsis. For an 88-minute flick that’s principally concerned with blood-letting and female nudity, ‘Sex and Fury’ is almost manically obsessed with its own complexity. Maybe Suzuki genuinely felt that he was making the pastel-coloured equivalent of a John le Carré espionage thriller (but with tits) and went all out to achieve a fully immersive investigation of the shifting sands of double cross and triple cross that can leave even the most seasoned and cynical of operatives confused as to where their loyalties lie and who they can finally trust. Or maybe the script was hammered out over a couple of nights during which industrial quantities of saki were consumed and, of the three credited writers, one wrote the espionage stuff, one wrote the fight scenes and the other got far too excited at the thought of all the naked ladies.
The middle third of ‘Sex and Fury’ dedicates itself to the first half of the title as the narrative’s pinball-like progress basically stops dead so that one bit of softcore nookie after another can languorously play out for the audience’s viewing pleasure, culminating in a ménage-a-trois between Christina, Iwakura and one of Iwakura’s geisha girls. By this point, you almost feel sorry for the guy who got stuck writing the plot.
Still, the plot and the softcore writhings prove a lot more effective than the fight scenes (‘Sex and Fury’ being ever so slightly let down by the fury), which are ludicrous even by the standards of the genre, and edited in such a way as to leave you wondering whether Suzuki was trying to be avant garde and failing miserably, or some poor editor found himself desperate to disguise the leading lady’s lack of facility with a sword.
Minor gripe, though. ‘Sex and Fury’ powers through a running time that stays exactly the right side of an hour and a half, cheerfully thumbing its nose at good taste and as blood erupts over all the place, nudity abounds and the closest any character comes to a happy ending is that their death scene is more iconic than their opponent’s death scene.
Mercifully for all involved, they are served by Motoya Washio’s glorious cinematography, a widescreen orgy of Technicolor extravagance. Granted, there are still plenty of pinkie violence titles I have yet to acquaint myself with, but I doubt the subgenre has anything to offer that’s more genuinely beautiful than this. Suzuki and Washio conjure some genuinely poetic imagery from the raw material of abject sleaze. Art cinema, eat yer heart out.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Well, not lazy. Not really. I’ve been preoccupied with other things. As the regular reader will know, I maintain a long-term relationship with this blog and occasionally cheat on it by writing poetry behind its back. Poetry’s a strange thing: I can go weeks without producing anything, to the point where I begin to doubt if I can even do it anymore, then poems spring to mind unbidden in a chaotic cluster, all demanding to be written. In the last week, I’ve written six new pieces and had a big push on submitting work.
But now I’m back and tomorrow will see the Christina Lindberg mini-season reach a belated conclusion with a certain pinkie violence classic, after which I’ll be counting down to the Christmas break with some of the most iconic appearances of blaxploitation’s most kick-ass heroine, then seeing out the year with a bruisingly cynical offering from Lucio Fulci.
There were more grubby, grimy, lewd and lecherous titles I had in mind for the Winter of Discontent, but – hey! – there’s always next year, right?
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
I’d had it on good authority that Gustav Wiklund’s ‘Exponerad’ (a.k.a. ‘Exposed’) was the ne plus ultra of Swedish erotica, though – looking back – no other reason was offered than the presence of Christina “is that a bazooka in your pocket or do you just have a functional libido” Lindberg.
Nor, to be perfectly honest, have I undertaken a rigorous enough study of Swedish erotica to offer an educated opinion*. So, for the purposes of this evening’s review, let’s assume that ‘Exponerad’ (a.k.a. ‘The Depraved’) is indeed the high point of the genre – the Beethoven’s 9th of the top shelf, the ‘Ring Das Niebelungen’ of the dirty mac brigade – and see how it measures up to its fearsomely priapic reputation.
In doing so – in fact, in discussing ‘Exponerad’ (a.k.a. ‘Diary of a Rape’) in any remotely worthwhile detail – it’s necessary that I hoist the jolly SPOILER ALERT.
