Friday, December 23, 2016
Spoilers throughout. In the increasingly urgent series of public information broadcasts made by an ineffectual government as global events escalate towards nuclear war, the exhortation “stay at home” – backed up with threats that unoccupied houses will be seized by the government and rehousing refused to those moving elsewhere in the country – becomes a mantra of sorts. This is the key to ‘Threads’, Mick Jackson’s unforgettable TV movie on the horrors of nuclear war. Its first half focuses specifically on the domestic, with the momentous political events relayed through newspaper headlines and news bulletins. Barry Hines’s script sketches in a complex global scenario with astounding economy; other writers would have fashioned an entire feature from the material and not even given a thought to the ordinary folk whose lives are about to be devastated.
The second half savagely eradicates the concept of home as a safe place – a working class family perish because their fallout shelter is adequate; a middle class family survive longer because their house has a basement. Not that this prevents them from being murdered by looters. Later, a crowd gather outside the gated premises being used to store foodstuffs and demand entry; the leader of a team of armed guards advises them to go back to their homes; less than a minute later, he’s directing his men to fire tear gas at them. Later still, as society unravels – the title refers to the ties that both join together a society and leave it vulnerable to attack – a group of refugees plodding across a bleak landscape are strafed by a low-flying light aircraft from which an amplified voice barks at them to go home. Raised fingers and clenched fists are offered to the plane by way of response.
The concept of home infuses ‘Threads’ from the outset. Its nominal protagonists are Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), whose respective parents – David Brierly and Rita May, and Henry Moxon and June Broughton – aren’t too impressed to learn of Ruth’s pregnancy and the couple’s intent to marry. Objections are strongest on the Beckett side as Mr and Mrs B are middle class and hoped for better for their only child than jack-the-lad joiner Jimmy. Parental disapproval, awkward in-law introductions, and Jimmy and Ruth’s attempt to make a home out of a dismal flat occupies the first 40 minutes or so of the film. Gradually, though, the various characters become aware of how serious things are becoming on the world stage. Jimmy admonishes a bartender for turning off a particularly portentous news update. Ruth suddenly bursts into tears whilst decorating the flat. Jimmy’s father does his best to improvise a bomb shelter from a mattress, a kitchen door removed from its hinges and a pile of rammel stacked on top of it, all the time fretting that he didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘Protect and Survive’ broadcasts.
Meanwhile, powers are devolved to local councils in the event of the worst case scenario. Sheffield (the city was still a major manufacturing hub when ‘Threads’ was made) city council supremo Clive Sutton (Harry Beety) packs his wife off to a safe haven – which turns out to be not so safe at all – and installs an emergency operations team in the city hall basement. Contingencies for post-nuclear survival and societal regeneration are the order of the day, but before any real progress can be made, tensions in the US, Russia and Iran collide and the opening salvos are fired in a conflict that escalates within hours to nuclear deployment.
Jackson’s portrayal of the effects on an everyday social grouping is devastating. The citizenry go from panic buying (a brief but effective scene has the manager of a small supermarket unrepentantly hike the prices of tinned goods) to outright panic. When the first strike hits, the initial response is disbelief. Shoppers stop dead in their tracks. A fireball hangs like something obscene between two civic buildings. “Jesus Christ, they’ve done it,” Jimmy gasps; “they’ve done it!” Two scatological moments capture the awful indignity of facing the unthinkable: a shopper in Sheffield town centre gazes wide-eyed at the horizon, barely aware that she’s pissing herself; Jimmy’s father blurts “Bloody hell!” as he hoists his trousers and stumbles out of the toilet.
I said earlier that Jimmy and Ruth were nominal protagonists. Jimmy definitely so as he exits the narrative at this point, caught in a desperate race to get back to Ruth. It’s the only moment in the film that’s even remotely melodramatic and it’s probable that Hines and Jackson included it to rob the audience of any semblance of a comfort zone. Jimmy has already been revealed as fundamentally less than a romantic hero (his best mate persuades him to be his wingman when a couple of girls in a pub give them the eye; Jimmy ends up shagging one of them in his car); now he’s written out of the narrative entirely, and shortly afterwards, Ruth leaves the confines of her parents’ basement; and after that all bets are off.
Ruth’s surreal progress (if that’s not too proactive a word) through a destroyed Sheffield and – eventually – further north is contrasted with the degeneration of Sutton’s command centre. He and his team are trapped underground after city hall is reduced to rubble. Supplies run low. Tensions increase. Tempers fray. The entombed basement becomes a microcosm of government as a whole, and to call Sutton and his councillors woefully unprepared is an understatement on an entirely new scale. Arrogance and entitlement ooze to the forefront: support services are refused to those “who are going to die anyway”, yet the councillors scream down the phone that rescue teams are too slow in assisting them.
Moral ugliness plays off against visceral ugliness. One of the looters responsible for the death of Ruth’s parents is gunned down. Militia – many of them minor officials with no military training or experience – are armed and given ad hoc powers of life and death. “We’re going to get shot by a traffic warden,” a protestor muses bitterly at one point. Hospitals, deprived of electricity and essential supplies, revert to nightmarish Victorian asylums, full of screaming patients, botched surgeries, blood splashes over the walls and viscera underfoot. But even this vision of healthcare is a comfort compared to the circumstances in which Ruth finally gives birth: in a filthy outhouse in an abandoned freeholding, a chained up and possibly rabid dog snarling and straining at its chain outside.
Money is replaced as a currency by food, which the government partitions out as a reward to “workers” (those fit enough for basic agricultural tasks) or withholds from the elderly or non-able-bodied as punishment for what is perceived as their social uselessness. Those at death’s door doss down in cemeteries. A pack of cigarettes is traded for a bottle of whisky. Insensation or death are the two best options.
As time passes and small semblances of social cohesion emerge – coal mining is resumed; there is some basic provision of electric – one senses that it’s too late: people have become feral; language has devolved; the threads that connect people are few and far between. The coda has Ruth’s daughter giving birth to her own child – a product of rape – only to be handed a stillborn bloody mess in a bundle of dirty rags. The film ends on a freeze-frame of her horror-struck face. She isn’t even allowed a howl of despair.
It’s grim. But we all knew that, right? ‘Threads’ has a reputation for sheer existential awfulness that makes Bergman’s trilogy on faith looked like a gag reel; that makes ‘The Night Porter’ look like ‘The Producers’; that makes Tarkovsky at his bleakest look like ‘The Wizard of Oz’. ‘Threads’ is grim, disturbing; brutal in its commitment to documentary realism. It even takes away from you the ability to comfortingly remind yourself that it’s just fiction. The clipped tones of the narrator are like a BBC newsreader giving you an update on the worst possible news report. The statistics and sociological facts that occasionally punctuate the narrative, tapped out onscreen like a telegraph, emphasize the documentary style. Thirty-two years on from traumatizing the seven million British TV viewers who constituted its original audience, ‘Threads’ has lost none of its power. Sure, the fashions and cultural touchstones may have changed, but it never feels like a time-capsule. Quite the opposite: it feels like a series of dispatches from the not-too-distant future.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
If Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ is an example of anti-narrative, semi-narrative or shit-we’d-better-pay-lip-service-to-narrative (depending on how eleventh hour the deadline and how frenetic the scriptwriter’s typing skills), then by comparison Jim Wynorski’s ‘Big Bad Mama II’ demonstrates the single-minded narrative focus, uncluttered by subplot, of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’.
The story, in all its streamlined glory, is thus: Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson) and her husband Aaron (John Dresden) are working a dirt farm and raising their already very comely daughters, Billie Jean (Danielle Brisebois) and Polly (Julie McCullough), when –
But but but but but …
Wait a minute. Let me finish.