You see, there’s two levels on which to read ‘Exponerad’ (that’s “read” as in “watch”, by the way; and that’s “watch” as in “feel ashamed of yourself”):
1. As a rites-of-passage genre in which an impressionable 17-year-old gets passed from dippy boyfriend to free-spirited couple to Svengali-esque manipulator who hosts sex parties, blackmails our heroine with nude photos and generally acts like a right nasty bastard who, once he’s got his claws into her, won’t let go …
… which is to say, for much of its running time, ‘Exponerad’ (I’m all out of alternative titles, by the way) is kind of like what ‘Lolita’ would have been if it had been written by a particularly filthy-minded Swede, the titular heroine was four years older, and Humbert Humbert was devoid of all his wit and wordplay and wore crap turtleneck sweaters;
2. As the incredibly boring story of a moony 17-year-old who, left alone while her parents go off on a long weekend, constructs an elaborate fantasy life in order to stave off the dullness. Albeit an elaborate fantasy life which involves being sexually objectified, blackmailed, pawed over by a total gimp of a boyfriend (Bjorn Adelly) and even-worsed-over by a stalker-ish older man (Heinz Hopf). Which, I’ve got to say, is nowhere near the sort of fantasy I’d construct if I had a few days to kill and nothing better to do with them. Actually I’d spend them surfing the net for downloads of these kind of movies and writing about them for the blog.
Subject of which, back to business. ‘Exponerad’ (a.k.a. ‘Fuck You, Dude Who Recommended This POS’) starts with Lena (Lindberg) arguing with the BF; he slaps her and she walks off sullenly. Walks to the outskirts of town where she hitches a lift from a middle-aged businessman who forces himself on her … then drops her off a few minutes later with a cheery smile. Each of these incidents is accompanied by a wash of faded white light across the screen (how can white be faded, you ask? it was a crappy print) at which point it occurred to me – I’d like to say suddenly, but actually I saw it coming like an ocean liner on a duck pond – that they existed purely in Lena’s imagination.
As the film went on, there was a lot more faded light washing across the screen.
While there are some films that play their ultimate “it was all in the protagonist’s head” card to devastating effect (entries on Fincher and Scorsese’s filmographies spring to mind) and leave the audience reeling, ‘Exponerad’ – which could have been a suitably sleazy study of a nymphet finding herself in above her head; ‘Exponerad’, which could have built towards a tense, nasty woman-in-peril finale; ‘Exponerad’, which could have been the jewel in the crown of its starlet’s limited CV – not only benefits in no discernible way from using this device but is actually a weaker film for it.
So, yeah. ‘Exponerad’. SPOILERS END. Ditto this review. With one caveat: to he who made the recommendation – there’s a bus leaving town in an hour; be under it.
*Expressions of disbelief and outright sarcasm may be logged in the comments section. That's what it's there for.
Friday, December 05, 2014
This is something I’ve mentioned during previous Winters of Discontent, but it bears repeating in light of this evening’s offering: the worst thing an exploitation movie can do – its cardinal sin – is to be boring.
Ladies and gentlemen, Dan Wolman’s ‘Maid in Sweden’.
Let’s quickly waltz through the film’s basic dynamic: cosseted small town girl Inga (Christina Lindberg) goes to spend the weekend in with her sister Greta (Monica Ekman) who has relocated to the big city and is living in sin with douchebag boyfriend Casten (Krister Ekman). Casten is initially resentful of Inga’s intrusion into his love-nest and decides to palm her off onto his artist friend Bjorn (Lief Naeslund). Subsequently, he begins to covet Inga only for his overtures to be discovered by Greta.
All of which sounds like it should occupy the first half hour or so, a curtain raiser to an examination of the bonds of sisterhood, male sexual rivalry impacting upon the bonds of friendship, and the temptations of the city at night weighed against the simpler existence of rural life. Not so. That synopsis, dear reader, is pretty much the life in its entirety.
And it’s dull.
How dull? Take the opening credits sequence: Inga journeys by train from the country to the city; there are vignettes of her parents reluctantly seeing her off, and Greta awaiting her arrived; there are endless shots of Lindberg staring out of a carriage window; there are interminable cuts to aerial shots of the train ploughing through the Swedish landscape. It’s as if, having hired a helicopter for the afternoon and filmed a train making its entire journey, they wanted to make sure every bit of that chunk of the budget was onscreen. The whole misbegotten sequence is scored to horrible folk music and clocks in at ten minutes. This in an 80 minute movie!
It doesn’t get much better once Inga arrives. There are endless scenes of Inga and Greta traipsing around urban locations; endless scenes of Casten being a twat; endless screeds of dialogue in the bland interior of Greta and Casten’s apartment. Occasionally, Inga peels off a skin tight jumper or dons a low cut number to remind us why Lindberg got the part.
The Inga/Bjorn thing doesn’t happen till halfway through the movie, when the latter inducts her into the pleasures of the flesh in the most ambivalent scene since Del Henney paid a call on Susan George in ‘Straw Dogs’; but whereas Peckinpah’s film deals in a psychologically coherent analysis of the human capacity for violence, Wolman’s is just plain trash. Whereas Peckinpah’s most notorious scene in ‘Straw Dogs’ has a genuine emotional dynamic at its centre, Wolman’s is just plain distasteful. And once he’s crossed this particular threshold, rather than the film being yanked out of its inertia, it just settles back into dullness again.
Made the same year as ‘Exponerad’ (a.k.a. ‘Exposed’) and only two years before ‘Anita’, ‘Sex and Fury’ and ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’, it’s as if the Christina Lindberg of those movies and the Christina Lindberg of this one are two different people. The damaged, vengeful icon of ‘Thriller’; the emotionally devastated nymphomaniac of ‘Anita’; the out-of-her-depth Lolita in ‘Exponerad’; the dangerous siren in ‘Sex and Fury’ – all of these were committed performances that prove Lindberg was more than just a pretty face and a figure that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. In ‘Maid in Sweden’, she’s just an object. And that’s the film’s biggest disappointment.
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
I haven’t seen Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ – or ‘Nymph()maniac’ if you want to dabble in that oooh the middle of the title looks like a vagina nonsense that is really no cleverer than French Connection UK hanging signs saying “FCUK” outside there shops, and that frankly is not very clever at all – and the reason I haven’t seen Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ is that I can’t shake the feeling that it’s basically a remake of Torgny Wickman’s ‘Anita: Swedish Nymphet’ dragged out to four hours.
Wickman’s film clocks in at 95 minutes and it’s difficult to imagine any treatment of this subject matter being substantially longer. Difficult, and a little bit depressing.
There was something I wasn’t prepared for in approaching a film by the man who made ‘The Lustful Vicar’ and ‘Swedish Sex Games’ – a film, moreover, that has the phrase “Swedish nymphet” as its subtitle – and that was how fucking dour it was going to be. Aided by Hans Dittmer’s almost brutally utilitarian cinematography, Wickman presents a vision of urban Sweden that’s as loveless as any of the broken concrete UK landscapes that Ken Loach has given us, and about as far from the dreamy romanticism of, say, ‘Elvira Madigan’ as it’s possible to get without, oh I don’t know, inviting Lars von Trier to the party and assuring him the ratings board is nothing to worry about.
In other words, ‘Anita’ is a joyless, unsexy film. And when your leading lady is one of the most doe-eyed, seductive, voluptuous brunettes ever to have sashayed in front of a movie camera, making an unsexy film can only mean one of two things: (a) you absolutely meant to because you were taking a sober and serious-minded approach to the material, or (b) you were basically a shit director.
I repeat at this point that Torgny Wickman was the man behind ‘The Lustful Vicar’ and ‘Swedish Sex Games’. Oh, and ‘Love Play: That’s How We Do It’. And ‘Practice Makes Perfect’. Not to mention the supposed documentary ‘Language of Love’, i.e. the porno movie that Travis Bickle takes Betsy to see in ‘Taxi Driver’.
And yet … and yet …
I can’t shake the feeling that with ‘Anita’, Wickman wanted to make a serious film. The style is pure social realism. There’s no attempt to prettify anything. Even Anita’s brief sanctuary at a house communally shared by a group of orchestra members presents their lives in such a ‘kitchen sink’ fashion that it de-romanticizes the frequent recourse to classical music on the soundtrack during this section of the film. There’s a moment where Anita and the sympathetic Erik (Stellan Skarsgård – yes, that Stellan Skarsgård) take a walk through a field and past a lake while ‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ prances away on the soundtrack and it should be the biggest cliché you can imagine, but Dittmer leaches every bit of colour from the scene, leaves it flat and drab and gives you nowhere to hang the word “pastoral”.
Likewise the loosely assembled collection of scenes that make up the first third – scenes of Lindberg’s Anita approaching various men, being warned off by various girlfriends, suffering mockery as she trawls the streets, stoically dealing with being treated as a pariah at school, and wordlessly sitting through endless scoldings by her parents, who delight in pointing up all the ways her butter-wouldn’t-melt younger sister is so much better than her – are genuinely demoralizing to watch, and that’s before we factor in the variety of horrible examples of masculinity with whom she debases herself. And by God, Lindberg captures every nuance of her character’s self-loathing and abject loneliness.