But in the first film –
Dagnabbit, boy, I said quit talkin’ and let me finish this here plot synopsis.
– when the sheriff and his boys, in the service of landowner and gubernatorial campaigner Morgan Crawford (Bruce Glover) come calling. Aaron doesn’t take too kindly to the foreclosure on the farm and in the ensuing gunplay he’s fatally wounded. Wilma swears revenge. Deciding that death is too good for Crawford, she decides to deep-six his political aspirations by kidnapping his son Jordan (Jeff Yagher) and using journalist Daryl Pearson (Robert Culp) to portray the lad as a willing participant in the McClatchie family’s fast-livin’, tyre-screechin’, tommy-gun-firin’ way of life. Smitten with Polly, Jordan is more than happy to go along with it.
That’s pretty much everything that happens in the 84-minute running time. To go into any more detail would be to give away a little too much about the siege that ends the film (and which includes a magnificently cheeky steal from ‘Foreign Correspondent’).
All right, then: get it off your chest.
But but but but but … in the first film Wilma ain’t got no husband, least not one that appears in the goshdarn movie, and she gets into a life of crime because of a bootlegger who’s kind of an uncle to her girls and one of them girls was a brunette in the first film and at the end it’s heavily implied that Wilma gets –
Whoa there! Keep it spoiler-free, boy.
But ain’t you gonna question them continuity errors, Mr Agitation, you bein’ the big-shot movie critic ‘n’ all? Or are you gonna let it slide on account of the fast cars, shoot-outs and boobies?
Boy, you know me well.
But now that the elephant has been revealed to the occupants of the room, let’s address the issue. ‘Big Bad Mama II’, made thirteen years after the original, exists in the same fictive space as the original due to the same actress playing the same protagonist, the dustbowl/depression era/setting being replicated, and Wilma having two daughters called Billie-Jean and Polly (even though Billie-Jean’s name is spelled differently in the credits to the Wynorski film: she’s Billy-Jean is Carver’s). But is it a sequel, prequel, reboot or the entirely original work of an auteur who only put up with the ‘II’ in the title because the producer insisted on it?
Well, it certainly acknowledges the original: carefully chosen clips from Carver’s film (i.e. not featuring Susan Sennet or Robbie Lee) are included in a mid-film montage sequence that depicts Wilma’s escalating crime spree. But it can’t be a prequel because Billie-Jean and Polly are depicted as, if anything, a year or two older than they were in the first film (speaking of which, Brisebois here plays the older sister to McCullough despite McCullough being four years her senior). And it can’t be a sequel since there isn’t a damned thing that makes sense continuity-wise if it is. And it’s a strange kind of reboot that hitches its wagon so explicitly to the original, right down to casting the same lead.
Whichever way you look at it, ‘Big Bad Mama II’ is odd. I mean, what in tarnation do you call a film that exists in the same fictive space as the original, needs a slightly different timeline in order to justify itself, and yet comes across in the final analysis as basically the edited highlights of its predecessor – a cinematic “greatest hits” package that requires the audience to do nothing more than stump up their hard-earned, put their brain in neutral and keep their mouths shut? What do you call a film like that?
Oh, yes – ‘The Force Awakens’.
So there you have it. ‘Big Bad Mama II’ is ‘The Force Awakens’ but with tommy guns and boobies and a notable absence of spaceships.
Friday, December 16, 2016
Hello again, kiddies. Welcome back to Uncle Neil’s movie club. Now, can anyone tell me the name of Gaston Leroux’s most famous novel?
That’s right, Timmy, it is ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. And does anybody know what the best film version is?
Very good, Cindy, it is the Lon Chaney film directed by Rupert Julian. But that’s not the version we’ll be watching tonight. Guess which version we will be watching, kiddies.
You got it, little Jimmy! The Dario Argento one … What’s that, little Jimmy? Isn’t it time Uncle Neil handed himself in at the police station? Quite possibly, kiddo, quite possibly.
Where do I start with ‘The Phantom of the Opera’? Do I ask Signor Argento to make himself comfortable on the couch and tell me all about his compulsion to alternately fetishize and terrorize his daughter? Do I rigorously question the reimagining of Leroux’s deformed and masked Phantom as a long-haired wannabe rock god in leather trousers without so much as a zit to blemish his face? Do I poke holes in the backstory which has the infant Phantom cast into a stormdrain in a moses basket and subsequent raised by rats in the Parisian sewers? Do I enquire of Argento and co-scriptwriter Gerard Brach whether they’ve even heard of Gaston Leroux, let alone read the book?
Do I talk about the bad acting? Asia Argento, as Christine Daaé, is terrible – particularly when lip synching (or rather, lip mis-timing) to various opera recordings. Julian Sands, as the Phantom, is terrible – the script wants him to project various combinations of moody, sexy, dangerous, tortured, violent and stud muffin at random intervals, and he responds instead with Charles Hawtry playing Jim Morrison by way of a Dirk Bogarde impersonation. Andre de Stefano as Raoul is terrible – he actually makes Charles Hawtry doing a Dirk Bogarde impersonation seem macho. His excruciatingly fey performance reaches its nadir when Raoul’s brother, trying to cure him of his lovesick moonings, drags him to a bathhouse for the worst orgy in the history of cinema, provoking Raoul to an emotional meltdown compared to which a petulant infant’s toy/pram redistribution scenario resembles a masterclass in Strindbergian drama.
Or do I talk about the stable of grotesques with whom Argento populates the film – the opera house’s oleaginous new manager, installed in said position by friends in high places (a fact that is made much of for one protracted scene and then never revisited); the paedophile plying young ballerinas with Swiss chocolate; the corpulent diva whom Christine eventually replaces, but only after she’s been the butt of every fat joke the film manages to throw out in the meantime; the idiot stagehand who goes hunting the catacombs with his girlfriend for the Phantom’s treasure, the pair of them gurning and spouting stilted dialogue as if intent on sweeping the board at the Razzies; or the ratcatcher.
Yes, let’s talk about the ratcatcher. Let’s talk about his demented persona, a sort of compound Igor, Quasimodo and Wurzel Gummidge. Let’s talk about the ride-on ratcatching machine he invents, a combination vacuum cleaner/golf cart designed by someone with a priapic fixation on Stephenson’s Rocket, in Seventeen-fucking-Seventy. A contraption that it would have killed a little something in me, my dad being a mechanic and all, to take a screengrab of. So I’ll give you this screengrab instead and leave you to speculate as to the precise nature of the relationship between the ratcatcher and his dwarf assistant.
And let’s also talk about how nothing in the film makes sense. How an opera house the size of the palace of Versaille can be built over a series of catacombs which lead downwards to an underground lake – and not actually be affected by the slightest bit of subsidence let alone collapse into the fucking lake. How the Phantom brings a chandelier down by hammering on a load-bearing column instead of, I don’t know, just unscrewing the fittings. How a bunch of rats can save a child from being drowned, bring it up to speak English, play the organ, communicate telepathically and be extremely confident in the seduction/kidnapping of women, and yet do absolutely fucking nothing when the militia come stomping down to the Phantom’s lair, guns cocked and ready to rock. Seriously, this is the director who gave us a swarm of rats massacring a cat-killing cripple in ‘Inferno’; why the hell was the-Phantom’s-army-of-rats-vs-militia not even an option?
And let’s talk about how the narrative simply lurches from one disconnected set piece to another. Granted, illogic and anti-narrative are Argento’s stock-in-trade, but where they contributed to the nightmarish weirdness of ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Tenebrae’, here the effect is a sense of bad writing and lazy direction.