On the other hand, the plot often drifts into silliness, particularly the late-in-the-game revelation of Erik as a student of psychology who takes it upon himself to psychoanalyse and determine a cure for Anita’s nymphomania, all the while falling in love with her. Had the character remained an earnest and slightly shy musician who takes an interest in her on a sympathetic level rather than becoming romantically entangled, the dynamic might have been less forced. The horribly contrived dialogues about the psychology of nymphomania might also have been reduced to something meaningful. As it is, most of Erik’s screeds exist of the level of “ooooh, aren’t we being the daring young early 70s things, having all these frank conversations about nymphomania, ooooh madam, let me set it again: nymphomania, nymphomania, nymphomania”. Ditto, the eventual Anita/Erik consummation is every kind of excruciating given the total lack of chemistry between the leads.
Two other scenes seem awkward and ill-suited to serious filmmaking: a striptease that Anita stages to provoke her parents (their non-response is simply unbelievable), and a lesbian scene that I’m guessing was shoehorned in because the producer turned up on set on day, cleared his throat, tapped Wickman on the shoulder and barked an instruction along the lines of “Hey buddy, I’m funding a sex movie here, now shoot some girl-girl stuff, pronto!”
Still, there’s a solemn and non-judgmental piece of work operating throughout about 60% of ‘Anita’ and it seldom feels like the exploitationer I took it for. The nudity is intermittent at best and there’s little actual sex. What there is won’t trouble the cold setting on your shower. It’s not an entertaining 95 minutes and I personally can’t imagine sitting through it again. Nor does its final analysis of nymphomania go much beyond Anita’s own description of the condition: more or less, “I feel worthless so I sleep with someone, and it helps for a while then I feel ashamed of myself so I do it again”. What the film does prove, however, is that while Lindberg’s B-movie legacy is founded mainly on her looks and the sheer notoriety of at least half of her filmography, she was more than capable of crafting a character onscreen and communicating that character’s inner feelings on an emotional and empathetic level.
Tuesday, December 02, 2014
Really! What kind of an exploitation movie fiend do I take myself for? Can it be that apart from ‘Thriller: A Cruel Picture’, reviewed as part of the inaugural Winter of Discontent season back in November 2010, I haven’t featured a damn thing on this blog that features Sweden’s premiere exploitation poster girl, Christina Lindberg?
Better get that little oversight sorted out, hadn’t I?
Join me from tomorrow when we’ll be looking at three of the Scandinavian siren’s most notorious appearances (four if I can track down a copy of ‘Exponerad’ in the next 72 hours*).
*And, no, before you ask, ordering the ‘Christina Lindberg Swedish Erotica Box Sex’ from Amazon is not an option.
Monday, December 01, 2014
Although I encourage comments and discussion on this blog, and despite the fact that I post some right dubious stuff during the Winter of Discontent, I will not countenance comments that consist of nothing but links to pornographic sites. Three consecutive posts were today targeted by this kind of thing, all posted by the same user. I’ve posted a polite request to this effect before; if it happens again, you’ll be reported to Blogger’s administrators.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
Roughly speaking, the glory days of the giallo spanned 1964 (when Mario Bava stylistically defined the template with ‘Blood and Black Lace’) to 1987 (when Dario Argento made his last great throw of the dice as a filmmaker with ‘Opera’). But even that last flowering of Argento’s genius is the exception rather than the rule, and the giallo as a genre was already on the wane by the late ’70s.
Despite a falling off in both quality and active production from the ’80s onwards, gialli have never entirely disappeared. Argento made ‘Sleepless’ in 2001 and ‘Giallo’ in 2009. Eros Puglielli made a truly great contemporary giallo in 2004 with ‘Eyes of Crystal’. Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani put a knowing contemporary arthouse spin on the genre’s conventions with ‘Amer’ in 2009 and ‘The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears’ (a film whose title alone references at least five classic gialli) in 2013.
As a rule of thumb, though, gialli made after, say, 1977 are generally rubbish. A couple of Argento films buck the trend. As do a couple of Bavas. Not Mario, though. By this point in the genre’s development, we’re focusing on the work of his son.