I still haven’t seen everything Argento has made: the TV movie ‘Do You Like Hitchcock’ and his recent ‘Dracula 3D’ have yet to grace the Agitation screening room; but it’s hard to imagine anything worse than this on his filmography. Even a three-hour static shot of his big toe scored to a dentist’s drill would have something more to offer the cineaste, the trash fan and the generally comatose alike.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
Ana Kokkinos’s second directorial outing is an honourable attempt to do justice to a Rupert Thomson novel. Thomson is one of Britain’s most inscrutable yet intellectually fascinating novelists. He never repeats himself; does something different with every book. Challenges expectations. In one novel, he tells half of one story, hands over to a different narrator for the last 150 pages and cavalierly leaves the whole thing unfinished. His prose is so perfectly turned, every sentence a masterpiece in miniature, that he makes Paul Auster look like he rushes it. Little wonder that it’s often four or five years between new Thomson titles.
Little wonder, too, that there’s only ever been one adaptation of his work. (Though I’d love to see what Ben Wheatley take on ‘Divided Kingdom’ or Martin McDonagh square up to ‘Soft’.)
Kokkinos relocates ‘The Book of Revelation’ from Amsterdam to Melbourne (I’d guess for budgetary reasons, Kokkinos being based there) and the film automatically loses a something, the dark sensuality of Thomson’s descriptions of Amsterdam unmatched by any visual conjuration of Amsterdam that Kokkinos can manage. Nor does the scene in which the protagonist is kidnapped by a triumvirate of masked and caped women come across as the surreal and disturbing set-piece of the novel. Here, it actually seems quite silly.
And here we find ourselves with an opportune moment to take a stroll through Plot Synopsis Plaza. Take my hand, gentle reader, let’s stroll through the sun-dappled streets and talk about kidnapping, sexual molestation, dildos and the undecidedly improper use of a screwdriver. Let’s talk about PTSD, the loss of the self and the desperate search for meaning. Let’s talk about Daniel (Tom Long), a narcissistic dancer who, with brittle girlfriend Bridget (Anna Torv), is appearing in a ballet choreographed by demanding perfectionist Isabel (Greta Scacchi). During a break in the final rehearsals – opening night is that same evening – Daniel goes out to get a pack of cigarettes for Bridget, an errand she sends him on to get him out of the way of another dancer, and doesn’t return. Isabel asks her ex-husband Olsen (Colin Friels), a cop who specialises in investigating sex crimes, to make some off-the-record enquiries. Twelve days later, Daniel resurfaces, traumatised and struggling to express himself. His relationship with Bridget implodes. He has difficulty re-engaging with his art. He walks out on everything, moves into a shitty apartment, takes a job as a bartender, and immerses himself in city’s underbelly as he tries to make sense of what happened to him and track down his abductors.
For its first half hour, ‘The Book of Revelations’ manifests as an effective mystery. Long is an inscrutable main character, haunted and enigmatic. Torv resists the audience’s sympathies, her own motives just as cloaked. Scacchi does some of her best screen work, creating a character who is driven to focus everything left in her (it’s revealed at a crucial moment that Isabel does not have long to live) through the vessel of someone whose brilliance she admires even if his arrogance prevents him from being truly great. Throw in Friel’s admirably understated Everyman performance, effectively anchoring the film’s artier pretentions, and everything sits together nicely.
Then we get to the flashback sequences and what happened to Daniel is depicted in fairly explicit terms. From being chained to the floor to soiling himself when nobody assists him or heeds his pleas; from having his clothes cut from him by a pair of scissors big enough to garden shears; from being forced to masturbate to getting buggered by a dildo the size of a cucumber; from having fingernails tapered like talons raking his back to eye-watering penis trauma courtesy of a thin-bladed screwdriver, Daniel’s torments are the stuff of exploitation cinema, no matter how aloof and Cronenbergesque Kokkinos’s direction strives to be.
And here we find ourselves at the essential-difference-between-a-book-and-a-film dialectic that so often informs discussions of ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Where Anthony Burgess wrote his novella in a hyper-stylised semi-invented language that screened the reader from the viscera of the events Alex the Droog is narrating, Thomson’s novel also uses a technique designed to distance the reader, albeit one as simple as switching from Daniel’s first person narrative for the pre-abduction and post-abduction scenes to a cool, cerebral, almost removed third person for the really nasty parts of the story.
Kokkinos doesn’t even try to find a filmic equivalent, i.e. experimenting with POV, but what she does is double down on the arty seriousness at every opportunity. Which is, theoretically at least, a commendable decision, pulling the rug from under anyone who approached the film for the nudity and violence, but which also renders long stretches of it (‘The Book of Revelation’ clocks in at just under two hours) po-faced and narratively stagnant.
The final act – Thomson’s stroke of genius in the book as he seems to propel Daniel towards the revelation of the title only to rob him of it at a terrible cost – is, in the film, mired by Kokkinos’s inability to find the right register. Daniel’s nascent relationship with idealistic student Julie (Deborah Mailman) is scuppered by an absolute lack of chemistry; and his renewal of his working relationship with Isabel is handled better, but the cathartic routine he pitches to her is so achingly earnest it almost tips over into parody. His misidentification of one of his tormentors works more effectively, but what resolves in the novel in a resounding last line comes across as a damp squib onscreen.
Still, when Kokkinos gets it right – which accounts for more of the running time than when she doesn’t – ‘The Book of Revelation’ is an effective and compelling piece of work. It’s ironic, though: her fidelity to Thomson’s text – and her one geographical deviation from it – comprise the film’s two biggest problems.
Saturday, December 03, 2016
Let us consider the hick shitkicker film as an exemplar of anti-narrative. Or at least semi-narrative. Or, perhaps more accurately, narrative as something that the script writer was vaguely aware of but without actually harnessing the concept during the bourbon-addled oh-fuck-the-deadline-is-tomorrow bout of typewriter abuse that constituted the writing process.
We can take any number of films as case studies: Beverly and Ferd Sebastian’s ‘Gator Bait’, Michael Pressman’s ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, Gus Trikonis’s ‘Moonshine County Express’ (all, now I come to think of it, starring Claudia Jennings and all worth revisiting for that reason alone). In all of these films, narrative is not so much an overarching structure in which linearity, character development and thematic exegesis are contained. No siree, Bob; in these films, narrative is a matter of “this happened and then this happened and then car chase and then shoot-out with the sheriff and hoo-wheee that gal dun got her boobies out”.
In Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ – which doesn’t feature the voluptuous Ms Jennings but is graced with a leading role for the equally curvaceous Angie Dickinson – the script by William Norton and Frances Doel takes the following approach to narrative:
Fast-talking and attitudinous Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) leaves her dirt-poor farm, bundling her squabbling daughters Billy-Jean (Susan Sennet – she of ‘Candy Snatchers’ fame) and Polly (Robbie Lee) into a beat up old car and they drive to the church where Polly is due to marry … well, some white trash loser whose name I didn’t catch and who’s barely in the movie anyway since Wilma decides that said white trash loser ain’t nowhere near good enough for her daughter and starts a fight right there in the church that’s played as comedy, complete with twangy guitar music. Barney (Noble Willingham) helps Wilma and her offspring escape the melee, but as they drive away they get into a chase/gunfight with a couple of Feds and Barney is mortally wounded – …
Now, wait a cotton-picking minute, I hear you expostulate, following up said expostulation with an expectorated stream of tobacco juice; just who in the name of jumpin’ Jehovah is Barney? Well, dear reader, I’ll do you more favours than the script ever does and speculate that Wilma and Barney (yes: they went there) once had a relationship and that Barney is still sweet on her, as evidenced by Billy-Jean’s observation just prior to the abortive ceremony: “Hey, Uncle Barney, were you feelin’ up my momma’s titty?”
Gol-darn it, I hear you ejaculate, thumping a meaty fist on a bar scratched with the initials of people who can’t spell; fondled titties don’t tell me nuthin’ ’bout this Barney fella. To which I can only reply: dagnabbit, boy, wain’t me as wrote the durn script. Then after we slug each other repeatedly out front of the saloon, we go back inside and have a couple of shots of Wild Turkey (well, actually I take a couple of shots of Talisker since Wild Turkey tastes like coyote piss while Talisker is the king of single malt whisky, motherfucker) and finish discussing the film without resorting to further violence.
Barney, it transpires, was a bootlegger and following his car-chase/bullet-from-a-Fed’s-gun demise, Wilma decides to take over his bootlegging business. Thanks to the simple-minded Polly’s dalliance with the local sheriff’s son, Wilma comes to the attention of the law and is coerced into forking over her earnings to keep Polly out of jail. Appropriately incensed, Wilma considers other money-making schemes.
There’s your plot synopsis, right there: “Wilma considers other money-making schemes.” Without ever bothering with a narrative through-line, let alone even acknowledging the meaning of the word “context”, ‘Big Bad Mama’ races through the various iterations of Wilma’s criminal career. Here’s Wilma as bank robber. Here’s Wilma fleecing the bookies at race track. Here’s Wilma in a sedan, cutting loose with a tommy gun. Here’s Wilma pulling a wages heist. Here’s Wilma robbing some high society folks. Here’s Wilma orchestrating a kidnapping.
Virtually all of Wilma’s transgressions could have fuelled a stand-alone movie, with proper attention paid to context, plot, characterisation, consequence, aftermath and, y’know, all the other things you generally get in a movie. Instead, ‘Big Bad Mama’ is 85 minutes of car chases, yee-haw, twangy guitar music, shoot-outs and casual nudity. Character interrelationships are basically a delivery system for the latter. In short order, Wilma encounters former Dillinger associate Fred Diller (Tom Skerrit) and appoints him as partner in crime and priapic stud muffin; then casually tosses him aside – while still requiring his participation in her nefarious schemes – in favour of cash-strapped social climber William J. Baxter (William Shatner), who brings less than fuck all to the table in terms of the gang’s criminal activity but seems to enjoy the fringe benefits (i.e. playing hide the salami with Wilma).
Meanwhile, sexually frustrated Billy-Jean exploits Diller’s rejection to her own lascivious ends and generously shares him with Polly when the latter gets the blues on account of not being offered any sanctuary-dependent salami. Polly falls pregnant which pisses Wilma off royally. When Diller offers to do the decent thing and marry Polly, the latter berates him thusly: “I don’t wanna marry a man who’s sleepin’ with my sister.”
At this juncture, let’s note that Sennet and Lee both engage in kit-offery, neither look like they’re more than 14, but both were in their twenties and the time of filming. Sometimes you clutch onto the reediest of straws as the river of exploitation hurtles you towards the rapids of moral compromise.
Anyway. Like I was saying. ‘Big Bad Mama’ (a Roger Corman production, don’t you know) consists solely of Wilma doing reprehensible things in the name of making a quick buck. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It also consists of Ford Model Ts overturning during chases and being driven into bales of hay. The point remains, though: there’s no attempt to chart Wilma’s progression through the various stages of her criminal career; it’s more a case of “aw, hell, we’ve done the bank robbin’ thing, let’s get her to kidnap some stuck-up rich girl”. There’s no attempt to map an even remotely realistic dynamic between Wilma, Billy-Jean and Polly, let alone properly investigate the tangle of conflicting emotions resulting from introducing not just Diller but Baxter into the equation. And there’s only the barest concession to irony in that the more money Wilma makes by robbing rich folk, the more her own behaviours manifest as class-conscious.
But why should Carver even bother trying to tackle these considerations? ‘Big Bad Mama’ isn’t concerned with subtext, development, theme or any of that malarkey. ‘Big Bad Mama’ is concerned with moonshine, tommy guns, fast cars, faster women and twangy guitar music. What it don’t got in narrative coherence, it has in spades in terms of entertainment value. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation movies a good name.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ is a six part internet series that plays like David Lynch meets ‘Sesame Street’. The aesthetic embraces old-school puppetry (you can sometimes see the strings), stop-motion, CGI and live action. The emotional register runs the gamut from laugh-at-loud amusement at the safe and comfy end of the spectrum to a deep sickening sense of dread at the other. Which is not to say that it makes the journey gradually, through varying stages: the stock-in-trade of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ is the way it suddenly and often terrifyingly lurches into absolute nightmare.
At base level, the series is a cynically brilliant pastiche of children’s television: there is a familiar, cosy location (the main characters’ house) which is occasionally ventured outside of; a small handful of characters with simple names and really only one defining characteristic each; the anthropomorphism of inanimate objects as arbiters of gently improving moral lessons; and bouncy repetitive songs as delivery systems for said lessons. In virtually every episode, though, the moral lesson becomes contradictory or spirals into self-looping nonsense; the imagery correspondingly takes a turn for the grotesque and the editing becomes frenzied.
The first episode, ‘Get Creative’, is a case in point. There’s a series of static shots of an orderly interior decorated in primary colours; a clock ticks. This accounts for almost thirty seconds of the episode’s three minute running time. Our three protagonists – Yellow Guy, Red Guy and Duck Guy – are sitting round a table. A notebook comes to life and starts singing a song, the first line of which is “what’s your favourite idea?” The gang protest that they don’t have any and are initially resistant to Notebook’s exhortations to think creatively. However, when they’re encouraged to discern shapes in the clouds outside, they participate enthusiastically. “I see a hat, I see a cat / I see a man with a baseball bat” – the cloud morphing into a threatening shape, looking for all the world like it’s about to concuss the very sky it’s floating in, is the episode’s first indication that something a little bit wrong is going on here. Subversiveness comes thick and fast: Yellow Guy paints a picture of a clown, Notebook pours black paint over it; Yellow Guy picks green as his favourite colour, Notebook pooh-poohs his choice (“green is not a creative colour”); Notebook tells them the rule to creativity is to “listen to your heart, listen to the rain / listen to the voices in your brain”, the gang respond by coating a human heart in glitter and paper streamers, doing weird tribal dances, baking the cake into a pie, hallucinating the heart’s escape into a mousehole and spelling out “DEATH” in fridge magnet letters. The song by now has given way to psychedelic music that sounds like the Velvet Underground doing a try out for the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ theme. Notebook evaluates their efforts: “now let’s all agree never to be creative again”. Notebook self-closes and falls back onto the table as if dead. The screen goes black.
‘Get Creative’ is happiest and least disturbing episode of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’.
The other episodes are on the themes of time, love, technology, healthy eating and dreams. If there’s a passive-aggressive and slightly spiteful quality to Notebook in episode one, the objects that spring to life through these next five instalments are veritable antagonists. The clock in episode two responds to Duck Guy’s suggestion that time is merely a construct of human invention by sounding his alarm so loudly that Yellow Guy’s ears bleed, an act he follows up – notwithstanding his earlier assertion that the future does not exist – by advancing time at such a rate that the gang age hideously within seconds, flesh peeling back from their fingers, their faces distorting. In episode three, Yellow Guy – already well-established as the most child-like of the three – is upset at Red Guy killing an insect during a picnic and goes to sit in a tree. Here, a butterfly serenades him, promising to teach him about love. Cue floating clouds and the kind of rainbow-saturated dreamscape that the cast of ‘My Little Pony’ might find too saccharine. All of this is in the service of grooming Yellow Guy for induction into a cult whose leader is immolated ‘Wicker Man’-stylee during the end credits.