Lamberto Bava made his directorial debut in 1977 with ‘Shock’, which he co-directed with his father. His graduation was more or less immediate and his next two outings – ‘Macabre’ and ‘A Blade in the Dark’ – were minor giallo classics. ‘A Blade in the Dark’ in particular demonstrated what a subjective, prowling camera and a shoal of red herrings could achieve above a limited budget and a single location to film in. Following a handful of lesser genre flicks (including ‘Monster Shark’ and ‘Demons’), Bava made ‘Delirium’ and took all the lessons he learned with ‘A Blade in the Dark’ and applied them to beautiful effect.
Having said that, ‘Delirium’ opens like a Channel 5 trouser-arouser directed by A. Gregory Hippolyte: a slideshow of the voluptuous Serena Grandi in various lad’s magazine poses, in and out of swimsuits. Turns out this sequence is actually sketching in the backstory for us (ain’t Bava thoughtful?): Grandi’s character, Gioia, was a former pin-up model who now owns a glamour magazine called Pussycat. It soon becomes apparent that someone is murdering the Pussycat cover girls (ah, after the semi-intelligent reviews I posted earlier this year, here I am halfway through the Winter of Discontent typing a sentence like “someone is murdering the Pussycat cover girls” without batting an eyelid!) and the roster of suspects is as all-encompassing as you’d suspect.
Is it Mark (Karl Zinny), Gioia’s wheelchair-bound, gun-loving neighbour who spies on her through a telescope and harasses her with pervy phone calls? Or her untrustworthy, narcissistic actor boyfriend Alex (George Eastman)? Is it Evelyn (Daria Nicoldi), Gioia’s brittle PA? Or Flora (Capucine), the business rival who is sexually fixated on her? How about shady photographer Roberto (David Brandon), who runs a studio with Gioia’s brother Tony (Vanni Corbellini) and disapproves of Tony sleeping with the models? Or could it even be an elaborate orchestration by Inspector Corso (Lino Samelle) – who by his own admission is more often taken for a mobster than a cop – to get closer to Gioia?
Whoever it is, they swiftly despatch cover girls (Trine Michelsen) and Sabrina (Sabrina Salerno) and organise their bodies in front of wall-size pictures of Gioia in a perverse parody of the photoshoots that have been Gioia famous, both as model and editor. They also have a skewed perception: in the film’s most infamous sequences (the models are stalked in typical giallo fashion from the killer’s POV), the killer hallucinates their faces as, respectively, a large eyeball and an insect. Clearly, this is someone whose psychology is a tad wonky. Fortunately, though, come the big reveal there’s none of the “morbid fear of tennis balls bouncing in the night” silliness that mars the final act of ‘A Blade in the Dark’.
High fashion was always a favourite backdrop for gialli, from outright classics like Bava pere’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ and Emilio Miraglia’s ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ to such tawdry division three entries as Andrea Bianchi’s ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ and Carlo Vanzina’s ‘Nothing Underneath’. If Bava fils doesn’t quite hit the heights with ‘Delirium’ it’s mainly because its an ’80s movie and therefore its retinue of power-dressing and big hair could never have been as cool as anything set in the same milieu but made during the ’60s or ’70s.
Narratively, the red herrings come thick and fast and just about everyone in the cast is given their “hmmm, I wonder” moment and they generally make the most of it. Grandi, whom I’d always regarded less as an actress than a lingerie model who’d somehow managed to wander onto a handful of film sets during in her career, carries the film adequately for what it is. Eastman is Eastman with everything that observation applies, but at least he doesn’t rip anyone’s entrails out.
Visually, it’s nicely filmed exercise in architecture porn. There are one or two quirky compositions, but nothing that comes close to, say, Argento at his most grand guignol. Put simply, ‘Delirium’ is a giallo that’s fun to watch and ticks most of the required boxes but leaves you yearning for some excitingly distasteful flock wallpaper and an interior designer with a morbid tendency towards stained glass and rococo furnishings.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Franco Prosperi’s grubby little home invasion thriller was retitled ‘Last House on the Beach’ for the American market, although an equally apposite alias would have been ‘House by the Edge of the Sea’ – Prosperi’s, ahem, aesthetic is perhaps more keyed into Deodato’s gruelling opus rather it is to Craven’s underside of Americana. But that’s argument for film scholars; Winter of Discontent is when this blog abandons any intellectual precepts, grabs a beer (or several) and deposits itself on the couch. It’s also when the blog owner’s wife wonders ruefully whether or not her husband is a suitable case for committal.
But I digress.