For most shows, this would probably be its most close-to-the-knuckle moment, but the world of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ – and directors Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling do an astounding job of creating an entire universe around their characters in what probably only amounts, if you watch the entire six episodes back to back, to about 35 minutes – has even darker places to which it’s ready to usher the audience. The schizoid computer in episode four whisks the gang into a digital interior with a cheerful malevolence that makes HAL9000 seem well-adjusted; the big musical set-piece plays out like ‘Tron’ got into a dance-off with ‘Evilspeak’ and things turned nasty. Episode five has Red Guy missing, possibly kidnapped, and Yellow Guy and Duck Guy slowly realising that something is very wrong – a piece of snail-like deduction that is hampered by a raw steak, a refrigerator and a can of peas coming to life and hectoring them about healthy eating. Turns out the threesome have their own dietary requirements and the inevitable lurch into outright horror might leave you feeling like you’d prefer to skip your next couple of meals.
At eight minutes, and featuring a substantial live-action sequence, the final episode is almost devoid of laughs. It starts with Yellow Guy, alone, crying himself to sleep because he misses Red Guy and Duck Guy. His bedside lamp sings to him about dreams, but proves about as reassuring in this respect as Freddie Krueger on a gallon of espresso and a half a hundredweight of crack cocaine. Symbolism, musical cues and characters from previous episodes intruder, the universe of ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ seeming to collapse in on itself. The whole thing concludes with a terrible sense of inevitably, yet in a manner that leaves the episode – indeed the series itself – endlessly open to debate and interpretation.
While each episode is a nightmarish masterpiece in miniature, balancing pitch-perfect satire with existential terror, taken as a whole ‘Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared’ is far more than the sum of its parts. Functioning on a higher level than the puppets-doing-vulgar-things remit of, say, ‘Meet the Feebles’ or ‘Marquis’, what Sloan and Pelling have created is clever, disconcerting and quite unique.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
There’s a bit of a tradition on The Agitation of the Mind, when discussing anything directed by Dario Argento in the last three decades, to identify ‘Opera’ (1987) as his last great work as director and everything that followed as something of a rollercoaster where the upswings can best be described as mildly disappointing and the plummeting descents are outright visits to Shitsville. And, Christ, isn’t it depressing to ruminate that the man who gave us ‘Deep Red’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Tenebrae’ and half a dozen other great genre movies has – with the exceptions of two episodes of ‘Masters of Horror’ and the almost-there ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ – spent almost thirty years in a tailspin of negative quality control?
He followed the aforementioned ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ with what is reckoned to be his career nadir, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, before making a bit of a box-office comeback (in his native Italy at least) with ‘Sleepless’, a rather studied throwback to the classic gialli of old. Three years later, he went back to the giallo well for ‘The Card Player’. It’s a curious piece, which in some places feels like Argento’s attempt to do ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ but also contains a stultifying number of scenes of cops standing around in institutional and brutally utilitarian interiors looking moody and spouting exposition, for all the world as if Argento were putting together a showreel for the producers of ‘CSI’.
Elsewhere, though, shadows of Argento the demented visual stylist and master of the set piece are visible, particularly in the scene where a home invasion is preceded by the creepy reflection of a masked intruder on the convex surface of a glass bowl … But I’m getting ahead of myself.
‘The Card Player’ starts with brittle cop Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) fending off the ingratiating advances of colleague Inspector Morgani (Mario Opinato) while trying to find a tourist – a young woman – who has gone missing in room. She quickly gets a lead: an email from the abductor inviting the police to play an online poker game with the girl’s life as the prize. When Police Commissioner Marini (Adalberto Maria Merli) forbids participation, abductor turns killer, knifing his victim to death on camera. Later, Marini’s daughter Lucia (Fiore Argento) falls into the psycho’s hands.
Meanwhile, Anna finds herself working with – and falling for – alcoholic Irish cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), on secondment to the British embassy in Rome after an armed response fiasco back in the UK which saw a minor dead and Brennan made the scapegoat. Brennan strides into the movie, all piss and vinegar, and within seconds gets in a fight with one of Anna’s colleagues after dismissing said individual’s deductive prowess as “bollocks”. Inbetween knocking back the hard stuff from a hipflask and drunkenly crashing at Anna’s pad after belting out a tone deaf rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ (cliché alert!), Brennan proves himself a forensics expert and tenacious as all hell when he becomes obsessed by an almost overlooked detail that – in true giallo fashion – he can’t quite put his finger on.
Thus it is, that after twenty minutes or so of bland procedural narrative and dull cinematography, ‘The Card Player’ suddenly gets its funk on and things start to move. Anna and Brennan recruit wunderkind poker player Remo (Silvio Muccino). The killer ups the ante by snatching Marini’s daughter. Anna is targeted in her own home and proves highly proficient in responding to the threat. Remo is played for a fool by a honeytrap and finds himself in a game where he has no control over the odds. Brennan finally cracks the crucial clue and, unadvisedly, goes haring off without any back-up. These scenes move the action out of the insipid interiors and into a cityscape that is soulless, graffiti’d and either awash with flat harsh light in the daytime or a symphony of shadows at night.
Granted, there’s none of the bravura camerawork or prowling POV shots that define Argento’s best work, but it has a modicum of visual style and narrative focus. For a while, at least. Its middle third is ‘The Card Player’ at its best and, unfortunately, when it stops being pretty good, it doesn’t just slope off to not that good or even mediocre. Nope, it degenerates like a time-lapse fast-forward of a putrefying corpse. The twist isn’t something you just see coming. Nope, it flies over the DVD rental store in a biplane with a fifty-foot banner behind on which is printed in heavy capital letters the phrase “obvious from the fucking outset”. The ending isn’t just clichéd and hackneyed (the damsel in distress is shackled to the fucking railway tracks, for fuck’s fucking sake”). Nope, it’s actually profoundly embarrassing. And then there’s the out-of-nowhere final scene that is, presumably, meant to be life-affirming, about which I can only say: Dario, we don’t come to you for affirmation, mate; we come to you for rococo set design and operatic death scenes.
‘The Card Player’ was originally conceived as a sequel to ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’, with Asia Argento reprising her role of Detective Anna Manni – though how that would have worked given the ending of ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’, I have no idea – and the find-and-replace retrofitting of Anna Manni to Anna Mari is indicative of the laziness that blights the script. Ditto the character of John Brennan. John Russo in the first draft, with Matthieu Kassovitz set to star. When he dropped out and was replaced by Cunningham, one perfunctory scene was scribbled down to account for an Irish cop having any form of jurisdiction in Rome. Curiously, a big deal is made of his twenty-year residency in London only for said piece of information to have absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film. Likewise Anna’s emotional backstory – she’s still coming to terms with her father’s suicide – proves to be nothing but the set-up for the ludicrous finale.
‘The Card Player’ exists in that mid-to-late period of the Argento filmography where considered critical analysis is replaced by a trade-off against the other films: it’s not quite as good as the not-as-good-as-they-could-be ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ or ‘Sleepless’, but neither is it the abject train wreck of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Mother of Tears’, and at the very least it’s more coherent than ‘Giallo’. It’s a poor way to evaluate a film’s worth, but you work with what you’ve got.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Between ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ and today’s offering, I think if we were to ask the question “when is a giallo not a giallo?”, we could offer “when it’s directed by Duccio Tessari” as a fairly comprehensive answer.
Where ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ switches gears between police procedural and vigilante thriller whilst retaining just enough of the giallo in its overall aesthetic, ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ is an out-and-out giallo – it boasts more flamboyant cinematography and sustained set-pieces than its predecessor (‘DOLN’ was made in 1970, ‘TBB’ in 1971), and has a more obviously giallo title – albeit one that falls into three distinct acts, each one characterised by its dependence on other genres.