‘The Seventh Woman’ is a fairly unlikeable piece of work even by the low standards of exploitation cinema in general and its subgenre in particular. It boasts a couple of noteworthy elements, but we’ll leave them for last in an attempt to end this review on a remotely positive note. Let’s get the plot synopsis and a few general remarks out of the way first. This could be a pretty short review.
After one of the lamest bank robberies ever, thuggish douchebag assholes Aldo (Ray Lovelock), Walter (Flavio Andreini) and Nino (Stefano Cedrati) make a less than quick getaway in a clapped out Citreon. It’s a testament to how long it takes the police to show up that they actually evade capture. The car conks out near the coast and they hole up in an isolated house. In said property, Sister Cristina (Florinda Balkan) and five of her pupils (Sherry Buchanan, Laura Tanziani, Laura Trotter, Karina Verlier and Luisa Maneri) are taking a break in the lead up to exams and rehearsing a production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Quite why I’ve fixated on that detail I don’t know: the film sets it up as if it’s going to be somehow crucial to how the plot unfolds, then decides otherwise and the Bard isn’t mentioned again.
(Oh, if you’re wondering how the figures add up in relation to the title, the seventh woman is either the housemaid who buys it within half a minute of being onscreen, or the woman that Sister Cristina becomes in order to survive. Let’s be charitable and assume the latter; it makes the film sound more interesting.)
Aldo discovers that Sister Cristina and her charges aren’t expected back at the academy for three days and thus the expected cat-and-mouse shenanigans ensue … except that “cat-and-mouse” suggests a certain degree of tension. And indeed, between the ever-present threat of violence, the clandestinely plotted escape attempt and what the filmmakers probably intended as a cauldron of sexual tension, ‘The Seventh Woman’ had no reason not to be a taut, claustrophobic, edge-of-the-seat B-movie.
In actuality, it’s dreary, predictable, uninvolving and even its most leering bits of nastiness inspire little more than tedium. Its antagonists tick the expected boxes in regard to snivelling villainy, but there’s none of the demented menace that David Hess brings to the aforementioned Craven and Deodato movies. Lovelock was never the most charismatic of exploitation leads and here he just goes through the numbers. Even the usually dependable Bolkan seems like she’s phoning it in.
Grazie, then, for Cristiano Pogany’s dappled widescreen cinematography that at least conjures some nice backdrops; Maneri’s icy presence as one of the increasingly vengeful schoolgirls; and a retributive finale that Quentin Tarantino probably had uppermost in mind when he shot the last scene of ‘Death Proof’.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
It’s just not a successful Winter of Discontent without certain movies: you need a video nasty, you need a grubby revenge thriller, and – at some point, whatever you might think of the man and his almost uncatalogueable body of work – you need un film de Jess Franco.
In selecting a Jess Franco opus, questions need to be asked: do you favour his muse and career-long leading lady Lina Romay; do you opt for one of his many riffs on the work of the Marquis de Sade; or do you just pick something with a funky title?
Employing the latter, we find ourselves in the company of ‘Nightmares Come at Night’, a title which deserves some kind of award for stating the obvious. I almost wish it were part of a trilogy, followed by ‘Daydreams Occur in the Day’ and ‘Insomnia Happens When You Can’t Sleep’.
‘Nightmares Come at Night’ tells the story of Anna (Diana Lorys), a Zagreb-based stripper (the script repeatedly references the city, presumably to compensate for the budget not allowing any establishing shots) who comes into the orbit of the rich and seductive Cynthia (Colette Giacobine) who promises to groom her as a film star. This, predictably, never occurs and Anna finds herself confined to Cynthia’s mansion and treated as little more than a plaything. Worn down by Cynthia’s mind games and cruel treatment, Anna begins having vivid nightmares involving sex and death (what else? this is a Jesus Franco production, y’all). At this point Cynthia engages the services of Dr Paul Lucas (Paul Muller), who was variously referred to as “Dr Lucas”, “Dr Paul” and “Dr Peters” in the English dub that I watched. Still, one does simply expect continuity from Jess Franco.
Most of the film occurs in flashback as Anna narrates to Dr Lucas her history with Cynthia and the shadowy, half-forgotten act that might mean she’s a murderer. Meanwhile, a young couple – Andrea Montchal and Soledad Miranda – spy on Anna and Cynthia from a neighbouring property, spout portentous dialogue that suggests there’s something conspiratorial going on, and get naked a lot.