The film begins with an extended sequence that sets up several characters, whose interrelationships will gradually be revealed, and several locations, the whole montage scored to a bizarre medley where Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 gives way to lounge jazz. The scene shifts to a park; two children are playing; they discover a corpse. The police are summoned; someone flees the scene; the viewpoints of several witnesses are established. The next twenty minutes or so are a strict procedural; had Tessari continued in this vein, there would have been no way you could have hung the giallo on ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’.
Where the procedural takes us narratively is: the aforementioned corpse is that of young French student Françoise Pigaut (Carole André), whose best friend at the Italian university they attended was Sarah (Wendy d’Olive), the daughter of TV personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli) and his much put-upon assistant (Peter Shepherd) – I don’t recall him having a name and IMDb goes with “the inspector’s assistant” – launch an investigation, contending with foul weather that turns their crime scene into a quagmire and the presence of TV reporters whose coverage is cynical. Nonetheless, they rigorously apply forensic techniques and try to determine the killer’s motive and identity. Then a witness turns up at Berardi’s office saying she recognised the killer from the TV programme …
And ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ promptly tosses aside the procedural playbook, leaps forward in time (I’m guessing several months at least; it isn’t made clear), and gets its courtroom drama funk on for the next half hour. Marchi’s in the dock, his ice-queen wife Maria (Evelyn Stewart) is becoming increasingly distant, and Sarah is devastated. The prosecutor (Wolfgang Preiss) is building a pretty damning case, but Marchi’s lawyer Guilio Cordaro (Günther Stoll) has a few cards up his sleeve. Much depends, though, on whether Marchi will publically trash his marriage and reputation by ’fessing up to being with his mistress Marta Clerici (Lorella De Luca) at the time of the murder. While all of this is going on, Sarah’s relationship with entitled music student Giorgio (Helmut Berger) is fragmenting and suspicion surrounds a certain bit of evidence that Giorgio gave under oath in Marchi’s favour …
And no sooner has the courtroom drama wrapped up in dour fashion than the film gets its psycho-sexual funk on: two more murders occur, Maria’s dalliance with one of her husband’s associates gives her an ulterior motive as regards the convenience of his incarceration, and Sarah distances herself from Giorgio as his behaviour lurches from sexual cruelty to self-hate.
After a trio of not-particularly-graphic murders and only two set-pieces (the original killing and the perpetrator’s flight from the park, and the cat ‘n’ mouse scene that culminates in the third murder), Tessari goes for broke in the last third: from the tensions brokered between Maria and Sarah by the former’s lover to Marchi’s homophobic beat-down on a cellmate, from Giorgio’s spectacular meltdown to an urgent chase scene after Berardi and his men finally figure it out (or at least think they do), ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ does so much pick up the pace as strap a rocket to itself. Everything comes down to a stand-off in an abandoned and part-demolished factory building where motives are clarified and the moral waters muddied at one and the same time. Tessari delivers a finale that dabbles in the shared guilt considerations of, say, Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ or ‘Tenebrae’ while coming on all histrionically melodramatic, like a homoerotic version of King Vidor’s ‘Duel in the Sun’.
‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ is a divisive film amongst giallo fans. Some find it muddled and far too talky. For others, it’s a fascinating oddity. I’m definitely in the latter camp. It isn’t entirely free of problems – not least in its two sex scenes, which are supposed to be edgy and guilt-ridden but just seem awkward – but it’s certainly never dull.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Duccio Tessari’s 1970 giallo ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ is something of a hybrid, combining elements of the procedural, the vigilante thriller and one of the sleazier tropes of the giallo itself – the prostitution ring. But unlike ‘What Have They Done to Solange’ and ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters’, the two immediate genre touchstones that deal in said scenario, ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ plays out as a missing person drama for a good chunk of its running time, before revealing what happened to the unfortunate Donatella (Gillian Bray).
Donatella is a tall, attractive 25-year-old whose over-protective father Amanzio Berzaghi (Raf Vallone) is over-protective for a damn good reason: Donatella has the mental age of a child of three. Her innocence is such that she’s an easy target for predatory men – to her, flashing her knickers or behaving playfully is just that: playfulness. Berzaghi, working mornings as a transport officer at a trucking company, has an intricate locking system on his apartment door and grilles fitted to the windows. Donatella’s vulnerability preys on him, but his love for and commitment to her is total.
‘Death Occurred Last Night’ begins in media res with Berzaghi, fobbed off by police at the precinct nearest to him, blagging his way into Captain Duca Lamberti (Frank Wolff)’s office, and pouring his heart out re: his daughter’s recent disappearance. Lamberti is something of a journeyman copper, his career overshadowed by the achievements of his younger wife (Eva Renzi), a photojournalist whose first book is about to be published. During a rare argument, she accuses him of getting too old to make a difference. On another occasion, she (rightly) dismisses as bullshit his reasoning for not having a minor surgical procedure that would improve his quality of life (workload; responsibility; the unlikelihood of the city’s criminal contingent desisting from their efforts during his recuperation); “You’re not the only policeman,” she reminds him. Responding to Berzaghi’s plight – a regular guy who’s lost everything that gave his life some meaning – Lamberti throws himself into tracking down Donatella.
Intuiting that a mentally incapacitated young woman who has disappeared from a stable home was probably deliberately targeted for the sex trade, Lamberti and junior officer Mascaranti (Gabriele Tinti) brace pimp turned car salesman Salvatore (Gigi Rizi). Initially unwilling to assist in assuaging their access to the various brothels where Donatella might have ended up, Lamberti arranges for a few kilos of coke to be planted at Salvatore’s showroom, whereupon he promptly u-turns as regards assisting them with their enquiries.
What follows is the weirdest sequence in the film, Lamberti and Mascaranti happily traipsing from cat-house to cat-house, dallying with some of the most unprepossessing hookers that exploitation cinema has ever presented to the viewing public, and tossing around money like confetti (“you can claim anything on expenses as long as you know how to fill the forms in,” Lamberti declares, suggesting that he missed his calling as an accountant). Mascaranti in particular seems to take to this avenue of investigation rather too enthusiastically. But then again, he gives every impression of being Italy’s Dirty Harry in waiting, at one point tendering his resignation to Lamberti so that he can beat the shit out of a pimp without risking a formal complaint. Beating complete and information extracted, Lamberti casually reinstates him.
Still, Lamberti and Mascaranti buck the giallo trend of useless coppers and it’s entertaining spend the first half of the film in their company as they do their best to track down the missing girl. Then – and this is only a minor spoiler – the discovery of a severely burned corpse changes the perameters of their investigation. At which point Berzaghi takes centre stage again.
What follows is a dual narrative with Lamberti and Mascaranti closing in on the perpetrators by means of dogged procedural detective work, while the grieving Berzaghi stumbles upon a clue (more by luck than judgement) which categorically establishes that at least one of the guilty parties is resident in his apartment block. Vigilantism with a dash of ‘Rear Window’.
‘Death Occurred Last Night’ uses many well-worn narrative devices, from the generation gap bickering between Lamberti and Mascaranti – I was reminded of the Commissioner and his Deputy in ‘Milano Calibro 9’ (another Frank Wolff starrer) but without the politics – to Berzaghi’s ‘Virgin Spring’-like transition from loving father to stone-cold avenging killer. The parallel investigations are join-the-dots affairs rather than a showcase for any great deductive leaps and there’s none of the overlooked-detail-proving-vitally-important that’s one of the giallo’s stock-in-trades.