Ah yes, the raison d’etre of Franco’s entire output: nudity. Anna’s nightmares all full of it, and she awakens from them only for her diaphanous nightgown to fall open; Cynthia lounges around sans chemise most of the time; during one crucial flashback, Anna meets a couple at a nightclub, next thing they’re reconvened somewhere private, and – whaddaya know? – they all slip into something more disrobed.
All of which is enough is make a case for Franco as little more than a pornographer, but if you did that you’d have to throw the net just that bit wider and include Jean Rollin in that definition. And though Rollin’s raison d’etre was pretty much the same as Franco’s (only with a fetishistic obsession with grandfather clocks thrown into the bargain), Rollin at his best was a poet of surreal and dreamy eroticism.
Franco – with his love of off-kilter compositions, discontiguous narrative, and mise en scene as burlesque – often seems like the almost-Rollin. Perhaps the key difference is Rollin’s absolute focus on atmosphere where Franco instead rolls up his sleeves, gleefully rubs his hands together and really gets stuck into the sleaze. Which is just as well, since ‘Nightmares Come at Night’ boasts neither an interesting resolution to its half-baked mystery or a single notable performance: Lorys occasionally tries to emote, but mostly drifts through the film with a blank expression; Giacobine doesn’t for a moment suggest a femme fatale with a dominant enough personality to enslave and manipulate those around her; and Miranda – memorable in Franco’s ‘Vampyros Lesbos’ and ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ – is left to flounder in a nothing role.
But ultimately, the tao of Franco can be summed up as “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sleaze”. ‘Nightmares Come at Night’ got that sleaze. Plenty of it.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Glancing back through some of the grim and gory fare that has featured on these pages over the five years I’ve been hosting the Winter of Discontent, I started thinking about all the quintessential exploitation directors whose work I’ve considered: Joe D’Amato, Andrea Bianchi, Uwe Boll, Tinto Brass, Cesare Canevari, Enzo G. Castellari, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Lucio Fulci, Jack Hill, Tobe Hooper, Aldo Lado, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Nico Mastorakis, Radley Metzger, Amando De Ossorio, Guilio Questi, Jean Rollin, Joe Sarno, Tom Six, Michele Massimo Tarantini, Bo Arne Vibenius.
One name in particular was missing. Could it be that I hadn’t been doing my job properly? That I hadn’t fully immersed myself in the absolute worst that exploitation cinema has to offer?
I dug back through the archives more thoroughly. There was one reference to him – one minor reference – during an ill-advised overview of the Black Emanuelle films back in 2010. But apart from that, my suspicions were confirmed: in half a decade of seeking out the most venal trash I could find, I had yet to review a film by Bruno Mattei.
The time, ladies and gentlemen, has come.
And what better film with which to break this blog’s Mattei virginity than ‘Hell of the Living Dead’, a.k.a. ‘Virus’, a.k.a. ‘Zombie Creeping Flesh’?
The film starts at a “Hope Centre”, the nature of which isn’t explained until the very end*. It looks like nothing more than an oil refinery and it’s staffed by a lot of scientist types in white coats. The equipment consists of huge 80s mainframe computers, display panels that don’t seem to display very much, and entire swathes of buttons that light up, sometimes in white, sometimes in green. This particular Hope Centre is based in Papua New Guinea and its staff are working on “Operation Sweet Death”. Which seems an oddly named project for a Hope Centre. I started wondering where the other Hope Centres were based and what projects they were working on. “Operation Buy the Farm”? “Operation Swing Low Sweet Chariot”?
So anyway, there’s a sterilisation breach, a dead rat comes back to life and eats a technician, a cloud of green gas gets released and then it’s zombies a-go-go. The project director has enough time to order the centre’s complete isolation and record a message of hollow apology, then the undead are at his office and it’s goodnight Vienna.
Cut to: a terrorist group holding hostages at an American embassy (which American embassy? you ask; where? fucked if I know: the script doesn’t either) and demanding the dismantling of the Hope Centres. A crack anti-terrorist team stage an incursion and swiftly decimate them. That’s “crack anti-terrorist team” as in “squabbling bunch of macho assholes”, by the way. No sooner have they liberated the hostages than they’re sent into the thick of the inhospitable Papuan jungle to investigate the goings-on at the Hope Centre. The Hope Centre’s on the coast, so quite why their mission perameters call for them to go endlessly overland, through jungle, through town, through jungle again and then cross a freaking river in order to get to it I have no idea and neither, again, does the script.