Indeed, Lamberti’s first significant break comes as a result of a conversation his wife has with alcoholic prostitute Herrero (Beryl Cunningham). An actress who appeared in a couple of dozen exploitationers between the early Sixties and early Eighties, Cunningham is a striking presence in this film, alternately taunting Lamberti for being no better than the pimps and johns who define her life (they all want something from her, the only difference is Lamberti wants information) and lapsing into self-anaesthetism when the mask of her defiance slips and the reality of her life catches up with her. Two other performances match it: Bray’s as the emotionally retarded Donatella – a nothing role on paper that she imbues with such winsomeness and fragility that her few brief scenes are heartbreaking – and Vallone, no stranger to good solid performances but who is revelatory here.
The quality of performances, aligned with Tessari’s pacy but unobtrusive direction, are what make ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ such a taut and compelling piece of work. They transcend the almost total lack of action – there are two foot chases, neither of which last more than a minute, and both of which occur significantly past the hour mark – and bootstrap the movie above the boilerplate genre beats of its narrative. Nor are there any of the overt stylisations or grand guignol set-pieces traditionally associated with the giallo*. And while these leave a lot of boxes on the Agitation of the Mind giallo checklist unticked, they benefit the film immeasurably in terms of its dramatic impact.
*Having said that, the film still has its moments of what-the-fuckery, including a mortuary scene where the corpse is apparently identified by its feet, and Lamberti taking time out from the investigation to strum his guitar and make up a little song about his sinusitis. Plus there’s a continuity error that the filmmakers blithely overlook in order to ram the title into a line of dialogue.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Fernando di Leo’s B-movie masterpiece ‘Milano Calibro 9’ opens with a six-minute pre-credits sequence of cynically bravura brilliance. A parcel switch operation whereby a cache of money makes its way across Milan via three cut-outs is overseen by two hoods, the oily Pasquale (Mario Novelli) and the bristly Rocco (Mario Adorf). When the parcel finally arrives in their hands, they realise they’ve been conned. They quickly work their way through the chain of operatives, all of whom deny they were involved. This trio of luckless individuals are tied up in a cave outside the city and … well, we’ll let the following screengrabs tell the story.
Three years later and with the $300,000 still missing and the mob boss it should have gone to – The Americano (Lionel Stander) – still, how shall we say, curious as to its whereabouts, Rocco and his boys pick up the only name left on their list of suspects: Ugo Piazzi (Gastone Moschin), newly released from jail. Ugo, it turns out, was arrested the same day as the money went walkabouts, which The Americano and Rocco take as proof positive that he nicked it.
The police take an equally non-procedural approach to the case, with the Commissioner (Frank Wolff) and his Deputy (Luigi Pistilli) sitting around arguing about politics instead of, oh I don’t know, following clues, analysis forensic reports or tailing suspects. ‘Milano Calibro 9’ was based on a novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, and the Commissioner, eternally railing against the Deputy’s passion for social justice and browbeating him with the fact that there’s a pecking order for a reason, is the mouthpiece for Scerbanenco’s rabid anti-communism. I’m guessing the Deputy gets fairly short shrift in the novel, whereas di Leo – writing as well as directing – has him score a few points off his stuck-up boss, even if he does get transferred to some shitty backwater by the end of the film.
No such polemics drive the interaction between Ugo and Rocco, however. Rocco first tries smarming the location of the money out of Ugo, then beating it out of them, then threatening on pain of death that Ugo had better present himself to The Americano.
In doing so, Rocco gets on the wrong side Ugo’s buddy Chino (Philippe Leroy), an assassin of some infamy and companion to former mob boss Don Vincenzo (Ivo Garrani). When Ugo keeps his appointment with The Americano, the latter – to Rocco’s consternation – orders Ugo to work with Rocco. A classic example of keeping your enemies closer.
So, with The Americano and Rocco watching him like a hawk, still convinced he’s the thief, and the police dimly aware of him while still sitting around the station disputing the socio-political narrative of early ’70s Italy, Ugo reluctantly commences his lowly duties in The Americano’s organisation, while turning his fuller attentions to rekindling an old romance with exotic dancer Nelly Bordon (Barbara Bouchet).
After its rip-roaring opening, and several tense scenes that edge Ugo ever closer to The Americano’s orbit, ‘Milano Calibro 9’ daringly takes its foot off the pedal in terms of narrative and tension – daringly because, for all the craftsmanship involved, it’s still an exploitationer and the cardinal sin of any exploitation movie is to be dull – and structures its mid-section as an enquiry into the lives of career criminals and those who hunt them, and the divisions that exist in both camps. The Americano and Don Vincenzo represent the old school, but where Vincenzo visibly exhibits a weariness that suggests he’s haunted by the life he led, The Americano is devoid of self-awareness. Ugo and Chino are mid-level players, both cautious and taciturn but capable of cold and unhesitating brutality when the moment is ripe. Rocco and sundry others are the muscle – thugs who are in the game for kicks, easy money and fast women. The nature of the criminal underworld is changing. Don Vincenzo eulogises at one point that there’s no real Mafia any more, just gangs killing each other.
Then, just as the pace threatens to subside into inertia, di Leo cranks things up: The Americano descends into paranoia; his low-level operatives start dying all over the place, usually as a result of incendiary devices; a mysterious individual starts cropping up in the background; and Chino crosses paths with Rocco again, with cataclysmic results. And all of this is merely set up for the final reel which is basically one rug-pull after another and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.
‘Milano Calibro 9’ is a very different beast from, say, Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Almost Human’ or Lucio Fulci’s ‘Contraband’. In its close observation of how a specific criminal enterprise operates, it’s probably closer to Enzo G. Castellari’s ‘The Heroin Busters’, while Moschin’s existentially cool loner – played with such ruthless minimalism he makes Clint Eastwood look like Noel Coward – is worthy of comparison to Alain Delon in Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’. On the other end of the scale, Adorf goes for broke in his portrayal of a total nutjob, tearing into a final scene that would prove the blueprint for every edgy movie psycho up to Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in ‘Goodfellas’ and beyond. It’s a performance that almost verges into pantomime, but the terrible ferocity of his final scene ensures his – and the movie’s – place in cinema history.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Architecture porn is as integral to the giallo as operatic death scenes, bottles of J&B and winsome brunettes in peril, and just to make sure he’s got our attention from the off director Mario Caiano doubles down on the architecture porn in the opening sequence as psychiatrist Luca (Horst Frank) flees a knife-wielding assailant through the stark angles of a deserted building constructed in the brutalist style. His escape attempt fails. A knife rises and falls. Red gushes.
Turns out it’s a dream from which Luca’s girlfriend Julie (Rosemary Dexter) – Caiano doubles down on the winsome brunette factor, as well – awakes in a state of agitation. She gets even more agitated when she realises he’s disappeared. Enquiries at his clinic end with a deranged patient shouting a single word over and over. Cross-referencing it with a note in Luca’s appointments diary, Julie realises it’s the name of a small town and takes off to find him.
Arriving at said village, she’s coolly appraised by ex-pat American Frank (Adolfo Celli), and almost lured to her death by a manipulative local who directs her to a dangerously unstable building. If the opening sequence was giallo 101 architecture fetishism, then Julie’s hesitant exploration of the ruined house is the diametric opposite. It is to David Hemming’s 15-minute interrogation of a supposedly empty villa in ‘Deep Red’ what a three-minute punk single is to grand Italian opera.
Not that Julie seems to be doing herself any favours, engaging with all manner of dubious characters seemingly on a whim, and allowing herself to be led from situation to situation in wide-eyed complicity. Her attempt at amateur sleuthing is as if Nancy Drew were ten years older with a massive reduction in both IQ and the length of her skirts.