But before we go any further, let’s take a moment to meet these gun-toting good ol’ boys. The platoon commander is called London (Jose Gras) and his small team constitutes Santoro (Franco Garofalo), Osborne (Josep Luis Fonoll) and Vincent (Selen Karay). In terms of characterisation, London is the one who barks orders, Osborne is the one who does the driving and Santoro is the frankly fucking bonkers one who’s zombie-killing modus operandi is to fling himself into the centre of a group of them and scream things like “you wanna eat me?” and “fuck you, I’ll kill all of you” before shooting them in the head**. Not that he ever manages to kill more than one zombie in any group before forcing his way out of the melee and running off.
Subject of the old shoot-’em-in-the-head rule, Santoro is the first and only member of the troop to realise this and he reminds his cronies every time the zombies show up and the guns come out. Every fucking time. And no-one listens!!! Scene after scene, zombie attack after zombie attack, when a quick point-blank to the cranium fight back would decimate their slow-shuffling attackers, these gun-toting douchebags empty cartridge after cartridge and never once go for a motherfucking head shot.
But then again ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ is rife with facepalm moments.
Take the randomly inserted bits of stock footage which suggest that monkeys, elephants, snow owls and marsupials co-exist in the Papuan ecosystem.
Take the United Nations scene, which consists of half a dozen people in suits sitting in an otherwise empty lecture hall and throwing sheaves of paper in the air.
Take the abrupt cut from London and co. beginning their mission to the arrival of intrepid reporter Lia Rosseau (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her cameraman Max (Gabriel Renom) at a deserted township. Lia is there to make a documentary on the outbreak of the virus (oh, sorry, forgot to mention: that snafu at the Hope Centre at the start of the film? it’s now apparently gone global), yet all she has by way of a crew or a production team is one cameraman.
Take the fact that Lia and Max have, for reasons the script yet again fails to explain, hitched a lift with a couple who have decided to bring their pre-pubescent son into the wilds only for him to be injured by an offscreen native and the two are having the most godawful row about whose fault it is. Only one of these two loathsome individuals is even named and they’re both disposed of as zombie fodder (the kid, no surprise, is a zombie in waiting), but not before we’ve suffered their company for five wretched and pointless minutes.
Take the coincidental arrival of London and his boys at the same township and their willingness to allow an investigative reporter and a cameraman to tag along on a secret mission.
Take their arrival at a tribal camp, where Lia Rosseau goes native (she’s previously lived among them for a year – Rousseau: geddit?) by stripping down to a loincloth and daubing herself with body paint (Mattei throws in the most gratuitous boob shot ever to make the cut of an Italian exploitation movie, and when you stop to break down the component parts of that sentence you’ll realise the degree of achievement I’m talking about here). This is the point at which ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ quits ripping off Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ for all it’s worth and rips off ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ instead.
Take the “score” by Goblin, which is basically a judicious sampling of their earlier scores for ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Contamination’, the opening credits brazenly trying to con the audience into thinking the Goblin had taken it into the studio especially for Mattei and his collaborators.
And take said collaborators. ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ was co-written by Claudio Fragasso, notorious as a director in his own right for ‘Troll 2’ (and it occurs to me that I have yet to review a Claudio Fragasso film on this blog. Shit.) We shall not speak of John Cabrera’s cinematography. The cast we’ve already mentioned, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider how bad they are. Renom, Fonoll and Karay are merely bland; Gras is incapable of delivering a line of dialogue without pouting like it’s Christmas morning and he got an Action Man when he wanted a G.I. Joe; and Garofalo does bug-eyed crazy in a manner so unrestrained that Dennis Hopper in the middle of a decade-long cocaine binge would probably be moved to advise him to tone it down a bit. But it’s Newton who’s the absolute worst of all, a vacuum into which the very concept of doing anything in front of the camera – let alone acting – disappears and is never seen again. It’s not even a deer-caught-in-the-headlights performance. It’s roadkill and the headlights are five miles distant.
The title is well earned, if just slightly inaccurate. ‘Hell of the Barely Half-Alive’ would have been better; it certainly describes how it feels to watch it.
*Without wishing to get spoilerific, the nature of the Hope Centres is kind of like if Ian Duncan Smith had chaired a think tank on overpopulation.
**He also calls them “monkey faces” at one point, which gave me a nasty little flashback to ‘Fight for Your Life’; and any film that provokes a ‘Fight for Your Life’ flashback is one that automatically loses brownie points.