Eventually, she finds herself at the house of stern eccentric Gerda (Alida Valli), who seems to have some history with Frank. Gerda is playing host to a group of oddballs including gigolo Louis (Michael Maien), photographer Toni (Sybil Danning), actor Thomas (Gigi Rizzi), nervous and shifty Eugene (Franco Ressel) and mentally deficient teenager Saro (Benjamin Lev) who enjoys spying on pretty girls and painting weird canvases. Repeated close-ups of his latest opus and Frank’s clunky exposition that Saro has no imagination and can only paint what he sees point to a big clue. Or is it a red herring?
The coastal setting of ‘Eye in the Labryinth’ is apposite: entire shoals of red herring drift through the film. From the weird townspeople who are basically just there to wrongfoot you until Julie gets to Gerda’s villa, to the cat and mouse shenanigans at the villa itself, the narrative is less an exercise in plotting than an extended shell game. Indeed, the focus almost imperceptibly shifts from Julie to Frank as the amateur sleuth, the latter furthering his own agenda as he probes information from Gerda’s house guests.
Not that Frank ever becomes the default hero. When he’s not busy saving Julie from assassination attempts, he’s unsubtly trying to force himself on her. Nor does anyone else on the guest list emerge as even remotely sympathetic, particularly when it comes to light that Luca was known to them and all of them had good reason to wish him ill. Revelations about Luca quickly reveal him as a total bastard, at which point the film makes a sharp swerve from Agatha-Christie-with-topless-sunbathing and goes careering off in the direction of Roeg/Cammell style psychological head-fuckery. All of it accompanied by the most out of place lounge jazz soundtrack this side of the filmography of Jess Franco.
Caiano isn’t a name readily associated with gialli – he’s probably better known for a run of polizia in the vein of Fernando di Leo and the grubby exploitationer ‘Nazi Love Camp 27’ – but he does sterling work here, maintaining an excellent pace and getting the most out of the location work. ‘Eye of the Labyrinth’ is an incongruously sun-dappled example of the genre, and this as much as anything contributes to the film’s woozy and slightly disconnected aesthetic. An aesthetic that’s entirely in the service of the final reel.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Hello, boys and girls. Welcome back to Uncle Neil’s Movie Club. Now, before we watch tonight’s film, can anybody tell me the title of the most notorious, controversial, affront-to-good-taste cannibal movie ever made?
Well done, little Jimmy: it is ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. And can anybody tell me who directed ‘Cannibal Holocaust’?
That’s right, Melanie, it was Ruggero Deodato, and he upset a lot of people with that film, didn’t he? But it wasn’t Uncle Ruggero’s first cannibal movie, kiddies. Can anybody tell me what his first incursion into the green inferno was called?
Correct, Mikey: it was ‘Last Cannibal World’, a.k.a. ‘The Last Survivor’, a.k.a. ‘Jungle Holocaust’ (the latter a retro-fitted title post-‘Cannibal Holocaust’). And guess what, boys and girls? It’s ‘Last Cannibal World’ that we’ll be watching tonight.
(And this is why I don’t have children.)
‘Last Cannibal World’ was made in 1977, the year after Deodato had given us ‘Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man’, which in turn had succeeded ‘Waves of Lust’, and just three years before the Deodato annus mirabilis of 1980 and his two exploitation masterpieces ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and ‘The House on the Edge of the Park’. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, circa 1977, Deodato was on a roll.
Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Following ‘Live Like a Cop…’, Deodato experienced a three year funk of which the pedestrian ‘Last Cannibal World’ is, for what it’s worth, the high point. His next two films were ‘Last Feelings’, a pitiful attempt at inspirational feel-good fare, and ‘Concorde Affaire ‘79’, a bargain basement ‘Airport’ rip off. Just how engaged or otherwise the director was with these three projects is a matter for Deodato scholars and biographers to determine, but I am aware that ‘Last Cannibal World’ was an inherited project – it had originally been developed as a sequel to Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Man from Deep River’ which would reunite that film’s headliners Ivan Rassimov and Me Me Lai. Lenzi, however, demanded a bigger fee than the producers were willing to kick out, and the cameras eventually rolled on ‘Last Cannibal World’ with Deodato in the director’s chair and a rejigged script that made no reference to ‘The Man from Deep River’.
The plot – an exercise in simplicity – is thus: oil prospectors Robert (Massimo Foschi) and Rolf (Rassimov) conduct an aerial reconnaissance of the jungle accompanied by alcoholic pilot Charlie (Sheikh Razak Shikur) and token attractive female Swan (Judy Rosly). Charlie sets the plane down by an encampment but muffs the touchdown and the single-engine light aircraft throws a wheel. Robert and Rolf find the camp deserted … oh, no, wait; there’s everyone – they’ve been eaten by cannibals. By the time Charlie has completed the repairs, night is falling and they decide to wait until morning to fly out. Swan, needing to relieve herself, wanders off into the dark and, with a blood-curdling scream, promptly disappears. Come morning, rather than flying out of there, prospectors and pilot go wandering further into the jungle looking for the by-now fairly definitely dead Swan.
Let’s pause here to ask a few questions. Oil in the jungle? Prospected for by means of flying over the treeline? Who is Swan anyway? How does a drunkard aviator reattach a wheel to a light aircraft without, at the very least, a block and tackle to winch the fucking thing up? Since when is flying at night the more dangerous option compared to sitting around waiting for the cannibals to show up? Is taking a piss really all that desirable when getting eaten is the likely outcome? And why bother mounting a search mission for someone who’s almost certainly dead when it involves abandoning your means of escape?
Or am I just being cynical?
So: Robert, Rolf and Charlie go haring off into the jungle. Charlie is killed when he triggers a booby trap and what looks like an organic wrecking ball slams into him, bamboo spikes graphically aerating him. Rolf is injured and separated from Robert. Robert plunges on through the wilderness, sustaining himself on plants that make him (a) hallucinate, (b) puke, and (c) pass out. He drifts back into consciousness to find himself the prisoner of a cannibal tribe. Over the course of the next forty minutes, he’s denuded, pissed on, pelted with rocks and has his member roughly manhandled by both sexes. He has to fight a bird with a beak like a pair of secateurs for scraps of raw meat, and bears witness to the cannibal tribe doing pretty horrible things to outcasts and animals alike. As is the norm with these kind of films, the animal kingdom takes a battering: snakes, lizards, crocodiles and birds all buy the farm in the name of a quick buck at the box office.
Predictably, the prettiest village girl (Lai) takes an interest in him, which Robert exploits when he makes his escape. But there’s a price to be paid for betraying the tribe …
The best cannibal films hitch their particular wagon to another touchstone, be it specifically political, cultural or sociological. Therefore ‘The Man from Deep River’ is a cash-in on/response to ‘A Man Called Horse’ where the stakes are higher in that the natives Rassimov has to prove himself to won’t just take his scalp if he pussies out – they’ll straight-up fucking eat him; ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is a j’accuse of both audience and media; and Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive’ composites cannibalism and religious cults (it was made shortly after Jonestown). ‘Last Cannibal World’, though, doesn’t function on any level other than “hey, folks, check out these crazy cannibals, by the way here’s a sick bag and we hope none of you are ophidiophobes”.
Deodato’s trademark craftsmanship and ability to build tension are poorly evidenced here. There isn’t a single set-piece that hasn’t been done better in another movie. The performances are neither here nor there. The overuse of stock footage is tedious. But still there are dark grace notes, little moments in which Deodato’s bitterly cynical approach to the material points towards ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. And when ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is an indicator that one’s filmography has seen out its low stretch and things are getting back on track … well, kiddies, that’s why Uncle Neil set up the Movie Club in the first place.